Home ›   |   Publications ›   |   Essay Contest Winning Entries ›   |   2016 Essay Contest ›   |   Emma and Emile: Austen’s Critique of the Rousseauist Model of Education

Emma and Emile: Austen’s Critique of the Rousseauist Model of Education

When first introduced to Harriet Smith, Emma Woodhouse reflects to herself that “[s]he would notice [Harriet]; she would improve her . . . she would form her opinions and manners” (Austen 23). Emma’s desire to shape Harriet reflects the views of the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His book, Emile, or On Education, was an immensely popular treatise on education, in which Rousseau stresses the molding of young minds. Largely focused on the education of young men, Emile posits that, once a man is educated, he is responsible for educating his wife. Prior to being married, women were not to be educated outside of what would be attractive to men. Many female novelists, including Austen, were influenced by Emile, and Austen draws on Rousseau’s model of male-female relationships in her early work to structure her plot and develop her characters. However, in her later novels, Austen begins to reject1 and even critique Rousseau’s ideals (Cohen 217-18). This is especially apparent in Emma. While it may first appear that Mr. Knightley and Emma’s relationship embodies the educational quality of Rousseau, Emma is not Rousseau’s ideal woman. Headstrong and independent, Emma does not have Rousseau’s “lovable ignorance” (410). Instead, Rousseau’s male-female educational relationship exists between Emma and Harriet. Emma embodies Rousseau’s male qualities, while Harriet represents the female qualities. Emma’s instructions are often disastrous for Harriet, and, since the relationship is not male-female or husband-wife, Austen is able to present the dangers of the Rousseauist model without any lasting repercussions for Harriet and Emma; in fact, the failure of the model is what leads to their happiness.

Austen famously proclaimed, when writing Emma, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” (Austen, Introduction, xxxvi). Intelligent, wealthy, and at times vain, Emma is far from Rousseau’s ideal woman (Austen 3). Rousseau imagines that a woman should be quiet and docile; she should accept her husband’s commands and ignore his faults (370). Emma does not fit this definition. Emma did “just what she liked,” and sometimes she has things “too much her own way” (Austen 3). Austen stresses that Emma’s character is not feeble (Austen 17). Instead of learning to be submissive to a husband, Emma takes such a controlling stance that Mr. Knightley remarks to Mrs. Weston, “[y]ou might not give Emma such a complete education as your powers would seem to promise; but you were receiving a very good education from her, on the very material matrimonial point of submitting your own will, and doing as you were bid” (Austen 38). Emma has taught others to be submissive to her will, which is a complete reversal of Rousseau’s gender roles, and it places Emma in Rousseau’s masculine role of teacher instead of the feminine role of student.

Where Emma fails to meet Rousseau’s requirements, Harriet embodies them completely. Rousseau specifies that “[t]he first and most important quality of a woman is gentleness” (370). He also stresses that “ . . . [a woman] already reigns by the sweetness of her character” (Rousseau 390). When Harriet is introduced, the focus is on her gentleness and her sweet disposition. She is described as maintaining a look of “great sweetness” (Austen 22). She is “docile” and “grateful” (Austen 25). Harriet’s attributes contribute to her role as Rousseau’s ideal. Her education also contributes to this. In fact, Harriet has already been educated in a place Rousseau approves of: a boarding school. Rousseau’s preferred location for girls is a convent, but he also approves of boarding schools, “ . . . where the boarders have coarse food but many sports, races, and games outdoors in gardens” (366). He argues that this is preferable to the education within the “paternal household,” where girls have no freedom, and no exercise (Rousseau 366). Harriet has been educated at Mrs. Goddard’s boarding school, and the exercise there has resulted in an admirable “fine bloom” (Austen 22). Most importantly for Rousseau, Harriet’s intellect is malleable. Harriet is unlike Emma, who is “[q]uick and decided in her ways” (Austen 25). Emma is a firm, stubborn woman. In comparison, Harriet is described as not being very quick or clever. She is flexible, and “ . . . only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to” (Austen 25). According to Rousseau, this is the ideal woman: “[h]er mind does not know, but it is cultivated for learning” (410). She has a “lovable ignorance” that will allow a man to teach her (410).

At this point in her life, Rousseau would argue that Harriet is ready to marry and receive her education from her husband; instead, Harriet meets Emma, who fulfills the masculine role of the Rousseauist model. Emma fills this role in several ways, one of which is the way she uses Harriet for her own entertainment. In fact, Rousseau argues that a woman being educated by a man must always aspire to be useful to him (365). A woman is to be pleasing and helpful to her teacher. Emma, when she meets Harriet, has just lost the company of her friend and governess, Mrs. Weston, and is “ . . . in great danger of intellectual solitude” (Austen 5). Emma is in need of a distraction, and reflects that refining Harriet would be an “interesting” and pleasant activity (Austen 23). It is not necessarily for Harriet’s good that Emma undertakes her endeavor; rather, it is something for Emma to do. Emma continues to view Harriet’s friendship as advantageous, and the narrator comments that “[a]s a walking companion, Emma had very early foreseen how useful she might find [Harriet]” (Austen 25). Emma, without Mrs. Weston, does not feel comfortable walking by herself. She finds that Harriet is always available for a walk, and considers her to be “a valuable addition to her privileges” (Austen 25). In doing so, Emma makes her student a useful asset.

Emma’s role as Harriet’s teacher increases as the two begin to discuss Robert Martin. Emma believes that the young farmer is not a worthy match for Harriet, and she attempts to change Harriet’s opinion. In doing so, Emma performs the duty of Rousseau’s male teacher. He writes that “ . . . the woman learns from the man what must be seen and the man learns from the woman what must be done” (Rousseau 377). Emma is teaching Harriet “what must be seen” (Rousseau 377). For Harriet and Emma, this dynamic works in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. When the two encounter Mr. Martin, Emma remarks to Harriet, “‘[a]t Hartfield you have had very good specimens of well educated, well bred men. I should be surprized if, after seeing them, you could be in company with Mr. Martin again without perceiving him to be a very inferior creature’” (Austen 32). Emma expects Harriet to see a physical difference between Mr. Martin and the men of Hartfield. Again, she reiterates, “‘[y]ou must see the difference’” (Austen 33). Emma, as the teacher, is instructing Harriet to see the world differently, and it is effective. After it seems as though Mr. Elton is interested in Harriet, she says to Emma, “‘[w]hatever you say is always right . . . and therefore I suppose, and believe, and hope it must be so; but otherwise I could not have imagined it’” (Austen 79). In other words, without Emma, Harriet could not see the world the way she does now. Emma, for her part, also teaches Harriet to see herself differently. Where Harriet was once pleased with her situation in life, she is now dissatisfied with her old acquaintances. As Mr. Knightley exclaims to Emma, “‘[Harriet] was as happy as possible with the Martins in the summer. She had no sense of superiority then. If she has it now, you have given it” (Austen 66). Harriet’s vision of herself has changed, now that Emma has shown her “what must be seen” (Rousseau 377).

As Harriet begins to see the world differently, she also fulfills the female role of the Rousseauist model of education through her patient endurance of Emma’s treatment. Rousseau writes that “[a]s [a woman] is made to obey a being who is so imperfect, often so full of vices, and always so full of defects as man, she ought to learn early to endure even injustice and to bear a husband’s wrong without complaining” (370). Certainly, a husband’s wrongs would be different than Emma’s wrongs. And yet, it is Emma’s wrongs that Harriet endures. After Mr. Elton proposes to Emma instead of Harriet, Emma must tell her the news. The narrator explains that “Harriet bore the intelligence very well—blaming nobody” (Austen 152). Although Harriet’s belief that Mr. Elton was interested in her came directly from Emma, Harriet chooses not to blame her friend. In fact, Harriet reflects that “[s]he never could have deserved him—and nobody but so partial and kind a friend as Miss Woodhouse would have thought it possible” (Austen 153). Not only does Harriet exonerate Emma, but she is gracious about Emma’s kindness. Emma has failed her, but Harriet is enduring injustice without complaint (Rousseau 370).

It is after Emma’s failures as a teacher that Austen’s critique of Rousseau becomes apparent. Austen accomplishes this by questioning Emma’s authority. Emma is a flawed individual, and she begins to realize that she has no right to instruct Harriet. While considering that Harriet may be interested in Frank Churchill, Emma muses to herself, saying, “‘I must not dwell upon it . . . I must not think of it. I know the danger of indulging such speculations’” (Austen 287). Emma’s instructions are no longer helpful; instead, they are dangerous. Emma even decides to put an end to her teaching, saying to Harriet, “‘I shall never speak to you again on the subject. I am determined against all interference. Henceforward I know nothing of the matter’” (Austen 371). Emma has seen her disastrous results, and now she no longer feels able to instruct Harriet. It is this moment that leads to the failure of the Rousseauist model, and the happiness of both Harriet and Emma.

In an ironic twist, Harriet is the one to teach Emma her true feelings in the end. As soon as the two no longer embody their roles by Rousseau’s definition, their roles are reversed. Emma has ceased instructing Harriet, and is completely surprised when Harriet reveals her love interest to be Mr. Knightley. This revelation shocks Emma into realizing her own true feelings for Mr. Knightley. As the narrator explains, “[h]er own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before” (Austen 444). Instead of teaching Harriet, Emma learns from her in a completely new way, “which had never blessed her before.” In addition to this revelation, Emma also realizes how poorly she has behaved toward Harriet: “[h]ow improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! What blindness, what madness, had led her on!” (Austen 444). By having Emma, who has embodied Rousseau’s masculine role, reflect on her behavior like this, Austen makes it clear that Rousseau’s model of male authority is questionable at best. Emma calls this new knowledge of herself “disgusting,” and she takes full responsibility for Harriet’s outcome (Austen 449). This failure of the Rousseauist model results in Emma’s happiness, when she is wed to Mr. Knightley, as well as Harriet’s happiness, when she is wed to Mr. Martin.

These two marriages at the end of Emma represent an important distinction from the original Rousseauist model. Harriet and Emma are only friends, and they are free to seek new relationships and new education. In Rousseau’s theory, a woman would be married before her husband has “ . . . the pleasure of teaching her everything” (410). While Harriet and Emma embody Rousseau’s ideas, it is ultimately the dissolution of Rousseau’s model that leads to their happiness, something that is not feasible for married couples. This is an indirect and subtle critique of Rousseau’s model, and Austen uses it to point to the dangers of educational authority.


1Cohen argues that Austen uses Rousseau’s model traditionally in the educational relationship between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, but that Austen begins to reject the model in the reciprocal relationship between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Cohen does not comment on Emma, but she does remark “ . . . that novels written after Pride and Prejudice move beyond a simple reversal of Rousseau’s model to a more complex and personal attitude toward sexual role-playing” (218).

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.
  • Cohen, Paula. “Jane Austen’s Rejection of Rousseau: A Novelistic and Feminist Initiation.” Papers on Language and Literature. 30.3 (1994): 215-34. MLA. Web.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile, or On Education. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1979. Print.
‹ Back to Publication