The Quiet Radicalism of Jane Austen's Emma College

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence...with very little to distress or vex her.” (Emma, V.1,Ch.1)

This opening character summary of the heroine in Austen’s novel Emma should instantly set off alarms in the minds of any avid Austen reader. In Emma, we have an Austen heroine who is attractive, wealthy, and even described as possessing “the best blessings of existence”; this seems far too good to be true. Indeed, Emma is unlike all other Austen heroines in that she is both financially independent and lacking most of the romantic sensibilities plaguing the young ladies of her time in that she does not see marriage as a goal worth aspiring to. Her wealth gives Emma the privilege of marrying solely for love, and not in hopes of attaining financial security. Yet, despite Emma’s nonconformity to the standard Austen protagonist, she still finds happiness in matrimony at the end of Emma. One interpretation of the frequent, happily-married endings in Austen novels might be that they belie Austen’s feminist stance on the patriarchal nature of marriage in the nineteenth century. In nineteenth century literature, marriage is often...

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