Genderlessness in Jane Austen’s “Emma,” a Guest Post from Lelia Eye

This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on February 11, 2021. There is lots within the post to ponder. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I have been facing rather bad morning sickness which has made it such that effort of any sort is quite difficult. It started at Christmas, and based on previous pregnancies, I rather expect it to continue until mid- to late-March. My weeks consist of work, a very small amount of laundry, and trying to eat a protein every few hours. Other tasks, like housework, have been put on hiatus.

I thought perhaps an appropriate post might be one that discusses morning sickness in the Regency era, but a quick Google search revealed that either my Google skills are not as good as they used to be, or it’s just not a subject that is often canvassed.

Unfortunately, a massive research project is one which I am incapable of handling at present, and as the thought of exploring ingredients in the home remedies of Regency-era women is not especially helpful to my nausea, I rather thought I should pursue something else for the time being.

And so it was that I dug back into my old essays from graduate school and pulled out one on Emma. I would like to note that this was for a Literary Criticism class, and my school essays often argue things that disagree with my heart. I rather like the pairing of Emma and Mr. Knightley, and my critiques below of the characters are purely from a scholarly bent, so please take no offense!

Genderlessness in Jane Austen’s Emma

Jane Austen excels at the creation of memorable characters that exist in a society which places a lot of importance on social roles and gender.  One such character of Austen’s is the title character of Emma.  Emma is a dynamic and complex character.  Though she lives in a society with clearly defined gender roles, she strives to maintain a genderless identity which incorporates elements of both the masculine and the feminine.  This attempt is denounced by her society, however, for such genderlessness is not to be allowed in such a patriarchal setting, which means that there must be an effort made to quell Emma’s ambitions toward masculinity.  Through Emma’s interactions with, emulations of, and rejections of different characters in the novel, one can see Emma’s attempts to combine both masculine and feminine qualities to reach a genderlessness; at the end, however, Emma’s attempts are fruitless, for she settles into a feminine role by marrying and thereby relinquishes her masculine power.

The complexity of Emma’s character is made clear to the reader from the beginning of the novel.  The first sentence makes note of her good qualities, calling her “handsome, clever, and rich” (23).  A few paragraphs later, however, Jane Austen details the negative aspects of Emma’s character.  Austen writes, “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself . . . ” (24).  Thus, Austen, with strong descriptive terms like “power” and “evils,” informs the reader that Emma is vain and spoiled.  In addition, Emma does not realize that these qualities serve as “disadvantages which threate[n] alloy to her many enjoyments” (24).  These “threatening” qualities, however, are the ones that might lead Emma to her aspiration of holding masculine power, which is revealed as the novel progresses.  Due to her exalted position in Highbury society, Emma believes she can do whatever she wants, and she attempts varyingly to control, emulate, and reject people in Highbury society until near the end of the novel.

Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, serves an important function in the formation of Emma’s character.  Ted Bader says that Mr. Woodhouse’s non-comedic function is to highlight Emma’s healthy state, her beauty, and her compassion, and he appears to view the character’s relation to Emma as simply one of contrast.  However, the similarities between Emma and her father are not to be dismissed so easily.  Both characters care for each other but are selfish, controlling, and reclusive.  Their reclusive natures are perhaps due in part to Mr. Woodhouse’s hypochondria, which heavily restricts their movements, but an aversion to a change of scenery and an attraction to an easily controllable environment also serve as reasons for their seclusion.  Emma even intends to use the absence of her presence at the Coles’ home to send a statement of how she is socially “superior” to the Coles, a manipulative move which is reminiscent of how Mr. Woodhouse uses his absence from others’ homes to encourage them to come to his home (Austen 173).  Another similarity between Emma and her father, at least at the novel’s beginning, is the fact that they are not very supportive of marriage: when Emma’s governess marries, Emma sees it as an event of “sorrow,” while Mr. Woodhouse sees it as a “disagreeable” means of change which he continually bemoans (24).  Both characters view Miss Taylor’s marriage as an inconvenient alteration of their lives, an unwelcome change.  Because both characters do not like change, they attempt to monopolize the actions of the people around them; after all, while Mr. Woodhouse tries to control people’s efforts in remaining healthy, Emma tries to control people’s marital statuses.  Mr. Woodhouse, in some ways, seems to be an old and male hypochondriacal caricature of Emma.

While Emma has absorbed or inherited some of her father’s qualities, the unusual relationship between the two of them is important when considering Emma’s more masculine ambitions.  As a “valetudinarian” (Austen 25), Mr. Woodhouse needs to be cared for; however, his hypochondriacal nature also leads him to try to care for others in a very fussy manner, something which would appear to be a feminine quality.  His worrying over everything from where “the poor horses” are to be put while “paying [a] visit” (26) to the fact that the picture Emma draws has Harriet “sitting out of doors, with only a little shawl over her shoulders” (56) makes Mr. Woodhouse seem to take the position of Emma’s mother rather than her father, a position which is mirrored in the way that his daughter Isabella fusses over her children.  Though the reader does not see Emma’s dead mother, Mr. Knightley comments that Emma’s mother was “the only person able to cope with her” and that Emma “must have been under subjection to her” (48).  Emma’s mother, then, appears to have taken the more dominant and father-like role in raising Emma, and Mr. Knightley even notes that Emma has “inherit[ed] her mother’s talents,” which indicates that Emma takes after her mother (48).  This confusion of gender and familial roles which was present in her parents must have had an effect on Emma’s psychosexual development, especially if the female figure she was supposed to emulate (her mother) did indeed take on a masculine role.

There is also further confusion of familial roles in the Woodhouse family, for Emma takes care of and controls her father. By making him comfortable and attempting to placate him when he is upset, Emma plays the role of a doting mother; by manipulating him and controlling his actions so as to promote both his and others’ happiness, Emma plays the role of a controlling father. Since Emma was twelve years old, Mr. Knightley says to Mrs. Weston, she “has been mistress of the house” and of her father and Mrs. Weston herself (48). This role has added to Emma’s attempt at genderlessness, for it encourages her to combine the feminine qualities of domestic control with the masculine qualities of familial control.

Emma’s attempt at genderlessness can also be seen in her interaction with Frank Churchill.  This interaction with Frank Churchill is fused with both the feminine and the masculine. By imagining a courtship with him, she indulges in a feminine fantasy, though she never actually intends to marry him. However, she also attempts to emulate the man, which serves as a leaning toward masculinity.  The element of masculinity which Frank represents is one of conquering: he aims to conquer the people around him in a way that asserts his superiority, a goal which is likely reflective of his wish to conquer his overbearing aunt. When Mr. Woodhouse frets that he has not “been able to wait on [Mr. Elton] and Mrs. Elton” after their marriage (Austen 227), Emma attempts to imitate Frank’s “sly manipulative tone to others” in disrespectfulness to her father (Leavis and Blom 321). This attempt at emulation, Leavis and Blom claim, begins Emma’s movement toward the Box Hill incident. Frank certainly seems to prove himself as deserving the negative terms Leavis and Blom use to describe him, and it is his presence in Emma’s life which encourages her descent into outright rudeness at Box Hill. Frank Churchill shows extreme insensitivity by flirting with Emma in front of his fiancée, and he also reveals himself to be rather cutting when he says to Emma that their companions are “stupid” and will be roused by “[a]ny nonsense” (Austen 295).  He continually insults people to Emma when the targets of insults cannot be heard, and he shows himself to care not for social requirements when he repetitively puts off his visit to his new stepmother.

Frank’s masculinity is intrinsically dangerous, and Emma’s attempt to act as he does threatens her position. In Jane Austen’s day, humility and sensitivity were qualities valued in and associated with females, yet Emma retains a sense of superiority and shows an “unfeminine” insensitivity which could damage her social connections and the very social status on which she prides herself as she tries to dominate others. Frank is not just a warning against dishonesty, insensitivity, callousness, and the negative effect these qualities have on the social scene, but he also serves as a warning of what Emma could become if she remains on her self-centered course. Speaking whatever she wishes and doing whatever she wants, as she has been accustomed to do at Hartfield, serve to elevate her to a masculine position which threatens to destroy that on which she prides herself, for women during her time were not supposed to be neglectors of social grace but models of it.

Mrs. Elton, whom Emma does not like, serves as an example of a woman who wishes to be elevated to a masculine position. Karin Jackson suggests that Mrs. Elton is part of Emma’s darker side, noting that such a position would be termed a “shadow” by Carl Jung, and she also points out that Emma is officious just like Mrs. Elton. Emma feels threatened, as a man might, by the masculine aspiration of Mrs. Elton and quickly decides she is “a vain woman” who “think[s] much of her own importance” in society (Austen 220), characteristics which Jackson notes could easily be applied to Emma herself.  Similarly, William Duckworth believes Emma’s “most irritating defects” are the ones she attributes to Mrs. Elton: snobbery and officiousness.  The ideal female in Austen’s time would be humble and submissive, two traits which are the very opposites of snobbery and officiousness. These two negatively connoted qualities, in moderation, would be appreciated positively as pride and dominance in a man, but a female aspiring to these masculine qualities is viewed in a negative light. Such a threat of genderlessness was unacceptable. In addition, while Mrs. Elton’s influence is mostly limited to Jane Fairfax, Emma’s own behavior, as Shinobu Minma notes, “threatens to disrupt the system of hierarchy established in the community” due to her “love of managing and arranging” (51). This interest seems to be masculine, as men in Austen’s time were viewed as possessing control, for they took care of estate matters and encouraged or discouraged the marriages of women.

Emma and Mrs. Elton are similar in still more ways which are indicative of leanings toward masculinity. They both take on attractive unmarried protégés whom they, in their assured superiority, refer to by their first names. They also boast they have no need of the outside world because of their possession of lofty inner “resources” (Austen 85, 224), and both women believe the Westons’ ball to be given in their honor, for they enjoy taking precedence over and being noticed by other people. Elsie B. Michie states that Emma, in teasing the poor Miss Bates, illustrates “ . . . self-interest in its purest . . . form[:] the desire simply to be the center of attention and to ignore the feelings of others” (21). This harsh charge cannot be denied, for Emma’s actions seem to go beyond the lengths even Mrs. Elton will take. While her words are certainly very rude, Emma is speaking the harsh truth. Miss Bates does say “dull things” quite frequently (Austen 296). Emma seems to be rebelling against the position the patriarchy assigns to her of kind, patient, and humble female angel. This rebellion against the patriarchy is condemned by Mr. Knightley, who tells her she is “acting wrong” and “unfeeling[ly]” (299). In taking her masculine pride to such a length that the Highbury patriarch scolds her, Emma is discouraged from genderlessness and led to feel feminine “mortification” and “anger against herself” (300).

Jane Fairfax embodies many feminine qualities which Emma rejects. Jane is kind, educated, quiet, and always polite, which is sharply different from her controlling forced mentor, Mrs. Elton. Jane is also more disciplined in her approach to learning than Emma is, as Jackson notes. In fact, she is learned enough that even Emma is willing to admit that Jane’s skill on the pianoforte is far “beyond” hers in superiority (Austen 191). Despite all of Jane’s good qualities and all the similarities between them, which even Isabella Knightley, who calls Jane “accomplished and superior,” can see, Emma does not like Jane Fairfax (99). Mr. Knightley suggests to Emma that the reason for her dislike is her failure to be seen as Jane Fairfax is: as a highly “accomplished young woman” (142). Emma cannot completely deny the charge in her own mind, though she does characteristically deny its truthfulness to Mr. Knightley (142). Emma’s view of Jane is colored with jealousy, for Jane embraces her “natural” feminine goodness, mixes freely in society, and is often doted on due to her ill health and kind manner. Emma enjoys being at the top of the Highbury social hierarchy, but maintaining that position entails a dearth of good friends due to a maintenance of a power typically associated with the masculine. Too much condescension to others might lead her to a loss of some of her power, which is a notion Emma does not like.

Miss Bates mostly serves to illustrate some of the more negative possibilities of femininity.  While Emma never rambles on as Miss Bates does, Jackson notes that both characters “tal[k] too much for [their] own good.” This quality of talkativeness is typically associated with women rather than men, though it is viewed as a negative quality. Emma certainly enjoys talking and is never pleasantly quiet as Jane, the more ideal woman, often is; talking profusely at Box Hill is what leads Emma into trouble, for she is so pleased with the sound of her own voice that she speaks callously toward Miss Bates. Emma dismisses Jane’s “reserve” as “indifference” (Austen 142), even though she detests the volubility which leads Miss Bates talk to “every body” about “every thing” (85). Emma and Miss Bates are also similar in other ways. Both women are unmarried and take care of an elderly parent, a situation which seems to entail a mixture of feminine and masculine qualities, though Emma shuns the attempt of Miss Bates at genderlessness and is more controlling and thus more masculine than the mostly feminine Miss Bates. Both women are also both highly interested in gossip, which indicates a more feminine sensibility.

Miss Bates represents what Emma would be if she were older, still unmarried, and poor. Even Harriet makes a short-lived comparison between Emma and Miss Bates when she hears that Emma never intends to marry anyone. Emma self-confidently dismisses the comparison, claiming that her possession of wealth will prevent her from ever being a mere “old maid” like Miss Bates (Austen 85). This dismissal is weak, however, for the possession of large amounts of money does not blind people to one’s marital status. If Emma does not marry, then an old maid is exactly what she will become whether she chooses to accept the term or not. With Miss Bates, however, becoming an old maid is forced on her due to her poverty; with Emma, a choice is given and made to refrain from marriage (though her decision later changes when Mr. Knightley proposes). Emma notes that “few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as [she is] of Hartfield” and that she could never “expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as [she is] in [her] father’s” (84). Though she enjoys her masculine position as head of Hartfield, Emma points out that “[w]omen’s usual occupations of eye and hand and mind will be as open to her” in the future as they are in the present (85). She enjoys the fluidity which comes with her position as a rich and unmarried woman, for she can move between different gendered roles and strive to achieve genderlessness by taking on the masculine and feminine qualities which please her.

Emma exploits the fluidity of her position with Harriet Smith in particular.  Both characters follow a similar (if partially imagined) courtship pattern with Mr. Elton, Frank Churchill, and Mr. Knightley, and they are both also blinded into believing in a false reality surrounding those male characters. By having Harriet as a companion, Emma is able to experience the feminine side of life (courtship) while maintaining her unmarried status.  However, Harriet is said to not be “the superior young woman which Emma’s friend ought to be” (Austen 47). Indeed, Harriet is a character with whom it is strange for Emma to associate, as Harriet is someone’s “natural daughter,” is not “clever,” is “artles[s]” (37), lacks “penetration” (39), and is “talkativ[e]” in front of people with whom she is comfortable (40), yet Emma desires to “improve her” (37), much as the masculine Mr. Knightley desires to improve Emma. Jackson suggests that Emma’s own limitations are implied through her association with the “undeveloped” Harriet. By rejecting the ideal feminine image of Jane Fairfax and choosing the more neutral and less ideal one of Harriet Smith, Emma seems to be subconsciously noting her own uncertainty of who she is and who she should become. Mr. Knightley does admit that Emma has “improved” Harriet (63), but the masculine dominating role Emma has been playing is one which Mr. Knightley does not wish to continue, for he seems quite anxious that Harriet marry Mr. Martin, which would remove her from Emma’s near-constant mentorship.

At the end of the novel, Emma rejects Harriet, allowing their “intimacy . . . [to] sink” (Austen 380) and choosing to trade a more neutral and genderless state for a more “positive” and “feminine” one. Emma no longer needs to assert masculine dominance on and experience feminine courtship through someone else, so she repudiates the friend whose lower status, according to the standards of the time, should have repelled her at the beginning of the novel. Kathleen Anderson states that Austen appears to be drawing a parallel between Emma and Harriet: both women defer to the guidance of the men who love them and who possess better judgment than their own. The judgments of these men, however, is only “better” in regard to how matters in a patriarchal society must remain for the societal order to stay the same. Upon becoming engaged, Harriet receives “improvement” and “safety” from Mr. Martin (Austen 379), while Emma determines to attempt to “grow more worthy” of the man “whose intentions and judgment ha[ve] been ever so superior to her own” (374). Both Emma and Harriet will move closer to the feminine idealness suitable to their respective social stations because of their relationships with the men they marry. The two women are resigned to submissive roles, for their husbands will carefully guide their actions and ensure that they become “proper” wives.

Mr. Knightley is a character strangely similar to Emma.  Both characters are often bored, frequently submitting themselves to Mr. Woodhouse’s high-strung company.  Both of them are wealthy and of high status; in fact, Mr. Knightley and the Woodhouses are the only landowners in Highbury.  As Anderson notes, both Mr. Knightley and Emma assume dominant roles toward their female protégés.  They try to influence their young protégés and admire their beauty, with Mr. Knightley calling Emma “very handsome” and Emma believing Harriet to be a “very pretty girl” (Austen 49, 37).  Because they are able to see the flaws of their pupils, they believe themselves superior and derive pleasure out of their roles as mentors, and they attempt frequently to assert their dominance.

Emma and Mr. Knightley are both masculine. Anderson says Harriet is attracted to Mr. Knightley because of his similarity to Emma, who serves as Harriet’s father figure.  When Emma advises Harriet not to marry Mr. Martin, she certainly seems to be playing the part of a concerned father. Anderson also states that Emma is attracted to Mr. Knightley because he has been like a father to her. Despite their long acquaintance and their engagement, Emma persists in calling him by the formal name “Mr. Knightley” (Austen 365). Anderson goes even further to claim that Mr. Knightley is attracted to Emma because she is an “extension” of the patriarch Mr. Woodhouse. While Emma relinquishes her beloved control by submitting to Mr. Knightley through marriage, Mr. Knightley, though Austen seems to have brought him onto the scene to restore the masculine order, is also forced to submit to Emma by moving into the Woodhouse home instead of bringing Emma into his own. Both characters thus begin taking on more feminine qualities, though it is noteworthy that Mr. Knightley only leaves Donwell to placate the patriarch of Emma’s family (even if that patriarch acts more in a maternal than a paternal fashion).

By taking over the care of Emma, Mr. Knightley subsumes any hope of Emma’s creating a powerful part for herself. The house in which Emma was once dominant over her somewhat effeminate father becomes a house in which Mr. Knightley’s masculine dominance rules. Mr. Woodhouse even refuses to give explicit approval of the marriage between Emma and Mr. Knightley until a series of thefts prompts him to desire the close protection of Mr. Knightley. Despite Mr. Woodhouse’s age, it is obvious that Mr. Knightley, the one who is to protect their home in order to ensure Mr. Woodhouse’s comfort, will be at the top of the Hartfield hierarchy.

Jackson speaks of Mr. Knightley as an extension of Emma’s conscience. Mr. Knightley is certainly able to “see faults in Emma,” and he tells her about them often (Austen 28).  He acts as more than just a conscience, however; he acts as a masculine societal force which urges Emma toward femininity and away from masculine shows of power. He is constantly speaking of Emma’s faults to her, their family, and their friends in an attempt to assert the proper order, yet his efforts are slow at producing results, despite Emma’s constant acknowledgements that at least some of what Mr. Knightley says is true. His influence does work on Emma, however. He leads her to “mix more with” society, as is proper for a young lady to do (252), and when Emma learns that Harriet likes Mr. Knightley, warm thoughts of Mr. Knightley lead Emma to realize “how improperly” she has “been acting by Harriet” (324). Mr. Knightley is thus involved in Emma’s transformation, and he takes over Emma’s dominant and masculine position at Hartfield when he marries her. Jackson, believing Mr. Knightley is Emma’s conscience, suggests that by integrating a strong male influence, or, as Jung would put it, the animus, into her psyche, Emma finally becomes a whole individual. However, Emma does not seem to be integrating masculinity but rather rejecting it, for through marriage Emma relinquishes the masculine power she has been holding in order to accept a more submissive role from the man whose criticisms she has been fighting throughout the novel. Her marriage will be a happy one since there is love on both sides, but she will no longer be free to exercise power and attempt to embrace genderlessness.

Emma begins with what might appear to be feminist leanings, for Emma picks and chooses qualities evinced by others to embrace and reject. Above all, she wishes to maintain her masculine power, controlling her father and attempting “to arrange everybody’s destiny” in Highbury (Austen 327-328).  She fights against Mr. Knightley’s admonitions—which are frequent enough that he even later admits while proposing that he has “blamed . . . and lectured” her very often—before finally giving in to him (340). To his proposal, she says “[j]ust what she ought” to as a “lady” (341), and she becomes “his own Emma” (342), a woman who has been “materially changed” since the beginning of the novel (374), and a woman who no longer belongs to herself but to a man.  Mr. Knightley has set views on femininity and masculinity, views which, it is to be supposed, will have an effect on his wife. He says that Mrs. Weston was “preparing [her]self to be an excellent wife . . . at Hartfield,” as she “receiv[ed] a very good education from [Emma], on the very matrimonial point of submitting [her] own will, and doing as [she was] bid” (48). This picture which Mr. Knightley paints is one in which Emma is put in a masculine role much like that of a husband; when she marries Mr. Knightley, however, she is supposed to submit to his will.

When Emma becomes more like Jane Fairfax, who suffers from ill health and does not pursue masculine power, she is making a movement to reject the manly qualities she has been embracing and give up her much-prized autonomy. The genderlessness for which she has strove and of which society, namely Mr. Knightley, has disapproved, is rejected. Her masculine ambitions are quelled at the end of the novel, and the “rightful” order of matters in a patriarchal society is restored with a conservative ending in which Emma marries and submits herself to a masculine presence at last.  Genderlessness in such a strictly ordered society which depends on clear gender roles to maintain stability cannot last without much unhappiness on the part of the one attempting such a state, and so Emma chooses domestic felicity over personal independence.

The ending may not be one which a feminist would applaud, but Emma’s attempts to circumvent the societal order which forbids her from taking on masculine rights and responsibilities is worthy of recognition. Austen may not have been a feminist in the modern sense of the word, but one can find in Emma a feminist discontent bubbling below the surface. Though the novel seems to follow the conventions of the day by ending in marriage and the maintenance of the patriarchy, one must remember that Austen herself never married. As for Emma, she appears to be happy with her life before marriage, and the man she does marry is one who has critiqued her mercilessly.  Austen seems to be less endorsing the workings of her society than expressing frustration at the plight of women. For a woman on the higher rungs of society, there were three options available: to become married, as Emma does; to be impoverished (or at least unable to work) and viewed negatively as an old maid, as Miss Bates is; or to make money as a governess or lady’s companion, as Miss Taylor does before marrying.  These options are all imbued with femininity, which is highly unfortunate for someone such as Emma, who strives for genderlessness before finally giving in to the conventions of her time.

Works Cited

Anderson, Kathleen.  “Fathers and Lovers: The Gender Dynamics of Relational Influence in Emma.”  Persuasions On-line 21.1 (2000) 5 April 2009 <;.

Austen, Jane.  Emma.  Ed. Alistair M. Duckworth.  New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.

Bader, Ted.  “Mr. Woodhouse is not a Hypochondriac!.”  Persuasions On-line 21.2 (2000) 5 April 2009 <;.

Duckworth, William.  “Reading Emma: Comic Irony, the Follies of Janeites, and Hermeneutic

Mastery.”  Persuasions On-line 24.1 (2003) 5 April 2009 <;.

Jackson, Karin.  “The Dilemma of Emma: Moral, Ethical, and Spiritual Values.”  Persuasions

On-line 21.2 (2000) 5 April 2009 <;.

Leavis, L.R. and J.M. Blom.  “A Return to Jane Austen’s Novels.”  English Studies 62.4 (1981): 313-323.  EBSCO.  18 October 2007 <;.

Michie, Elsie B.  “Austen’s Powers: Engaging with Adam Smith in Debates about Wealth and Virtue.”  Novel: A Forum on Fiction 34.1 (2000): 5-27.  EBSCO.  18 October 2007 <;.

Minma, Shinobu.  “Self-Deception and Superiority Complex: Derangement of Hierarchy in Jane Austen’s Emma.”  Eighteenth Century Fiction 14.1 (2001): 49-65.  EBSCO.  5 April 2009 <;.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in Austen Authors, Emma, Georgian England, Georgian Era, Guest Post, Jane Austen and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.