Emma Woodhouse: Worst Austen Heroine?

Mar 24, 2014 by

Emma Woodhouse: Worst Austen Heroine?

Ok, so, as a Jane Austen fanatic, it is hard to say anything… untoward about one of her heroines. Especially one that Austen seemed to really like: perhaps even liked the most out of all her female leads. There are things I love about every single one of them.
But I have to be honest. I hate, or at least have a strong dislike, for one Miss Emma Woodhouse. As much as it pains me to say it, she just doesn’t sit well with me. But it does make me feel a little better knowing that Austen herself knew Emma was going to be disliked by most people. So I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad.

 

 

 

Granted, none of Austen’s heroines are perfect. Elizabeth Bennett is stubborn beyond reason, and so prideful that she passes judgment on people based on who strokes her ego. Anne Elliot is somewhat weak. Fanny Price is boring at best. Marianne is annoying and a bit absurd (not to mention immature), and her sister Elinor is one of those “little miss perfect” types that everyone hates. And then there’s little Catherine Morland, who is a tad ditzy.
So no one can, or should, expect Emma to be perfect either. She’s not, and that’s fine. But her flaws reach far beyond those of the other Austen heroines. Emma is vain (in fact, that’s sort of an understatement), controlling, manipulative, somewhat inconsiderate, and narcissistic to the point of almost being a danger to those around her.
Now, let me preface this by saying that I consider myself to be a feminist. It’s part of who I am. But there are those who would argue that not liking Emma, a woman, because she is bossy and confident, is sexist. They would say that these are traits that would be admired in a man. To that I say: False. Sticking to your guns, believing in yourself and what you do: those are all admirable things in any man or woman. Telling others what to do and thinking too highly of yourself are not admirable traits—in anyone. Herein lies the problem with Emma.
Emma feels the need to share her opinion on a number of subjects, and is compelled to make everyone else see things the way she does. Truly confident people trust in themselves and what they believe in; because of that trust they don’t need to make others see the way they do; they can relax enough to accept different views of the world. Crossing that line from being confident you are right, to having to force your opinion on others, is when one becomes controlling. This is when confidence becomes a negative thing—regardless of gender. Emma doesn’t listen to Knightley, she won’t even consider his side of things when he tells her to let people live their lives and that she should stay out of it. She is so “confident”, in fact, that she continues to try to put everyone’s lives in the order and social class she deems fit for them. She even convinces herself that Frank Churchill is in love with her (why wouldn’t he be; she’s Emma)—and she takes an immediate disliking to Jane Fairfax for no apparent reason other than that she interests people and takes attention away from the great Emma.
When you really care about people, you have to care about them enough to let them make their own choices—even if those choices are mistakes, and you know it—and to support them no matter what. It is made clear that Harriet Smith has strong feelings for Robert Martin (and he returns those feelings), but this is of no concern to Emma in regards to her “friend”. She manipulates Harriet into rejecting Robert Martin and into falling for Mr. Elton. She can’t just have an opinion, express it, and then let the person either follow her advice or not. No, she has to make people behave the way she wants them to. And in the case of Harriet, it wasn’t about friendly concern, or Harriet’s best interest. No, my personal take has always been that Emma wanted Harriet with Elton as opposed to Robert Martin because, in her snobbery, she would not be able to associate with Harriet if she were Robert Martin’s wife, and she didn’t want to lose Harriet. Harriet was someone who fed her ego, confirmed her high opinion of herself; who hung on her every word and did whatever Emma told her to. Emma wasn’t about to lose that.
That brings me to the big picture about why Emma is the worst Jane Austen lead. Emma was a snob, plain and simple. Sure, there have been plenty of other snobs in the Austen world (I’m looking at you Lady Catherine, Caroline Bingley, Sir Walter Elliot, and Fanny Dashwood), but never as a lead and never as open about it as her. Emma snubs people (Miss Bates, Robert Martin, Mrs. Elton, and the Coles) in a much more direct and assured way than the other Austen snobs, and she strives for a level of manipulation much higher than even Caroline Bingley. Emma is no matchmaker; she’s a woman who thinks she has the right to assign people to certain social groups, and life partners, just because she is rich. She thinks that not only makes her better than others, but makes her qualified to tell them what to do, and who they are allowed to love. And, sure, by the end of the book she seems to have changed, but people like Emma don’t change for very long. If we’d been able to see her life after she married Knightley, well…let’s just say that position is the driving force for people like her, and she wouldn’t have been able to resist for very long that temptation to use her position at every turn

 

*****

Chassity Merritt is an aspiring writer from Atlanta, GA. She discovered a passion for writing at an early age through her admiration from writers like Ann M. Martin (whose “Baby-Sitter Club” books she still believes are classics), at which point she started writing her own short stories that her elementary school teachers would read aloud to the class weekly. She is a horror film fanatic, a Jane Austen enthusiast, and a lover of gross, frat-boy comedies (The Hangover being at the top of that list). She works in the law field, but hopes to work in film. She has plans to attend graduate school soon (where she hopes to the meet cool artsy people and detached, cynical intellectuals). When she is not writing about film, she is often found at a coffee shop working on her novel, arguing about films with others. Some of her favorites are Glengarry GlenRoss, 12 Angry Men (both versions), The Sandlot, Major League, Fanboys, and The Apartment. Oh, and Jack Lemmon will always be her favorite actor.  You can find Chassity online on her website and on Twitter.

8 Comments

  1. Sophia Rose

    I agree and disagree in turn to various points. I agree that Emma shouldn’t have interfered in people’s lives and part of her interference felt like a game to prove that she had a gift for matchmaking. I agree that her issue with Jane Fairfax was suspect too. If she thought Frank loved her, I feel that was on him b/c he was a huge sham artist and Mrs. Elton wasn’t rejected out of hand from what I could tell. Mrs. E attacked in the face of Emma’s graciousness. I think there might have been a shade of snobbery to her and a tad bit of a feeling of entitlement when it came to the Miss Bates and Miss Smith, but the lady of the manor- which she was for that village- was brought up to a sense of superiority and right to play Lady Bountiful to those of lesser class around her. Emma crossed the line into interfering, but I didn’t get the sense that it was full on snobbery and mean-spiritedness. So I guess, I mean to say that she has a bit of larceny in her like we all do and had to learn her lessons the hard way. Fortunately her interferences didn’t ruin any lives in the process.

  2. I don’t know why people are determined to dislike Emma so much. I find this article way to harsh and unfair, because you seem to have missed a number of her good and praiseworthy features in your attempt to turn her into someone hateful. She acts in accordance with her status and I think that nowadays a lot of people forget that rank mattered a great deal and people were raised in a certain way, following certain rules and so back then they would not react to the way Emma behaves like you do, because for them it would be a matter of course. But you look at it from the point of view of a modern person and it raises your hackles. And, personally, I think that Jane Austen was being sly when she said that Emma is the heroine no one but her would like. If I am not mistaken, she is her only main heroine of such a rank and that sets her apart from the rest. Also, I think that Emma is a great mirror reflection of people’s mistakes and unlikeable qualities and many don’t like her and despise her, because they actually see too much of themselves in her, though they want to believe that they are different.

  3. I agree with you. Emma’s unlikeableness has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her belief that she ought to make decisions for other characters. Any person who removes another adult individual’s freedom to make their own decisions is reprehensible. But I disagree about the source of her power to manipulate other people. Her social status is her weapon, not her money. After all, social status and power did not necessarily come with money at this time. In Persuasion, Mr. Elliot had no money, but he didn’t lose his social status, and in Emma, the Coles had bags of money but still had to go to great lengths to approach the Woodhouses for social engagements, which really ought to have been declined. And Emma threatens Harriet with her social contacts, not her money.

    • Susan Kaye

      Mr. Elliot of Persuasion has scads of money after marrying a woman of good education but vague intellect. Money is only reason Elizabeth Elliot reconsidered him before Anne arrived on the Bath singles scene. William Elliot manipulated because he he enjoyed it and it served a higher purpose for him. Such a creep.

  4. Chassity, thanks so much for guest posting with us! I know you knew you’d be stirring the pot when you accepted the challenge of writing a post explaining why Emma is the worst heroine!

    I always find myself torn on Emma. When I read the text I can see parts of myself in her (she’s smart, she’s not challenged enough, etc.) but then some of the things she does just make me see red.

    I agree with Jennifer that her real power comes from social status…but either way, she does use her power to manipulate…if you’ve ever been manipulated in your life, even “for your own good,” you react strongly to that!

    Again, thanks so much for posting for us!

  5. Ceri

    Well I see your point, but I don’t necessarily agree with all of it. Yes, Emma has an element of snobbery, but class was a real issue then, so there is an element of reality to it.

    Also, I disagree that Emma thinks she knows best because she is rich. She thinks she knows best because she lives in a very confined social circle where she is constantly surrounded by people who are less intelligent than her and her position in life is reinforced as the person who knows best. Everybody defers to her because she’s higher than them socially and she is in a position where she makes decisions on behalf of her almost child-like father. Emma is arrogant in thinking she knows best, but I think she always acts with the best of motives, and that is why I am fond of her. I think to say that if she really cared about Harriet she’d have let her make her own choices and own mistakes is imposing a modern view too much – in that time Harriet would be stuck with her decision in the way that a modern woman wouldn’t,it was a far bigger, life altering decision than it would be today. Yes, Emma was mistaken in her advice, but I think it was given in the genuine belief that it was for the best albeit a part of it was selfish, not wanting to lose her friend. It’s no worse than Mr Darcy warning Mr Bingley off the Bennets with half an eye to marrying Mr. Bingley to Georgiana, and if I can forgive him then I can forgive Emma too!

    • Ceri said almost exactly what I would say, so I’m just going to go with, “ditto.” Emma is, in many ways, a female, extroverted, version of Darcy. She’s clever, proud, and she takes it upon herself to direct her friends on the path she thinks most likely to lead to their happiness. Of course both of them should have actually asked their friends what they wanted, but as Ceri pointed out, the permanency of marriage made making the wrong decision a costly mistake.

      Also, I think it’s important to remember that she does grow out of that need to control people. That’s her story arc. Every well-rounded character has a flaw they must work to overcome; Emma’s is interfering. When Knightley finally tells her, in no uncertain terms, exactly what kind of person she’s become, she wakes up from that perfect world where all her decisions are best and looks around at the people who’ve loved her all her life, and realises she’s treated many of them badly. She makes amends, and reports that to him later.

  6. I love pot stirring! :) Strangely, I don’t disagree with any of the assessments of Emma’s character (vain? for sure. thinks she knows best? totally!) – I just find that I don’t dislike these characteristics.

    In my personal life, I’ve always been attracted to incredibly confident (to a fault) people. In the game of “Which Austen Character Are You Most Like” I get Emma all the time.

    Eeeek.

    Hopefully we can still be friends! Especially since I think we’re both bay area residents. :)

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