Welcome to Emma’s world: it’s small, it’s restrictive, and it’s representative of the life of a woman in the 19th century. In Emma, we find ourselves in the insular world of Emma Woodhouse. Not only does the heroine never travel beyond the borders of her town, but she is also trapped in other ways within it. I believe that Austen creates this insular female environment, which is portrayed in stark contrast to the open male environment, in order to showcase the predicament of a woman who is restricted in her choices and movements. In reading the novel, one may feel constrained by this narrow environment – a sentiment which mirrors the experience of the women who face these incredible limitations.
As a reader, I found the effect of this environment at times suffocating, but wasn’t that the point? I believe that it may have been Austen’s aim to paint a narrow world, one which encompasses Emma, to highlight the restrictive life and choices for women in the early 19th century. In contrast to the female characters, men move more freely throughout the space. All male characters, with the exception of Mr. Woodhouse, depart Highbury at different intervals for the purpose of pleasure or business. Doesn’t this contrast also help us to understand Emma, and the limitations she experiences, better? She is stuck, stationary in her place, as men come in and out of her environment. She never leaves and all she can do, even as a woman holding such a privileged position in society, is await their return.
This situation occurs repeatedly throughout the novel. Emma is in her home with her father when they receive a letter from Mr. Elton stating that he was leaving “to Bath, where, in compliance with the pressing entreaties of some friends, he had engaged to spend a few weeks” (156). At another time, Emma learns that her brother-in-law, John Knightley, is due to travel to Highbury for “professional engagements” (264) which serves to highlight that the notion of travelling for work is something Emma could never even dream of. We find Emma once again in her home as she receives the news that Frank has “gone off to London, merely to have his hair cut” (202). This superficial expedition contrasts sharply with the fact that Emma is never able to even leave the town, let alone for an activity so superfluous in nature. Even when it comes to travelling to see her own family, Emma is restricted. In one example, Emma returns home to find Mr. Knightley who had come to bid farewell before departing to London to see John and Isabella (333), an option that does not appear to be as equally open to her. It is evident from this that Emma lacks free agency and is restricted in her movements. This helps to give the reader better insight into Emma’s world and how she would have to define her place within it in.
Personally, I found the novel’s insularity suffocating. And yet, I don’t think this is just the effect for a reader of a different generation. As it is for a current reader or one of Austen’s contemporaries, both are stuck along with Emma, ensnared in her world. Austen has thus successfully created an environment in which the reader is able to feel the restrictive nature of this life, especially for a woman who never leaves.
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