The Insular Life of Emma


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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5 thoughts on “The Insular Life of Emma

  1. I really like how you point out just how small and restrictive Emma’s environment is. Personally, I never noticed until reading your blog post but looking back it becomes clear. I agree that Austen’s intent was to show life in the 19th century for women, and how Emma’s (and other women) life revolves around the domestic home. She even occupies herself with other people’s relationships and marriage, which is understandable given that there was little else she could do.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the map of Emma’s world that you have set as your featured image; it can be helpful to imagine the heroine’s world visually. It is also a bit satirical, wouldn’t you say?

    It is true, that Austen highlights women’s limited choices,
    but also, Emma does not leave because of her father; he is the one that does not want her to leave. It is a bit of food for thought that even as an invalid, her father can wield such power over a woman’s choices – even one so free an privileged as Emma.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Absolutely agreed 🙂 Well written! The most interesting aspect of Emma’s insularity (and I agree with you, it is quite suffocating) is the interference it plays with portraying Emma as a rather feminist heroine. It does create doubt on the subject, since a truly feminist heroine would be more like Elizabeth Bennet, who departs from societal norms. Emma does very little to rebel against societal norms. At the same time, however, Emma’s personality is so sharp and bold it is rather feminist.
    Also, This insularity makes (I think) the novel more boring than Austen’s other novels. In the reception piece we read in class, it seems that a few people found Emma so natural it become uninteresting. It certainly has its merits, but overall I agree with you, the novel is so insular, so concentrated on a rather irritating heroine, it is certainly my least favorite. (by Maya)


  4. I agree that Austen effectively paints the restrictive, insular lifestyle of 19th century women in Britain in “Emma” and I especially liked the examples you gave of the different men in her social circle who have access to freedom and mobility. I think it’s interesting to note that although you describe Emma as being trapped, or “stuck, stationary in her place,” Emma herself does not seem to find this position limiting. In the examples you gave of when men were able to travel, Mr. Elton’s reason seems frivolous, Frank’s reason is presented as a poor, almost unacceptable excuse for leaving his father, and John Knightley’s obligation to leave for work is made to sound like he is unfortunate in having to go to town at all. The attitude seems to be, that if John Knightley had had the fortune of being the older brother, he might have had the privilege of remaining at home on his family estate. Yes, “travelling for work is something Emma could never even dream of,” but it doesn’t feel like it is something Emma would desire in the first place. I get the idea that she feels privileged in not having to be sent away (like Jane Fairfax) or to have to leave home (like Miss Taylor or Isabella), and that to me is what is scary and suffocating: that even women of privilege like Emma are so entrenched by the idea of the domestic sphere as to actually believe themselves at an advantage without a real awareness of their lack of overall agency. As Enakshi mentioned, Mr. Woodhouse is able to wield power over a woman’s choices despite being an invalid, and Emma happily submits, believing she is fulfilling her purpose in the domestic sphere.


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