The heroine of Jane Austen's Emma (1815) is well liked by all of the novel's characters but intimate with none until the marriage plot intervenes in the final pages to match her with Mr. Knightley. Yet the novel's reversion to the marriage plot offers little reassurance that marriage is an adequate substitute for friendship. Emma shows that a woman could better fulfill the goals of friendship as the eighteenth century defined it through companionate marriage than through friendship itself, but that marriage is at best a problematic substitute for friendship. This novel criticizes not only the marriage plot as a narrative device, but also the social pressure that steered women away from each other as it steered them toward domesticity. The nature and purpose of marriage was clear, its primacy established by law and custom. Friendship, by contrast, with its unstable boundaries and contradictory definitions, was not a priority. From the contradictions that make up the eighteenth century's definition of friendship, Emma ultimately defines friendship as a hierarchical, power-driven relationship. Women, largely lacking power, could not succeed as friends. Emma's failed attempts at friendship remind readers that no real substitute for egalitarian, intimate feminine friendship exists or should exist. Emma suggests that such a relationship is admirable, desirable, and worthy of pursuit but that the people who need it most cannot achieve it.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 227-241
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.