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La Femme
January '10


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Psychoanalysis and La Femme: Special Issue Home

Emma as a Masquerade:
Womanliness and Power in Jane Austen’s Emma
Todd Hoffman

January 2010

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any
human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something
is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.
                                                Jane Austen, Emma



The traditional view of Emma as a novel detailing the maturation of its protagonist from a self-absorbed girl to a socially conscientious woman regards the text as the elaboration of a universal condition of growing up. 1  Emma, according to this view, represents all people, and must relinquish her selfish and childish individual desires in order to take her place as an adult who conforms to social expectations and community demands, just as each individual must.  This universalist elaboration—that Emma describes a drama fundamental to human nature and social integration—is conservative in nature for it accepts prima facie the role of woman as subordinate to the patriarchal order.  Emma’s marriage subsumes her once and for all (if we accept the notion that the denouement is a “happily ever after” ending) under the auspices of the fatherly and morally incorruptible Mr. Knightley.  Emma’s moral and social improprieties are most fully recognized at the moment she acknowledges her love for Mr. Knightley, thereby indicating a relinquishing of her autonomy to male authority; she takes her proper place within the social hierarchy.  In addition, the novelistic form which Jane Austen uses, a variation of the Bildungsroman, ends with a harmonious balance of three weddings, each couple to their proper place, providing a hermetic aesthetic closure that reinforces the tacit notion of social harmony through gender and social rank.  All the women are placed under their male counterparts in willing and happy subjection to patriarchy with the lone exception of Mr. and Mrs. Elton, whose uxorious relationship, officious social manners and consequent status as antagonists in Austen’s delicate world of manners keeps them forever on the fringes of proper society and in the community. 

While legitimate in its general elaboration of formal themes, this interpretation glosses over the subtleties of Emma’s eventual cooptation into a phallocratic society.  For Emma is unusual in her stubborn refusal to adhere to social demands, even as she simultaneously maneuvers quite deftly within the complex world of social proprieties and manners.   This assertion of autonomy begs a deeper look into the roots of her paradoxical engagement and endorsement of conservative social norms and her resistance to such norms.  There would appear to be a tension in the dialectic between her complicated unconscious resistance to such a cooptation and her conscious advocating to the ideological demands of her social rank and class expectations.  This paper will argue that a psychoanalytic investigation of Emma’s character reveals a woman who exhibits a profound, albeit ambivalent, resistance—both in the psychoanalytically technical sense as well as the political sense—to phallic authority.  In other words, what makes Emma so unusual is that she is a class snob who insists on decorum and has a keen sense of the intricate class structure of Highbury while she resists becoming a fixed agent within that strict hierarchy.  Her means of coping with the determinate rules of her class, which necessarily places women in an inferior position to their male counterparts, is, in Joan Riviere’s words, to don the mask of womanliness.  Emma attempts to satisfy her wish to be recognized as the superior of men while making efforts to placate any reprisals that may be leveled against her for such presumptions by acting as a coquette.  Emma outwardly plays up her femininity in order to hide her masculine desire as a resistance to the social prohibitions that predetermine her position in the patriarchal social hierarchy.

Two noteworthy psychoanalytic accounts of Emma’s character have been elaborated by D.A Miller and Frances Restuccia.  Miller argues Emma suffers from a pathological narcissism; incapable of cathecting her ego onto a suitable object, she withdraws her libido from the world and attaches it instead onto her own ego.  Consequently, she manipulates others as a means of releasing libido vicariously through her obsession with matchmaking.  She finds a fantasy replacement for her unwillingness or incapacity to make an object choice.  However, because Miller’s preoccupation in his study is on the way Emma’s actions reenact Austen’s narrative structure as a function of “insufficiencies, defaults [and] deferrals,” (3) he never offers an explication of the source of Emma’s narcissism except by minimally developed reference to her doting father and absent mother.  Miller’s primary interest is in how Austen’s “narratives of happiness” (3) are structured in ways analogous to narcissistic fantasy: Miller sees the nonnarratable elements of the text—“those that (like Emma’s marriage) serve to supply the specified narrative lack, or to answer the specified narrative question,” those that are “[incapable of] generat[ing] a story” (5)—as analogous to the absent object choice that drives Emma’s narcissism.  Emma’s eventual cure from her narcissism is “by means of replacements or exchanges.  In place of nonobjectal desire, there is put an object choice” (20).  In the same way, the novel itself ends its “picaresque narrative constituted by wandering desire and errant language” by artificially imposing a “language that can designate and disclose error” and thereby drive the narrative arc toward an “ending to which it was always directed” (20).  While Miller locates a “cure” for this constantly displaced desire in the narrative closure provided by the marriage to Mr. Knightley, how and why Emma exhibits this narcissistic pathology, what motivates her initial inability to cathect onto an object choice, is never really explained except as a trope for narrative itself. 

Frances Restuccia, in challenging this psychoanalytic reading, argues, via Julia Kristeva, that Emma is in fact melancholic due to the traumatic loss of her mother.  Restuccia notes the pervasiveness of the absent mother and sees the text as a “melancholic/masochistic text, whose addiction to the ‘maternal Thing’ operates both at the level of the story (the fabula) and the level of the functioning of the narrative itself (the sjuzet)” (451).  According to Kristeva, “the lost object” or the “maternal Thing” must be overcome by matricide if the child is to become a unique subject.  Emma, however, in her melancholic/masochistic refusal to commit matricide, avoids her task by “keep[ing] up a metonymy of desire to fend off the indefatigably metaphorical maternal Thing threatening to engulf her…Yet that desire is distant enough to pose no ultimate threat to the mother whose loss she refuses to negate” (454).  Where Miller sees the nonnarratable being imposed artificially in the closure of the plot by Emma’s marriage to Knightley, thereby ending the deferrals and breaking the cycle of her narcissistic behavior, Restuccia sees Knightley’s figuration as a punitive, sadistic patriarch who contains rather than terminates Emma’s free-floating desire.  Emma’s undeveloped desire needs an object choice that would “offer her autonomy from maternal bonds, access to language, and some sort of agency” (465); but the incestuous union with Mr. Knightley, who Restuccia believes sees himself as a substitute for Mrs. Woodhouse, only fetters her within a new mode of maternal domination.  Emma is an abused woman because her marriage guarantees her melancholia by virtue of fixing it to an improper object choice in Mr. Knightley, a surrogate mother.

While Miller’s position suffers from an undeveloped analysis of the origins of Emma’s narcissism, Restuccia’s argument relies on the presumption that Emma’s absent mother is a trauma and, furthermore, that her absence leads to Emma’s incapacity to kill the mother who presumably lives on as a kind of haunting unconscious force.  Yet, one might equally consider Emma as having been liberated from the Maternal Thing by the happenstance of her mother’s actual death.  Indeed, there is little to suggest Emma’s demeanor is in any way morose or clinically depressed; she is described as having “a happy disposition,” (23) possessing a “natural cheerfulness,” (123) and having “very little to distress or vex her” (23).  Her chief flaw is in the “power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself” (24).  But melancholia, as Freud indicates, results from the libidinal investment toward a lost love-object being redirected to the ego via narcissistic identification:

If the love for the object…takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes in operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satisfaction from its suffering.  The self-tormenting in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies…a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject’s own self...The patients usually succeed, by the circuitous path of self-punishment, in taking revenge on the original object and in tormenting their loved one through their illness, having resorted to it in order to avoid the need to express their hostility to him openly.  (588)

While Emma certainly exhibits moments of self-reproach, they are generally done in private, thereby hiding her admission of guilt from those to whom the melancholic would want most to display her self-punishment.  In her quiet moments of self-reflection, Emma has a peculiarly distant and cool manner, never seeming to be emotionally invested in others except in the way they might reflect well on her public persona or otherwise for her advantage.  Thus her self-chastisement after recognizing the foolishness of her “imaginist” ventures is never a public spectacle, but is instead formulated as a private remonstrance and pact she makes with herself to never engage in such harmful activities as matchmaking again.  Yet until her marriage to Mr. Knightley, these promises to herself are invariably ignored.  Indeed, if anything characterizes Emma’s guilt, it is her unwillingness to be seen in public after her misadventures have been exposed.  The day following her debacle with Mr. Elton, for instance, she is no longer distressed: “there could be no necessity for any body’s knowing what had passed except the three principals…These were very cheering thoughts; and the sight of a great deal of snow on the ground did her further service, for any thing was welcome that might justify their all three being quite asunder at present” (123).   She is content hiding from her mistake.  This indicates a woman afraid of public shame and censure, not a woman who seeks it as a mode of melancholic narcissistic satisfaction.

Furthermore, if we are to accept Restuccia’s rendering of Mr. Knightley as a surrogate mother to Emma, who would mark him as Emma’s lost love-object, then we would expect Emma to insistently and quite vocally admonish herself in front of him as her unconscious display of her dissatisfaction with him.  Yes she does not do so; rather she maintains a flirtatious and witty rapport with Mr. Knightley most of the time.  Nor, finally, does Emma provide instances which suggest empathy toward Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith or Frank Churchill, who have also lost mothers.  These figures instead consistently function as objects of competition for Emma; she is compelled to use her considerable powers of wit and manipulation to her advantage, to make them pawns in her larger schemes.  These attitudes suggest not the behavior of a melancholic so much as behaviors of a woman internally conflicted between outward persona and inner self-definition. 

What remains lacking in these considerations is the way these social relations might themselves structure Emma’s character.  Neither Miller nor Restuccia place Emma specifically within her immediate historical and social context.   Instead they opt to focus narrowly on her familial dynamics; they then expand their arguments by detailing Jane Austen’s novel as an aestheticization of Emma’s neuroses as a means of relieving (in Miller’s case) or exacerbating (in Restuccia’s case) the tensions of Emma’s position through formal narrative closure.  But Emma’s world is decidedly patriarchal and the final delivery of the three principle women into the hands of their respective husbands is as forcefully a means of maintaining the integrity of the formal class structure of Georgian England through the subordination of women as it is a function of characterization.  It would appear, then, that a proper psychological reading of Emma must address her incorporation within this finely balanced set of social relations as fundamentally structuring her individuated subjectivity.  The ambivalence in her actions that both lead her to defy social convention by refusing to select an object choice and repressing or displacing any desire she may have toward another and her insistence on social convention is an unconscious response to not just familial forces but to social forces as well.

Emma’s behavior follows a pattern that is astonishingly similar to that outlined by Joan Riviere in her famous essay “Womanliness as a Masquerade.”  Riviere argues that women who seek to integrate into a social network dominated by men are placed in the position of having to appropriate the phallus as a sign of their masculinity, as a sign of their equality or even superiority to men, while simultaneously having to mitigate the possible retribution that such an appropriation might entail.  By being flirtatious and seeking the arousal of men, the woman in this situation is unconsciously able to ward off reprisals by making herself an object of desire.  Riviere provided a case study of a woman of substantial intellectual faculties who was a successful public speaker.  This woman nonetheless experienced deep anxiety over the success of her public engagements, despite all evidence that she was appreciated, and so sought through flirtation the recognition of the men to whom she spoke professionally.  As Riviere describes it:

it was an unconscious attempt to ward off the anxiety which would ensure on account of the reprisals she anticipated from the father-figures after her intellectual performance.  The exhibition in public of her intellectual proficiency, which was in itself carried through successfully, signified an exhibition of herself in possession of the father’s penis, having castrated him.  The display once over, she was seized by horrible dread of the retribution the father would then exact.  Obviously, it was a step towards propitiating the avenger to endeavour to offer herself to him sexually.  (37)

The patient’s intense rivalry with both her mother and her father were unconsciously unfolding in this seemingly contradictory public behavior as an ambivalent working out of masculine supremacy over the father (the community of men who had to acknowledge her skillfulness at her occupation) and simultaneous fear of castration for such presumption. 

Riviere, following Ernest Jones’ celebrated elaborations of femininity, locates the origins of such behavior in “disappointments or frustrations” in the oral-biting sadistic phase (40) and the primal scene in which the child first notes the anatomical distinction between the sexes.  In the case of Riviere’s patient, her competitive nature with women of equal intellect and her extreme graciousness to women of inferior intellect were reaction-formations to her unconscious desire to dominate the mother.  The existence of women as equals would conjure her initial anxiety experienced from the mother as a rival for the father’s affections; the mother winning over the father would be in possession of the penis that the child sought.  The dread of punishment, “imagined,” according to Ernest Jones, “as coming about through the rival mother intervening between the girl and the father, or even through her sending the girl away for ever” (441) and coming as it does in the oral phase, creates a sadistic response whereby the child wishes to devour the mother and gain the penis through the incorporation of the mother.  These aggressive wishes against the mother, however, might induce a punishment from the father, thereby initiating in the child a need to propitiate each parent.  As Jones explains: “The girl’s answer is partly to retain her femininity at the cost of renouncing the father and partly to obtain vicarious gratification of her incest wishes in her imagination through identification with the mother” (450).  Thus, whereas women of unequal intellectual merits were not a threat to the patient because they could not realistically rival her for the penis, women who had found success in a male dominated world would pose such a threat: her graciousness to the former (not to mention her efforts to remain an uncommonly good housewife) signified the exhibition of her femininity while her aloofness to the latter was a defense against their possible retrieval of the penis, thereby inducing an exhibition of masculinity.

Stephen Heath has pointed out the problematic foundation of Riviere’s thesis which rests on her averred equivalence between an authentic womanliness and womanliness as a masquerade.  Riviere’s conclusion is that her patient exhibits a psychological disturbance of a sadistic character because she is caught in a pendulous matrix of gender identification, the anxiety of which is best alleviated through the masquerade.  The patient hides her masculinity behind the mask of womanliness.  By recasting Riviere’s analysis in a Lacanian framework, Heath notes Riviere’s patient is not engaged in an ambivalent wish for the penis, but rather exhibits the alienation that structures the condition of being a woman, which is in addition to the fundamental scissiparity constituting all subjectivity.  The patient does not seek to incorporate the penis so much as reacts against the socio-structural configuration of the phallic signifier.  The phallus is possessed by no one, but instead signifies the unattainable fulfillment or repletion of desire-as-lack.  The division between masculinity and femininity along male normative criteria requires the woman to exist as the phallus if she is to in some way fit within a patriarchal Symbolic: “No one has the phallus but the phallus is the male sign, the man’s assignment…The man’s masculinity, his male world, is the assertion of the phallus to support his having it.  To the woman’s masquerade there thus corresponds male display” (55).  By being a desired woman in men’s eyes, she becomes the phallus while simultaneously investing the man with the phallus.  Heath thus concludes:

the charade is in power… this woman’s life is marked by power and effects, is caught up in the definitions of masculinity/femininity, the identifications of the man and the woman.  Her behaviour and dress are about that; Oedipally reading one way only, Riviere misreads, and protest becomes merely sadism—sexual politics gives way to a psychology of sex.  (56)

Reverting to the language of Freud, we might regard the markings of “power and effects” as the reality principle that demands of the woman a certain conformity, a subordination of herself to the defined parameters of femininity imposed by a phallocratic hegemony.  If a woman is in fact capable of surpassing her socially restricted conditions by virtue of some extraordinary merit, she nonetheless cannot easily transcend her own subjectivity by inserting within a Symbolic order ex nihilo a radically new signifier that reorients the signifying structure to accommodate some novel authentic mode of femininity.  She is always-already immersed within a signifying linguistic and socio-political structure organized by the phallus.  Rather such radical transformations can only be brought about by the collective social reorganization of the Symbolic, affected by concrete institutional changes that provide the basis for a new language, a new Symbolic, a new reality principle.  But for Riviere’s patient, indeed for Riviere herself, who certainly must have identified closely with womanliness as a masquerade, this new reality principle did not exist—or at least existed as a nascent possibility at a time when patriarchal ideology and the institutions that legitimated such ideologies were only beginning to change.  And surely if it did not exist for her, then we must account for Emma’s womanliness as a masquerade within the context of a far more rigid patriarchal class system.

Emma is analogous to Riviere’s masquerading patient.  She dons a mask of womanliness as a means of hiding her phallic authority to avoid the anxiety associated with a possible retribution from the men around her.  The playing out of this womanliness carries on different manifestations in her dealings with men than it does with women.  However, in addition, there are different permutations of her womanly “performance” when she is confronted with people of different class.  This latter phenomenon is what is largely ignored in Miller and Restuccia’s readings.  Thus, the origination of this behavior should be sought in the confluence of social and familial forces that shape her idiosyncratic psychology.  We are told, for instance, that “The Woodhouses were the first in consequence [in Highbury].  All looked up to them” (25).  Indeed, Emma “is so great a personage in Highbury” that when she requests Harriet’s presence “the prospect of the introduction had given as much panic as pleasure” (38).  What is revealing about Emma’s character is not merely that she is fully aware of this reputation and consistently utilizes her position to exhibit her superior social rank, but the manner in which she wields her social authority. 

Emma’s unusual family situation provides for her a level of authority that is challenged by no one other than Mr. Knightley.  Her father is “a valetudinarian” who demonstrates excessive hypochondria; he is “a nervous man, easily depressed” (25).  His narcissistic demands for attention are unflaggingly provided by Emma, as is demonstrated early on when her father mistakenly believes Emma to be referring to him as “fanciful and troublesome”; Emma quickly responds: “My dearest papa!  You do not think I could mean you…What a horrible idea!  Oh, no!” (27).  Emma forever shields her father against critique and thereby sustains his dependence.  In return, Mr. Woodhouse unflaggingly heralds Emma as perfect in every respect, as, for instance, after Emma has unveiled her drawing of Harriet: “So prettily done!  Just as your drawings always are, my dear.  I do not know any body who draws so well as you do” (56).  Emma goes so far as to seek to maintain the illusion that she is without faults: “she would not have [Mr. Woodhouse] really suspect such a circumstance as her not being thought perfect by every body” (28).  While we are told that Emma “dearly loved her father,” he also “was no companion for her.  He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful” (24).  Consequently, Emma infantilizes the old man, reversing the parent-child relationship so that she is the maternal figure and he the dependent child.  She maintains the illusion that he is without faults and as a kind of quid pro quo, he returns the unadulterated adulation.  The difference however in their respective narcissism is in orientation: while he, like the melancholic, demands attentions from all those around him as an acknowledgement of his suffering, she nurtures in him a dependency, thereby allowing her to control her home situation and gain public recognition and status.  

Emma has in effect replaced her mother and has appropriated her father’s position as head of the household.  With her sister gone and Mrs. Weston married, Emma has no rivals for her father’s affections.  Indeed, precisely because she has not married, Emma has become the father’s favorite since she provides unstinting attention.  Emma’s sister, apart from being far away in London, is much too much like her father to represent a threat to Emma’s household authority: a hypochondriac of her own with five children to boot, she also demands attention and, when together with her father, ends up challenging him as to which of the two is in fact in the more precarious physical condition; both brandish their physician’s names as a kind of parry and thrust for who is deserving of greater attention.  Neither is Mrs. Weston a threat to Emma’s authority, despite her ostensible status as a surrogate mother.  Her “mildness of…temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint” and she was “less…a governess than a friend” (23).  In fact, Mrs. Weston was “peculiarly interested in [Emma], in every pleasure, every scheme of her’s;—one to whom she could speak every thought as it arose, and who had such an affection for her as could never find fault” (24).  Thus, Mrs. Weston acknowledges and exacerbates Emma’s sense of comfortable authority by remaining in a subordinate position. 

Little information is given about Emma’s mother.  Mr. Knightley says to Mrs. Weston: “ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all.  In her mother she lost the only person able to cope with her.  She inherits her mother’s talents, and must have been under subjection to her” (48).  Emma then is linked to her mother as similar in temperament and talent and, presumably, in her capacity to control Mr. Woodhouse.  With the mother gone, a force of “subjection,” and with very little evidence to suggest this absence as in any way traumatic to Emma, Emma seems more akin to a Hamlet who was made king in place of Claudius to rule by his mother’s side.  She immediately occupies the mother’s position and becomes “mistress of the house.”  The father, who hates change and feels “matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable” (25), not only must relinquish the other sources of possible narcissistic attention, but now must rely solely on Emma for his juvenile wish for unfettered satisfaction, which Emma obliges unhesitatingly. 

Emma, then, mistress of Hartfield, is a maternal figure who, in her veritable control of her father, appears to have appropriated the phallus, the signifier of masculine authority located in the Name of the Father, by virtue of having total control of an effete father.  His enervation, his obsessive hypochondria and his intellectual simplicity mark him as a castrated figure who relinquishes authority to Emma when she is only twelve years old; by way of contrast, Emma’s intellect and sagaciousness allow her control of the estate, free of any rivals from within the family, and now embodies the location of phallic signification.  This authority extends beyond the household, however, because Hartfield itself is already acknowledged by the community as “the first in consequence” (25).  Emma’s situation allows for the Oedipal dynamic to be symbolically gratified while simultaneously giving her preeminent status in the community.  Her libidinal investment in maintaining this relationship in perpetuity, just as her father wishes, explains why she seems utterly devoid of libidinal investments in other men.  As she herself points out to Harriet:

I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry.  Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! But I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.  And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine.  Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.  (84)

Emma’s protest at the idea of marriage, which would so clearly subvert her as the location of the phallus, is reinforced by an acknowledgment of her unwavering perfection in her father’s eyes (whom she tacitly equates to a husband), confirming the incestuous union as a useful and stable defense against rivaling men who would reestablish patriarchal control.  By further proclaiming that she could not fall in love, repressing any semblance of sexual desire, Emma is able to maintain her libidinal investment in her father under the guise of protecting him.  Thus, she conquers the only figure that subjected her, her mother, by replacing her outright.  But the price of this simultaneous replacement of the mother and occupation of the masculine position by appropriating the father’s phallic authority is to repress desire elsewhere.  This repressed desire is most apparent with her relations with Mr. Knightley, of course, who signals the greatest threat to her possession of the phallus.  As Beth Fowkes Tobin states in her reading of Emma: “Not only does she have social prestige and economic privilege that give her power over her small community of Highbury, but she also has complete control over her father, the only man to whom she is legally accountable.  Emma realizes that if she were to marry she would have to relinquish much of her power to a husband, a man she could not possibly hope to manage as easily as she manages her father” (478).  But because Emma’s libidinal investment in her father can only take on sublimated form in the guise of dutiful affection and care, she must deflect her libido elsewhere for proper satisfaction.

When one’s libido is unable to be released by virtue of neurotic hindrance, the individual will find a fantasy replacement for the love-object.  In Emma’s case, her libido is necessarily repressed by virtue of being invested in her father for the purposes of maintaining social authority that otherwise would not be granted to a woman.  The expression of pathology is not a result of an organic psychical disturbance, but of a social repression: namely, the delimiting authority allowed a woman of Austen’s time.  Therefore, Emma seeks to satisfy her libido by vicariously experiencing love and attention through her matchmaking.  In other words, her “imaginist” faculty will be her means of creating a substitute fantasy for unrealized because repressed libido.

Emma playing the coquette satisfies several personal and public psychological needs; however, her flirtations do not function homogeneously.  Emma’s relations to men take on different permutations, depending on the man and always in relation to the male counterpart’s class.  By believing herself to be the catalyst in the successful outcome of other people’s love affairs, she convinces herself of her sexual worth, her desirability, without having to give up the power she possesses through her attachment to her father.  Emma believes herself to be the figure responsible for marrying Ms. Taylor off to Mr. Weston.  In doing so—or at least believing that she is the responsible agent in the coupling—she successfully rids Hartfield of a rival figure for her father’s affections at precisely the age when it is high time Emma finds herself a suitable husband.  Now she can justify her stance against marriage because there is no one to care for her father and her relationship with him is all but guaranteed.  While we enter the narrative after Ms. Taylor has become Mrs. Weston, the action of the first volume, which is structured around Emma’s attempts at duplicating her supposed successes with the Weston’s by bringing Harriet and Mr. Elton together, suggests that Emma’s method is to act as a substitute love-object in the hopes of transferring the gentleman’s affections from her to the proper object.  Emma’s “little encouragements” (29) that she claims to have offered Mr. Weston are with Mr. Elton quite bold.  Mr. John Knightley, for instance, who is only in town for a short time, immediately notes Emma’s “encouraging” manner and tells her to “regulate [her] behaviour accordingly” (104).  When John Knightley’s warnings prove correct later in the evening, Emma initially responds to Mr. Elton’s ovations “with a mixture of the serious and the playful” and says to him: “I am very much astonished, Mr. Elton.  This to me!  You forget yourself—you take me for my friend—any message to Miss Smith I shall be happy to deliver; but no more of this to me, if you please” (117).  Emma, then, at once confirms that it is in fact her that is desired and not Harriet while simultaneously deflecting his passion to eliminate his expectations.  Mr. Elton admonishes Emma for “the encouragement [he] received,” thereby revealing the extent to which Emma has acted as the coquette.

What is particularly noteworthy is not so much the way Emma’s displaced desire finds fruition in being validated as a desirable woman, but in her subsequent rationalizations of the whole affair.  She projects onto him manners which were “unmarked, wavering, dubious, or she could not have been so misled” (121) and absolves herself of her principal role.  Furthermore, as she often does throughout the novel, she suddenly conjures her social status as a defense against his efforts: “He only wanted to aggrandize and enrich himself; and if Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield, the heiress of thirty thousand pounds, were not quite so easily obtained as he had fancied, he would soon try for Miss Somebody else with twenty, or with ten” (121).  That is, Emma conjures her superior class status as a defense against his advances, thereby guaranteeing that she remain the location of the phallus.  She has both exerted a masculine authority over him in her mind by castigating him as a presumptuous upstart seeking social advancement (which places him in the typically female role) and garnered his affections to validate her womanliness. 

While Mr. Weston and Mr. Elton allow Emma a simultaneous satisfaction of legitimating both her womanliness and her possession of the phallus, Mr. Martin poses a different challenge.  By interfering in her plans to marry Harriet to Mr. Elton, he reveals Harriet’s relatively low social status in comparison to Emma.  Emma’s class snobbery toward the Coles, the Eltons and the Martins reaffirms in her own mind her phallic position.  However, because she still seeks feminine validation through displaced desire, she must use Harriet as her pawn to garner the attention she seeks.  Devoney Looser notes, “Women’s patronage to women was so prevalent as to be virtually institutionalized” (580).  Emma acting as a patroness to Harriet is in and of itself not unusual.  However, Emma oversteps her authority by breaching the carefully maintained class structure in presuming Harriet to be of a higher social rank than she is.  “There can be no doubt of your being a gentleman’s daughter, and you must support your claim to that station by everything within your own power, or there will be plenty of people who would take pleasure in degrading you,” (43) she says to Harriet.  Emma insists on Harriet’s status and wishes to groom the “sweet, docile” (39) Harriet because, if she is vicariously using Harriet for her own displaced satisfaction, she needs to maintain both her masculine and feminine worth simultaneously.  Emma’s concern over Harriet’s background betrays her own anxieties of losing her masculine authority to men who are in possession of the signifying phallus; her ability to make Mr. Elton fall in love with Harriet would then confirm her phallic position indirectly—Harriet’s social status would be recognized—while, as noted above, acting as a fantasy replacement for her unfulfilled libido.  But Mr. Martin is of a lower class and as such would reveal that Emma in fact does not possess the phallus, but only has a pretense of such power, precariously dependent on the incestuous bond with her father. 

Mr. Martin indirectly acts as a castrating threat, inducing the anxiety in Emma she so consistently avoids through her regular attitude of flirtation.  She can’t flirt with Mr. Martin, which would be a crass violation of her superior social rank, so she must do everything possible to project onto Mr. Martin qualities that exalt her own social position while denigrating his.  Consequently she sees him as a rude and unmannered rustic, despite all evidence to the contrary.  She is fully aware of who the Martins are—“They were a family…whom Emma well knew by character” (37)—but acts as if she is unaware of Mr. Martin when told by Harriet that he passes Emma often on his way to Kingston (and therefore knows her):

That may be—and I may have seen him fifty times, but without having any idea of his name.  A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity.  The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do.  A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other.  But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it. (42)

This somewhat startling and nuanced awareness of Mr. Martin’s communal position as a function of his labor demonstrates the way in which class shapes Emma’s sense of self: she seems keenly conscious of social relations.  Were Harriet more perceptive, she would note that Emma is simultaneously claiming not to know Mr. Martin while elaborating on her awareness of his social position in Highbury.  More to the point, Emma shows clear awareness of class as a function of power or communal authority: Mr. Martin, by being a renter who nonetheless generates wealth on his own, is not financially independent enough to constitute a socio-economic equal (thereby, in her mind, requiring the appropriate manners and conduct becoming of such a position), but is also not dependent and in need of charity.  Therefore, he cannot be of any use to Emma’s narcissistic demands—narcissistic as the dual recognition of her womanliness and her phallic authority.  Emma can be charitable to the poor because it only can increase her social prestige: “Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse.  She understood their ways…had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those, for whom education had done so little” (86).  Through her efforts for the poor, who offer no threat to her rank at all, she publicly displays herself as a caring woman (outdoing her mother) and as a powerful figure (standing in the position of her father).  But Mr. Martin is in no need of such aid, and so occupies a nebulous middle ground that Emma must omit from her considerations.  Harriet’s fondness of Mr. Martin, then, can only be a threat to Emma, who gains nothing in compensation from such a match.

Only one man remains consistently a threat to Emma’s façade of womanliness, Mr. Knightley.  Mr. Knightley, of course, is frequently critical of Emma’s behavior.  Emma responds to his consternation with flirtatious banter that is meant to alleviate the anxiety she invariably feels under his moral scrutiny.  Riviere discusses this coquettishness as a means of deflecting the possible reproach from the father, whom the woman believes still possesses the phallus: “She has to treat the situation of displaying her masculinity to men as a ‘game,’ as something not real, as a ‘joke.’  She cannot treat herself and her subject seriously, cannot seriously contemplate herself as on equal terms with men; moreover, the flippant attitude enables some of her sadism to escape, hence the offence it causes” (39).  In making herself desirable, she exhibits her subordinate position of womanliness to the male whom she imagines possesses the phallus, thereby preventing the castrating authority from exacting his revenge.  Mr. Knightley, then, is a supplemental father figure who stands in for the castrated Mr. Woodhouse: where Mr. Woodhouse is physically weak and sedentary, Mr. Knightley is virile and ambulatory; where Mr. Woodhouse is a simpleton and self-absorbed, Mr. Knightley is complicated and selfless.  Emma, projecting onto Mr. Knightley the infallibly scrupulous father-figure that exposes her masquerade of phallic authority therefore hides behind her womanliness and acts out sadistically elsewhere. 

But Emma’s sadism--which exists almost exclusively in the guise of class snobbery—is not merely for the sake of unconsciously acting out her rivalry with her father, but is an expression of a political subordination she experiences as a woman.  In other words, her rivalry is as much with men in general, with the father as a figure of social power, as it is a psychological-familial concern.  Indeed, while Mr. Knightley’s moral authority appears irreproachable, he in fact is deeply political in his insistence on Emma recognizing the proper modes of social conduct.  For Emma’s breach of manners has a much broader impact.  As Tobin points out, “By dropping the veil of chivalrous manners, she reveals the true nature of social relations, which are based on property and privilege, on wealth and rank” (481).  Tobin demonstrates that the political tensions between the rising middle class, whose wealth was generated by exploiting new markets, and their rival landed gentry, whose wealth was inherited, was particularly acute at the time Austen wrote this novel.  Tobin notes the animosity created by the passing of the Corn Law in 1815 as emblematic of these tensions; the middle classes, who are represented by such characters as the Coles and the Eltons, felt disenfranchised by landed gentry arbitrarily raising rents and controlling parliament solely to benefit their vested interests.  Tobin, then, argues that Austen seeks to ameliorate these tensions by on the one hand insisting on the aristocratic values represented by such chivalrous figures as Knightley while also recognizing the need to appease the middle classes by treating them with dignity and as equals.  “Abusing her power, Emma threatens to alienate members of her community from the interests of the gentry.  Snobbery like Emma’s, which threatens to destroy the illusion that the gentry and the middle class share a common cause, endangers the landed order’s ability to maintain its political and economic hegemony” (482).  Emma’s treatment of Ms. Bates in particular, Tobin notes, shows Emma’s clear lack of social propriety, because Ms. Bates is wholly dependent on the charity of those in Emma’s position if she is to not fall into the proletariat; providing apples or a carriage, as Mr. Knightley so gallantly and yet unostentatiously does, to include Ms. Bates as one of the middle class helps to appease the growing rivalry and jealousy.  Just as Emma’s womanliness is a masquerade, so too must her gracious public persona be a masquerade to insure social stability between rival classes.  In other words, if Emma wishes to occupy the position of the phallus in the realm of the Symbolic, she must learn to play the socio-economic game properly, otherwise she risks symbolic castration and becomes marginalized or hated like Mrs. Elton and Mrs. Churchill.

Just as Emma’s behavior takes the form of sadistic manipulation or flirtation toward men as a means of accommodating on the one hand her libidinal desire, which is unsatisfactorily attached to her father, and on the other hand her wish to maintain the position of the phallus, so too are her relations with women equally marked by ambivalence.  As has already been stated, Emma seeks the acknowledgment from men of her talents in order to be at once their equal and to avoid reprisals from men, particularly Mr. Knightley, to avoid discovery of her phallic appropriation.  Thus, she never completes any of her artistic endeavors, such as her drawings or music (indeed, Mr. Knightley notes this is a pattern that develops as early as her fourteenth year when she provides him a reading list that never gets read), because this would open her up to critique.  By partially completing numerous drawings “in almost every style,” (53) and demonstrating her ability to at least be an accomplished dilettante, Emma’s work can still be praised without the critical judgment reserved for completed works.  Indeed, Emma is aware of this: “She was not much deceived as to her own skill either as an artist or a musician, but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved” (53).  Mr. Elton’s excessive adulation, then, is exactly what Emma seeks in order to satisfy her narcissism.  Yet, when women offer a point of comparison to Emma, she acts in one of two familiar ways: she becomes a coquette or she asserts sadistic authority through her verbal wit.

Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton represent the two greatest obstacles for Emma in maintaining her mask of womanliness.  Jane is clearly the superior in all respects to Emma—beauty, talent and elegance—with the exception of one area, her social standing.  Conversely, Mrs. Elton is inferior to Emma in all respects, but rivals Emma’s social standing.  The point of connection between all three will be Frank Churchill, and it culminates at the Box Hill incident.  In this scene, Emma combines her flirtatious behavior with her verbal wit in order to assert her command over the party.  She displays to all her desirability, encouraging Frank’s attentions to her; but she also exerts her authority by assuming to be the patron of the party.  In one stroke, she puts Mrs. Elton in her place as socio-economically inferior and Jane Fairfax in hers by demonstrating herself to be more desirable.  Of course, she is in error as to the latter situation, but she does not realize this at the time.  In any case, she has already come to the conclusion that she is not in love with Frank, which means that she is using him as much as he is using her.  

 Emma’s peculiar aloofness in assessing whether she is in love with Frank demonstrates a desexualizing of her attachments to him in order to focus instead on herself: “‘I certainly must [be in love with Frank],’ said she.  ‘This sensation of listlessness, weariness, stupidity, this disinclination to sit down and employ myself, this feeling of every thing’s being dull and insipid about the house!—I must be in love; I should be the oddest creature in the world if I were not’” (314).   Emma’s detached sense of her own emotions, her analytical presentation of her thoughts and feelings to herself, makes herself the object of affection and not Frank, who merely serves as a kind of catalyst for self-aggrandizement.  Frank initially was a love-object in imagination only, as the narrator explicitly tells the reader: “Now, it so happened that in spite of Emma’s resolution of never marrying, there was something in the name, in the idea of Mr. Frank Churchill, which always interested her” (109).  As an idea, Frank satisfied a fantasy replacement for the satisfaction of ego-libido.  But, when he actually arrives in Highbury, the fantasy replacement is no longer fantasy but real and becomes a potential love-object.  To truly fall in love with Frank would pose a problem: she would be under threat of losing her position in her household.  Therefore, she quickly assuages these feelings and immediately seeks to displace them onto a new match between Harriet and Frank.  Thus, Frank is taken up in Emma’s schemes to utilize her social rank as an object against women who threaten her social status and her public persona.

Ironically, it will be Emma’s constant meddling in Harriet’s relationships that will put her in the position of having to make a choice regarding where she will attach her interests.  By unintentionally influencing Harriet to fall in love with Mr. Knightley and convincing herself of Harriet’s belief that her feelings for Mr. Knightley are returned, Emma is stuck in an irreconcilable situation.  First, Mr. Knightley’s choice of Harriet as a love-object would signal an abandonment of Emma, making it impossible for her to act coquettishly to him and thereby opening her to the fatherly retribution she staves off through her flirtations.  Second, without Harriet, she would not have the means to satisfy her libido vicariously through another, perhaps risking an increased withdrawal from the world and a corresponding increase in her narcissism as a defense—that is, as a descent into melancholia.  Third, with Harriet’s marriage to Mr. Knightley, Emma would no longer have the position of phallic authority that she ultimately wishes most and would witness the rise of one from the benign position of protégé to the powerful position of patroness.  It is only now, after this realization, that Emma believes her “happiness depended on being first with Mr. Knightley, first in interest and affection…and only in the dread of being supplanted, found how inexpressibly important it had been” (329).  Of course, Emma is incorrect in her suppositions regarding Harriet and Mr. Knightley.  Indeed, when she is given the proposal, what is astonishing is Emma’s total lack of emotional response to Mr. Knightley.  Instead, her victory over Harriet is gloated over in her own mind: “to see that Harriet’s hopes had been entirely groundless, a mistake, a delusion, as complete a delusion as any of her own—that Harriet was nothing; that she was every thing herself” (340).  One might expect Mr. Knightley to be foremost on her mind, but in fact she instead dwells on vanquishing Harriet who strangely turned out, in Emma’s mind, to be the greatest threat to her narcissistic self-affirmation: by accepting Mr. Knightley’s hand—which she now must do for fear of losing her precarious position as bearer of the phallus—ironically, she must subordinate herself to the father figure.  It is precisely for this reason that accounting for Mr. Woodhouse immediately generates anxiety: in abandoning her father and accepting Mr. Knightley’s hand, Emma would be totally surrendering the phallus.  By convincing Mr. Knightley to move in to Hartfield, Emma can retain the illusion of the masquerade: she can play the role of the dutiful wife to Mr. Knightley while simultaneously maintaining her incestuous attachment to her father.  Once again in a single move, Emma surpasses her mother by retaining her position at her father’s side and appropriates the father’s authority, his phallic power as signified by the Hartfield estate.  As Riviere says of her patient:

It appeared, therefore that this woman had saved herself from the intolerable anxiety resulting from her sadistic fury against both parents by creating in phantasy a situation in which she became supreme and no harm could be done to her.  The essence of the phantasy was her supremacy over the parent-objects; by it her sadism was gratified, she triumphed over them.  By this same supremacy she also succeeded in averting their revenges; the means she adopted for this were reaction-formations and concealment of her hostility.  Thus she could gratify her id-impulses, her narcissistic ego and her super-ego at one and the same time (42).

This obsession with supremacy is what Emma has been demonstrating throughout the novel, whether it be in the form of her preoccupation with controlling other people’s lives as a vicarious satisfaction of her own needs, as a demonstration of control over her parents, as a demonstration of her greater desirability in comparison to the women who threaten her status, or as a demonstration of her socio-economic superiority.

Emma, then, uses her womanliness as a masquerade.  But, while her desire to appropriate and be the phallus, which is what the masquerade allows for, may function on one level as an elaborate fantasy replacement for the working out of her Oedipal situation, what remains unassailable is the larger socio-economic dynamic that also operates on Emma in equally as complicated psycho-social ways.  The pervasive patriarchy that determines a woman’s potential as phallic authority requires that at some point she relinquish her independence precisely so she can maintain the illusion of the phallus.  Emma’s independence is necessarily manifested as a deep-seated ambivalence: in preservation of phallic authority she wishes to uphold the conservative values of the aristocracy and the mannered elegance of nobility, which would entail the expectations of marriage and the subordination of the woman in that marriage pact.  But, to claim her autonomy in the social realm she also has to eschew the matrimonial institution because it precludes her functioning with an independence otherwise only available to men.  In asserting her womanliness, Emma is successful in displacing her libidinal investments and keeping in abeyance what she fears to be punitive father figures who might recognize her appropriation of the phallus; but in her asserting her womanliness over the other women, Emma breaches her duty to her class, for which Mr. Knightley is quick to rebuke her.  In doing so, he sees through Emma’s masquerade and reminds her that authority ultimately does not reside in her, for no one possesses the phallus, but is in the Symbolic—the phallocracy that always-already places the woman as subordinate.  Emma, then, quintessentially an alienated figure, ironically must give up her independence precisely to preserve her fantasy of phallic authority, taking her place by Mr. Knightley’s side as an unsatisfactory compromise for her psychological and socio-economic desires. 


1. See for instance Wayne C. Booth’s “Point of View and the Control of Distance in Emma,” Edgar F. Shannon’s “Emma: Character and Construction,” Hughes, R.E. “The Education of Emma Woodhouse” and John Hagan’s article “The Closure of Emma Woodhouse” which identifies several perspectives on how to read Emma’s maturation.


Works Cited

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

Booth, Wayne C.  “Point of View and the Control of Distance in Emma.”  Nineteenth Century Fiction 16.2 (1961): 95-116.

Burgin, Victor, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan, eds. Formations of Narrative.  London: Methuen, 1986.

Freud, Sigmund.  The Freud Reader.  Ed. Peter Gay.  New York: Norton, 1989.

Hagan, John.  “The Closure of Emma.”  Studies in English Literature 15.4 (1975): 545- 61.

Heath, Stephen.  “Joan Riviere and the Masquerade.” Burgin 45-62.

Hughes, R.E.  “The Education of Emma Woodhouse.”  Nineteenth Century Fiction 16.1(1961): 69-74.

Jones, Ernest.  Papers on Psychoanalysis.  Boston: Beacon, 1967.

Looser, Devoney.  “‘The Duty of Woman by Woman’: Reforming Feminism.” Austen 577-93.

Miller, D. A.  Narrative and Its Discontents.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Restuccia, Frances.  “A Black Morning: Kristevan Melancholia in Jane Austen’s Emma.” American Imago 51.4 (1994): 447-69.

Riviere, Joan.  “Womanliness as a Masquerade.”  Burgin 35-44.

Shannon, Edgar F.  “Emma: Character and Construction.”  PMLA 71.4 (1956): 637-50.

Tobin, Beth Fowkes.  “Aiding Impoverished Gentlewomen: Power and Class in Emma.” Austen 473-87.


Todd Hoffman is Assistant Professor of English at Augusta State University where he teaches literary theory.  He earned his doctorate at Purdue University in Philosophy and English.  He currently is working on a study of surrealism and postmodern American fiction.  


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