A Search for Power: The Role of Female Ambition in Emma and To the Lighthouse
Mentor:Bryan Rasmussen, Assistant Professor of English, California Lutheran University
British novelists Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf depict their characters, Emma Woodhouse and Mrs. Ramsay, as rebels against the social expectations for women of their time in order to show the power of female ambition. In Emma and To the Lighthouse, each female protagonist has a specific way in which they conform to and resist against the male dominated social structure of early nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain. The capability to be both a part of mainstream society and a part of a rising counterculture signifies a form of heroism that literary theorist Peter Brooks defines as “ambitious.” However, Brooks’ theory is limited only to identifying male ambitious heroes. This essay expands on Brooks’ theory to include female heroines by examining the structure of Emma Woodhouse's and Mrs. Ramsay’s characters, their diction and interaction with other characters in the novels, as well as the psychological construct of these female protagonists. To illustrate their function as “ambitious heroes,” I highlight two capacities of these characters: Emma Woodhouse’s perceived ability to romantically maneuver Harriet to marry Frank Churchill, and Mrs. Ramsay’s ability to arrange a dinner party, at which she is able to perceive, and maneuver within, her world from several different points of view. These incidents portrayed in the novels are indicative of two women who had the ambition to break from social convention and alter British society’s status quo.