Meaghan Malone, “Jane Austen’s Balls: Emma’s Dance of Masculinity” (pp. 427–447)

Jane Austen’s scenes of dance are at the narrative heart of each of her novels, places where heroine and hero meet and flirt according to rigid prescriptions for chaste courtship. In this essay, I argue that Austen develops her characters’ sexuality within these very conventions, and uses dance as her primary means for sexualized social interaction. Austen’s ballrooms are spaces of intense erotic intimacy, sites that foreground her characters’ bodies and allow women to gaze upon men. This inversion of the male gaze is especially pronounced in Emma (1816), a novel in which the male body is systemically filtered through the eyes of women. Men become objects of female scrutiny in the ballroom as Austen highlights the social and sexual power of the female gaze. The masculine ideal that Austen subsequently creates validates female desire and facilitates reciprocity between Mr. Knightley and Emma: ultimately, each adapts to the other’s expectations of what they “ought to be.”

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