Mr. Woodhouse as the Stereotypical “Little Old Lady”

In Emma, most characters provoke serious considerations of judgement and propriety. Most of Emma’s characters are fallible, most have some shade of ambiguity in character, and most characters experience change or growth in the course of the story. Mr. Woodhouse, however, is not one of those characters. Throughout Emma, Mr. Woodhouse acts ridiculously. Whether he’s urging his guests not to eat the cake they’ve been given, or panicking over the atmosphere’s influence on physical health, the scenes which prominently feature Mr. Woodhouse inject humor and absurdity into an otherwise serious story (65, 121). Despite Mr. Woodhouse’s ridiculous personality, a serious consideration of his role in Emma reveals that his character also provides a satire on gender stereotypes and of the stereotypical “Lord of the Manor.”

Of all the characters in Emma, very few didn’t change at all through the course of the novel. Mr. Woodhouse, obviously, is one example. In Volume I, Mr. Woodhouse worries about the air around the coast and the health risks of visiting a seaside location such as Bath. In Volume II, Mr. Woodhouse must be consulted to consider the drafts and microclimates of a ballroom before the location must be booked. Finally, in Volume III, Mr. Woodhouse receives special accommodations during his visit at Donwell Abbey, and must be placed inside by the fire despite the heat of the summer season. Throughout Emma, Mr. Woodhouse is portrayed as a delicate, finicky, and anxious old person. In her characterization of Mr. Woodhouse, Austen intentionally endows him with many of the characteristics readers would often associate with older women, such as his anxiety on trivial matters, dislike of changing social situations, and old-fashioned anecdotes regarding health.

In Chapter III, the narrator introduces Mrs. Bates as “a very old lady, almost past everything but tea and quadrille” (67). Mrs. Bates is another one of the static characters in Emma, since she features such a small role and is portrayed as the almost perfect trope of a little old lady throughout the novel. Despite Mrs. Bates frailty, and despite her lower social rank, she seems to be great company for the anxious old man that is Mr.Woodhouse. The narrator tells us, “[Mrs. Bates] was a great talker upon little matters, which exactly suited Mr. Woodhouse, full of trivial communications and harmless gossip” (67). Emma’s narrator tells us of Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Bates’ relationship early in the novel, so that the reader can begin to mentally connect the frail old widow with the anxious old widower. Mr. Woodhouse’s close connection to Mrs. Bates further exaggerates the stereotypically feminine aspects of his personality such as his love of the trivial and gossip.

In discovering Mr. Woodhouse’s traditionally womanly traits, and in laughing at his comical behavior, readers engage in a subversion of socially accepted gender roles. Mr. Woodhouse is the Lord of Hartfield, and ought to be seen as a gentleman and an authority. Instead, his character provides comedic relief for the more serious considerations being made by his daughter and caretaker, Emma.

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