Mr. Woodhouse: Fool, Villain, or Victim

So, what’s up with Mr. Woodhouse? He’s a funny, old curmudgeon, but what is his role in the novel?

His most obvious role seems to be as comic relief. From the reader’s first observation of his conversation with Mr. Knightley, Mr. Woodhouse was clearly a character to make one laugh. In referring to Mr. Knightley’s short walk to Hartfield, Mr. Woodhouse exclaims that he “must have had a shocking walk” (7). Moments continue to pop up to spotlight Mr. Woodhouse’s eccentricities: his summer vs winter walks (both quite short), his fear of all food and most weather, his lengthy conversation with his daughter arguing whose doctor was better. However, Mr. Woodhouse is not truely needed as a figure of comic relief, because there are so many others from whom to choose. Miss Bates for example is quite laughable (I would insert a quote here, but I believe my fingers could not withstand the exercise). Also, Elton and then his wife are fun to laugh at because we kind of hate them. But Mr. Woodhouse occupies a greater role in the novel. Could he be a kind of Shakespearean fool? One who teaches lessons through his foolishness. I like that thought, in a proper British literature – Geek kind of way. But his wisdom seems to appear to the reader only in brief moments: “My dear, you do not understand me. This is a matter of mere common politeness and good-breeding, and has nothing to do with any encouragement to people to marry” (270). This is one of the many social lessons Emma must learn in the novel, but this seems to be one of the (very) few nuggets of wisdom Mr. Woodhouse offers, aside from the health benefits of gruel.

How about a villain? From the start, Mr. Woodhouse is defined as a man who required support,” was often depressed and nervous, and had “habits of gentle selfishness” (5). While all of these are pitiable and forgivable behaviors (even endearing) in people of a certain age, Mr. Woodhouse’s impact on Emma’s life is not to be understated. In a moment of impolite impertinence, Mrs. Elton comments on Emma’s life with her father: “I perfectly understand your situation, however, Miss Woodhouse – (looking towards Mr. Woodhouse) – your father’s state of health must be a great drawback” (264-5). She’s not wrong. She’s contemptible, but she’s not wrong. Mr. Woodhouse’s habits have placed an immense amount of responsibility on Emma starting at an early age (when her eldest sister got married). And his inability (or lack of desire) to travel or make any decisive action has compounded in the need for Emma to be educated on proper social behavior in her adulthood rather than as a child. Mrs. Elton hit the mark in her comments to Emma, because Mr. Woodhouse could be an anchor, tied to Emma and restricting her growth.

Could he be a victim? Christine Roulston, in “Discourse, Gender, and Gossip,” says that “Emma’s narcissism and sense of self therefore depend on a weakened construction of the masculine order, which in turn allows her a maximum sphere of influence” (45). In short, the control Emma desires is only possible around weakened men, and Mr. Woodhouse seems to fit the bill. Not only is he weak, but he is feminized. His life consists of the private sphere (as he hardly ever leaves the house) and his conversation involves domestic worries: health, food, comfort, visits, etc. Has the novel emasculated Mr. Woodhouse to allow Emma to become the authority of the home? Why must he be weak for her to be strong?

So, can Mr. Woodhouse be fool, villain, and victim all at the same time? Or does he fall into one category more than the others? On the surface, I am apt to pity Mr. Woodhouse, but his weakness is a privilege. He is rich and is sure that his neighbors will respect his eccentricities. Perhaps his choice to dominate the domestic realm, instead of the public realm, is a different demonstration of class privilege – and by thrusting Emma into a more public role in her youth, Mr. Woodhouse has created a situation where Emma is set up to fail.

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