Throughout the works of Jane Austen that we have encountered thus far, the appearance of unorthodox parental figures has become a staple. More often than not, the protagonist’s family is composed of an array of highly exaggerated characters who can never seem to find a balance between the two ends of the parenting spectrum: the over-involved and the lackadaisical. Interestingly, in Austen’s Emma, the heroine has not been raised by the stereotypical family unit of both a mother and a father. Rather, Emma must rely on the guidance of her father, as “her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses…” (1). Mr. Woodhouse, an incredibly effeminate man, has dear intentions yet is often clouded by his anxiety-ridden nature. Though Emma has a deep love and affection for her father, she can credit most of her upbringing and decorum to her governess, Mrs. Weston. The portrayal of Mr. Woodhouse’s character lends insight on the delineation of gender in Emma, as well as the importance of family dynamics in relation to maturation and the effect of patriarchal systems on society.
While most would expect the widower and patriarch of the Woodhouse family to be a strong leader, Austen strips Mr. Woodhouse of masculine qualities and leaves the reader with a neurotic, exaggerated, and oftentimes ludicrous old man. Mr. Woodhouse’s aversion to change and, furthermore, matrimony, perhaps rubs off on Emma and provides an explanation for her total investment in the romantic happiness of others. Mr. Woodhouse’s ridiculous character is exemplified when the narrator explains his view on Miss Taylor’s marriage. As stated on page 9, “….and from his habits of gentle selfishness and of being never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself, he was very much disposed to think Miss Taylor had done as sad a thing for herself as them, and would have been a great deal happier if she had spent the rest of her life at Hartfield.” The juxtaposition between Emma’s father and that of Mr. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice is startling. Mr. Bennett seemed to have a detached relationship with most of his daughters, while Mr. Woodhouse’s world is mainly composed of Emma. Though both fathers clearly have their own faults and flaws, the two seem to share a particularity for selfishness and isolation. What do you think Austen is suggesting through the perpetual creation of weak father figures in her novels?
In addition to the general idea of patriarchy in Emma, I’d also like to focus on Mr. Woodhouse’s constant concerns and worries about health and other related afflictions. When Emma shows her father her painting of Harriet he proclaims, “I do not know anybody who draws so well as you do. The only thing I do not thoroughly like is, that she seems to be sitting out of doors, with only a little shawl over her shoulders- and it makes one think she must catch a cold” (47). Dialogue from Mr. Woodhouse often seems as though it should be coming from a loony old lady. Though his character obviously works on the surface level as comedic, do you think that Austen effeminized him to elevate the character of Mr. Knightley? Knightley never hesitates to criticize Emma or put her in her place, which not only seems like an almost parental thing to do, but also juxtaposes that of Mr. Woodhouse’s actions. Mr. Knightley’s reaction to Emma’s painting greatly contrasts with Mr. Woodhouse’s. He conversely says, “You have made her too tall, Emma,” to which she internally acknowledges that he is correct (47). Mr. Woodhouse seems oblivious, while Mr. Knightley is almost too attentive to Emma and her flaws. Thus, I’m suggesting that Austen’s heroines often gravitate to men who provide more stability and guidance than their father figures. Do you have any thoughts as to why Jane Austen would choose to use emasculation as a vehicle to achieve this idea?