Friday, March 11, 2011

The Effeminate Mr. Woodhouse: Patriarchy in Jane Austen’s Emma

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?


  1. Throughout the novel, I paid close attention to Mr. Woodhouse’s character, because as Anna points out, Mr. Woodhouse does not present the strong parental figure that we may expect in the novel, especially coming off of a father figure such as that of Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park. Clearly, Mr. Woodhouse is to be seen as a weak figure, as demonstrated by Anna’s analysis of the feminizing aspects of his character. Furthering this argument of a weak paternal role, I often saw the parent-child relationship between Emma and her father as reversed.
    Mr. Woodhouse’s actions and treatment by others can often be seen in a childish sense. Rather than assuming the leading role in the house, he often looks to Emma as the mistress of the house and the one who makes the decisions for them both (for example, his cry of, “What is to be done, my dear Emma – what is to be done?” (p. 120) when he becomes panicked by the snow he is to travel through). Mr. Woodhouse seems to be in need of constant attention, in part demonstrated by, as Anna pointed out, his obsession with health and illness. Mr. Perry, the narrator points out in the first several pages of the novel, is often at the beck and call of Mr. Woodhouse in order to offer him reassurance that brings to mind a parent’s soothing of a child. Emma is likewise often called upon to offer soothing words to her father in order to maintain a calm, happy state of mind. Finally, Mr. Woodhouse is treated by the other members of society as one who must be kept entertained to be happy; indeed, Mr. Knightley pulls out every family collection within his power to keep Mr. Woodhouse happy during a visit (p. 339), an act that can almost be amounted to providing a child with toys in order to stay occupied!
    Just as Mr. Woodhouse can be seen as the child, Emma in return is called upon to act as the parental figure in their relationship. In addition to the roles that she plays in coddling Mr. Woodhouse, her decision to marry is based in part upon her unusual relationship with her father. She will not leave her father alone in order to move in with Mr. Knightley upon their marriage (p. 419), and her father is in distress at her marriage. Rather than experiencing pleasure at his daughter’s marriage to a worthy family friend, he fears being left alone too much, almost like a child being abandoned by a parent. The strange parent/child dynamics of their relationship make Emma and Mr. Woodhouse startlingly different characters than we have previously experienced in Austen novels.

  2. I do not view Mr. Woodhouse as the parental figure for Emma. He does not seem to be designed for that role in the novel. Instead of being a father who guards and guides his daughter, he is the one that needs to be guarded and guided by Emma.
    Like Jessica argues, Mr. Woodhouse is like a spoiled child. Whenever he is not comfortably resting at home, he is the center of everyone's attention. He must be comforted. For instance, when Mr. John Knightley discusses the severe weather, "Mrs. Weston and Emma tried earnestly to cheer him and turn his attention from his son-in-law" (120). This shows that, like a scared child, Mr. Woodhouse needs to be lulled and distracted from scary nightmares.
    Mr. Woodhouse is the opposite of what a parent should be. Therefore, his role in the novel is certainly not that of a guide to Emma. The role of providing comical relief in the novel seems to be more likely designed for him. When Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston are getting married, Mr. Woodhouse is entirely consumed with worrying about the cake; "[w]hat was unwholesome to him, he regarded as unfit for any body; and he had, therefore, earnestly tried to dissuade them from having any wedding-cake at all, and when that proved vain, as earnestly tried to prevent any body's eating it" (20). All of Mr. Woodhouse's actions and saying seem to be comical, like those of a spoiled child.
    The characters that seem to fill the role of Emma's parents are the Westons. They are friends and guides to Emma. They worry about her well being and give her suggestions. When Miss Taylor was Emma's governess, her role as Emma's guide was clear and obvious; but as Emma grew out of the age when she needed a governess, Miss Taylor's role became that of a friend. And later, when Miss Taylor married Mr. Weston, Mrs. Weston and her husband became friends and guardians to Emma. The Westons' parental concern for Emma is clearly portrayed in the scene when they tell Emma of Frank's engagement to Jane Fairfax; "a glance or two between him and his wife, convinced him that all was as right as this speech proclaimed; and its happy effect on his spirits was immediate" (376). As Emma's friends and filling the role of her guardians, the Westons protect Emma's interests and feelings.
    Therefore, while Mr. Woodhouse is childlike and almost unfatherly, the Westons are caring and protective of Emma, and thus fill the role of her guardians as much as her friends.

  3. I believe that this discussion has flushed out a classic connection between age and gender. So far the argument could be made that to be childish is to also be feminine and that as we grow and mature we move into a more masculine point in our lives, ultimately only to regress back to that feminine place. Luckily the novel provides plenty examples to test out this theory with.

    Mr. Woodhouse serves as one of these examples. As already pointed out, he is a person who needs to be taken care of. He has lost his ability to parent and has acquired the necessity of being pampered and cared for. But is any of this his faults? He is an old man, it makes sense that his health would be in question. Also I believe that his preoccupation with health is not a bad thing by nature. It is what concerns him personally, why wouldn't this concern spread to others? I do not fault him for that and his nature overall. The character who is supposed to be in charge of, Emma, was taken of by other means. For one she had a governess. Miss Taylor was of an age that allowed her to have power and take care of another, both typical masculine qualities. The point is that a masculine character is required for the maturation of a character, it just does not need to be someone's father.

    The reason that Miss Taylor stops being Emma's governess is because Emma reaches a similar developmental and masculine point. She is twenty at the time of the novel and possess the ability to exert power over others, mainly in regard to their love lives. However her maturation is not complete due to her inability to correctly find either Harriet or herself a match.

    It requires a more mature and masculine figure to step in and set everything right. Mr. Knightley has 17 years on Emma and the correct chromosomes. He is the masculine and mature figure that Mr. Woodhouse isn't. However it is possible that earlier in his life Mr. Woodhouse was like Mr. Knightley. We as readers can not be sure about because that information is not available to us. What is available is a wide range of characters with varying ages and degrees of masculinity.

  4. While not the protagonist of this novel, Mr. Woodhouse certainly serves several important functions in this Jane Austen work. Most obviously, he serves as comedic relief, as his ranting and raving about absolutely ridiculous concerns become so annoying that it is actually funny. Additionally, as we’ve seen in many of the other novels we have read this semester, Austen creates characters to serve as foils to other characters in order to emphasize particular traits, such as in the case of the contrast between Fanny Price and Mary Crawford. I would definitely support Anna’s argument that Mr. Woodhouse serves to elevate Mr. Knightley. While Mr. Woodhouse is concerned with his own health and wellbeing to the point where is it obsessively compulsive, Mr. Knightley demonstrates an interest in others, particularly in Emma’s thoughts and opinions. Sometimes this attention can be negative as Anna points out, but it is still a type of external attention compared to Mr. Woodhouse’s internal concerns.
    As I think about the role of patriarchy in this novel and the relationship between Austen’s heroines and their eventual husbands, I draw very conflicted conclusions. On one hand, the portrayal of weak father figures seems to suggest a critique of the entire system of patriarchy. It is obvious that the roles of parents and child are reversed for Emma and Mr. Woodhouse. Instead of the child making impossible demands and complaining, it is constantly Mr. Woodhouse in this role. Despite his lack of parental authority, he is still the head of the family and Emma does have to consider his opinions and viewpoints. Perhaps Austen’s critique of patriarchy lies here in that women are still forced to obey fathers and husbands who do not do anything for the family and instead hinder progress and a positive family environment. My personal critique here is that I believe Austen then suggests through her critique that a woman should in fact, follow a good man when she finds one (Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley as prime examples). Elizabeth and Emma are certainly not timid, docile women but they do, as Anna points out, “gravitate towards men who provide more stability and guidance than their father figures.” I would ultimately argue that Austen half-heartedly critiques patriarchy, but for the historical time of her writing this is quite notable.

  5. What struck me most about Mr. Woodhouse was, as everyone has gone over in detail, his very childlike and effeminate demeanor. By choosing to portray him as this type of person Austen uses him for a much more important task than comic relief: he is in contrast to all the characters in the novel who are stronger than he is, in particular Emma and Mr. Knightly. By presenting such a weak character who is in daily contact with Emma and is often in contact with Mr. Knightly, Austen makes her heroine and hero seem that much more powerful. Those two are the driving forces behind the novel, but they would not seem nearly as impressive if they were not contrasted with Mr. Woodhouse.

    One thing I will disagree on with some other people is the idea that his most important role is that of a comic relief character. Though this is certainly important and there is no doubt that Austen meant him to be such, Mr. Woodhouse’s main role is much more important. He is, in fact, the influential force behind the development of the main character. And, because the main character is the driving force behind the story as a whole, logic dictates that Mr. Woodhouse is therefore the reason the story exists all. Her father’s weakness forces Emma to grow in ways she may not have otherwise done. Without an authoritative parental figure it was necessary for Emma to become the dominant force in her own life. This is most likely the reason behind her overbearing and often times grating personality. Mr. Woodhouse’s shortcomings are the reason behind his daughter’s faults and this ultimately gives readers a reason to feel sympathetic for an otherwise unsympathetic character. It is not because she is a bad person that Emma acts the way she was, she was only a victim of circumstance. If anyone is to be blamed, it should be her father. But, without Emma’s shortcomings, there would be no story. So, if Mr. Woodhouse were not a weak effeminate man there would be no reason for Emma to act the way she did and there would be no story for Austen to tell.