by Jane Austen
If you’ve ever had a great-aunt who always makes you wear sweaters (even in summer) and never lets you go outside to play, then you probably know something about Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. Woodhouse has two loves in the world: his health and his doctor. Oh, and Emma. He actually does really love Emma. That’s actually three things, isn’t it? Well, we’ll concentrate on the first two for awhile.
Jane Austen is actually a pretty big fan of heroines with ridiculous families (check out our analysis of Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion for other great examples). Typically, they’re pretty well off. If we’re counting up cash and land in Emma, it’s pretty clear that, in Highbury at least, Mr. Woodhouse is second only to Mr. Knightley. Being rich doesn’t keep them from being stupid, however. OK, maybe that’s a bit exaggerated. Mr. Woodhouse isn’t exactly dumb, but he’s not winning any awards for his brains, either – a fact that our narrator uses to show us how precocious Emma actually is. Here’s Emma’s opinion on her father’s blindness to love, for example: "Though always objecting to every marriage that was arranged, he never suffered beforehand from the apprehension of any; it seemed as if he could not think so ill of any two persons' understanding as to suppose they meant to marry till it were proved against them."
Emma’s probably taking a very generous stance on her father’s opinions. After all, he is her father. Austen allows us just enough wiggle room to be able to see between the cracks of Emma’s language, however. Mr. Woodhouse never "suffers from any apprehension" of pending matches because he’s generally oblivious to anything that doesn’t directly involve his comfort – or his heath. Again, the fact that Emma’s character gets to think through the consequences of this guides us, as readers, to pay attention to the ways that Emma’s character interacts with her father.
What Mr. Woodhouse is, though, is a hypochondriac. Every time that there’s any possibility that someone might be sick, he’s very excited. And he’s got a bowl of gruel ready. Check out Mr. Woodhouse as the host of a dinner party:
"Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else; but you need not be afraid, they are very small, you see—one of our small eggs will not hurt you. Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart—a very little bit. Ours are all apple-tarts. You need not be afraid of unwholesome preserves here. I do not advise the custard. Mrs. Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine? A small half-glass, put into a tumbler of water? I do not think it could disagree with you."
In other words, he’s a crotchety old man. Remember Miss Bates’ story about Mr. Woodhouse sending half of the dinner dishes back because they were too rich? It’s lucky for his guests that he has Emma around to smooth over most such "consideration"!
Mr. Woodhouse cares a lot about his food, and his doctor, Mr. Perry, is his favorite person in the world – aside from Emma, of course. We at Shmoop think that Austen could be poking some fun at the gentry (the landowning rich folks) when she created Mr. Woodhouse – but then again, she’s always poking fun at her characters, so maybe he’s not as special as we might think.
In a novel about marriage, then, Mr. Woodhouse is a bit of an odd man out. If love (or at least marriage) is in the air, then Mr. Woodhouse would prefer not to fly. He tries as hard as he can to convince people not to marry – mostly because the weddings of people he cares about mean that things will change. Don’t get too many illusions here, though. He’s not worried about changes for Mrs. Weston or Emma or Harriet. "Poor Isabella" and "poor Miss Taylor" may be the people he talks about, but Mr. Woodhouse is really looking out for Number One. If folks get married, then chances are that they won’t spend as much time at Highbury looking after him.
Luckily for our lovers, however, Mr. Woodhouse is more scared of chicken thieves than he is of marriage – which is why he finally agrees to allow Emma to marry Mr. Knightley.