The multi-faceted Mr. Woodhouse
Amid the flood of tributes, appraisals and critiques unleashed by last week’s bicentennial of Emma, I’ve been intrigued to note the special interest inspired by the character of Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father.
Depending whom you ask, Mr. Woodhouse is a comic hypochondriac (Adam Kirsch in the New York Times Book Review), an anxious Alzheimer’s patient (Carol J. Adams in the New York Times’ Sunday Review section), or a voluntarily “fossilized creature” inhabiting a radically shrunken world (David Denby in the New Yorker).
Kirsch thinks Austen avoids the character’s darker shades, sidestepping the hateful, tyrannical version of Mr. Woodhouse that a different kind of writer would portray. Adams sees Austen as writing a “paean to caregiving, depicting its hardships, demands and frustrations.” Denby, recuperating from an eye operation, identifies with Mr. Woodhouse’s homebound condition and the narrowness of focus it entails.
Personally, I don’t see why we have to choose among these versions of Mr. Woodhouse. They are all present in Emma – first one, now another catching a gleam of light as we turn Austen’s multi-faceted jewel of a novel this way and that.
Looked at one way, Mr. Woodhouse is precisely the kind of “domestic tyrant” that Kirsch claims he isn’t; but, of course, he’s also one of the greatest comic creations in all of literature. Adams isn’t wrong to feel compassion for Emma’s caretaking duties, and admiration at the patience and efficiency with which she manages them; it’s precisely her kindness to her father that makes readers realize, at least by the third or fourth reading, that Emma is more than the spoiled rich kid she can seem on first acquaintance. And Denby, identifying with Mr. Woodhouse from the inside out, as we seldom do with Austen’s comic caricatures, suggests another way of understanding obsessions that usually seem entirely irrational.
To me, all these different versions of Mr. Woodhouse provide further illustration of one of Austen’s most remarkable qualities: her ability to hold multiple interpretations in equipoise, and thus to suggest the way that a change of perspective can alter perceived reality. Even more than the other novels, Emma is about maturation as an education in empathy – a never-completed lesson in seeing reality from someone else’s point of view. It’s a lesson that we readers can learn anew every time we return to Austen’s pages.