Among the characters that Austen uses to satirize aspects of British society in the in the early 19th century is Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father. Though he is allowed moments of earnest feelings, he is primarily used to satirize eccentric and controlling British patriarchs.
A strong example of this happens near the beginning of the novel, when Emma’s governess Mrs. Weston gets married (requiring her to have a wedding and also to move out) and Mr. Woodhouse is upset about it:
[A] few weeks brought some alleviation to Mr. Woodhouse. The compliments of his neighbours were over; he was no longer teased by being wished joy of so sorrowful an event; and the wedding-cake, which had been a great distress to him, was all eat up. His own stomach could bear nothing rich, and he would never believe other people to be different from himself.
To others, Mrs. Weston’s wedding a joyous occasion, but to Mr. Woodhouse it is only “sorrowful” because it means losing an employee. Though he is not overtly unlikable as a character, Mr. Woodhouse’s grumpy disposition and belief that the world should revolve around him highlights the types of aging wealthy men with whom Austen likely come in contact with in real life.
Mr. Woodhouse’s eccentricities—such as his intense hypochondria and fear of change—also contribute to Emma feeling responsible for him. As she is limited by her gender in this society, she cannot choose to work or live on her own and therefore ends up playing the role of dutiful daughter who prioritizes her father above all else. Even after getting engaged, she persuades Knightley to move in with her and her father so that she can continue to care of him, a very rare occurrence in Austen’s time.
Though Austen satirizes different aspects of most characters included in the novel (such as Emma’s constant misperceptions about people’s romantic intentions and resulting poor matchmaking abilities), there are other characters like Mrs. Elton whose entire existence in the novel is meant to satirize something. In Mrs. Elton’s case, she is meant to satirize prideful wealthy urbanites who consider themselves more “cultured” than those who live in rural communities like Highbury.
Mrs. Elton is introduced as a character after Mr. Elton returns from travels with a wife in tow. She is from Bath—a larger town than Highbury—and has a wealthy brother-in-law. Emma notices right away that she is a vain, self-important, and rude woman who acts superior to everyone in Highbury:
[T]he quarter of an hour quite convinced her that Mrs. Elton was a vain woman, extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking much of her own importance; that she meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar.
Emma does try to engage with Mrs. Elton over the course of several balls and outings, but she finds that Mrs. Elton “only wanted to be talking herself.”
While Emma matures over the course of the novel, Mrs. Elton does not. That she remains such a flat character who is hyperbolically haughty and rude shows how Mrs. Elton is Austen’s way of satirizing upper-class, “cultured” city people who considered themselves better than people like Emma from rural areas.