The Woodhouses have a good deal of sway over the lives and affairs of the other members of their community. In the first chapter of the novel, the reader learn that Mr. Woodhouse finds homes for maids in other households, while Emma does essentially the same for her acquaintances, in attempting to pair them off with husbands and wives. The narrator presents this overzealous concern for other people's well being as an entirely harmless characteristic, in Mr. Woodhouse at least. While his intrusions into the personal lives of even non-family relations and frequent effusions of worry are bothersome to readers and characters alike, Mr. Woodhouse never actually does anyone the slightest bit of real or lasting harm. Even Mr. John Knightley cannot stay annoyed at him for very long. Therefore, Austen provides the character of Mr. Woodhouse, not only as light-hearted comedy, but also to show a contrast between him and Emma.
Emma, on the other hand, is capable of doing real personal damage, and her willful intrusions into the lives of her acquaintance are presented as arrogant presumption -- her character's major flaw:
"The real evils of Emma's situation [are] the power of having rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself."
The key difference between her acts of presumption and those of her father is that she has a stronger will and mind than he. Her actions are therefore not only more harmful to others but also more conscious and deliberate. Though she may, like her father, be acting out of good intentions, she is fully aware of the ways in which she manipulates. Emma not only sees that she is molding Harriet's weaker mind, she understands how best to do it. If awareness makes her more...