Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 759
Preparations for the ball dictate that it be held later than Frank Churchill has been permitted to stay. When he requests an extended leave in order to attend, Mr. and Mrs. Churchill grudgingly give their consent. Thinking the matter settled, Emma is again thwarted by Mr. Knightley, who remains unmoved by the prospect of a ball despite her attempts to excite him about it. Two days later, a letter arrives from the Churchills urging their son to return home as his mother is unwell.
When he comes to say good-bye to Emma, she cannot help but feel touched by his display of dejection and loss at having to leave Highbury. She learns that he has stopped at the Bates’ house to say good-bye before coming to Hartfield. Emma inquires about his visit there and is met with a response so ambiguous that she interprets it to mean Frank is in love with her. After Frank is ushered out by his father, Emma is sorry to see him go. She fears she might miss him too much.
Mr. Knightley expresses genuine regret that Emma won’t be able to dance now that there will be no ball, but Jane Fairfax surprises her by being flat-out unmoved by the cancellation. Emma wants to blame her behavior on ill health, but really cannot forgive her for not seeming to care.
After Frank leaves, Emma spends her days busying herself with the usual tasks while fantasizing about Frank Churchill. Her fantasies always end in their parting as friends, so she thinks she could not be too much in love with him. A letter arrives from Frank, and Mrs. Weston presents it to her. The letter is proper, respectful, and includes acknowledgment to Emma. A note at the bottom asks Emma to forgive him for not having time to say good-bye to Harriet. Emma finds the glow she first got from reading the letter does not linger. She is curiously struck by Frank’s mention of Harriet and fleetingly wonders whether or not the two might be a match.
The society of Highbury turns from talk of Frank to Mr. Elton’s new bride, who will soon be in town. Emma is sickened by all the talk. It means she will again have to deal with Harriet’s sorrow at being rejected. She decides on a new approach and berates Harriet for focusing on the loss of Mr. Elton because it offends Emma. Since Emma attempted the match, she claims to have suffered quite as much as Harriet who lost it.
Emma’s browbeating has the effect of turning Harriet into a devoted follower once more, and she promises to hold her tongue when the Eltons are mentioned. Emma thinks if Harriet is capable of this turnaround, she is a valuable friend indeed. Harriet praises Emma’s good qualities and ingratiates herself anew. Emma holds Harriet’s quality of tender-heartedness to be worthy of a new match and declares that the man will be happy who gets Harriet instead of her.
Emma hurls herself along the trajectory of self-deception. She looks at Frank Churchill and sees that he is smitten with her, though he has yet to take any action that shows he loves her. She weaves a complete fiction of her future with Frank Churchill and ties it off neatly with a refusal of his love, though he has never professed it. When Jane Fairfax doesn’t share her disappointment about the canceled ball, Emma faults Jane’s ill health rather than looking deeper where she might discover the real reasons. Truth is something Emma shirks from.
Tired of Harriet’s neediness and dependence, she faults the poor girl for expressing her feelings. Emma cannot handle anyone’s feelings because she is too busy stifling her own. She is steeped in the customs and language of her class to the point where she cannot express herself plainly and simply. She cannot even hear anything plainly and simply. Instead of protecting the innocent Harriet, she plots yet another match, opening her to yet another refusal.
Her justification whitewashes herself so thoroughly, she comes out looking saintly. Her insistence that tender-heartedness overshadows clear-headedness would sound fine coming from anyone else, but she is using this comparison for effect. With it, she elevates Harriet to a status she does not possess, nor ever will. Emma thinks that in pushing Harriet around, some of her class status will rub off. She even places Harriet’s virtues above her own. Her supreme folly forebodes a fall.