Summary and Analysis
The visit of the John Knightleys is a delightful one, with casual visiting in the neighborhood; but one event calls for persuading Mr. Woodhouse: They must all dine at Randalls on the day before Christmas. The dinner is to include Harriet, Mr. Elton, and George Knightley; but Harriet goes back to Mrs. Goddard's with a cold that develops into a bad sore throat. After a visit to her bedridden friend, Emma encounters first Mr. Elton and then John Knightley. When Mr. Elton asks Emma not to run risks by visiting the sick one, she in turn insists that he do likewise, thereby hoping he will not attend the dinner but rather, being at home, inquire after Harriet every hour. This scheme is spoiled when John offers to take Mr. Elton to the dinner in his carriage.
Left alone with John, Emma is vexed and then amused when John suggests strongly that Mr. Elton is interested in her and that she has perhaps encouraged him. She assures him that they "are very good friends, and nothing more."
On the twenty-fourth the cold is severe and a few flakes of snow are falling. In the carriage John complains about people's insisting upon visits, but Emma refrains from answering him. After they pick up Mr. Elton, Emma is the first to mention Harriet and is surprised at how quickly Mr. Elton can move to other subjects; she is, in fact, astonished at his spirits. When he anticipates the coming dinner party, John's only anticipation is getting through the evening and then finding himself safely — and comfortably — back at Hartfield.
Miss Austen is neatly building toward the climax of Volume One. In a quite natural way she removes Harriet from the upcoming scene, a social gathering equally natural to human beings, though the irony of man's thorough commitment to socializing is indicated in John Knightley's grumbling (as the carriage proceeds through the cold and snow) about their "setting forward voluntarily, without excuse, in defiance of the voice of nature." Emma is given what seems to be plenty of warning about Mr. Elton both by John's cautioning her and by Mr. Elton's blithe and solicitous conversation in the carriage and his ready forgetfulness of Harriet. But Emma is blinded by her willful scheming. Ironically, her reaction to John is to think confidently "of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are for ever falling into," never for a moment applying these thoughts to herself. As for Mr. Elton, she is at the moment merely astonished at him — and critical.