Summary and Analysis
Volume 1: Chapter XVI
Emma is ready for bed, her hair curled and the maid sent away. She can now evaluate the evening's events and consider "the evil to Harriet." She wonders "How she could have been so deceived!" and reviews all the events in connection with Harriet, including the earlier caution that George Knightley had given. Concluding that Mr. Elton has no real affection for herself and wants only to enrich himself through her as an heiress of thirty thousand pounds, she is obliged in honesty to admit that her complaisance, courtesy, and attention might have led him to misunderstand her. Granting that the first and worst error lay at her door, she is ashamed and resolves "to do such things no more." She turns her thoughts to Harriet again and within a moment wonders about soothing her friend's disappointment by making William Coxe the object of new intrigue, but he is an unendurable, pert young lawyer. Blushing and laughing at her own relapse, Emma goes to bed with nothing settled.
The next morning she is more disposed for comfort, especially when the sight of much snow on the ground informs her that she, Harriet, and Mr. Elton will be kept "quite asunder at present." In fact, though it is Christmas Day, she cannot get to church. Because of further snow and freezes, the confinement extends for days and only George Knightley, "whom no weather could keep entirely from them," ventures outdoors. Since John is cleared of the ill humor which he had at Randalls, having her sister's family in the house is a matter of pure pleasure for Emma — or would be if the coming explanation with Harriet did not hang over her like an evil thing.
Whereas the preceding chapter encompassed the external, physical climax of Volume One, this chapter presents the internal climax. With outward events making Emma's blindness to them no longer possible, she must adjust and come to terms as much as she can with the realities of the situation. This means that she must admit and come to terms with her own self-deception. Since she is an intelligent and sympathetic heroine, it is only right that she be as fair as possible — and she is. She accepts her own errors and, in regard to Harriet at least, she plans to face the issue and do what she can to improve the situation.
Two story elements, however, are not yet worked out, and their incompleteness prepares the reader for more to come. First, the reader is made aware that the present moment is a pivotal one: Not only has Emma's scheming met with reversal, but also the tables are turned in reference to the social-level suitability of two marriageable persons. Emma has been presuming that lowborn Harriet will do for Mr. Elton, but she is now surprised and provoked to note that toward her he "should suppose himself her equal in connection or mind! — look down upon her friend, so well understanding the gradations of rank below him, and be so blind to what rose above, as to fancy himself shewing no presumption in addressing her!" Unless mere reversal is the main point being made — as it is not with Jane Austen, who is far more interested in the effects of emotion than in the momentary eruptions of emotion — more story obviously is to come. Second, in spite of Emma's new insight into events and herself and in spite of her new resolutions, the reader is warned that she is highly capable of relapse and that her lifelong habit of managing things has not come to full terms with itself, even on the level of self-deception. Furthermore, though nature gives respite for Emma and perhaps Mr. Elton to compose themselves, nature tends in no way to resolve the problems, which are human ones that still must be met by a very human Emma.