Summary and Analysis
Volume 1: Chapters XVII-XVIII
With improved weather the John Knightleys leave for London, and on the same evening a note comes from Mr. Elton to Mr. Woodhouse, stating that at the entreaties of friends he is leaving in the morning for Bath and will not get to come by Hartfield before he goes. This is agreeably surprising news for Emma, for it leaves her relatively free to approach Harriet, to whom she goes the very next day. Her confession of events renews her first shame and brings tears from Harriet. In her simplicity and modesty Harriet will not complain, and her reaction impresses Emma, who is "really for the time convinced that Harriet was the superior creature of the two." Considering that her second duty is to promote Harriet's comfort, Emma gets her to Hartfield for needed kindness and amusement. Nonetheless, Harriet's continued belief that Mr. Elton is "all perfection" proves that she is "more resolutely in love than Emma had foreseen." Emma realizes that, until Harriet is cured, there can be "no true peace for herself."
Frank Churchill does not come in January after all, and Mrs. Weston is exceedingly disappointed. Emma is otherwise too involved to care much about Frank at the moment; but in putting on a false concern to cover her other feelings, she tells George about the further delay by Frank and says a good deal more than she feels. This leads to a disagreement with George, who thinks that Frank is avoiding his duty, and Emma is amused to perceive herself taking a side that is not in accord with her real opinion. Emma states that, in light of all the long conjectures about Frank and his coming, her idea of him is that "he can adapt his conversation to the taste of everybody" and be universally agreeable. George's reply is that, if he turns out to be anything like that, "he will be the most insufferable fellow breathing!" Emma is quite surprised at the degree of his vexation, at what seems to be genuine anger. To dislike a young man only because he appears of a different disposition from himself is "unworthy the real liberality of mind which she was always used to acknowledge in him." Never before has she supposed he could be "unjust to the merit of another."
These two chapters represent the denouement following the climax of Volume One. This leveling-off action, obviously in a lower key than that of the two climactic chapters immediately preceding, for the moment tidies up the remaining threads of the dominant plot action of the first volume. Since Mr. Elton's part in this action is finished, he is removed from the locale. Emma makes her call upon Harriet and starts trying to mend the situation for her. The present possibility of a visit from Frank Churchill is terminated. Thus the first volume concludes a developing series of significant events through which inwardly the principal characters have been changed but which leaves their outward, material circumstances essentially unaltered, at least among themselves as a fixed social group. Each of the characters primarily
involved — Emma, Harriet, Mr. Elton, George Knightley — is no closer to marrying one of the others than at the beginning of the volume. This outward non-change, then, focuses the spotlight of significance upon the inward change: And because of the limited point of view taken in the novel, the major portion of this change belongs to Emma, coming by way of revelation. Mr. Elton's revelation of his passion is important primarily because it leads Emma to a revelation about herself. Because of her self-deception she has deluded and misjudged others, and her shock of recognition — the long thoughts before going to bed and during the following days — is basically the (in this case unpleasant) discovery of the self.
In rounding out this volume, however, the author has prepared for much of what is to follow. There has been occasional mention of Jane Fairfax, of course, who is yet to be seen. But here in the denouement quite a bit of attention is directed toward Frank Churchill, who is also yet to come upon the scene. And to the perceptive reader the terminal and unusual reaction of George Knightley to Emma's interest in Frank, while it is presented with subtle artlessness and near offhandedness, will have its significance in both its final emphatic position and in the fact and object of his anger.