Summary and Analysis
Volume 3: Chapters I-II
Two months have passed since Frank Churchill left Highbury, and Emma is convinced that her own attachment has "really subsided into a mere nothing." Yet she cannot help anticipating something decisive when he comes again. Soon after the Churchills remove to London, he rides down for a couple of hours, coming immediately to Hartfield, where it appears clear to Emma that, though he is fluttered and restless, he is "less in love than he had been." The quarter-hour visit is the only one for ten days. Then the Churchills, for Mrs. Churchill's health, move again to Richmond, where they will stay for two months, only nine miles from Highbury. Such closeness makes the ball at the Crown Inn a certainty.
The day for it arrives, and Emma goes early to give her requested opinion of the place to the Westons. Shortly one and then another carriage arrive with cousins whose opinions are also wanted. Frank stands beside Emma but seems anxious for things to get started. The Eltons arrive and send their carriage on for Miss Bates and Jane. Augusta's talking with Frank leads her vocally to decide that she likes him just as he and Mr. Weston go to escort in Miss Fairfax and Miss Bates, the latter already erupting with incessant chatter. Upon being questioned, Frank whispers to Emma that he does not like Augusta.
Emma does not like to but has to let Augusta begin the ball, but she is more disturbed by George Knightley's not dancing at all. Instead, he seems to be observing her as the ball proceeds pleasantly until, as the last two dances before supper begin, Harriet has no partner. At first sauntering about, Mr. Elton stops before some of the older ladies and offers to dance with two of them, then obviously and thoroughly slights Harriet. All of this is seen with approval by Augusta and with hot distaste by Emma, who a moment later is delighted to see George leading Harriet to the set and to see that his dancing is as extremely good as she has guessed. After supper Emma gets a chance to thank him. Both wondering and guessing why the Eltons feel themselves her enemies, he criticizes them and commends Harriet for her good qualities. With the dancing about to resume, he asks her with whom she is to dance. Hesitating, she replies, "With you, if you will ask me." He does.
Plotting is well developed in these two chapters. Emma is no longer worried about herself and Frank, but she is curious about his present restless behavior yet fails to observe the little attentions that he pays to Jane. The Eltons show their true colors, and it is to Frank's credit that he does not like Augusta. But George is the hero of the hour in reacting so gallantly after Mr. Elton's obvious rudeness to Harriet. Slowly and quietly Miss Austen is showing him to be by far the most admirable man in Highbury, just as Emma, in spite of her willful imagination, is the most interesting and admirable woman there. The reader, aware of Emma's past attitudes and inclinations, should be able to detect the modulated beginning of story conflict when, at the very end of Chapter II, George emphatically agrees with Emma that they are indeed not brother and sister.
The satire of caricature is continued here with Augusta and Miss Bates. But the broader and more subtle satire of a community and its fluttery emphasis on giving a ball is localized in the comic scene in which, after Emma has come early to give her asked opinion, others arrive for the same reason. The scene is one that also has its share in Emma's slowly maturing into self-knowledge: In reference to Mr. Weston she now feels "that to be the favourite and intimate of a man who had so many intimates and confidantes, was not the very first distinction in the scale of vanity." This is conscious realization. An unconscious sort, treated without satire, comes in the concluding scene with George, for at the moment Emma relates her happy feelings toward George only to his rescue of Harriet and to his agreeing with her about Harriet and the Eltons.