Harriet comes to tell Emma that her infatuation with Mr. Elton has passed and to relinquish the trinkets she has kept to remember him by. First, she shows Emma a bit of court-plaster (used at the time as a bandage) that she had lent to Mr. Elton when he cut himself. He had used what he needed but discarded the rest, which Harriet then kept. Emma feels guilty in recalling that she had lied and said that she did not have any court-plaster, so that Harriet would have the opportunity to be Elton’s healer. Harriet’s second trinket is a useless bit of pencil Elton had discarded. She throws both items into the fire, and Emma hopes that Frank might take Elton’s place. Her hopes seem to be rewarded when, during another conversation, Harriet says she will never marry, inciting Emma’s suspicion that Harriet does not think that she will marry because she is interested in someone of a higher class. After some hesitation, Emma asks if Harriet has feelings for someone of higher rank. Harriet says yes, and Emma comments that she is not surprised, given the service that this person rendered Harriet. Emma says that they must not discuss it anymore, and she advises Harriet to be cautious but not to give up all hope.
Mr. Knightley begins to suspect that there is some secret understanding between Frank and Jane. During a walk with Emma, Harriet, Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Frank, Jane, and Miss Bates, Knightley witnesses a strange exchange. Frank asks Mrs. Weston if anything has come of Mr. Perry’s plan to buy a carriage. She has no idea what he is talking about, and he swears that she wrote of it in a letter to him some months ago. She denies it, and Frank decides he must have dreamed it. Miss Bates remembers that there was talk of the Perrys getting a carriage at her house (with Jane present) but that it was a secret. Mr. Knightley observes Frank trying to catch Jane’s eye after this.
The party reaches Hartfield, and Emma persuades everyone to come in for tea. A word game ensues, which Mr. Knightley watches. Frank constructs the word “blunder” using alphabet tiles, which he shows to Jane. Then he constructs the word “Dixon,” shows it to Emma, who laughs, and then shows it to Jane, who pushes the puzzle away in anger. When the party breaks up, Knightley stays behind to speak to Emma—he knows that everyone considers her the object of Frank’s affection, and he wishes to warn her. Knightley asks Emma about the “Dixon” joke, and, embarrassed, she refuses to explain. He tells her his suspicion about Jane and Frank, and she laughs at him, stating unequivocally that she can answer for Frank’s indifference to Jane. Knightley is silenced and irritated by Emma’s implication that she is in Frank’s confidence.
An outing to Box Hill is planned, but it has to be postponed because of a lame horse. Mr. Knightley half-jokingly suggests that the party come to his estate instead. Mrs. Elton seizes upon the idea, and Knightley has to be firm to prevent her from planning all the details. Meanwhile, the lame horse heals, and it is decided that the Box Hill party will follow the one at Donwell Abbey, Knightley’s estate. At Donwell Abbey, Emma enjoys examining Knightley’s house and grounds. She overhears Jane resisting a governess “situation” that Mrs. Elton has found for her. Walking through the garden, Emma finds Harriet and Knightley looking out over the Martin family home and thinks the two an odd grouping, but is nevertheless convinced that Harriet is in good hands. Mrs. Weston is worried by the fact that Frank is late coming from Richmond. At the house, Emma encounters an agitated Jane, who asks her to tell everyone else that she has walked home. Frank then turns up out of humor and in the course of conversation says that he would like to go abroad. Emma teases him out of his mood, and he promises to join the Box Hill trip.
Even though Emma has resolved to use more discretion in promoting a match between Harriet and Frank than she used when encouraging Harriet’s affection for Mr. Elton, she manages to cause a misunderstanding precisely because she shies away from explicit statements. When Emma says of Harriet’s new object of affection, “The service he rendered you was enough to warm your heart,” she is referring to Frank, who saved Harriet from the Gypsies. Harriet, however, thinks of Mr. Knightley, who saved her from humiliation by asking her to dance.
In the way it keeps us in the dark about the truth of various characters’ feelings, Emma reads like a detective novel. The picnic presents subtle mysteries: Jane’s agitation is not explained, nor is Frank’s sudden ill temper. We suspect that Jane’s and Frank’s bad moods must be linked, but Austen keeps us in suspense as to what exactly has transpired. Even straightforward Mr. Knightley is drawn into the atmosphere of speculation when he suggests that Jane and Frank have been corresponding throughout Frank’s absence. Also, Knightley wrongly takes Emma’s statement that Frank has no feelings for Jane as a suggestion that Frank and Emma have some sort of romantic association. In truth, Emma’s confidence is purely the result of the unflattering things Frank has said to her about Jane.
The word game the party plays in Chapter 41 functions as a metaphor for all the games of private concealment and revelation that characterize Highbury society. Emma and Mr. Knightley are both able to decode the words that Frank makes, but, because they possess different kinds of information, they interpret these words differently. Knightley understands that the word “blunder” must refer to Frank’s misplaced question to Mrs. Weston about Mr. Perry’s carriage, a message that Emma is unable to decode. Emma interprets “Dixon” as a cruel joke on Jane, but Knightley rightly understands that Frank’s presentation of the word to Jane is a mark of some intimacy between them. When Knightley observes to himself, “These letters were but the vehicle for gallantry and trick. It was a child’s play, chosen to conceal a deeper game on Frank Churchill’s part,” he makes explicit the novel’s suggestion that social intercourse is a game with particular rules. Like a game, social interaction requires skill and sometimes produces winners and losers.
Although the narrator typically describes all events from Emma’s point of view, Chapter 41 is unique in that it is narrated entirely from Mr. Knightley’s point of view, depending on what he can see of the word games transpiring in the parlor. By shifting to Mr. Knightley’s point of view, we get a new perspective on the mixture of knowledge and bewilderment that each character experiences. This new emphasis on Mr. Knightley’s character and point of view subtly alerts us that he is becoming a central character.