The novel’s narrative pace speeds up in these chapters, as instead of facing a slow accumulation of details that require interpretation, we begin to be given the key detail for interpreting all that has transpired thus far—the answer to the question of who is in love with whom.
Austen’s narrator finally describes Emma’s development explicitly, rather than implicitly, as she does throughout the novel. At the same time, Harriet finally realizes Emma’s limitations. Harriet begins her conversation with Emma about her feelings for Knightley with an assertion that Emma can “see into everybody’s heart,” but she soon understands that she has been wrong. Rather than waiting for Emma’s approval of a match between herself and Knightley, Harriet proceeds to explain in a self-confident manner why she believes their disparity in rank need not be a hindrance. She goes so far as to express hope that Emma will not present obstacles to the match, demonstrating that her attachment to Knightley is stronger than her loyalty to her friend. When Emma asks whether Harriet has reasons to believe that her feelings are returned, Harriet answers “modestly, but not fearfully” in the affirmative.
The brief, general way in which the narrator describes Emma’s realization of her love for Knightley makes Emma’s previous inability to discover the truth about her feelings seem almost ridiculous.
A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress; she touched, she admitted, she acknowledged the whole truth . . . Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!
As with Emma’s emotional confrontation with Mr. Elton in Chapter 15, Austen shies away from describing in too much detail the shock of Emma’s realization. Instead, the narrator moves on to Emma’s reflections regarding her own conduct. The novel seems more comfortable making fine distinctions between social obligations and moral duties than in describing human passion directly. But perhaps the picture we have been given of the small gestures that continually pass between Emma and Mr. Knightley communicate their feelings more strongly than any direct description could.
There is something disturbing about the nature of Emma’s realization that she has treated Harriet badly. Using free association to relate Emma’s thoughts, the narrator comments, “She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling, had been her conduct!” Yet, following her mistake with Mr. Elton, Emma has already recognized the inappropriateness of meddling with Harriet’s romantic life, and she has adjusted her behavior accordingly. Furthermore, Harriet now seems to have achieved the success Emma wished for her—a match with Knightley would raise her position in the world immensely. It is clear that Emma believes she has done wrong not because she has injured Harriet, but because she has injured herself, and possibly Mr. Knightley (by exposing him to an undignified match).