Emma and Harriet strike up an immediate intimacy as Harriet replaces Mrs. Weston as Emma’s companion on her habitual walks. Emma remains unimpressed with Harriet’s intelligence but appreciates her willingness to be guided. Emma encourages Harriet to tell everything about herself, and their conversation soon centers on the Martin family, which Harriet has visited frequently over the past two months. Emma is alarmed to learn that the family includes an eligible bachelor, Mr. Robert Martin, and fears that her friend may have feelings for him. A match between Harriet and Mr. Martin would be unacceptable to Emma because the Martins are farmers, and therefore, in her opinion, socially beneath her new friend. She discourages Harriet from thinking well of Mr. Martin by asking questions about his education and predicting that any wife Mr. Martin takes will be too inferior to merit friendship with Harriet. After they run into Mr. Martin on one of their walks, Emma encourages Harriet to compare his manners with those of the gentlemen they know, praising Mr. Elton’s manners as particularly genteel. The narrator reveals that Emma determined during the party at Hartfield to encourage a match between Harriet and Mr. Elton.
Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston converse about Emma’s new friendship with Harriet. Knightley believes that the friendship is dangerous for both parties. Harriet’s flattery, Knightley suspects, will reinforce Emma’s self-regard, while Emma’s influence will injure Harriet’s happiness, because Harriet “will grow just refined enough to be uncomfortable with those among whom birth and circumstance have placed her home.” Mrs. Weston disagrees, believing that Emma needs Harriet’s companionship and that Emma’s company will improve Harriet. She advises Knightley to keep his mouth shut, and the conversation ends with speculation about what will become of Emma. Noting Emma’s declaration that she will never marry and her lack of suitable prospects, Knightley comments that he “should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good.”
Emma continues to point out Mr. Elton’s finer qualities to Harriet and is convinced that he is already in love with her friend. Mr. Elton praises the graces that Harriet has gained in Emma’s company, and he quickly seconds Emma’s idea to paint a watercolor portrait of Harriet. As Emma paints, Mr. Elton is only too attentive to her progress, and though Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley point out that Emma has exaggerated Harriet’s beauty, Mr. Elton emphatically praises the portrait’s likeness. He volunteers to take the watercolor to London to be framed. All the while, Emma continues to believe that Mr. Elton’s enthusiasm is for Harriet, though Mr. Elton makes comments on Emma’s skill in rendering and improving on the beautiful subject.
Over the course of these three chapters, we learn that Emma is extremely class-conscious and also somewhat manipulative. She unattractively dismisses Robert Martin because of his social class, saying, “The yeomanry [the class of farmers who hold land under long- term leases] are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or another.” In other words, Emma is only interested in people who are of her social class or so far beneath her that she might, from a comfortable position of superiority, flatter herself by being “useful” to them. Such superior usefulness is what Emma attempts with Harriet, and she even lies to her friend in order to manipulate her. Although Emma observes to herself that Mr. Martin’s “appearance was very neat and he looked like a sensible young man,” she tells Harriet, “He is very plain … remarkably plain, but that is nothing compared to his entire want of gentility.”
Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston make Emma seem more likable than she makes herself seem. Because Knightley shows himself to have good sense, and also because he is the one character willing to find fault with Emma, he is the novel’s most reliable mouthpiece for Austen’s views of Emma. His discussion of Emma shows that he genuinely cares for her but views her as a child lacking sense and understanding rather than as an equal. He believes that Emma has been “spoiled by being the cleverest of her family” but respects her stubbornness and independence. He also admits that though Emma is very pretty, she is not vain about her looks; “her vanity lies another way.” Knightley’s pointed criticisms are offset by Mrs. Weston’s dismissive remarks that Emma is a caring daughter, sister, and friend who “will make no lasting blunder.”
Like Austen’s narration, the dialogue between characters frequently contains a subtext available only to certain characters or to the reader. For instance, when Emma says to Harriet, “I wish you may not get into a scrape, Harriet, when ever [Mr. Martin] does marry—I mean as to being acquainted with his wife … it does not follow that he might marry anybody at all fit for you to notice,” we admire the cleverness of Emma’s suggestion to Harriet that Mr. Martin is beneath her, even as we disapprove of Emma’s action. Chapter 6 is particularly rich in dialogue with subtext, as Mr. Elton’s admiration for Emma is perceptible to us but not to Emma. For instance, when Mr. Elton tells Emma, “You have given Miss Smith all that she required…. She was a beautiful creature when she came to you; but, in my opinion, the attractions you have added are infinitely superior to what she received from nature,” we hear Mr. Elton’s emphasis on Emma’s skills, but Emma can only hear his praise of Harriet.