The Woodhouses and Knightleys are invited to the Westons’ for Christmas Eve dinner. Harriet and Mr. Elton are also included, but Harriet comes down with a sore throat and is forced to miss the gathering. Emma meets Mr. Elton while visiting Harriet and is pleased by his attentions to her friend, but she remains puzzled that he refuses her suggestion to skip the party since Harriet will not be there. Mr. John Knightley witnesses the exchange and suggests to Emma that Mr. Elton has feelings for her. Amused, Emma dismisses the suggestion. When she and Mr. Elton travel to the gathering in the same carriage, she is surprised that Mr. Elton’s concern for Harriet gives way to cheerful anticipation of the evening ahead.
Entering the party, Emma attempts to put Mr. Elton’s strange behavior out of her mind, but his constant hovering presence makes her worry that Mr. John Knightley’s suggestion that Mr. Elton cares for her may be correct. Meanwhile, Mr. Weston announces that Frank Churchill is due to visit in early January. Emma feels some interest in this news because she has half-seriously thought of Frank as a potential suitor, though she does not anticipate giving up her vow to remain single. Mrs. Weston confides to Emma that she has some anxiety about meeting her stepson, and she fears Mrs. Churchill will prevent him from coming. She and Emma speculate about the situation at Enscombe, the Churchill estate, and Emma wonders why a young man should be so dependent upon the impulses of his guardian.
Mr. Elton joins Emma in the drawing room and displeases her by acting more concerned with her health than with Harriet’s. John Knightley’s report that it has begun snowing leads to a small crisis, and Mr. Woodhouse and Isabella are beside themselves with worry about traveling the three-quarters of a mile home. Mr. Knightley assesses the situation and reassures everyone that they will make it back safely.
In the confusion created by the party breaking up, Emma finds herself alone in one of the carriages with Mr. Elton. He immediately declares his love for her and proposes. Hoping that he is merely drunk, Emma attempts to remind him that Harriet is the true object of his affections. Astonished, Elton assures Emma that he has never been interested in Harriet. Moreover, he is convinced that Emma has known of and encouraged his sentiments. Emma sharply rebukes him and refuses his proposal, and the two travel the remainder of the journey in angry silence.
Emma’s belief that she is different from others cannot merely be attributed to her sense of superiority; it also results from her ambition to make her life more interesting and more useful than the limitations of village life seem to allow. Observing and imagining the destinies of other lives exercises her intellect. We might think of Emma as a kind of novelist creating plots for the characters that people her world. In this sense, she may be closer to Austen than her mistakes would lead us to believe. In fact, Emma is somewhat prudish, afraid to consider marriage for herself, despite her belief that “a good match” is the key to happiness for her friends. Alert to what she believes are the subtleties of flirtation between Harriet and Mr. Elton, she is incapable or unwilling to see that she might be engaging in such social games herself.
Emma’s confrontation with Mr. Elton is the novel’s first major crisis. The true turning point is not Elton’s proposal, however, but his accusation that Emma has known that she was the object of his affections all along. He says, “I am sure you have seen and understood me,” and for the first time in the novel Emma is at a loss for words, fiercely angry. This is the first instance in which Emma is implicated in the social interactions that she believed she was manipulating from a position of control and detachment. She has understood her own calculating behavior as beyond reproach, in a sense invisible, and suddenly she is seen and placed within the society from which she believed she has separated herself, forced to realize that she has been lying to both Harriet and herself.
Austen has sometimes been accused of a failure of nerve when it comes to depicting emotional scenes because she generally switches from dialogue to indirect language when relating moments of passion. Instead of reporting Elton’s speech directly, Austen writes, “Mr. Elton [had] actually [begun] making violent love to her: availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping-fearing-adoring-ready to die if she refused him. . . .” From this statement and from what we know of Mr. Elton, we can imagine his actual words, but their shock value is softened by the indirect description. The information Austen gives us about Emma’s feelings is similarly vague: “It would be impossible to say what Emma felt on hearing this; which of all her unpleasant sensations was uppermost.” It is up to us to decide whether such language weakens the effect of these scenes or makes them more powerful by preserving the characters’ privacy and challenging us to supply the emotional details.