The first error . . . was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together.
Back at Hartfield after her ride with Mr. Elton, Emma plunges into self-recrimination as she looks back over the past weeks. Her biggest regret concerns Harriet, whose feelings for Elton, Emma realizes, are due mostly to Emma’s own encouragement. She decides she need not pity Elton, because the artificiality of his addresses suggests that he was more interested in her fortune than in herself. She realizes that both of the Knightley brothers have been right about Elton and that she has been wrong all along. Emma vows to give up matchmaking, but she cannot stop herself from searching for a new suitor for Harriet.
The next morning, Emma is comforted by the reflection that neither Elton’s nor Harriet’s feelings could have been very strong and by the fact that no one else needs to know what has happened. Several days of snow provide a respite, as everyone stays at home, but Emma dreads telling Harriet what has happened.
Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley return to London, and Mr. Elton writes Mr. Woodhouse to announce that he will spend the next few weeks in the town of Bath. Relieved, Emma immediately visits Harriet to explain what has happened. Emma’s sense of her own failures, and Harriet’s modesty and sweetness in taking the news, give Emma the temporary impression that Harriet, rather than herself, is “the superior creature.” She moves Harriet to Hartfield and attempts to comfort her and drive Elton out of Harriet’s mind. Emma tries to prepare Harriet for the inevitable moment when they will see Elton in their social circle after he returns from Bath.
Frank Churchill does not make his expected visit, to the disappointment of Mrs. Weston in particular. Emma, preoccupied with her other worries, does not mind, but she feels she must express disappointment so that she will appear her usual self. Her warmth in doing so gets her into an argument with Mr. Knightley about the young man. Knightley expresses the same thought Emma has expressed: how can a twenty-four-year-old man be prevented by his aunt from doing his duty? In reply, Emma suggests that Knightley is a poor judge of “the difficulties of dependence.” She expresses her sympathies for Frank’s situation and her conviction that he would come if he could, but Knightley counters that no sensible, honorable man would be prevented from doing his duty. Emma predicts that Frank, when he does arrive in Highbury, will be perfectly charming. Knightley believes that Frank will be superficial and insufferable, and Knightley’s prejudice against the stranger surprises Emma.
Chapter 16 is remarkable because, unlike most of the novel’s other chapters, it deals almost exclusively with Emma’s thoughts and feelings, her inner life. On the whole, Emma seems to have gained a measure of understanding, but the narrator has provided hints that she has more to learn. We see her grow in humility and selflessness as, shaken by Elton’s proposal, she thinks that she would have gladly undergone an even greater blow to her ego, if only she could have avoided hurting Harriet. In addition to increased self-understanding, Emma shows an increased understanding of Elton’s character as “proud, assuming, conceited; very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others.”
However, Emma has not totally shed her former shortcomings. Emma’s resolution to cease matchmaking is put in terms that suggest she has gained a good deal of insight: “It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious—a trick of what ought to be simple.” But soon she is imagining new matches for Harriet, though she stops herself with the recognition of her own relapse. Emma’s reflection that “there had been no real affection either in [Elton’s] language or manners” shows her continued sense of the superiority of her mind and manners to Elton’s. She blames Elton probably more than he deserves for her own mistakes, and her quick assumption that his feelings for her were insincere seems self-serving. Her revised understanding of Elton is accurate, but her refusal to implicate herself as party to his misunderstanding shows that Emma’s self-understanding is not complete.
Although the argument Emma and Mr. Knightley have about Frank Churchill seems silly, since Emma argues feelingly for a position she does not really hold and because Knightley makes harsh judgments about a man he has never met, Knightley’s comments provide real insight into his feelings. Because the usually calm and prudent Knightley is so unnecessarily vexed by a stranger, we begin to suspect that something more is bothering Knightley. Emma thinks Knightley’s anger is “unworthy of the real liberality of mind” that we expect from him. In hindsight, it is clear that his vexation stems from subconscious jealousy and marks the beginnings of his romantic feelings for Emma, but in the meantime we remain as mystified as she.
In describing Emma’s quarrel with Knightley, the narrator indirectly comments on society’s treatment of different genders by contrasting Emma’s and Knightley’s views, which underscore the different opportunities that society makes available to women and men. The narrator contrasts Emma’s insistence on the “difficulties of dependence” and the subtle, complex, and powerful influence that family obligations can have upon one’s freedom, with Knightley’s insistence that men who think rightly should act resolutely and will not encounter real opposition if they do so. Clearly, Emma’s vision and understanding of family dependence is a product of her observations and experiences as a woman, and it seems that she may be arguing more about herself than about Frank. Knightley’s vision of and insistence upon resolute action, on the other hand, is a strictly masculine view of correct and plausible behavior.