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.