Emma’s good opinion of Frank Churchill is injured when he makes a day trip to London just to have his hair cut. Though Emma does not feel inclined to give up her vow to remain single, she decides that Frank is pleasing enough that she does not mind being associated with him in other people’s minds. Mr. Knightley thinks Frank is a silly young man, just as he had suspected.
Meanwhile, an invitation from the Coles, successful tradespeople who live in Highbury, creates a conundrum for Emma. She had originally decided that she would not accept an invitation from the nouveau-riche family, but when everyone except the Woodhouses receives an invitation to a dinner party at the Coles’ home, Emma feels left out. When an invitation arrives, she decides to accept it.
Emma arrives at the Coles’ party behind Mr. Knightley. Because Knightley usually walks, Emma is surprised that he has come in his carriage. At dinner, it is revealed that Jane Fairfax has received the mysterious gift of a pianoforte. People assume the piano is from Colonel Campbell, but Emma tells Frank she suspects that it is a gift from Mr. Dixon. When Jane arrives later, she blushes when questioned about the piano.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Weston tells Emma that Mr. Knightley brought his carriage so that he could convey Jane home. Mrs. Weston suggests that a match may be forming between Jane and Mr. Knightley, but Emma resists this supposition vigorously, explaining that she cannot bear the thought of Mr. Knightley marrying because then her nephew, George and Isabella’s son Henry, will not be able to inherit Donwell Abbey, the Knightley estate in the town of the same name. Mrs. Weston suspects that Mr. Knightley is the one who sent Jane the pianoforte.
Emma and Jane sing and play the piano for the company, with Frank accompanying. When Frank persuades Jane to sing one more song after her voice has begun to grow hoarse, Mr. Knightley intervenes. Emma questions Mr. Knightley about the carriage and pianoforte. His answers convince her that he did not send the gift, but do not enable her to decide if he has feelings for Jane. When impromptu dancing begins, she is relieved that he does not ask Jane to dance. Emma is also pleased that Frank immediately asks her and not Jane for a dance. There is time for only two dances, however, before the party breaks up. Frank comments to Emma that he is lucky the dancing had to end; otherwise he would have found himself asking Jane Fairfax for a dance.
Emma is thoroughly pleased with her evening at the Coles, but she is uncertain about the appropriateness of telling Frank about her suspicions about Jane or acknowledging the superiority of Jane’s musical abilities. At the Coles’ party, Harriet heard that Mr. Martin had dined with the Cox family, and there is a rumor that a Cox daughter would like to marry Mr. Martin. To distract and protect Harriet, Emma accompanies her on a shopping trip. They then decide to pay a visit to the Bates household and run into Frank and Mrs. Weston on their way. The visit seems to have been Frank’s idea, but he offers to stay with Emma and send Mrs. Weston to make the visit on her own. Emma sends him along, knowing that he will later come see her at Hartfield, but Miss Bates then comes into the shop to ask Emma to come give her opinion of Jane’s new pianoforte. In her rambling, Miss Bates reveals that Mr. Knightley has sent his last apples of the season to Jane, who is particularly fond of them.
Emma’s indecision about whether to attend the Coles’ dinner party brings the novel’s complicated treatment of the issue of class to the fore. It is difficult for us, as modern-day, democratically minded readers, to agree with Austen’s acceptance of the idea that class differences delineate real differences in intelligence and moral and emotional refinement. Yet Mr. Knightley’s objection to a match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, because Harriet’s unknown parentage means that she belongs to a lower class, makes it seem that Austen reinforces the class hierarchy. Throughout the novel, Knighley’s reason and judgment stand in as surrogates for Austen’s own, and whether or not she believes that class distinctions are always fair, Austen certainly does not aim to overturn the notion of class.
At the same time, Austen ridicules Emma’s scrupulous and wavering decision about whether to refuse the Coles’ invitation, emphasizing Emma’s vanity. When the narrator tells us that Emma “regretted that her father’s known habits would be giving her refusal less meaning than she could wish”—that Emma is worried that the Coles will think she has refused the invitation because her father is antisocial rather than because the Coles are beneath the Woodhouses—we see that Emma doesn’t simply believe herself superior to the Coles. She mean-spiritedly desires to make the Coles feel slighted. The fact that both Mr. Weston and Mr. Knightley accept the Coles’ invitation further reinforces the unreasonable nature of Emma’s scruples.
In her evaluation of Frank Churchill, Emma shows her understanding of class to be truly superficial and dangerous. When Frank elegantly laughs off his folly in going to London for a haircut, Emma observes, “[S]illy things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly. It depends upon the character of those who handle it.” Frank does not seem to us the “sensible” person Emma tells herself he is, so we see that the real reason Emma excuses Frank’s frivolous behavior is his elegant, charming manner—the result of his high-class upbringing. Finally, when Mr. Knightley meets Emma at the Coles’, he mocks Emma’s approving statement that his arrival by carriage befits a gentleman, saying, “How lucky that we should arrive at the same moment; for, if we had met first in the drawing-room, I doubt whether you would have discerned me to be more of a gentleman than usual.” Knightley’s comment highlights the fact that Emma does sometimes base her class consciousness on appearances but also that, for Emma’s opinions of Knightley, their usual familiarity overrides this potentially dangerous way of looking at things.