Mrs. Weston’s fears are realized as Frank Churchill fails to visit, sending another letter of excuse. Emma sympathizes with and tries to ease Mrs. Weston's disappointment.
Frank’s repeated substitution of his presence with letters continues the mystery surrounding his character, while raising questions about the sincerity of his elaborately written regrets.
When, later, Emma rather disingenuously exclaims to Mr. Knightley about the Churchills’ fault for disappointing the Westons, Mr. Knightley voices her previous sentiment: a young man should not be so restricted by his guardians. He suspects that Frank could come if he liked in spite of the Churchills’ wishes, but is not because of his own indifference towards his lower connections.
Mr. Knightley and Emma’s sensibility allows them to note the strangeness of Frank’s inability to visit, but Mr. Knightley comes down with far greater condemnation for the young man. He believes every man’s duty must be carried out with resolution and vigor.
Emma counters that Mr. Knightley has never known dependency and cannot judge it; others are restricted by their family obligations and parental tempers. Mr. Knightley insists that a sensible man can—and should—always do his duty through vigor and resolution. Mr. Knightley declares that Frank’s fancy letters are excuses from doing what is right. He finds them disgusting and anticipates that their writer is likely to be pretentious and insufferable.
Emma’s counterargument reveals her own female insight into dependency; as a woman, she is restricted by family and upbringing in ways that Mr. Knightley has never experienced and has little sympathy with. Though we are used to Mr. Knightley’s superiority of judgment, here Emma’s perspective reveals a greater sensitivity to the restrictions others may face.
Emma anticipates that Frank will be charming and to everyone’s taste. She concludes that they are both prejudiced, she for him, and Mr. Knightley against him. Mr. Knightley heatedly and unconvincingly denies any prejudice. Emma remains bewildered by Mr. Knightley’s unfounded dislike towards Frank, as she believes he possesses a fair and liberal mind.
For the first time, Mr. Knightley’s judgment appears more prejudiced than Emma’s. His denial of any prejudice and Emma’s ready acknowledgement of her own reverses the usual pattern of their self-awareness in favor of Emma.