In mid-December, Emma and Harriet make a charitable visit to a poor and sick family near Mr. Elton’s vicarage. Harriet wonders that Emma remains single despite her charms, and Emma explains that she has no need to marry, and unless she should fall in love, it would be a mistake to marry.
Emma has none of “the usual inducements of women to marry” because of her high position in society and fortune. Implied is the reality of gender inequality in Austen’s era, in which women must marry to gain financial security.
When Harriet frets that Emma will become an old maid like Miss Bates, Emma scornfully insists that the only thing she and Miss Bates could ever share in common is their singleness: Miss Bates is silly, ignorant, gossipy, and poor. Emma insists that there is no disadvantage in being an old maid except if you are poor, which renders celibacy contemptible to society.
Emma’s strong will and independence are unusual for a woman in her era, and in this sense she is a remarkable heroine for gender equality. Yet her self-assurance stems from her financial security, which reveals the social inequality: Emma’s ability to avoid marriage is dependent on her wealth.
The two women proceed to assist the impoverished family with great dedication, and they leave filled with compassion for the poor. When Mr. Elton runs into them as they return home, Emma attempts to give him time alone with Harriet by various means—stopping to tie her shoe, taking a different path, pausing at the vicarage for a shoelace—but to no avail. Emma is disappointed that Mr. Elton does not declare his love for Harriet, but she assumes he will propose soon enough.
Emma’s charity reveals a favorable facet of compassion in her character, but it is one that is quickly superseded by her matchmaking schemes. She becomes immediately absorbed by her ambitions for Mr. Elton and Harriet, and the remainder of the chapter is dedicated to her elaborate, comical attempts to enable his proposal.