The Westons throw a Christmas Eve dinner party for their friends. Harriet, however, falls ill and cannot attend. Emma goes to see Harriet before the party and runs into Mr. Elton during her visit. He expresses much alarm at her friend’s sickness. Emma suggests that he skip the party in the hopes that he will spend the evening with Harriet, but to her surprise he chooses to attend with great zest.
Much of the drama in Austen’s novel revolves around the social functions that provide the setting for nuanced character interactions. Emma cannot properly read the nuances of Mr. Elton’s behavior, because she is blinded by her perception of him as Harriet’s lover.
Mr. John Knightley suspects that Mr. Elton is romantically interested in Emma and warns her accordingly. Emma laughingly dismisses the notion. She is mildly offended that her brother-in-law suspects her in need of advice, and she muses on the ignorant blunders that “people of high pretensions to judgment are for ever falling into.”
Despite his distance from the situation, Mr. John Knightley sees that Mr. Elton is wooing Emma. There is great irony in the fact that an outside, visiting observer can more accurately interpret the situation than Emma, who is intimately involved. In this case, her amused, disdainful assessment of Mr. John Knightley’s “pretensions to judgment” ironically better describe Emma, not him.
When Emma travels to the party in a carriage with Mr. Elton, they discuss Harriet’s sickness. Emma is increasingly astonished by his lack of concern for Harriet and his enthusiastic anticipation of the evening.
Austen begins to set the stage for Emma’s unpleasant revelation regarding Mr. Elton’s true feelings, as even Emma can no longer interpret his actions according to her desires.