Emma arrives early to the ball at the special invitation of Mr. Weston, only to discover that he has also extended this flattering invitation to several other “favored” friends. She considers that such general favoritism is not particularly flattering.
Emma’s vanity and consciousness regarding social privileges is piqued by the fact that her special invitation is shared by so many of Mr. Weston’s other friends.
Frank restlessly awaits the guests, and he runs out to escort Miss Bates and Jane. Mrs. Elton behaves officiously, lavishly praising Frank and greeting guests as though she were herself the hostess. Frank disapproves of her familiarity with Jane, and he quietly declares his dislike for Mrs. Elton to Emma. Emma responds that he is ungrateful. He protests and seems agitated.
Frank’s behavior puzzles Emma, though she in part attributes his agitation and restlessness to his feelings for her. Yet the pieces do not quite add up; he reads strange meaning into her words. His dislike of Mrs. Elton, though, confirms Emma's sense of her as a generally presumptuous busybody.
Though the Westons desired to give Emma the honor of leading the dance, they realize that Mrs. Elton expects it. To Emma’s dismay, Mr. Weston and Mrs. Elton lead the dance. Her demotion is “almost enough to make her think of marrying.” However, she anticipates a delightful evening; she only wishes Mr. Knightley would join in the dancing, too.
The order of dancing contains its own set of hierarchy, as the first couple holds the position of highest honor. Emma is mortified that she must come second to the newly married Mrs. Elton, comically reflecting that the latter’s privilege is almost enough to make one consider marriage.
During one of the sets, Harriet is the only lady with no partner. Mr. Elton deliberately snubs her, gleefully refusing to ask her to dance. Mr. Knightley, however, saves the day and leads Harriet into the dance. His chivalry thwarts Mr. Elton’s attempt to humiliate Harriet, to Emma’s immense gratitude and pleasure.
Mr. Elton’s deliberate snub towards Harriet reveals his pride and cruelty. Mr. Knightley, in turn, reveals his charity and chivalry in rescuing Harriet; he wields social clout responsibly and kindly.
Emma thanks Mr. Knightley warmly, and he observes that they intended to slight Emma as well. She confesses her mistakes regarding the Eltons and admits that Mr. Knightley was right. In return, Mr. Knightley shares that Harriet would have been a much worthier wife—unpretentious, honest, and devoted—than Mrs. Elton. They conclude these warm concessions with a dance.
Emma and Mr. Knightley’s interactions reveal real warmth towards each other, as Emma truly values—though she does not always enjoy—Mr. Knightley’s guidance. Mr. Knightley’s very sternness shows his faith in Emma’s goodness and ability to improve herself. His willingness to critique her as an equal is a compliment.