Chapter Five of Volume I is the first (and to my current recollection only) major passage in the book in which Emma does not appear. The narrator will occasionally fill in back story or events about people outside of Emma's range of sight, but this is usually done within the framework of telling about some event about which Emma is participating. This chapter's rather singular nature, then, makes me think it either very important or a mistake.
What might be some reasons for including a scene that Emma does not participate in? Knightley may be acting as an author surrogate here. The views he has reinforce the narrator's claims and description from Chapter One, so one thing that is accomplished through this chapter is an aligning of Knightley's views with the narrator's. Compare the narrator's "The real evils of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little to well of herself" (1), with Knightley's "Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family...And ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all" (23). This alignment of views means that subsequently, when Knightley speaks, we are more prone to think he speaks for Austen (or at least for the narrator).
The absence of Emma in this exchange also allows for the delicious irony, normally only caught on a second or third reading of Knightley saying: "It would not be a bad thing for her to be very much in love with a proper object. I should like to see Emma in love and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good" (25). I'm prone to read this exchange primarily as a sort of M. Night Shyamalan-like joke on the audience, and I think it works that way, but I'm not sure that having this joke is a sufficient reason for an author of Austen's caliber to include a gratuitous scene. I return then to the question of what does this scene provide us that we couldn't or don't get elsewhere in the novel?
One possible answer is that it gives us some insight into Knightley--insight that helps round his character. Really, in order to keep the union a surprise for so long from Emma and the reader's, Knightley's mind, if not his person, must be kept at a distance from the action. Later in the novel Knightley will tell Emma that he has loved her tenderly since she was thirteen. We can then read the statements made in this chapter as those of a man in love and through them get some insight into what he (and through the alignment, the narrator) thinks about the natures of love and their respective values.
The first statement that jumps out is his claim that John (his brother and Emma's brother-in-law) "loves Emma with a reasonable and therefore not a blind affection" (24). Reason (and its corollary "sense") are gendered throughout the novel. Characters associated with "sense" are Knightley, of course, and Robert Martin. Emma, we are told, lacks sense (she is "clever"), although at one point Knightley concedes she has some sense but misuses it. What exactly is a "reasonable" affection? Are "blind" and "reasonable" truly opposites when referring to types of affection, and is "reasonable" really the superior of the two? Is "reasonable" the way you want your lover to describe his affection for you? Knightley's love is hidden in part because he fails to use the taxonomy of love we expect from lovers. Some of this (maybe all of it) may be due to his judiciousness. It's worth contemplating, though, whether or not the nature of Knightley's love undergoes changes throughout the novel or whether it is constant, making Emma the one who changes to meet him.
On first reading Knightley's desire that Emma experience love of which she is unsure of the return reads as a paternalistic desire for her maturity. Again, though, it is worth asking, why would someone in love want this for the object of his/her love? Is this jealousy or a desire that she experience what he has experienced? Even if it is a desire for her maturity, there is a sense in both these two statements that he is frustrated at himself for loving her in spite of her flaws. Isn't that the essence of love, though? It is almost as though he is disappointed in himself for not being able to resist.
In another passage where Knightley is projecting (this time onto Isabella), he says: "There is an anxiety, a curiosity in what one feels for Emma. I wonder what will become of her" (25). Certainly that "anxiety" may be another in-joke between Austen and the repeat reader. Our man of sense is flummoxed and, despite his air of reasonable non-chalance, not as tightly in control of his emotions nor as confident as he lets on.
The word "curiosity" here is interesting. It doesn't say there is a curiosity "about" what one feels for Emma but "in" it. This may simply be a way of saying there is something "odd" about his feelings, or anyone's, for Emma. That it is odd the sorts of responses she elicits. But it could mean, literally, there is an element of curiosity in one's feelings for Emma, that part of what is endearing about her is the performance aspect of the relationship. One is curious to see what she will do next. She entertains.
In an extreme case this might be bad. I think of all the language that Edith Wharton uses to illustrate that Selden loves to contemplate Lily Bart (in The House of Mirth) as an art object, but that loving to watch her is not the same as loving her. I'm not sure that I want to place Knightley with Selden, but I do want to suggest that he has a few things to learn about loving wisely and well and that the novel shouldn't just be read as the perfect male waiting for the reformation and maturation of the imperfect female in order to be worthy of him. In fact, in this area, Knightley and Emma are much the same--they are both cast as observers of life first and participants only vicariously (Emma through Harriet, Miss Weston, matchmaking; Knightley through watching Emma, advising Robert Martin, watching John and Isabella). Their reasons for being so may be different. There could be a mixture of temperament, fear, conditioning, and selfishness. (Perhaps it is bad for a man, too, to have too much the power to have his own way and Knightley may be in danger of growing into Mr. Woodhouse as he grows older.)
Being in love, much less pursuing it, brings a person into a vulnerable state. I often ask my students what Emma brings to the match. How she helps Knightley rather than just being helped by him. There is an emotional cautiousness about him that manifests itself in this tendency to observe...to sublimate affection into observation or curiosity (much safer emotions). Emma has as much reason to fear entanglement or attachment as he. This chapter introduces her resolution not to marry and she will repeat to Harriet the litany of points in favor of remaining single, most of which center around the fact that marriage is a risky proposition both emotionally (for everyone) and socially/economically (for her, especially). If Emma gives up more of her freedom (or at least more of her security) in falling in love, her willingness to move from the state of observer or vicarious matchmaker to that of one who owns her own feelings is an emotionally brave one, and there is both a zest for life and a willingness to take risks that leaven Knightley's caution and, I think, challenge him to strive for happiness rather than settle for contentedness.
[For more close readings of Emma, click on one of the labels below. I try to post a close reading of a passage every Friday.]