Chapter Nine of Volume I begins with Emma and Harriet collecting riddles and provides Jane Austen with an opportunity for reiterating certain points about her characters while also exercising her comedic abilities. The central point of humor is Emma's misreading of the riddle (twice) that Elton provides and thus concluding that there can be "no doubt" of a conclusion that is, in fact, quite wrong. This echoes Emma's assertion from the last chapter that it is "indubitable" (to her) that Harriet is a gentleman's daughter.
I don't think it is coincidental that Emma's increasing assurance in the doubtlessness of her own beliefs is combined with the evil of her situation (from chapter one) of having too much her own way. This chapter begins with an irksome reminder that "Mr. Knightley might quarrel with her, but Emma could not quarrel with herself" (44). This sentence is wonderfully ambiguous, meaning on the surface that Emma is increasingly satisfied by the results of her decision but also hinting that Emma on a more fundamental level cannot quarrel with herself...that is, lacks the ability, maturity, or strength of character to quarrel with herself.
"Quarrel" too is a very interesting word choice. Unlike "argue" or "reason" that would suggest a more rational basis, "quarrel" suggests something more active, more relational. It suggests that what Emma is not capable of is leaving a dispute or question open or unresolved, which is quite different from not being able to weigh the pros and cons of a decision before making one. Emma has some capacity for the former. She is not, for example, trying to set up Harriet willy-nilly with just anyone, and her reasons for not influencing Harriet to reject Robert Martin, while selfish, are born in some fact. What she appears less capable of is, having made a decision, holding that decision open to examination.
It is a strange and sad paradox that this quality can develop most strongly in people who are in positions of authority or influence. I can think of a fair number of teachers or scholars who begin open to dialog or insights from others who gradually, through the experience of always having their positions endorsed by students and seldom having their opinions differentiated from their knowledge, develop a sort of reflexive assumption of their own correctness and who cannot bear to quarrel. Many remain willing to argue--the difference being that in some dictionaries a quarrel implies a disagreement between previously friendly parties or relations, while an argument implies an adversarial relationship to begin with.
There is political and social and moral point to be made in that distinction that Austen underscores with her description. Those who are used to getting their own way too often determine who is friendly to them by who agrees with them and tend to see the world in dichotomous terms--those (friendly) who agree with them and those (adversarial) with whom they argue. A quarrel then, an argument from friendly quarters, not only disrupts the comfort of one's social intercourse...it challenges their underlying assumptions about the propriety of the deference they usually receive. Is it any wonder then that Emma "was sorry, but could not repent" (44)? To repent is to win back the friendly relationship at the cost of surrendering the privilege of being the final arbiter of what is right 1.
Regarding the riddle itself...
There is a school of reader-response criticism that is particularly interested in examples of or depictions of reading within the text. The argument goes that by showing a character reading and showing the results of their interpretation, the author or narrator sets his own readers a positive or negative role model for how to read the text they have been given. Jane Austen is rich source for this school of criticism because her texts are filled with readings of letters, books, and, in this case, riddles.
What sort of reader is Emma, then? Well not a very good one, and through her examples of misreading, we may get some hints as to how to avoid misreading Emma.
First of all, she is not an industrious or practiced reader: "Her views of improving her little friend's mind, by a great deal of useful reading and conversation, had never yet led to more than few first chapters, and the intention of going on to-morrow. It was much easier to chat than to study; much pleasanter to let her imagination range and work at Harriet's fortune, than to be laboring to enlarge her comprehension or exercise it on sober facts" (44). Remember Emma's response to reading the Robert Martin proposal? She jumps to a conclusion after the very first parts and let's her imagination range (the sisters must have written it) rather than focus on sober facts (it was a better letter than she supposed). Austen may too be reminding us that we are in the very early chapters of our own book, and if we let our imaginations range we may very well misread the situation as badly as Emma does.
I think this point is underscored by an odd feature of this chapter, which is that Emma works through the riddle twice. It would be easy enough having given the answer-- ("Very well, Mr. Elton, very well indeed. I have read worse charades. Courtship--a very good hint.)--to say something like "and she very quickly led Harriet to the answer already intimated" or something like. Instead we get Harriet's comic misreadings and Emma step by step taking her through it. Part of the reason for this is surely just comic relief. Another must be to contrast the ease with which Emma gets the answer with the difficulty Harriet has in order to reinforce that Harriet is really at Emma's mercy. From a reader-response point, though, a third reason might be to show how, when we have jumped to a conclusion, we often too quickly dismiss contrary hints or evidence. "Thy ready wit the word will soon supply" is followed by: "Humph!--Harriet's ready wit! A man must be very much in love indeed, to describe her so" (46). The absolute conviction born from the unwillingness to hear contradictory arguments from friends and ease with which we dismiss contradictory evidence on our own leads to Emma to act prematurely. Harriet longs to speak but instinctively, even in her unrefined ignorance, does not. Emma is bold to declare intentions without a "moment's doubt" (48).
There is a satisfaction in seeing people who are so sure of themselves proved wrong and brought low. Were embarrassment for Emma the only result of her false certainty, her being stuck in it might not be an evil. As is so often the case, though, others pay the price when those in positions of power or influence act rashly based on an indubitable certainty which turns out to be only a mix of opinion, wishful thinking, and habit.
If there is a softening of our judgment of Emma's conduct here, it should probably come, once again, from the revelation of her motives, which are both pathos laden and, I think, still unconscious to her: "This is a connection which offers nothing but good. It will give you everything that you want--consideration, independence, a proper home--it will fix you in the centre of all your real friends..." (48). Is Emma describing Harriet's deepest desires or her own? Emma's goodness lies in the fact that she is a generous soul. She genuinely wants good for her friend. Her lack of development, though, makes it hard for her to imagine or understand that not everyone is her and so not everyone might want the things she wants or see their fruition (or denial) in the same circumstances. It is precisely the ability to make such distinctions that allows Elizabeth Bennet to maintain charitable feelings towards Charlotte Lucas after she accepts Mr. Collins's proposal of marriage in Pride and Prejudice.
Sometimes the golden rule doesn't mean treating others the way you would want to be treated but treating others the way they wish to be treated even if what they wish for themselves is not what you wish for yourself or would wish for them.
1Even if he or she is not admitting error, even if he or she is not wrong about the point of contention, to repent is to admit that one has failed a standard set by another (even if that other is God and not the person to whom the person is expressing their repentance) and that one accepts, in some way, a subordinate position to that other.