Emma’s indecision about whether to attend the Coles’ dinner party brings the novel’s complicated treatment of the issue of class to the fore. It is difficult for us, as modern-day, democratically minded readers, to agree with Austen’s acceptance of the idea that class differences delineate real differences in intelligence and moral and emotional refinement. Yet Mr. Knightley’s objection to a match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, because Harriet’s unknown parentage means that she belongs to a lower class, makes it seem that Austen reinforces the class hierarchy. Throughout the novel, Knighley’s reason and judgment stand in as surrogates for Austen’s own, and whether or not she believes that class distinctions are always fair, Austen certainly does not aim to overturn the notion of class.
At the same time, Austen ridicules Emma’s scrupulous and wavering decision about whether to refuse the Coles’ invitation, emphasizing Emma’s vanity. When the narrator tells us that Emma “regretted that her father’s known habits would be giving her refusal less meaning than she could wish”—that Emma is worried that the Coles will think she has refused the invitation because her father is antisocial rather than because the Coles are beneath the Woodhouses—we see that Emma doesn’t simply believe herself superior to the Coles. She mean-spiritedly desires to make the Coles feel slighted. The fact that both Mr. Weston and Mr. Knightley accept the Coles’ invitation further reinforces the unreasonable nature of Emma’s scruples.
In her evaluation of Frank Churchill, Emma shows her understanding of class to be truly superficial and dangerous. When Frank elegantly laughs off his folly in going to London for a haircut, Emma observes, “[S]illy things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly. It depends upon the character of those who handle it.” Frank does not seem to us the “sensible” person Emma tells herself he is, so we see that the real reason Emma excuses Frank’s frivolous behavior is his elegant, charming manner—the result of his high-class upbringing. Finally, when Mr. Knightley meets Emma at the Coles’, he mocks Emma’s approving statement that his arrival by carriage befits a gentleman, saying, “How lucky that we should arrive at the same moment; for, if we had met first in the drawing-room, I doubt whether you would have discerned me to be more of a gentleman than usual.” Knightley’s comment highlights the fact that Emma does sometimes base her class consciousness on appearances but also that, for Emma’s opinions of Knightley, their usual familiarity overrides this potentially dangerous way of looking at things.