Why is the Box Hill episode (volume 3, chapter 7) in Jane Austen's Emma significant for character development, especially Emma's?

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It is relevant, for in this scene, Emma, for the first time ever, genuinely regrets being cruel to Miss Bates. She makes a public joke at Miss Bates's expense, implying that is rare for Miss Bates only to say three silly things at once. Miss Bates is visibly hurt, and Mr. Knightley later scolds Emma for her unkindness.

Emma, who until now has only looked at Miss Bates as a person who annoys and irritates her is able to hear Mr. Knightley's words. He impresses on her that Miss Bates at one time had money and position of pride in the community. People looked up to her. Now she has gotten older and fallen on hard times. It is easy to ridicule her, and she can't do much to defend herself, as she is dependent on her community.

Mr. Knightley tells Emma she is wrong to use her power and privilege in a way that will encourage people to make jokes at Miss Bates' expense. Emma experiences genuine shame, and genuinely, for once, wants to visit Miss Bates and make it up to her. This is an important moment of growth and self-awareness for Emma. She is used to being the queen; now she is humbled and learning from that.

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The Box Hill episode in Emma is the turning point in the novel for several of the characters. There is a strong tension between what the party hope to achieve and what actually happens, indicated by Austen's language in the opening paragraph.

Austen indicates which characters have hope of redemption, through their subsequent actions. We see Mr and Mrs Elton as self-important, and Mr Weston as too indulgent of Emma and Frank's behaviour - these characters do not change.

Jane Fairfax finally finds her voice and challenges Frank, although in a veiled way, to end their secret engagement. This disappointed love, and subsequent reunion, echoes that of Emma and Mr Knightley. Emma and Frank's flirting also prompts jealousy in Mr Knightley.

It is Emma's rudeness to Miss Bates, and Mr Knightley's rebuke, that causes her to mature and realise her feelings for him. Austen suggests that Emma's cruelty to Miss Bates is more forgivable, than that of Frank to Jane, as it is done on impulse:

"Emma could not resist."

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