Persuasion, as the title (not chosen by Austen) indicates, deals centrally, with how people make decisions regarding relationships, and the forces, including social forces, that contribute to the decision-making process. In Persuasion, Anne Eliot is convinced by her mentor, Lady Russell, to break off her engagement with Captain Wentworth based on his uncertain economic prospects. She makes the decision to put prudence and economic security ahead of love—and also not to tie Captain Wentworth to an engagement with her.
Anne comes to regret that decision because she does not cease to love Captain Wentworth. Her looks fade, and she loses social status as an unmarried woman. When Captain Wentworth returns, he has become wealthy and successful, and yet Anne cannot expect him to turn back to her because she was inconstant to him when he was first starting out. In fact, Anne can hardly expect Wentworth to renew the acquaintance after what has occurred. She thinks:
Now they were as strangers; worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted.
The novel then becomes an exploration of how love wins out over social expectation when a once "jilted" man chooses another wife. Austen never abandons realism or hard-headed pragmatism about the income necessary to sustain a marriage but does show that love can triumph over purely social and economic decisions. As the narrator puts it:
She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.
The backdrop of this is a changing social scene, with naval officers returning after the end of the Napoleonic wars and the status of gentleman landowners such as Anne's father, the baronet, losing out to a rising middle class.