How does Austen present the ways in which society affects the individual in Persuasion?
Here is a quotation to help answer the question: "she had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older - the natural sequence of an unnatural beginning." (chapter 4)
In a sense, this book's major theme is on how the individual's life is impacted by society and in particular, social class. If we have a look at Sir Walter, Anne and Elizabeth, we see that each of these characters--either willingly or reluctantly--has had their lives shaped by society at large, and in particular the demands of the social class that they occupy.
If we have a look at Sir Walter, it is clear from Chapter One that he is a character who is dominated by his notions of class, which define him. He only reads one book, the Baronetage, and is able to read in this book "his own history with an interest which never failed." He is clearly obsessed with his own standing in society and how it relates to the standing of others, and every action is determined from this perspective. Note how Austen summarises his character:
Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character: vanity of person and situation.
Anne of course is an example of someone who has had the pressures of society exerted against her so that she is forced to act in line with the demands of society. The principal way in which this is shown is how she was forced to refuse Captain Wentworth when he first proposed due to the pressure from her father and Lady Russell. Of course, this was because of how Captain Wentworth, according to them, had no social standing and no wealth to bring to a marriage with somebody like Anne, so social class again operates here.
Lastly, Anne's sister, Elizabeth, takes after her father in being directed as a character not by her own wants and desires but by what she feels her position in society demands of her. Note how she is described:
Thirteen winters' revolving frosts had seen her opening every ball of credit which a scanty neighbourhood afforded; and thirteen springs shewn their blossoms, as she travelled up to London with her father, for a few weeks annual enjoyment of the great world.
Social duty and heirarchy gives her the role of opening "every ball of credit." Again, she is yet another character who is described as being so obsessed with her social position that this entirely dominates her character and how she is presented.