How are social mobility and class rigidity portrayed in Persuasion by Jane Austen?

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Almost all the characters in Persuasion are negatively affected by holding rigid views on English social hierarchy. Jane Austen lived in a time of great flux, when commerce (especially international trade) and industry made some great fortunes but mainly created England's first real middle class.

The traditional aristocracy disdained those without ancient lineage. Sir Walter's haughty disregard for the military is one clear example. He bemoans the idea that men can use it to advance above their station. He states that he objects to the Navy because it can be a means of "bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of."

Lady Russell, in contrast, is able to see value in social mobility, provided that it is accompanied by sufficient wealth. She is really mostly concerned with the material advantages of status.

Anne and Wentworth both suffer the consequences of these limited points of view. Class barriers are often the main cause of Austen's characters' unhappiness, and that is especially pronounced in this novel.

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The central conflict of the novel has to do with Anne Elliott's decision to reject the marriage proposal of Captain Wentworth, despite being in love with him. She is persuaded to do so because marrying a man in military service might not allow her to achieve a higher social class (hence the title, but "persuasion" also refers to Anne's attempts to get the Captain to realize she still has strong feelings for him). 

Anne is a sensible young woman who does not particularly care about social mobility, and as she grows more mature she realizes allowing herself to be talked out of marrying the man she loved for reasons of social propriety was a huge mistake. She is kind-hearted and values peoples' integrity over their wealth or position. One excellent example of this is when Anne's father (a foolish man who is obsessed with social class) gets very angry at her over her refusal to break an engagement with an old friend (Mrs. Smith) to meet with a wealthy socialite (Lady Dalrymple) with whom Anne has no relationship, but whom her father idolizes. Mrs. Smith was once wealthy but has been left poor due to unlucky circumstances, and Anne still values her friendship and shows her kindness. She stands her ground and insists to her father that she will not disappoint her old friend in order to placate her father's rather shallow emotions.

 

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