How are women portrayed and treated in Jane Austen's Persuasion?

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A running theme in the novel, one that Anne Elliot vigorously disputes, is that women are inconstant: it is what Wentworth believes about Anne for breaking off their engagement seven years ago. Much of the novel is about Wentworth becoming persuaded anew of the constancy of Anne's love.

Beyond that,...

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A running theme in the novel, one that Anne Elliot vigorously disputes, is that women are inconstant: it is what Wentworth believes about Anne for breaking off their engagement seven years ago. Much of the novel is about Wentworth becoming persuaded anew of the constancy of Anne's love.

Beyond that, and on a more general level, the novel continues Austen's critique of the limitations society places on a woman's possibilities. For example, as an unmarried woman, baronet's daughter, Anne, is undervalued and often invisible. She finds herself at the beck and call of a married sister who is a less mature and intelligent person but ironically has a higher status through marriage. Moreover, she achieved this status by marrying a man Anne turned down.

Anne, despite her commendable, steady, and appealing personal characteristics, has little agency because of her spinster status: for instance, she has to move to Bath, a place she dislikes, because of her father's decision to do so.

Other women are also constricted by their situation as women: for example, Anne's old school friend Mrs. Smith, a poor widow and invalid, is not in a position to reclaim the money she has been cheated of. Elizabeth, Anne's older sister, has to cope with the increasing anxiety of getting older without a marriage offer and with no other avenue of establishing the status she so badly craves.

However, in the marriage of down-to-earth and energetic Mrs. Croft to Admiral Croft, Austen models the kind of companionate relationship that Austen saw as an avenue to a fulfilling life for a woman. Mrs. Croft accompanies her husband on his sea voyages and projects a cheerful pragmatism.

Lady Russell, though a sensible mother figure to Anne and a preferable role model to Anne's snobbish father and older sister, nevertheless represents the woman in society who is too cautious and too carefully conformed to a culture that expects a woman to put security first in marriage. The younger Anne listens to her advice that she break off her engagement with Wentworth because his prospects are so uncertain but later comes to severely regret not letting her heart rule her head.

Overall, the novel examines the various problems facing women as they attempt to successfully navigate a restricted and yet high-stakes set of choices that will determine not only their financial future but also their happiness and human flourishing.

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In Persuasion, just like in her other novels, Jane Austen portrays different women in different lights depending on the larger point she wants to make concerning the characters' natures. Austen deals with several different themes in Persuasion, such as using sense vs. lack of sense, when to be persuaded and when not to be persuaded, and snobbery among classes. Therefore, she portrays different women with different natures in order to illustrate her points. For example, Anne is portrayed as one of the only intelligent, sensible, and levelheaded women characters, while her other two sisters are portrayed as being ridiculous, self-absorbent, vain, and even snobbish. However, while their are differences in how women are portrayed in the novel, there are some similarities in how they are treated.

Austen portrays the social issue of women being confined to the home and just exactly how it affects women. One example of the treatment of women is seen in Anne's younger sister Mary Musgrove. In the same time frame that Captain Wentworth is expected to dine at Uppercross, Mary's eldest son has a nasty fall, injuring his spine. At first, neither Mary nor her husband Charles are willing to leave their son to dine with Wentworth; however, as Charles begins to see how much better the boy is doing, he starts feeling the desire to go and meet Wentworth. Mary is very put out by the idea of Charles leaving her with the boy. But Charles argues that it is more of a woman's responsibility to remain at home with the boy rather than a father's responsibility, as we see in the narrator's lines, "This was quite a female case, and it would be highly absurd in him, who could be of no use at home, to shut himself up" (Ch. 7). Since Mary is reminded of her place at home with the boy, we see that Austen is showing us how in general women in her society were treated as inferior and taught that their proper place is to be shut up at home.

Even Anne, later, brings up the emotional consequences that being confined to the home has upon women. Later in the story, Captain Harville is distressed because Captain Benwick has decided to marry Louisa Musgrove after Benwick has grieved for so many years over losing his love, Harville's sister, due to illness while he was away at war, and says that his sister would not have so soon forgotten Benwick and fallen in love with another man. Anne, deeply feeling her own pains over her own lost love, replies that "it would not be in the nature of any woman who truly loved" to so quickly forget the man she loves (Ch. 23). This starts a debate about the fickleness of women, which the male poets and writers proclaim, and who has the strongest feelings, men or women. One of Anne's replies is that women certainly can't forget the men they love as soon as men forget the women. She further claims, "We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us" (Ch. 23).  Hence, this passage says a great deal about the treatment of women, particularly how male poets and writers misjudge them and how being confined to the home can weigh heavily on a woman's emotional state, just like it did Anne's.

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