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

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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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