As she does in her other novels, in Persuasion Jane Austen focuses her attention on the subjects that concern her most: love and marriage. Anne Elliot’s story is but a variation on the theme that consumed Austen’s creative energies all of her life. She is interested in the proper relationships between the sexes; her exploration of Anne’s trials in overcoming the prejudices of her contemporaries gives her ample opportunity to probe deeply into the conventions of a social world seemingly secure in its understanding of the proper role of men and women at every level in a highly structured society.
In more than a half dozen major male-female relationships, Austen examines the ways in which men and women accommodate to courtship and married life. She offers readers an idea of the ideal marriage in her portrait of Admiral and Mrs. Croft; she displays the tribulations of family life in her description of the home of Charles Musgrove and his wife Mary, Anne’s youngest sister. She explores the insidious nature of marriages made for social gain in episodes involving Sir Walter and Mrs. Clay, the Musgrove sisters, and Anne herself when she is pursued by her cousin William Walter Elliot, presumptive heir to Sir Walter’s title and estates.
The social circle of the Elliots, the Musgroves, and their friends is but a small slice of the larger English nation; often described as a miniaturist, Austen focuses her attention on a stratum of the middle class tightly bordered by the petty nobility at one extreme and the working-class gentlefolk at the other. No kings or dukes inhabit the novel, and the servant class, though mentioned, gets scarcely a nod. Nevertheless, within this limited scope, Austen employs her extensive understanding of human nature and human feelings to show how society’s prescriptions and expectations often inhibit personal growth and crush genuine feelings beneath the weight of convention and false propriety.
Austen portrays Anne Elliot as a quiet rebel within this world. She is a woman who comes to recognize her personal dignity and worth in a society that has little use for women as people. She is sensitive to her own feelings and to the feelings that others have. She questions and ultimately rejects the social order represented by her family, seeing aristocratic values as bankrupt. She is equally repulsed by the crass manipulations of people such as her cousin William, whose quest for financial security motivates his pursuit of marriage partners, and Mrs. Clay, who schemes throughout to marry Anne’s widower father for the same reason.
Viewed from a twentieth century perspective, Anne may be seen as a quiet feminist. She is unwilling to accept...
(The entire section contains 680 words.)
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