The predominant theme in Persuasion focuses on the consciousness of class. Austen defines one main social division—the landed gentry of the upper-middle class—through her realistic portrayals of the Elliot family and those who travel in their sphere. She notes the traditions of this structured social group as well as its restricted vision of those outside the group. The ladies and gentlemen of the landed gentry, as represented by Sir Walter, depend on social hierarchies to ensure their superiority over the lower classes. Sir Walter's favorite pastime is to pore over the Baronetage, reminding himself of his exalted social position. The pride he takes in this position has degenerated into an inflated vanity and aesthetic sense, as he can appreciate only things that, like his own visage, please his eye.
His sense of superiority translates into an arrogance directed at those in lower classes who are presumptuous enough to try to improve their social station. One such interloper is Captain Wentworth, who assumes that his deep love for Anne, coupled with his success as a naval officer, should be enough to earn Sir Walter's blessing of their union. However, Sir Walter, backed by Lady Russell, rejects the captain as a suitable son-in-law, due to his lack of money and his profession, which Sir Walter considers undesirable. He notes that sailors work hard, but he insists that they do not deserve to be raised from an obscure birth into the upper class.
Anne's sister Elizabeth reflects her father's strict rules of etiquette. She devotes her time to "doing the honours, and laying down the domestic law at home . . . opening every ball of credit which a scanty neighbourhood afforded." Mary, Anne's youngest sister, has turned her feelings of superiority of class into a form of hypochondria. When she feels that she has not been paid enough attention, she comes down with an "illness" that must be attended to, preferably by Anne, who displays none of the class snobbery of the rest of the family.
All of the Elliots except Anne illustrate the gentry's limited vision of the realities of the world. They live in comfortable isolation in a privileged community set apart from the unpleasant truths of the social stratification and political system that has enabled them to live an advantaged life. Their restricted view does not recognize women like Mrs. Smith who have fallen on hard times, even if one of their class (as was the case with Mrs. Smith) has been the cause.
Sir Walter's change of heart, when Anne asks for his blessing the...
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