Analysis of the Character of Anne Elliot from Jane Austen’s Novel Perfection
Persuasion differs from other Austen novels because of its more somber tone and its more insightful analysis of trends in Victorian society. The most distinctive aspect of Persuasion, however, is the character of its heroine, Anne Elliot, a woman “silent but full of thought, persuadable yet steady, a model of self-composure yet glowing with emotions” (Muller 20).
Anne Elliot is often described as Jane Austen’s most mature and perfect heroine; and Jane Austen’s use of reserve is a device to contrast her heroine with the people and society around her, and, most of all, to give Anne an air of perfection. Austen uses Anne’s perfection to speak out against the attitude of the aristocracy, the inclination of a willful disposition, and a decreasing sense of decorum and to promote constancy in love and a firm yet prudent character.
From the opening chapter, Austen uses detailed description to emphasize Anne Elliot’s superiority of character and to delve into the novel’s themes and emphasize Anne’s perfection. “Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way;-she was only Anne” (7). In the opening chapters of Austen’s novel, we quickly learn that, despite her excellent character, Anne is a nonentity to her kin. She is put in the background, and she seems comfortable being there. We learn that Anne’s family’s lack of appreciation for Anne is consistent with their general lack of judgement and moral character.
Anne’s family consists merely of people of no “real understanding.” They are proud, snobbish and only interested in outward appearances. Anne is marginalized by her own family members and even she herself believes that “[t]o be claimed as a good, though in an improper style, is at least better than being rejected as no good at all” (32). Besides Anne’s stature being diminished by Anne’s self-criticism and her family’s underestimation of her, Austen’s narration technique serves to initially dampen the reader’s estimation of Anne not letting Anne speak for herself until the third chapter of the novel. Before that, we only get acquainted with her through the eyes and words of her family, Lady Russell and the narrator.
Slowly but surely Anne moves to the center of the stage, as she quietly shares her observations and judgments about the people around her with the reader. Anne’s inner thoughts reveal her near perfect perceptiveness which reflects her perfect character. Unlike Lady Russell, whose judgment is often “blinded” by outward appearances of wealth, or Sir Walter, who scarcely sees anything pass the tip of his gorgeous nose, Anne alone judges people for their true worth (Austen 12, 231). Anne’s reserve provides her with the opportunity to criticize inconspicuously the behavior of her family, while her personality keeps growing even more admirable. As we gain more insight into Anne’s character, her aristocratic family members keep becoming more inferior to her. E.B. Moon accurately points out that the “evaluation of the heroine…becomes a test of character for others,” a test which her relatives fail miserably. Austen uses this contrast between Anne and the other Elliots to criticize the narcissistic and conceited attitude of the aristocracy, but most of all to emphasize Anne Elliot’s perfection.
In chapter 2, the narrator describes Anne’s response to the Elliot family’s financial troubles. “She wanted more vigorous measures, a more complete reformation…. a much higher tone of indifference for everything but justice and equity” (Austen 13). This detail about Anne illustrates her keen mind, good sense and scrupulous beliefs, qualities that contrast with the extravagance and pride of Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot, who both argue that any reduction in expenses would cast their family name into disrepute (Austen 11). In addition, the very fact that Lady Russell chose to consult Anne instead of Elizabeth about the family budget indicates her belief in Anne’s more prudent, trustworthy character. This detail about Anne also draws forth a comparison between her and the deceased Lady Elliot, a woman of great “method, moderation, and economy” (Austen 10). Indeed, “it was only in Anne that [Lady Russell] could fancy the mother to revive again” (Austen 7).
Just as Elizabeth shares her father’s arrogance and vanity, Anne has inherited her mother’s frugality and sensibility. Not only does this portrayal of Anne reveal much about her superiority of character, but it also introduces the novel’s central theme: the superiority of a firm but prudent character over an obstinate or weak-willed one. One wonders whether the Elliot family might have been able to stay in Kellynch Hall if Sir Walter had only followed Anne’s advice. Even this early in the novel, Austen has already begun to showcase Anne’s sensible character and to communicate the superiority of prudence over willfulness.
Prudence, however, does not preclude a healthy firmness of character. For example, after telling the reader of Anne’s broken engagement with Captain Wentworth, the narrator describes how Anne, now 27, thinks “very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen,” for she now deeply regrets her decision and her experience of being “forced into prudence” (Austen 29). Through this description, the reader learns that Anne has become more independent-minded; doubtless, she still treasures the counsel of Lady Russell, but she has also developed her own perspective on love and life– she “learned romance as she grew older” (Austen 29). Besides offering insight into Anne’s character, this detail further develops the theme of persuasion. “Forced” carries the negative connotation of coercion, an indication of the harmful consequences of persuasion. Anne’s sorrow over her estrangement from Wentworth also indicates the dangers of being too easily persuaded. After all, if Anne had kept her engagement with Wentworth, she would have spared herself countless hours of heartbreak. Austen thus communicates that prudence and firmness of character must come hand in hand.
The narrator reveals an emotional side to Anne Eliot’s character later on in the story. When Mrs. Croft mentions something about one Mr. Wentworth, Anne cannot restrain her outburst of feeling. “Anne hoped she had outlived the age of blushing; but the age of emotion she certainly had not” (Austen 46). By describing Anne’s emotions here, the narrator indicates that Anne still has strong, perhaps unacknowledged, feelings for Captain Wentworth. In fact, despite eight years of separation and silence, Anne has remained unflagging in her devotion to Wentworth, and this facet of her character conveys another of the novel’s themes, namely the value of remaining constant in love. Austen holds up Anne as an example of how true love should remain steadfast through the longest and sharpest of trials.
Furthermore, this snippet about Anne reveals her tendency to have intense emotions, especially when near Wentworth. She blushes when she hears his name, experiences “a thousand feelings” when she first meets him and appears ill from her “overpowering happiness” after their reconciliation (Austen 25, 56, 223). As Robyn Warhol states, “love quite literally hurts in Persuasion” (quoted Muller 23). In truth, Anne Elliot’s acute emotions set her apart from other Austen heroines, “reminding us rather of Charlotte Bronte than of Jane Austen” (Muller 24).
However, Anne’s perfect sense of decorum restrains her from sharing her true, intense emotions directly with Captain Wentworth. In her work, Austen puts great emphasis on the constraint of feeling and emotion. This may be, some critics claim, because Austen’s spinsterhood deprived her of the chance to experience such a situation herself, and she therefore avoids emotionally charged scenes in her novels. But, whether or not that is the reason, Austen did live in a society that, like her, was dedicated to decorum; a society that imposed reserve on its women. In her account of strategies of reticence in Jane Austen’s work, Janis P. Stout explains that Austen uses “reserve as a touchstone of positive valuation,” and she continues by pointing out “a striking turn towards values of openness and demonstrativeness, even spontaneity, on all sorts of social interaction” in Persuasion, but “[e]ven so, the two characters who are the hallmark of both merit and emotional honesty in a world of dissolving values speak, as they act, with a considerable, and a considered, reserve” (33-4). Once again, Anne’s disposition is made to look superior in contrast to that of the other characters in the novel (with the exception of Wentworth).
During her silent ponderings, Anne reflects on her love for Captain Wentworth, but she knows she will never be able to express these feelings towards him. Then, her confident conversation with Captain Harville, which is overheard by Wentworth, provides her with an unexpected opportunity. Through her carefully chosen words, without violating the decorum, she manages to convey her emotions to Wentworth.
Near the end of the novel, Anne and Captain Harville discuss Captain Benwick’s recent engagement to Louisa Musgrove, during which Anne tells Harville that women have more faithfulness in love than men; “we certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us,” (Austen 218). She then contrasts how women “live at home, quiet, confined,” with how men strive to succeed in the rough-and-tumble world of professional work (Ibid). That same conversation allows Anne to attribute her silence to the standards of decorum which resulted in “circumstances (perhaps those very cases which strike us the most)…such as cannot be brought forward without betraying a confidence, or in some respect saying what should not be said” (220). Wentworth hears and understands her statement and “can listen no longer in silence,” and so it is broken (222).
Anne’s life in silence is over, as Captain Wentworth declares he “can distinguish the tones of that voice, when they would be lost on others” (222-3). Not only does he distinguish the tones of that voice, but also the undertones. Stout convincingly argues that “[i]t was Austen who managed to transform the discreet feminine silence prescribed by a system of social decorum into not only a thing of art but also a persuasive rhetoric,” and Anne Elliot is the perfect example of this art (ix). This conversation also clearly communicates Anne’s constancy in love, so much so that this exchange “pierces” the soul of Wentworth (Austen 222). More importantly, it also pierces the reader with a conviction of the need to remain steadfast in love despite the vicissitudes of life.
Austen also uses dialogue between Anne and Wentworth to reveal more of Anne’s character and to promote prudence over willfulness. After Wentworth’s letter of reconciliation, Anne and Wentworth pour out their feelings and discuss the events that have occurred over the course of the novel. “If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once,” Anne says, referring to her decision to break the original engagement, “remember that it was to persuasion exerted on the side of safety” (Austen 229). Likewise, during the card-party later that day, Anne tells Wentworth of her conclusion that, after all, it was right to submit to Lady Russell’s advice about the engagement, for she would have suffered in her conscience if she had done otherwise (Austen 231).
Not only do these words reveal Anne’s strong sense of duty – another element of her strong sense of decorum – but they also display her sensibility, for even now, despite being swelled by Wentworth’s passionate love, she continues to keep a cool head. By using Anne’s reasonable and credible voice, Austen communicates the value of pursuing moderation over obstinacy and prudence over unrestrained passion. Certainly, Austen does not justify Lady Russell’s advice–Anne herself admits that she would not give such advice to a younger woman (Austen 231). Neither does she promote a feeble attitude that easily succumbs to persuasion. But Austen does seem to value Anne’s responsibility to her elders, her loyalty to her friends, and ultimately, her sagacity in making decisions. Thus, in this dialogue between Anne and Wentworth, Austen illuminates Anne’s superiority of character and indicates that prudence of mind should always accompany firmness of character.
Description and dialogue reveal much about the novel’s protagonist, but perhaps the most important tool Austen uses to characterize Anne is inner thought. In allowing the reader to enter the recesses of Anne’s mind, the author enables the audience to understand the full extent of her devotion to Wentworth. For instance, after Mr. Shepard briefly mentions Captain Wentworth, Anne rushes outside and thinks, “a few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here” (Austen 25). This example clearly shows that Anne still treasures Wentworth in her heart. Such devotion is downright extraordinary if one considers that eight years have passed since Anne last saw Wentworth. In light of this, one cannot but marvel at Anne’s faithfulness in love. By using these inner thoughts to portray Anne as a woman of great loyalty and passionate love, Austen seeks to promote greater constancy in love.
Foils are used to contrast with Anne and serve to accentuate her perfect character qualities. Mary, like her father, is comfortable being associated with the vain and narcissistic aristocracy. In the beginning of the novel, Mary acts as a foil to her sister, highlighting Anne’s sensibility and kindness through her own childish attitude. For instance, when Anne first arrives in Uppercross, Mary feigns illness in order to receive more sympathy. Immediately, the conversation between Anne and Mary becomes entirely one-sided, with Mary moaning over her woes and monopolizing the attention. In fact, even though Anne has just moved from her childhood home, Mary barely mentions the change, instead choosing to focus solely on the particulars of life at Uppercross. This selfish attitude contrasts vividly with Anne’s own willingness to listen and express her concern for others. Anne’s empathy leads her to become the confidant of Charles, Mary and even the Miss Musgroves, as she strives to “listen patiently, soften every grievance, and excuse each to the other” (Austen 44). In addition to highlighting Anne’s empathy, Mary serves as a foil to accentuate her sister’s prudence.
For example, after little Charles Musgrove’s injury, Anne quickly rises to the need, doing everything at once–calling the doctor, attending to the children, and comforting the hysterical mother (Austen 50). While Mary collapses in anxiety, Anne shows good sense and a calm mind. By contrasting Mary and Anne’s responses to this mini crisis, Austen clearly illustrates Anne’s prudent qualities. Thus, Austen continues to demonstrate the value of a sensible mind, expanding the central idea that prudence must always balance firmness of character.
In the same way, Louisa serves as another foil to Anne. By comparing Anne’s reserved and collected disposition to Louisa’s unrestrained personality, Austen, once more, portrays Anne’s superiority of character. Outgoing, lively and often foolhardy, Louisa Musgrove is the antithesis of Anne Elliot, as illustrated by her injury at Lyme. Heedless of Wentworth’s warnings, Louisa jumps recklessly off the terrace, only to fall unconscious onto the pavement. Wentworth and the rest of the group are stunned into inaction, but Anne immediately takes control, summoning the surgeon and prompting everyone into a flurry of activity (Austen 102). Indeed, everyone “seemed to look to her for directions,” and even Wentworth admits that there was “no one so proper, so capable as Anne” (Austen 103, 106). Here, Anne’s sensibility contrasts with Louisa’s impetuosity; Louisa’s daredevil attitude shatters the day’s happiness, but Anne’s good sense restores it.
Beyond developing Anne’s character, however, Austen uses Louisa’s injury to cast a shadow on the supposed value of stubbornness. Before Louisa jumps, she says “‘I am determined I will,’” indicating that her injury directly resulted from her unwillingness to heed wise advice. Anne herself concludes from this episode that firmness of character “should have its proportions and limits” (Austen 108). Thus, by illustrating how stubbornness can lead to harmful consequences, Austen demonstrates that firmness of character should be tempered by prudence.
Anne Elliot is Austen’s sublime model of female excellence. Her reticence sets her apart from the vain and narcissistic aristocracy; it gives her a steady and sensible character; and it shows her dedication to social values. As Austen illuminates Anne’s superiority of character, she explores the themes of persuasion, reserve, and constancy in love. Indeed, Anne’s unique character qualities set Persuasion apart from other Austen novels, for unlike the “teenage immaturity” of Emma Woodhouse or the “arch and self-complacent” perspective of Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot feels intense, desperate emotions and, at the same time, holds a clear-sighted view on events (Muller 24, 21).
Like Anne Elliot, Fanny Price and Elinor Dashwood are also imbued with a reserved character as a contrast to other characters, but neither of them has reached the same level as perfection as Anne has. In Anne, Austen has created a character steadfast but persuadable, impassioned but level-headed, conventional in her femininity but modern in her emotions–a character so convincing as a flesh-and-blood individual and yet so effective as a vehicle for the novel’s themes.
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