Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ as a guide to proper behaviour
Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion explores the varied behaviour of the English upper classes in the 19th century. Through the lens of protagonist Anne Elliot’s experiences and relationships, Austen suggests certain standards of behaviour and character traits should be adhered to. Austen contrasts the modesty and reservation of Anne with the flagrant vanity of her relatives, whom she often presents satirically and positions the reader to condemn as a result of their conceited actions and ideas. Austen’s novel also examines the notion of persuasion, scrutinising the relative worth of a firm nature as opposed to those who act upon the advice of others. Depicting Anne navigating her way through the clearly defined social classes of the period, Austen compares characters who cling rigidly to social convention with the more progressive and open-hearted, suggesting that warmth of character is of more value than propriety. Furthermore, Austen endorses those whose actions stem from selfless motivations and denounces those who act out of greed and vanity, illustrating her view that those with pure motivations are invariably rewarded.
Through Persuasion, Jane Austen emphasises the importance of modest behaviour, suggesting that vanity and the desire for attention are poor qualities. From the outset of her novel, Austen positions the reader to view Sir Walter Elliot as an object of ridicule, despite his baronetcy and distinct impression of his own importance. Describing Sir Walter’s ability to “read his own history with an interest that never failed”, Austen presents the most dominant aspect of his character, “vanity of person and of situation”, for the reader’s scrutiny. Through her claim that Sir Walter was even the “object” of his own “respect and devotion”, Austen encourages the reader to deride Sir Walter as a fool, associating his conceit with stupidity. Austen’s condemnation of Sir Walter’s vanity is further emphasised through her inclusion of Admiral Croft’s shock at the “number of looking glasses!” in his dressing-room and decision to “shift their quarters”, sensibly having no desire to be constantly surrounded by his own reflection. Furthermore, Sir Walter’s inability to recognise the true value of Anne, a character held up by Austen as the embodiment of gentle virtue, yet whom Sir Walter dismisses as “haggard” and a “nobody” because of her faded beauty, demonstrates the blindness Austen suggests arises from placing far too much importance upon superficial qualities. Through the character of Mary, Austen additionally condemns attention seeking behaviours and a lack of reserve. Feigning illness and bemoaning the lack of attention she receives from her husband and his family, Mary frustrates Charles, who wishes she would not “always be fancying herself ill” and fails to ingratiate herself with Mr and Mrs Musgrove, who “would have liked [Anne] a great deal better” as Charles’ wife. Mary’s lack of propriety also earns her the derision of Captain Wentworth, whom Austen presents as a good judge of character as a result of his love for Anne. Revealing her earnest desire to be perceived as high class by those around her, Mary claims she has never been to the Hayters’ residence at Winthrop “above twice in [her life!”, a comment which is answered by a “contemptuous glance” from Wentworth, who, reflecting the view of Austen, finds Mary’s vanity and excess pride deplorable qualities. Furthermore, Mary’s lack of regard for the consequences of her behaviour very nearly results in Henrietta’s decision not to renew her attachment to Charles Hayter, despite her love for him.
Austen provides a stark contrast to Mary’s poor behaviour in Anne during her stay at Uppercross. Despite her frustration and inward critique of her sister, Anne never voices these complaints to Mary, instead serving as a mediator, relieving the tensions of the household and being treated with “confidence” by all. Using free indirect discourse, Austen presents the events of the novel largely from the perspective of Anne, whose frequent silent introspection gives the reader insight into the sentiments kept silent by Anne, often because of what Austen suggests would be the impropriety of voicing such sentiments aloud. While Austen condemns the desire for constant attention that makes Mary a poor mother, abandoning her injured son Charles to attend dinner at the Great House, having “not dined [there] since Tuesday”, she endorses Anne’s willingness to forego the attention and excitement of the dinner party and volunteer to care for the child herself. Through the condemnation of characters who display a lack of reservation and vanity, Austen advocates for the importance of modesty as a personal trait.
As well as denouncing qualities such as vanity, through Persuasion Austen examines the limited merit of always acting decisively as opposed to being open to the influence of others. Injured by her past rejection of him, Captain Wentworth scorns Anne Elliot’s “feeble” character. However, Austen ultimately proves that this judgement is misplaced and that Anne’s “yielding to duty” was the right course of action at the time. Determined not to become attached to someone who could be persuaded to give him up as Anne was, Wentworth is attracted to Louisa Musgrove’s firm and at times obstinate nature. During the visit to Winthrop, Wentworth likens a resolute character to a “hazelnut … blessed with original strength”, which even after “all the storms of autumn”, retains its “happiness.” However this metaphor rings hollow to the reader, positioned by Austen to view conscious decision and the capacity to exercise discretion and common sense, as essential qualities, beyond the capabilities of a hazelnut. Austen exemplifies the dangers of obstinacy that is not tempered by common sense through Louisa’s fall at the Cobb. Displaying the desire for attention also condemned by Austen, Louisa insists upon being “jumped down” the stairs by Wentworth. Despite Wentworth “reason[ing] against” her jumping from a greater height, Louisa ignores his advice and common sense, instead declaring herself to be “determined” to do it. Austen condemns this wilfulness through the injury it incurs, which leaves Louisa “taken up lifeless!” Louisa’s obstinacy is contrasted with the steady-mind and common sense of Anne, who immediately proves her “strength and zeal and thought” in attending to the crisis. Anne’s actions prove to Wentworth that there is “no one more capable” than she, prompting him to reconsider his previous judgement of her character. Through this episode, Austen illustrates that ultimately common sense is of far greater importance than determination in guiding one’s behaviour. Furthermore, by the end of the novel Wentworth comes to realise that his “resentment” and anger for Anne’s actions was pure folly and kept him from recognising her true worth. Anne articulates Austen’s view that her decision to forego her relationship with Wentworth and submit to Lady Russell’s advice was “right”, as she was “yielding to duty”, honouring the wishes of her family and those of her late mother, represented in Lady Russell. Through the contrast created between Anne and more resolute characters such as Louisa, Austen suggests that being persuaded for morally sound reasons and only exhibiting determination tempered by common sense is of paramount importance.
Depicting the gradual emergence of a middle class in England, Austen’s novel contrasts members of society who cling rigidly to social convention, with those less concerned with elegant and ‘proper’ behaviour. Anne’s home at Kellynch Hall reflects the attitudes and social position of her family in its grandeur and representation of strict social hierarchy, “presided over” by Elizabeth as the Lady of the house. However, Anne’s visit to the home of the Musgroves at Uppercross leads her to discover that “a removal from one set of people to another” often results in a “total change of conversation, opinion and idea.” Unconcerned with the intricacies of etiquette, the Musgroves are full of laughter and warmth and their open-heartedness is refreshing to Anne, illustrating Austen’s endorsement of their more frivolous behaviour in contrast with rigidity. Through Louisa and Henrietta’s frustration at Mary’s constant insistence that “Mrs Musgrove give her the precedence that was her due”, Austen emphasises the restrictiveness of being too concerned with notions of social rank. Austen underscores her support for more progressive behaviour through Anne’s admiration of Admiral Croft. Despite not conforming to traditional standards of social position, as a ‘self-made’ man, Admiral Croft’s “goodness of heart and simplicity of character” are irresistible to Anne, illustrating Austen’s suggestion that behaving caringly towards others is more important than social position or traditional notions of respectability. Austen also condemns behaviour based purely upon the desire to maintain one’s social position through the character of Elizabeth, whom Anne feels to be “repulsive and unsisterly”. Anne is “disappointed” in Elizabeth’s behaviour in Bath, particularly her desperation to renew the Elliots’ connection with the Dalrymples, social ambition which Anne finds abhorrent and wishes, just once, that her family had “more pride”. By depicting the Dalrymples as completely undeserving of the Elliots’ admiration, Austen positions the reader to view esteem for those of high rank as a poor foundation for any friendship. By denouncing the actions of characters whose behaviour is based purely upon social convention, Austen suggests that goodness of character and light-heartedness is always preferable to rigidity.
Austen’s Persuasion suggests not only proper standards of behaviour, but also that it is of paramount importance that actions stem from selfless motivations, rather than greed or vanity. Through Anne’s revelation of her true worth during the crisis of Louisa’s accident in Lyme, Austen emphasises the positive consequences of acting selflessly. Despite her love for Wentworth and belief in his attachment to Louisa, Anne takes decisive action in the interests of Louisa’s recovery and even offers to stay in Lyme and “attend to [her] with a zeal above the common claim of regard.” While this doesn’t eventuate, Anne’s kind actions and their positive impact upon her relationship with Wentworth demonstrate Austen’s strong endorsement of selfless behaviour. Furthermore, Anne’s decision to visit her old school friend Mrs Smith, who has been thrown into poor social standing and poverty by ill-fortune and is derided by Sir Walter as merely “a poor widow”, is a charitable act that also results in considerable reward. Undeterred by the conceit of her family, after several visits to Mrs Smith, Anne learns of Mr Elliot’s truly “cold-blooded” and cruel nature. Mrs Smith informs Anne of Mr Elliot’s greed and designs upon the Elliot estate, which he planned to destroy, as well as his role in bringing herself and her late husband into financial ruin. Through her kindness to Mrs Smith, Anne avoids “the misery which must have followed” marrying Mr Elliot, illustrating Austen’s view of the importance of selfless behaviour. Almost the antithesis of Anne, William Elliot’s duplicitous behaviour is condemned by Austen primarily for its self-seeking motivations. The revelation of Mr Elliot’s desire to bring the Kellynch estate to “the hammer” for his own profit and lack of compassion in abandoning Mrs Smith following the death of her husband emphasises the self-interest that dominates his character. However by having his plan to marry Anne foiled by Mrs Smith and Anne’s attachment to Wentworth, Austen underscores the notion that actions with impure motivations are never rewarded with success. Positioning the reader to view the radical difference between Mr Elliot’s apparent nature and his truly selfish motivations as abhorrent, Austen suggests that individuals should be guided by selflessness and openness of character.
Jane Austen’s Persuasion not only details the romance between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, but also suggests standards of behaviour which should be aspired to. Through the many virtues of her heroine, Austen emphasises the importance of modesty and restraint and condemns conceit and a fixation upon superficial qualities. Furthermore, through Anne’s perceptions of the individuals around her, Austen positions the reader to condemn those who cling rigidly to social convention at the expense of being warm-hearted and caring. Austen also suggests that being firm in nature to the point of obstinacy can have damaging consequences and that it is wise to be open to the persuasion of others, provided they have sound motivations. Ultimately, Austen endorses actions that have kind and selfless motivations and subsequently condemns those who act out of greed and selfishness.
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Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion explores the varied behaviour of the English upper classes in the 19th century. Through the lens of protagonist Anne Elliot’s experiences and relationships, Austen suggests certain […]