Love, Marriage, and Gender in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

June 1, 2019 by Essay Writer

Love, marriage, and the impact of gender are themes frequently taken up by Jane Austen, but it can be difficult to find where she stands on such topics, given the varying perspectives of her characters. While as readers we are often aligned with the heroine of the story, this doesn’t always mean she is who we ought to believe. Austen features a multiplicity of voices, giving more weight to some than others, in order to show that love doesn’t have a right and a wrong. In the case of the conversation between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville in Persuasion, I don’t believe that Austen necessarily agrees with either of their arguments. The debate being one of which gender shows more constancy in love does not allow for the complex circumstances of each situation. Each character is resolute in their point of view, but Austen undermines both with the events of the novel. Persuasion shows that love is a matter of individuals and their emotional capacity, rather than a subject one can make gendered generalisations about.

Captain Harville argues that Captain Benwick is an exception to the rule that men love longer and stronger, emphasising the connection between their physical and emotional selves. Harville draws upon socially accepted (at the time) generalizations about the physical differences between the sexes, and uses them to support his argument about the strength of men’s love: “I believe in a true analogy between our bodily frames and our mental; and that as our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings; capable of bearing most rough usage, and riding out the heaviest weather” (187). This argument is premised upon the belief that the mind and the body reflect one another, ignoring the strength of women’s bodies (particularly in childbearing), and the existence of physically weak men with robust intellectual and emotional minds. Harville’s conception of men as generally being strong of body and mind most likely comes from his experience in the Navy. As Austen knew from her brothers, being a sailor put men through many physical and emotional challenges, which would be Captain Harville’s own life experience, and that of his closest friends. Harville making his argument from his personal perspective is quite natural, but there is a definite self-indulgence in it. When he laments the pain of leaving on a ship and not knowing when he will see his family again, he doesn’t acknowledge in the slightest that it might be difficult for the wife and children of the sailor as well. This lack of awareness weakens his case. In fact, it reveals a selfish kind of love. Harville speaks of “all that a man can bear and do,” positioning men as the sole sufferers in instances of separation, showing that he thinks only of his own pain, not sparing any thoughts for how his family might be coping without him. Harville diverges from the original topic of conversation, about the constancy of love, and rather makes a case about strength of love, and who can best weather hardships. Anne and Harville end their conversation amicably, agreeing to disagree, but if this were a formal debate, Anne would come out as the champion.

Anne accepts Harville’s points, then cleverly counters each of them, while acknowledging the impact of gender roles on this subject. While Harville is fixed on his convictions, Anne never tries to deny that men love strongly and deeply. Anne’s closing statement of the conversation gives a clear summary: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex . . . is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone” (189). She shows an understanding of Harville’s arguments, and replies to each of them. His assertions about the bodily connection to the emotional mind are taken up by Anne and used to her advantage: “man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer-lived.” She takes his tangential argument and adapts it to address the issue at hand: who is more constant? Anne also discusses the difference between men and women’s daily occupations, and how this might impact recovery time from a broken heart. This point centers around women being confined to the domestic sphere, while men have external business to keep their mind busy. Throughout the novel, Anne is very much a constrained and repressed character. She functions mainly as a passive listener, observing the events of the novel happening to others. Through the third person omniscient narration, we understand that Anne has a great number of thoughts and feelings about these events, but rarely voices them to others. Anne, as she is for most of Persuasion, is evidence for this repression of women’s voices, and how it means their thoughts and feelings grow in silence. Due to women of the upper classes not having the option of going to work, they were forced to spend most of their time around the home. Not having business or studies to occupy one’s mind gives them much time to dwell on matters of the heart. However, this conversation marks a turning point. Anne is speaking up and letting her opinion be heard. Although she still must operate within the societal constraints of her gender, she is becoming more empowered by giving her thoughts voice. This shift for Anne is one we appreciate, because it can be frustrating to read Persuasion and be constantly wishing for Anne to take some agency. Her intelligence and autonomy comes to the fore in this conversation, which is why her argument seems stronger.

Anne disagreeing with Harville proves her point in another way, which is through the subtext of her speech. The whole time Anne is talking about constancy, she is referring to her own unfaltering affection for Wentworth. This has an especially potent effect because Wentworth is sitting just a few meters from the pair as they debate, and is perhaps even within earshot (evidenced by him dropping his pen). Her speech marks her move from a passive woman who pines for affection, to an active character that is taking steps to secure the love they desire. She knows Wentworth is eavesdropping, and she wants him to hear (Mooneyham 179). While her argument with Harville is one of generalizations, she understands that it will have a specific meaning for Wentworth. In a similar way to Harville, Anne is arguing from her own lived experience. However, this doesn’t make her ignore the lived experiences of others. She heartily acknowledges that men can love, and can be constant in love, but she is persistent in her assertions that women can love for longer, even when hope is lost, because of her intimate acquaintance with that exact situation. We also appreciate the nuance of Anne’s understanding of the issue, and the concessions that she does make to Harville, because it exemplifies a mature and rational approach to an immensely emotional topic. As readers, our understanding of the subtext of Anne’s argument makes us more sympathetic to her side, and less likely to agree with Harville’s bold claims.

While both characters make robust arguments, I don’t believe Austen wholly agrees with either of them. As the author, she aligns us more with Anne, which makes us more likely to be on her side than Harville’s, but the events of Persuasion undermine her case. We feel more sympathetic to Anne’s argument because of the relationship Austen builds between Anne and the reader throughout the novel. Persuasion is written with third person limited omniscient narration, and mainly focuses on Anne. While we do sometimes have scenes that Anne wasn’t present for, Austen mainly gives us the events of the novel through Anne’s eyes and ears, and largely through retelling of events by other characters, or overheard conversations. Austen gives us the events of the novel, then gives us Anne’s thoughts on them. We are given a more intimate insight to Anne’s perception of the narrative than we are for any other character. This establishes a relationship between readers and our protagonist, because we are made to perceive events in the same way she does, or at least be aware of her understanding, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it. One point in the conversation where Anne’s, Austen’s, and hopefully the reader’s opinions all align: the issue of literature. When Harville uses books, songs, and proverbs as evidence, Anne quickly points out the unfairness of his proof: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” This clearly reflects Austen’s own struggle as a female author in the 19th century. While Anne is a well-read character, these particular sentences seem to be Austen speaking through Anne’s mouth. She utilities our closeness with Anne to undercut Harville’s claims of overpowering masculine love.

Persuasion doesn’t tell us which gender is more constant in love than the other. Instead, it tells us that the whole argument is redundant, and the evidence is in Anne and Wentworth’s relationship. Eight years have passed since Anne refused Wentworth’s proposal, and both of them have remained just as constant as each other. Austen wants us to see that love is an individual matter, and that there are some people who have a deeper, stronger, and longer emotional capacity than others. We understand the depth of Anne’s feeling through the narrative point of view, and we understand Wentworth’s through the letter he writes to Anne while this conversation is taking place. As Kramp writes, “His letter is the most open disclosure of amorous emotion by any man in Austen’s corpus” (137). Austen’s perspective on this issue of constancy also symbolizes her views on larger debates. When issues are discussed as having men on one side of the argument and women on the other, it isn’t productive, and it lends itself to generalizations that exclude many people. From Persuasion and her other works, Austen appears to be an advocate for understanding people based on their individual attributes, rather than making gender or class based assumptions.

The discussion between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville is a healthy debate with strong cases made on both sides. In the world of the novel, Anne comes out stronger, by acknowledging all of Harville’s points, such as the connection of body and mind, evidence in literature, and the pain of separation, then rationally responding to each with her own thoughts on the topic. However, Anne’s argument, while stronger than Harville’s, is also undercut by Austen through Wentworth’s constancy in his love for Anne. Love shouldn’t be turned into a gendered debate, we should understand it as it is: a relationship between individuals, who each have their own capacity for constancy. Austen wants us to understand the complexity and individuality of every romantic relationship.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Oxford University Press, 1980.

Kramp, Michael. Disciplining Love: Austen and the Modern Man. Ohio State University Press, 2007.

Mooneyham, Laura G. “Loss and Language of Restitution in Persuasion.” Mansfield Park and Persuasion. Edited by Judy Simons. MacMillan Press, 1997.

Woolf, Virginia. “Jane Austen.” The Common Reader. Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1925, pp.191-206.

Wiltshire, John. “Persuasion: The Pathology of Everyday Life.” Mansfield Park and Persuasion. Edited by Judy Simons. MacMillan Press, 1997.

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