Passion and Prudence: The Characterization of Anne Elliot in Persuasion
“She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older–the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” With these words, Jane Austen crystallizes one of the central questions of her novel Persuasion–whether it is better to be strong-willed or easily persuadable. 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). Indeed, throughout the novel, Austen uses description, dialogue, inner thought, and foils to reveal Anne’s character and to explore the themes of persuasion, constancy in love and gender roles.
To begin with, Austen uses description to portray Anne Elliot’s character and to delve into the novel’s themes. In chapter 2, for instance, 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 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 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” contains the negative connotation of coercion, an indication of the harmful consequences that can result from 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.
Later on in the story, the author continues to use description to characterize Anne Elliot. For instance, 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). In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Elizabeth Bennet never seems to express her happiness, but simply acknowledges that she should be happy because of her fiance’s wealth. Likewise, the protagonist of Emma lacks Anne’s emotional depth. Austen may have invested Anne with this intense emotion to subtly counter the restrictions of her day, those Victorian ideas that delegated women to the domestic sphere and limited how much emotion or sexual feelings a lady could express (Cenicola and Mareike 1). Persuasion was the only one of Austen’s novels set in the contemporaneous present, and therefore Austen may have created Anne Elliot–this graceful combination of traditional femininity and unconventional emotion– to challenge Victorian notions of the ideal woman. Hence, Austen uses this detail about Anne’s emotions, and many other descriptions, to highlight various facets of Anne’s character and to explore the novel’s themes.
In addition to description, the author employs dialogue to flesh out Anne’s character and to accentuate the story’s themes. In fact, in the first few chapters, what is most striking about dialogue with Anne is its absence. In the first three chapters, Anne utters only a few snippets of dialogue, while her father speaks profusely about Kellynch-hall and the navy. This silence partly stems from Anne’s subordinate position as an unmarried, middle daughter, but it also reveals Anne’s quiet, introspective character. Throughout the novel, Anne takes the position of an observer, and the reader hears much more of her thoughts than her words. When she does speak, however, her words bear great meaning. For instance, 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,” she says (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). This conversation highlights Anne’s intelligence and ability to think for herself. Moreover, it clearly communicates her 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. In addition to the theme of loyalty in love, Austen also raises the theme of gender roles. Anne’s delineation of differing gender roles reflects the Victorian emphasis on separate spheres for men and women; according to this “cult of domesticity,” women were expected to be good housewives and mothers, and their status depended on marriage. These separate spheres are manifested in the dissimilar paths that Wentworth and Anne take after breaking their first engagement: Wentworth moves on to gain great wealth and status in the navy, while Anne becomes a faded spinstress who has past her prime. Evidently, through this contrast and through Anne’s conversation with Harville, Austen seeks to show the full consequences of the separate spheres idea, portraying the limited opportunities women faced. Although Austen was no feminist, she does seem to encourage greater equality of opportunity and experience between the sexes. Austen’s ideal couple would be something similar to the Crofts, where the wife still defers to the husband, but also accompanies her partner in his profession and travels outside the home. Hence, Austen’s use of dialogue in this case not only reveals more of Anne’s character but also develops the themes of constancy in love and equality between the sexes.
Austen also uses dialogue between Anne and Wentworth to reveal more of Anne’s character and to impart greater nuance to the theme of persuasion. 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–an unwavering commitment to honor her elders and submit to authority–but they also display her sensibility, for even now, despite being swelled by Wentworth’s passionate love, she continues to keep a cool head. Austen also uses this dialogue to expand the theme of persuasion. 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 wishy-washy 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, the author illuminates Anne’s character and indicates that prudence of mind should ever 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, eight years of silence and separation, eight years of ignorance about whether he was dead or alive or married. 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.
Furthermore, Anne’s inner thoughts reveal her remarkable perceptiveness. Regarding Captain Benwick’s mourning over his deceased wife, for example, Anne says to herself that he will soon “rally again, and be happy with another” (Austen 91). This prediction soon comes true, for Benwick quickly becomes engaged to Louisa Musgrove. Anne’s clear-sighted thoughts also appear in her observation of Mr. Elliot. In contrast to Lady Russell’s great admiration for Mr. Elliot, Anne has a premonition of his shiftiness. She feels that he is simply too polished, too discreet, perhaps too keen on hiding his true past (Austen 151). These feelings are eventually validated by Mrs. Smith’s revelation of Mr. Elliot’s cold-heartedness, lust for wealth, and blackness of heart (Austen 187). Both of these examples convey Anne’s perceptiveness. 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– Anne alone sees clearly (Austen 12, 231). Consequently, she escapes from the irony of self-deception that many other Austen heroines experience. Besides developing Anne’s perceptive character, these judgments ensure Anne’s credibility as an accurate commentator on the novel’s events, allowing readers to enter the story through her uncompromising gaze. This credibility makes Anne an effective vehicle for the author to express her own views; indeed, the line between Anne’s thoughts and the author’s commentary often blurs. For example, Anne’s thoughts during the aftermath of Louisa’s injury seems to reflect Austen’s own point of view: “Perhaps a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character” (Austen 108). The accuracy of Anne’s judgments indicate that her perspective closely aligns with that of the author, and thus one can conclude that Anne’s statement faithfully reflects the author’s own views on persuasion. Here, Austen clearly voices her belief that people should remain open to the advice of others, not too weak-willed to think for themselves, but not so stubborn as to disregard all counsel. Hence, through the use of inner thought, Austen both portrays Anne’s perceptive character and further develops the theme of persuasion.
The final tool Austen uses to develop Anne’s identity involves foils, people that contrast with Anne and serve to accentuate her character qualities. In the early part 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. 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. Foils clearly serve as an important way for Austen to reveal Anne’s character and develop the novel’s themes.
In short, through description, dialogue, inner thought and foils, Austen illuminates Anne’s character and explores the themes of persuasion, constancy in love, and gender roles. 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 also holds a clear-sighted view on events (Muller 24, 21). 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. Few other writers have accomplished such a feat.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Penguin Books, 1998.
Muller, Claire. “Intellectual Qualities, Emotions and the Body: An Analysis of Anne Elliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.” Contributions to the Study of Language, Literature and Culture. Volume 2010:1, pp 19-29.
Cenicola, Laura and Mareike Aumann. “Introduction to Victorian Morality: What exactly was the Victorian Era?” Laura-Cenicola, http://www.laura-cenicola.de/brithist2/brithist/8-1-introduction-into-victorian-morality-what-exactly-was-the-victorian-era.html. Accessed 14 December 2016.
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