In a novel with many unmarried and young woman, marriage is naturally an important theme. The central premise behind the novel is the thwarted engagement between the heroine and hero, Anne and Captain Wentworth. Although they are very much in love, the marriage is judged imprudent from a financial perspective. Much of the narrative builds up a weighty force against such a judgment, suggesting that somewhat imprudent marriages can still lead to happiness. This is a conclusion that is stated explicitly at the end by Mrs. Musgrove and Mrs. Croft. At the same time, the novel also deals with of marriages (or hopes of marriage) that have no purpose other than the social or financial benefit of one party. Such is the case of Mr. Elliot and his first wife, for example, or Mrs. Clay's desire to marry Sir Walter. In a society in which family plays such an important role, marriage is necessarily a complicated negotiation.
The title of novel derives presumably from the instance of Lady Russell's persuading Anne not to marry Captain Wentworth. This instance of persuasion in turn derives from Lady Russell's personal persuasion that a prudent marriage involves a man with either family or fortune to his name. For her part, Anne has her own persuasion about her engagement to Captain Wentworth: “She was persuaded that under every disadvantage of disapprobation at home. . . she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it” (20). Much of the novel addresses questions of moral judgment in these foremost examples of persuasion. Was Lady Russell "right" to dissuade Anne from marrying the captain? Although it becomes clear that Anne's decision was a bad one, the ultimate judgment of right and wrong remains ambiguous. At the end of the novel, Anne states that, despite her suffering, she “was perfectly right in being misguided by Lady Russell” (164).
Rank and Consequence
For Sir Walter and Elizabeth, rank and consequence are everything. They live to be important in society. Although Sir Walter has the title of baronet, the Elliots suffer from the common problem of a limited income. They thus leave their primary home of Kellynch Hall and move to Bath, where they might be “important at comparatively little expense” (10). At Bath, the Elliots are indeed important and their company is much sought after. Sir Walter and Elizabeth are also eager to seek the company of those whom they deem more important than themselves. When the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple arrives in Bath with her daughter the Honorable Miss Carteret, for example, they "assiduously pus[h] their good fortune" with them (100). Of course, rank does not always equal consequence. Mr. Elliot chooses to marry a wealthy common woman instead of Elizabeth precisely because of the diminishing Ellito fortune. Finally, the border between pride of family and obsession with rank is a fine line. Lady Russell possesses superior understanding but sometimes errs on the side of valuing rank too much; Anne judges people fairly by their character rather than rank, yet still has her share of Elliot pride.
While the upper class is often satirized in the novel, the naval men are portrayed in an admirable light. With the exception of Captain Benwick, all of them are open, warm-hearted, unaffected, sensible, and capable of providing excellent company. Although the Harvilles are portrayed as lacking a certain polish, they also demonstrate practical skills that become crucial when Louisa falls at the Cobb. Historically, Austen writes at a time in which the upper class were declining gradually, whereas the navy was rising as the Second British Empire was being built up. Such a shifting social order is reflected by the fact that the Crofts take possession of Kellnch Hall. Although they are only tenants, the novel gives no indication as to when the Elliots will be able to leave Bath under satisfactory financial conditions. Finally, the narrative's "goal" of securing Captain Wentworth for Anne suggests that a bright future lies with navy, if only on a symbolic level.
Place and Location
Among Austen's novels, a story that takes place in as many locations as in Persuasion is rare. The relatively large number of locales is telling of the distinct social milieus that together make up the world of the novel. At Kellynch, we find a respectable titled family as well as a changing social order; at Uppercross, we find the happiness of an unpretentious wealthy family; at Lyme, we find life amid impressive nature and the fruits and dangers that it offers; and at Bath, we see all worlds converge. On an even more microcosmic level, streets and place are also assigned social importance: Camden Place and Laura Place in Bath are very respectable, for example, while the Westgate Buildings are not. The novel also suggests, however, that such fragmentation is superficial and can be reconciled by a mind with superior sensibilities. Anne, after all, enjoys the serene gardens of Kellynch as much as she does the bustle of Uppercross. For her, Camden Place and the Westgate Buildings represent no special difference per se; what is truly important is the people who live in such places.
Remembrance of past lovers is regarded as an important virtue in Persuasion. When Captain Benwick mourns the loss of Fanny Harville, it is regarded as highly unfortunate but at the same time honorable and respectful. Captain Harville expects Captain Benwick to remember his sister for a long time — certainly longer than he actually does. Although Captain Harville does not go too far in his criticism of Captain Benwick's engagement to Lousia, he notes that his sister would have remembered the captain for much longer. There is a strong sense that the past must be embraced almost continuously. Indeed, one of the reasons why Anne becomes suspicious of Mr. Elliot is that he never shows signs of mourning his wife. And of course, remembrance applies not only to the dead, but also to those who are far away. The question of which sex remembers lovers longer provides fuel for a passionate debate between Anne and Captain Harville at the end of the novel. As it turns out, Anne and Captain Wentworth — the heroine and hero — both possess the virtue of remembrance.
Reading and Poetry
Many of the characters in the novels are readers. Sir Walter reads his family lineage in the Baronetage; Captain Wentworth reads his naval records; Anne and Lady Russell are both implied to have read a great deal; Captain Benwick can recite lines and lines of romantic poetry; and even Mary enjoys the library at Lyme. For Anne, poetry seems to increase her appreciation of nature and also serves as an occasional form of distraction. Books evidently don't supply Mary with superior sensibilities, however, and fail in other ways. With regards to Captain Benwick, for example, Anne's suggestion that he read more prose is telling. Poetry overcomes the senses; it carries him away and perhaps facilitates his falling in love with Louisa. A tentative conclusion that we can draw is that the meaning of reading lies not in books but in their readers. Sir Walter reads the Baronetage to confirm his title and indulge in self-satisfaction; for Elizabeth, on the other hand, the words "heir presumptive" after the name of William Walter Elliot makes the same book unpleasant.
Persuasion Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Persuasion is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
From their first meeting (or re-meeting) forth, Anne and Captain Wentworth are constantly found within the same circle. Despite their past, they say little to each other beyond what “the commonest civility required” (42). Since the party at...
"Mary is good-natured enough in many respects," said she; "but she does sometimes provoke me excessively, by her nonsense and pride--the Elliot pride. She has a great deal too much of the Elliot pride.