Title as variation on a theme

Although readers of Persuasion might conclude that Austen intended "persuasion" to be the unifying theme of the story, the book's title is not hers but her brother Henry's, who named it after her untimely death. Certainly the idea of persuasion runs through the book, with vignettes within the story as variations on that theme. But there is no known source that documents what Austen intended to call her novel. Whatever her intentions might have been, she spoke of it as The Elliots, according to family tradition, and some critics believe that is probably the title she planned for it. As for Northanger Abbey, published at the same time, it was probably her brother Henry who chose that title as well.[2]

On the other hand, the literary scholar Gillian Beer establishes that Austen had profound concerns about the levels and applications of "persuasion" employed in society, especially as it related to the pressures and choices facing the young women of her day. Beer writes that for Austen and her readers, persuasion was indeed "fraught with moral dangers";[3] she notes particularly that Austen personally was appalled by what she came to regard as her own misguided advice to her beloved niece Fanny Knight on the very question of whether Fanny ought to accept a particular suitor, even though it would have meant a protracted engagement. Beer writes:

Jane Austen's anxieties about persuasion and responsibility are here passionately expressed. She refuses to become part of the machinery with which Fanny is manoeuvering herself into forming the engagement. To be the stand-in motive for another's actions frightens her. Yet Jane Austen cannot avoid the part of persuader, even as dissuader.[4]

(Fanny ultimately rejected her suitor and after her aunt's death married someone else.)

Thus, Beer explains, Austen was keenly aware that the human quality of persuasion—to persuade or to be persuaded, rightly or wrongly—is fundamental to the process of human communication, and that, in her novel "Jane Austen gradually draws out the implications of discriminating 'just' and 'unjust' persuasion." Indeed, the narrative winds through a number of situations in which people are influencing or attempting to influence other people—or themselves. Finally, Beer calls attention to "the novel's entire brooding on the power pressures, the seductions, and also the new pathways opened by persuasion".[5]

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