Reflection over Convention: How Language Encourages Change in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Mary Weir

Abstract


Anne Elliot, the protagonist of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, spends much of the novel being ignored: “Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was to always give way;--she was only Anne” (Austen 7). The novel traces the reunion of Anne with her former fiancé, Captain Wentworth, but it is also a critique of nineteenth-century British society and a woman’s role within it. Specifically, the novel satirizes the period’s excessive emphasis on class as well as its problematic intertwining of social class, marriage, and expectations regarding female behavior. Anne is at the center of this critique: she uses language and her integrity of character to persuade those around her to move away from social conventions and adhere to more virtuous prospects. In the narrator’s hands, Anne’s questions, private reactions, and ordinary words like “could,” take on added significance and power. Small changes in diction or shifts in subject become the engines that gradually alter both Anne’s opinions and the novel’s readers. For instance, when she realizes how quickly a friend and widower has fallen in love with someone new, Anne becomes overwhelmingly conscious of Wentworth’s unfailing constancy towards herself. As they discuss the friend, Anne asks Wentworth a question about Lyme, causing a diversion from the tense topic of constancy but not ending the conversation. It is through the narrator’s representations of her quiet asides, silent internal debates, and subtle re-directions that Anne Elliot, whose word at the beginning of the novel “had no weight,” by the novel’s end is finally able to speak and to choose a virtuous husband rather than a conventional one.

Keywords


language, rhetorical devices, convention

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