Sir Walter Elliot

A figure of contempt

Jane Austen opens Persuasion with an introduction to Sir Walter Elliot that, for an instant, leads the reader to believe that he is the main character. Almost Sir Elliotimmediately, we can identify a sharply satirical tone and soon realise that this is a clever way of accentuating Sir Walter's appalling egocentricity. Throughout the novel his ‘vanity of person and of situation' (Ch.1) is presented with amused contempt in a variety of ways. For example, both reasons for his vanity are undermined:

  • Although he's good-looking, he's definitely past his prime
  • Although he has a title, it's one of the lowest classifications of gentry - his sense of his own consequence is merely self-importance.

Sometimes Jane Austen's amusement at him is quite scornful:

‘Sir Walter Elliot…was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion' (Ch. 1)

Superficial values

Everything Sir Walter says reveals his preoccupation with the superficialities of appearance and rank:

  • He comments repeatedly on lines, wrinkles, blotches, and grey hair
  • In Chapter 15 a long paragraph is devoted to his description of the awful-looking women of Bath
  • The only concern he has for Mary is about her red nose
  • When he has Anne to himself for a few minutes, he spends the whole time commenting on her improved complexion (Ch. 16)
  • Sir Walter drops his exceptions to Anne marrying Wentworth at the end solely on the basis of his looks and ‘five-and-twenty thousand pounds'.

Lack of moral development

Several times Sir Walter is presented side by side with another character of greater depth and complexity, or is seen from their perspective, which highlights the one-dimensional, impoverished nature of his character:

  • By bookending Persuasion with almost identical representations of Sir Walter's character, Jane Austen emphasises that vanity truly is the ‘beginning and the end' of Sir Walter: it's all there is to him
  • His lack of change or growth is highlighted as he once again pores over the pages of the baronetage, still preoccupied with appearance and rank and totally oblivious to the irony that he is happily entering the details of a marriage to which he was once completely opposed. 
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