Society and the individual

Hegemony and individualism

After centuries of certainty that the stability of the status quo should be upheld, and that social cohesiveness was foundational, the last quarter of the seventeenth century witnessed an upheaval in attitudes. The disruption of the American and French Revolutions accentuated the Romantic bid for self expression as opposed to reflecting the reason of the community.

When Jane Austen wrote Persuasion, the status quo of British society was being disrupted. Jane Austen perceived this as both a welcome opportunity for necessary change, and a threat to those more praiseworthy characteristics which benefitted society as a whole:

  • The satirical presentation of Sir Walter illustrates Jane Austen's perception that the status which the class system bestowed on those with wealth and title, undermined the quality of society as a whole when personal merit was absent
  • Her glowing picture of the navy is summed up in her final authorial comment about its ‘domestic virtues' and ‘national importance'. The navy illustrates the benefit afforded to society when individuals with good character work hard and gain increased status
  • Anne Elliot needs to assert her individuality and independence from her family in order to be true to herself, and to have the best influence on society around her
  • The cold selfishness of Anne's family isolates her and is unhealthy, demonstrating the need of an individual to be set within a healthy community
  • Society's need for individuals to do their duty to family and neighbours is illustrated through Anne's acts of charity throughout the novel.

Reason and feeling

The struggle between reason and feeling was a central concern of Romanticism. In Persuasion (considered the most Romantic of Jane Austen's novels), Austen acknowledges and explores the complex relationship between the two and the need for a healthy balance. In general she uphold those characters who are able to experience and express strong emotion, without entirely being governed by it. It is worth noting that the novel's narrative is dominated by Anne's consciousness in which she wrestles constantly with her feelings:

  • Anne tries to achieve a rational control of her feelings, but the feelings seem to be just beyond her control:
‘she began to reason with herself, and try to be feeling less ….
Alas! With all her reasoning, she found, that to retentive feelings eight years may be little more than nothing.' (Ch.7)
  • Austen shows the connection between feeling and the body when Anne's overwhelming feelings register in her blushing or loss of hearing or speech
  • Mrs. Croft's feelings about being separated from the Admiral result in sufferings of the ‘body or mind' (Ch. 8)
  • Wentworth also struggles with his composure when he finds himself unexpectedly alone with Anne, and when Louisa gets hurt.

Emotional balance

Being entirely governed by emotion and impulse has its dangers, as can be seen in the headstrong desire of Louisa to jump off the Cobb. It is worth noting that part of Louisa's later maturity is demonstrated as emotional restraint and subdued behaviour (much like Marianne in Sense and Sensibility). Upon learning that Benwick indulges his feelings of grief through the reading of poetry, Anne prescribes literature more grounded in reason.

At the same time, Anne criticises William Elliot for his absolute control of emotion which doesn't allow any ‘burst of feeling' and prevents him from exhibiting the openness which she prizes (Ch. 17 / Vol. 2, Ch. 5).

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