Feminist criticism and literary history

A working definition

Feminist criticism concentrates on:

  • The presentation of female experience in character and action, frequently pointing out the misrepresentation of female characters by male authors, and challenging sexist views and statements
  • The ‘silence' of women in certain works of literature and how different those works might seem if the female point of view were more fully represented
  • In terms of literary history, it draws attention to the work of overlooked or neglected female authors, who are seen as constituting a separate literary tradition, which is different from - but not necessarily inferior to - a tradition dominated by male writers.

Persuasion offers many opportunities for the first two of these approaches.

The female voice in Persuasion

Persuasion was groundbreaking in the impression it offered of the female consciousness. Anne's success in finding her voice, using it, and being heard by others lies at the heart of Persuasion. We know her opinions, thoughts and feelings even when she doesn't voice them, because we see everything and everyone in the novel from Anne's perspective. Through her representation of Anne's inner life, Jane Austen gives us an exploration of the female consciousness that presents it realistically and validates it as trustworthy:

  • Anne's reason is inextricably linked with her emotions and the two work in tandem to lead her to conclusions that demonstrate insight and understanding of the world and those around her
  • Anne's instincts are valid. The novel demonstrates that, when she allows the reasoning of others to override her natural instincts unhappiness occurs - as it did when she followed the reasoning of others and rejected Captain Wentworth – or is threatened – as when Anne realises the misery she would have endured if she had followed the reasoning of Lady Russell and married William Elliot
  • As Anne gains independence, her instinctive and emotional responses begin to align with her outward expressions and actions
  • Anne values her own instincts sufficiently to choose happiness, even though it means leaving her family and marrying the man of whom they disapprove.

No voice and no choice

Persuasion is forward-looking in its demonstration of the happiness that can result from women discovering their voice and trusting it. However, Anne's silence, with the refusal of others to listen when she does speak, are significant indicators of:

  • the limitations imposed on women
  • the domination of the male point of view
  • an unwillingness to acknowledge the female perspective.

We see this when Anne briefly voices her opinion on the value of the navy in Chapter 3, and her father silences her with a diatribe against them. Similarly, Anne's wise recommendations for retrenchment do not even get proposed to her father, and her wishes for avoiding Bath are passed over. Instead, she has to passively endure the consequences of her father's poor financial decisions.

Despite the fact that Austen does not portray Elizabeth and Mary sympathetically, a feminist viewpoint must acknowledge that they too, being women, have little choice:

  • Elizabeth is subject to the selfish whims of William Elliot. His decision to marry someone else for financial gain leaves her without a husband and under pressure to marry suitably before she gets too old. Meanwhile, she continues to have to be dependent on her father (Ch. 1)
  • Charles' fitness as a father is not called into question when he decides to go to dinner with the Musgroves rather than stay home with his sick son. However, when Mary wishes to do the same, her motherly instincts are criticised. She gets her own way in the end, but the double-standard is clear nevertheless (Ch. 7).
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