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Gender Inequality Theme Analysis

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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Persuasion, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
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Persuasion reveals the limited sphere of choice available to women in Austen’s era. In the case of the female characters, marriage represents the most viable option for a woman to live a good life. Women’s influence, in this sense, lies largely in their relation to men—to attract, reject, and accept their proposals of marriage. The comparatively sober tone of the novel results in part from the protagonist’s reality that she is past her prime; even Lady Russell, who once advised her to refrain from marrying below her station, grows concerned for Anne Elliot as she remains single years later.

There is an undeniable double standard around gender in the novel. Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Russell are both widowed, yet the narrator tells us that society would regard it as normal for Sir Walter to remarry, even as it discourages second marriages for women. Were it not for Lady Russell’s great wealth and position, she would herself be socially vulnerable as a widow. The impoverished widow Mrs. Smith reveals the plight of women who are unsupported by men or fortune.

The divergent paths of Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot after the dissolution of their early romance also illustrate gender limitations: Captain Wentworth is able to leave the country, make his fortune, and return with even more viable marriage prospects. Indeed, when he returns to England he becomes the object of admiration of not one but three women: Louisa Musgrove, Henrietta Musgrove, and Anne Elliot. Anne, in contrast, “loses her bloom” and has no resources of mobility or occupation to heal and grow but the slow passing of time—which also reduces her marital prospects.

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Gender Inequality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Gender Inequality appears in each chapter of Persuasion. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Gender Inequality Quotes in Persuasion

Below you will find the important quotes in Persuasion related to the theme of Gender Inequality.
Chapter 4 Quotes

More than seven years were gone since this little history of sorrowful interest had reached its close, and time had softened down much, perhaps nearly all of peculiar attachment to him,--but she had been too dependent on time alone; no aid had been given in change of place . . . or in any novelty or enlargement of society.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot, Captain Frederick Wentworth
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Austen summarizes the significance of Anne's failed engagement to Captain Wentworth: over the seven years that have passed since Lady Russell broke off all possibility of their getting married, Anne has grown rather despondent. When she met Wentworth, she was a young, energetic woman--now, because she's been stuck in the same place surrounded by the same people, she feels dull and tired. She's mostly gotten over Wentworth, but nobody else has come along to propose to her, and so she's beginning to despair that she'll never find a husband.

The passage is a sad reminder of the limited options available to women during Austen's lifetime. Anne is clearly a bright and intelligent woman, but her current purpose in life is to get married to a talented, wealthy man, perpetuating her family's genealogy and assuring that she'll be provided for as she grows older. As a result, Anne is imprisoned in the same place, forced to watch as her sister gets married and her own beauty fades. As ever with Austen, it's not clear what, exactly, Austen would do to help Anne if she could, but there's still an undeniable sadness that hangs over this passage, suggesting that Austen sees the injustice of Anne's situation, and of all English women's situations.


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Chapter 7 Quotes

O; the years which had destroyed [Anne’s] youth and bloom had only given [Captain Wentworth] a more glowing, manly, open look, in no respect lessoning his personal advantages. . . . It was now his object to marry. He was rich, and being turned on shore, fully intended to settle as soon as he could be properly tempted; actually looing round, ready to fall in love with all the speed which a clear head and quick taste could allow.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot, Captain Frederick Wentworth
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

When Captan Wentworth and Anne reunite, the difference between their lives over the past few years couldn't be clearer. Anne has felt herself to grow less beautiful and vivacious, while Captain Wentworth has only become handsomer and more energetic. The gender double standard here is clear: Anne is a woman, and therefore has to remain with her family, growing old and lonely (and, presumably, less attractive), while Wentworth is a man, meaning that he gets to pursue a career and travel around the world.

There's also an amusing feature of this passage--the fact that Austen makes it clear that Wentworth wants to fall in love as soon as he can manage to. It's odd to imagine someone planning to fall in love, but the fact that Wentworth plans to do so reinforces the businesslike, regular nature of romance and courtship in Austen's society. Wentworth is of age, newly wealthy, and he has some downtime: therefore he must marry someone.

Chapter 17 Quotes

A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot, Mrs. Smith
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to Anne's old friend Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith has had a tough life: she lost her husband, and also developed a crippling illness that's left her without control of her lower body. And yet Mrs. Smith doesn't allow her life's tragedies to make her sad: she seems incredibly cheery and optimistic at all times--it's as if the universe's woes have changed her external condition, but not the nature of her soul.

Mrs. Smith is an important character because she seems to stand outside the rules of the novel--the rules of marriage, courtship, money, aristocracy, etc. She's "lost," by most definitions--she has no money, no husband, no mobility (literally), etc.--and yet she seems not to care. Because she doesn't let the stakes of marriage and courtship affect her happiness, she seems utterly free--free in a way that the younger, more eligible Anne is not, paradoxically. Mrs. Smith is, one could say, the only character without a personal stake in the events of the plot: she has nothing riding on Anne's engagement except her own friendship with Anne. Therefore, she's a trustworthy character and good advice-giver.

Chapter 23 Quotes

We [women] certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions. . . . All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot (speaker), Captain and Mrs. Harville
Page Number: 173-175
Explanation and Analysis:

In this illuminating passage, Anne has a playful argument with Captain Harville about whether men or women are more constant and devoted in their love for other people. Anne argues that woman are more devoted, because they have to reside at home, and have nothing to nourish their spirits except for their feelings for the people they care about. Men, on the other hand, have jobs and careers to distract them from their true feelings; therefore, they can get distracted by other things, and forget about their loved ones.

The debate that Anne and Captan Harville have is, of course, highly relevant to the plot of the novel and to Austen's social criticism of gender inequality. Anne is remembering her love for Captain Wentworth, and suggests that Wentworth has found it easier to forget about Anne than vice versa, since he's had a long and fulfilling career as a Navy man. In such a way, Anne subtly makes herself the real victim of the broken engagement with Wentworth. Over the course of the novel, Anne has become a lively and witty young woman, discovering the courage to disagree with her male companions, asserting her agency in doing so--even if she still has little real social power or independence as an unmarried woman.

I will not allow it to be more man’s nature than woman’s to be inconstant and forget those they do love, or have loved. I believe the reverse. I believe in a true analogy between our bodily frames and our mental; and that as our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings; capable of being most rough usage, and riding out the heaviest weather.

Related Characters: Captain and Mrs. Harville (speaker)
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Captain Harville disagrees with Anne about whether men or women are the most devoted in their love for other people. Where Anne insists that men are inferior to women as lovers, Harville that because men have stronger bodies than women, they must also have stronger emotions and willpower than women.

It's important to notice that Harville's argument is simply worse than Anne's--more poorly constructed, not as well thought-out, and more bullying in its presentation. In such a way, Austen subtly forces the debate toward Anne's position: reading the passage, the reader easily concludes that Anne is right: women (at the time, at least) really are better and more devoted lovers, since they don't have professions and careers to distract them. Nevertheless, Harville has a point, at least in this individual situation: his observations have obvious relevance to Captain Wentworth's feelings for Anne. Over the years, it's implied, Captain Wentworth has actually continued to love Anne, even if he sometimes hides his feelings beneath a mask of formality and curtness.