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Status and Social Class Theme Analysis

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Persuasion, like many of Austen’s novels, is a study in 18th century English society, and its nuances of class rigidity and social mobility. Status and independence are composed of a combination of wealth, ancestry, and occupation: certain characters achieve independence through marrying into wealth, as is the case with Mr. William Elliot’s first marriage, while others such as Captain Frederick Wentworth achieve status and wealth through climbing the Naval ranks. Sir Walter Elliot prides himself on his “ancient and respectable” lineage, baronetcy, and wealthy estate; he is greatly preoccupied that his manner of living and ensuring that the people with whom his family associates will befit his high status, although these concerns lead him into excessive debt and undiscerning connections.

Considerations of class also affect characters of less vanity and more prudence, such as Lady Russell and the protagonist Anne Elliot. Lady Russell judiciously advises Anne about the importance of marrying a man who matches her station and can adequately provide for her, and, based on this counsel, Anne conscientiously refrains from marrying the man she loves. Austen’s novel—for all of its romantic wisdom about matching temperaments and love in marriage—also highlights and supports the importance of “marrying well” as a concern that none of the characters can escape, and one that inevitably takes into considerations of class and wealth.

Status and social class both motivate and restrict the actions that characters are able to take in fulfilling their desires. From the start of the novel, Sir Walter Elliot’s vanity and luxurious spending in order to live according to his status leads him into financial debt and require him to rent his estate. Mr. William Elliot is motivated to marry Anne out of a lately developed appreciation for his inheritance and baronetcy. Captain Wentworth strikes out to sea in order to make his fortunes through the Navy.

One of the most striking examples of how status and class influence agency is in the tragedy of Mrs. Smith, Anne’s girlhood friend who is crippled by debt, widowhood, and illness. In the eyes of society, she has essentially nothing and relies on the more privileged Anne’s kindness, friendship, and charity.

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Status and Social Class ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Persuasion related to the theme of Status and Social Class.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. . . . He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.

Related Characters: Sir Walter Elliot
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

In the first chapter of the novel, Austen introduces us to the key themes: the importance of marriage, and marriage's relationship with class. If there's an ironclad law of Austen's world, it's that people from high-class families must make high-class marriages--class must perpetuate itself. Sir Walter Elliot, the patriarch of the family, and the product of generations of high-class marriages, loves himself because he's handsome, but more importantly because he comes from a noble family. It makes no difference that Walter is a gambler and has little money left; class is its own currency.

In this searingly ironic passage, Austen makes it crystal-clear that she's making fun of Elliot: he's clearly a narcissistic fool who loves himself more than he cares for anyone else. And yet, as critics have often pointed out, it's not clear if Austen really has an alternative to the system she's making fun of. Austen mocks Walter, and yet she also seems to follow the same rules that Walter respects, showing how her characters achieve happiness and fulfillment mostly by getting married off to wealthy, high-class people.


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Chapter 3 Quotes

Yes; [the Navy] is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as a means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most horribly.

Related Characters: Sir Walter Elliot (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Navy
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Walter, as pompous and foolish as ever, tells us a lot about his character in this passage. Walter and his family are trying to decide what to do about renting their place out; Mrs. Clay (Elizabeth's friend) suggests that they rent it out to Navy men who've come back from active duty. Walter objects to such an idea because he disapproves of the Navy altogether. As far as he's concerned, the Navy is bad because 1) it makes handsome, youthful men ugly and worn out, and 2) it allows low-class people to rise to high-class positions in society.

In other words, Walter's reasons for hating the navy are basically the same as his reasons for loving himself. Walter is so slavishly devoted to the ideal of the English aristocrat that he can't stand the idea of any kind of meritocracy; the idea that a person should attain success because of his own merits, not because of his family tree.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Anne Elliot, with all her claims of birth, beauty, and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen; involve herself at nineteen in an engagement with a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession; would be, indeed, a throwing away, which [Lady Russell] grieved to think of! . . . It must not be, if by any fair interference of friendship, any representations from one who had almost a mother’s love, and mother’s rights, it would be prevented.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot, Lady Russell
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Austen describes how Lady Russell, the close friend of Anne's late mother, endeavors to break off a possible marriage between Anne and her lover, Captain Wentworth. Wentworth was a likable, talented man, but he was also relatively poor, and didn't have a reliable career track--therefore, he wasn't a suitable match for Anne. Lady Russell loves Anne, but she thinks of herself as a businesswoman, one could say: her goal is to ensure the survival of Anne's family name and reputation, and to ensure that Anne is provided for over the course of her entire life. Wentworth, with his low income and uncertain future, can't give Anne what she deserves.

Austen gives us a great example of "free indirect discourse" in this passage. Austen is writing in the third person, but she's clearly writing from the point of view of one of the characters, namely Lady Russell (you can almost hear her voice, offering excuses for breaking off the engagement). The effect of this free indirect discourse is to give us a window into Lady Russell's mind: we see that she's a sincere character who genuinely loves and is looking out for Anne, even if she's perhaps a little too reliant on the myths of aristocratic superiority--and if her role of motherly "persuasion" ultimately ends up hurting Anne.

Anne, at seven and twenty, thought very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen.—She did not blame Lady Russell, she did not blame herself for having been guided by her; but she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good. . . . She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot, Lady Russell
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Austen describes the supposed "unnaturalness" of the chronology of Anne's concept of love. Anne wanted to get married to a handsome, likable man when she was only 19 years old, but because Lady Russell persuaded her to break off the engagement, the result of the interrupted courtship is that Anne learned the hard rules of marriage early on, and is only now learning about love and romance. As a teenager, she saw the economic rules that governed marriage--only now is she coming to feel truly romantic on account of her loneliness.

The passage is interesting because it suggests a central problem that the novel will have to correct: there's a basic disagreement between the characters' notions of love and their notions of what is practical. Furthermore, the passage might suggest that in this society, it really is important to understand finance and the "hard rules" before falling in love--most people fall in love too early and then have to wise up about money and real estate (particularly women, who in Austen's world have few other options of making money or rising in class). Anne, on the other hand, wised up early--but now that the groundwork has been laid, she is learning to focus on romance.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated and not at all elegant. . . . Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but still, saved as we all are by some comfortable feelings of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments; and envied them nothing but that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot, Mr. & Mrs. Musgrove
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, we meet the Musgroves, the second-most prestigious family in the parish where the Elliots live. Anne knows the Musgroves well, and secretly admires them because they're down-to-earth and seem not to care particularly about aristocracy or marriage. Where Anne has to be bossed into marrying the "right man," the Musgroves' children seem to get few if any real directions from their parents.

Anne's attitude toward the Musgroves is fascinating: she admires them but would never, ever switch places with them. Anne sometimes wishes that she could think of her own happiness instead of focusing on economics and honoring the family name. And yet she's also conscious of her "noble burden"--she has to find a suitable husband in order to honor her family's history, even if doing so makes her life a little sadder. Furthermore, she subconsciously assumes that her own mind is more "elegant and cultivated" because of her birth and heritage. Anne isn't free from her father's selfish, aristocratic bias, however much she might want to be.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Anne had not wanted this visit to Uppercross, to learn that a removal from one set of people to another, though at a distance of only three miles, will often include a total change of conversation, opinion, and idea. She had never been staying there before, without being struck by it, or without wishing that other Elliots could have her advantage in seeing how unknown, or unconsidered there, were the affairs which at Kellynch-hall were treated as of such general publicity and pervading interest.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot
Related Symbols: Kellynch Hall
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Anne describes some of the major differences between life in her own household and life among the Musgrove family. The big difference between the Elliots and the Musgroves is a social title: the Musgroves have less of a title, and therefore they seem to take life more easily: they don't put a lot of importance in whom their children marry. Anne visits the Musgroves and is immediately impressed and surprised by the total absence of talk about aristocracy and genealogy--the talk that dominates life in her own home.

Anne is surprised by the Musgroves' easy manner, and yet it's not clear if Anne truly envies them. As unhappy as her pursuit of a "proper" marriage has made her, she seems to consider it her duty to find a proper husband nonetheless. And perhaps her visit to the Musgroves reminds her of how much "easier" (only in some senses, obviously) her life could have been if she hadn't been born into an aristocratic family.

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.

Captain Wentworth had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity.

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

In this passage, Austen plays with the differences between free indirect discourse and third person narration to create a genuine ambiguity around Captain Wentworth's personality. Wentworth, we're told, has returned to Anne's life behaving coldly and distantly: he seems not to forgive her for breaking off the engagement. In Wentworth's mind, it would seem, Anne has proven herself unworthy of him because of how easily she relented to Lady Russell's persuasion--she chose to please others rather than follow her heart.

Some ambiguity then arises over whether the passage is Anne's impression of what Wentworth must be thinking, or whether it's Austen's description of what the Captain is thinking. it's genuinely difficult to tell: Austen uses both free indirect discourse and regular third-person narration, and therefore it's unclear whether or not we should "trust" the passage. The ambiguity in Wentworth's character in crucial to the plot of the novel: in essence, we'll spend the next 200 pages deciding whether or not to trust this quotation--is the Captain really angry with and disappointed in Anne, or is he still in love with her, or both?

Chapter 15 Quotes

[Anne] might not wonder, but she must sigh that her father should feel no degradation in his change; should see nothing to regret in the duties and dignity of the resident land-holder; should find so much to be vain of in the littleness of a town; and she must sigh, and smile, and wonder too, as Elizabeth threw open the folding-doors and walked with exultation from one drawing-room to the other, boasting of their space, at the possibility of that woman, who had been mistress of Kellynch Hall, finding extent to be proud of between two walls, perhaps thirty feet asunder.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot, Sir Walter Elliot, Elizabeth Elliot
Related Symbols: Kellynch Hall
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Anne joins her father and her sister, Elizabeth, in the town of Bath. Anne is secretly amused with her family members for being so impressed with such a tiny, ordinary town. Walter is proud of himself for being powerful enough to travel and reside in a town outside his own home at Kellynch Hall, and Elizabeth seems to feel a similar sense of pride: she praises their accommodations in Bath, even though they're pretty tiny (at least compared to their former home).

The passage is illuminating because it suggests that Anne's family members are more self-satisfied with the mere fact of owning real estate, being able to travel, and being aristocrats, than with the material conditions of their wealth and power. Walter's aristocracy is really title-only; he doesn't have a lot of money or political clout anymore, and yet the mere fact of being an aristocrat is enough to satisfy him. Anne, by contrast, can see (somewhat) through the theater of the aristocracy. The supposed power and glamor of the Baronetage doesn't really exist at all: Walter and Elizabeth are just getting off on their supposed prestige and superiority.

[Mr. Elliot] was quite as good-looking as he had appeared at Lyme, his countenance improved by speaking, and his manners were so exactly what they ought to be, so polished, so easy, so particularly agreeable, that she could compare them in excellence to only one person’s manners. . . . There could be no doubt of his being a sensible man. Ten minutes were enough to certify that. His tone, his expressions, his choice of subject, his knowing where to stop—it was all the operation of a sensible, discerning mind.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot, Mr. William Elliot
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Anne gets to know Mr. Elliot a little better--but only a little. Mr. Elliot has come to Bath to visit Anne's family, and although Anne can't decide why he would do such a thing, Anne's family seems sure that he's going to try to marry Anne. Mr. Elliot seems like an excellent suitor for Anne; he's wealthy, successful, and handsome, as well as polite and courteous in tone.

Anne bases her assessment of Elliot's character on a ten-minute interaction with him, however, suggesting that her assessment might not be very accurate at all. Clearly, she's so dazzled by the appearance of properness and likability that she takes Mr. Elliot for granted without investigating any further. Anne seems so desperate for romance that she's willing to marry the first halfway-decent man who comes along, even if she doesn't know him well yet. Anne has made the mistake of being too cautious before, but now she seems to be veering too far in the other direction, throwing all caution to the wind.

Chapter 16 Quotes

My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot (speaker), Mr. William Elliot
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mr. Elliot and Anne are getting to know each other better, though Anne still seems to think that Mr. Elliot might be more interested in her sister, Elizabeth. Mr. Elliot asks Anne how she defines good company, and to his surprise Anne disagrees with statements he's made before, claiming that "good company" consists of people who talk about intelligent subjects, rather than blabbing about the importance of social rank and genealogy. Anne, pretty clearly, is directing her criticism at people like her father, who talk about aristocracy and nothing else. Mr. Elliot seems to believe that aristocracy is an important subject, but he also seems to respect Anne for expressing her own opinion instead of blindly agreeing with him.

At this point in the text, Mr. Elliot and Anne seem to have a good relationship; though Elliot is old-fashioned and pretentious in many ways, he at least allows Anne to mature as a thinker, expressing her own ideas and opinions. One reason that Anne seems like a surprisingly modern protagonist is that she distrusts the cult of the aristocracy; like most modern readers (presumably), she doesn't place a lot of stock in one's ancestry--it's more important to be talented, pleasant, or interesting than it is to have the right parents.

Good company requires only birth, education and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are essential; but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company, on the contrary, it will do very well. . . . Will it not be wiser to accept the society of these good ladies in Laura-place, and enjoy all the advantages of the connexion as far as possible? You may depend upon it, that they will move in the first set in Bath this winter, and as rank is rank, your being known to be related to them will have its use in fixing your family (our family let me say) in that degree of consideration which we must all wish for.

Related Characters: Mr. William Elliot (speaker)
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, Mr. Elliot gives us a glimpse of his real intentions. Mr. Elliot has been arguing playfully with Anne about the importance of education and intelligence in "good company." Where Anne insists that the only qualifications for good company are intelligence and knowledge, Mr. Elliot insists that good company requires pedigree and "birth"--in other words, the best company is always aristocratic (a stimulating conversation with a group of commoners wouldn't really be good company by Elliot's definition). Elliot seems to admit that intelligence is worth something, but it's also clear that he places more stock in birth, meaning that he's not so different from Anne's father, Sir Walter. Elliot's investment in the aristocracy is clear, insofar as he steers the conversation toward social climbing. Elliot suggests that Anne's family association with the aristocracy (and, assuming Mr. Elliot marries into Anne's family, his association) will help them rise in society and gain the proper "degree of consideration."

In retrospect, it's possible to see that Mr. Elliot is actually obsessed with title: he wants to marry Anne (or Elizabeth) because he wants a title for himself. He's only pretending to care about intelligence and good conversation because he wants to impress Anne and con her into accepting his marriage proposal.

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.

Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished—but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable . . . She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped. Mr. Elliot was too generally agreeable.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot, Mr. William Elliot
Page Number: 118-119
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn that Mr. Elliot really is trying to marry Anne, not her sister, Elizabeth. Mr. Elliot is a charming, highly agreeable man, but there's something untrustworthy about him: he's so clean that he has to be dirty. Previously, Anne has been charmed by Mr. Elliot's easy manner and witty observations, but now she's beginning to wonder if he might be hiding something from her and her family. It's as if Mr. Elliot wears a mask of cheerfulness and respectability, beneath which one would find his true feelings (or actions).

Previously, Anne thought of Mr. Elliot as charming and likable--but what has changed in Anne's assessment of Mr. Elliot? In no small part, Anne is having second thoughts about Mr. Elliot because she's just seen her old friend Mrs. Smith. Interacting with Mrs. Smith, who stands outside the great "game" of courtship, politeness, and properness, helps Anne see how fake and insincere the game really is; as a result, she has an easier time seeing through Mr. Elliot's suave behavior.

Chapter 23 Quotes

If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk. When I yielded, I thought it was to duty; but no duty could be called in aid here. In marrying a man indifferent to me, all risk would have been incurred, and all duty violated.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot (speaker)
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Anne and Wentworth work out some of their feelings for each other. Anne tries to explain why she turned Wentworth down so many years ago: others persuaded her to do so for practical reasons. Yet Anne no longer seems not to regret her decision altogether: on the contrary, she believes that duty and prudence really are important in achieving happiness. Notice the way that she alludes to the possibility of marrying Mr. Elliot: such a decision would have been a bad one, she explains, because it would have violated her duty to her family (demonstrating that Anne continues to place a lot of stock in the concept of duty itself). Asserting one's will blindly isn't always the best course of action, essentially--often it's necessary to take other, more complicated factors into consideration when making decisions.

I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion.

Related Characters: Anne Elliot (speaker), Lady Russell
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

Anne continues to talk with Captain Wentworth about her decision to beak off their engagement years ago. While Anne has gone through a lot of sadness in the years following her decision, she now seems not to regret her decision anymore; she took the advice of a good mentor, Lady Russell, and she's now happy she did.

The point of the passage seems to be that Anne was right to wait so many years for Wentworth, and to allow herself to be persuaded by her trusted friends. The years between her first and second engagements have strengthened Anne's character and strengthened her love for Wentworth, and the same is true of Wentworth. The moral, one could say, is that being completely headstrong and impulsive is just as bad as being completely obedient to other people; in Anne's character, we see the compromise between duty and freedom, persuasion and independence--Anne is a mature young woman, but her independence doesn't compel her to ignore others' advice; she marries Wentworth now because it's the practical and the romantic thing to do.