Damn, 3201 words. Well, what can I say after this essay? I now hate Persuasion and anything Jane Austen related (except Keira Knightly), that’s almost certain (not true, I still kinda love the entire genre). I wrote this for my final paper in my English Romantic Poets class at Bridgewater State University. I think it came out well. I wrote it over the span of a couple days which has been a pleasant change from how I have operated this semester. Just a quick note, any pictures or video I put in this post are things I am just now adding in and didn’t submit in my final draft to my teacher. Without much more adieu, check it out and let me know what you think of Persuasion’s ending.
Does Persuasion have a happy ending?
“Happy” is such a loaded word when it is used in reference to Jane Austen’s Persuasion. While there are multiple characters who ultimately receive what they longed for their entire life, for us to believe they are truly happy with the conclusion of the novel is hard to believe based on how we, the reader, are left feeling at the end of the book. The happiness of the characters at the end of the story, while it may be present, is without a doubt tainted and it is in haste to think that anyone of those characters is truly satisfied with how they got to their happiness endgame.
There are specific things to look at in relation to this idea of tainted happiness within Persuasion. The first big point is the engagement of Anne Elliot to Captain Wentworth eight years prior to the story taking place and the renewal of their relationship by the end of the story. After that there is the nature of Sir Walter Elliot that needs to be reflected on. A subsequent point is to look at the relationship between Mary and her husband Charles Musgrove and how that plays in the void of tainted happiness. Another point that will be delved into is the happiness of the widowed Mrs. Smith. The last character related point is to take into account the condition of Mr. Elliot upon the ending of the story. After all the characters have been addressed it’ll be necessary to revisit how the character’s happiness affects the happiness of the reader at the end of the story.
Harold Bloom, within his edited 1994 edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, pointed out the Latin meaning of the word persuasion in the very first line of his introduction. He noted that “‘Persuasion’ is a word derived from the Latin for ‘advising’ or ‘urging,’ for recommending that it is good to perform or not perform a particular action.” (Bloom, 1). If anyone sought out advisement in their life it would be Anne Elliot. Eight years earlier than the events of Persuasion Anne spoke with Lady Russell who urged that she not marry Captain Wentworth because he was not of her social standing. Even throughout the course of the novel Anne meets with multiple people, Lady Russell, Mary, the Musgroves and, of course, Mrs. Smith.
One of the things that can also be honed in on from the Bloom quote is the idea of “Good.” These things that people are advising Anne to do are “Good,” Anne is constantly seeking out these people so she could have some sort of quality she thinks none of the people around her have. Austen writes: “If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was to 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.” (Stade, 230) There seems to be a contradiction in Anne; a need to find someone suited for her – and in saying suited it is important to take in to account that it is suited in multiple definitions: fiscally, emotionally, intellectually – and a desire to appease the different people around her.
When Wentworth reenters her life it is under a much different set of circumstances. She no longer has the youthful glow she once had, her family’s future is bleak and the ideology of her life – the idea that there will be some sort of fairy tale fulfillment – also seems to be fading. Austen writes:
“And yet,” said Anne to herself, as they now moved forward to meet the party, “he has not, perhaps, a more sorrowing heart than I have. I cannot believe his prospects so blighted for ever. He is younger than I am; younger in feeling, if not in fact; younger as a man. He will rally again, and be happy with another.” (Stade, 93).
Throughout the story there are little bits where Anne points out the differences between men and women and in these bits her psyche is really put on display. She knows she does not have equal footing in the world she lives in and her goal is just to find someone who appreciates her for who she is and not what she is worth – which is the difference between Wentworth and Mr. Elliot.
The happiness they can have is further put into question at the very end of the novel when she and Wentworth have a discussion about the conditions of their gender. Anne says:
“We certainly do not forget you as 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.” (Stade, 219).
Anne knows there is an inequality present in society and knows that once she commits to Wentworth that she will inevitably live the life Mary lives. The question, as it pertains to Wentworth and Anne is “Is that happiness?” or would it have been happiness between the two of them eight years prior? But had they submitted at that time they would have been devoid of the happiness they obtained fiscally and socially in the eight years they were apart. The real question is if she subsided her love before, does that mean the more important thing is adhering to what society thinks of you? I think that is why the end of Persuasion feels so somber. Somber for the character’s we developed so much interest in and intrigue for, and then somber for the themes or ideas we have to take away from it.
Happiness as it pertains to Sir Walter is under a different set of circumstances. After the death of his wife, the elder Elliot began to live an extravagant life style. His ability to live was directly tied to his ability to live a life only the higher classes can afford is directly tied to his happiness, or rather, vanity:
“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 the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.” (Stade, 4).
When those abilities started to become hampered, Sir Walter’s happiness began to become maligned. He had to appeal to people like Captain Wentworth by renting out places for their residence – which is something that he did not appreciate at all:
“Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of … I have observed it all my life. A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to. (Stade, 19).
With all of these things happening to Sir Walter, including the eventual moving to Bath because of the constraints placed on the family, he never changes his demeanor. Anne would eventually notice:
She 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 landholder, should find so much to be vain of in the littlenesses of a town. (Stade, 129).
It feels like at every corner, when Sir Walter should be upset because of his lost status, finances, and residences, his vanity brings him to a place where he places himself in distinction above the other people around him. The one thing Sir Walter has is his lineage and that is something that can never be taken from him – no matter how far he falls in every other facet of his life. Is that something for the audience to be blindly accept? Can we, the readers, walk away from this novel and know that Sir Walter is happy where he is? We can’t. All we can know is of his blithe acceptance of what happens to his daughter. Austen writes:
Sir Walter, indeed, though he had no affection for Anne, and no vanity flattered, to make him really happy on the occasion, was very far from thinking it a bad match for her. On the contrary, when he saw more of Captain Wentworth, saw him repeatedly by daylight, and eyed him well, he was very much struck by his personal claims, and felt that his superiority of appearance might be not unfairly balanced against her superiority of rank; and all this, assisted by his well-sounding name, enabled Sir Walter at last to prepare his pen, with a very good grace, for the insertion of the marriage in the volume of honour. (Stade, 234).
Austen flat out states that Sir Walter isn’t acting with Anne’s intentions in mind. The above quote really shows how at the end of the novel Sir Walter only agrees to the marriage because he believes their appropriate pairing will reflect well on himself and their eventual lineage, which makes him happy. But after hearing all of the revelations Anne makes throughout the novel, we know this really isn’t happiness.
Mary and the condition of her marriage is one of the often overlooked aspects of Persuasion. Anne and Wentworth, Sir Walter and Elizabeth, and Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Smith are some of the more compelling characters in the story but something never really thought of is how the marriage of Mary compares to the potential marriage of Anne and Wentworth. Mary never seems happy. She is stuck in a family where she believes she is not valued as much as she should be because of her lineage. The fact that she never really accepted her place – or marriage, to that logic – is displayed in a conversation with Anne:
“So you and I are to be left to shift by ourselves, with this poor sick child; and not a creature coming near us all the evening! I knew how it would be. This is always my luck. If there is anything disagreeable going on men are always sure to get out of it, and Charles is as bad as any of them.”
“Nursing does not belong to a man; it is not his province. A sick child is always the mother’s property: her own feelings generally make it so.” (Stade, 54).
Mary just feels like – to the reader – that she should be happy. She is in the situation she wanted and all she is doing is looking for the fault in every aspect of her life. The happiness Mary gets by the end of the story is another type of rationalized ending that the characters tell themselves to feel comfortable with their life. Mary is without her family, is surrounded by the Musgroves who, as she believes, do not give her the proper respect she deserves, and she rarely gets to see her husband. Eventually she comes to the following idea:
Of all the family, Mary was probably the one most immediately gratified by the circumstance. It was creditable to have a sister married, and she might flatter herself with having been greatly instrumental to the connexion, by keeping Anne with her in the autumn; and as her own sister must be better than her husband’s sisters, it was very agreeable that Captain Wentworth should be a richer man than either Captain Benwick or Charles Hayter. She had something to suffer, perhaps, when they came into contact again, in seeing Anne restored to the rights of seniority, and the mistress of a very pretty landaulette; but she had a future to look forward to, of powerful consolation. Anne had no Uppercross Hall before her, no landed estate, no headship of a family; and if they could but keep Captain Wentworth from being made a baronet, she would not change situations with Anne. (Stade, 235-236)
The trend of happiness being a selfish quality continues within this paragraph on how Mary was feeling witnessing Anne and Wentworth in this last chapter. She felt happy about her sister’s happiness because it can ultimately be attributed to her: not because the two of them found a person they each can be happy with. Furthermore, the resounding reason we cannot be happy with Mar’s vain happiness by the end of the story is because of the last part of the above quote – Mary’s apprehensions that Anne will have a better life, or be in a better situation as a result of her own good-doing.
Mrs. Smith is perhaps the most genuine character in the novel and arguably the one person whose happiness for other people without regard to her own standing by the end of the novel. While it is hard to measure the growth of her character between two points in the book, we can decipher a lot by her actions towards Anne. Mrs. Smith appears two times in context with Anne. In Chapter 17 she and Anne reconnect and they pass pleasantries with one another. In Chapter 21, however, we learn the most about her character. Mrs. Smith says:
Hear the truth, therefore now, while you are unprejudiced. Mr. Elliot is a man without heart or conscience; a designing, wary, cold-blooded being, who thinks only of himself; who, for his own interest or ease, would be guilty of any cruelty, or any treachery, that could be perpetrated without risk of his general character. … Oh! He is black at heart, hollow and black! (Stade, 187)
Why doesn’t Mrs. Smith tell everything to Anne in chapter 17 instead of when she does in Chapter 21? In the first meeting when Anne was intent on marrying Mr. Elliot, Mrs. Smith tells us that it wasn’t in her place to skew her perception of the person she valued so much. She acted with respect to Anne’s happiness even with her feelings towards Mr. Elliot.
Is that the way we should look at her at the end of the story? I’m not certain. There is the overwhelming urge to point to the nothingness that is present in Mrs. Smith’s life – no husband, no money and no health – and argue that she didn’t say what she said in chapter 21 earlier in chapter 17 because she was given the opportunity to indulge in social politeness. But stepping into that line of thought would be wrong. Mrs. Smith shares multiple similarities with Anne’s deceased mother and it is reasonable to believe that Mrs. Smith is the only earnest character within Persuasion.
But can the readers really be happy with her acquired moral happiness at the end of the story? Yes, she has regained a friend and yes, she most likely will not live out the rest of her life in obscurity. The key phrase in that last sentence, however, is “the rest of her life.” With her depraved health and lack of social standing, can’t we assume that she will most likely die soon? For those keeping score, Mrs. Smith really falls into this category of people who have acquired some sort of happiness, but it is tainted by some mitigating factor within the book.
The last notable character is the progression of Mr. Elliot. The at once earnest, sincere and compassionate character deteriorates with every revelation thrown at him throughout the progression of the story until we see him as a vile, conniving, class climber that is hungrily striving to find some sort of happiness in his life, despite who it affects (see Smith, Mrs.).
Mr. Elliot showed up in the beginning of the story to keep an eye on Mrs. Clay as a way of making sure his inheritance from Sir Walter wasn’t disrupted. His relationship with Anne almost seems as just a way to keep that aforementioned watch on Mrs. Clay. And, judging by his haste departure after Anne learns of his nefarious intent for getting close to their family, his significance in the story can really be defined as being suspect.
There is a personal philosophy that I have when regarding the subject of happiness. It is of my opinion that people are incapable to do a good, selfless deed for another person without receiving some sort of personal fulfillment. Let’s say Person A buys a homeless person dinner so he or she can eat. Even though Person A is doing something solely because they want to make sure the homeless person has a basic human right, in doing the act they are getting some sort of happiness because they paid for the homeless person’s dinner. I tend to think of that when I think of happiness within the context of Persuasion. All of the characters identified throughout this essay gained something at the end of this story: Anne and Wentworth finally connected, Sir Walter developed an increased social standing by marrying off one of his daughters, Mary also increased her social standing by being the one who connected Wentworth and Anne, Mrs. Smith helped her friend (Anne) and got revenge on the nare-do-well Mr. Elliot that ruined her social standing upon the death of her husband, and finally, Mr. Elliot, who preserved his fiscal life by whisking away Ms. Clay from Sir Walter. But can we really believe they are happy by the end of the story? We can’t.
With everything listed in the previous paragraph the reader is left with the reality of Anne being cooped up in a house all day, Sir Walter losing Anne – even if he had no affection for her, who is one of the, if not the definitive, people with substance in his life, Mary, who is slowly fading into the obscurity of her situation, Mrs. Smith, who has many legitimate problems to be worried about, and then Mr. Elliot who once again alienates his remaining family by acting with his own will in mine.
If all of those facts are focused on, instead of the character’s own rationalizations, we take away from the story some very dark ideas that can be summed up by a review written in the early twentieth century. The writer for The Atlantic Monthly wrote the following, “Miss Austen could never have solved the problems of modern art, which has been to portray the human will rising superior to a new “necessity” more terrible than the “fate” the ancients knew…”. All of these characters cede to the happiness society says they should have rather than doing what they deem right for themselves. That is why Persuasion has an unhappy ending to the human spirit and any other reader in a modern, gender-equal society.