Of Novelistic Persuasion Essay, Research Paper
Defining the novel is a challenging prospect because the act of naming means to circumscribe a genre that defies rigid codes. The novel’s elasticity and readiness to incorporate other genres makes it slippery and untidy; nevertheless, the novelness of a text allows us to recognize a novel and distinguish it from other genres. As readers, we approach the novel with the expectation that it will possess novelistic attributes and judge the novel on its ability to master these. With this focus in mind, this essay explores how the following features in Jane Austen’s Persuasion contribute to (or persuade us as to) the novelness of the text: the extensive treatment of its characters, a sense of cohesion and continuity present in a work of long prose fiction, and a vivid portrayal of the social order on the micro-level of the domestic scenes of everyday.
The heroine, Anne Elliot, is a 27-year-old “old maid,” who devotes her life to caring for the needs of her family and friends. In the bloom of youth, her sense of duty to her mentor Lady Russell and her family compel her to decline marriage to Frederick Wentworth, the man she loves. Although an officer in the British Navy, Wentworth lacks the wealth and rank in society that is highly esteemed by Anne’s associates. Austen’s novelistic treatment of her characters means that as readers, we get to know them. The length of the novel allows for pacing. Austin can fully develop her characters and show them in many circumstances, in different contexts over time, a method that helps to flesh out the characters. For example, we observe Anne Elliot, dwarfed by the selfish concerns of her father and sister Elizabeth while at Kellynch Hall and Anne’s lack of criticism of her family’s frivolousness. We witness her willingness to cater to her sister Mary’s needs as Mary acts the spoiled martyr in her home at Uppercross, even though Anne’s service delays her chance to meet Captain Wentworth after several years apart. We rally behind Anne’s heroic sensibility in caring for Lydia, after a near-fatal accident, and her nonjudgmental attitude toward this supposed rival for Wentworth’s love.
In the novel we develop an intimacy with the characters that is not possible in shorter works, such as the short story, or more public works, such as drama. In a short story we meet the characters, but the encounter is relatively brief, a mere introduction. Just as time and experience help us to know people better, the lengthy experience available in the novel helps us to become better acquainted with the characters. The experience of knowing a character may be richer because the layering of more specific details available in a work of longer prose fiction creates a fleshed-out character. Also, the novel permits us to know minor characters as well with more depth than allowed in a shorter work. For instance, Austen describes Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, for many pages. He is only important to the story because it gives a reason for Captain Wentworth to be reacquainted with Anne. Sir Walter’s excessive debt forces him to move, which influences Anne’s visits to Uppercross to see her sister and to Bath to stay with him and Elizabeth. In addition to helping with the plot, Sir Walter acts as a foil to Anne’s character, her good-natured sensibility compared to her father’s frivolous vanity.
The novel allows us to view the emotional life of characters and highlights, as Ian Watt puts it in The Rise of the Novel, the “primacy of individual experience” (Watt 15). As readers, we become voyeurs, privy to the inner thoughts and private emotions of the characters (or at least the main character). Not all novels reveal the inner life of its characters (it’s possible for a limited third-person narrator to only relate the actions and speech of the characters), but it’s a common feature of the novel and what distinguishes it from drama. Although similar to the novel, a work of drama is a written text, drama is written for a different purpose, to be performed on the stage. As opposed to the private experience of reading the novel, watching a play is a more public experience, to be appreciated in a room full of bodies, who respond to the play with laughter, groans, surprise, boredom, etc. Also, in a play we are only privy to the inner life of characters through witnessing the characters’ (actors’) speech and actions, or thru the artifice of soliloquy to inform us of the characters’ thoughts and feelings. But the novel acts as a collage of experiences and emotions. Although Persuasion is a romance in which the characters do not change, we find Anne’s character rich because this layering over time of Anne’s thoughts, emotions, and actions exists. We deem a novel successful if it adheres to what Watt calls its “fidelity to human experience” (13).
Persuasion is divided into twenty-four chapters, but if we were to read one chapter by itself as a story, it would not stand independently. It would not feel complete. The novel is a work of long prose fiction that is commonly divided into chapters (I can’t think of an instance when this chapter or section format has not been used in the novel, if only to divide the novel into manageable chunks), yet each chapter is not self-sufficient, as opposed to a collection of short stories. The sequence of the chapters is important. We read from the front of the book to the back, in order to make meaning of the text. The chapters are connected and lend a sense of cohesion to the work. Full meaning in the text lies in the sum of the chapters, not by picking a choosing excerpts here or there. While reading the novel, we expect continuity. Even if the author is mastering various narrative threads, we expect them to weave together, to be connected at some point. For example, in the third chapter we learn that Anne’s father, Sir Walter’s profligate lifestyle forces the Elliot’s removal to Bath where they can live within their means and lease Kellynch Hall estate to Admiral Croft and his wife, who happens to be the sister of Frederick Wentworth. As Anne strolls the gardens, she dreams that “perhaps, he will be walking” along the same path (Austen 18). This passage introduces “he,” Anne’s estranged lover, and we expect that this separation will be resolved at some point in the work and the lovers will be reunited.
The novel also offers us commentary on society by its vivid portrayal of the social order. Of course, other genres such as poetry, the short story, or the play offer social commentary, but the novel accomplishes this in a manner that focuses on the banal details of everyday life. This is especially pertinent in Austen’s novels, comic romances that peer at domesticity, the minutiae of everyday through a magnifying glass. Watt explains that it is the nature of the novel to surround characters with a “detailed presentation of their environment” (Watt 18). This presentation of the characters’ background provides for social commentary. Of course, as readers, we allow the author room for artifice. For example, we suspend disbelief when circumstances just happen to occur, such the intimacy between Anne’s cousin, Sir Walter, and her recluse friend, Mrs. Smith, that sheds light on Sir Walter’s duplicity with Anne and her family. But we expect an adherence to the reality of the social order of the time. For instance, although I am no scholar of early nineteenth century life, I read with the expectation that Austen is accurate in her portrayal of the upper and middle classes (especially women’s life) in provincial England. She may fabricate to make a good story, but her details about this particular segment of society should be accurate (as accurate as can be made by an observer, and a woman sequestered from male-dominated world). If this were not so, we would not try to read novels as a reflection of society. And cultural criticism using novels for analysis would be useless.
The thorough development of characters, the novel’s structure and cohesion, and the portrayal of the social order are qualities that loom essential in my mind as I read Persuasion. These attributes are by no means exhaustive. But I focused on qualities that are necessary for the novel’s success, that not only are present in the novel, but also distinguish it from other genres.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1817. New York: Norton, 1995.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1957.