Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Presence of the Past and the Future in Persuasion

Persuasion is a story so focused on time. It is in this novel that Austen dates the events of the story. She sets it in the summer of 1814 and recalls events that took place in 1806. As mentioned in class, the choice by Austen to set the novel at this time was a conscious one. She wanted to set it at the time of the “false peace”. The historical events that would follow the novel would undoubtedly affect the characters. But still the past comes charge back into the lives of the characters

The impact of the past is felt the most by Anne in the story. She feels it with the return of Captain Frederick. He returns from both a life in the navy and the events of Anne’s past. He brings with him all the feelings that Anne felt for him. At times, it becomes too much for her to handle. In particular, she will interact with him and she becomes physically unaware of it. This occurs when he removes young Walter from her shoulders. The narrator describes “before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it. Her sensations on this discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him.” (69). He crosses over into her presence and she is left without the knowledge of what to do next.

The same can be said for the overall experience of him returning into her life. Will she go back to the great love of her past or continue to soldier on in misery? It comes down to the title of the novel, persuasion. Eight years earlier, she was persuaded by Lady Russell not to accept Wentworth’s hand in marriage. Wentworth proves his undying devotion to Anne through a letter and persuades her to marry him. Overall she is persuaded to welcome the past back into her life.

Once she is though, she must deal with the impending future. The novel closes with this sentiment “the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine” (203). If the novel were to continue on, it may see Wentworth leave Anne to go fight in war.

Examine whether the past has a greater impact on or the future has the greater potential to impact Anne. Overall judge whether events that occurred previous to a novel or hypothetical events to follow matter more to the development of a character such as Anne. Is she more aware of her past or her future in the novel?


  1. I agree that Anne is a character who is affected more by both the past and future than the present. If I had to choose one, however, (in response to your final question), I would say that the Anne of the novel is more influenced by her past. The entire plot of the novel rests on the events of the past, and leans on the past to see how the future will be shaped. Anne has eight full years of the past to prove to herself how she feels about Captain Wentworth; these feelings do not seem to be likely changed in the future. Anne is also affected by the past in terms of her interactions with other characters, not just Captain Wentworth. She denies Charles Musgrove’s proposal as a result of her past romance with Captain Wentworth; she is also led to this denial because she refuses to again fall victim to Lady Russell’s persuasions, as she learned that they were problematic in the past. Anne is also led to question Mr. Elliot’s character as a result of his past treatment of her family; she cannot envision a future marriage with him because of the indiscretions of his past. A past acquaintance, Mrs. Smith, is also vital to showing Anne what Mr. Elliot’s character is like. Though the novel ends on a note of the future, the past permeates throughout the entirety of the novel.

  2. I agree with Jessica that Anne is a affected more by the past. However, I don't think that she has much control over her future by the end of the novel, given the nature of war.

    Had Anne known that Wentworth would appear in her future after denying his proposal eight years prior, she might have thought a bit differently and not allowed Lady Russell to sway her decision. With the deliberate timing of the "false peace," Austen is making it clear that Anne will be affected by her future once more. However, it is important to note that Anne is never aware of how her future might relate to the present. She lives in the past, always with Wentworth on her mind, especially when she denies Musgrove's proposal. Her focus on the past is also clear given her opinion of the navy, it is obvious this opinion comes from her past with Captain Wentworth. Yet, the navy is the very thing that will come to affect her future with Captain Wentworth in the years to come. It is interesting that Austen uses such irony in allowing the reader to foresee Anne and Captain Wentworth's impending future. At the beginning of the novel, she might be saying something about the naivety of Anne's character by purposefully giving the reader Anne's past before Wentworth comes back into the picture. This gives us an initial judgement on their relationship and allows us to see how much its past affects Anne throughout the novel. The passion that Jess talks about in her blog post is ever present since the time she first denies his proposal.

    We are able to juxtapose Anne and Wentworth's past with their present, and through the ironic ending of the novel, we are also able to juxtapose the present with the future, realizing that the war is something which the characters cannot control. Though Anne lives in the past, she will not be able to change the fact that her husband might leave her for war. Eight years prior, Anne had the opportunity to accept the marriage proposal and have control over her future, but now that the war threatens the fate of her marriage, she has no opportunity to change her fate.

  3. I agree with Jess and Lauren in saying that past events contribute more to Anne’s development as a character. But honestly, I think that that applies to people in general, not just Austen’s character of Anne Eliot. Not to sound like a cliché, but no one knows what will happen in the future, so people need to rely on past experiences and lessons learned from past experiences to help navigate them through life and to help them make decisions for themselves. The past is the only thing that is sort of tangible, the future is not. For Anne, specifically, her feelings and “constancy” for Wentworth serves as a past experience that she uses to make decisions in her life. She has had eight years to think about her rejection of his marriage proposal and eight years to mature. Looking back at that time in her life, she is more aware of her feelings for him and the circumstances and influences that led her to reject him. By being more aware of her feelings and more apprehensive of other people’s influences, like Lady Russell, Anne learns valuable lessons from her past experiences and heartaches. It is hard to imagine how a character like Anne, or anyone, could grow if they did not look at the past. The fact that Austen makes Wentworth’s profession that of a navy captain throws an aspect of unpredictability into the mix for Anne and Wentworth’s future. The potential for future war will obviously have an effect on Anne’s life, but that is something that is out of her control. This future war could potentially change Anne’s circumstances, but with the ending of the novel being her and Wentworth married, unaware that they were living in a time of “false peace,” I think that it can be said that the past has the most significant impact on Anne’s character given all of the information provided within the pages of the novel.

  4. I agree with what everyone has said about Anne being a character who is shaped by her past. Throughout the novel we see numerous instances where her past was a crucial influence on her present actions. Past events have been so influential in her life, that she is physically affected by them- after her initial refusal of Wentworth she lost what little beauty she had in her youth and this has affected her in her family and society’s eyes. Though Anne’s past has influenced her life in negative ways and Austen ends the novel on a powerful note referencing the future, I would like to venture the make the claim that in Persuasion, Austen was trying to tell her readers that the past is ultimately more important than what will come.

    Characters whose past dictates their present, most notably Anne, Captain Wentworth, Admiral and Sophia Croft, and James Benwick, are the ones who get their happy endings. Captain Wentworth says that he has always been lucky and relies on these past events to predict his future. It is also implied that he was greatly affected by Anne’s refusal and this helped to dictate his actions later in life. Admiral and Sophia Croft are very aware that the future could hold another war, but are not overly concerned. They keep the mannerisms that their pasts of being part of the military even in times of peace- this ultimately makes them some of the most likeable characters in the novel. Finally, James Benwick’s actions are almost completely defined by his grief from the loss of his fiancé. Austen gives all of these characters implied happy endings.

    In contrast, characters who are obsessed with the future, such as the Elliot family excluding Anne and Mrs. Clay. Sir Elliot and his daughter Elizabeth are concerned about their family’s image so that they may continue to uphold a reputation worthy of their status. Both wish to see the family move upward through an advantageous marriage. Mary is also highly concerned with the future of members of the Musgrove family and of her own. Mrs. Clay is also overly concerned about her future- in order to lift herself out of poverty she attempts to marry Sir Elliot. None of these characters are given a extraordinarily important ending.

    I believe that Austen was trying to tell her readers that they must be mindful of the future, but not to let fear of what will come dictate your present actions. The past is reliable and solid, while the future is intangible. It is much more sensible to allow the solid events of the past to dictate one’s actions, rather than the suppositions of the future. If one allows their future to dictate their actions, there is a chance that that life will not be worth living.

  5. As a character whose mind is dominated by times other than the present, Anne struggles with coming to terms with present conditions of her life. Although time is a dominating theme, it is one that not even Austen, as the artistic creator of the novel, is able to contain. By setting Persuasion amidst war, the novel is bound by the constraints of history. The same can be said about Anne's life. She is shaped by her own history, but moreover, she is defined by it, as she deals with self-conflict concerning Captain Wentworth. Anne allows the past to influence her present life, as she fails to recognize a future without the restricting elements of her past. While she is stagnant throughout much of the novel, Anne relies upon her past and expects it to influence her future. With the change brought about by Captain Wentworth's return and marriage to Anne, the novel comes to a changing point, which also happens to be the end. If the novel were to continue, I think the reader would discover an Anne more open to the present goings-on of her life, but one that is still heavily influenced by her past. Because time is a facet left un-meddled by Austen, its forcefulness will undoubtedly have repercussions upon her characters.

  6. There is little doubt that one of the most important themes in Austen’s Persuasion is that of time and missed opportunities. Like Nick recognized, the instances we see events of the past resurface are plentiful throughout the text and, because of this, it is our responsibility as readers to determine why this theme is so exaggerated by Austen. What about temporality is so significant? Can we overcome missed opportunities? Can time truly heal all? These questions are far from easily answered. In Anne’s case, the past has followed her into the present. While Anne had hoped that each passing day would heal her of heartache, forgetting the past caused her to lose her “bloom.” This begs the question – what is bloom? It may be the youth she once had eight years prior to the action of the story but if that was the case, she certainly could not recapture youth when Captain Wentworth came back into the picture. Instead, maybe her bloom is the possibility of forever being with the man she loved. With the Admiral and Sophia Croft as newfound role models, Anne realizes that happiness is possible in marriage to a serviceman. Her long lost feelings for Captain Wentworth can now resurface and flourish, causing an increase in her level of bloom. Ultimately, Anne and Captain Wentworth are able to resurrect their past and, because of the Crofts, can see a future filled with happiness. The past and the future come together for Anne and Captain Wentworth, finding them in a present full of joy at the end of the novel.