Class Rigidity and Social Mobility
The issues of class rigidity and social mobility are the most important themes in Persuasion. Marriage and the naval profession are two means by which individuals may improve their social class. Austen is not a revolutionary; she defends the values and traditions of respect for the social structure. Yet she is subtly subversive in her support of greater social mobility. The Navy's role in gradually increasing class flexibility is stated to be one of its "domestic virtues." But there are rules and limits to social ambition in Austen's world. Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Clay are punished for the selfishness they show in overstepping their bounds and breaking these rules. Austen is conservative in her respect for class traditions, yet practically she recognizes the advantages of greater social flexibility.
The novel asks whether it is better to be firm in one's convictions or to be open to the suggestions of others. After being dismissed by Anne eight years ago, Captain Wentworth believes strongly that any woman he marries will have a strong character and independent mind. While Anne believes that these are good qualities, she is also receptive to a sense of obligation and duty. She concludes that it was right for her to allow herself to be persuaded because "a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman's portion." In the end, Austen allows the reader to judge whether persuasion is a positive or negative force in the novel.
Silly parents play an important role in Persuasion, and are a recurring theme in many of Jane Austen's novels. Here, Sir Walter's imprudence and insensible extravagance cause the initial conflict that force the Elliots to leave their homes and "retrench" in Bath. Sir Walter is not a source of guidance for his daughters; he is so vain and self-involved that he is unable to make good decisions for the family. He has transmitted his 'silliness' to both Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth shares his vanity and self-importance; Mary is so filled with self-pity that she thinks everything a personal slight. Her children are uncontrollable because she takes little interest in teaching them. Although Anne has the good sense and strength of character to avoid the silliness, she is nevertheless inconvenienced by it. Children who must put up with irresponsible or ridiculous parents are a consistent theme in the novel.
The idea of separate spheres was a nineteenth-century doctrine that there are two domains of life: the public and the domestic. Traditionally, the male would be in charge of the public domain (finances, legal matters, etc.) while the female would be in charge of the private domain (running the house, ordering the servants, etc.). This novel questions the idea of separate spheres by introducing the Crofts. Presented as an example of a happy, ideal marriage, Admiral and Mrs. Croft share the spheres of their life. Mrs. Croft joins her husband on his ships at sea, and Admiral Croft is happy to help his wife in the chores around the home. They have such a partnership that they even share the task of driving a carriage. Austen, in this novel, challenges the prevailing notion of separate spheres.
The Changing Ideal of the Gentleman
This novel presents two very different versions of the English gentleman. On one hand is Sir Walter, the traditional, land-owning, titled man who avoids work and seeks comfort. On the other hand are Captain Wentworth and Admiral Croft. Both naval officers are working men who have made their own fortunes. Though their manners are impeccable, they are not of the same high social rank as Sir Walter. In this period of English history, the definition of a 'gentleman' was growing increasingly more flexible; this novel reflects that change.