Saturday, May 14, 2005

Book Review: Jane Austen's Persuasion

The Jane Austen Cycle: Persuasion

I am such an idiot! Instead of doing a half Woolf and half Lawrence cycle, why not do a full Jane Austen one?

* * *
It has been an absolutely remarkable two days reading Austen's final novel. For those of you who have read other works of Austen (probably Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, or Emma), if you read this work for pure pleasure, it is going to be disappointing compare to her other works. This, of course, is not to say that Persuasion is not enjoyable. It is highly satisfying. The difference between Persuasion and, for example, Emma, is that Persuasion is a much darker novel. Emma is a very happy work; Persuasion in a sense is not. Emma has always been the happy mistress; the novel is about her journey of self-discovery. Anne Elliot is a total loner; at the beginning of the novel, nobody other than Lady Russell really cares about her, and it was Lady Russell who persuades her to give up her true love, Captain Wentworth. The novel is sparse in plot: a couple of parties reintroduces Captain Wentworth back to Anne's world after a seven or eight years of separation (since Anne's rejection), and Anne, after another couple of parties, accepts Captain Wentworth as her husband. Of the four Austen novels I've read, the plot of this one is the thinnest, and yet it is because of this that Austen is able to concentrate all her energy on satirizing the people, in all seriousness and ruthlessly criticizing the so-called high society.
In Emma, one gets the sense that we are laughing with the characters. We do not really laugh at Emma's father, the nice but annoying Mr. Woodhouse, and we definitely do not laugh at the poor lady Miss Bates. These two are examples of Austen's comic characters - we laugh with Auntie Jane as she creates them, and we can imagine she laughing with us. But in Persuasion, Austen cuts these comic characters. We also laugh in this final novel, but we no longer laugh with the characters; we laugh at them. Mary is a laughable character - Anne's tolerance of her sister greatly understates just how terrible Mary is. Sir Walter and his "Elliot pride" is also laughable; I am immediately reminded of a gentleman in the opening of Candide who was rejected for marriage because he could only name 71 generations of nobility.
The merit of other characters in the novel are also greatly diminished in Persuasion. In Emma, we genuinely like characters like Mrs. Weston or even Mr. John Knightley (even if he is a bit odd). Other characters are clearly marked out as terrible snobs. The plight of the villian Frank Churchill is not a terrible one. He does, at the end of the novel, enjoy a supposedly happy marriage with Jane Fairfax. But in Persuasion, I do not know if there is one genuine character we like, nor if Austen actually allows us to like the high society. All the characters are selfish, proud, vain. Mr. Elliot is an absolutely terrible man; Lady Russell has good-intentions at best (she is very much full of pride and vanity); even Mrs. Smith is selfish, although her plight is absolutely understandable and so her fault is forgivable. In this novel, then, Austen ruthlessly criticizes the majority of the people in high society. We are left with the two lovers with whom we are made to like. We like them because at the end of the novel they are both honest and true characters. In Captain Wentworth's letter, we, along with Anne, detect a sense of authenticity. We know they genuinely love each other, and this is why this almost concludes the novel: Austen does not need to put in any scenes to show the contrast between genuine love and high society polity.
In my opinion, Persuasion is the best of the four Austen novels I've read. (I still have to read Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey to fully judge the six novels.) In compensating entertainment value, Persuasion offers artistic value: the plot is very much tightened; the setting made the novel as a work for character study far more universal; the prose language is Austen at her very best: drawing profound thoughts in the clearest possible language (unlike George Eliot's massive philosophical metaphors). Everything is centered around character study and Austen most certainly did justice to this task.


Blogger Jenn said...

While I agree with you at some point, I have to say that you're getting tp sound like a movie critic... I suppose you are your own authority.

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