¶ … Obedience in Jane Austen's Persuasion From this perspective, Lady Russell would appear correct for admonishing Anne to sever connections with Wentworth who has not yet matured in an economic or social sense. As Joseph Duffy notes, Wentworth's "sanguineness and ardor" are "considered dangerous to a conservative society" along with his lack of "financial" resources (Duffy 272). This comes as a challenge to Wentworth and he accepts it by leaving civilization for the war and becoming a man of stature. His mind has not, however, matured along with his economic status, and he returns to Bath with the intention of marrying anyone but Anne -- because she has hurt him. Yet, he overcomes this immaturity and his heart grows over the course of time. In this way, he grows as a person and becomes the suitable suitor that Anne's family and Lady Russell admonished him for not being in the beginning of the book. Even if superficialities still exist, the sense that one must not totally discount social order is an important one.
Is obedience a virtue or a vice? Actually, it can be either. As Shakespeare notes, "Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied, / And vice sometime by action dignified" (2.3.21-22). This means that one can obey an unjust order and commit a sin, or one can disobey an unjust order be virtuous. The question of obedience in Austen's Persuasion is a serious one because what hinges upon it is the fate of two individuals who love each other. It is the age-old theme of two people who are in love being separated by some authority figure. Austen explores this tension by locating it in the social context of Bath, where high society flourishes in a state of superficial exuberance. Thus, the question of obedience is tied to the social view of poverty. Anne's family and Lady Russell try to convince her that poverty is the main reason for why Anne should be obedient and break off relations with Wentworth. Anne, of course, obeys though in her heart she is not convinced. This causes Wentworth to leave to make his way in the Navy, risking life and limb in the wars. Should Anne have disobeyed and eloped with Wentworth? Judging from Austen's other books, such as Pride and Prejudice, elopement is a cause of much concern, grief and shame -- and so it cannot be said that this was a good alternative. The question of obedience is a complex on in this situation because Anne's family is not ordering her to do anything unjust but rather to do something that will not compromise her social standing. They are, in short, placing her social position above her love and her heart. This may seem unfair, but it is not unjust considering the social ramifications that would result from an improperly matched union. Being a comedy, the novel ends happily as Wentworth rises in the world and their love is renewed, with a newfound appreciation of both the importance of social respect and love. This paper will show why in Austen's Persuasion, the question of obedience walks a gray line between right and wrong, so that it is impossible to say with absolute certainty or righteousness that Anne should have acted this way or that.
Why was Wentworth's poverty such an issue in Austen's Persuasion? The reason is that in the very early 19th century in Bath, England, the social life is bound up with the idea of the well-to-do. Society is based upon, in a sense, the material wealth of the locale's inhabitants. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, there is also the prestige that the Royal Navy brings to the location, which is near the sea. The war between Britain and France was viewed as a noble war over who would dominate the seas. Thus, these elements all contribute to the view of poverty as depicted in Persuasion. Even if there is an obvious superficial nature to the view, the reality was still that individuals regarded a lack of money, standing and class as a sign of weakness and insignificance. In Bath, this was akin to being anathema. The element of poverty factors into the question of obedience and thus the matter of obedience played upon the fears of becoming an outcast to society. One wants love but one also wants to be part of society: the lovers cannot run off to the wilderness. They need family and friends. In this respect, there is good reason for Wentworth's need to establish himself before thoughts of matrimony can be taken seriously.
In a way, the affairs of the young heart also play into the problem of obedience. The heart can fall in love at an early, young age -- even before the mind and body are mentally and physically prepared for dealing with the ramifications and ...
On the other hand, the danger of obedience at all costs is represented in the experiments of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo. Persuasion, when coming from a person in a position of authority, can be very effective simply because it is coming from someone who is supposed to know best (i.e., who is trusted with giving orders and advice). However, as Milgram shows, it is sometimes better if an individual is able to think for himself and make his own decisions -- because a person in a position of authority is not always right by virtue of his position. Milgram argued that "ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process" (Milgram). Likewise Zambardo's prison experiment, in which he took college students, made some guards and some prisoners, and then watched when happened when they assumed their roles, saw that "control" could quickly go to people's heads and turn men into animals ("The Stanford Prison Experiment -- BBC Documentary"). Anne displays the same loss of control and submission as those participants in the Milgram experiment and as those who became prisoners in the Zambardo experiment again and again: it is part of her character, as over the many years of submission to those around her, such as Lady Russell and her family, she has grown accustomed to the role.
And yet she is not wholly convinced that this is the best course of action. For instance, midway through the novel the reader finds that "Anne had never submitted more reluctantly to the jealous and ill-judging claims of Mary; but so it must be, and they set off for the town ... " (Austen 150). Here, Anne is once again giving in to another person -- yet, Austen makes it clear that Anne is not doing so without a great deal of second-guessing. There is a force working in Anne that will grow and cause her to overcome her own self-doubt. This occurs when she delivers her heartfelt ode to women's faithfulness to Harville, which, of course, Wentworth overhears, leading to the two lovers' reconciliation. If Anne did not have the courage to vouch for her own faithfulness to a love, then there would be no reconciliation. For Lady Russell's part, she realizes that she fought too much for the type of "control" that Zambardo pointed out in his experiment as being bad. She observes that she had been mistaken about Wentworth's character.
Part of what allows for this growth in Anne, however, is an appreciation for the transference of power happening in society at that time. As the obedience factor in the beginning of the novel had been based on the threat of losing social standing, that factor lost its persuasive component as "the incipient change and shifting power relations in that system [occurred] as the professional class displaced the landed gentry" (Phelps 377). In other words, the professionals of Bath and, to that end, men like Wentworth, whose noble role in the war against the French made him a significant person (a defender of the country -- and of all those fine Bath high society types), now wielded far more influence after the eight years following Anne's obedient submission to Lady Russell's demands than they had at the beginning of the novel. Thus, the threat of being an outcast was significantly lessened and the prominence of Wentworth's position had been heightened thanks to the war. In this way, the question of obedience is never really solved in the novel because it is simply transferred in a way from one power structure to another. It is not, as Shakespeare notes, a matter of applying the virtue of obedience in a right way or a wrong way that makes all the difference -- for that question is never substantially examined; instead what is portrayed is how class structures shift and power is displayed and recognized.
This, on top of the "persuasiveness" of the heart, which Anne reveals at the end, adds to the final, happy resolution. In one sense, Anne could be said to be obedient to…
From this perspective, Lady Russell would appear correct for admonishing Anne to sever connections with Wentworth who has not yet matured in an economic or social sense. As Joseph Duffy notes, Wentworth's "sanguineness and ardor" are "considered dangerous to a conservative society" along with his lack of "financial" resources (Duffy 272). This comes as a challenge to Wentworth and he accepts it by leaving civilization for the war and becoming a man of stature. His mind has not, however, matured along with his economic status, and he returns to Bath with the intention of marrying anyone but Anne -- because she has hurt him. Yet, he overcomes this immaturity and his heart grows over the course of time. In this way, he grows as a person and becomes the suitable suitor that Anne's family and Lady Russell admonished him for not being in the beginning of the book. Even if superficialities still exist, the sense that one must not totally discount social order is an important one.
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