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Virtue, Character, and the Fate of the Three Elliot Sisters

In Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, the qualities of faith, hope, and charity are explored through the three Elliot sisters, Elizabeth, Mary, and Anne. Either the presence or absence of these attributes adds depth and even a certain sadness to the sisters who might otherwise be mere caricatures. Charity, faith, and hope serve as devices for both connecting and contrasting the sisters.

Elizabeth Elliot’s relationship with charity, faith, and hope determines the person she is, the decisions she makes, and her ultimate fate in the novel. Elizabeth possesses some semblance of material charity, that is, the tenuous effort to bestow her pecuniary patronage. These attempts at material charity are hinted at in the beginning, yet only in reference to shirking them. When Elizabeth learns of her father’s financial encumbrance, she proposes “to cut off some unnecessary charities, and to refrain from new-furnishing the drawing-room; to which expedient she afterwards added the happy thought of their taking no present to Anne” (Austen 8). Had Elizabeth’s charity been begot of genuine desire to assist the needy, the continuance of these efforts would be important to her. However, the perfunctory fashion in which she abandons her charitable endeavors suggests that Elizabeth is principally concerned with maintaining an appearance of charity appropriate to her social status. The juxtaposition of the suggestion to suspend the Elliot’s fiscal support of the poor next to the decision to abstain from redecorating illustrates the importance with which Elizabeth endows her charity. Indeed, the diction of “refrain” compared to the callous phrase “cut off” implies that it is more difficult for Elizabeth to forbear from refurbishing one room than to discontinue her support of those in need. Not only is Elizabeth content to relinquish her charity to the needier public, she would also withhold it from her own sister. Austen mocks Elizabeth’s disregard for others by casting Elizabeth’s idea as “a happy thought.” Although it may gladden Elizabeth to have no onus to consider the emotional satisfaction of her sister, the thought is a sadly revealing one. It demonstrates the shallowness of Elizabeth’s character.

Even if Elizabeth Elliot held her material charity in weightier consideration, she would still lack true charity, that of viewing fellow human beings with lenience. Elizabeth is described as “very like [her father]” (5). Sir Walter’s judgmental attitude is his defining characteristic, and the novel is permeated with his negative appraisals of those of inferior physical appearance or social status. A comparison in character to Sir Walter is indicative of similar tendencies. In response to the implication that Sir Walter may fall in love with Mrs. Clay, a companion of Elizabeth’s, Elizabeth avers that “an agreeable manner may set off handsome features, but can never alter plain ones” (26). Elizabeth believes that, due to Mrs. Clay’s homely features, there is no possibility of Sir Walter being ensnared. Elizabeth’s statement indicates the superficial values on which her assessments of others rest. The most notable exception to Elizabeth’s uncharitable judgements is Mrs. Clay herself. However, she defends Mrs. Clay merely because her obsequiousness flatters Elizabeth’s vanity, as demonstrated when Mrs. Clay departs, and Austen remarks that Elizabeth “must feel that to flatter and follow others, without being flattered and followed in turn, is but a state of half enjoyment” (176).

In part due to her deficiency in charity, Elizabeth lacks faith in other people. If faith is defined as a willingness to acknowledge the potentially superior judgements of others, something linked to persuasion (one cannot be persuaded unless one puts faith, by this definition, in the persuader), then Elizabeth possesses faith in no one but herself. While some faith in the integrity of one’s own opinions and decisions is an admirable quality, unjustified faith in oneself accompanied by a refusal to put faith even in those with whom one is intimate is not only unwise, it is alienating. Elizabeth’s deficit in faith is exhibited when she learns of her family’s monetary difficulty. When Lady Russell and Anne devise a plan to save the Elliots’ home if not their lifestyle, Elizabeth and her father are quick to dismiss it, holding greater faith in themselves than in the “rational and consistent” (9) Lady Russell and Anne with her “elegance of mind” (5). Later, Lady Russell and Anne both attempt to persuade Elizabeth from her imprudent friendship with Mrs. Clay. However, it is remarked that: “Lady Russell [ . . . ] had never succeeded in any point which she wanted to carry, against previous inclination” (13) and “had endeavored to give Elizabeth the advantage of her own better judgement and experience— but always in vain; Elizabeth would go her own way” (13.) These quotes exemplify Elizabeth’s unwillingness to put faith in Lady Russell when her advice conflicts with Elizabeth’s propensities. When Anne attempts to persuade her sister to eschew Mrs. Clay, Elizabeth retorts: “As I have a great deal more at stake on this point than any body else can have, I think it rather unnecessary in you to be advising me” (26). Elizabeth dismisses Anne’s qualms completely, seeming irritated that Anne should presume to advise her. Elizabeth’s vehement faith in her own judgement turns out to be unjustified; Mrs. Clay is discovered to have the exact motives which Lady Russell and Anne had attributed to her. The refusal to be swayed by or even discuss with others not only limits one’s capacity to make wise decisions, but also circumscribes one’s exposure to meaningful human connection.

Elizabeth possesses immoderate hope to marry into an opulent situation. Austen remarks of Elizabeth: “[She] did not quite equal her father in personal contentment. [ . . . She] would have rejoiced to be certain of being properly solicited by baronet-blood within the next twelve-month or two” (6). Being deeply dissatisfied with her current position (6), Elizabeth’s matrimonial hopes sustain her. Elizabeth, like Anne, has experienced romantic disappointment in the form of Mr. Elliot, whom she pursued and may even have loved. Also like Anne, Elizabeth’s former love returns unexpectedly into her life. However, Elizabeth’s romantic arc differs from Anne’s at this point: while Anne’s hopes come into happy fruition, Elizabeth is stranded in the same romantic position as in the beginning. Austen remarks at the end that “change is not very probable [in Elizabeth’s situation]. She had soon the mortification of seeing Mr. Elliot withdraw; and no one of proper condition has since presented himself to raise even the unfounded hopes which sunk with him” (179). Elizabeth not only has her “unfounded hopes [ . . . ] sunk,” a phrase which demonstrates the stagnancy of her situation, she is humiliated in the process. The reader must wonder why Elizabeth’s romantic arc, initially so similar to Anne’s, should deviate so greatly in the end. Elizabeth’s unfulfilled hopes are a reflection of her moral failings. Her lack of charity makes her so exacting that the possibilities for acceptable suitors are severely restricted. Elizabeth’s lack of faith, which prevents her from forming intimate relationships with others, alienates well-intentioned people.

Charity, faith, and hope play integral roles in Mary Elliot’s arc. Mary utterly lacks charity. She is not even charitable towards her own children. When her son is badly injured, Mary is more motivated by a social gathering than by her child’s well-being. In response to Anne’s question whether she would feel right leaving her ill son, Mary proclaims: “Yes; you see his papa can, and why should not I?” (41). Mary is more concerned with the unjustness of her husband being able to attend the party while she is not than by her son’s comfort. Nor does Mary display any charity in her assessment of others. Mary is disgruntled by the romantic relationship between her sister-in-law, Henrietta, and Charles Hayter, a curate. Austen remarks that “[Mary] looked down very decidedly upon the Hayters, and thought it would be quite a misfortune to have the existing connection between the families renewed— very sad for herself and her children” (54-55). Mary goes on to assert: “I do not think any young woman has a right to make a choice that may be disagreeable and inconvenient to the principal part of her family, and be giving bad connections to those who have not been used to them” (55). These statements demonstrate Mary’s core selfishness and her uncharitable judgements of others.

Mary, unlike Elizabeth, has excessive faith in others. Her aversion to emotional or intellectual effort prompts her to rely almost entirely on others, both physically and for emotional gratification. Mary suffers from fabricated illnesses which come upon her in relation to her petty and mercurial moods. When Anne is called to Uppercross, it is on the grounds that “[Mary] cannot possibly do without Anne” (25). This statement illustrates Mary’s lack of self-sufficiency. Austen says of Mary that she “[has] no resources for solitude” (27). Unlike Elizabeth, who, although no doubt enjoying the company of those who appreciate her, is staunchly independent in her actions, Mary requires others’ attention at all times to be content.

Mary, like Elizabeth, is a relatively stagnant character, and, as with Elizabeth, it is on account of her hopes. While Elizabeth’s hopes keep her stagnant because of the unlikelihood of their fulfillment, Mary’s hopes keep her static because of their shallow triviality. Mary, lacking Elizabeth’s discontent and ambition and Anne’s depth of intellect and emotion, has nothing to hope for but small, impersonal, and quickly resolved things. The substance of Mary’s hopes is demonstrated in her desire for Henrietta to marry Captain Wentworth instead of Charles Hayter (54-55), a wish which illustrates not only the trifling nature of Mary’s hopes but also their impersonality. Who her sister-in-law marries affects Mary only indirectly, yet it is an issue which greatly concerns her. At the end of Persuasion, Austen asserts: “Mary was probably the one most immediately gratified by the circumstance [of Anne’s marriage]. It was creditable to have a sister married, and [ . . . ] as her own sister must be better than her husband’s sisters, it was very agreeable that Captain Wentworth should be a richer man than either [of her sister-in-laws’ husbands]” (176). This quote illustrates how easily satisfied Mary’s hopes are. Despite both Elizabeth and Mary remaining stagnant, Mary can be temporarily and superficially happy, because of the petty nature of her hopes, while Elizabeth cannot.

Charity, faith, and hope are central to Anne Elliot’s character. Anne is both materially charitable and charitable in her assessment of others. Anne “[visits] charities in the village” (94), demonstrating that she is involved in the well-being of her community. Unlike Elizabeth, her acts of charity do not fluctuate with her family’s financial position, nor does she perform them to maintain appearances. A distinguishing element of Anne’s character is her charity in judgement. When her father berates the navy, Anne defends it: “The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow” (15). In this assertion, Anne recognizes the humanity of the sailors and gently refutes her father’s shallow concerns. Later, Anne states her belief that “there is hardly any personal defect [ . . . ] which an agreeable manner might not gradually reconcile one to” (26). Unlike Elizabeth, who cannot truly be charitable because she grounds her judgements on superficial standards, Anne recognizes that people cannot be accurately assessed by appearance or social status. When in Bath, Anne reunites with her dear and destitute former schoolfellow, Mrs. Smith. Despite the protestations of her father, Anne visits her often. This instance demonstrates Anne’s willingness to spend her time for the benefit of others, her ability to forgive people’s failings, and her disregard for the superficial concerns of her family. However, Anne’s charity is not blind. Anne appears to treat some characters less than charitably, notable examples being Mrs. Clay and Mr. Elliot. It is important to note the basis on which Anne judges these characters. While Elizabeth grounds her judgements upon purely superficial concerns, Anne analyzes people’s intentions. She considers others charitably until she has cause to think otherwise.

The degree of Anne’s faith in others resides between the extremes of Elizabeth’s lack and Mary’s over-dependence. Before the events of the novel, Anne puts great faith in Lady Russell by allowing herself to be persuaded out of marriage: “Such opposition, as these feelings produced, was more than Anne could combat” (21). Although the diction of this statement makes Lady Russell’s persuasion of Anne seem like a conquest, it is more an act of Anne trusting and putting faith in Lady Russell’s superior experience. However, Anne, unlike Mary, is not dependent on the verification of others to dictate her decisions and beliefs. Later, Anne opposes Lady Russell on the same issue and prevails. When she is reunited with Mrs. Smith, Anne’s father unsuccessfully attempts to persuade her to abandon the relationship. Anne is resolute, defending both her personal inclination and her sense of moral obligation. These instances illustrate both Anne’s willingness to put faith in others and her ability to stand her ground.

Anne’s hope is in between Elizabeth’s unrealistic ambitions and Mary’s trivial and temporary desires. Unlike the two extremes of her sisters, Anne possesses a quiet, private, resilient hope, not aimed at specific occurrences, but rather perseverance and social utility. Anne’s hope manifests in her adaptability, her lack of bitterness, and her willingness to do her best. Austen remarks of Anne that her ruptured engagement to Wentworth and her “regrets had clouded every enjoyment of youth; and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect” (21). This statement seems to bely Anne’s hopefulness. Such descriptions of Anne may give the reader a misconceived notion of her as a despairing, even self-pitying, woman, yet this misbegotten impression is far from the truth. Despite the fact that she has suffered awful disappointment and doubt and that she has little expectation of obtaining the future which she initially envisioned, Anne maintains hope in her own ability to adapt to her situation. This is demonstrated consistently throughout Persuasion, often merely through the quiet strength of Anne’s deportment. Anne’s hopeful adaptability is most apparent, however, when she is forced to relocate. When Anne must leave her beloved Kellynch to visit Mary at Uppercross, Austen states that Anne “hoped, ere long, to become a not unworthy member of the [social commonwealth] she was now transplanted into.— With the prospect of spending at least two months at Uppercross, it was highly incumbent on her to clothe her imagination, her memory, and all her ideas in as much of Uppercross as possible” (31). Despite the fact that Anne is leaving her home, she hopes and intends to be content in Uppercross. This hopeful stoicism is again demonstrated in her reencounter with Wentworth. Anne endures the emotional turmoil and at his departure assures herself that “the worst is over!” (43). Even when Anne has achieved her happy ending, she does not hope unduly. She is content without marrying into huge estate or social status, content even with the risks of her husband’s occupation. It is Anne’s moderate and unselfish hope which secures for her a happier ending than either Elizabeth or Mary achieve.

Charity, faith, and hope all play integral roles in the lives of the three Elliot sisters. Elizabeth’s superficial charity, refusal to put faith in others, and excessive hope for the perfect marriage prevent any alteration in her situation. Mary with her lack of charity, eagerness to put faith in everyone but herself, and trivial hopes is temporarily happy, but the reader wonders whether the next day she will not be “excessively ill” after a minor social irritation. Anne’s pervasive yet prudent charity, balance of faith, and moderate but meaningful hope guarantee her eventual happiness. The interplay of charity, faith, and hope in the sisters demonstrates the necessity of these qualities to a meaningful, happy life and significant relationships.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1817. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
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