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When the “Half Agony, Half Hope” Become One: The Experiential Dynamics of Hope’s Ambivalence, Precariousness, and Intimacy

Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a novel uniquely fascinated by the reality of experience. It is not so much concerned with identifying what things are, but rather with depicting what they feel like. And in regard to this endeavour, Austen embraces the gradations of her heroine’s inner life, the contradictions, complications, and fluctuations of her emotions. Hope is one such emotion that Austen tracks in her novel, from its experience to its disappointment to its eventual fulfillment. Above all, Persuasion constructs hope as a deeply ambivalent experience. It is at once uplifting and upsetting, and as such, becomes precarious, teetering on the edge between the two. Central to deriving this ambivalent hope is intimacy, particularly the ability to read the nuances of others’ expressions. Altogether, the novel combines seemingly discordant experiences and distills them into one dynamic representation of what it might be like to hope.

That Persuasion is a novel invested in experiential representations of its heroine Anne Elliot’s mind is apparent. Indeed, it is a novel, perhaps more than any other of Austen’s, that is inwardly focused. Much less apparent, however, is the particular nature of these representations. For in Persuasion there lies a commitment to a deep emotional ambivalence—what Adele Kudish calls “affective contradiction”—and it is in Anne’s experience of hope that this commitment is most concentrated. Hope is, as its meaning makes clear, the “expectation of” that which is “desired” (“Hope,” def. 1a). As such, it looks forward to something, anticipates rather than preempts. For Anne, however, hope is a much less uniform phenomenon. Instead, hope is construed as an ambivalent, precarious experience, capable of holding within it both the positive—the anticipation, the desire—as well as the negative—the risk, the anxiety; it is at once a feeling to gravitate towards and to shy away from. The precariousness encapsulated in the experience of hope is initially hinted at when Wentworth removes Walter, Charles and Mary’s son, from Anne’s back. In the wake of this seemingly unremarkable action, Anne is left reeling from the mere possibility of hope. She is “quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle” (79). And yet the crux of the scene is that the event is not “a trifle.” Might Wentworth’s actions mean something more? Might they gesture to a mitigation of the “perpetual estrangement” (62) between him and Anne? Regardless of the answer, Anne’s hope that they could is enough to leave her “nervous” and “overcome.” Clearly, Anne is not averse to such a rekindling of their acquaintance, if not their love, but her hope encompasses more than just a desire for it. Rather, it includes considerable shame and distress, so much so that she needs “a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her” (79). Herein emerges the beginnings of hope as a precariousness, a kind of instability from which one needs to “recover.”

Thus far, hope has been represented as an unsettling force. However, the novel does not go so far as to reduce it to this one rather bleak construal. In fact, it decidedly embraces the heterogeneity of hope—that is, its ability to encompass ambivalent emotions. This dynamic comes into play when Wentworth places Anne in the Crofts’ carriage. What is clear is that the encounter gives Anne hope that Wentworth no longer bears her any ill will. In fact, she starts to believe that his action might, perhaps, be a “remainder of former sentiment” (89). This hope is represented in much the same way as the one previously explicated. Anne’s experience of the event reads like a trance, as if in being described in its entirety, the encounter would be too overwhelming to process. In describing it, the text reads, “Yes,—he had done it. She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there” (89), underscoring how Anne can only bear to recount the moment after the fact. For Anne, the hope elicited by this encounter is so destabilizing that she can only represent it retrospectively. More importantly, however, it is in Anne’s feelings after this moment that the ambivalence of hope is consolidated. Her “emotions” are “so compounded of pleasure and pain, that she knew not which prevailed” (89). Herein emerges a key experiential aspect of hope: “pleasure and pain,” the positive and the negative, are inextricable where hope is concerned. Neither “prevail[s]” and as such, neither can be disentangled from the other.

Given that hope is both precarious and ambivalent, how might these two facets interact? In its ambivalence, hope becomes precarious—that is, if hope is precarious, it is only because it teeters on the edge of uplifting and upsetting. To prompt hope’s positive capacities, then, is also to prompt its negative ones. When Anne discovers that Louisa and Captain Benwick are engaged, leaving Wentworth “unshackled and free” (166), she is overjoyed. More than anything, this kind of revelation should make Anne happy; she would be completely justified in feeling so. Underneath her words, however, lies a fear of hope, a recognition of its precariousness. On finding out about the engagement, Anne has “feelings which she was shamed to investigate,” but which she describes as “too much like joy, senseless joy!” (166). Yet if Anne’s joy is so unbridled, so “senseless,” why, and how, would it be “investigate[d]”? Is not investigation the very act of making sense? Even here, where Anne can be justified in feeling even a measure of hope, she cannot bring herself to do it. Her hope, then, must come with a caveat. There must always be “shame” and investigation alongside the “senseless joy” because hope, for Anne, is precarious. This pattern of experience is reiterated in several other instances in the novel. When Anne unexpectedly finds Wentworth in Bath, she feels “agitation, pain, pleasure, a something between delight and misery” (174). When she is with the Musgroves after their arrival in Bath, Wentworth’s entering the room sends her “deep in the happiness of such misery, or the misery of such happiness, instantly” (229). What becomes increasingly clear is that Anne almost never allows herself a moment to unabashedly hope. Hope is “happiness,” “senseless joy,” “pleasure,” and “delight,” but at the same time it is also “agitation,” “misery,” “shame,” and “pain.” Hope is a precipice, leaving Anne dangerously on the edge of pleasure and pain. What is more, hope is obfuscating. It is not merely that it allows for a coexistence of “misery” and “happiness,” but that it muddles both of their meanings to create a “misery of . . . happiness” or a “happiness of . . . misery.” More than just ambivalent, Persuasion portrays hope as a heterogeneous experience, containing emotions that are dynamic rather than distinct, ones that conflict yet coexist.

If hope embodies such a multiplicity of experience, then surely this experience must create a multiplicity of consciousness. The relation between the two is underscored in the depiction of hope as a kind of psychological fissure for Anne. The novel hints at this when, after seeing Wentworth unexpectedly in Bath, Anne decides to go to the door “to see if it rained” (174) when, clearly, it is so that she can check if he is still there. This kind of excuse to herself prompts a question within her: “why was she to suspect herself of another motive?” (174). In response, she concludes that “one half of her should not always be so much wiser than the other half, or always suspecting the other of being worse than it was” (174). Wentworth’s being in Bath, combined with the fact that he is now not committed to anyone, is certainly reason for Anne to feel hopeful. Notably, this hope has a divisive effect on her consciousness: one half of it hopes and seeks action to fulfill that hope (by checking for Wentworth), while the other, “always suspecting,” fears the precariousness inherent in hope. If hope, then, is ambivalent, so must be the consciousness that carries it. Ultimately, it is fitting that Anne, always “appealed to as umpire” (75), must now mediate her own emotions; used to adjudicating without, she must now adjudicate within.

In Persuasion, hope in all its precariousness does not operate in isolation. Rather, it relies on intimacy. For Anne to have hope about her relationship with Wentworth, she must (re)become attuned to him. In the novel, Anne is established as a character with a “quickness of perception” and a “natural penetration” (249). Given Wentworth’s “artificial, assenting smile” and “contemptuous glance,” she is “perfectly” able to grasp its “meaning” (84). Indeed, in recognizing his “quicker step” as a “familiar sound” (239), Anne can even distinguish Wentworth by his gait. Having said that, what is bound with the hope that Anne experiences in Wentworth’s presence is her ability to discern and interpret the gradations of his conduct and expressions. This ability consequently allows Anne to derive an intimacy between her and Wentworth. In the Octagon Room of the concert they attend, with its “various noises,” “ceaseless slam of the door,” and “ceaseless buzz of persons walking through,” Anne nevertheless “distinguishe[s]” Wentworth’s “every word,” causing her to “feel an hundred things in a moment” (182). Here, the text takes pains to emphasize the amount of noise present in the room only to show the reader how irrelevant it is to Anne. In this moment, it is Anne’s ability to “distinguish” Wentworth’s words—to “pay particular attention to” (“Distinguish,” def. 6) them and “draw . . . distinction[s] between” (“Distinguish,” def. 4a) them—that makes her feel “an hundred things in a moment.” And it is these “hundred things” which ultimately form Anne’s hope. Indeed, they have the characteristic ambivalence and multiplicity of hope detailed in the previous paragraphs. Thus, the intimacy between Anne and Wentworth is manifested in Anne’s ability to discern his words and expressions and, consequently, to derive hope from them.

What augments hope and its precariousness as deeply linked to intimacy, however, is Wentworth’s letter in the end of the novel. In the letter, Wentworth writes to Anne, “[y]ou sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice, when they would be lost on others” (237). There is a quiet but monumental intimacy borne in these words, one that is pivotal to the novel. Indeed, it is this ostensibly inconsequential act of being able to detect the tone of Anne’s voice that makes Wentworth, in the spur of the moment, “[seize] a sheet of paper, and [pour] out his feelings” (241). In being able to read the “tone” of Anne’s voice, then, Wentworth proves his ability to read the “tone of her mind” (28). By acknowledging the intimacy of this act—that only he can “distinguish” the tone of her voice when it “would be lost on others”—he effectively paves the way for their hopes of marriage to become fulfilled. To further underscore the role of intimacy in this scene, Wentworth tells Anne that “a word, a look will be enough to decide” (237) the matter of their reconciliation. The fact of the statement is, upon reflection, an astonishing one: a mere “word” or “look” is what the entire hope of Anne and Wentworth’s love hinges on. Perhaps here the intimacy and precariousness bound up in hope become most evident, in addition to significant. Any practical inconvenience—an inability to communicate, a missed invitation, a glance not caught—could essentially ruin Anne and Wentworth’s hopes of marriage. Yet the ability of a single word or look to convey a response to the proposal is a testament to how easily they are able to read one another, how little is really needed to convey a great deal between them.

If hope is ambivalently experienced in its presence, then what might it be like in its fulfillment? To understand the answer to this question, one must first understand how disappointed hope operates. In the novel, the titular means by which hope is disappointed is, of course, persuasion. Having established hope as precarious, it is no surprise that when it is not fulfilled, the impact is strong. For instance, Wentworth speaks of the “indelible, immoveable impression of what persuasion had once done” (244) to his and Anne’s hopes of marrying. In depicting persuasion in this manner, Wentworth almost figures it as a trauma, an “indelible,” “immoveable” violence done to his and Anne’s hopes. Blindly persuading oneself of a matter has much the same effect as persuasion from others. Indeed, Wentworth recounts that his knowledge of Anne had been “overwhelmed, buried, lost in those earlier feelings which [he] had been smarting under” (244). As a result, he tells Anne that he “could think of [her] only as one who had yielded” (245, emphasis added) to others. By convincing himself of this, Wentworth effectively stifles the potential of any reality other than his own—that is, he stifles any hope that might exist between them by restricting Anne to a view which he believes is the only right one. Again, persuasion is construed as forceful, enabling Wentworth to “shut [his] eyes” (247) and suffocate hope, leaving it “buried” and “overwhelmed.”

What happens, then, when hope is fulfilled? If hope is a psychological fissure, then its fulfillment is a cataclysmic event. Still, however, hope is just as ambivalent in its fulfillment as in its presence. When Anne receives Wentworth’s letter, she describes its impact on her as a “revolution,” leaving her “beyond expression” (236)—and this is before she reads it. These effects are further magnified when, after reading it, Anne states that “such a letter was not to be soon recovered from” (237). When Wentworth removes Walter from her back—an altogether unexceptional occurrence—Anne needs to “recover.” Yet even in the face of incontrovertibly and exceptionally good news, Anne still needs to “recover.” She seeks “solitude and reflection” to “tranquilize” (237) her. Later, she needs “meditation” as a “corrective of every thing dangerous in such high-wrought felicity” (245). Again, the ambivalence inherent in—what is this time fulfilled—hope is reinforced: hope is a “felicity,” yes, but still something to be “recovered from,” “dangerous” and in need of a “corrective.” What becomes increasingly clear, therefore, is that regardless of its state—present or fulfilled—hope is ambivalent. Likewise, hope also obfuscates meaning in its fulfilled state. When the Musgroves see Anne in such a distressed state and attempt to help her, she is unable to “understand a word they said” (237) and must extricate herself from their presence. In rendering Anne unable to understand anything around her, almost as if from sensory overload, hope once again obscures meaning. So used to hope’s constant ambivalence and precariousness, the precipice between pleasure and pain, the final confirmation of her pleasure leaves Anne reeling. So used to the shifting soil of hope, its settling almost becomes unsettling. Persuasion, then, refuses to locate hope in any particular experience. Instead, it offers a kind of network of hope for the reader to consider wholly rather than partly.

In the end, to speak of the ambivalence and precariousness of hope is not to say that it is intrinsically aversive, only that it is invigorating, keenly felt. Persuasion is not about complicating hope so much as it is about representing its complications. Hoping, in the novel, means grappling with the dynamics between ambivalence and precariousness and intimacy. It is for a reason that Wentworth writes the much-lauded line, “I am half agony, half hope” (237); because they are aligned, linguistically placed side by side, the divide separating these two halves can be construed as more than just clear-cut. And if Persuasion is a novel to be reduced to anything, it is to its decided commitment to the multiplicities of experience: its valorizing of an “elasticity of mind” (152), but also of feeling, of consciousness, and certainly, of hope.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Edited by Juliette Wells, Penguin, 2011.
  • “Distinguish.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/55687.
  • “Hope.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/88370.
  • Kudish, Adele. “‘Emotions So Compounded of Pleasure and Pain’”: Affective Contradiction in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.” The Explicator, vol. 74, no. 2, May 2016, pp. 120-124. Taylor and Francis Online, doi:10.1080/00144940.2016.1176002.
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