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The Transformative “Fall”: A Structural Metaphor in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

A salient feature of Jane Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, is its setting in the fall season.  The novel opens with the season of decay:  the spendthrift owner of Kellynch Hall, Sir Walter Elliot, is forced to face his financial predicament and rent his estate to a naval officer in an autumnal month.  A series of events, then, revolve around the fall season and progress toward a favorable end:  the neglected and dejected middle daughter, Anne Elliot, reunites with the naval officer’s brother-in-law, Captain Wentworth, the lover she rejected eight years ago on the advice of her surrogate mother, Lady Russell.  While many critics have observed the significance of autumn/fall as the time setting in the novel, few have discussed its correlation with the physical act of falling and the structural trope thus constituted.  Stefanie Markovits astutely observes “a litany of falls” in Persuasion and its relation to Austen’s idea of happiness (779–80); she nonetheless fails to consider the interplay between the fall season and the physical falls in ensuring the heroine’s happiness.  In fact, “fall”—both the fall season and the physical act of falling—parallels and propels the theme of persuasion to the extent that its functional momentum can scarcely be ignored.

Although “autumn” replaced “fall” as a primary term for the season by the end of the seventeenth century in British English, the use of “fall” as a synonym for “autumn” remained, although sparingly, in the writings of the eighteenth century, as the OED shows:  Sir Walter Scott’s use of “fall” instead of “autumn” in his Letters of Malachi Malagrowther—Scotland “has been bled and purged, spring and fall”—is a prime example of such synonymous use of “autumn” and “fall” extant in Austen’s era (“fall”).  Even though Austen has not used “fall” to describe the season in her writing, as a contemporary of Scott who frequently references Scott in her works and a literary prodigy known for her linguistic acumen and decorum, Austen cannot have overlooked the autumnal meaning of the word “fall,” which is explained in Johnson’s Dictionary as “autumn” and “the time when the leaves drop from the trees.”  Perhaps precisely because of her linguistic decorum, she has adhered to the standard use of “autumn” in her time in referring to the season.  A closer look at the “falls” in Persuasion, however, suggests a metaphorical use of autumn and its interplay with the physical acts of falling.  While Sylvia Sieferman notes that Austen’s observance of linguistic decorum results in a scarcity of metaphors in her novels and that Persuasion demonstrates an evolution in Austen’s style, she recognizes only the characters’ use of metaphors.  I contend that, with the scenes of “fall,” Austen creates a structural metaphor that testifies to her literary talent:  Austen’s linguistic acumen allows her to maneuver the novel’s plotline by playing with the meanings of “fall,” thereby achieving its thematic success through its structural metaphor. 

Austen first introduces autumn as a symbol of decline, using it to metaphorically depict the characters’ “fall” in various ways.  Beginning with Sir Walter’s economic fall in the fall season, the novel is permeated with a sense of fall/decline.  As Joseph Duffy observes, the renting of Kellynch Hall is a symbolic representation of the decline of the hereditary landed aristocracy, and autumn is a symbol of decay in this novel (274).  Austen heightens the sense of fall with a humorous account of Sir Walter’s preoccupation with the Baronetage attesting to his aristocratic lineage, presenting him as a vainglorious person who plumes himself on his privileged rank and personal appearance:  “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character, vanity of person and of situation” (4).  In depicting Sir Walter’s vanity, the narrator not only presents it as the reason for Sir Walter’s preoccupation with the Baronetage but also as the cause of his economic fall:  “[W]hen he now took up the Baronetage, it was to drive the heavy bills of his tradespeople . . . from his thoughts,” yet he is unable to “devise any means of lessening their expenses without compromising their dignity” (9, 10).  In the midst of his economic fall and the season of decline, he nevertheless revels in his narcissistic notion that he and Elizabeth, the eldest daughter, remain “as blooming as ever, amidst the wreck of the good looks of every body else” (6).  In Sir Walter’s narcissism and self-delusion, then, we witness a fatuous egoist who himself represents the fall of aristocracy. 

Set in contrast to the egoistic and “blooming” father, Anne is indeed the one who suffers physical decay.  Every description of Anne conveys signs of decay:  “A few years before, Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early,” and now “she was faded and thin” (6).  The image of Anne resembles a withered flower or a fallen leaf in an autumnal landscape.  Situated in a family milieu in which her father and older sister’s bloom persists, although ironically portrayed, Anne is the external embodiment of autumn, a conspicuous fallen object in the vicinity of “fall.”  In presenting autumn as a symbol of decay and associating it with the characters’ “fall” in manifold ways, Austen thus accentuates the significance of “fall” and foregrounds her heroine’s physical decay as a cause for concern in this marriage novel. 

If the image of the autumnal Anne suggests her fall from youth, it also metaphorizes her fall in the opinions of others and therefore her “fall” in marriage prospects.  As indicated by the Baronetage, Anne’s marital status is brought into question:  is Anne going to marry?  Anne’s withering of youth denies an affirmative answer.  She is to remain a spinster, the direst situation for a Jane Austen heroine:  her father “had never indulged much hope, he had now none, of ever reading her name in any other page of his favorite book” (6).  Sir Walter’s egotism predetermines the suffering Anne has to endure as a spinster.  Despite her “elegance of mind and sweetness of character,” Anne is a nonentity in her family:  she is “nobody with either father or sister:  her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way;—she was only Anne” (6).  She also falls in the eyes of Wentworth, who presently finds Anne “altered beyond his knowledge” (65).  Anne’s physical decay and trivial being thus fully exemplify her fallen state and her “fall/autumnal” quality. 

While metaphorically depicting Anne as a withered, autumnal figure and thus presenting her heroine’s plight, Austen’s narrator links the cause of Anne’s “fall” to the first persuasion in the novel—Lady Russell’s persuasion of Anne to give up her engagement with Captain Wentworth:  “she was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing . . . Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth; and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect” (30).  Anne has remained loveless since she broke off her engagement to Wentworth eight years ago.  Despite the eight-year hiatus, Anne is now still immersed in her melancholy mood, becoming a victim of time.  As the narrator poignantly remarks, in submitting to Lady Russell’s advice, Anne “had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning” (32).  The persuasion is suggested as an “unnatural” act in which Anne relinquishes her own will in showing deference to her elder, as opposed to the “natural” romantic sentiment in which she now indulges.  The ensuing result of the persuasion is a melancholy, sentimental Anne perpetually immured in “all the influence so sweet and so sad of the autumnal months” (35).  In depicting the autumnal Anne who becomes a victim of time due to an unnatural act, the narrator ties the motif of fall to the theme of persuasion and presents Anne’s “fall” as a wrong that needs to be redressed, stressing its detrimental effect. 

The romantic heroine, thus, is often cast into the autumnal landscapes in which she constantly finds delight, though with a “poetic despondence”: 

Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which has drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.  (90) 

Here we perceive a heroine who immerses herself in the autumnal landscape and becomes inseparable from it.  Not only does Anne’s withered image mirror that of the declining season, but her emotions are also associated with an autumnal quality, nostalgic of an irrevocable past.  Having met Wentworth again after an eight-year interval, Anne is now tortured by her hopeless prospects.  Wentworth has returned with a mind set against her:  “he had no desire of meeting her again.  Her power with him was gone forever” (66).  He now engages in a courtship with a lovely young lady, Louisa Musgrove.  With the awareness of her own “declining happiness” and the bygone “youth and hope” (91), Anne readily identifies with the decaying season in which all things are “gone together.”  She is a completely passive heroine at this point of the novel, embracing her own melancholy and living wistfully in her perpetual autumn.  While depicting the autumnal Anne whose problem remains to be solved, Austen poses a question tied to the persuasive process:  how should Wentworth (and we) read Anne’s persuadability? 

Is Anne’s mind, a mind susceptible to external influence as suggested above, indeed a mind of weakness and irresolution, as believed by Wentworth?  Is Anne’s self-denying behavior a symptom of a weakling?  In answering these questions through her structural design, Austen forces us to consider the true nature of Anne’s persuadability.  While some read Anne’s persuadability as a weakness of character that she needs to overcome, I see it as a narrative design to highlight Anne’s superiority despite her passivity.  The narrator suggests Anne’s strength early in the novel:  “Had she not imagined herself consulting his good, even more than her own, she could hardly have given him up.—The belief of being prudent, and self-denying principally for his advantage, was her chief consolation” (30).  Anne succumbs to Lady Russell’s will out of her concern for Wentworth and her sense of duty toward Lady Russell.  Anne’s moral strength is evident from the beginning:  despite being regarded as a nonentity, Anne is sympathetic towards her bankrupt father and tolerant of her arrogant and snobbish sisters.  To Lady Russell, the only person, except for Wentworth, who has loved her, she shows strong affections and genuine obligations.  Anne’s altruism and magnanimity serve to exemplify a mind of “taste and tenderness” distinctive of moral superiority.  As James Phelan points out, “Austen is working with a progression in which [Anne] has no internal instability that she needs to overcome,” which “challenges Austen to find ways to ‘make Anne a significant agent of her own happiness’” in order to create an ‘aesthetically satisfying’ progression” (qtd. in Marsh 87).  The very secret of Austen’s art lies in her play with the meanings of “fall.”  Anne’s fall/autumnal quality results from her persuadability, a narrative setup that activates and adumbrates the second persuasion:  Wentworth’s being persuaded of Anne’s worth.  A closer look at the scene above reveals such an authorial design. 

In the above scene in which Anne immerses herself in the autumnal landscape, Austen also calls attention to the role of autumn in the literary past:  a season that “has drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”  The reference to the literary figuration of autumn points to Austen’s own employment of the literary tradition here.  The narrator’s reference is noteworthy:  it suggests that autumn/fall is not only a symbol of decay but also an agent of production as it actively “draws” literary productions from poets.  In looking back at the literary past and stressing the productive function of the season, Austen discloses her design of repeating an “extant” device and indicates the forthcoming turn of the screw:  the turning of “fall” from the fall season to the physical act of falling, through which she designs the second persuasion in the novel as Wentworth is persuaded of Anne’s strength of mind. 

Indeed, the physical falls in the novel gradually disabuse Wentworth’s notion of Anne’s persuadability.  The first physical fall in the novel, the fall of little Charles, although a relatively minor incident, initiates the persuasive process by placing them in a closer proximity and providing them with the opportunity to acquire a better understanding of each other’s character.  Anne proves to be a paragon of benevolence during her stay at Uppercross.  Her “sweet temper” manifests itself in the meticulous care she gives to the injured child, her tolerance towards Mary’s snobbishness, and her patience with the garrulous Musgroves.  Witnessing Anne’s virtues, Wentworth has not been untouched, as he later admits, “only at Uppercross had he learnt to do her justice” (262).  Nonetheless, Wentworth obstinately refuses to be persuaded.  His injured pride and his conviction that Anne “had shewn a feebleness of character” in rejecting him prompt him to dismiss Anne as a prospective wife:  he is determined to seek “‘[a] strong mind, with sweetness of manner’” in “any pleasing young woman who came in his way, excepting Anne Elliot” (66-67).  In presenting Wentworth as one who has yet to learn to read Anne’s persuadability differently, Austen likewise engages the reader in the persuasive process with the scenes of fall. 

As Wentworth identifies Louisa as the woman with a strong mind, the last physical fall in the novel, Louisa’s, propels the persuasive process by dispelling Wentworth’s illusions.  In passing the Cobb, Louisa “must be jumped down [the steps] by Captain Wentworth” while other people are “contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight” (118).  When Wentworth tries to advise Louisa against such an imprudent act, she remains obstinate:  “‘I am determined I will,’” and a fiasco ensues: she is “too precipitate” in her jumping and is “taken up lifeless” (118).  The fall of Louisa turns out to be a vital testimony against Wentworth’s delusion of Louisa’s firmness and his false accusation of Anne’s weakness.  Anne, the spokesperson for Austen, ponders over Louisa’s fall:  “firmness of character . . . should have its proportions and limits” (126).  Duffy argues, “Proportion is a key word in Jane Austen’s vocabulary: it implies a philosophy of life, a prudent way of stability, security, continuity” (288).  A firm character is by no means the obstinacy of self-will displayed in Louisa; in contrast, persuadability exercised with discretion demonstrates the firmness of character, which Wentworth recognizes only after Louisa’s fall. 

Louisa’s fall serves to illustrate Anne’s firm character and develop Wentworth’s understanding of Anne’s persuadability.  As Arthur Walzer contends, Anne’s persuadable temper derives from her recognition of others’ needs and indicates “an affectionate heart, rather than a weak will, and a mind characterized by a discriminating moral sensibility rather than a timid suasibililty” (697).  Anne’s firmness of character manifests itself at the moment of Louisa’s fall.  Although other characters lose control when confronted with the disaster—Wentworth despairs, Charles grieves, Mary becomes hysterical, and Henrietta loses her senses—Anne remains collected; she makes accurate judgments and firm decisions while the two men both “look to her for directions” (119).  Wentworth himself recognizes his mistake and senses Anne’s superiority at the moment, as he later admits:  “only at Lyme had he begun to understand himself. . . . There, he had learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind” (262–63).  As Kathleen Anderson and Tiffany Vonderbecke argue, “Wentworth experiences first-hand the tragic consequences of a personality that is not to be persuaded, thereby possibly increasing his empathy for Anne’s being persuaded by a trusted friend to alter her decision and reject him when she was nearly Louisa’s current age.”  With the scenes of fall, the novel thus configures Anne’s persuadability as a testament to her moral superiority, a recognition that both Wentworth and the reader must achieve through a persuasive process. 

Believing that Persuasion’s narrative structure “defies a progressive teleological trajectory as well as a logic of cause and effect,” Lorri Nandrea sees Persuasion’s plot as one “based on ‘dynamic repetition’” (48).  I argue instead that the dynamic repetition of “fall,” an aspect that Nandrea neglects to examine, enables a logical, artistic progression of the narrative.  As Anne Toner points out, Austen eschews disconnected plotlines, aiming to create “mutual dependence of component narrative parts” (16).  In manipulating the meanings of “fall,” Austen connects narrative parts to present a seamless whole.  Her play with “fall” is evident in the subtlety of her writing in some “fall” scenes.  For instance, as soon as the physical falls take place in the novel, the counter influence of the fall season becomes evident.  In the autumnal landscape near Winthrop, the narrator turns to limn the regenerative power of the season:  “where the ploughs at work, and the fresh-made path spoke the farmer, counteracting the sweets of poetical despondence, and meaning to have spring again” (91).  Offering “a suggestion of the promise of spring in the autumnal landscape” (Spence 629), this scene foreshadows the change in the meaning of “fall”: the “poetical despondence” associated with the decaying season will be “counteracted” by the harvesting scene.  Louisa’s fall, as it turns out, serves as a transformative fall that alters the heroine’s destiny, enabling Anne’s “second spring of youth and beauty” (134).  It is only natural that Persuasion ends in early spring, a season of renewal, after the ordeals of fall. 

Perhaps the most revealing “fall” is the hazelnut scene that precedes Louisa’s fall.  As Wentworth believes that he has discovered the quality of firmness in Louisa, Austen humorously illustrates Wentworth’s self-delusion when he catches a hazelnut during his conversation with Louisa: 

“Here is a nut,” said he, catching one down from an upper bough.  “To exemplify,—a beautiful glossy nut, which, blessed with original strength, has outlived all the storms of autumn.  Not a puncture, not a weak spot any where.—This nut,” he continued, with playful solemnity,—“while so many of its brethren have fallen and been trodden under foot, is still in possession of all the happiness that a hazel-nut can be supposed capable of.”  Then, returning to his former earnest tone:  “My first wish for all, whom I am interested in, is that they should be firm.  If Louisa Musgrove would be beautiful and happy in her November of life, she will cherish all her present powers of mind.”  (94–95) 

The introduction of an autumnal object—a glossy nut—not only serves as a metaphor for character but it also reminds the reader of the physical act of falling through Wentworth’s reference to the fallen “brethren.”  Having just praised Louisa for her “‘character of decision and firmness’” (94), Wentworth now identifies Louisa as the firm hazelnut superior to the “brethren [who] have fallen and been trodden under foot.”  The analogy Wentworth draws between Louisa and the firm, unfallen hazelnut is quite ironic, but the self-deluded hero fails to realize it at the moment.  Only later through Louisa’s fall does Wentworth recognize his mistake.  By juxtaposing the meanings of “fall” in the hazelnut metaphor and presenting Wentworth’s self-delusion, Austen points to the significance of autumn/fall and invites the reader to ponder the meaning of firmness and its interplay with the characters’ “fall.” 

The greater significance of the hazelnut metaphor, therefore, lies in its embodiment of “fall” and its revelation of the structural trope:  Wentworth’s failure to catch Louisa during her fall ironizes his false identification, while the autumnal hazelnut he succeeds in catching eventually turns out to be Anne.  Anderson and Vonderbecke aptly observe, “It is as if Louisa has ‘fallen from the tree’ and Anne has remained strong and attached to the tree through the storms of Wentworth’s resentment and reactive flirtation.”  Embodied in the hazelnut metaphor is the unstated truth the novel succeeds in unravelling through its structural design:  Anne is truly the firm character “blessed with original strength” and who “has outlived all the storms of autumn.”  The hazelnut metaphor, therefore, signifies the forthcoming turn of events and embodies the structural trope constituted by the turning of “fall.”  Through its dual implications—the “autumnal quality” of the nut and the physical falling of its “brethren,” the hazelnut metaphor reveals the transformative function of fall:  if Anne’s autumnal/fall quality resulting from her persuadability belies the superiority of her mind, the physical falls uncover her strength by negating her putative weakness.  Representing the multifarious falls in the novel, the hazelnut metaphor is indeed the quintessence of metaphors in Persuasion

Austen authored Persuasion in the autumn of her life.  While composing the novel between August 1815 and August 1816, she became gravely ill, in spring 1816 (Todd and Blank xxx, xl).  Her “autumn” turns out to be fruitful and immortal:  the play on the word “fall” in the thematic development of Persuasion proves to be an ingenious device.  While Austen’s works are generally considered non-metaphorical, Persuasion indicates a breakthrough in her style as it contains an unprecedented structural metaphor, rendering this last Jane Austen novel the exemplar of her achievements.  Such an adroit craftsmanship is, perhaps, the best illustration of, in D. A. Miller’s words, the secret of Austen’s style.  Persuasion thus serves as an eternal testament to the undying power of her writing.  Like her heroine Anne, who rejuvenates and blossoms at the novel’s end, Austen remains perpetually fresh in the mind of the reader through the persuasion of Persuasion.

Works Cited
  • Anderson, Kathleen, and Tiffany Vonderbecke.  “Walking a Path toward Marriage in Persuasion.”  Persuasions On-Line 28.1 (2007).
  • Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  Ed. Janet Todd and Antje Blank.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.
  • Duffy, Joseph M.  “Structure and Idea in Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion.’”  Nineteenth-Century Fiction 8.4 (1954): 272–89.
  • “fall, n.40.”  OED Online.  Oxford UP.  Sept. 2019. 
  • Johnson, Samuel.  A Dictionary of the English Language.  London: Timebooks, 1983.
  • Markovits, Stefanie.  “Jane Austen and the Happy Fall.”  Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 47 (2007): 779–97.
  • Marsh, Kelly A.  “The Mother’s Unnarratable Pleasure and the Submerged Plot of Persuasion.”  Narrative 17.1 (2009): 76–94.
  • Miller, D. A.  Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style.  Princeton: PUP, 2005.
  • Nandrea, Lorri.  “Difference and Repetition in Austen’s Persuasion.”  Studies in the Novel 39.1 (2007): 48–64.
  • Sieferman, Sylvia.  “Persuasion: The Motive for Metaphor.”  Studies in the Novel 11 (1979): 283–301.
  • Spence, Jon.  “The Abiding Possibilities of Nature in Persuasion.”  Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 21 (1981): 625–36.
  • Todd, Janet, and Antje Blank.  Introduction.  Persuasion.  Ed. Janet Todd and Antje Blank.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.  xxi–lxxxii.
  • Toner, Anne.  “Landscape as Literary Criticism: Jane Austen, Anna Barbauld and the Narratological Application of the Picturesque.”  Critical Survey 26.1 (2014): 3–19.
  • Walzer, Arthur E.  “Rhetoric and Gender in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.”  College English 57 (1995): 688-707.
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