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Throughout Jane Austen’s Persuasion, observations arise concerning the differences between the two genders. There is an ongoing dispute between what is and is not intrinsic to one gender as opposed to the other. Anne’s observations on the matter often question the normalcy of what is accepted in her society. On many occasions she makes assertions based on her own experiences rather than simply accepting that there is a particular female or male essence. The theme of gender differences is most apparent in the discussion between Anne and Captain Harville in chapter thirteen. In this scene, they discuss their opinions on the fundamental differences between genders without restraint, allowing Austen’s perception of the controversy to be made apparent. Despite the arguments that are verbally made in favor of an inherent nature, Austen attributes the differences between the genders to their places within society and their experiences therein.
Anne and Harville engage in a debate determining which gender forgets love first and which gender loves the longest. They each argue on behalf of their respective genders, beginning with Anne’s opening claim: “We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions” (164). Anne’s initial comment emphasizes the effect of societal expectations on each gender. She claims that because men are given permission to occupy themselves with activities and labor, they should have no reason to meditate solely on their feelings. Her comment is progressive because it gives an explanation for the gender stereotype of women being emotional rather than claiming it is simply a matter of nature. Harville contributes to her point, reminding her that not all men have the capacity to work. He states that her theory “does not apply to Benwick. He has not been forced upon any exertion” (164) Benwick is thus a perfect example of how experience molds traits rather than gender. Because he has no apparent purpose in society as working men do, he is free to brood over his emotions in the same way women do.
Anne counters her own argument of experience over nature by presenting the opposite, saying, “If the change be not from outward circumstances, it must be from within; it must be nature, man’s nature” (165). In stating the opposite, she is able to draw a comment from Harville that puts the theory of genders having an inherent emotional range in an uncertain light. Harville states, “I believe the reverse. I believe in a true analogy between our bodily frames and our mental; and that as our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings; capable of bearing most rough usage, and riding out the heaviest weather” (165). Such a claim seems foolish; there is no evidence that physical and emotional strength are directly correlated. Because their arguments in favor of nature have no substance, Anne returns to a standpoint of experience: “You have difficulties, and privations, and dangers enough to struggle with…It would be too hard indeed if woman’s feelings were to be added to all this” (165). She claims that because in society work is man’s burden to bear, emotions must consequently be women’s burden to bear because there is nothing left for them.
Captain Harville resolves after some thought that, “We shall never agree I suppose upon this point. No man and woman would, probably” (165). He is making the assumption that by their nature as two different genders, they cannot agree. Anne agrees that they cannot come to a conclusion, but provides an explanation that resorts back to a theory of experience. She says that in formulating their own arguments or defenses for their respective genders, they “each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favor of it which has occurred within our own circle” (166). Anne is saying that once both Harville and herself have decided their opinion on the issue, each of them begin to pull from their own experiences to justify their stances. Harville has experienced the feeling of longing as he goes off to sea, perhaps never to see those he loves again. Anne has experienced the very same with her love and devotion to Captain Wentworth that never faded throughout the years. Captain Wentworth, in addition, was equally as devoted to Anne despite the difference in gender. Austen has proved that devotion is not an experience to be felt by only one gender; it is a universal human experience that may be heightened only by circumstance.
Despite the claims of characters who state otherwise, Austen has broken down gender barriers by proving that all of humanity has the same capacity to have a strong emotional range regardless of gender. She demonstrates through her varied characters and their backgrounds that experiences are largely responsible for shaping personality traits. It is not a question of whether or not a man or a woman has the inherent ability; it is rather how a man or woman obtains the ability. Although Anne, Harville, Wentworth, and Benwick vary in gender and in life experience, they are still portrayed as being equally capable of remaining loyal to a person overtime.
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