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Linguistic Sexism through Gender Relations in Jane Austen’s Persuasion


Linguistic Sexism through Gender Relations in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Sana Issa Srour ([1])



Persuasion carries in its leaves many complex relations among its characters. These intricate relations are manifested through the language used by the characters. Moreover, Austen utilizes many attributes in order to describe its characters and their social interactions. So, the characters’ description as well as the portrayal of the social interactions existing among these characters have attracted the attention of the researcher to conduct a detailed analysis of it. This paper conducts an analysis of the language used by Austen from a linguistic point of view in order to reveal sexism and imbalanced power/gender relationships. For achieving this purpose, the paper adopts an interdisciplinary approach as well as the qualitative method. The theories utilized in the analysis are Halliday’s Three Functions of Language in Halliday and Hasan (1990), and Hodge and Kress’s (1993) ‘Power Model’. These help in exhibiting the gender bias and sexism of the characters’ interpersonal communication, which are embedded in the social encounters among the characters of the novel.

Key words: Linguistic sexism, gender, imbalance, language, power.


Language is a medium through which one communicates and reveals ones knowledge and thoughts. Accordingly, it uncovers one’s social background. Every word one selects will pinpoint one’s beliefs and intentions. According to Catalan (2005), one uses language to shape one’s view of society, categorise knowledge, and learn new things as well as to abide and adapt to social norms and social patterns in society. Also, language is a catalyst and a medium of change in society, in all of its aspects. As such, it also changes people’s perception of their society, events, and social members. Since patriarchy is predominant in almost all societies, analysing language is of essence, as Labov (1970) posits:

“…there is a great deal to be done in describing and analyzing the patterns of use of languages … within a specific culture: the forms of speech events, the rules for appropriate selection of speakers; the interrelations of speakers, addressee, audience, topic, channel and setting; and the ways in which the speakers draw upon the resources of their language to perform certain functions.” (p. 30)

Living in a patriarchal society means that men are valued over women, and language is a clear reflection of such an equation. Since language is an expression of the attitudes and the values of society, the favouring of males over females in language is termed language sexism or linguistic sexism (Cameron 2005, p.11). In addition, one of the means to transmit what society comprises is Literature. A literary work is a fertile ground for uncovering the beliefs, attitudes and interactions in societies whether it is a novel, a poem, or an epic. The literary language of a novel, for example, includes what its writer has experienced at a particular period or witnessed in a specific society. In society, social members interact by using language, i.e. particular lexical choices and meaning. For example the excess use of the pronoun ‘he’ reveals a clinging to masculinity or the ‘male world’. As such, it omits the ‘female’ counterpart. Therefore, sexism takes place.

According to Feminists such as Tannen (1990) English is a gender-biased language. This is supported by many examples from real life. For instance, society uses three titles to address women such as Miss, Mrs. and Ms., which are used to exhibit their marital status and gender. However, the title Mr. is the only title linked to men and is utilized to signify their gender. Also, there exist few other examples that show gender bias such as the use of particular nouns pertaining to jobs in waiter/waitress, manager/manageress, and sailor/sailorette. Thus, in morphology, the use of affixes and especially suffixes in word formation is a marked form which pinpoints the ‘female’ aspect. To Feminists as Mills (2008), such a use expresses the idea that women are not important, not serious, and reveals elements of inferiority on the part of women.

Moreover, Holmes (1992) views that behaviours and beliefs are mirrored via language, and believes that “sexist attitudes stereotype a person according to gender rather than judging on individual merits” (Holmes 1992, p. 336). These stereotypes reside in the sexist language. Wilson (1997) views sexism as a “…set expectations of women’s appearance, actions, skills, emotions and proper place in society.” (p. 45). Sexism is believed to be anything which coveys that one gender is superior to the other gender. Sexism is conveyed in one’s actions, behaviour, as well as language. A sexist action is one that is based on a variation and difference between males and females, not on biological grounds, but one which harms specific females or females in general; all in favour of males. Moreover, a language is termed sexist if it reveals sexist attitude towards women. That is, any language that intentionally or unintentionally excludes women in favour of men is labeled ‘sexist’. Atkinson (1993), defines linguistic sexism as:

“…a wide range of verbal practices, including not only how women are labeled and referred to, but also how language strategies in mixed sex interaction may serve to silence or depreciate women as interactants” (p. 403).

Furthermore, Cameron (2005) views that the representation of women is sexist because the English language is sexist in itself:

“…our [English] language is sexist: that is they [people] represent or ‘name’ the world from a masculine point of view and in accordance with stereotyped beliefs about the sexes.” (p. 12)

He believes that if the society is sexist then language will encode sexism. In a sexist society, the values, culture, and beliefs will be stereotyped and embedded in its sexist language.

Gender and language are intertwined wherein language reflects the opinions, beliefs, and the culture of each gender. Gender not only refers to the biological nature but in language, it denotes how each gender uses language in social interaction and expresses himself/herself to the world. According to Eckert and McConelly-Ginet (2003)

“Gender is the very process of creating a dichotomy by effacing similarity and elaborating on difference, …there are biological differences, these…are exaggerated and extended in the service of constructing gender” (p.5.)

Gender and language comprise an interesting topic in Linguistics. Many studies have been conducted as to denote the relationship between the two and focus, for example on the difference between the language spoken by males and the language spoken by females. One of the pioneers to study women’s language is Rubin Lakoff (1973) whose work proves that there is a considerable difference between the speech of women and the speech of men. Lakoff posits that there are some language aspects associated with women more than men such as tag questions, direct speech, lexical distinction, strong expletives, and question intonation as well as statement syntax.

According to Wardhaugh (2010), there is a significant difference in the conversational style between men and women. Women tend to use more polite forms and more complements than men. He believes that “women prefer to avoid ‘masculine’, ‘authoritative’ and ‘powerful’ ways of speaking” (Wardhaugh 2010, p. 343). He also studies the conversational styles and speech patterns of women in conversation. The conclusion is that women use more standard and polite forms than men. As such women attempt to establish solidarity with their interlocutors (p.343). However, men “talk to get things done” (Wardhaugh 2010, p.343) and not to do things. Moreover, men use questions in order to request information, whereas women’s use is to keep the floor of the conversation or commence the conversational contribution.

Sunderland (2020) views that language sexism is a result of linguistic prejudice which she labels as “damaging language” (p. 232). To her, a sexist language is a language “about women” (p.232) in a prejudiced manner. Sunderland “…conceive[s] prejudice as (a) a pre-existing opinion or feeling, which is (b) about a social group, (c) adverse and (d) not founded on reason” (p. 324). Such a language use not only affects women and besmears their image, but it also affects the social world. Sunderland (2020) examines linguistic prejudice from a sociolinguistic perspective by pinpointing different forms of sexist language about women. The forms of prejudicial language are including/excluding, defining, trivializing, and degrading.  In doing so, she reveals diverse lexical asymmetries between men and women, chief of which are the titles given to women such as Ms., Miss, and Mrs., as well as the generic ‘he’. Also, among the lexical items are examples such as ‘witch’, ‘mistress’, and ‘queen’, where they carry connotations of ‘being sexually active’ or having a ‘bad’ trait of personality. Moreover, Sunderland reveals some other words that portray women in a negative light, especially those attributed to women’s talk such as nagging, whining, and shrilling. Furthermore, she posits that lexical gaps are part of the discriminatory language against women. A lexical gap is the inexistence of a particular term which is used for women but is not used for men (Sunderland 2020, p. 326); examples are ‘skirt’, ‘trousers’, ‘cow’, and ‘hag’. That is, a man wears trousers but does not wear a skirt and a woman is negatively referred to as a ‘cow’ or a ‘hag’ but there are no equivalent terms like these to be used in order to refer to men. These labels, according to Sunderland, must be eliminated from the social world before being erased from the dictionary.

          Furthermore, it is of essence in this section to present an overview of Persuasion because it acquaints the reader with the important events that unfold as well as the interaction between the characters, especially at major turning points. In addition, the overview reveals the social traditions of the period and sheds light on how the social members of the novel used to behave in social meetings and/or gatherings.

Persuasion deals with issues of aristocracy, social prestige, and social rank. The novel portrays how its characters interact with each other on materialistic basis. The prime interest is to be of a high social rank, whether for females or males. The males are interested in making the acquaintance of high rank colleagues whereas the females are interested in marrying males of high stature as well. Moreover, the characters keep themselves busy by attending tea parties, social gatherings, and going to the theatre.

Persuasion records the lineage of the Elliot family, where Sir Walter Elliot reads his favorite book about baronetcy. The readers, through Sir Walter, are able to know that this family is respectable, reputable, and titled. Sir Walter’s wife died and left her husband with three daughters to fend for: Elisabeth, Anne, and Mary. Elizabeth and Anne are single whereas Mary is married to a rich man named Charles Musgrove. Sir Walter lives lavishly and has put the family under debt. Lady Russell, a trusted friend of the family, advises that the Elliot’s cut down their spendings. However, after some complaining, Sir Walter complies and decides that the family relocates to Kellynch Hall in Bath. In no time, they find reputable tenants: Admiral Croft and his wife. Sir Walter Elliot is relieved to know that they are well-mannered and financially secure.

The heroine of Persuasion is Anne Elliot who is the middle daughter. She is excited to meet the Crofts. Mrs. Croft tends to be the sister of the man whom Anne was engaged to, eight years ago. The man was Captain Wentworth. Anne was persuaded by Lady Russell to break up with Wentworth, as he was not of a high status and of financial stability. After many years, Anne and Wentworth meet again and his love for her is rekindled. Anne is a person who keeps things to herself, such as her thoughts and opinions, psychological impediments, and most importantly, her reactions to her surroundings and to what others say to her. Her encounters with the various characters around her enable Anne to grow into being an independent woman who voices her opinion and trusts no one around her, especially her family members. After her many meetings with Wentworth, he confesses his sincere emotions of love to Anne and asks her to be his fiancé. Anne, having become more mature in character and emotion, and after breaking the social cocoon placed by her family, agrees to Wentworth’s proposal. The final scene portrays him taking her to choose her engagement ring.

Literature Review

          This section sheds light on some of the recent studies that have been conducted in relation to Austen’s Persuasion. The literature review aids in revealing what patterns Austen uses in order to compose the identity of the characters and portray various social issues and moral values of her time.

Tchaparian (2016) posits that Austen uses Anne to voice her opinions of the 18th C. conventions as well as her feminist rational ideas in reaction to the patriarchal society of the age. Tchaparian analyzes Anne’s reactions through language in the novel to propose that at the end of the novel, a change in Anne’s voice takes place. This change is directly linked to a change in her character through her being more open to her emotions and able to confront the conventions of her society. As such, Anne keeps herself within the boundaries of the age but at the same time she gains a new voice and a strength of character.

According to Weir (2017), Austen uses language as a weapon to overcome the social conventions of her time. Austen equips Anne Eliot (the heroine) with hidden persuasive language and character integrity so as to persuade everyone who comes in her circle. This also aids Anne to break the conventional barriers of society and move away from them into adhering to “more virtuous prospects” (Weir 2017, p. 784). Anne, as such, uses selected questions, words like “maybe”, and private reactions to events in order to achieve an “added significance and power” (Weir 2017, p. 784). Through this Austen makes Anne attain resolution and strength of character, and pour her heart out to Wentworth so as to gain his favour once again, get married, and achieve the high social status she longs for.

Furthermore, Thompson (2019) explores the notion of interiority in Austen’s two works Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice.  The focus is on the interior life of the novel’s heroines. That is, Thompson concentrates on what happens to the characters through their internal state. The analysis rests on Austen’s use of a particular writing technique which is free indirect discourse. She reveals the inner thoughts of her characters without them having to speak or exhibit this in their reactions. Accordingly, Thompson analyzes such a technique and shows its importance in connecting the female characters (Anne Elliot and Elisabeth Bennet) to the readers. As such, he believes that “…Austen vividly conveys [the] characters’ inner lives as a means to endear them to the readers.” (Thompson 2019, p.7).

Tave (2019) discusses Austen’s moral and psychological discriminations in Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, wherein he examines Austen’s subtle word choice to reveal the moral values of the characters. Accordingly, he examines how particular lexical choices such as “odd,” “exertion,” and, “sensibility,” are quintessential in comprehending Austen’s beliefs in relation to social and moral values. Tave labels such use as ‘the language of moral values’. This eclectic choice, Tave believes, nourishes the social behaviour, moral conduct, and self-awareness of Austen’s exquisite characters such as Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot.

As for Frank (2020), he examines some 18th C. novelists as Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, and Jane Austen from the frame of drama. Accordingly, he traces the narrative form and the origins of such works to melodrama. So, he posits that tragicomedy and melodrama have contributed to the narrative form of the18th C. novel as well as to the modern organization of this genre. Thus, drawing on the Media theory, Frank relates the development of the novel to the stage. It is by the stage that the novel comes to exist and develop.

Looser (2020) argues that Austen has carved her literary status among literary pioneers such as Nabokov, Melville, and Dickens through the opening sequence of her novels. The first lines of her novels capture the essence of human nature and delve deep into the human psyche. This has secured her a place in the 20th C society and literary canon. According to Looser, her novels were adapted to films and her words circulated among literary gatherings of scholars. So, her words were adopted by some intellectuals of the 20th C., as well as printed on mugs and T-shirts to be sold to the public. This fame is largely because her words bridge the credibility of the high cultivated society with the pop-culture. As such, Looser believes that she stands at the intersection of these two cultures. Accordingly, Austen’s crafted words and her usage of them have positioned her

“…as an exceptionally gifted writer on the level of the sentence. Even in small, double-digit word-bits, her dialogue crackles, her satire provokes, her humor sings, and her narration is masterful” (

Theoretical Framework

          This paper utilizes an interdisciplinary approach with respect to the theories used in the analysis of language use among the characters of Persuasion. The present paper adopts a descriptive study design. Such a design is a non-experimental research type which “describes the characteristics of an existing phenomenon” (Salkind, 2012, p.12). Moreover, the researcher of the paper employs the qualitative method because it enables the analyst to understand the perception, attitude, and the motivation of people (p.12). Thus, the purpose is to unveil linguistic sexism and power imbalance in gender relations through language in Austen’s novel. To achieve this, the researcher will adopt the interpersonal function of language which is related to Halliday’s Three Functions of Language in Halliday and Hasan (1990) as well as Hodge and Kress’s (1993) ‘Power Model’. These theories are essential tools for unveiling the interpersonal relationships among the characters in the novel and analysing the interaction among the characters in the novel, mainly through their conversation/s in important turning points. Hence, the interdisciplinarity of the two theories helps in exhibiting imbalanced power relations among the characters in the novel, in spoken interaction, and how these relations are constructed.

          Halliday in Halliday and Hasan (1990) presents three functions of language which are the ideational, the interpersonal, and the textual function. The focus of this paper is on the interpersonal function. Halliday believes that the analyst must shed light on the semantic relations such as agent and patient, attributive adjectives, significant figures of speech as well as gendered pronoun references, and nouns such as titles. In addition, the interpersonal function is related to the function of the text in the process of social interaction. This means that the text is viewed as a mode of doing. Accordingly, the text not only represents reality and one’s experience, but it is also a means of interaction between the author and the audience or between the speaker and the listener. Hence, language in the interpersonal function becomes what Halliday calls ‘LANGUAGE AS ACTION’ (Halliday and Hasan, p. 20).

          Hodge and Kress (1993) design a sociolinguistic model which aids in exhibiting power relations among social members in a social interaction (spoken or written) and how these power relations are constructed. Their ‘Power Model’ (p.94) is as follows:

Semantic Category Surface Form
Command Imperative
Statement Declarative
Question Interrogative

Accordingly, Hodge and Kress’s model categorizes speech in terms of three semantic categories such as commands, statements, and questions. These categories are manifested and realized through three surface forms, which are the imperative, the declarative, and the interrogative form.

Furthermore, Hodge and Kress view this model primarily as a tool for identifying the “dominant” (p.94) speaker. In addition, this power model includes two forms: the power form (P- form) as well as the solidarity form (S-form). The P-form stresses the difference and relations of superiority-inferiority, whereas the S-form “…represents the world in a way which blurs differences, opposites, and conflicts of interest…” (p.157). Examples of S-form are statements and declaratives, because these do not utilize command structure. Therefore, statements and declaratives are directives which blur the existence of power relationships in a conversation.

Analysis and Discussion

  1. Interpersonal Function

          In Persuasion, Austen’s use of adjectives enables her to probe into the inner psyche of her characters so that her readers get a close look at how they think and interact. Through her use of language to describe her characters, Austen gives the readers a glimpse of the society of the characters, without her giving a direct statement about the society. This takes place, for example, in one of the important scenes in the novel, when Anne Elliot overhears the conversation between Captain Wentworth and Luisa Musgrove. This scene is an example of prejudiced language use and reveals how men conceive of women.

          Captain Wentworth is in the navy and has come to Bath in search for a wife. He had Anne Elliot as his fiancé eight years ago prior to his coming to Bath. In the past, Anne was persuaded by her godmother, Lady Russell, to break off the engagement as Wentworth is not of gentry and nobility. Eight years after the breaking off of the engagement Wentworth returns to Bath to marry. During his stay, it happens that Anne and her family move to this place as her father is advised to cut off on the family expenses. Thus, they lease their house in Uppercross and move to live in Bath. Anne and Wentworth meet again and feelings from their past relation seep in. Moreover, Wentworth gets acquainted to the Musgroves, who also reside in Bath and are relatives of the Elliots. Hence, Captain Wentworth is decisive on finding a woman to be his wife; not any woman, but one who is of a strong personality and “with a strong mind, with sweetness of manner” (Persuasion, p. 60). Wentworth has a conversation with Luisa Musgrove and Anne overhears him. He is discussing the firmness of character in a woman. However, to stress his point of view, he uses the metaphor of a nut:

“‘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 anywhere.—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.” (Persuasion, p. 59)

Wentworth uses the expression “with a strong mind, with sweetness of manner” (Persuasion, p. 60) to reveal his opinion about the traits that must be in his future wife. There is the use of the following grammatical structure: prep. + adj. + noun. This is a prepositional phrase repeated twice in the same utterance. The repetition of the preposition ‘with’ twice, reinforces the adjectival attribute and has the function of the modal ‘must’. Accordingly, the expression is rephrased as “A woman must have a strong mind and must possess sweet manners”. Moreover, there is the use of antonyms in the adjectives ‘strong’ and ‘sweet’. This usage is significant because pragmatically, it creates a balance in terms of personality. Also, the nouns refer to abstract attributes, which are ‘logic’ and ‘mode of behaviour’. The nouns are intertwined with the use of adjective in an effective collocation: ‘strong mind’ and ‘sweet manner’. The usage of the expression in such a structure conveys some of the men’s attitude towards women, in the 18th C. Men tend to want to marry a woman who cannot be easily persuaded but is someone who is tender and sweet at the same time. This is because if a woman is persuaded the house will not stand on firm grounds. Thus, the idea of ‘firmness’ of character is the topic of the second quotation, which is expressed in a metaphor.

         The opening of the quotation is a statement that presents the ‘metaphorical’ subject of the conversation, which is ‘a nut’. The use of the pointer of place ‘here’ is symbolic of the beginning of the conversation. Pragmatically, it embeds the following notion: ‘take the nut fruit as an example’. So, the use of the adverb ‘here’ is significant of what is to come. It means that all the details must involve an exemplification and an elaboration of the topic. What follows is a chain of descriptive adjectives portraying the qualities of the ‘nut’. This nut is ‘beautiful’, ‘glossy’, ‘blessed’, and has ‘outlived’ many fluctuations. These are in fact the qualities Wentworth wants in a woman. Furthermore, the repetition of the negation structure in ‘not a puncture, not a weak spot’ is of essence, because it stresses the unwanted qualities and reinforces the positive ones. Also, the dependent clause “while so many of its brethren have fallen and been trodden under foot” is put in a position before the verb ‘is’, which affirms the steadfastness of the subject (symbolically ‘the nut’) in the face of nature’s difficulties.

In addition, there is personification used in ‘brethren’. This personification of the other group of nuts categorizes the ‘subject’ which is the ‘nut’ differently. This ‘nut’ is on another plane, which is a plane of beauty and firmness. It is unshaken and strong. In terms of conversational maxims, Wentworth has violated the maxim of quantity in his extended exemplification. However, he has carefully abided by the other maxims: relevance, manner, and quality.

On the interpretation level, the ‘storms’ symbolize life’s problems faced by women in society, and the verbs ‘have fallen’ and ‘been trodden’ portray the violence and brutality of life towards women. These verbs carry a significant meaning which is that of ‘sin’ and ‘stampede’. Austen’s purpose of using these verbs is to shock the reader by portraying the 18th C. women as submissive and vulnerable: they are of no weight and have no voice. By extension, the notion of actor/receiver is hidden through these verbs. These women are the receivers of the fall and the stampede, and the men are the ones trodding upon them. Such a usage is sexist because it portrays women as being powerless and are at the mercy of men, which is a manifestation of an imbalanced power relation.

“The child was to be kept in bed and amused as quietly as possible; but what was there for a father to do? This was quite a female case, and it would be highly absurd in him, who could be of no use at home, to shut himself up.” (Persuasion, p.47)

This quotation reveals biased gender discourse because it stereotypes the parental chores inside the house. The main topic of this quotation is ‘raising a child’. The use of the adverbial phrase “quite a female case” and the noun “case” shows that raring a child is solely ‘restricted’ to females. Moreover, the use of the adverbial phrase “highly absurd” and the negation phrase “no use at home” stresses the notion that the father’s duty lies outside his house. Pragmatically, this is a typical framing of the rules of males. In addition, the two nouns “father” and “female” are categorical of the social gender roles inside the family. These two nouns are juxtaposed in this quotation for a specific purpose. They embed the notion that raising a child can be done by ‘any’ female, whether she is a mother or not. However, this duty is not given to a male, even if the male is a “father”. Furthermore, this quotation reveals that the patriarchal society confines women to domestic chores. As a result, women’s freedom is dictated by the borders of their home. Their duties are totally restricted to taking care of their children. Accordingly, this quotation functions as a social statement of the domestic ‘job description’ of women, which is dictated to them by the discriminatory patriarchal society.

[Mary speaks] “So you and I are to be left to shift by ourselves, with this poor sick child; and not a creature coming near us all the evening! I knew how it would be. This is always my luck. If there is anything disagreeable going on men are always sure to get out of it, and Charles is as bad as any of them.” […] [Anne speaks] “Nursing does not belong to a man; it is not his province. A sick child is always the mother’s property: her own feelings generally make it so.” (Persuasion, p.49)

This quotation is a continuation of the description of the female domestic status and role. Mary is discussing this notion with Anne. Mary’s words present her as a pessimistic person. Her statement that “this is always my luck” reveals her as someone who is submissive and as a woman who is unable to accomplish anything outside her home. In her opinion, if men get into trouble and face undesirable things, they get out of the situation easily. The same is for her husband. Her declarative statement that “Charles is as bad as any of them” functions as an equative statement. It is an assertion that her husband is no different than the men in the society and that he is a part of the patriarchal system. Furthermore, Anne’s choice of words is a clear indicative of which gender handles which duties at home. So, the semantic field of the nouns “province” and “property” is one on ‘job and work’. This use is significant because it reveals that the family institution is somehow devoid of feelings and is only based on ‘duties’. The formality of the two nouns portray the ‘taking care’ of the children as a mere job which one specific gender must accomplish. Accordingly, there is no emotional interaction among the parents in raising their children. However, the only motives which drive a mother to abide by her familial duty, are her feelings.

“‘And yet,’ said Anne to herself, as they now moved forward to meet the party, ‘he has not, perhaps, a more sorrowing heart than I have. I cannot believe his prospects so blighted forever. He is younger than I am; younger in feeling, if not in fact; younger as a man. He will rally again, and be happy with another’.” (Persuasion, p.87)

This quotation reveals Austen’s words. It shows Anne thinking about Captain Wentworth. In this quotation, Austen tackles the issue of gender relationships in terms of age difference, i.e. how female characters such as Anne conceive of the relationships of women to men.  In this quotation, the use of adjectives is significant. There is the use of comparative adjectives such as “younger” three times, in order to denote that youth plays a vital role in gender relationships. Through Austen’s glimpse into Anne’s internal stream of thought, Anne is comparing herself to Captain Wentworth. However, this comparison is gender biased because it reveals women as being ‘less’ in many aspects, in relation to men. The positive attributive expression “younger in feeling” creates the following suggestion: First, if someone is young, he/she has the capacity to feel more. Second, a question comes to mind about how can someone be ‘old’ in terms of feelings? This calls upon another question which is: can we categorise feelings in terms of ‘old’ and ‘young’? Furthermore, the use of the comparative adjective “younger” stresses the importance of age difference in the male-female relationship. As such, if a man is young, he will not be faithful to his woman, but will desert her and move on to being in a relationship with another woman of a “younger” age. Thus, the comparison of Anne to Captain Wentworth triggers the notion that women do not exist in society, even in terms of feelings, unless they are compared to men. Such a comparison does not only present men as unfaithful, but it also portrays women as insecure and unsure of themselves and their feelings. Accordingly, these words are male biased because they marginalise women and position them as followers, and not as independent social individuals. In addition, this also means that women have no place outside men’s sphere.

[Anne speaks] “‘We certainly do not forget you as soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. 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.’” (Persuasion, p.211)

This quotation is significant because it draws a comparison between men and women in terms of how each gender is portrayed in society. Through the use of pronouns, Austen reveals, through Anne’s words, that men have ambitions and goals whereas women don’t. There is the use of the dual relation through the pronouns “we” and “you”. This draws the distinction between the two genders in terms of specific attributes and actions. The use of the noun “exertion” reveals the image of someone putting a mental or a physical effort in doing something. Also, there is the use of the noun collocates of “exertion” such as “profession”, “pursuits”, “business”, “occupation”, and “change”. These collocations portray the patriarchal world of men in comparison to the world of women. Moreover, men are described in relation to the things that need a physical or a mental effort. However, women are described in relation to attributes such as “quiet” and the attributive passive verbs such as “confined”. This exhibits them in a negative light as inactive members who are subdued by the male-oriented society.

[Captain Harville speaks] “But let me observe that all histories are against you–all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men….” (Persuasion, p. 212)

The above quotation is from an encounter between Captain Harville and Anne. Captain Harville’s words are of essence because they show that injustice towards women has always taken place throughout history. This is affirmed by the use of the collective plural phrase “all histories are against you”. The collective lexical item “all” is repeated four times which is a solid proof of the negativity with which women had been portrayed. This injustice is done by portraying women as unstable. So, the main topic of discussion is “woman’s inconsistency”. Then there is the use of examples by Captain Harville in order to support his claims. He utilizes nominal categories which exhibit the instability of women such as “stories”, “prose”, “verse, “songs”, and “proverbs”. These examples are of semantic and pragmatic essence. First, they are generally supposed to be about notions of happiness or describing an entity in a good way. Second, these are ‘genre types’ which resonate through all the ages by being considered ‘cultural’ elements. Pragmatically, this means that any notion about women, whether positive or otherwise, will be engraved in the memory of the generations to come. Accordingly, such an inclusion will shape the way women are looked at and as a result, it will strongly stereotype women. Hence, Captain Harville’s words are male biased, which do not do women any justice.

[Anne speaks] “…‘Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books….. I believe you [men] equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as if I may be allowed the expression…so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex … is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’…” (Persuasion, p. 213)

In this quotation, Anne replies to Captain Harville’s words. She believes that what he says about women is contrived by men’s opinion and is not written in books. She mentions how women behave in society, especially domestically. Also, in this quotation, there is the use of the –if clause in “…if I may be allowed the expression”. It is significant because during Anne’s speaking, she asks the permission of Captain Harville in order to continue explaining herself. The importance is that such an –if clause reveals that the domination of patriarchy is embedded in her unconsciousness. That is why she is taking the permission to continue her talk, although knowing that he will not interrupt her. Moreover, the use of the noun “object” portrays women as objects to be possessed by men. Furthermore, the sentence “the woman you love lives, and lives for you” is a direct declarative statement directed towards Captain Harville. It functions as an assertion to the role of women in society. According to Anne, a woman dedicates her life to her man, in his service, but she is not appreciated for what she does. The repetition of the verb “lives” twice stresses the notion that a woman does not have any other goal in life other than serving her man. This is because the men’s goal is to see women serving them and living for them. Accordingly, such a goal makes women submissive to men and presents women as invisible beings in society. However, since Anne stands as a representative of women, “All the privilege I claim for my own sex”, she speaks a counter argument directed at Captain Harville. In Anne’s view, despite all what men accomplish, women are superior to them in one aspect which is love. Accordingly, women have the tendency to love longer than men do, and are more faithful than men.

[Captain Harville] ‘…it is a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof. We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our circle…’ (Persuasion, p. 213).

In this quotation, Captain Harville opposes Anne’s view about women. To him, Anne’s words are only a matter of opinion “which does not admit of proof”, i.e. it is not based on any solid proof. Accordingly, it does not stand as feasible. Moreover, his words are totally male biased through his own affirmation, by himself, wherein the use of the pronoun “we” makes him a representative of men. Also, the repetition of each of the noun “bias” and the pronoun “our” twice is a strong evidence that men do everything they can to turn things to their best interest. Accordingly, Captain Harville’s speech constitutes a very discriminatory gender discourse because it means that everything in society which is outside men’s circle, has no value and is of no essence.

  1. Hodge and Kress’s ‘Power Model’

“His good looks, his rank…his attachment…he must have owed a wife…his own” (Persuasion, p.2). In this line, the use of the lexical item ‘must’ is of essence. Hodge and Kress (1993) believe that “‘Must’ is a modal auxiliary which conveys Knowledge and Power, and allows dimensions of power” (p.137). Moreover, the use of the imperative is also important because, according to Hodge and Kress, it “…indicates that someone (x) is trying, in an impositive way, to make someone (y) aware of something” (p.108). As such, the male character in this quotation is ‘imposing’ his authority on his wife through making her aware that she is “his own”. Hence, the usage of ‘must’ is sexist and male biased.

“Our cousins Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret;” “our cousins, the Dalrymples,” sounded in her ears all day long. Anne was ashamed. …she would still have been ashamed of the agitation they created…. Lady Dalrymple had acquired the name of “a charming woman,” because she had …a civil answer for everybody. Miss Carteret … was so plain and so awkward, that she would never have been tolerated in Camden Place but for her birth. (Persuasion, p.133-134)

In this quotation, there is a description of Anne and her cousins through the use of declarative statements. In the description, Anne is portrayed as someone who is ashamed of her cousins and who feels agitated when she encounters them. However, there is no clear indication of the cause of Anne’s shame. Moreover, there is the use of positive attributes in the description of the cousins “Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret”. Such a use contrasts with the feeling caused in Anne. Also, the use of the declaratives “a civil answer for everybody” and “a charming woman” reveals that Lady Dalrymple is of a good social status and is liked by the social members of the society. In addition, Miss Carteret is described as a “plain” and an “awkward” woman, but she is still accepted and liked by society. This is because she is of a noble birth. Contrary to the positive attributes of the cousins, there must be an embedded reason which pinpoints the power relationship among Anne and her cousins. However, the use of statements and declaratives in this quotation has blurred the existence of the power relationship. Hence, this quotation expresses a solidarity form (S-form) which mystifies the power relationship, and the reader only ‘gets’ the notion that Anne is ashamed of her cousins, without any explanation of ‘why’ the sense of shame exists in Anne.

[Mr. Elliot speaks] … My cousin Anne …is not satisfied. She is fastidious. My dear cousin” (sitting down by her), “you have a better right to be fastidious than almost any other woman I know; but will it answer? Will it make you happy? Will it not be wiser to accept the society of those good ladies in Laura Place, and enjoy all the advantages of the connexion as far as possible? (Persuasion, p. 134).

In this quotation, Mr. Elliot discusses with Anne some social issues such as education, manners, and birth, as well as good company. Mr. Elliot believes that “little learning” is enough for a woman to enjoy in a good company. However, he then states that “education is not very nice”. Such a statement has angered Anne. Accordingly, Mr. Elliot asks a series of questions that convey a sense of male superiority and as a result, portray Anne as an inferior person. He asks Anne if it makes her happy to be in the company of women who are not so well educated, but are of good manners and of noble birth. Then, he asks a rhetorical question about whether to accept a society whose women are of good manners, just for the purpose of good company. In his questions, there is an implied command for Anne to accept her social position and not to long for a high social status through education. Accordingly, Mr. Elliot indirectly commands Anne to submit to the social rules of the patriarchal society. Therefore, Mr. Elliot’s questions are male biased. Hence, the power form (P-form) of this quotation stresses the social differences between Anne and Mr. Elliot, and exhibits relations of superiority-inferiority which convey how men look at women in terms of specific social issues. This points to the notion that men will do their best in order to remain the dominant gender in society.

[Sir Walter Elliot], “and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate Buildings? A Mrs. Smith. A widow Mrs. Smith; and who was her husband? …And what is her attraction?” (Persuasion, p.141). These lines are spoken by Sir Walter Elliot, who is Anne’s father. He expresses his fury at his daughter’s acquaintance with social members of a mediocre social status. Sir Walter Elliot’s anger is conveyed through a series of questions directed at Anne. The main topics of these questions are Mrs. Smith (Anne’s friend) and “Westgate Buildings”. The first question of Sir Walter Elliot is rhetorical because he is mocking Anne’s status and identity, and is positioning her as someone who has a low social status. Then, the second question is about Mrs. Smith’s husband. The inquiry about the husband’s status and identity is ironic, because it reveals the sarcastic attitude of Sir Walter Elliot towards Mrs. Smith’s husband. Moreover, in a third question, Sir Walter Elliot exclaims about Mrs. Smith’s social status and rank in order to ridicule her. Thus, the questions are not interrogatives which demand answers, but they are uttered in order to stress the difference in social status among Anne, Mrs. Smith, and Mrs. Smith’s husband, and by extension, the Elliot’s family. Accordingly, the questions of Sir Walter Elliot are in the power form (P-form) which exhibit the superiority of Sir Walter Elliot and the inferiority of Mrs. Smith and her husband. As a result, the questions are unjust and portray power imbalance.

“Lady Elliot had been an excellent woman … whose judgment and conduct… made her Lady Elliot….She had … promoted his real respectability for seventeen years; and though not the very happiest being in the world herself, had found enough in her duties, her friends, and her children, to attach her to life”. (Persuasion, p.2)

These lines are Austen’s words describing Lady Elliot in relation to her husband. The dominant form is the solidarity form (S-form) because the lines are in the declarative statement structure. These lines also reveal Lady Elliot in a positive light and how she took care of her husband. Moreover, although the statements discuss the strong character of Lady Elliot, it is not clear who is the powerful person in such a relationship. Despite Lady Elliot being described as having a prominent social status, there is a blurring of the power relationship that exists between the couple. Accordingly, the statements which describe the commitment of Lady Elliot to her family and friends are in an S-form, because they do not convey the power relation between Lady Elliot and her husband.

“Captain Harville smiled, as much as to say, “Do you claim that for your sex?” (Persuasion, p.211) is a quote in the form of a question from a conversation between Captain Harville and Anne Elliot about men and women, their faithfulness, status, and loyalty to one another. This question is of power form (P-form) as follows. Through his direct question, Captain Harville enforces the idea that women are not as faithful as men are. Accordingly, Captain Harville intends to intimidate Anne into confessing that what he thinks of women’s faithfulness towards men is true. Hence, his question embeds a notion of superiority-inferiority that men are more faithful than women. As such, men are superior to women in this respect.

“…Anne said… ‘I did not recollect; but what shall we say now, Captain Harville? If the change be not from outward circumstances, it must be from within; it must be nature, man’s nature. It does not apply to Benwick.” (Persuasion, p. 211). Through her question, Anne is suggesting that Benwick sides with women in being faithful in his relations. As such, she is embedding the notion that Benwick is not like other men. Other men are unfaithful (including Captain Harville). Accordingly, Anne is stressing the difference between men and women. However, the exception to the role of unfaithfulness in men is Benwick. Through this, Anne implies that Benwick is as women in his faithfulness and as such, he is powerful. Semantically, Anne’s words mean that, by extension, women are more powerful than men in the issue of faithfulness. Hence, since she is a woman, Anne alludes to the idea that she herself is powerful as well. Pragmatically, Anne’s question conveys that men are inferior to women in this respect.

Interpretation and Conclusion

          In conclusion, Jane Austen portrays her characters in a manner which positions them unequally on the scale of power relationships. Through the extensive use of adjectives, the characters acquire personalities which exemplify their behaviour in society. This is seen in their social events, arguments, and their conversations. So, Austen portrays to her readers the 18th C. in most of its complex details through highlighting social issues which are prime to the period of the novel. Moreover, the analysis of the characters’ description, individually as well as in relation to each other and how they interact in the main events, reveals imbalanced gender power relationships and rooted sexism.

          Social relations are controlled by issues of finance, status, and rank. Fortune and material possessions play a decisive role in pinpointing to what social status a social member belongs. For example, the rank of admiral is desired in society because it is a source of a considerable income. However, in the case of Mr. Elliot, advancing in social hierarchy is related to marrying a rich woman.

          The analysis reveals that every social aspect in Austen’s patriarchal society must revolve around men. Whether social relations, class, manners, or everyday chores, every social element is regulated by the patriarchal society. All this is engulfed by an attitude of sexism towards women which is conveyed through language use. Accordingly, the male oriented beliefs suffocate women and render them as passive social members. As a result, women’s voice is silenced, and every action done by women in order for them to be prominent in society, is blocked by the petrified patriarchal ideas and rules. Therefore, the 18th C. society did not do women any justice because it glorified male chauvinism, sexism, and imbalanced gender power relations.

 To conclude with, it is important to compare what has been analysed in this paper to some of the studies mentioned in the literature review section as follows. Tchaparian (2016) studies the growth and maturity of Anne’s character throughout the novel. She believes that Anne’s reactions during the events of the novel have gained Anne a voice at the end of the novel. The analysis in the present paper goes in line with Tchaparian’s study of Persuasion. The analysis reveals that through persuasion and over persuasion of Anne, as well as through the many misfits faced by Anne, she was able to rise up, stand up for herself, and voice her opinion at the end of the novel. Thus, the events which unfolded in Anne’s life have molded her character into a mature and an independent person who has a voice.

 Weir (2017) posits that Austen equips her heroine (Anne) with language tools as a weapon to overcome the social conventions. Examples of language tools are the use of questions, and words like ‘may be’ which enable Anne to achieve power. The present paper shows some results similar to those of Weir’s study, where Anne uses questions and statements to stress her opinion. This is seen in her encounter with Captain Harville in discussing issues such as commitment and social relations. In this conversation Anne uses modality in order to make Captain Harville doubt himself and become skeptic of his own words.

The present paper is partially similar in its results to Thompson (2019) and Tave (2019) with respect to highlighting Austen’s focus on the world of the heroine, and the use of descriptions and lexical choices. Such a focus pinpoints the moral value of the characters which in turn exhibits Austen’s exact portrayal of the beliefs of the period. However, the present paper does not go hand in hand with the study of Frank (2020) and that of Looser (2020). This is because the paper does not examine Persuasion neither in relation to another novel by Austen, not does it compare Persuasion to other novels or literary pioneers.



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[1]– Master of Arts (MA) in English Language and Literature (Applied Linguistics). Lebanese University

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