This essay discusses the importance of social studies education as a means of preparing students to become effective and knowledgeable citizens.
Educating America’s Future
During the 2008 presidential election, many news reporters made a startling discovery while interviewing voters outside the polls. Several voters could answer questions pertaining to the personal lives of the candidates but failed to correctly answer questions about the candidates’ political views. In later interviews last month, many Americans in line for stimulus checks could not even identify the source of the money. Ironically, many schools have forsaken the “less important” subject of social studies in favor of stronger math and language arts programs. Surely these examples emphasize the disturbing consequences of this current decline in social studies education. After all, social studies education aims to create effective citizens and therefore determines the future of American politics, economics, and culture.
In our democratic country, where constituents play an important role in their government, knowledge of the government system is critical for all students. If our citizens are unaware of the political views of the candidates, they may vote for someone whose policies could negatively impact American society. Instead of critically evaluating the political beliefs of candidates, many citizens may become passive voters who rely upon unfounded personal judgments or those of their peers to determine their votes. Furthermore, students who do not fully understand the different levels or branches of the government will never know the ways they can intervene and influence government laws. The democratic nature of our society depends upon meaningful input from each American.
The ineffective citizenship that could result from poor social studies education also applies to economics. In regards to the current economic recession, truth exerts itself in the cliché phrase, “History repeats itself.” The recession and the Great Depression share many of the same causes, including buying on credit, poor investment choices, and banking problems. An awareness of the Great Depression may have prevented our country from allowing similar things to happen during this era.
Furthermore, many citizens do not even seem to understand basic principles of economics. They fail to recognize that they themselves supply the funds for several “free” government programs and aid. They also continue to buy products made in other countries rather than those made in the United States, an act that further weakens the American economy. If these citizens continue to make such decisions, how will our country ever recover? Perhaps a stronger education in history and economics would prompt Americans to make better economic choices.
The lack of social studies education will also ultimately impact American culture. Racism and other prejudices still abound in our society. While schools often strive to unify their diverse students, social studies education increases cultural sensitivity and awareness. The subject emphasizes the importance of community and the contributions of different cultures to American society. The emphasis enables students to recognize the similarities and appreciate the unique differences between themselves and other members of their community. Without the understanding and appreciation of different cultures within American society, citizens will struggle to unite for the good of both their local communities and their country.
After considering these negative impacts of inadequate social studies instruction, educational leaders must remember that literacy alone cannot make effective citizens. Literacy is a critical tool to help students understand and respond to the world around them. If our students can read and write, but lack the background knowledge to effectively participate in politics, make wise economic decisions, and embrace diverse culture contributions, our education system is failing to prepare America’s future to participate in our democratic society.
This essay reflects the challenges facing urban education and the effects of these challenges upon students.
An Urban Child’s Insurmountable Mountain
A novice mountaineer is never expected to scale a mountain without proper equipment and preparation. American society, however, has been challenging urban children to face a seemingly insurmountable peak on very limited resources.
Although urban children lack fundamental necessities, society demands that these citizens surmount poverty and strive to attain a zenith of accomplishment. Officials and the wealthier classes, meanwhile, have abandoned these children at a base of despair. Without adequate education and instruction, the isolated children cannot even identify opportunity’s footholds. Many remain stranded in the cold shadows of the peak. Those who manage to scale its base continuously resist more treacherous perils. Both society and the mountain, moreover, stand relentless against the needs and weaknesses of the children. They remain indifferent to the children’s insufficient emotional, mental, and physical preparation. Each new burden— hunger, homelessness, abuse, racism— further strains the insecure rope and harness that support the children. Before the children acclimate to their situations, the oppressiveness strangles the children, spawning confusion.
During this moment of hesitation, the cold desolation grips the children’s minds and souls and extinguishes their strength and stamina. It numbs the hunger that drives the wearied children forward. Slipping fingers can barely seize the next hold when the overwhelming factors— new government policies, increased poverty, and further segregation— shake the mountain. An avalanche snatches the children away, crushing any hope of reaching the summit fading further into the horizon. When the despairing children tumble back to the base, the stinging cold has frozen their hearts, and they no longer dream of reaching the summit of success.
This mount from poverty to success poses a threatening trial; however, no mountain remains insurmountable to an adequately prepared mountaineer. Similarly, urban children can ascend from the gripping depths of poverty if other members of our society offer compassionate hearts and generous minds. The choice to aid these children lies within each of us. Will we leave these children buried under avalanches of despair and chaos? Or will we, as members of a democracy, extend a hand to these poorly represented and less fortunate members of our society? Obtaining this goal requires sacrifices and commitment. We must establish foundations of hope and possibility. We must provide strong and plentiful footholds of nourishment and encouragement. We must secure a sturdy harness of support and trust to a rope that will sustain against the jagged edges of the crag. While the slow and measured ascent demands rigorous determination, the outcome offers a priceless reward: the ability to stomp a confident foot into the snow and place a flag atop the conquered pinnacle of success.
This memoir shares my experiences with my troublesome younger brother.
The Positive Side of Mischief
There must be a genetic factor that predisposes young boys to mischief. Surely a specific chromosome is responsible for the impish grins and smirking eyes common to these troublemakers. I am positive my youngest brother, in particular, acquired a more dominant form of the “naughty gene.” Although he was christened Michael, his troublesome behavior has warranted the more appropriate nickname “Brat,” and I rarely address him otherwise. Throughout the past thirteen years, this monster has invaded my life, targeting me in his evil schemes. Although I never enjoy my role in these plots, I must admit his excitement and comical personality decorate my otherwise boring life. In fact, I am convinced he is my personal comedian, whose mischief has shaped me to value the power of a sense of humor.
Considering his penchant for trouble, I doubt Brat ever experienced childhood innocence. Before he was even old enough to ride a bike, he had already chosen me as the victim of his bratty tendencies. One early plot remains especially vivid in my memory. On a warm summer night, I lay on our driveway, playing “Ghosts in the Graveyard” with four-year-old Brat. As I relaxed against the cool, hard concrete, I slowly closed my eyes, absorbing the scent of freshly mowed grass and the synchronized melodies of crickets. I had no intention of chasing Brat, and I hoped that he, like most young children, would quickly lose interest in the game.
Unfortunately, I forgot that Brat was not “like most children.” My inner peace was gently disturbed by round objects bouncing softly onto my stomach. I stiffened slightly against this intrusion and curled my slackened fingers towards my palms. Thinking that the rocks he had been holding earlier were accidentally slipping out of his hands, I slowly peeked at him from beneath closed lids. Within an instant, my peace was shattered by my own curdling screams. My formerly closed eyes threatened to bulge from their sockets when I realized I had been gravely mistaken. Where I had expected to see cold, damp rocks, I could only see cold, wet…slugs! Somehow, in a motion that almost defied gravity, I rocketed to my feet, shaking my arms and trying to rid myself of the disgusting balls of slime. As I continued to wave my arms and stomp my feet in a rhythmless boogie, Brat’s expression mirrored contentment and utter satisfaction. There was no denying his evil motives. The laughter illuminating his devilish eyes betrayed him. This had been no accident. He was thoroughly enjoying the effects of his mischief. My shrieks failed to disturb him. Instead, they evoked hearty laughter from deep within his tiny body. He threw his head back and exploded into a mixture of giggles that threatened to overpower him. He had found a lasting means of entertaining himself, at my expense.
As Brat grew older, his inordinate desire for mischief was further nurtured by my brother, Kevin. They rarely invited me to play with them. Instead, I was often the designated object of their play. Many times throughout my young life, I experienced direct hits from water guns, Nerf darts, stuffed animals, bath toys, and footballs. My house and yard were merely obstacle courses, sometimes providing shelter against their frequent attacks and sometimes blocking my escape. As I dashed behind couches, under tables, and around chairs, the frenzied pulsing of my heart mingled with the boys’ crazed laughter. Kevin’s encouragement only intensified Brat’s enjoyment. As long as he received support, Brat continued to find pleasure in tormenting me.
Although I learned to expect and handle my brothers’ ongoing schemes, I was totally unprepared for the extreme embarrassment they would bring me as an insecure adolescent girl. My parents always demanded that we leave the bathroom door open for safety reasons. While they may have devised this rule to protect my physical well-being, it surely did not protect my psychological well-being. I always anticipated hearing the door creak, a sure signal that my brothers were entering the bathroom. They seemed to make a point of visiting the bathroom while I was showering. Sometimes, as I closed my eyes to prevent shampoo from running in them, I would suddenly get knocked in the head by a bath toy that they had thrown over the shower curtain. They would continue hurling rubber duckies and plastic boats as I scampered from one side of the tub to the other, trying to dodge the bombs. I threw blind punches through the curtain, trying to hit them in any way I could without exposing myself. The harder I punched, the harder they laughed. They even made a game out of dodging my fist and taunted me with an “Oops, you missed me.” It was as though my reaction was a much enjoyed reward for their attack. Within minutes, though, I would hear Mom stampeding down the hall. Before she could even reach the bathroom with her wooden spoon in hand (Mom can make a paddle out of anything), the punks had withdrawn just as quickly as they had appeared. I would be left plotting their punishment.
Brat’s characteristics naturally supported his penchant for trouble, reaffirming my belief that his mischief was hereditary. He displayed the adaptability of a predator as he stalked me around the house. I eventually began locking the bathroom door, but within a few months, I knew I only had a matter of minutes before I would hear the jingling of a screwdriver and the twist of the opening door. Afterwards, I’d exit the bathroom only to find that my own defense had been used against me, and I had been locked out of my own bedroom. Of course, the screwdriver was nowhere to be found.
Brat was also extremely skilled at sneaking up on people. His skinny frame allowed him to hide underneath beds, behind doors, and in the nooks and crannies of our house, and his light feet enabled him to easily prey upon me. He slowly moved in from a distance until I was within reach. When I was least expecting it, my heart would explode as he yelled “Boo!” inches from my ear, or slyly murmured “Why, hellloooo!” from behind my bedroom door. The higher I jumped, the harder he laughed.
Perhaps Brat’s greatest asset was his charming smile, an ideal trait for luring people into his traps. It seemed to get him out of trouble every time. When my parents would yell or threaten him, Brat simply grinned at them. The upturned corners of their mouths betrayed their stern expressions, and Brat rarely took their reprimands seriously. Once he learned the power of his charm, Brat further honed his skill. He became a master of manipulation and used it unceasingly. Even I fell victim to his exploitation. After tormenting me for an hour, he would suddenly put his demons away and sweetly ask me to take him out for ice cream. Then he’d smile, wrap me in a hug, kiss me on the cheek, and tell me with superficial guilt that he was sorry and he’d never torture me again. I knew his demons were only temporarily at bay, but I usually subjected myself to his demands. How could I possibly say no to sparkling blue eyes and perfect little dimples?
Whenever Brat shares his account of his evil plots, his smug attitude and mischievous smile indicate his satisfaction. He undoubtedly considers himself a very humorous comedian. And, quite honestly, I do too. Though I can rarely muster a chuckle during his attacks, I often reflect upon them when I am alone. Unknown to him, the stirred memories bring a smile to my face, then a chuckle, then increasing giggles. His unrefined craftiness and wit amaze and inspire me. His mischief has also provided me with a great sense of humor. It is sometimes much better to laugh at your predicaments than to cry over them, and my experiences now allow me to lighten any stressful problem with a touch of humor. In fact, when I attempt to imagine my life without this mischief, I realize that mischief adds excitement and absurdity to the dull drudgery of life.
Brat has developed my life into one continuous comic strip. As a master caricaturist, he constantly adds new exaggerations and distortions with each bratty scheme. Although he often challenges my patience, I know my life would remain dull and humorless without his inspiring craft and wit. His comical personality and frequent pranks infuse my life with color, giving me a taste of the positive side of mischief.
The following is a chapter from a children's book I am currently writing. The book, titled This Means War, is geared towards a fifth-grade audience.
“ BINGO!” I whispered to myself. In the middle of the yard, wearing her hot pink bathing suit, was my unsuspecting sister. While sunning herself, she’d fallen asleep in the hammock. A perfect target for my new Superblaster500! Her headphones were blasting what she called music. It really sounded like a bunch of screeching cars. Whatever it was, it would help me carry out my mission undetected. I abandoned my crouching position behind the garage wall and scanned the front yard one last time. No parents around to blow my cover.
I pumped the gun until the handle wouldn’t budge and slipped around the corner. The grass tickled my feet and the afternoon sun heated my back as I moved in for the kill. I took a deep breath of the fresh air and whispered, “Agent Kevster within shooting range of target.” Then I tugged that handle back until every bit of water gushed from the nozzle.
My sister flipped the hammock as soon as the icy water hit her stomach. I scrambled for cover before her body even hit the ground. Mission accomplished.
I found a hideout in the dining room pantry. Within minutes, my sister was stomping up the deck steps. Her feet thudded on the wood like war drums. Each thud alerted the neighborhood that she was on the warpath.
“MOMMMMM!!!!” Shannon screamed with a war cry that caused our dog to bark. “Look what Kevin did!” I knew I was going to be stuck in the closet awhile so I opened a bag of fruit snacks and tried to make myself comfortable. Shannon can vent for hours without even taking a breath. It's probably her only talent.
These pieces are all poems I have written over the course of the past five years.
Revelation’s in the Eyes
A face proves a poor disguise,
For the feelings it won’t show-
Revelation’s in the eyes.
Lips can suppress her sighs,
But her eyes heave with woe-
A face proves a poor disguise.
Cold dank wells reveal the lies
Of the rosy cheeks that glow-
Revelation’s in the eyes.
Though her words with sweetness rise,
Her blue eyes sink in sorrow-
A face proves a poor disguise.
With des’late orbs she denies,
And makes her feigned face a foe-
Revelation’s in the eyes.
Though she prays they’ll never know,
What her soul holds to be so,
Her face proves a poor disguise-
Revelation’s in her eyes.
In Search of Sanctuary
She listened longingly to the song,
The soulful expression of the dove,
Which perched in the budding white blossoms.
The blooms struggled to take hold in the ledge
Of the exhausted steps of grey stone
Leading up to the sanctuary.
She yearned for her own sanctuary,
A have where she’d pursue a song
That would crumble the rough, time-worn stone
Restricting her spirit. As the dove,
With a coo, alighted from the ledge,
She moved across the field of blossoms.
As her toes graced the crimson blossoms,
Her mind soared to the sanctuary
Ahead, which had called her from the ledge,
Had instilled passion in her tired song,
Had led her to follow the free dove,
Seeking freedom from the heavy stone.
She soon stumbled on a concealed stone,
Lurking beneath delicate blossoms,
And helplessly watched the precious dove
Vanish, with hopes of sanctuary.
Sorrow burdened her once-joyous song,
And she questioned why she’d left the ledge.
Her emotions wavered on a ledge,
Until soft sweet music softened stone
Walls around her heart. She heard the song
Of the dove again, and new blossoms
Of hope for her long-sought sanctuary,
Unfolded with the song of the dove.
To a sheer crag, she pursued the dove.
It soared on; She teetered on the ledge,
Knowing permanent sanctuary
Lay in the hands of the wave and stone.
In a weary and worn heart, blossoms
Of hope for peace determines fate’s song.
Her sanctuary is now marked by stone,
Her soul, like a dove, rests upon a ledge,
Where sea-hardy blossoms sway with her song.
Psalm for Troubled Times
How many times, O Lord,
Have I doubted my own strength,
My ability to stand
‘Gainst the hardships and struggles
That threaten to devour me
With hopelessness and doubt!
Yet, while others are sucked in,
For their hearts sink within them,
And they have no source of strength,
I have found my stronghold.
In You, O Lord, I’ve placed
All trust for assistance.
Divine Providence alone
Provides the guidance I seek,
Guidance unfound among
The fallible advice
Of purely human minds.
In times of utmost trouble,
I no longer despair,
As faithless souls may do,
But raise my soul to Heaven
And glorify my God,
Under whose divine wisdom,
Everything has a purpose.
The Lord has never failed
To deliver my soul
From suppression and turmoil.
He lifts me high above
The obstacles I face,
And I proceed with new strength.
Glorifying my King,
I find answers to my prayers,
Though sometimes hardship hides them.
Lead me ever onward,
O Lord, in whom I place all trust!
Preserve me from the snares
Of despair and doubt,
Which, with ravenous jowls,
Hope to ensnare wayward souls.
Empower me, Lord, in times
Of oppression and trouble!
Deliver me from evil!
Bless me with the wisdom
To accept and rise above
The difficulties I face
With renewed strength and trust!
A Proper Time and Place
The things man seeks
Often hide themselves
From his searching soul.
The deepest desires
Are the hardest to satisfy.
In his pursuit
Of the answers,
The questions remain;
Yet the Master sees
That he acquires
New lessons meanwhile.
When doubt invades
Man’s wearied mind,
And he forsakes
The very question
That consumed him,
In an exchange
For a new question,
The wise Master
Only then declares
That he should know
The facts he once sought.
When man has all but given up,
Evident truths appear.
Thus, never search
So deeply that
The soul from lessons
Learned along the way-
For the Master
What the soul seeks
When he alone deems
For He truly knows
When a soul is ready
To know the answers
It strongly desires.
The following is a profile of my alma mater, Mount de Sales Academy.
Mount de Sales Academy: A Testament to Tradition
The jolt of the carriage thrusts me from the depths of my reverie, and I immediately become aware of the rattling and lurching along the uneven path. As I find myself sliding on the hard wooden seat, I grope for the handle in the darkened interior. The curtain hiding the circular window moves, and I push it completely aside to take in the view. A hint of daylight peeks through the dense woodlands. The crunching of the horses’ hooves disturbs the morning silence. My legs are cramped against my new suitcases, and my body is protesting from the hours I have spent being jostled in my dark, musty prison. The carriage, however, is just beginning its climb up a steep hill.
A short time later, the carriage rolls into a clearing with a final lurch. Before me, just beyond a small arched gatehouse, stands the most magnificent structure I have ever seen. The four-story building makes even the Southern plantation house from which I’ve travelled pale in comparison. The orange brick catches the morning rays of the sun and contrasts sharply with the white frames of the tall arched windows. A spiral staircase, partially obscured by the shadowed corner of the building, winds its way up the back of the structure. Brick steps spiral out on either side of a striking front door. The slow, rhythmic toll of a bell draws my eyes upward, where a red-roofed cupola crowns the structure against the background of a bright blue sky. The bell draws attention to the prominent landmark for miles around.
The friendly voice of the gatekeeper redirects my attention as he opens the carriage door and offers his hand to help me step out. “Welcome to Mount de Sales Academy, miss,” he greets me formally. “This will soon become your new home.” As he unties the horses and leads them towards a small rubblestone and mortar stable off to my right, I start along the cobblestone path towards the building. A gentle breeze causes my woolen uniform dress to roughly brush my legs.
I pass the first outcropping of the building, and the rest of the structure comes into view. Lines of green-shuttered windows lead towards the central focus of the building: the main portico. Wide granite steps and four Ionic columns supporting a triangular roof frame a lofty double door. The entrance alone testifies to the stateliness and grandeur of the academy. I feel an inexplicable magnetism drawing me towards the fortified establishment.
Suddenly, a car engine destroys my glimpse into the past and pulls me back into modern times. The cobblestone disappears beneath my feet, a red-roofed gymnasium replaces the barn, and the gatehouse, now a white painted home for the Dominican Sisters, arches over a paved road. Although economic and historical changes have altered certain aspects of the school, the building is a reminder of the resilient nature of the all-girls academy. One hundred fifty-five years after its foundation, the main building remains practically unchanged. Before me, the granite steps and monstrous white columns still stand, reminiscent of Southern architecture. The stability of the aged building parallels the institution’s long-standing commitment to provide stability and shelter for young women. Each time I visit the academy, these reminders of the academy’s long history lead me to envision the school as it existed long ago. Together, the historical structure and the traditions of the academy have maintained and protected the history of the school.
I pass through the main doors, and former teachers welcome me with warm embraces. Their many questions for me reflect their sincere interest in both the students they teach and also the students they have taught. The principal soon interrupts my reunion with the teachers. “How ya doin’?” The homey southern drawl of the long-habited Dominican nun makes me smile. Even though the order of sisters has changed since the academy’s inception, the Sisters’ accents continue to reflect the academy’s southern heritage. Sister greets me as though she is welcoming a family member. She leads me to her office, where we chat about the history and traditions of the school. Her friendliness and openness illustrate that the academy still shelters a caring and welcoming community.
After leaving me with a sincere hug, Sister later rushes off to complete one of her many tasks. I exit her office and stroll through a carpeted hallway towards a stairwell. Teachers’ voices drift into the hallway, disrupting the otherwise hushed hall. Although the subject matter has changed within the last century, the academy provides a rigorous curriculum that emphasizes English. The serious atmosphere indicates that the institution upholds its commitment to challenge young women academically.
I push open a heavy wooden door and enter the stairwell. The dim lighting barely illuminates the rough wooden steps. As I notice the dips and wear marks on the steps, I can almost hear footsteps of past students echoing through the musty stairwell. A bell rings, and the thudding of excited girls pushing their way to lunch chases away echoes of the past. Their laughter and happy voices reveal what Sister referred to as “a sincere sense of sisterhood that extends beyond the class.” The sense of sisterhood does extend well beyond the class. Many of these young women are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of alumnae. They continue to value and carry on the academy’s history. The academy is no longer a boarding school, but many travel miles to attend school there each day. The institution still serves as a second home for young women growing and learning together.
As I enter the chapel, the excited noise quickly subsides to respectful silence. Colorful light from the original stained glass windows dances along the marbled altar rail. Glistening light fragments from an old chandelier reflect off the bowed heads of some girls praying nearby. The original wooden pews sigh beneath the weight of the girls. A miraculous medal, a standard part of the uniform, hangs from each girl’s neck. Sister had told me, “The traditions are defining tradition. They are traditions deeply-seeded in the Christian religion.” I consider the miraculous medals, the daily prayer, and the old chapel, and I note the truth of her words. Even the chapel’s location in the center of the building emphasizes the academy’s central focus on faith. It is no coincidence that the institution remains the oldest house of worship in the county.
My journey ends in the music hall, a lofty room with high ceilings and faux marble pillars. Italian frescoes adorn the ceiling. I admire the trompe l’oeil style, which makes the paintings seem three-dimensional. A semicircular stage protrudes from an alcove in the far wall. Tall arched windows extend upward from the stage. Since the first graduation, young women have shared in perhaps the most well-known tradition of the academy: graduation. While wearing white dresses and holding a dozen red roses, numerous young women have entered the grand hall through the windows and walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. The academy has fostered the same morals and values within these women of different generations. Although times have changed, the academy continues to instill both academic lessons and life lessons that will follow these young women throughout their lives. As I imagine girls from the past, the present, and the future walking across that same stage, Sister’s voice resonates in my mind. “Tradition binds us together… it provides a set of experiences that are shared…It binds us together now and links us with the past and future.”
The following is a research paper that analyzes the shift in values in two Jane Austen works, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.
It Takes More than Appearances to Maintain a Society: The Shift in Values between Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion
In Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, Jane Austen indicates that outer appearances alone do not suffice in creating and maintaining society. Her perspective reflects an important change in the upper-class society to which Austen herself belonged. This elite rural society promoted a system of rank mainly determined by heredity, land ownership, and monetary and material wealth (Tanner 237). The aristocracy and the gentry both owned large amounts of land and grand estates and received their money mostly from tenant farmers and investments (Spring 394). The aristocracy, however, possessed inherited titles and infinitely greater wealth than most of the gentry. They boasted greater parks, larger estates, more servants, city homes, and political seats and emphasized refined manners and talents (Spring 394). Because the aristocracy held the greatest power in society, the gentry strove to attain the same materialistic markers of wealth, including money, manners, aristocratic connections, and material possessions, which often taxed them financially and created further divisions among the gentry according to these distinctions (Copeland 132). Thus, compared with their wealthy aristocratic superiors, who received 5,000-10,000 pounds a year, the majority of the gentry, who received 1,000-5,000 pounds, lived in “comparative poverty, where status demands outran income” (Spring 394). Nevertheless, the gentry promoted the materialistic values of the aristocracy and continued to secure enough land and possessions to gain greater status and power within their local communities (Copeland 143).
Within this struggle for social status, marriage played an important role. To ensure the continuity of their land and wealth, upper-class families of all status levels usually entailed their estates to male heirs, which caused women to rely upon marriage for financial security (Spring 397). Furthermore, a woman’s status was often determined by that of her husband, so marriage could either raise or lower a woman’s position in society (McMaster, “Class” 115). Consequently, traditional society pressured women to pursue marriage mainly as a method of maintaining or gaining high social status.
During the beginning stages of the Industrial Revolution, as jobs and goods gradually became more available and overall wealth increased, English society experienced a growth in the gentry and the emergence of a new stratum of the upper-class rural population known as the pseudo-gentry (Juliet McMaster, “Class” 123). These members of society consisted of professional families, including barristers, clergy, and military, who owned relatively few goods and little land (Spring 395). Unlike the aristocracy and many members of the gentry, the pseudo-gentry earned their money through the services they provided (Copeland 132). They pursued a sense of social competition similar to that of the gentry and struggled to attain higher distinctions of rank through purchasing power, connections with gentry and aristocracy, and marriage (Spring 396). Because these pseudo-gentry social climbers often lacked the refined manners and inherited wealth of the upper classes, however, the landed gentry and aristocracy initially treated them with contempt and continued to hold the most influence in society (McMaster, “Class” 123). Nevertheless, some members of society began to denote the emptiness of the aristocratic materialism within the gentry and emphasized the importance of character and social utility (Tanner 248). As the budding industrialization and the Napoleonic Wars allowed the pseudo-gentry to gradually attain higher status within society, an even greater shift occurred. The Napoleonic Wars, in particular, enhanced society’s respect for the military men belonging to the pseudo-gentry (Tanner 250). During the War, the military protected England from Napoleon, thereby establishing their utility to society (McMaster, “Classs” 121). As the members of society began to recognize this importance, they also began to realize the lack of utility from the gentry (Brownstein 35).
As a writer at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and during the Napoleonic Wars, Austen witnessed these societal changes and presented them in her works. Pride and Prejudice, written and revised at the very beginning of industrialization and throughout the Napoleonic Wars, reflects a new emphasis on character and rank. The heroine, Elizabeth, refuses to marry Mr. Collins, a pseudo-gentry suitor who strives to acquire distinctions of rank but lacks good character and social utility. Similarly, she considers another pseudo-gentry man, George Wickham, as a potential suitor until she discovers his negative character. She also initially rejects Fitwilliam Darcy, a wealthy but prideful and selfish (so she thinks) young man. It is not until Darcy proves his positive qualities and obligations to society that Elizabeth reconsiders her decision.
Similarly, Persuasion, written even later during the early industrial stages and at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, continues to emphasize the importance of character and social utility through the marriage choices of the heroine, Anne. Like Elizabeth, Anne rejects two socially driven but superficial suitors, Charles Musgrove and Mr. Elliot. Unlike Elizabeth, however, Anne finds a suitable partner, Captain Wentworth, in the less refined but self-made and socially responsible pseudo-gentry. Thus, while both works emphasize the importance of character and social utility through the heroines’ perceptions and selections of a marriage partner, Pride and Prejudice presents a marriage that upholds the character of high-ranking gentry, while the marriage in Persuasion favors the less sophisticated but upstanding pseudo-gentry over the stagnant and superficial upper classes.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet’s perception and rejection of her first suitor, Mr. Collins, reflects her belief that status alone does not compensate for poor character. As a country cleric, Mr. Collins represents the pseudo-gentry. Like many members of this social stratum, Mr. Collins strives to attain distinctions of rank. In his quest, he has “been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the Patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred [him] to the valuable rectory of the parish” (Austen, Pride 43). In essence, the aristocrat Lady Catherine, whose wealth and rank qualify her as an influential member of society, has provided the financial and social support to help Mr. Collins secure a cleric position in her parish. Through this connection with aristocracy, Mr. Collins has secured a higher status in society.
In addition to his connection, Mr. Collins also offers Elizabeth financial security. Because Mr. Bennet has no male heirs, his estate will pass to Mr. Collins, his cousin, upon his death (Austen, Pride 43). Therefore, marriage to Mr. Collins would enable Elizabeth to maintain her family’s wealth and estate, as well as secure a higher status through her connections to Lady Catherine. Consequently, Mr. Collins believes that these distinctions of rank “are circumstances highly in [his] favor” and that Elizabeth’s “portion [of inheritance, which] is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of [her] loveliness and amiable qualifications [for other suitors],” will influence her to accept his proposal (Austen, Pride 74).
Elizabeth, however, continuously focuses on Mr. Collins’s behavior and character rather than his social status. She repeatedly refers to Mr. Collins’s foolishness throughout the novel. She depicts Mr. Collins as “not a sensible man, […whose] deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society, […and with] the self-conceit of a weak head” (Austen, Pride 48). She often inwardly laughs at him, even during his proposal (Austen, Pride 72). Furthermore, Elizabeth finds his conceited attitude embarrassing. When he breaks the rules of propriety by addressing the socially superior Mr. Darcy without introduction because he believes himself “more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on what is right than a young lady like [Elizabeth…], it vexe[s] her to see him expose himself to such a man [of high status]” (Austen, Pride 67). Elizabeth feels further mortified when he gives an inflated speech about the importance of his clerical duties in front of Darcy and other prominent gentry at a social gathering (Austen, Pride 68). These actions are socially inappropriate and his unawareness of their impropriety reflects his folly. Additionally, Elizabeth recognizes that “his principal concern [of his proposal] is with himself, and consequently he expresses no wish to contribute to Elizabeth’s own happiness but rather only a conviction that matrimony will add to his own” (Johnson, “Pride” 351). These expressions include a desire to set an example for the members of his parish, to achieve his own happiness, and to satisfy the wishes of his patroness Lady Catherine (Austen, Pride 72). For Elizabeth, these many incidents reflecting Mr. Collins’s selfishness and imprudence far outweigh the socioeconomic benefits of marriage, and Elizabeth rejects his proposal.
After her refusal of Mr. Collins’s proposal, Elizabeth considers another pseudo-gentry social climber, George Wickham, as a potential suitor. Like Mr. Collins, Wickham initially obtains his status in society through connections with his social superiors, the Darcys (Austen, Pride 132). He later maintains his status through his military career and his connections with gentry families, such as the Bennets. In addition to these connections, Mr. Wickham also possesses other distinctions of rank that include gentlemanly appearance and conduct. When Elizabeth first meets him, he shows “all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address,” as well as “a happy readiness of conversation…perfectly correct and unassuming” (Austen, Pride 68). These are all characteristics admired by the gentry.
A revelation of Wickham’s true character, however, eventually alerts Elizabeth to the superficiality of his status and causes her to dismiss him as a potential suitor. In a letter from Darcy, Elizabeth discovers that Wickham falsely accused Darcy of depriving him of money he was to inherit from Darcy’s father (Austen, Pride 132). She also learns that he squandered the money he had inherited and then attempted to elope with Darcy’s younger sister as a means of attaining her inheritance through marriage (Austen, Pride 133). After reflecting on her past experiences with Wickham, Elizabeth is finally “struck with the impropriety of [his former] communications” with her, in which he told her about Darcy’s selfish actions (refusing the inheritance) towards him within a short period of knowing her (Austen, Pride 136). She also remembers that his actions often contradicted his speeches, such as when he “boasted of no fear of seeing Mr. Darcy—that Mr. Darcy might leave the country, but that he should stand his ground; yet he had avoided the Netherfield ball the very next week” (Austen, Pride 136). These show the shallowness and dishonesty of his character and cause Elizabeth to dismiss Wickham as a potential marriage partner. Elizabeth admits that “his countenance, voice, and manner, had established him at once in the possession of every virtue” upon their initial meeting (Austen, Pride 135). In this confession, she recognizes that she based her assumptions of Wickham on only external qualities, a mistake that emphasizes the importance of character (Duckworth 309).
In addition to dismissing the two pseudo-gentry suitors, Elizabeth also initially rejects the wealthy Fitwilliam Darcy, who displays many distinctions of rank but exhibits ungentlemanly conduct. With an income of 10,000 pounds a year and an inherited estate, Pemberley, Darcy maintains a high status among the landed gentry. His income level is one that permits “unlimited genteel comforts,” including traveling to London and extensive material possessions (Copeland 137). Additionally, Darcy is “descended on the maternal side, from [a] noble line; and, on the father’s, from respectable, honourable, and ancient, though untitled families” (Austen, Pride 232). While his family lacks a title, Darcy’s descent from nobility on his mother’s side and from a long-standing, respectable gentry family on his father’s side increases his status among the upper-class gentry (McMaster, “Class” 118). These many distinctions qualify Darcy as a significant suitor for a woman seeking marriage for financial security and social position. Because Elizabeth comes from a lower status and will inherit little from her parents, Darcy presents a strong argument for marriage.
Although Elizabeth recognizes the prestige of Darcy’s rank, she does not let this outweigh his negative character when she makes her decision regarding his marriage proposal. When Darcy proposes, he admits that making his offer is difficult because of “his sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—[and] of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination” (Austen, Pride 125). He also “express[es] real security,” a sign that he believes his superior status will ensure Elizabeth’s acceptance (Austen, Pride 125). When Elizabeth responds with indignation that Darcy would propose “with so evident a design of offending and insulting [her],” Darcy angrily asks her how he could possibly “rejoice in the inferiority of her connections […and] congratulate [himself] on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath [his] own” (Austen, Pride 135). He also reaffirms his actions “wholly unmoved by any feeling of remorse” in separating Elizabeth’s sister Jane from his socially superior friend and Jane’s suitor, Bingley, and refers to his part as an act of kindness towards his friend (Austen, Pride 124). Moreover, he “contemptuously” mentions the great financial “misfortunes” that Elizabeth believes Darcy caused Wickham by refusing to give him his inheritance (Austen, Pride 127). Darcy’s words and actions show his adherence to aristocratic values of familial and high-ranking connections and rank-determined superiority.
While Darcy’s perspectives do reflect the upper gentry’s beliefs in their superiority, Elizabeth believes they merely reflect “[Darcy’s] arrogance, [his] conceit, and [his] selfish disdain of the feelings of others” (McMaster, “The Continuity” 730; Austen, Pride 128). Her views of Darcy cause her to assume that “his shameless avowal of what he had done with respect to Jane, his unpardonable assurance in acknowledging, though he could not justify it, and the unfeeling manner in which he had mentioned Mr. Wickham” all result from his pride (Austen, Pride 128). She even tells him that his behavior “spared [her] the concern which [she] might have felt in refusing [him], had [he] behaved in a more gentleman-like manner” and thereby stresses that his position alone does not entitle him to respect (Austen, Pride 127). Unlike Darcy, Elizabeth does not believe his selfish and ungentlemanly actions are justified by the superiority of his rank. She acknowledges that “she [can] not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection,” but she does not feel obliged to accept Darcy simply because he maintains the higher status and greater wealth that a woman of her position has little chance of attaining (Austen, Pride 125; Johnson, “Pride” 350). Thus, Elizabeth realizes that a proposal from such a socially superior man is a compliment to her and a chance for financial and social security, but these benefits alone cannot convince her to marry.
In contrast, Elizabeth’s discovery of Darcy’s positive characteristics renews her interest in his status and marriage proposal. In a letter following the first proposal, Darcy reveals his true role in Wickham’s situation: Darcy had not denied Wickham his inheritance. Instead, he had given Wickham his share, and Wickham had squandered the money, attempted to receive more money from Darcy, and tried to marry Darcy’s sister to obtain her fortune through marriage (Austen, Pride 133). Darcy also informs Elizabeth of his true reason for separating Jane and Bingley: he thought Jane “did not invite [Bingley] by participation of any sentiment” and was afraid Bingley “believed her to return his affection with sincere, if not equal regard” (Austen, Pride 130-131). He therefore essentially dissuaded his friend from marrying Jane because he doubted Jane’s true feelings for Bingley. As Darcy justifies his actions towards Wickham and Jane by showing his concern for his sister and his friend, his character reflects less cruelty and selfishness. Even Elizabeth feels ashamed that she falsely accused Darcy (Austen, Pride 137).
After these initial revelations about Darcy, Elizabeth begins to focus more positively on Darcy’s rank. When she visits Pemberley, she “admire[s] every remarkable spot and point of view” and admits that “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (Austen, Pride 159). She also notes “with admiration of his taste, that [Pemberley] was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine” and pensively considers that “of this place […she] might have been mistress! With these rooms, [she] might now have been familiarly acquainted! Instead of viewing them as a stranger, [she] might have rejoiced in them as [her] own, and welcomed to them as visitors [her] uncle and aunt” (Austen, Pride 159). These reflections illustrate Elizabeth’s awe for such distinctions of rank.
Furthermore, Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley allows her to recognize more of Darcy’s constructive qualities. The housekeeper describes Darcy as “the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted boy, in the world” and says she has “never had a cross word from him in [her] life” (Austen, Pride 159). This contradicts Elizabeth’s “firmest opinion” that “he was not a good-tempered man” (Austen, Pride 159). The housekeeper also declares that Darcy “is the best landlord and the best master that ever lived. Not like the wild young men now-a-days who think nothing of themselves” (Austen, Pride 159). Afterwards, Elizabeth experiences “a more gentle sensation towards [Darcy], than she has ever felt in the height of their acquaintance” and “consider[s] how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship!” (Austen, Pride 162). She acknowledges that “every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favourable to his character […and] thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before; she remembered its warmth, and softened its impropriety of expression” (Austen, Pride 162). In essence, Elizabeth begins to admire Darcy’s utility at Pemberley and his concern for his friends and family (Johnson, “Pride” 354).
Darcy’s greatest display of concern and positive character, however, occurs when he reconciles himself with Elizabeth. During the second proposal scene, Darcy claims that he began to see the justice in Elizabeth’s reproof after his failed first proposal, and he acknowledges his extreme pride. He declares that his recollection of his conduct tortured him in the months following the first proposal (Austen, Pride 241). With new humility, he also asserts that he has “been a selfish being all his life, in practice, though not in principle” and “was given good principles but left to follow them in pride and conceit” (Austen, Pride 241). Furthermore, he recognizes that the prejudiced views of his aristocratic family encouraged him “to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared to [his] own” (Austen, Pride 241). This recognition causes him to view Elizabeth differently. Instead of perceiving her as a woman of lower status needing security, Darcy sees her as “a woman worthy of being pleased” through his kind actions (Austen, Pride 241). For this reason, he paid off Wickham to marry Elizabeth’s sister after the two eloped and brought shame to the Bennet family. He also emphasizes that Elizabeth’s family does not owe him for saving Lydia’s and the family’s reputations and that he executed his decision for Elizabeth’s sake (Austen, Pride 239). Furthermore, Darcy informs Elizabeth that he has rectified the situation between Bingley and Jane by telling Bingley the truth about Jane’s affections. Through Darcy’s actions at Pemberley and towards Elizabeth during the second proposal, he illustrates an admirable conduct that enables Elizabeth to accept his proposal.
Similar to Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion also presents a heroine, Anne, who must weigh the character and the rank of her suitors. Like Elizabeth, Anne often recognizes the character flaws in those pseudo-gentry and gentry suitors who overemphasize superficial distinctions of rank. In contrast to Elizabeth, however, Anne finds positive qualities in the pseudo-gentry suitor, Captain Wentworth, who lacks the rank of her other suitors.
Charles Musgrove is one suitor who represents many distinctions of rank but lacks many admirable characteristics. He is “the eldest son of a man, whose landed property and general importance, were second, in that country, only to Sir Walter’s” (Austen, Persuasion 20). Like many members of the gentry, Charles also maintains a “want of more money and a strong inclination for a handsome present from his father” (Austen, Persuasion 29-30; Copeland 144). These desires reflect his emphasis on maintaining the appearances of his upper-gentry status. With such external distinctions that would allow Elizabeth to maintain a high position in society, he presents a promising marriage opportunity by traditional societal standards.
Nevertheless, Anne finds Charles’s character lacking in “powers,” “conversation,” and “grace” (Austen, Persuasion 29). She notes that “he [does] nothing with much zeal” and “his time [is] otherwise trifled away, without benefit from books” (Austen, Persuasion 29). He also spends an extensive amount of time hunting. This suggests that Charles exhibits little utility as he seeks trivial pursuits (Copeland 144). Without these qualities, his rank alone is not enough to convince Elizabeth to marry him.
Like Charles Musgrove, Anne’s subsequent suitor, Mr. Elliot, enjoys many distinctions of high rank among the gentry but lacks a positive character. Upon his first formal meeting with Anne, Mr. Elliot displays “manners [that are] so what they ought to be, so polished, so easy, so particularly agreeable” and “a sensible, discerning mind” through “his tone, his expressions, his choice of subject, his knowing where to stop [in conversation]” (Austen, Persuasion 94).
In addition to manners and sensibility in matters of conversation, Mr. Elliot emphasizes “his value for rank and connexion” when he admits that “birth, education and good manners” are essential for good company (Austen, Persuasion 98). Mr. Elliot also possesses great wealth from a prior marriage and stands to inherit Kellynch-hall and the title of baronet from Sir Walter (Austen, Persuasion 7-8). Upon the death of his first wife, he indicates what Sir Walter believes is a loyalty to family and connections when he expresses a desire to rectify the rift that once formed between the two men (Austen, Persuasion 4-5). Mr. Elliot’s external actions and ambitions to achieve these distinctions of rank mirror those generally seen among the gentry (Spring 394). Not only does Mr. Elliot seek and maintain the aristocratic values of proper manners, family connections, wealth, and inherited land and title, but he (through marriage) also provides the chance for Anne to maintain a high position in society.
Despite Mr. Elliot’s external appearances, Anne eventually discovers that his true conduct and personality undermine the merit of his social status. Although she agrees that “he [is] a sensible [and] an agreeable man, [who] talk[s] well [and] profess[es] good opinions,” she is “afraid to answer for his conduct” (Austen, Persuasion 106). She distrusts his past because “the names which [he] occasionally drop[s] of former associates, the allusions to former practices and pursuits, [suggest] suspicions not favourable of what he [has] been” (Austen, Persuasion 106). She also notes references to bad habits, such as Sunday-travelling, and believes “that there [has] been a period of his life (and probably not a short one) when he [has] been, at least, careless on all serious matters” (Austen, Persuasion 106). These behaviors seem to contradict Mr. Elliot’s emphasis on propriety. Additionally, Mr. Elliot “never [shows] any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others” (Austen, Persuasion 106). Unlike the gentry, who stress outward appearances, Anne focuses on the inner qualities, such as “the frank, the open-hearted, [and] the eager character,” (Austen, Persuasion 106). Because Mr. Elliot maintains such polished conversations, Anne believes that Mr. Elliot upholds a façade of social distinction and doubts the sincerity of his character (Austen, Persuasion 107).
Anne’s later visits with an old school friend, Mrs. Smith, confirm her suspicions about Mr. Elliot. Through conversations with Mrs. Smith, Anne learns that “Mr. Elliot is a man without heart or conscience; a designing, wary, cold-blooded being, who thinks only of himself; who, for his own interest or ease, would be guilty of any cruelty, or any treachery […with] no feeling for others” (Austen, Persuasion 132). According to Mrs. Smith, Mr. Elliot bankrupted her husband by convincing him to overspend on materialistic pleasures even though Mr. Elliot fully recognized Mr. Smith’s limited wealth (Austen, Persuasion 133). Additionally, Mr. Elliot’s first marriage to a wealthy woman was merely an attempt to make his fortune (Austen, Persuasion 132). Similarly, his professed desire to repair his relationship with Sir Walter is an excuse to prevent Sir Walter from marrying his friend and producing an heir, which would deprive Mr. Elliot of his inheritance (Austen, Persuasion 132). Thus, Mr. Elliot’s strivings to acquire and exhibit distinctions of rank entail selfishness, manipulation, and treachery. Furthermore, his ability to hide his true character by displaying the outward appearances valued by the upper-class society implies that rank alone is meaningless. He “serves single-handedly to undermine utterly any code of values attached to manners” (Tanner 246). Anne recognizes this disparity and consequently dismisses Mr. Elliot as a suitor.
In contrast to the superficial but high-ranking Mr. Elliot, the low-ranking Frederick Wentworth displays a positive character that appeals to Anne. From the very beginning, Anne perceives Wentworth as a “remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit and brilliancy” (Austen, Persuasion 18). He possesses “such confidence, powerful in its own warmth, and bewitching in the wit which often expressed it,” as well as a “sanguine temper and fearlessness of mind” (Austen, Persuasion 19). These characteristics reflect the values of the hard-working pseudo-gentry (Spring 393). Furthermore, Wentworth, like most members of the pseudo-gentry, pursues wealth, a distinction of rank that will elevate him in society (Spring 396). He is “confident that he should soon be rich […and] soon be on a [military] station that would lead to everything he wanted” (Austen, Persuasion 19).
Despite these positive qualities, however, Anne initially follows the advice of her guardian Lady Russell, who views Wentworth as “a young man, who had nothing to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in the profession” (Austen, Persuasion 19). Additionally, Anne’s father, Sir Walter, gives Wentworth’s proposal “all the negative of great astonishment, great coldness, great silence, and a professed resolution of doing nothing for his daughter […for] he thought it a very degrading alliance” (Austen, Persuasion 18). Lady Russell and Sir Walter’s emphasis on affluence, connections, the inferiority of the uncertain military profession, and marriage as a means of building alliances reflects the aristocratic values of their society (Tanner 237). Anne allows these values to influence her decision regarding Wentworth’s proposal. Disregarding Wentworth’s character, she is “persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing—indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success,” and denies Wentworth, thereby showing a temporary acceptance of aristocratic values (Austen, Persuasion 19).
Even after Wentworth attains some distinctions of rank, he still lacks high social status according to aristocratic values. Shortly after Anne rejects his first proposal, Wentworth sets sail with the navy. By capturing enemy vessels during the Napoleonic Wars, he “distinguish[es] himself, and early gain[s] the other step in [military] rank,” as well as a large fortune (Austen, Persuasion 21). Through his victories, he acquires “five-and-twenty thousand pounds, and [rises] as high in his profession as merit and activity could place him” (Austen, Persuasion 165). Nevertheless, his earnings and his profession still restrict him to the pseudo-gentry. While he does possess wealth, he lacks other important distinctions of rank, such as an inherited title, extensive land, and an estate. Furthermore, he associates with navy families, who, like many members of the pseudo-gentry, often exhibit less refined manners and do not observe the upper-class etiquette (Tanner 244). During a visit with one family, Anne notes the cramped accommodations and lack of formality (Austen, Persuasion 66). Because Wentworth does not possess the distinctions of rank and still holds a lower position in society than Anne, he remains a poor suitor if measured according to traditional aristocratic values.
Nevertheless, Anne continues to emphasize Wentworth’s positive qualities and eventually accepts a lower social position in favor of positive character. She adamantly defends the value of the navy, “who have done so much for [society and] have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give” (Austen, Persuasion 14). By claiming that these members of the pseudo-gentry deserve the same material possessions as gentry and aristocracy, she refuses to measure worth according to the traditional standards (Tanner 244). Rather than acknowledging the importance of inherited land and titles, she focuses on the utility of one’s profession and character. Unlike Charles Musgrove and Mr. Elliot, Wentworth acquires his wealth, a distinction of social rank, through “honourable toils and just rewards” (Austen, Persuasion 165). Thus, Anne indicates that worthiness of wealth and status depends upon the pseudo-gentry value of hard work rather than the aristocratic values, such as blood, inheritance, and connections.
Anne further undermines the emptiness of aristocratic values when she stresses the positive qualities of the navy families with whom Wentworth associates. She does not consider the less refined manners and improper social etiquette of many of these men and women inferior to her own. Instead, she enjoys the “bewitching charm in [their] degree of hospitality so uncommon, so unlike the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display” (Austen, Persuasion 66). Moreover, she admires the families’ “unaffected, warm, and obliging” character. She believes their hasty accommodations for her in their cramped home illustrate a heart-felt invitation (Austen, Persuasion 65-66). Anne’s conclusions demonstrate another divergence from traditional values. As she emphasizes inner character rather than outward etiquette, she suggests the emptiness of a social status based merely traditional distinctions of rank (Tanner 249). She most strongly indicates this belief when she abandons her position among the gentry and accepts Wentworth’s second proposal, thereby showing her favor of character over rank.
Anne’s preference for character over rank suggests an even greater shift from the values of Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. While both works stress the importance of character, they differ in the members of society who possess positive qualities. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins and Wickham both represent the pseudo-gentry and strive to attain upper-class connections, land, and wealth. Nevertheless, Mr. Collins’s foolishness, impropriety, and arrogance, and Wickham’s dishonesty and manipulation undermine their attempts to gain status. Elizabeth consequently rejects both suitors. Instead, the upper-gentry Darcy, who maintains aristocratic lineage, inherited land, and substantial wealth, presents a better alternative. Although Elizabeth refuses to accept Darcy merely on these external aristocratic values, she admires and respects his rank by acknowledging “the compliment of his affections,” the impropriety of Mr. Collins’s address towards Darcy, and the distinction of being mistress of Pemberley (Austen, Pride 125; Johnson, “Pride” 352). Consequently, her marriage to the transformed Darcy implies a movement “from an initial condition of potential social fragmentation to a resolution in which the grounds of society are reconstituted as the principal characters come together in marriage (Duckworth 306). Essentially, Elizabeth’s marriage represents the figurative marriage of traditional principles and a contemporary principle of character.
In contrast to Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion offers positive qualities in the pseudo-gentry and an emptiness of status among the gentry. Unlike Elizabeth, Anne does not maintain a favorable view of rank. Instead, she contrasts the unspirited and trifling Charles Musgrove and the hypocritical, manipulative, and treacherous Mr. Elliot with the generous, hard-working, and spirited Wentworth. While Wentworth lacks the distinctions of rank—land, connections, inherited title—of Anne’s other suitors, Anne disregards these traditional aristocratic measures of status and accepts his second proposal. “There seems to be no correlation or connection between social title and social role, between mark and merit” (Tanner 239). Anne’s marriage therefore undermines the traditional aristocratic value system in her society and indicates that social utility and value now lies in the pseudo-gentry (Tanner 248).
These changes in values in the societies of the novels parallel the changes in Austen’s society. Like the society and value system she presents in Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s own society began noticing the growth of the gentry and the emergence of the pseudo-gentry (Ahearn 402). At first, her society, particularly the aristocracy and landed gentry, responded with contempt and continued to maintain the distinctions of rank and social value that Elizabeth embraces with her marriage to Darcy (Copeland 144). Gradually, a new awareness of character and social utility became important to many members of society (Tanner 233). The Napoleonic Wars, moreover, brought a focus on the stagnation and superficiality of the gentry and aristocracy and the social utility and genuine character of the pseudo-gentry. Persuasion, which frequently refers to the Wars and the military, captures this social change by deflating the importance of the upper class suitors and their distinctions of rank and highlighting the positive qualities of Anne’s military suitor, Captain Wentworth. Although these characters receive little admiration from (and status among) the gentry and aristocracy, Anne believes they deserve otherwise. Consequently, through the marriages of her heroines, Austen seems to indicate a need for a new social system based upon more than external appearances.