“Here Anne spoke—”: The Achievement of Autonomy through Silence in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

By: Annalie Buscarino ’21, an English and Sociology double major and Creative Writing; Psychology; and Justice, Law, and Society triple minor.

The following work was written for ENG 394: Special Topic Jane Austen

Brief description: Jane Austen’s Persuasion narrates the romantic endeavors of Anne Elliot as she silently navigates her identity after losing access to her family’s wealth. Especially since Anne was previously persuaded to sacrifice her romantic relationship with Frederick Wentworth because of Frederick’s lack of assets, scholars generally regard Anne’s passivity as an obstacle to her social success. However, labeling Anne’s silence as oppressive denies her agency throughout the entirety of a novel in which she rarely speaks. In response to the scholarship that traps Anne in her non-speech, I argue that Anne uses her silence as a means to suspend her desire and define her personal, romantic, and social identities. Anne therefore usurps the framework of silence as a means of oppression and rather employs it to achieve female autonomy.


“I can no longer listen in silence,” begins Frederick Wentworth in the letter in which he confesses his love to Anne. Though Frederick’s introduction suggests that silence is a barrier that prevents the realization of their love, silence rather serves as the means through which Frederick and Anne navigate the tension of their relationship. Anne particularly employs her silences to socially situate herself in the world and to define and empower her identity. She participates in male-centric economic transactions, such as housing migration and marriage, by suspending her desire in silence (Garcia 96) and by mobilizing her silence to achieve her goals. Anne’s empowered silences are personified in the liberal use of the long dash, which epitomizes the suspension of her desire (94) and absorbs both Frederick and the reader into Anne’s private sphere. Therefore, despite the perception of silence as a tool of female oppression, Anne’s embodiment of silence enables her to achieve autonomy in a world where patriarchal speech deprives her of it.

Anne enters into economic negotiations, which are generally handled by men in the novel, through the maintenance of her silence. Before Anne’s voice is introduced at the beginning of the text, she effectively persuades Sir Walter to quit Kellynch-Hall by ascribing her economic motives for doing so in the transmission of unarticulated desire. The first to make suggestions for managing the family’s dwindling finances is Elizabeth, who “in the first ardour of female alarm, set seriously to think what could be done, and had finally proposed these two branches of economy” (Austen 11). Elizabeth later proposes to Sir Walter that in order to conserve finances, they should reduce their charities and furniture, both being objects that are feminine due to their domestic connotations and that are relatively minor in relation to the family’s debt. Lady Russell, on the other hand, also contemplating financial amelioration, “drew up plans of economy…made exact calculations” with the goal of inflicting the “least possible pain” to Sir Walter and Elizabeth (13). In making “exact calculations,” Lady Russell makes more precise estimates of monetary necessity than Elizabeth, acting in a way that the novel considers more masculine; but in her desire to inflict the “least possible pain” to her loved ones, she acts with an altruism that is more linear with the novel’s construction of femininity. Anne, the culmination of female thought on the Elliot debt, drafts up economic plans most expeditiously, “[considering] it as an act of indispensable duty to clear away the claims of creditors, with all the expedition which the most comprehensive retrenchments could secure, and saw no dignity in anything short of it” (13). Operating in silence, Anne’s communication is the most feminine of the three women because it conforms to patriarchal expectations. However, the methodical nature of her economic plans, and the fact that they are more extreme than those of her father, her father’s lawyer, and her female counterparts, injects Anne’s silence with masculine initiative. As a result of her silence, Anne’s opinion transmits through Lady Russell, whose failed attempts to persuade Sir Walter to quit Kellynch-Hall are then taken up by Mr. Shephard, whose masculine ethos eventually convinces Sir Walter to abide by a version of Anne’s proposal. Her plan to quit Kellynch-Hall, which is ultimately approved, is therefore successful because of her achievement of power through the employment of feminine means. Her ability to harness her femininity empowers her with the capacity for persuasion. It is through the use of her feminine silences that Anne achieves economic autonomy.

By economically situating herself through silence, Anne defines her role as an autonomous woman within a society in which public dialogue constantly reinforces patriarchy. Anne therefore actively participates in the economic transaction of her own marriage through the interpersonal navigation of shared silence. In his article “Silence, Suspense, and Desire in Persuasion,” Christien Garcia poses that silence is not a patriarchal obstruction for women to overcome with the achievement of voice but is a “fully effective” and enduring entity that is spatial, sensual, textual, and ultimately and inarticulately suspends desire, which is incompatible with speech (87). Garcia argues that silence is not something to be realized but is a physically present entity that Anne explores in pursuit of her desires. Anne’s interactions with Frederick particularly illustrate her command of silence, especially those interactions in which the sentiments of their relationship come to fruition without the dialogue indicating such. For example, when Anne and Frederick walk through Union-street and reflect on the journey of their love for one another, the narrator informs the reader that the two are engaging in conversation but does not offer any dialogue as evidence (Austen 225). Rather, Anne and Frederick’s silences engulf the public sphere and externalize their emotions without the necessity of textual articulation.

The epitome of Anne and Frederick’s shared silences is the letter that documents Frederick’s love for Anne. Garcia writes, “although the letter begins, ‘I can no longer listen in silence,’ it is precisely this letter that allows Frederick not to break the silence between him and Anne” (97). In professing his love for Anne through a letter, Frederick signifies complete initiation into her silent private sphere. Anne’s response to him is verbal, situating her in the position of the patriarchy that is otherwise used to suppress female autonomy. Frederick’s and Anne’s relationship thus culminates in an arrangement in which Frederick has adopted feminine silence and Anne has broken through her silence to inhabit patriarchal spheres with her voice. However, despite Anne’s vocalization of her emotions, it is primarily through silence that she successfully navigates her relationship and eventual marriage with Frederick, a courtship process that is usually propelled by patriarchal motives and transactions. In realizing the effectiveness of her anonymous suggestions to quit Kellynch-Hall, Anne learns the capacity of silence and becomes further motivated to employ it regarding her romantic relations. Anne’s silence is thus the foundation of her identity, through which she exerts the power of inarticulation and chooses to remind the reader about with her final employment of voice. It is her moments of silence throughout the text that clearly indicate her expression of desire and coinciding strides for female autonomy.

The novel also suspends Anne’s desire through her command of silence. The long dash particularly injects pauses into many of Anne’s dialogues, serving as a spatial manifestation of her methods of social navigation. After all, the reader’s first introduction to Mr. Wentworth is when Anne “after waiting another moment—” reveals after a section break, “You mean Mr. Wentworth, I suppose” (24). Garcia argues that the “brokenoffness” accomplished by the dashes in Anne and Frederick’s conversations throughout the text “carries through to our understanding of their intimacy” (94). The “suspension of narrative fruition” that occurs during the “intervals of [physical, sensual, and vocal] separation” between Anne and Frederick is continually indicated by the dashes in their conversation as the text forces the reader to pause at the punctuation and ponder the desire that is incompatible with their speech (94). The dash, as a direct manifestation of Anne’s social exploration, ultimately indicates a moment of silence in the text but also remains inextricably a part of it. As Garcia explains, “just as the dash can be read as a mute but integrated part of the text,” so too does Anne’s narrative development not necessitate articulation to earn validation (59).

Serving as a textual marker of Anne’s sensuality, the dash also condenses the complexity and breadth of Anne’s emotions into a symbol that suspends them more effectively than her words are able to. Austen’s own transition from the chaos and density of her original manuscript to the spatial freedom of her first edition exemplifies the ability of her unarticulated language to effectively expand into spatial silence. While the initial manuscripts of Persuasion are saturated with Austen’s notes and revisions, the title and chapter pages of Austen’s first edition enjoy the breathability of the white space that surrounds the text (“Two Chapters of Persuasion: Diplomatic Display”; Quintessential Rare Books; Raptis Rare Books). However, the absence of Austen’s notes does not mean that they are not there; rather, her language becomes more successfully articulated and comprehendible through its positioning in white space. The density of Austen’s original language expands into the space of the text as it becomes physically condensed, just as the density of Anne’s emotions expand into the long dash as they become physically condensed. The dash thus serves as a textual manifestation of Anne’s suspended desire, simultaneously expanding and condensing her emotions in a way that allows them to transcend her spatial boundaries more effectively than her words. For example, Anne’s verbal arrival in the novel as “here Anne spoke—” immediately demonstrates the dash’s capacity for emotion, as the sentence’s isolation in a line in the third chapter synonymizes Anne’s expressivity with the dash where her words should be (Austen 20). Her subsequent monologue, an opinion regarding housing members of the navy, is one that can be substituted with an argument for Anne’s own request for personal respect. She explains, “the navy, I think, who have done so much for us, 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. Sailors work hard for their comforts, we must all allow” (20). In aligning her verbal entrance with a proposal for naval respect, Anne’s silence breaks with an argument for social mobility and an association of herself with the masculinity of warring soldiers. Anne’s defense of the navy is thus a defense of the emotional female labor that she carries out with her silence. Anne’s silence is therefore not, as often noted, a patriarchal obstacle for her to overcome with her achievement of voice but rather an integrally feminine piece of her identity that enables her to seek out her autonomy. The association of the dash with Anne’s speech of self-empowerment equates her silences with her strides for autonomy.

In addition to serving as a manifestation of Anne’s desire, the long dash also serves to initiate the reader into Anne’s private sphere, empowering her with the solidarity of the readership. In stitching prose together across a sentence, the long dash forces the reader to consciously move from one clause to another, absorbing Anne’s narrative more comprehensively as a result (Garcia 94). Doing so is especially effective in the lengthy and complex rhetoric that Austen often employs to emphasize her satire. When Anne concedes that she would have been happier in an engagement with Frederick than out of it, she immerses herself in an internal monologue that drags the reader through a string of colliding punctuation (“to,—but Anne,” “nineteen.—She,” “good.—She”) and overflowing literary elements (lists, antithesis, alliteration, free indirect discourse), complicated by the frequent use of negation in a sentence that spans eighty-seven words (Austen 29). The narrator articulates Anne’s thoughts and emotions as independent clauses that are separated by a series of long dashes, organizing them into coherent fragments that clarify Anne’s continual affinity for Frederick and aid the reader in comprehending Anne’s social decisions. The long dash effectively engages the readers with the text, enabling them to navigate Austen’s language as Anne navigates her own social relations. As Anne fuses into the voice of the narrator after her dashed verbal arrival, the reader fuses into Anne’s perspective of silence, maintaining the cognitive distance of third person but moving along with Anne as she works to define her identity. In doing so, the readers experience the mobilization of a feminine mind in a world of male voices. By embracing female wordlessness and guiding readers along her resulting narrative development, Anne exposes them to the powerful potential of silent femininity.

Through the suspension of her desire in silence, Anne achieves masculine power by employing an otherwise perceived state of female confinement. By invoking her silence as a means of navigating economic transactions, Anne maintains agency over her fate without conflating her desires with articulation. The long dash serves to personify Anne’s suspended desire and simultaneously initiate the reader into Anne’s process of social navigation. In doing so, the dash collectivizes voices of inarticulation in Anne’s private sphere, strengthening the generalizability and authority of her feminist perspective. By utilizing silence as a means of empowerment rather than a means of suppression, Anne redefines the patriarchal standard of masculinizing women for their autonomy and for aberrating their strength as weakness. Since “[taking] non-speech ‘as an alternative to patriarchy ultimately traps the woman in silence,’” we must reconsider silence as a conscious embrace of femininity and as means to navigate a world in which speech is synonymous with patriarchy (Garcia 86).

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. London : Penguin Classics, 1998. Print.

Garcia, Christien. “Left Hanging: Silence, Suspension, and Desire in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 59, no. 1, 2018, pp. 86–100. 

Quintessential Rare Books. “Persuasion by Jane Austen.” Biblio.com, 1 Jan. 1970,     www.biblio.com/book/persuasion-austen-jane/d/1128907302.

Raptis Rare Books. “Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.” By Austen, Jane: (1818) | Raptis Rare Books, ABAA/ ILAB, AbeBooks Inc., 1 Jan. 1970,         www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=30599798731&searchurl=fe=on&ds=5&            sortby=1&tn=persuasion&an=jane+austen&cm_sp=snippet-_-srp1-_-image2.

 “Two Chapters of Persuasion: Diplomatic Display.” Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts: Two Chapters of Persuasion, London British Library, 2020,             janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blpers/1.html.


Annalie Buscarino is a senior who is graduating with majors in English and Sociology and minors in Psychology; Creative Writing; and Justice, Law, and Society. She is a captain of the Washington College women’s soccer team, a Peer Writing and Presentation Consultant for the Writing Center, and a participant in four clubs and eight honor societies. Her interests in navigating female silence and identity inspired her to write her SCE about the inordinate criminalization of female violent offenders in Shakespeare. Annalie plans on taking a gap year after graduation in which she will intern for non-profits before eventually attending law school. In her free time, Annalie enjoys eating, traveling, and playing with her two wonderful puppies.

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