Anne Elliot, the protagonist of Persuasion, is, like most Austen heroines, witty, clever, and considerate. Austen referred to her in one of her letters as "a heroine who is almost too good for me." Though Austen very frankly notes that the bloom of youth has left Anne, and that she is not the prettiest of the young ladies in the novel, Anne becomes most decidedly more attractive when her better qualities are noted. Anne is proud of her appearance, and she is deeply hurt after overhearing that Captain Wentworth thinks her appearance much changed for the worst. Unlike her father, Anne also takes pride in practicality, intellect, and patience.
Anne is feminine while possessing none of what Austen clearly sees as the negative characteristics of her gender; Anne is neither catty, flighty, nor hysterical. On the contrary, she is level-headed in difficult situations and constant in her affections. Such qualities make her the desirable sister to marry; she is the first choice of Charles Musgrove, Captain Wentworth, and Mr. Elliot.
That Anne has her own mind is clear from the way she rebels against the vanity of her father and elder sister. But Anne is not one to avoid her responsibility and duty as a member of the upper class. She understands and respects the importance of making a "suitable" match, and is offended by the prospect of someone as low as Mrs. Clay entering into her family through marriage. She is conscious of the social structure in which her relations operate, and though she may seek a bit more flexibility, she by no means wishes to seriously challenge notions of class.
In the end, Anne concludes that she is right to have been persuaded by Lady Russell, even if the advice itself was misguided. The conclusion implies that what might be considered Anne's flaw, her ability to be persuaded by others, is not really a flaw at all. It is left to the reader to agree or disagree with this. But overall, she must be highly regarded; for in her respect for duty and with an independent mind, Anne balances passion and practicality.
Sir Walter acts as a foil to both Captain Wentworth and to Anne Elliot. As a vain, pretentious, and stubborn baronet, he maintains personal qualities that are abhorrent to Austen's protagonists. Selfish and self-absorbed, he is unable to think past himself and his own immediate desires. Yet Sir Walter is not at all evil or ill-inclined; rather, he is comically ridiculous, a caricature of the old, titled class. Sir Walter allows Austen to poke fun at the declining aristocracy. With the rise of industry in Great Britain beginning in the late eighteenth century, old, titled families were forced to consider accepting the nouveau riche into their circle. Such industrial magnates and wealthy merchants who had made their fortunes trading with the colonies had large amounts of money, and could afford to challenge the importance of birth in social interaction. Sir Walter's strong attachment to the significance of birth appears antiquated in the new century of progress.
Sir Walter is an impractical man; his habits of lavish spending and his strong desire to maintain appearances threaten the very future of the Elliot family. This is a grave character flaw, which Anne does not easily forgive. But his vanity is perhaps the defining character of Sir Walter. With a dressing room surrounded by mirrors, a Baronetage book treasured for its description of the Elliot family, and a predilection to be seen only with attractive and socially important people, Sir Walter is the very image of conceit. Yet, Sir Walter's ridiculousness highlights the fact that his kind is no longer the preferred version of manliness. He is an effeminite man, one who would shy away from the sun for fear of a negative reaction of his complexion. In stark contrast is the gallant, brave naval officer, Captain Wentworth, a very different and more modern ideal of the British gentleman.
Captain Wentworth is the prototype of the 'new gentleman.' Maintaining the good manners, consideration, and sensitivity of the older type, Wentworth adds the qualities of gallantry, independence, and bravery that come with being a well- respected Naval officer. He has made his own fortune through hard work and good sense, in direct contrast to Sir Walter who has only wasted the money that came to him through his title. Without land or high birth, Captain Wentworth is not the traditional match for a woman of Anne Eliot's position. But in true Austenian fashion, his fine personal qualities are enough to surmount the now divide which separates his position from that of Anne.
In the novel, Captain Wentworth develops, eventually overcoming his pride and shame at being once refused, in order to make another ardent overture to his chosen bride. This development is a sign of a promising future for their relationship. Like Admiral Croft, who allows his wife to drive the carriage alongside him and to help him steer, Captain Wentworth will defer to Anne throughout their marriage. Austen envisions this kind of equal partnership as the ideal marriage.