Reading Emma by Jane Austen, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok one would wonder at the apparent disassociations and dissimilarities of the three novels. Apparently yes, as the first novel is set in the Romantic era, the second being one of the pioneering novels of modern American literature and the third belonging to the post-modern era. But if we think a bit more deeply we may find a snippet of similarities that may be comparable and similar in the three novels.
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This is found mainly in the process of development of the protagonists towards maturity. As we see in Emma the protagonist’s journey of becoming a woman, Asher Lev brought up in a conservative Jewish society discovers his passion for art and in art finds maturity, and in Huckleberry Finn a young boy journeys out and finds the truth about the world. Thus, all three novels describe three young people and their explicit or implicit journey towards maturity.
They share similar stories of young protagonists who learn important life lessons from the event that occurs within their stories. This essay aims to describe the growth process of the three protagonists through a comparative study of the literary elements employed by the authors. This essay will portray the commonalities in these three novels and try to draw a contrast between them and discuss them in the light of three similar literary tools used, i.e. theme, antagonist, and irony in the three novels and how they aid in the development of the characters towards maturity and self-awareness
The journeys of the protagonists in all three novels have been explicit though their treatment is different. As in Emma, Austen portrays her character as a young, lonely girl trying to find a match for her, whose self-opinion seems to be a little too high for her. As McDonald observes that Emma “has developed a propensity to expect everything “her own way” and “think a little too well of herself” (2000, p.100). Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is the story of a young boy who runs away from his drunken father in search of freedom and adventure. Potok’s protagonist Asher Lev, tells the story of a young artist, who goes against his religious convictions to pursue his art.
The protagonists’ journey towards maturity in all three novels has been elaborated through the theme of the novels. A theme is a broad idea in a story that usually depicts a lesson about life, society, or human nature. The theme used in all three novels is a journey. The journey has been depicted as a model of development of all the three characters towards self-realization. As in Mark twain’s novel, Huckleberry Finn sets out on a physical journey along with a slave named Jim.
He encounters difficulties and human vices on his journey and makes him realize the realities of life. The river depicts the spiritual growth in Huck. To Huck, it becomes the sole source of emotional sustenance. It represents natural life and honest values that he otherwise did not know. Through this journey, Huck learns various lessons from life-related issues like slavery, death, trust, as well as maturing as a person. He develops a conscience and by the end of the novel truly feels for humanity.
“Conscience says to me ‘What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean…I got to feeling so mean and so miserable I most wished I was dead” (Twain, 1885, p.97).
Similarly, Potok pens down an imaginary journey through the paintings of Asher Lev and continuously transfers images from his life on paper which journeys towards maturity as the novel advances. As a child, Asher draws images of his mother but as he matures he begins drawing out of emotion which results in many works of art that represent his journey.
The following quote shows how Asher would have grown into an incomplete man had he been forced not to learn painting: “Yes, I could have decided not to do it. Who would have known? Would it have made a difference to anyone in the world that I had felt a sense of incompleteness about a painting? Who would have cared about my silent cry of fraud? Only Jacob Kahn, and perhaps one or two others, might have sensed its incompleteness. And even they could never have known how incomplete it truly was, for by itself it was a good painting. Only I would have known.” (Potok, 1972, p. 328) this clearly shows that Asher matured into a complete self through his paintings.
Austen’s heroine, Emma Woodhouse too, does not set out on a physical journey like Huck but the author skillfully describes the heroine’s maturity psychologically. In the first chapter itself, Austen describes the heroine as: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” (1816, p.1) Emma enters womanhood when she agrees to the marriage. As Edgar Shannon Jr. observes Emma discloses “…a valid progression of the heroine from callowness to mental and emotional maturity,” (1956, pp.130-131).
Shannon believes that Emma shows the realistic journey of the heroine from being young, selfish, and inconsiderate to becoming a caring, responsible and mature adult. Emma embarks on a journey toward maturity when she realizes that she was in love with Mr. Knightley: “Why it was so much worse for that Harriet should be in love with Mr. Knightley than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her with the speed of an arrow that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” (Austen, 1816, p. 375)
The second literary element that we will discuss which aids in the maturing of the protagonists is the antagonist. In all three novels, the protagonists have to fight against an antagonist and ultimately help in their development process. In Huck’s life, the antagonistic force is a society that allows slavery to exist, which brings forth superstition, other prejudices, and rules. Slavery is introduced when Huck meets Miss. Watson’s slave Jim. In the beginning, Huck does not mind Jim being a service which is clear from his comment when he says that Jim is a bad servant, but not until much later that he questions that if Jim should at all be a slave.
Moreover, at the beginning when Widow Douglas tried to civilize Huck, he is forced to change his natural character into the mold the Widow Douglas demands from him. He feels cramped in new clothes and hates being limited to eating dinner only when the dinner bell rings. This clearly shows his maturing personality. Superstition permeates the novel. Huck’s father, who has been portrayed as a weakened individual, too heavily taken to alcohol was stopping the growth of Huck.
But Huck breaks free of all the societal norms to merge with nature and realize the true meaning of life. Huck’s breaking of the shackles of the antagonistic force in the novel is shown clearly through the following words: “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterward, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one neither if I’d ‘a’ known it would make him feel that way.” (Twain, 1885, p. 103)
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In Asher Lev, the antagonist is the conservative Jewish society that stops him from pursuing his interest in arts. This antagonism is personified through Asher’s father. Asher’s father cannot reconcile with the artistic talents of his son and continuously reminds Asher that his painting is the work of the devil. The antagonism that Asher faces from his father is clear from the following quote which Asher says to his father: “If you don’t want me to use the gift [painting], why did you give it to me?” (Potok, 1972, p. 119) Asher has to fight against his society through his father to learn an art that he passionately loves and through which he ultimately matures.
Whereas in Emma, she is her own antagonist, for she lives in a world of self-delusion. The novel sets traps for her vanity and self-importance and falls into each one of them. In her quest to marry off Harriet she herself becomes frustrated and a pawn of her own follies. In the end, her playfulness creates confusion wherein she was about to lose the person she was in love with and was about to fail to mature as a woman.
For it was due to the acceptance of the proposal from Mr. Knightly that she truly becomes a woman and realizes her irrational whims. Austin talks of Emma: “Vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief.” (1816, p.57) Thus we may consider Emma to be her own antagonist who stopped her from moving towards maturity, but in the end, she fights puts up a fight against her own vanity and false knowledge of self-awareness to become truly a woman.
The third element is the use of irony in all three novels. This literary element depicts the incongruence may be in the story, or individual, or group, or society through which the author brings forth the character or the plot. As in the case of Huckleberry Finn, Twain plays extensively with irony to show the maturity that dawn on the protagonist. For in the first chapter itself we observe Huck is ironically trapped in a world that is so-called civilized when he yearns to live freely in nature. So Huck says, “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.
I been there before.” (Twain, 1885, p.10) Irony appears in other areas of the novel as well. For instance, Huck explains that Widow Douglas wouldn’t let him smoke. Even though, ironically, she herself secretly smokes. The irony is unintended in Huck’s interaction with Jim. He sees that Jim, though a slave, is extremely level-headed, which contradicts his Southern leanings. But his rational maturity is evident when he feels awkward to take service from Jim, which anybody with his kind of upbringing would have loved to have.
Even though he has some aspects of the old southern prejudice against slaves ingrained in him, Huck seems to be more liberal in his treatment of the blacks. This Twain shows in the following quote: “Each person had their own nigger to wait on them-Buck too. My nigger had a monstrous easy time because I wasn’t used to having anybody do anything for me, but Buck’s was on the jump most of the time.” (1885, p. 109) This clearly shows the maturity that Huck goes through when he breaks the shackles of Southern teaching and frames his own point of view.
In Asher Lev, the irony is regarding religious toleration. The irony is Asher Lev is the religious austerity and conservatism of his society and family and his turnout to be a secular artist. This is shown through Asher’s speech to his father: “Because I’m part of a tradition, Papa. Mastery of the art form of the nude is very important to that tradition. Every artist who ever lived drew or painted the nude…. I don’t want to sit in a room painting for myself.
I want to communicate what I do. And I want critics to know I can do it… I respect you, Papa. But I can’t respect your aesthetic blindness.” (Potok, 1972, p. 304) The juxtaposition of the two worlds, the sacred and the secular is the irony that Potok plays within the novel. Potok describes this irony as “a core to core cultural confrontation.”(Forbes 17) The irony lies in allowing Asher to learn art but is not expressing what he feels. And in the end, Asher’s confrontation with his society through his controversial painting is the irony that Potok plays with to reveal a self-realized, mature protagonist.
The irony in Emma is again due to her vain nature. Austen plays with comic irony while describing Emma’s adventures to marry away Harriet to different suitors but to no avail. It is only Mr. Knightly who ‘was one of the few people who could see the faults in Emma Woodhouse’. (Austen, 1816, p. 3) Emma on the other hand secretly realizes her love for Mr. Knightly. This, along with Mr. Woodhouse’s opposition towards marriage, leads Emma to feel that marriage is for other people and not for her.
Her innumerable gaffe brings out the irony in the novel and this is clearly shown in this line that she speaks to Mr. Knightly: “I thank you; but I assure you, you are quite mistaken. Mr. Elton and I are very good friends, and nothing more, and she walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are for every falling into”(Austen, 1816, p.104).
The absurdity of the situation lies in her encouragement of Elton’s advances towards her under the impression that they are directed to her protégé, Harriet. Similarly, the chaos that results from her other attempts at matchmaking is derived from her immaturity and irony of her character which makes her believe that she is good with everything, but not actually. Dramatic irony consists of a situation whereby the reader participates with the author in the knowledge of events that have not been disclosed to the character. (Ward 2003) When Emma plans to match-make Harriet with Frank Churchill, she is unaware that Harriet believes that Emma is indicating Mr. Knightley and obediently falls in love with him.
But Emma had by then realized her feelings for Mr. Knightley. When this misunderstanding is revealed, it becomes the ultimate depiction of dramatic irony. And it is through these ironic adventures that Emma realizes that her true love for Mr. Knightley: “Emma realizes that she had indeed not been a friend to Harriet, as Mr. Knightley had said. She realizes how foolish it was of her to try to meddle in other people’s romantic affairs when she did not even realize her own feelings for Mr. Knightley.” (Austin, 1816, p.357) These self-realizations bring her closer to maturing as a woman.
The development of Asher, Huckleberry, and Emma as characters and growing towards self-awareness is accentuated through the use of the three themes. In the end, all three of them become self-realized person, who start realizing what they want and what they ought to do. Though the themes have been dealt with in different manners by the three authors, they ultimately help in attaining the same goal – the maturity of the protagonists.
Austen, J. (1981). Emma. New York: Bantam Books.
Potok, C. (1972). My name is Asher Lev. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Twain, M. (2003). The adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Barnes and Noble Books.
Shannon, E. F. Jr. (1956), Emma: Character and Construction, Vol. 71, No. 4, London: PMLA.
Forbes, C. (1978) “Judaism Under the Secular Umbrella [An Interview with Chaim Potok” Christianity Today, 22.
McDonald, R. (2000) “And very Good Lists they were”: Select Critical Readings of Jane Austen’s Emma” Lambdin, L. C. and Lambdin, R. T. (ed.) Companion to Jane Austen Studies, Greenwood Publ;ishing Group, pp. 97- 114.
Ward, J.V. (2003) “Pride and Prejudice and Emma. The Variety and Function of Irony in Austen’s Novels”. Web.