Emma, My Name is Asher Lev, and Huckleberry Finn all introduce us to protagonists who go through a journey of self-discovery. Emma grows from a young lady with her interest in everyone else’s business to a woman ready to invest her interest in her own life. Asher Lev begins as a child, with childish views of life, religion and art. As he advances through life, his art becomes the most important part of who he is, replacing religion and home.
Huckleberry Finn begins his story simply trying to escape brutality, but he learns along the way that life has a harsh brutality of its own. His growth comes from the choices he makes and the lessons forced upon him along his journey. All three characters learn about themselves through conflict. They find their decisions regarding their own destiny and that of their loved ones affect who they become in the end.
The authors all use common literary elements of conflict and setting to help develop these characters and demonstrate their growth. In this paper, I will explain the way in which two types of conflict, conflict with society and conflict with themselves, produce growth in the characters. I will also demonstrate the manner in which the characters’ individual settings cause them to be who they are.
Summary of the Protagonists’ Growth—
Austin’s character Emma begins the novel thinking she can be a proper matchmaker for her friend, though she chooses to herself remain single. Through her experiences, she not only realizes her success with matching Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston was a singular event, and she has very little control over the courtships of others, but she comes to understand that she does indeed want a match for herself, and the perfect one has been under her nose the entire time.
Her proposed matches between Harriet and Mr. Elton backfire against her when Mr. Elton expresses affection for Emma herself, and her decision to remain single becomes moot when Harriet’s fondness for Mr. Knightly reveal to Emma her own love for the same man.
Potok’s Asher Lev actually grows up in the novel. He begins as a young boy for whom art is simply a preoccupation and religion is a way of life. Through the events of the novel, art almost replaces religion in his life. Not “betraying” the art becomes more important than not betraying his Jewish heritage. By the end of the story he is a grown man. Even though he is still a practicing Jew and he finds the transition emotionally painful, he has left his home, rather than give up even one element of his art. Art has become his way of life and religion is simply something he does.
Twain’s Huckleberry Finn begins the story as a young man just settling into “sivilized” society, even though he doesn’t seem to see the point in it. But when his father reappears he finds it necessary to run away and he again learns to live off his wits. He and Jim make their way down the Mississippi River, meeting good and bad people and having many revealing and sometimes frightening experiences along the way.
Huck realizes the “sivilized” world is just as full of fools, liars and dangerous people as his “wilder” world. By the end of the novel, Huck is appreciative of the care he has been given and the opportunity to return to polite society, but he decides that he will go west “because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before” (Twain, 307).
First Literary Element—
One of the recurring themes throughout the three novels is that of the main character’s conflicts with society. In Emma, Emma’s conflict is that she believes she can help her friend Harriet marry into an upper class, without any proof that her background is compatible with such a match. Emma believes because Harriet’s background is unknown, that she could easily be the daughter of a nobleman, and so, she wishes to match Harriet with the most upper class bachelor she knows—the Vicar, Mr. Elton. But Emma’s friend tries to warn her that Elton and Harriet are not a good match, simply because Elton will not marry beneath his financial station.
Mr. Knightly says, “Elton may talk sentimentally, but he will act rationally. He is as well acquainted with his own claims, as you can be with Harriet’s. He knows that he is a very handsome young man, and a great favorite wherever he goes; and from his general way of talking in unreserved moments when there are only men present, I am convinced that he does not mean to throw himself away. I have heard him speak with great animation of a large family of young ladies that his sisters are intimate with, who have all twenty thousand pounds apiece” (Austen, 64).
It is clear that while Emma believes Harriet’s unknown background to be enough to justify the match, in general, such a match would not be acceptable, because Harriet is neither Elton’s equal in station nor in financial security. To emphasize this point, Elton himself makes it clear that Emma, a woman more a match to his social status, is the object of his attention and not Harriet.
When she refuses his advances, he takes her reference to her imagined match between himself and Harriet as an insult, exclaiming, “Miss Smith indeed! . . . there are men who might not object to—Everybody has their level: but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss. I need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith!” (Austen, 132). This exchange reinforces the fact that Emma has taken society’s conventions too lightly in seeking a match for her friend.
In My Name is Asher Lev the conflict between Asher and society is in his art. Asher, a practicing Jew, is also an artist who chooses to pursue artistic themes which are not acceptable to the Jewish community. For example, Asher draws and paints nudes. This is a long standing artistic theme and has been used throughout the history of man. But, the Jewish community, of which Asher’s family is a prominent part, does not condone it. Because Asher chooses to let the nudes be included in his upcoming show, his parents do not attend. He tries to explain the use of the nudes to his father, Aryeh, but they cannot agree.
Asher’s father asks why the nudes are so important and he responds that they are tradition. The ensuing discussion pits Asher’s respect for artistic tradition against his father’s respect for Jewish tradition. It closes with Asher’s father warning him. “One day you’ll hurt someone with this kind of attitude,” and Asher reflecting that his father was hurting him, with his own attitude (Potok, 305). Asher’s father represents the cultural attitude of the Ladover community at large, and the incident foreshadows the greater conflict to come.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the conflict comes between Huck and Jim and the slave culture of the south. Along their journey, they stop at many cities, and at nearly all of them, something threatens to return Jim to his owner. While Huck says nothing to insinuate the idea that he has a problem with the institution of slavery itself, his actions show that he is committed to helping Jim escape. When he goes into town dressed as a girl, he learns that a $300 bounty has been offered for Jim and their fire has been detected.
His hostess explains the excitement of the hunt for Jim by asking, “Does three hundred dollars lay round every day for people to pick up?” and Huck’s immediate reaction is one of nervousness, “I had got so uneasy I couldn’t set still” (Twain, 68). Upon returning to the island, Huck informs Jim that they must leave. “Git up and hump yourself, Jim! There ain’t a minute to lose. They’re after us!” (Twain, 73).
Later, on the river, Jim hides in the wigwam as they come aside a boat full of men that want to search their raft for runaway slaves. Huck keeps Jim safe by claiming that his father is in the wigwam infected with small-pox. Then, toward the end of the novel, Jim is “sold” to Silas Phelps. While Huck knows that the legal thing to do would be to let Jim be returned to his owner, particularly since he knows the Phelps family know Miss Watson, but instead, he determines to steal Jim back.
Second Literary Element—
Another of the themes that appears in all three novels is that of the main character’s conflict with his or herself. In Emma, Emma’s conflict is in her own mental desire to remain a single, independent woman, and her emotional desire to fall in love and be married. She insists that she is more interested in creating a love match for other people than she is in finding love for herself. She says, “I am not only not going to be married at present, but have very little intention of ever marrying at all,” yet twice in the novel we find Emma imagining a married life (Austin, 84). In the first instance it is Frank Churchill Emma believes she is matched to.
But that instinct turns out to be false. Later, the very sudden revelation that her friend wants Mr. Knightly causes a surprising response, which sounds strangely similar to Mr. Elton’s former remarks. “How Harriet could ever have had the presumption to raise her thoughts to Mr. Knightly!” (Austin, 424). Later, when Mr. Knightly confesses his own feelings toward Emma, Emma in “an exquisite flutter of happiness” changes her mind about love and marriage once and for all (Austin, 444).
In My Name is Asher Lev, Asher tries to balance his Judaism with his art, but it is often conflicted. The theme radiates throughout the story, but it is most obvious in the closing chapters, when Asher’s crucifixes, images of Christianity—including one mixed with the likeness of his own mother—are displayed in a show. Asher is conflicted, thinking, “I should have destroyed them” (Potok, 354). Yet, with the encouragement of Anna, the show’s promoter, the crucifixes are displayed as originally hung.
Asher grows more and more upset. “I could no longer endure seeing the works of my own hands and knowing the pain those works would soon inflict upon people I loved” (Potok, 357). In the end though, Asher does indeed allow the crucifixes to be displayed, and they have exactly the effect he expected. Not only causing his parents great pain, but also causing him to eventually be asked to leave Ladover.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck’s internal conflict is between his intention to do what he believes is right, and his desire to remain a loyal friend to Jim. Huck knows that Jim is Miss Watson’s property. Therefore, Huck is plagued by guilt in not returning, or at least causing the return of, Jim. He explains, “My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever, until at last I says to it, ‘Let up on my—it ain’t too late, yet—I’ll paddle ashore at first light, and tell.” But Jim is Huck’s friend, and as Jim point’s out, “Huck, you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now” (Twain, 101).
Though Huck believes is doing wrong, he feels better about doing the wrong of not turning Jim in, than he would ever feel about doing it right and giving up his friend. Though he comes up against this internal conflict over and over again, he sums it up by saying he’ll do what seems “handiest at the time”, and explains away his actions, I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little, ain’t got no show—when the pinch comes there ain’t nothing to back him up” (Twain, 103, 104).
Third Literary Element—
The third element that is evident in all three books is that all three characters are products of the setting in which the stories are set, yet they expand their abilities beyond the average person of that place and time. In Emma, Emma is a well-to-do young lady of the pre-Victorian era. As such, her life is very constrained. She and the other young ladies have few choices in their lives and not much to keep them occupied other than courting. It is expected that Emma will get married and have children. Throughout most of the novel, Emma defies this convention staring that she will never marry. In the Victorian age, there was little a woman could do to improve her economic or social standing besides marriage.
Because her family is well to do though, Emma does not fear being an “old maid” nor does she ever indicate that she is concerned that she will spend her elder years alone and lonely. She does however believe marriage is important, as she also spends much of the novel trying to find an “appropriate match” for Harriet and she feels badly when her matches do not work out. Austen writes, “She felt that she had been risking her friend’s happiness on most insufficient grounds” (Austen, 412). In the end though, all the main characters are married or soon to be married, showing the convention of the age has won out.
In My Name is Asher Lev, Asher’s love of art and his defiance of convention are as much a result of the time and place in which he was raised as they are in spite of them. Asher is an artist and there seems to be nothing he can do to avoid the desire to create art. When it is time for him to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, the Rebbe sets him up with a teacher who encourages his interest in art, rather than discourages it, as his father always has.
My father carried his burden of pain all through the celebration of my bar mitzvah. People knew of the Rebbe’s decision. No one dared question it. For the Rebbe was the tzaddik and spoke as the representative of the Master of the Universe. His seeing was not as the seeing of others; his acts were not as the acts of others. My father’s right to shape my life had been taken from him by the same being who gave his own life meaning—the Rebbe. At the same time, no one knew how to react to the decision, for they could see my father’s pain (Potok, 197).
The Rebbe is the religious leader of Ladover’s Orthodox Jewish community. At the same time, the Rebbe’s decision to apprentice Asher to Jacob Kahn is the reason Asher becomes familiar with both nudes and crucifixes, the very images which cause his family the greatest pain, and eventually lead to his virtual banishment from the Ladover community. Yet, as the story is told, even many years afterward, Asher is still a practicing Orthodox Jew.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the river setting and the ports help make Huck who he is and contribute directly to his growth. Escaping from an abusive father and traveling downriver on a raft, Huck shows that he is a determined young man. As he and Jim travel, the freedom of the river clashes with the danger and temptations of the different ports.
At first they travel toward freedom and Jim and Huck are positive and in good spirits, but when they miss Cairo, the river becomes an ominous thing they must deal with, “it was all up with Cairo . . . It wouldn’t do to take to the shore; we couldn’t take the raft up the stream, of course. There warn’t no way but to wait for dark, and start back in the canoe and take the chances” (Twain, 105). But when the canoe is stolen, even that is taken from them.
The river is not only frightening though, it provides refuge when things go badly in the different ports. Though Huck likes the Grangerfords, he is disturbed when they go to “war” with the Shepherdsons, and he turns to the sanctuary of the river. He could continue to live comfortably with the Grangerfords, but the conflict disrupts that comfort, “I never felt easy till the raft was two mile below there and out in the middle of the Mississippi” (Twain, 128).
The happenings in the ports help Huck to grow as well. For example, Huck has talked about stealing with a very matter-of-fact tone, with comments like “sometimes I lifted a chicken that warn’t roosting comfortable” (Twain, 76). But when he encounters the Wilks family and finds the people there to be so welcoming and the Wilks girls to be so trusting, his conscience will not let the Duke and Dauphin steal from them. At one point, Huck has the money in his hand.
Though he has the opportunity to run off with far more than a chicken, he hides it where it can be returned. “[T]hey all jest laid theirselves out to make me feel at home and know I was amongst friends. I felt so ornery and low down and mean, that I says to myself, My mind’s made up: I’ll hive that money for them or bust” (Twain, 188). Though he says he was not “started right,” Huck shows himself to be a person who id developing a strong character.
Throughout their novels, Austin, Potok and Twain all utilize literary elements to bring their protagonists to self-realization. As the characters encounter conflicts they demonstrate who they are to the reader. Emma actually grows to accept convention, rather than to defy it. Asher learns that his art is more important to him than pleasing his family, his community, and in many ways, even himself.
Huck Finn learns to accept that the vision of what is right within himself is not often the same vision of right that others have. The settings help the reader to understand where the personalities of the characters and the conflicts originate. Emma’s life in Victorian England is very confined, and she makes it interesting by meddling in the lives of others.
Asher’s surroundings in Ladover are strictly Orthodox Jewish, and he must offend or leave to stay true to his calling. The river and ports along the Mississippi offer both danger and refuge for Huckleberry Finn, and his experiences along the way cement his desire to avoid “sivilizin’.” It is through these tools and others that the authors guide the readers through the characters’ development.
Austen, Jane (1991). Emma. New York: Random House.
Potok, Chaim (1972). My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Random House.
Twain, Mark (1985). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Penguin.