Today’s world is full of so many flashy, noisy, and sometimes even rumbly forms of entertainment that it seems boring to spend a great deal more time and energy trying to read through the lengthy pages of a book. Reading has no sound, no pictures, and no possibility of shake options on the game controller. However, the importance of literature goes far beyond printed words. The movies we watch, games we play, and history we know are all based, to a great degree, on literature. Whether one realizes it or not, literature distracts the audience while it conveys some of the more important values and morals of society. By relating the story of an individual’s struggles while trying to learn some important lesson of life, literature provides its audience with an example of behavior and an idea of where that behavior might take one. Popular themes, therefore, tend to focus on major transitions in human lifetimes, such as the teenage period of coming of age. This common theme can be traced through Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jane Austen’s Emma, and Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. The main characters in all three of these books spend much of their stories trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be, and how they fit within their greater society. The growth of these characters is conveyed to the audience through the authors’ talented use of literary techniques such as the incorporation of setting, the inclusion of unique character traits, and the talented construction of figurative language.
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In each story, the setting provides a physical means of tracking each character’s path to self-awareness. This is maybe clearest in Huck’s story since it occurs as he travels down the mysterious Mississippi River. Setting includes the time period in which the story takes place. In this story, society had very strict expectations regarding proper behavior for children at the same time that they were very lenient in allowing children to roam freely. Even though society is content to leave Huck to mostly raise himself because of his drunken father, they still expect him to “wear proper clothes” and “stop smoking” like a proper child. In Austen’s book, she illustrates how Emma’s life is very sheltered and safe in her description of the small society in which she lives. Emma is even more sheltered as the mistress of her father’s estate. However, because of this isolation and her position within it, she has a sense that she has a great deal of control over the world around her. It is a natural progression for her to go from controlling her father’s estate to controlling the lives of her less affluent friends. But when Harriet tells her that she loves Mr. Knightley, Emma’s feelings are suddenly sparked into action. “A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched — she admitted — she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse 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 return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” (Austen, p. 407). It is the setting that finally brings Asher Lev to realize how his own actions appear to the rest of the world. It isn’t until he finds himself isolated in Paris that he begins to recognize his mother in himself. He “began to sense something of her years of anguish. Standing between two different ways of giving meaning to the world, and at the same time possessed by her own fears and memories, she had moved now toward me, now toward my father, keeping both worlds of meaning alive, nourishing with her tiny being, and despite her torments, both me and my father” (Potok, o. 309).
The setting only helps the authors reveal the unique character traits that help the audience understand the characters’ growth. For instance, Huckleberry Finn is an “uncivilized” boy in every respect as his story opens. Although he’s now living in the civilized home of a pair of elderly women after his father, the town drunk, is arrested charged with committing a violent crime, he constantly questions the rules they give him. After he has managed to survive on his own without any of the niceties of the civilized world, it is hard for him to accept without question rules such as using a fork or a knife when eating or whether it is right for one to own slaves. By the end of his story, Huck has rejected the contradictory ‘rules’ of his society in order to live more in tune with his inner moral compass. Huck struggles to understand sophisticated, civilized rules; Emma is fully aware of what is socially correct but has little concept of the importance of moral or personal mediation. She has always been pampered and has had the rule of her father’s house without question for several years. She is sure she knows the best course of action for everyone around her. However, as she struggles to create the perfect world for her friends, Emma is forced to realize the true nature of her inner being. Like Emma, Asher Lev doesn’t begin the process of self-examination until later in his life. He has also grown up in a sheltered environment and so is not forced to consider his inner state until he has to defend his Christian-themed art to his Jewish father. Although he has enough self-awareness to confront his parents about staying in New York when the rest of the family moves away, he doesn’t understand the suffering he’s caused until he travels himself. While Huck and Emma seem to come to a satisfactory conclusion, Asher Lev remains conflicted by the time his tale ends.
Careful use of language also helps the reader understand the progress being made in each characters’ journey toward self-awareness. Huck’s maturity is revealed when he reassesses his previous thoughts regarding the sophisticated behavior of his friend Tom Sawyer. “Here was a boy that was respectable and well brought up … and yet here he was, without any more pride, or rightness, or feeling, than to stoop to this business, and himself a shame and his family a shame, before everybody. I couldn’t understand it, no way at all. It was outrageous. …” (Twain, pp. 224-25). Although he recognizes that Tom has had all the benefits of proper society and upbringing, Huck also realizes that Tom is very immature because he refuses to put his talents to good use. This reveals Huck’s growing sense of social responsibility. Emma makes a more open acknowledgment of her growth when she admits her errors in trying to manipulate her friends’ lives. She accepts that it “was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple.” She is “quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more” (137). When he finishes the painting of his crucified Jewish mother, Asher says, “I had brought something incomplete into the world. Now I felt its incompleteness. ‘Can you understand what it means for something to be incomplete?’ my mother had once asked me. I understood I understood.” (Potok, p. 312). This final thought illustrates the degree to which Asher is still unresolved in his perceptions.
Through such revelations as they are made through setting, language, and the sociological traits of each character, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, and Chiam Potok reveal how their characters mature into themselves as a result. With the relative freedom of choice afforded to Huck in his early years, making solid decisions about the world around him was made a bit easier once he made the decision to escape the civilizing influence of the widows. Emma and Asher both had to struggle with their revelations by escaping the sheltered lives in which they had grown up, but that they were able to be demonstrated to the reader through the use of subtle yet distinct literary elements that provide clues to what the character is thinking, seeing or reacting to.
- Austen, Jane. (1984). Emma. New York: Bantam Classics; Reissue edition.
- Potok, Chiam. (1996). My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Bantam Classics; Reissue edition.
- Twain, Mark. (2002). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. G. Cardwell, J. Seelye. New York: Penguin Classics.