Analysis of Literary Elements in Jane Austen, Mark Twain & Chaim PotokGet Your
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In the art of novel writing, characterization plays the most crucial role in bringing out the meaning of the novel. The novelist may be competent enough to weave a captivating plot that complements the theme well, but if he/she fails to portray the characters, especially the central characters or the protagonists, in a complete manner, the novel is unlikely to be well understood by the readers.
This essay is going to critically compare and contrast the development of protagonists in three novels – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Emma by Jane Austen and My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.
It might be noted that three protagonists in these three novels, namely Huckleberry Finn in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Emma Woodhouse in Austen’s Emma and Asher Lev in Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev undertake journeys through the course of the novels in search of gaining self-awareness. Hence, the common literary element used by the three authors involves the protagonists’ search for freedom.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain tells the story of a young boy named Huck who finds civilized life constrictive. Set on the backdrop of the Mississippi River, a symbol of freedom and triumph of free will, the novel captures humankind’s inherent nature which is conscientious of good and evil.
Being the central character in the novel, Huck demonstrates the quintessential elements the author wants to posit. The life of Huck is a happening one, with numerous conflicting situations arising from time to time. In the beginning of the novel, he runs into trouble when he is kidnapped by his drunken father Pap.
Pap wants to possess the money Huck and Tom Sawyer got from their previous adventures. However, Huck somehow manages to flee and he gets himself a canoe to shove off down the river. He decides not to return to a life of confinement in the Widow household. During his escape he comes across Jim, Miss Watson’s slave and they both hit upon a plan to pursue the life of adventure and exploration.
As Huck and Jim row down the Mississippi on a raft, they encounter numerous adventures and eventful situations that put them on friendly terms. On one occasion, they get into a house with a dead man inside it. They end up stealing money from the house before finding themselves entangled with murderers who intend to snatch away the money Huck and Jim have.
They also get separated from each other quite a few times but eventually reunite. Meanwhile, Huck chances upon two families involved in ugly bloodshed. Afterwards, Huck and Jim meet the King and the Duke, who fake to be Peter Wilks’ long-lost brothers hailing from England. Jim is sold by the King and Huck sets about in search for him. In the end, Tom and Huck find Jim in the house of Sally, Tom’s aunt. Huck, moved by the lessons he has learnt from Jim’s friendship, finally decides to escape the clutches of all the civilized norms.
Emma by Jane Austen is all about the protagonist’s unconscious search for self-awareness triggered by the perils of misunderstood romance. Emma Woodhouse, a wealthy and to some extent spoilt young lady, finds an irresistible attraction in matchmaking of others. However, she herself is incapable of loving anyone from her heart.
Upon befriending a girl named Harriet Smith, Emma decides to find a partner for her and chooses Mr. Elton, the town preacher as a perfect match for Harriet. In the process, she also persuades Harriet to turn down a marriage proposal by Mr. Martin whom Emma thinks to be of socially substandard to the status of Harriet.
Mr. Knightley, suitor of Emma strongly disapproves of Emma’s inclination for matchmaking. A typically sentimental Victorian setting is purposefully grinded into Emma to reveal the underlying psychological webs of the protagonist. While Emma goes on making match for others, she herself is completely oblivious of her own preferences.
Therefore, when Mr. Martin proposes marriage to Emma, she feels disgusted and promptly rejects him. The plot takes a twist with the arrival of Frank Churchill in the town. A series of misconstrued romance eventually leads to the marital union of three pairs in the novel – Harriet and Mr. Martin, Emma and Mr. Knightley and Jane and Mr. Churchill.
Published in 1972, My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok narrates the story of a prodigal boy who belongs to a Hasidic Jewish family in Brooklyn, the United States of America. The timeframe captured in the novel is prewar America in the early 1940s. The plot revolves round the conflict between Asher’s artistic inclination and his family’s religious piousness.
The Asher family, especially Asher’s father who is an ardent follower of the Rebbe, strongly despises of their son’s attachment to the study and performance of art. According to Judaism, pursuing a life of art is perceived as a waste of time. People in Asher’s sect can only relate to things they find useful in reality.
This value conflict is finally resolved when Asher is allowed to follow his field of interest. He becomes the student of Jacob Kahn, a non-observant Jew and an admirer of the Rebbe. When Asher grows up to be one of the widely acknowledged artists in the country, even his skeptic father feels compelled to praise his son’s feats.
However, he gets into trouble with his parents when he paints a symbolic crucifixion of the Christ. He is asked to leave the Jewish community to which he expresses no resentment. He leaves his family and the community without hurting them psychologically. One of the main points of this novel is the clash of values between an artist and a society which is ignorant of artistry. (bookreporter.com, 1996-2009)
It is apparent from the sketching of the three main characters from the three novels that all of them have a tendency to embrace freedom. It is perhaps Emma who is a standout from the rest in the sense that she demonstrates typically Victorian traits in her character – sappy and spoilt. But even Emma becomes aware of her free spirit and emotional bending which lay dormant for a long period in her life.
When Mr. Martin proposes marriage to her, her unconscious self fails to recognize her pent up feelings for Mr. Knightley. Moreover, she imposes her own assertion to Harriet, which, according to Mr. Knightley, may harm her: “You are a very warm friend to Mr. Martin; but, as I said before, are unjust to Harriet.
Harriet’s claims to marry well are not so contemptible as you represent them. She is not a clever girl, but she has better sense than you are aware of, and does not deserve to have her understanding spoken of so slightly.” (Austen et al., p. 61-62) And as far as Huck and Asher are concerned, they are completely assured of themselves and their desires.
Huck develops a poignant understanding of the value of human relations at the end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn whereas Asher’s artistic pursuit for freedom is acknowledged by his family and community. Hence, it can be stated that the key literary element common to depict the self-revelation of Huck, Asher and Emma is the search for freedom.
Social contexts of these three novels are also an important consideration when it comes to identifying other literary elements. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is written in the volatile setting of racism and social segregation. If these two elements are taken as the basis of comparison with the other two novels, one might be tempted to consider the value orientation of the Victorian era and the lack of the same in the postmodern times.
Emma is a representative masterpiece of the Victorian times when human relations were seen more from moral perspectives than from spontaneous outlooks. Contrary to this, My Name Is Asher Lev depicts a time when liberation of human spirit was celebrated over ethical issues. The artistic impulses of Asher are given ostensibly more preference to social norms and regulations. (SPARKNOTES, 2009)
The most crucial literary device that connects the three novels with regards to exploring the characters of the protagonists involves plot structures. Both Emma and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have complicated plot structures, with a number of sub-plots running parallel to the main plots. Similarly, My Name Is Asher Lev too has a significant twist in the plot when Asher creates his masterpiece only to incite wrath of his parents and the community he lives in. Subsequently he has to leave his community.
The psychological developments of the protagonists in the three novels are closely associated with the use of literary devices discussed in the essay. Craving for freedom, social context and plot structure contribute to the coherent understanding of the central characters from readers’ viewpoints.
The arguments presented in previous paragraphs are explained by a thorough analysis of the protagonists and their interactions with other characters and situations. It won’t be an overstatement to claim that despite being written in three different eras of literature, Huck, Emma and Asher are connected to each other by common literary threads.
Austen, Jane & Stafford, Fiona J. (2003). Emma. Hudson Street: Penguin Classics, 2003.
bookreporter.com. (1996-2009). MY NAME IS ASHER LEV. Retrieved March 12, 2009, from http://www.bookreporter.com/reviews/1400031044.asp
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SPARKNOTES. (2009). The Conflict between Art and Religious Community. Retrieved March 12, 2009, from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/asher/themes.html
Analysis of Literary Elements in Jane Austen, Mark Twain & Chaim Potok
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My son popped in the other night, quite excited about his discovery in a new Mark Twain book of an essay on Jane Austen – he was thrilled to pass on to me the curmudgeon-par-excellence of Twain bashing Austen. He was disappointed to discover I already knew about Twain’s avid dislike of Austen – but I appreciated his concern for my feelings!
The new Twain book is Who is Mark Twain, edited by Robert H. Hirst, The Mark Twain Foundation, 2009 [texts copyrighted 2001]. As Hirst explains in his Note:
I have described all twenty-four pieces as ‘previously unpublished,’ by which I mean not printed or otherwise made readily accessible to the general reader. More strictly speaking, all of them were included in a microfilm edition issued by the Mark Twain Project in 2001…. But Who is Mark Twain? represents the first time any of these manuscripts has been published for a general audience.
The book is a collection of essays penned by Twain over the years but never published – one of these is titled “Jane Austen” written in 1905. I knew of this essay because it was actually published by Emily Auerbach in the Virginia Quarterly Review [Winter 1999] and latterly in an Appendix in her Searching for Jane Austen [University of Wisconsin, 2004], along with an insightful article on Twain. But alas! the book sits upon my shelf, skimmed, and I did not read this until my son gave me the nudge. [There have also been other posts on some of the Austen blogs about this and I don’t mean to be repetitive, but finally just getting to this … thanks to my son!]
Auerbach asks the question in her article “A Barkeeper Entering the Kingdom of Heaven: Did Mark Twain Really Hate Jane Austen?” – she concludes that perhaps Twain was “a closet Janeite, a fake who read and appreciated far more of Jane Austen than he admitted” [p.299]; that his astute and unfinished essay on Austen indeed proved that he really “got” her [p.301], and despite all his moanings to the contrary, they were more alike than not in observing and depicting human foibles and relying on humor to best express their views [Auerbach compares Twain and Austen to the pairing of Bogart and Hepburn in the film The African Queen: Twain “the irrepressible riverboat pilot, and Austen, the tea-drinking maiden aunt.” [p. 302]- this made me smile!]
I am appending several passages from Twain’s essay, as it quite delightful and many of you may not have read it. Go out and buy the book – and the other essays cover all manner of Twain’s humorous musings.
Whenever I take up “Pride and Prejudice” or “Sense and Sensibility,” I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I mean, I feel as he would probably feel, would almost certainly feel. I am quite sure I know what his sensations would be—and his private comments. He would be certain to curl his lip, as those ultra-good Presbyterians went filing self-complacently along. Because he considered himself better than they? Not at all. They would not be to his taste—that is all.
Does Jane Austen do her work too remorselessly well? For me, I mean? Maybe that is it. She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too. Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see.
All the great critics praise her art generously. To start with, they say she draws her characters with sharp distinction and a sure touch. I believe that this is true, as long as the characters she is drawing are odious. I am doing “Sense and Sensibility” now, and have accomplished the first third of it – not for the first time. To my mind, Marianne is not attractive; I am sure I should not care for her, in actual life. I suppose she was intended to be unattractive. Edward Ferrars has fallen in love with Elinor, and she with him; the justification of this may develop later, but thus far there is no way to account for it; for, thus far, Elinor is a wax figure and Edward a shadow, and how could such manufactures as these warm up and feel a passion.
Edward is an unpleasant shadow, because he has discarded his harmless waxwork and engaged himself to Lucy Steele, who is coarse, ignorant, vicious, brainless, heartless, a flatterer, a sneak— and is described by the supplanted waxwork as being “a woman superior in person and understanding to half her sex;” and “time and habit will teach Edward to forget that he ever thought another superior to her.” Elinor knows Lucy quite well. Are those sentimental falsities put into her mouth to make us think she is a noble and magnanimous waxwork, and thus exalt her in our estimation? And do they do it?
Willoughby is a frankly cruel, criminal and filthy society-gentleman.
Old Mrs. Ferrars is an execrable gentlewoman and unsurpassable course and offensive.
Mr. Dashwood, gentleman, is a coarse and cold-hearted money-worshipper; his Fanny is coarse and mean. Neither of them ever says or does a pleasant thing.
Mr. Robert Ferrars, gentleman, is coarse, is a snob, and an all-round offensive person.
Mr. Palmer, gentleman, is coarse, brute-mannered, and probably an ass, though we cannot tell, yet, because he cloaks himself behind silences which are not often broken by speeches that contain material enough to construct an analysis out of.
His wife, lady, is coarse and silly.
Lucy Steele’s sister is coarse, foolish, and disagreeable.
[from Who is Mark Twain, pages 47-50]
And there it ends – quite the review! [and as almost everyone has pointed out, Twain applies the word “course” to nearly all the characters in the book]- one would think he was actually enjoying EVERY minute of his reading of S&S! [don’t you just LOVE the “filthy” Willoughby!?]
- Auerbach, Emily, Searching for Jane Austen [University of Wisconsin Press, 2004]
- Flavin, James. The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Twain’s Imitation of Austen.Persuasions 25, , pp. 103-109 [not online] [Flavin’s premise is that Twain actually COPIED Austen’s famous scene of money manipulation between Fanny and John Dashwood in S&S in his Life on the Mississippi] – a great article
- Twain, Mark; Robert H. Hirst, editor. Who is Mark Twain? [ Mark Twain Foundation, 2009]
- The Offical Website of Mark Twain
- The Mark Twain House [Hartford Connecticut]
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