The protagonists in Jane Austen’s Emma, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev are similarly portrayed as conflicted youths facing social and personal challenges in an arduous journey to maturity. Along the way Emma, Huckleberry and Asher learn more about themselves and their social environment and somehow come to terms with their own self-identities.
Jane Austen portrays Emma Woodhouse as privileged young lady who has become so enamoured in her status and place within the family structure that her ego gets the better of her. Her oversized ego is the catalyst for her growth and maturity as she commandeers the romantic lives of others. It is through this interference that she begins to grow and mature and gain an appreciation for selflessness and finally identifies with not only society’s shortcomings but her own. Potok’s Asher Lev is similarly disposed.
He is the son of an affluent Jewish family and is overcome by his own love of self. Like Emma, Asher too eventually comes to terms with the destructive nature of self centred aspirations. By contrast Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a young lad of humble and turbulent beginnings. Ironically it is these circumstances that have forced him into an early maturity and independence. Through Huckleberry, Asher and Emma the reader learns through literary elements such as characterization, conflict and point of view the obstacles that the young take on while leaving innocence behind.
The roles of each of the protagonists are characterized by a measure of independence and a willingness to abandon the norms prescribed by each of their societies. For Emma’s independence, although selfish in nature is characterized by the following passage:
“The real evils indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power rather of having too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself…”(Austen,1999, p. 6).
Emma accepts society’s idea of respectability, believing that a woman’s role is to marry well, but while she resists these dictates for herself, she has no difficulty manipulating the lives of others to ensure that they comport with society’s view.
Huck and Asher however are not predisposed to adhere to the rigid strictures of their respective societies and instead think of themselves as commanders of their own fates. Asher, a very skilled artist and to come extent as self-absorbed as Austen’s Emma, puts his commitment to art over and above his Hassidic Jewish ideals that religion must always come first. Asher’s independence of mind and thought are brought to light at an early age when his mother tried to encourage little Asher to portray a “pretty” world in his drawings (Potok, p.32) Asher declined and drew the world as he himself viewed it.
Huck Finn has his own view of society and views it and the adults at the helm as nothing short of hypocritical. He adheres to his own notion of respectability and the following passage bears this out:
“Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn’t. She said it was a mean practice…That is just the way with some people they get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it. Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff too; of course that was alright…” (Twain, 2003 p.2)
Ironically it is the independent nature of the three protagonists that forces each to not only recognize and accept their flawed societies but it also brings them to an awareness of their own vulnerabilities and flaws. For instance Huck himself comes to accept the hopelessness of attempting to escape society’s rigid stricture by noting:
“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, 2003, p. 293).
Put another way, Huck realizes that he can disrespect norms, but in order to appease those that he loves, he might as well go along with their demands of him.
Emma too reaches a compromise in which she accepts that she is not as perfect as she would like to believe she is. Reflecting on her manipulative conduct in arranging marriages and romances for others, Emma concedes:
“What had she to wish for? Nothing, but to be more worthy of him (Knightley), whose intentions and judgments had been ever so superior to her own. Nothing but that the lessons of her last folly might teach her humility and circumspection in the future”(Austen,1999 p.300).
Emma has come to the realization that Mr. Knightley, a pawn in her matchmaking games has managed to somehow steal her affections and for this she is humbled, coming to the realizatio that perhaps she too desires romance and marriage. It is through this acceptance that Emma’s journey to self-awareness is complete.
Potok’s Asher, like Huck and Emma comes to some compromise about himself and the people impacted by his independence. He realizes that by placing art first and foremost in his life has come at a price to those that her loves. While he remains committed to his art he makes a decision to ensure that it does not come at the emotional expense of his loved ones. He comes to the realization that he cannot resolve the conflict between his religion and his art and he has to give one of them up. In deciding to give up his religion Asher marvels:
“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,2003 p. 312).
Asher and Emma are similarly disposed to create conflicts for others rather than for themselves. For instance Emma who has her idea for the perfect romantic partner and the ideal husband imposes her will on others and by doing so creates conflicts for them. Emma imposes her will on Harriet by determining that the farmer, the man in pursuit of Harriet is not suitable and is determined to change her as follows:
“…she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners”(Austen, 1999, p. 17).
Emma takes the position that the local vicar, Mr. Elton, the local is a more desirable match for Harriet and when she attempts to set them on a romantic course, Mr. Elton who turns out to be an opportunist proposes to Emma. The fact is, Mr. Elton has a low opinion of Harriet and this realization causes the latter some pain. Emma finds her own conflicts when she tries to fall for Frank Churchill simply because those around her view them as a potentially compatible couple. As previously noted, Emma falls instead for Mr. Knightley, a man with whom she had many conflicts with throughout Austen’s novel.
Like Emma, the bulk of Asher Lev’s conflicts are conflicts that he causes for others. Perhaps the most significant conflicts are the conflicts that Asher causes between his parents. Throughout the novel it is painfully obvious that Mrs. Lev is torn between her loyalty to her husband and son. All of this comes about as a result of the conflict between Asher’s art and his religion which is a source of angst for Mr. Lev, a high ranking member of the Jewish community. As a result Asher’s father provides the greatest conflict for Asher and tells him:
“Jews in Europe are starving for the Torah … These are Jewish lives, Asher. Nothing is more important in the eyes of the Master of the Universe than a Jewish life” (Potok,2003, p. 107).
Huck who obviously has a conscience, an element sorely lacking in both Emma and Asher earlier on is conflicted by the dictates of his society. At the same time Huck is very much aware of the residual pain his departure from the norm can cause to those that he loves. It is this conflict that causes Huck to make correct decisions. For instance when faced with an opportunity to turn Jim, the runaway slave in, Huck’s conscience gets the better of him.
He does not agree with slavery and at the same time Huck is also aware that Jim’s owner, Ms. Watson, does not deserve his betrayal. Ultimately Huck decides that that helping Jim was the right thing. As the novel approaches its completing Huck faces another conflict when he considers running out at night to meet with Tom Saywer and weighs it against the angst it might bring to Aunt Sally, Huck observes:
“Laws, knows I wanted to go bad enough to see about Tom, and was all intending to go, but after that, I wouldn’t ‘a’ went, not for kingdoms” (Twain, 2003 p. 282).
Points of View
The points of views of the three protagonists often cause a measure of conflict for them . These conflicts arise primarily in respect of religion and family matter and are not necessarily a sore point since it serves to bring each of the protagonists to self-awareness and personal maturity. Huck for instance, has little or no respect for family values but accepts that it is a value he has little chance of escaping should he wish to have any peace of mind. Huck also struggles with religion and finds it rather comical in his encounter with the widow Douglas:
“After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him, but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people” (Twain, 2003, p. 2)
Although Huck will listens respectfully, he cultivates a different point of view inwardly. Like Huck, Asher Lev’s point of view in respect of family and religion are his own although it is primarily his commitment to art that creates the distinction. Like Huck, Asher’s conscience intervenes and he marvels over the pain acting out his own of view has caused those that he loves to endure. Asher reflects on the impact this has had on him mother as follows:
“Now I thought of my mother and began to sense something of her years of anguish. Standing between two different ways of living 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,2003, p. 310).
From this passage we learn that Asher’s point of view has reached a level of maturity in much the same way as Huck’s has. Both have obviously reached a compromise and have resolved the conflicts arising out of their individual points of view.
As previously noted Emma’s conflicts arise out of her opinionated stance toward who and what constitutes a desirable romantic match. For instance her view that the vicar, a man of the cloth was a better match for Harriet than the farmer with whom she ultimately ends up with is a source of conflict. Emma’s point of view nonetheless is as follows:
“…thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning respectable young man, without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world”(Austen, 1999, p. 24)
Emma soon learns that things are not always what they seem and opinions can be wrong. By coming to this realization, Emma in much the same way as Asher and Huck form more realistic views of society and mankind in their journeys toward full maturity.
The roles of the three protagonists discussed above clearly outline the struggles associated with the journey to maturity. They trace the surrender of innocence and the lessons learned along the way. Each of the protagonists set out in a particular way with fixed views of life, society and self. As they each encounter conflicts with society, self and religion, they learn that neither society or the self can prevail and that a compromise of values is often necessary for self-growth.
Austen, Jane. (1999) Emma. Dover: Dover Publications.
Potok, Chaim.(2003) My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Anchor
Twain, Mark. (2003) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Bantam Classics.