Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Class and Satire in “The American” by Henry James and “Huck Finn” by Mark Twain
Specific forms of narration function differently to relate the growth of the protagonists in a variety of novels and provide the reader with a particular view of the world that exists outside of the main character. To highlight this, one must observe the way narration progresses from childhood thoughts to mature observations in Chiam Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, demonstrating that the young Asher the reader is introduced to at the beginning has changed significantly by the conclusion.
In Mark Twain’s novel, Huckleberry Finn, the role of the narrator is different. In this case, the narration is influenced by the colloquial speech of the protagonist/narrator and his growth can be traced only through the plot itself. Throughout the text, Huckleberry Finn remains essentially the same person through his language, but his growth and understanding of the world around him is affected by the several events of the story that force him to make decisions.
In Chiam Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, the protagonist, Asher, experiences a great deal of growth throughout the novel. The reader witnesses his progression from a small child who already feels his budding artistic talents and begins to question the Ladover community that has so much influence over his family’s life. After meeting Joseph Kahn, a renowned artist, he begins to learn where he fits into his religion as well as his family and what his beliefs are. One of the most revealing scenes that illustrates Asher’s growth is when he decides to cut off his earlocks.
The reader recognizes that these are his link to the strict world of his father and the Ladover community, and his act of cutting them off is symbolic from his emotional departure from the world he has grown up in. From this moment on, it is clear that he is no longer merely “the son of Reb Aryeh Lev” as Krinksy calls him, but he is Asher—a talented young man capable of following his instinctual drive to create art, even if it offends his parents and community. Although by the end his parents and community no longer recognize him as a member, he has a greater sense of who he is and the language and mode of narration reflects this.
The book begins with the mature Asher’s introduction of himself and it is clear that it is an adult addressing the reader. When he states in one of the important quotes from My Name is Asher Lev by Chiam Potok, “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much about at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion” (Potok, 2003, 3). Aside from the fact that he is clearly an adult due to his status as a famous man, the language is complex and his sentences are full and employ rich words such as “dinner affairs” and “notorious” as well as the ability to use “whom” correctly to show an adult grasp of syntax and linguistic complexity characteristic of adult speech rather than a child’s. This speech changes as Asher begins to describe his childhood and the narration reverts to that of a young man, with much simpler language and shorter, less weighty sentences. This shift begins with his the words, “I have no recollection of when I began to use that gift. But I can remember at the age of four, holding my pencil in the first firm grip of a child” (Potok, 2003, 5).
After this point, the narration is more centered in childhood and the reader is given less complex and involved descriptions of the world outside of his own head. He picks up on conversations of those around them and interprets them for the reader, although they are certainly not from the perspective of an adult. This mode of child-like narration continues throughout a majority of the first three-quarters of the book until the reader is reunited with the mature man who we were introduced to at the beginning of the novel, a man that relates multifaceted ideas in more complex prose. For instance, instead of speaking about his forefathers in vague childish terms of wonderment, he has developed fully and asks, “Had a dream-haunted Jew spent the rest of his life sculpting form out of the horror of his private night?” (Potok, 2003, 327). This is a far cry from the child’s observations the reader was introduced to and the ability of the protagonist to successfully relate his feelings of becoming who he is clearly in visible both in terms of plot and languages.
In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the growth of the protagonist, Huck, is a bit more challenging to trace. If one were to give a cursory reading to this text it may simply seem like a story about adventure rather than one of self-realization and understanding, but it is clear that Huck grows significantly throughout the course of the novel. For example, while he may have some reservations about helping an escaped slave, as his friendship with Jim grows, he sees that helping him is the right thing to do, just as telling little lies to stand up for a moral belief in what is right is also acceptable. It is also significant that by the end of the novel, instead of allowing himself to fall into the “sivilizing” hands of another well-meaning adult, he instead chooses to follow his natural inclination to travel west and become the man he wishes to be. In this respect, he is much like Asher Lev since he is without a true place by the end, yet has a much clearer understanding of who he is and what his beliefs and passions are. Although Asher and Huckleberry Finn share this common element in terms of plot, the way this is related to the reader is much different. Twain relies on a narrative tactic that remains constant throughout the text, one that keeps the humor and colloquial speech of the protagonist and uses plot instead of language development to demonstrate Huck’s growth.
The narrative technique at the beginning of the novel remains nearly constant throughout, with the occasional ironic aside from the narrator. Given this constancy, the challenge of tracing Huck’s growth is not, as was the case in Potok’s novel, looking to language, but rather in examining the plot. In introducing himself, the protagonist, Huckleberry Finn states in one of the important quotes from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, “The widow she cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb, and she called me a lot of other names too, but she never meant no harm by it. She put me in them new clothes again, and I couldn’t do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up” (Twain, 1884, 2). He longs to be free and to go off on adventures rather than fall prey to the societal forces that wish to tame his wildness and freedom.
Although some readers may see this aspect of Huck’s character as a negative element, this is merely personal conjecture and in fact, Huck does grow throughout the novel, enough so that his last lines, “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, 1884, 360) show that he is no longer willing to submit to the forces of “sivilizing” society. He has truly realized himself fully and seeks new horizons in the West. It is also significant that his feelings about slavery are changed and by the end of the novel, he no longer accepts white society’s understanding of men as property and the reader can assume that this is part of what causes him to leave as well. In sum, the narration is a mask for the growth that actually occurs throughout the novel. In order to keep the story compelling, Twain eschews moral commentary by hiding it in colloquial speech, thus making the growth of the protagonist more difficult to identify at the end.
In Emma, by Jane Austen, the protagonist experiences growth as she plays a number of roles, the primary of which is matchmaker. She attempts to set up Harriet and is unsuccessful, and a series of unfortunate circumstances arise from her mistakes. Although the story has a happy ending, it should be noted that most of this happiness is the result of Emma finally realizing who she is and where her interests lie (most notably in the dashing Mr. Knightley). With his comments to her, she begins to realize her folly and comes to a fuller understanding of who she is in love with. Although these plot elements aid in the reader’s understanding of her growth, it is the narrator’s observations that lend fullness to the final realization of the protagonist.
In Emma Instead of relying on speech that gradually matures as in My Name is Asher Lev, or through the use of constancy and a reliance on plot as seen in Huckleberry Finn, Austen uses an omniscient narrator in conjunction with dialogue to trace the growth of her protagonist. This narrator describes Emma in the beginning as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” and while this seems to be a very general observation, she further comments in one of the important quotes from “Emma” by Jane Austen, “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well or herself” (Austen, 1814, 7). It is through these narrative asides that the reader is able to discern how she changes from the spoiled and selfish young woman to the end result, a happily married lady who has finally realized that her matchmaking attempts were rather shallow. The narrator states, “She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling, had been her conduct!” (Austen, 1814, 268). With limited dialogue that would highlight Emma’s thought, it is this opinionated narrator’s responsibility to relate these important emotions to illustrate growth.
In conclusion, as this thesis statement for My Name is Asher Lev, Huck Finn, and Emma makes clear, these three novels all address vastly different literary themes and issues, but the importance of narration in demonstrating growth binds them together. While this comparison essay looked at only one set of themes and basis for a compare and contrast, there are several other themes in common. In My Name is Asher Lev,the narration progresses from a child to a grown man, thus showing growth through increasingly mature language. This is the opposite in Huckleberry Finn since the narration remains constant, instead the plot drives the narration and the final result is a narrator who is still a child, yet changed. In Emma, the narrator is important because without him or her it is impossible to discern the true thoughts of the protagonist, thus making the growth more difficult to pinpoint. Although these are all different narrative strategies, this difference reflects the fact that narration is vital to signaling the growth of a protagonist in any novel. When comparing three literary works, the themes are not always the same but examining the narrative style is always a good place to start a comparison.
Austen, Jane. (1816). Emma. New York: Penguin.
Potok, Chiam. (2003). My name is Asher Lev. New York: Anchor.
Twain, Mark. (1884). The Adventures of Hickleberry Finn. New York: Penguin.