A Comparative Analysis of the Protagonists of Three Novels

Some of the most unforgettable stories are remembered for a variety of reasons, but the most common is the presence of truly distinct characters.  These fictional creations are usually depicted on a journey towards personal growth, hence they almost always exhibit flawed personalities ripe for change.  The transformation process and the end result are what separate a stellar work of fiction and mere narration””a given rule that writers Mark Twain, Jane Austen, and Chaim Potok have probably always known.

Twain, or Samuel Clemens in real life, authored The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the late 19th century as an offshoot of his hugely-popular The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, both featuring his popular characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; however, the latter was the main focus of the book named after him, and tackled the young boy’s evaluation and final acknowledgment of his personal values in relation to the racial prejudice against African-Americans prevalent during his time.  The story, as revealed in its title, is a series of adventures alluding to various objectives of search and escape””which can be read as Huck’s own self-discovery.  Jim, the young black slave who accompanied Huck throughout the whole journey, represents the object of prejudice and injustice, and is the primary reason for Huck’s transformation.

Jane Austen’s Emma, on the other hand, is a tale about a rich yet bored young woman in Regency England who often indulges in her favorite pastime””matchmaking””and the eventual change in her reasons for such activity.  This is because she believes that a woman should find a man to marry her to have a future ahead, since marriage would bring her financial stability.  Ironically, this rule did not apply to Emma herself, for she was already wealthy and could support herself with her father’s fortune.  This arguable thinking later changed as Emma fell in love with Mr. Knightley, her longtime friend and neighbor, erasing her original assumptions about marriage and its purpose.

The novel’s tone and manner is light and comic, owing greatly to the practically shallow concerns of the young heroine.

My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok is a touching story about a young boy’s passion for the arts and painting, a concept deemed unacceptable to his conservative Jewish family and community.  Tradition is at the forefront of the story’s discussion, since Jewish ways believed that any kind of art that did not allude to Judaism was demonic and evil, and should be discontinued.  Asher’s growing interest in art cause much controversy among his family and community, and in the end he chose to follow his heart rather than be restrained by the tradition he had been taught to observe.

In all three novels, the concept of discovering oneself, evaluating one’s own values without being influenced by others, and being able to make a stand according to these values form the common thread.  Hence, regardless of culture, religious beliefs, social class and influence, individualism rises to the surface, and is the catalyst for growth in each of the characters featured.  And these shall be discussed through an analysis of setting, plot, and conflict as used in the novels to effect transformation in each character.

The Journey Towards Self-Transformation

            The three characters experience change in clear, linear ways:  from cause to effect, with a few incidental occurrences midway that help seal the change.  This is revealed in their respective stories through the technical elements of setting, plot, and conflict, which are all strategically-designed to fit the characters’ realities and objectives.

Huck’s penchant for adventure, as well as the presence of Jim, the young slave, were not surprising, considering the era when Twain wrote the novel.  It was post-Civil War America, and the concept of eradicating slavery was still met with violent objections and resistance.  This particular setting is essential for Huck’s transformation, because it is only here that his realization of the ills of slavery and the degradation of African-Americans as human beings could be portrayed.  The novel provides hints at the change about to happen, taking into consideration the time and place indicated, as well as the kind of restrictions imposed upon Huck.  Such was his reaction to Miss Watson’s reprimands about not doing certain things:

All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a

change, and I warn’t particular.   (Twain, 1884, p.4)


In such a way, the main character reveals his desire of change. At the same time, Huck did not take a decision to change his life spontaneously. Instead, the entire book is the evolution of the main character and the attempts to lighten the tone of the story and he included a “notice” that served as a warning:

Those attempting to find motive in this story will be

prosecuted; those attempting to find moral will be banished;

those attempting to find a plot will be shot.   (Twain, 1884, p. 2)


However, such an introduction rather stresses the inevitability of changes in the main character than really distracts readers from the plot of the story. No wonder, Huck evolves in the course of the book and arrives to his appreciation of freedom above all.

The novel depicts characters, who are particularly naïve and idealistic in their views. In fact, it is quite symbolic that Huckleberry Finn, a boy, personifies the character, who pursuits the American dream and who rejects conventional values of the society. The boy is just discovering the surrounding world and his identity is not fully shaped, but, in the course of the novel, he learns numerous hardships of the real life. He was terrorized by his abusive father. Huckleberry Finn lives in poverty, but he is happy.


In Emma, Regency England and its preoccupation with societal customs and traditions, including the perceived necessity of marriage for young women, provided the perfect environment for Emma to reveal her unrealistic views of the union, and her change of heart. However, her frivolity was best described by Austen’s opening lines:

Emma Woodhouse, clever, handsome, and rich, with a comfortable

home and happy disposition, had lived twenty-one years in the world

with very little to distress her.   (Austen, 1815, p. 7)

This establishing picture, quite descriptive of women’s perceived priorities of the period given, prepares the reader for the kind of transformation Emma would undergo, specifically with the mention of her enviable situation and lack of concerns. At the same time, this description in the beginning of the book contrasts to the overall change and evolution of the main character from a frivolous woman into a conservative wife.

Brooklyn, New York in the 1940s was the setting of Asher’s story, a time when Judaism was faced with the most difficult challenges of their faith””historically defined as the Holocaust.  There was a greater observance of strict rules, possibly to keep the Jews strong in the face of adversity.  The significance of traditionalism is stated in the description of Asher’s birth, and the mention of a “gift” at once prepares the reader for something that goes beyond the parameters of Jewish life:

So, little Asher Lev – born in 1943 to Rivkeh and Aryeh Lev,

in the section of Brooklyn known as Crown Heights – little Asher Lev

was the juncture point of two significant family lines, the apex, as it

were, of a triangle seminal with Jewish potentiality and freighted with Jewish responsibility. But he was also born with a gift.

(Potok, 2003, p. 5)


This “gift”, mentioned in the context of strict familial and geographic lines, would


be Asher’s instrument for change. It is due to his gift Asher is able to challenge the religious norms of his family and community, rebel against them and show his independence, which contrasts to his full obedience to his father and his community, which is clearly seen at the beginning of the book, when his gift is under-developed yet.


The plot of Huck’s story, consisting of adventure after absurd adventure, was the best contrapuntal device to the seriousness of racism as a theme.  But being the young boy that he was, a series of adventures was the only way for him to recognize and assess his values, with lessons being learned in every adventure. Huck himself provides his own logic regarding the plans they were about to execute, in reference to Jim:

Tom told me what his plan was, and I see in a minute

it was worth fifteen of mine for style, and would make Jim just as

free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides. So

I was satisfied, and said we would waltz in on it.     (Twain, 1884, p. 243)

These plans reveal the readiness of the main character to change because he develops plans which can change not only his own life but also the life of people he knows.

Huckleberry Finn is an idealistic boy who eventually learns to appreciate his liberty above all. Moreover, liberty is the main value which the boy stands for and he is ready to sacrifice everything he has for the sake of liberty. At this point, it is possible to speak about his desire to help Jim, who escaped from his master. It is possible to compare Huckleberry Finn and Jim since Huck wants to help Jim because they are similar. The boy is constrained by conventional norms of social moral he constantly violates and from which he wants to escape, while Jim also attempts to escape but from legal constraints of the slavery. Thus, they both pursue liberty, which is associated with the American dream. This is why Huckleberry Finn rejects the possibility to be adopted and lead a normal life, but, instead, he dreams of moving westward, where he will live independently, being totally free on his own. This is the ultimate manifestation of Finn’s self-awareness, which is grounded on his love to liberty and independence.

Emma‘s plot, almost boring and nonsensical at the start, provided the right backdrop for the girl’s self-discovery and later comprehension of the serious effects of her matchmaking hobby.  She slowly assumes a sense of regret after meddling in her friend’s objectives for marriage:

Oh, that I had been satisfied with persuading her not

to accept young Martin.  There I was quite right: that was well done

of me; but here I should have stopped, and left the rest to time and

chance.     (Austen, 1815, p. 63)


In such a way, the main character rejects all the objections and obstacles on her way to the marriage. The marriage accomplishes the change of the main character and shows the conservative side of her personality.

Finally, the illustration of a traditional Jewish family and Asher’s attempts at fulfilling his dreams present the classic equation of differences producing personal change.

As a matter of fact, observant Jews did not paint at all–in the

way that I am painting. So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter of shame upon my family, my friends, my people.

(Potok, 2003, p. 3)

Thus, the main character arrives to the point, when he has changed himself irrevocably. This change upset him but, on the other hand, this change makes him free from biases of his family and community.

Conflicts in the stories are also quite straightforward and relate directly to

the characters’ means for change:  in Huck’s story, it was between perceived and personal values, as experienced by Americans during the post-slavery period.  The ending, after the series of adventures Huck had gotten into with Tom and Jim, reverting to his old life of rules went against everything he had learned along the way:

I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the

rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me,

and I can’t stand it. I been there before.     (Twain, 1884, p. 281)


Therefore, Huck is finally conscious that freedom and independence are more important than family that means the accomplishment of the change of the main character of Twain’s book.

In Emma’s, it was her assumed purpose of marriage, versus the feelings she had for a man whom she thought preferred another woman.  This is demonstrated in two disparate sentiments of Emma’s””the first referring to her friend Harriet, and the next upon her realization of her own feelings for Mr. Knightley:

She would notice her; she would improve her; she would

detach her from her bad acquaintances, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners.  It would be an

interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own station in life, her leisure, and powers.     (Austen, 1815, p. 24)




She saw it all with a clearness that 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! What blindness, what madness had led her on!     (Austen, 1815, p. 387)

In such a way, the author conveys the journey of Emma to self-awareness, a journey from a careless, independent woman to a loving woman who is ready to marry Mr. Knightley. In fact, Emma is quite self-assured and independent woman. She believes she knows everything about the life and, unlike many other women, she is not really keen on marriage. Even though she occupies herself with matchmaking, she still is skeptical about her own marriage and she appreciates her liberty above all. Unlike Huck Finn, Emma is conscious of her independence and adores her liberty, whereas Huck arrives steadily to the appreciation of liberty as the ultimate manifestation of his self-awareness and consciousness of his independence. The transformation that occurs to Emma is quite different from that of Huck. As it has been already mentioned above, Huck rejects the very idea of becoming a member of a family and he does not want to be adopted to stay free and independent. In stark contrast, Emma falls in love with Mr. Knightley that becomes a turning point in the transformation of the main character of the novel and revelation of her self-awareness. The love to Mr. Knightley reveals the true nature, the hidden self-awareness of Emma. In actuality, she proves to be like other women and she cannot live on her own without her beloved. The marriage with Mr. Knightly marks the accomplishment of her journey toward self-awareness. Emma understands that independence and liberty are not really what she is looking for. Instead, she does need love and family and, in this regard, she is totally different from Huck Finn, who would reject the very idea of becoming a member of a family.

In Asher Lev’s tale, it was simply the choice between tradition and family, and his passion, that effected the transformation in him; like a true artist, he chose to be loyal to his gift than succumb to the uninformed opinions of his church and community:

Yes, I could have decided not to do it. Who would have

known? Would it have made a difference to anyone in the world that

I had felt a sense of incompleteness about a painting? Who would

have cared about my silent cry of fraud? Only Jacob Kahn, and perhaps one or two others, might have sensed it incompleteness. And even they could never have known how incomplete it truly was, for by itself it

was a good painting. Only I would have known.     (Potok, 2003, p. 328)


In this regard, his transformation in the course of the novel is significant as he rebels against his family and community creating his masterpiece using the symbol of crucifixion. In such a way, he is not an obedient boy any more as he used to be.

Asher conducts a different journey to his self-awareness compared to Huck and Emma as he gains the public recognition and approval of his gift, which, though, ruins his family life. To put it more precisely, all his life Asher attempts to prove his father and relatives that he has a gift and his gift is worth developing. However, he constantly confronts the opposition from the part of his family and community who care of nothing but their faith. In this regard, Asher is different from Emma and Huck because he does not have any liberty and independence at all. Unlike Emma and Huck, who are free in their own way (Emma is free due to her wealth inherited from her father, whereas Huck is free because he has nothing and, thus, he has nothing to lose but his liberty and independence), Asher is totally dependent on his family and he cannot develop his gift unless his father allows him to. In the course of the novel, he constantly struggle with his family and community to prove that he has the right to develop his gift and he has the right to become an artist. This struggle paves his way toward his self-awareness.

Ironically, when he gains approval of his family and community and when he proves that he is a gifted artist, he creates the painting which becomes the manifestation of his self-awareness. Asher creates the painting which uses the symbolism of the crucifixion to express his mother’s torment. However, this work is extremely offensive to his family and, therefore, he is forced to break up with his family. On the other hand, this painting was the final step toward the revelation of his self-awareness because, since the early childhood Asher has been attempting to use the symbolism of the crucifixion in his paintings but the use of the crucifixion in his paintings was offensive to his family’s religious beliefs. As a result, he was constantly oppressed and deprived of liberty Emma and Huck enjoyed so much. However, Asher uses the symbolism of the crucifixion in his masterpiece that becomes a symbol of his freedom and the manifestation of his self-awareness. He is conscious of the fact that he is a great artists and not a single person, including his relatives, can tell him what to paint.


            No story can ever be worthy of reading if the character remains as he or she was from the beginning; change is an essential component of an effective narrative, for it guides the movement of all fiction.  Transformation is necessary, and the way it had been exposed in the three novels is the way characters become significant to readers.

Through the essential elements of setting, plot, and conflict, self-discovery and the ability to affirm one’s chosen set of values or destination are best portrayed in transformation, compared to the change that occurs because it was inflicted on the character by a person or event.  As these three elements are often introduced to the reader in the exact order, the change in each character can be seen in an ascending pattern””with the completion at the topmost level of the story, which is usually the ending.

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