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Coming of Age
A comparison of the coming of age novels Emma, My Name is Asher Lev, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Emma is a young woman who occupies her free time by playing matchmaker to her friends, while avoiding finding a love of her own. She is under the impression that she is quite good at pairing her friends together, but is faced with the realization that she has done more harm than good in her attempts to bring her friends happiness, while at the same time, feed her own ego.
Asher Lev is a young boy who, as he grows into a man, is faced with the choice of doing what makes him happy, his art, or doing what makes his father happy, studying and living the ways of the Hasidic Jewish religion. He is torn between these two lifestyles because he truly believes in the teachings of his religion, but he also has a driving need to express himself through his art, which is looked down upon by those in his Ladover community. Huckleberry Finn is a young boy who is trying to escape his abusive father, as well as those who are trying to teach him to live in a civilized way, or at least as they see it. He helps his friend Jim, an escaped slave, to journey up the Mississippi River in order to find freedom. Along the way he is faced with the choice of doing what he has been taught is the moral thing to do, or doing what he feels would be best for his friend, despite the moral ramifications. When reading these stories the reader gets to experience each of the protagonist's struggles caused by such things as their settings, their sociological and psychological influences, and the themes of each story, and comes to understand and applaud the victorious growth and development of each of the characters.
In the story of Emma, the reader is told that Emma tends to think too highly of herself. This quality, along with the facts that Emma is content to live in her father's house indefinitely, she does not think that any man is good enough for her, and she has been conditioned to believe that money and social status are extremely important when matching two people together, is Emma's downfall. She avoids boredom and loneliness by playing matchmaker to her friends. She believes that she has a natural talent for doing so, and goes to the extent of guiding her friend, Miss Smith, away from the man that she is interested in, Mr. Martin, while pushing her toward Mr. Elton, whom she believes is better suited for Miss Smith. She does so because she feels that Miss Smith should be with a man of higher social status even though Miss Smith's social status is more equal to that of Mr. Martin. Along her journey she begins to see the error of her thinking, with the help of her friend Mr. Knightly. Not only does she realize that she is not as good at matchmaking as she once thought she was, but she also realizes that Mr. Knightly is her true love.
In My Name is Asher Lev, Asher is compelled at a young age to create art out of the world as he sees it. He does so knowing that his father, who is raising his son to believe in the family's Jewish faith, disapproves. Asher believes in what he is being taught and wants to please his father, but cannot give up the one thing that he feels he was meant to do. He is very selfish at the beginning, refusing to move away from his home, despite the pleadings of his parents, refusing to pay attention to his religious studies, and refusing to see what his actions are doing to his parents, especially the pain that it brings to his mother. As he grows into a man, and moves to Europe he begins to realize that his choices caused pain to those that he loved. He paints two portraits of his mother, utilizing the crucifixion of Christ, in order to express this new found understanding. The paintings are meant to express the sorrow that Asher feels for the pain that his mother has gone through, but are not understood by his parents, causing further strain on his relationship with them.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is taught to believe that it is morally acceptable to own slaves. He is presented with many opportunities to turn in his friend Jim, who is a runaway slave, as they both travel down the Mississippi River. Along the way he is exposed to a number of characters who are supposedly superior to Jim, simply because they are white and he is black, and who are living in a "civilized" world even though they can be manipulative, vindictive, and murderous. He has to decide if he should do the "moral" thing and turn in his friend, or do what he feels in his gut and help Jim, despite the fact that he believes he will go to hell. In the end he decides that living in a "civilized" world is not for him if it means that he has to betray his friend in order to do so.
In all three novels the protagonists are influenced by societal beliefs. For example, when Jane Austen wrote Emma it was very important to consider a person's social status when choosing whom to marry. Emma believes that Mr. Martin, who is a farmer, is not good enough to marry her friend Miss Smith. "The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or another. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice, as in every other he is below it" (Austen, 1902, p. 28). Emma tries to manipulate Miss Smith into believing the same, as well as making Miss Smith believe that she would lose the friendship of Emma if she were to marry Mr. Martin. "Dear Harriet, I give myself joy of this. It would have grieved me to lose your acquaintance, which must have been the consequence of your marrying Mr. Martin" (Austen, 1902, p. 51). Emma allows the social beliefs of society in that time to influence her opinion of Mr. Martin as an improper match for Miss Smith. However, later when Miss Smith reveals that she has feelings for Mr. Knightly, Emma begins to realize the error of her thinking. "With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body's destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing-for she had done mischief" (Austen, 1902, p. 389).
In My Name is Asher Lev, Asher is influenced by the social normality of the Ladover community in which he is raised. In this community social status is also important, but it is determined by position rather than money. The Rebbe is the highest of positions, and what the Rebbe says goes. Even Asher's father willingly accepts the wishes of the Rebbe, despite the fact that he does not like it, when the Rebbe pairs Asher up as an apprentice to Jacob Kahn, a famous artist. "People knew of the Rebbe's decision. No one dared question it. For the Rebbe was the tzaddik and spoke as representative of the Master of the Universe. His seeing was not as the seeing of others; his acts were not as the acts of others. My father's right to shape my life had been taken from him by the same being who gave his own life meaning-the Rebbe. At the same time, no one knew how to react to the decision, for they could see my father's pain" (Potok, 2000, p. 197). Asher also agrees to learn French and Russian at the request of the Rebbe. His willingness to do as the Rebbe asks is one of the things that allows the reader to know that following the ways of his religion is still important to him. Asher begins to understand that following the demands of the Rebbe can be useful and productive. He learned how to become a great artist from Jacob Kahn at the request of the Rebbe, he finds the French and Russian that he learned on the request of the Rebbe to be helpful in reading about French and Russian art, and he also finally becomes aware of the great work that his father was able to accomplish in Europe by doing as the Rebbe asks. "How old is the Yeshiva? I asked him. 'Five years.' 'How many students do you have?' 'One hundred and eight.' 'How many students did you have five years ago?' 'Seventeen.' I looked at him. 'Your father did it. It was a creation out of nothing" (Potok, 2000, p. 315).
In Huckleberry Finn, Huck is raised to believe that it is socially and morally acceptable to own slaves. As he travels down the river with Jim he is tested by his conscience as to whether he should turn Jim in, or remain loyal to his friend. On the one hand, he feels like it would be a betrayal to Miss Watson, the owner of Jim, to not turn Jim in. "Conscience says to me 'What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?...' I got to feeling so mean and so miserable I most wished I was dead" (Twain, 1912, p. 123). On the other hand he feels like betraying Jim's trust would also be wrong, so he decides to go against what society says is "right" and do whatever he feels is the best thing to do at the time. "Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s'pose you'd 'a' done right and give Jim up, would you feel better than what you do now? No, says I, I'd feel bad-I'd feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what's the use you learning to do right when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn't answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn't bother no more about it, but after this always do whatever come handiest at the time" (Twain, 1912, p. 127). Huck feels remorse for letting Miss Watson's slave escape without taking action to turn him in because he has always been taught that slaves are less than human and it is morally acceptable for Jim to be owned by Miss Watson. However, Huck comes to realize that Jim is a good person who deserves his freedom, despite what society thinks, and that it would be even more wrong to turn Jim in.
The protagonists in these novels are also influenced by their travels, or lack thereof. In Emma, Emma is satisfied with staying put in her community, only traveling a couple of hours away from home at the most. When she travels it is to pay visits to her friends and the length of those visits say a lot in Emma's small world. Emma encourages Miss Smith to keep her visit to the Martin family to less than fifteen minutes in order to indicate to Mr. Martin that she has lost interest. "She meant to take her in the carriage, leave her at the Abbey-Mill, while she drove a little farther, and call for her again so soon as to allow no time for insidious applications or dangerous recurrences to the past, and give the most decided proof of what degree of intimacy was chosen for the future" (Austen, 1902, p. 173). These travels have an effect on how Emma views the world because she keeps herself contained in small community and never has any experiences outside of that community. In fact, when she and Mr. Knightly get engaged they decide that it is best for Mr. Knightly to move into Emma's home so that she does not have to leave her father or travel away from Highbury. In a sense Emma learns nothing from her lack of travels, continuing to stay put in her small community of friends, but had she traveled more she may not have married Mr. Knightly, for whom she feels the need to improve. "to grow more worthy of him, whose intentions and judgments had been ever so superior to her own . . . that the lessons of her past folly might teach her humility and circumspection in future" (Austen, 1902, p. 447).
In My Name is Asher Lev, Asher is very attached to his home in Brooklyn as a small child. So much so that he refuses to move to Vienna with his parents after his father is asked by the Rebbe to go there. "I don't want to go. I'm afraid to go. Something inside me says I shouldn't go" (Potok, 2000, p. 111). This refusal causes his parents a great deal of anguish, but they decide that it is best for Asher's father to go while Asher and his mother remain behind. Eventually, Asher's mother joins her husband, leaving Asher behind. Asher feels a bit of resentment toward his mother for leaving him, but he also experiences a new found freedom as he continues to excel in his art. As Asher becomes a young man he makes the choice to travel to Europe in order to see some great works of art first hand. His father is overjoyed at the idea of his son going because he is mistaken about the reason why Asher is going and he feels like there is finally something that the two of them have in common. While in Europe Asher finally begins to reflect on his younger life and the choices that he made. He begins to understand the pain that his choices caused his mother. "And I could understand her torment now; I could see her waiting endlessly with the fear that someone she loved would be brought to her dead. I could feel her anguish" (Potok, 2000, p. 325). It is because of this understanding that he creates two masterful pieces of art expressing his mother's anguish.
At the beginning of the story of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is staying with the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, who are trying to civilize him by educating him, clothing him, and teaching him the morally right things to do. When his abusive father takes him back he is allowed to live lazily and free. After he fakes his own death and meets up with Jim, the two of them travel up the river in the pursuit of Jim's freedom. Huck comes into contact with all sorts of characters on his journey that influence how he grows as a person. These supposedly civilized people show Huck that living as a "civilized" person does not always make sense. Some of them are con men, some of them are engaged in pointless, deadly feuds, and some of them own slaves. Through his travels Huck decides that living as a "civilized" person is not the "right" way to live. "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, 1912, p. 405).
Lastly, a theme that was present in all three novels was love and friendship. Despite the fact that Emma seems to be motivated by selfish reasons at times, it is clear that she really does love her friends and wants them to find love and happiness. However, sometimes Emma's tendency to think too highly of herself hurts her friends. Not only does she cause harm to Miss Smith by leading her away from a man that truly loves her, and pushing her toward a man that does not, she also makes a publicly rude and embarrassing comment to Miss Bates. At a public gathering the guests are all asked to tell one very interesting thing, two moderately interesting things, or three very dull things. Miss Bates jokingly makes a comment about how she will have no problem meeting the last requirement. Emma replies, "Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number-only three at once" (Austen, 1902, p. 349). Later, Mr. Knightly scolds her for her behavior towards her friend. This upsets Emma, and forces her to recognize her flaws, as well as leads her to realize her feelings of love for Mr. Knightly.
In My Name is Asher Lev, Asher is torn between his love for his parents and his love for his art. In the Ladover community art is considered to be of the devil. Asher loves his parents and wants to please them. He also loves his religion and does his best to follow the teachings. Even when he stays with Jacob Kahn for the summer he continues to keep kosher and wear the proper clothing despite the fact that his parents are not there to enforce the religious rules. However, he loves his art too much to give that up. When his father refers to Asher's art as "foolishness" he defends it to his father even though it is unheard of in the Ladover community to speak to ones parent in such a way. "Stop calling it foolishness; Foolishness is something that's stupid; Foolishness is something a person shouldn't do. Foolishness is something that brings harm to the world. Foolishness is a waste of time. Please don't ever call it foolishness any more, Papa" (Potok, 2000, p. 129). Asher love of his art makes him realize that he must remain true to his art over anything else, even his family, and his religion. He is aware that the painting in which he portrays his mother in a scene resembling the crucifixion of Christ is going to hurt his family and his Ladover community, but he decides that he still must display it. He learns that being a great painter will justify the pain that he causes to his loved ones. "But as a great painter I will cause pain again if I must. Then become a greater painter. But I will cause pain again. Then become a still greater painter" (Potok, 2000, p. 367).
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck learns that friendship is more important than doing the "right" thing. At first Huck sees Jim as little less than human because of what he has been taught by those who have taken part in raising him. He tries to trick Jim into thinking that he dreamed something that really happened. When Jim realizes that Huck has tricked him he is highly offended. Huck realizes that Jim is a human being who deserves to be treated with respect and feels deep remorse for what he has done to his friend. "It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn't ever sorry for it afterward, neither. I didn't do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn't done that one if I'd 'a' knowed it would make him feel that way" (Twain, 1912, p. 120). Huck also seriously considers turning Jim in until Jim expresses how thankful he is that Huck is a true friend to him. "Huck; you's de bes' fren' Jim's ever had; en you's de only fren' ole Jim's got now....Dah you goes, de ole true Huck; de on'y white genlman dat ever kep' his promise to ole Jim" (Twain, 1912, p. 124). Huck comes to realize that his friend is a truly good person who deserves his freedom and the freedom of his family.
In these three novels the protagonists start out very flawed, living in a flawed world. It is the readers that get to enjoy each ones journey on their roads to self discovery as they experience very different trials trough similar aspects, such as setting, theme, and social influences. The reader gets to experience the excitement of falling in love as Emma goes from being a know it all busy body to a mature young woman who learns that she should concern herself with her own feelings of love instead of with improperly matching her friends. The reader gets to applaud Huckleberry Finn for his realization that his own judgment of what is right and moral far outweighs what he has been taught by society. And the reader gets to question his/her own priorities as he/she journeys with Asher Lev on his discovery of what is really important to him. While these three protagonists are still very flawed at the ends of the novels, it is clear that they have grown, learned, and become better people.
Austen, J. (1902). Emma. Leipzig, Germany: Tauchnitz.
Potok, C. (2000). My Name is Asher Lev. New York, New York: A Division of Random House,
Twain, M. (1912). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York, New York; London,