The Growth of Protagonists in Three Novels with an Examination of the Role of Literary Elements

Several literary elements such as narration that form in novels normally play an important role in preparing a reader to see life beyond the character and the author’s perspective. In this case, forms of narration as literary elements are used to bring forth the growth and development of the protagonists. Huckleberry Finn was written by Marc Twain. In this novel, he narrates the life of Huck who is friends Tom. In this story, Huck sails away to another destination with Jim who is a runaway slave. The second book Emma by Jane Austen is about a woman named Emma Woodhouse whose life seems to be a combination of elements that symbolize a good life. Emma is 21 years old and lives a comfortable life and experiences very minimal life hurdles. The final novel is My Name is Asher Lev written by Chaim Potok. In this novel, the protagonist, Asher is straddled between his religion and the realm of artistic traditions. Huckleberry Finn illustrates how personal life decisions would change one’s life as Huck chooses to help runaway slave against the law. On the other hand, Emma enjoys a happy life while the story of Asher is about heavy religious matters against societal perceptions. The three novels present different roles of the leading characters as determined in the analysis of literary elements. This essay therefore, compares and contrasts how thematic analysis, conflict, and setting contribute to the growth of the protagonists. “A protagonist is the main character in a story, novel, drama, or other literary work, the character that the reader or audience empathizes with (Dayton, 1994).

A number of varying narrations play different roles in the growth of the protagonist in different novels. To insightfully understand this aspect of growth, a reader needs to follow the narration from childhood thoughts to mature observations. For instance, in Chaim Potok’s My Name is Usher Lev, “the young Usher introduced, in the beginning of the novel is completely different with the one who is at the end of the novel.” (Sternlicht, 2000).

Huck is unwanted person in the community and joins Tom’s gang against the wish of Miss Watson. His motive is catapulted by the fact that he is accused for murder and his father abused him. Once he escapes he meets Jim, who was a runaway slave on an island. The two commit theft as they escape and Huck admits this. Twain notes that, “Every night, I sneaked ashore to some little village to buy flour and bacon or other stuff to eat. Once, I stole a chicken” (Twain, 1962). Huck longs to be in a place free from interference, Jim’s mission is to escape slavery by residing in a slave free state where his freedom would be guaranteed. The novel is a chronological account of the journey of these two friends against the hurdles that they faced along Mississippi River. In Huckleberry Finn, the role of the narrator has taken another perspective. In this case, “the narration is majorly influenced by the colloquial speech of the protagonist and his growth is traced in the plot” (Twain, 1962). Huckleberry Finn’s life has been affected by several events and he handles each event differently as he develops mature thoughts throughout the novel.

The second novel; Emma, on the other hand is quite different from Huckleberry Finn. Emma, despite the loss of her mother before she was old enough to remember, was taken care of by a responsible step mother. She enjoyed a good life as Austen, quotes, “Sixteen years had Miss Taylor been in Mr. Woodhouse’s family, less as a governess than a friend, very fond of both daughters but particularly of Emma” (Austen, 2007). The novel is developed between the noble and well off families and the main theme being ladies looking for marriages. “Girls from noble families are desperately looking for rich men to marry; for instance, like Jane Fairfax and Harriet Smith” (Dayton, 1994). Harriet is in love with Mr. Knightley after Mr. Elton rejects her for belonging to a lower social class. Mr. Knightley is depicted to be in the stature of Emma. In the end of the story, Harriet is engaged to Mr. Martin while Emma is married to Mr. Knightley and they are considered the most happily married couple.

In the third novel, Asher Lev is a gifted boy. He is an artist who is able to draw and paint. On the other hand, the boy is a firm believer in Judaism and he possesses extraordinary spirit. Asher must balance his spiritual force and belief in Judaism so that his actions will not be a shame to his community. In this dilemma, Asher has to do something whether or not it will be pleasing to his people. “Although he has triumphed as an artist, Lev is heartbroken at the reception of his crucifixion paintings by his family and is returning to Europe, in exile from his parents, his community, his city, and his country,” (Sternlicht, 2000). In this situation Asher is blaming his hand for creation and destruction. This point can be justified when Potok, quotes Rebbe saying, “You have crossed a boundary. I cannot help you” (Potok, 2007). My Name is Asher Lev, the protagonist, Asher grows throughout the novel. “In the beginning he is a small child with budding artistic talent. Another significant feature which depicts Asher’s growth is when he decided to cut off his ear lock” (Potok, 2007). This shows that he embraces the strict world of his father and the Landover community.

The first literary element is theme, which can be defined as a message unified through the novel. In Huckleberry Finn, the theme identified is freedom. The growth of the main protagonist Huck can be seen through the difference in his relation to freedom at the beginning of the novel, and close to the end. At the beginning, Huck and Jim took the freedom for granted, “It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars… “(Twain, 1962). At the end, though, he acknowledges the meaning of freedom for Jim, when he states, “NOW, old Jim, you’re a free man again, and I bet you won’t ever be a slave no more” (Twain, 1962, p. 268). Thus, the theme of freedom can serve as an indicator of the growth of the character of Huckleberry Finn.

In Emma the theme can be seen in the relationship toward social statuses. Emma’s preferences for the marriage and relationships between men and women at the beginning of the novel were dictated by social status, differing drastically from the end, where she changed her mind. At the beginning, Emma thinks of Mr. Martin as an “inferior creature” (Austen, 2007, p. 25). At the end though, she “acknowledge in him all the appearance of sense and worth which could bid fairest for her little friend” (Austen, 2007, p. 417). Thus, the theme of the relationship towards social statuses indicates the growth of the character of Emma in Austen’s novel.

Finally, in My Name is Asher Lev as noted by Sternlicht, “The second major theme is the conflict between Orthodox Jewish values and secular artistic drive” (Sternlicht, 2000). The relationship of the protagonist – Lev, changes through the novel, which indicates the growth of his personality. As an example, Asher, love for art influenced changed his perception towards religion and his family, leaving just not to hurt them, and at the same time, devoting himself to his art, “Then be a great painter, Asher Lev; that will be the only justification for all the pain you will cause” (Potok, 1972). The theme of Asher’s relationship toward his inner conflict shows his growth as a character.

The second literary element to be discussed is the element of conflict. Conflict can be explained as a generalization of the main problem of the protagonist. In Huckleberry Finn, the conflict can be defined as a conflict between the man and the society. Such conflict at ht end of the novel shows that his conflict against the society at the beginning of the novel was caused by circumstances, while at the end he makes his own decision; “Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before” (Twain, 1962, p. 286). Huck’s conflict against the society matures in the novel, which indicates Huck’s growth as character.

In Emma, the conflict of the protagonist can be classified as man vs. self. Emma always attempts to involve rationality in making her choices, and fighting her true feelings. At the end she surrenders to those feelings, as admitting that she had changed, stating, “for at the time I was a fool”. “She could now look forward to giving him that full and perfect confidence which her disposition was most ready to welcome as a duty” (Austen, 2007, p. 411). It can be seen that changes in Emma’s conflict throughout the novel helped acknowledging her growth and development as a personality.

Similarly, in My Name is Asher Lev, the conflict can be also described as man vs. self. Although such conflict does not change at the end of the novel, where Lev still had this conflict;

Asher Lev, Hasid. Asher Lev, painter. I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy… The demonic and divine were two aspects of the same force” (Potok, 1972).

Nevertheless, the maturity of the character can be seen in at least having the power to make a decision of choosing one side, which is art. Thus, the themes of conflict also helped showing the growth of the protagonist in My Name is Asher Lev.

The third and the final literary element is the setting of the stories. The setting refers to the world created by the author, including the time, the place, the customs and traditions, etc. An important element of the setting is the time of slavery in the United States. Huck’s attitude toward slavery as an element of the setting shows his growth as a character for all the troubles he went through to save Jim. “We DID set him free – me and Tom. We laid out to do it, and we DONE it… it cost us a power of work –weeks of it – hours and hours, every night, whilst you was all asleep” (Twain, 1962, p. 280). Thus, it can be stated that he setting of slavery shows the growth of Huck as a character in his efforts to save Jim.

In Emma, the setting is 18th century town, which acknowledges class distinctions between people. Such setting provides an opportunity to show the growth the character of Emma, a woman who classified others based on class, “best families Emma could hardly suppose they would presume to invite – neither Donwell, nor Hartfield, nor Randalls” (Austen, 2007, p. 176). She changes, however, at the end of the novel, which leads to the conclusion that a different setting would not indicate her growth as a character in such way.

Finally, the setting in My Name is Asher Lev is a religious Jewish community. Such setting allows showing the difficulty of holding on one’s talent and passion, in setting hostile to art. Remaining an artist nevertheless, shows the way Lev’s character grew in the novel, and the significance of his sacrifice, when the Rebbe stated that has “crossed a boundary” (Potok, 1972, p. 371). Thus, it can be concluded that such setting allowed showing how Lev grew into one who is capable of making his choices.

The three novels addressed a number of literary themes and issues in the society, but one glaring literary feature which put them together is the role of narration in depicting growth and development of protagonists. In My Name is Asher Lev the narration progresses from childhood to manhood with maturity in the language use, which essentially depicts growth and development. In Huckleberry Finn, the narration is constant while the protagonist who is a child changes with the events. In Emma, the protagonist growth is depicted by the authors’ thoughts, decision and reaction to events.

In conclusion, it can be noted that the three novels provided the audience with grounds of drawing similarities and differences in the development of the protagonists in the novels. Additionally, the literary elements have played an important role in building the protagonists in different ways. Therefore, it can be stated that the literary elements are formidable grounds of analyzing growth and roles played by leading characters in novels.


Austen, J. (2007). Emma. Oxford: Richard Bentley.

Dayton, T. (1994).The drama within: psychodrama and experiential therapy. New York: HCI.

Potok, C. (1972). My name is Asher Lev (1st ed.). New York,: Knopf; distributed by Random House.

Twain, M. (1962). Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (2nd ed.). New York,: Plain Label Books.

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