In Search of an Exit


Running head: IN SEARCH OF AN EXIT

Three Characters in Search of an Exit Stephen Schoupp Western Governors University

In Search of an Exit Three Characters in Search of an Exit


Growing up in any era is a difficult task, especially when trying to comprehend vernal existence from the sometime absurdity of life. Many an author has tried limning this coming of age from puerility through adulthood by the use of literary elements such as protagonist analysis, setting, and conflict. In doing so, the authors convey the ontogenesis of their main character within the context of their environment. Three of the more interesting novels of this genre are Emma by Jane Austen, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Emma tells the story of a haughty young woman with a bad Jim Lange complex whom, despite herself, travels a bumpy, but padded road into adulthood. The Adventures of Huck Finn regales the reader with the excursions of its protagonist, Huck Finn, a young lad who leaves his abusive father in search of freedom and adventure rafting along the Mississippi River. My Name is Asher Lev is the tale of a young boy torn between the secular world, with his passion and talent for art, and his life as a Ladover Hasidic Jew, with its strict tenets and its highminded piety. By the using the literary techniques of conflict, setting, and protagonist analysis, the respective authors are able to take their readers on a trip with such dissimilar protagonists as they reveal themselves on maturities itinerary and, along the way, begin to attain self awareness by expanding their ken. Jane Austin’s Emma is set in 18th century England at a time when exigent lines were drawn not only between social classes, but also between the sexes. With this rigid partition between men and women, Emma Woodhouse, the teenage daughter of an aristocratic

family, is expected to stay docilely in the home until she finds a suitable husband. However, imbibed with In Search of an Exit 3

a haughty spirit by her father, Emma believes her sentiments and judgments superior to all others and decides to take up the art of matchmaking. Through much artless stumbling and bumbling, Emma blindly plays the part of a marriage broker and tries to pair her friends with whom she feels is the right match without regard to social rankings. In the end, as her contrived matrimonial jointures fall apart and her foils return to their hereditary stratum, Emma’s personage is saved only by her fulgent charm and the benevolent and noetic George Knightley, her family’s longtime advisor and the man she eventually marries. Emma’s path to adulthood is a somewhat afflicted series of misguided ebullience resulting in misunderstandings and misadventures punctuated by her emergence as a felicitous young woman. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the story of a twelve year old boy, Huckleberry Finn, in the fictional mid-19th century town of St. Petersburg, Missouri situated along the Mississippi River. Huck’s mother is dead and his father, an abusive alcoholic, has deserted him. He is adopted by the Widow Douglas, who tries to cultivate within Huck city norms of which he has no interest. To escape what he feels is a sedate and somber life, Huck runs away, but his friend, Tom Sawyer, cajoles him to return. Tom and Huck had earlier found an unclaimed small fortune which was invested for them by a local judge. Regrettably for Huck, his father hears of this find and inauspiciously returns to stake his claim to Huck’s money by kidnapping the boy and holding him until he agrees to hand

over the money. Huck, weary from the constant beatings and captivity, escapes, and fearing his father’s retaliation, fakes his own death. Fleeing in a canoe to a small island in the Mississippi River, Huck finds the Miss Watson’s slave Jim hiding on the isle after hearing rumors that he was to be sold. A few days In Search of an Exit 4

pass as the two become friends when Huck decides to disguise himself as a girl and go back to St. Petersburg to ascertain what is being alleged about his disappearance. To his chagrin, the town believes the runaway slave has murdered him since his supposed death coincided with Jim’s disappearance. Huck hastens back to the island and the pair board a raft and head for New Orleans. Along the way, Huck and Jim cement their friendship amidst several life saving mishaps only to see Jim sold back into slavery by two con men. Huck, in order to free Jim, goes to the Phelps’s Farm, where Jim is held in slavery, only to find out that Mrs. Phelps is Tom Sawyer’s aunt. Expecting a visit from Tom, Mrs. Phelps mistakes Huck for the young Sawyer and welcomes him into her home. When Tom arrives, Huck relates to him the taradiddle and the two harbors an elaborate plot to free Jim, despite having the means to free him easily. During the escape, Tom is wounded by the local militia and nursed back to health by Jim. When the trio is found hiding on an island, the local militia enchains Jim upon which the mended Tom finally admits that Jim is officially a free man since Miss Watson had died and decreed it in her will. Tom’s Aunt Polly arrives to confirm the boys’ identities and the tenet of the will. The boys return to St. Petersburg, but when Huck finds out that Tom’s Aunt Sally wishes to adopt him and civilize him, he runs away again,

heading west for freedom and adventure. My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok, is the seminal work about a young Jewish Brooklyn child, whom is caught between his passion for the art of the secular world and his calling as a Ladover Hasidic Jew. Asher’s father, Aryeh Lev, is a highly intelligent man who works for the community Rebbe by helping to preserve the Ladover Hasidic culture and traveling to other In Search of an Exit 5

countries to aid Jews that were being persecuted. Although he respects his father and his work, Asher detests the fact that Aryeh’s work takes him away most of the time. His mother, Rivkeh Lev, plays at being the typical Jewish housewife, but yearns to nurture her academic proclivities and complete her dead brother’s duties as an advisor to the Rebbe. For Asher, his mother’s yearning makes her seem as far away as his father. To escape this lonely gloom, Asher delves into his passion, art. This avenue of creativity allows Asher to evince his inmost feelings, but his passion begins to consume his thoughts. As his schoolwork suffers, conflict begins to arise between Asher and his pietistic parents. Initially they allow Asher to indulge in his art in the hopes his interest will pass, but, belying their fears, it becomes his cacoethes. When his father’s work calls him to Vienna, Asher refuses to move, so he and his mother remain in Brooklyn, but when she moves to be with her husband, Asher stays behind and moves in with his uncle. The local Rebbe, understanding Asher’s dilemma, then arranges for him to study with the prominent local artist, Jacob Kahn. Under Kahn’s tutelage, Asher begins to experience some success with his art work, but it is a dual edged sword. He is torn between his passion for art and an

offspring’s need to please his parents and the religious dogma that is his tradition. His torment is only remediated by art and all its facets. When his parents move back to the United States, Asher moves in with them. At his next art showing, his parents are alarmed by his use of nudes. Life at home then becomes untenable, so Asher plans a trip to Europe to study art. While there, Asher begins to understand the pain and suffering his mother has gone through with the death of her brother and subjugating her life to the rigidity of the Ladover Hasidic world. He conveys this excruciation in his art which is shown In Search of an Exit 6

upon his return to the states, but it only further dissevers him from his parent world. The local Rebbe, sensing the growing tumult within the Ladover community, asks Asher to make his departure, upon which Asher moves to Paris. One means an author utilizes in the evolution of their protagonist is through character development as their story unfolds. Each author depicts his protagonist within the context of their environment and delineates their growth into adulthood as they expand their ken and, hence, their own self awareness. In Emma, Austin describes her protagonist Emma as someone only she would like and, throughout the novel, the reader is never sure if Emma could be a friend or not. From the start, Emma is seen as an exceptional young lady full of life, possessed of a keen intellect. genuinely good-hearted in truly wanting the best for her friends, but also spoiled by her high social standing and her doting father: “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 of herself…" (Austen, 2003, p. 7).

In the beginning of his novel, Potok depicts Asher Lev as a self-centered young boy Comfortable only with what they know (or think they know) and resistant to change, Asher, like Emma, seeks to challenge the world and rebel against the bonds of his social setting through his passion for creativity: for Emma it was matchmaking and Asher in the arts: “My father never mentioned it at all. To him it had been another of the slowly disappearing ills of my childhood,….” (Potok, 1972, p. 52). Similarly, Mark Twain’s protagonist, Huck Finn is presented as a free spirit, comfortable only within his own carapace, albeit for different reasons than Emma and Asher. Huck’s upbringing In Search of an Exit 7

has been less structured and without familial attention and, therefore, he is prone to resist any changes to place the constrictions of civilization upon his modus Vivendi: "The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. “ (Twain, 1988,p. 441) All three feel they are being cheated by the rigid norms of their particular social order. The three protagonists lack a strong familial presence in their lives to one degree or another and each author portrays this devoid in their character development. Emma and Huck’s mothers are dead and their fathers lack strong parental dimensions seeing their child as an ends to a means. For Emma’s invalid father, she is an emotional crutch whose presence protects him from solitude:

"That is the case with us all, Papa. One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other" (Austen, 2003, p. 79), while Huck’s father disability is self-induced through alcohol and his abusiveness nature, viewing Huck as an expedient crutch only after he comes into some money: "So he locked me in and took the skiff, and started off towing the raft about half-past three. I judged he wouldn't come back that night. I waited till I reckoned he had got a good start; then I out with my saw, and went to work on that log again. Before he was t'other side of the river I was out of the hole; him and his raft was just a speck on the water away off yonder" (Twain, 1988, p. 463). In Search of an Exit 8

Of the three protagonists, only Asher grows up with both a father and mother in the house. His father, Aryeh, is an intellectual aide to the local Rebbe and is consumed by his work and his self-sacrificing passion for his people. Consequently, Aryeh is somewhat detached from Asher’s life other than the usual mundane tasks of childhood--school, chores, and behaving properly. He is uninterested in Asher’s passion for art and life, only insofar as to direct Asher back into the strict line of the Ladover Hasidic religious community: "That's an evil will. You must fight that will." (Potok, 1972, p. 176). Although Asher’s mother is alive, her presence and desires are muted by her brother’s death and, therefore, she is unable to exhort Asher’s hopes of rectifying his dreams of being an artist with his father’s wishes of Asher following in his footsteps. Consequently, the three protagonists have no essential or substantive familial role model in their lives from

which to draw moral and ethical sustenance, but are left to their own devices in their travels along the road to adulthood. A second literary element prevalent in these three novels aiding in the protagonists journey into maturity is the setting in which their stories unfold. The setting is vital to understanding the environment in which each protagonist lives from the moral and ethical norms of the times and the socio-economic influences upon their standings. Emma, Huck, and Asher grow up under very different circumstances, cultures, and socio-economic strata, but all struggle with their inherited status and battle the conventional norms of their cultures. How they view their place in society, react to the expectations of their parents and mentors, and grow as individuals toward self awareness and self-fulfillment are critical to the evolution of their life stories.

In Search of an Exit


Austin’s novel takes place in the English village of Highbury at a time known as Regency England. It is a time of distinct social classes based on breeding, bearing, and old money with scant social mobility and patriarchal households in which women were seen as marriage fodder to expand a family’s socio-economic status. Hence, Emma is born into this stringent world of rules and mores on women to which she readily coheres and accepts her aristocratic standing. With her mother’s passing, Emma has assumed the head of household mantel and does not seek a genteel marriage, much to her father delight and subtle urging. But when her female mentor, the governess Miss Taylor (Weston), marries and leaves, Emma, true to her aristocratic bearing and finding no one in the village to be her equal,

merely seeks to supplant her companionship with the commoner Harriet: "Emma had very early foreseen now how useful she might find her. In that respect Mrs. Weston's loss had been important." (Austen, 2003, p. 13). With societal restrictions leaving little for Emma to do, she turns to matchmaking for the awestricken villagers without regard to their feelings with disastrous results. Through these mistakes, Emma begins to gain some insight into her own feelings and those of others and comes to grips with pragmatism. Twain places his protagonist, Huck Finn, in the 1840’s town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, a slave state prior to the Civil War. Growing up along the Missouri River breeds an adventurous spirit in the young Huck. Having lived by his own means due to little familial support, Huck has learned to survive by his wits and finds civilization of little use. Hence, his mind is uncluttered with the rules and regulations of a modern society and he is free to forge his own path. When In Search of an Exit 10

coming face to face with urbanity upon his adoption by the Widow Douglas, Huck conforms to her domesticating efforts at first, but soon yearns for the freedom and adventure of being on his own: "It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened…" (Twain, 1988, p. 526). But freedom has its costs and Huck finds himself time and again in circumstances where he faces moral dilemmas over the precepts of his time. As Huck becomes friends with the

runaway slave Jim, he begins to recognize and accept the humanity of the Negro race, which runs contrary to the norm of 1840’s America. Further adventures along the Mississippi River, attune Huck to some of the follies of civilization such as mob rule and blinding following a belief or notion without reason, but he also sees benevolence in the form of the Phelps and Aunt Polly. Consequently, the Mississippi River becomes an important symbol for Huck as a source of freedom and adventure, which washes away his preconceived ideas and mores impelling Huck to look inward to discover his own identity as well as recognizing the humanity of Jim. Potok’s protagonist, Asher Lev, is born to the parents of a Ladover Hasidic Jewish community shortly after the Second World War. His parents are well established within the community as his father is an aid to the Rebbe (religious leader) and his mother is an educated caring parent. But as an aide, his father is constantly over in Europe assaying to help persecuted Jews and this greatly affects young Asher who, although proud of his magnanimous father, languishes for his attention and approval. Of the three protagonists, Asher’s setting offers the In Search of an Exit 11

most contrast between the austere Ladover Hasidic community and young Asher’s propensity for the arts, which is seen by his father and the community as Satan’s work. Initially, his mother is torn between her love and encouragement for her son’s ambitions pitted against her devotion to her husband and Jewish faith. As Asher’s art becomes more defined and emotional representative, she is unable to reconcile her dichotomy leaving her son even more isolated and frustrated. To escape his suffering and isolation, Asher delves

deeper into his creatitivity which only serves to further alienate his unwarranted relationship with his parents as well as with the entire Ladover Hasidic community. When his parents move to Europe and with the help of the Rebbe, Asher is able to stay in America and takes up residence and study with a local artist. This change in environs boosts Asher’s passion for art freeing him from the repressive denizens of the religious community of his birth. Here, Asher is able to release his pent up emotions and impressions not only through his art, but also from his psyche. He stretches his wings for the first time without getting clipped and moves to Paris to be unburdened by his past: “Away from my world, alone in an apartment that offered me neither memories nor roots, I began to find old and distant memories of my own, long buried pain and time and slowly brought to the surface now by the sight of a waiting white canvas….” (Potok, 1972, p. 332). As he expresses his deep seated pernicious memories, Asher is able to expound and nurture his development into maturity by attempting to come to terms with his religion, life, and his inner being. A third literary element found in these three novels is conflict. For the three protagonists in question, their conflict arises not only between themselves and their environment, but also as an

In Search of an Exit


inner struggle as they move from childhood into adulthood. These conflicts become the impetus behind their stories which, in turn, energizes the plots of each novel. Their growth

into maturity is crafted by their experiences facing these conflicts and learning from their adjudications. Austin places the main conflict in her novel, Emma, between her protagonist and her breeding during the Regency of England. Living in a society with a very rigid class system where women are used as marriage fodder for patriarchal domiciles as avenues to more wealth, power, and influence, Emma’s opportunities are trussed to an inviolable marriage. Fueled by her invalid father’s dependence upon her and the imperious attitude he has fostered within her, she has no desire to be married and leave her home. Hence, with her lordly attitude and having no other outlet for her youthful yearnings, Emma turns to matchmaking. Her jaunty posturing and noblesse upbringing contravenes the feelings and reason of the people she tries to enjoin, since her social standings give her the airs of always being veracious. As she begins to notice her marriage intermediations never seem to blossom, Emma begins to question her own emotions and imposing intuition. A chance dinner party gives her the opportunity to comport with those she believes beneath her socially opening her eyes to her own haughty demeanor. And, as her marriage brokering begins to fail, Emma realizes she has been obtuse to the emotional needs of those she purported to help, but also blind to her own needs and desires. In the end, Emma is able to come to terms with her upbringing: “….at the time I was a fool. …..And I am changed now also….“ (Austin, 2003, p. 444), and the reality of the world around her.

In Search of an Exit


For Twain‘s protagonist Huck, the main conflict was between his own moral instincts and those imposed on him by civilization. Constantly facing moral dilemmas, Huck’s inner being was unremittingly faced with the choice of following the norms set by society or going with his own intuitive feeling and emotions and facing the wrath of the law. Feeling constrained and bounded by the rules and regulations of society, Huck longs to be free to educate himself as to the world as it is and not how it is portrayed in books. After he escapes his father and takes off with the runaway slave Jim rafting down the Mississippi River, Huck begins to learn the true meaning of life. Through his friendship with Jim, Huck learns the difference between being free and freedom, the dignity of a human being, and the value of true friendship which all run afoul of what society tried to teach him. In the end, Huck chooses to follow his own sense of morality through his own experiences rather than blindly accepting societies view: “You can’t pray a lie-I found that one.” (Twain, 1988, p. 592). For Potok ‘s character, Asher Lev, the main conflict is between the ascetic religious community to which he is born and his creative passion. With his parents holding a high berth within the Ladover Hasidic community, Asher is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps as a religious aide to the local Rebbe, but his unassailable affection for painting compels him to rebel against the exacting religious demands of his community. As his passion arrogates his life, Asher, the child is unable to understand this driving force, but feels obligated to follow it much to the consternation of his family and community. It is only when Asher is old enough to leave his family and community, thus escaping the shackles of religious dogma, where is able to

In Search of an Exit


explore the purlieu world that he begins to comprehend his own cacoethes for art. While studying with Mr. Kahn and when living in Paris, Asher expands his horizons and finds some equipoise between his past and present. Although Asher’s journey has brought about a level of maturity and self-awareness in himself and for his passions, he still is unable to rectify his art with his parents and community. Several paintings depicting his mothers anguish over her brother’s death horrifies his parents and their community compelling the Rebbe to banish Asher from the Ladover Hasidic community. Asher is once again forced to look at his calling that has such a grasp on him: “I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy. Power to bring pleasure and pain. Power to amuse and horrify. …. Art was demonic and divine. ….I was demonic and divine.” (Potok, 1972, p. 367) Despite her early haughtiness and the ensuing calamities, Emma learns from her mistakes and finds the happiness she is lacking by overcoming her early self-importance through the discovery of her own strengths and limitations along with the follies and sapience of human nature. The egression of Mark Twain’s protagonist, Huck Finn, follows a different path than Austin’s Emma in surmounting many of the same obstacles. Whereas Emma accepts the mores and rules Regency England’s society places on her, Huck rebels against the conventions of 1840’s America, preferring to find his own values through his experiences and adventures. Asher, like Huck, arises from his restrictive surroundings in search of the meaning of his passion and the world outside the religious community of his

birth. Although the path to maturity is rocky and In Search of an Exit 15

ridden with conflict, each protagonist becomes aware of their inner feelings and emotions and is able to attain a level of self awareness allowing them to view the world around them in a new and wondrous way. Marred by society's mark on them and their own individual character flaws, each protagonist must come to an understanding of themselves and the world around them in order to create a world in which they can live and finally be at peace. All three protagonist are searching for an exit to a finite world they find confining in search of the own self-worth and self-awareness. Through the use of literary elements such as character analysis, setting, and conflict, each author is able to connect their protagonist to their search for an exit through an elaborate plot and, thus, create a rich and rewarding tale.

In Search of an Exit



Austin, J. (2003). Emma (F. Stafford, Ed.). Oxford: Penguin Classics. Potok, P. (1972). My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Twain, M. (1988). The Family Mark Twain (O. Wister, Ed.) New York: Dorset Press.

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