What makes the great American novel? Does capturing the unique essence of our cultureand era through powerful symbols qualify one for greatness? Or maybe our evolving culturedemands psychological journeys of self-discovery and perseverance, with an emphasis onmemorable characters. Sophisticated masterpieces of language could be the key, or the answercould be as simple as a “good yarn.” But in all likelihood, the quintessential American novelwould require a sprinkling of all of the above ingredients. The basic requirements are timeless,but the most prized ingredient rests in one simple concept: American. The designers of our flag,defined that small yet powerful word best, using no words at all: the red, proud blood ofbravery, the pure dove’s white of freedom, and the true blue of loyalty. Our most memorableAmerican authors have embodied these same values in their works, as demonstrated by threediverse novels: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Mark
Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
True loyalty is not reserved only for those we know and love, but from the brotherhoodof man. America, in its long journey toward true diversity, has long cherished this notion, intheory if not always in practice. Harper Lee’s famed novel To Kill a Mockingbird illustrates theconcept of loyalty through an ironic tale of ultimate prejudice. The novel is set in the deep Southof the 1930s, a ripe setting for exploration of social and racial injustices and their tragicconsequences. Young narrator Scout provides the purest personification of a mockingbird’sdelicate, hopeful innocence, and her simple objective reporting of people and events shines apowerful spotlight on Maycomb’s imbalanced scales of equality, from the caste-like economicsystem that oppresses characters such as the Ewells, to the passive “Southern belle” treatment ofwomen as evidenced by Scout’s neighbors, to the racially charged rape trial of Tom Robinson.
The attitude of the townspeople regarding the trial is clear from the beginning. When
Atticus is appointed to defend the young Negro, most of the town expects a half-hearted defense. But the lawyer has different ideas. He knows that Tom will most likely be convicted, already tried in the “secret courts of men’s hearts” (156). His only objective is the truth. Atticus bravely stands down the lynch mob for his client. He knows Tom’s only crime was daring to feel compassion for a lonely white woman; he sees the irony in the fact that even the dishonorable Ewells’ word is considered more valuable than a black man’s. Seeing such hateful events through the eyes of a child makes a more powerful impact on the reader (Tavernier-Courbin 118).
Lee also skillfully uses the character of Boo Radley as a parallel to Tom Robinson. Both can be seen as the “mockingbird,” persecuted simply for the fact that they are different (Johnson 12). Scout’s eventual acceptance of Radley allows her to later empathize with Robinson. Further, Lee’s Maycomb residents do not merely represent a small Southern town of the 1930s, but they demonstrate what American society as a whole was like then, and to a large extent, still is. Atticus is the voice of ideal justice (Tavernier-Courbin 120). He is the man willing to stand against all of the odds for change. While the events of To Kill a Mockingbird provide an
unflinching portrait of America’s dark side—and what we are capable of at our worst—the character of Atticus Finch reminds us of what we can be at our best: an embodiment of the American principle of loyalty.
The United States may speak to loyalty and unity, but the country began with revolution, and since that rebellious birth, the United States has earned a reputation for challenging convention and using the power of the individual will as its most potent fuel. Since the first shots of the Revolutionary War, many American writers have proven that Americans do not need battlefields or lofty heroics; they need only the power of their own imaginations to capture America’s next great principle, bravery. A once little-heralded feminist work, The Awakening, is one in a long line of trailblazers which have bravely revolutionized the American novel. Author Kate Chopin did not easily fit into any literary group of her time, such as the sentimentalists of the early nineteenth century who emphasized traditional female roles of caretaker and close friend to other females or the local colorists of the mid-nineteenth century who took pride in their role as “artists.” Rather, Chopin developed a style which departed from those conventions. Some of her methods of departure from tradition include the protagonist’s rejection of domesticity, the impressionistic rather than realistic style of the novel, and the novel’s revolutionary exploration of female sexuality and consciousness (Showalter 169-178). As a result, her novel was denied rightful placement in the literary canon of its era.
The primary protagonist Edna also shows bravery, through her own defiance in the face of the restrictive Victorian era. She begins the novel in the stereotypical and traditional woman’s role of the time—devoted wife and mother. Edna will not even defend herself against her husband’s frequent criticisms, preferring instead to cry into her pillow at night. She is only fitting into the mold of doting passivity that women like Adele have defined for her. The heroine is symbolically “caged” (just like the frequent birds of the novel) by the typical bored-housewife-and-mother role (Culley 112-123). With the pressure slowly building inside her, Edna seeks two controversial outlets: sex and art. Only after her romantic passions are awakened by Robert and her soul is awakened by the Madamemoiselle does Edna truly begin her journey of self-discovery. She moves herself away from the restrictions of her husband’s house, begins an affair with Alcee, and rediscovers her lost love affair with music. In essence, Edna becomes an independent woman—free from the customs and expectations of her patriarchal society. The formerly oppressed wife’s new outlook on life is emboldened in words as well as actions. When Robert questions the importance of her marriage, Edna responds with vigor: “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both” (186).
Despite the pessimistic outlook of the novel’s end, was Edna’s ‘suicide’ truly a finalexclamation on her quest for freedom and liberation? After all, what words describe Edna’smindset as she looks upon the agent of her death?…“But when she was there beside the sea,absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her,and the waves that invited her” (203). These images harken a peaceful, even defiant resolution.
Realizing that she can no longer be the proper wife and doting mother that is expected, perhapsEdna chooses to “give her life” rather than sacrifice herself to the altar of a lie. Is that cowardly?…maybe. Is that unfair to her children?…probably so. Is that selfish?….Undoubtably.
Is any of that the point?….or is Chopin trying to make her readers understand that in order to be true to anyone else, you first must be true to yourself (Portales 425-436). Her journey of self- discovery and demand to be seen as an individual—both bravely positive and sometimes selfishly negative—reflects not only the experiences of women, but America as a whole.
In the end, Edna craves one simple principle: freedom. And it is this last ideal, perhaps more than any other, which underlies America and America’s literature. One of the country’s most celebrated authors, Mark Twain, provides a most enduring example of freedom-themed literature in his popular Huckleberry Finn. At the novel’s basic structure, its language, Twain liberates his prose from traditional constraints. His characters vibrate on the page precisely because they are allowed their distinct voice. Twain’s heroes are no cookie cutters, and their dialect and word choices reflect their individualism, particularly in narrator Huck. Even when readers may find bits of dialogue or home-spun metaphors difficult to understand, they simultaneously are given a glimpse of unrestrained and unapologetic free thought, an American bedrock if one ever existed (Baetzhold 69-75). In this sense, readers experience the liberation that can be achieved in the storytelling process.
Twain carries this theme of freedom throughout the novel, anchoring it in a symbol which “runs” consistent throughout Huck’s story: the Mississippi River (Bridgman 97-98). Huck’s raft takes Jim and himself from one misadventure to another (an elaborate death hoax, an ill-advised run-in with a gang of robbers, a family feud shoot-out, a temporary partnership with a pair of “royal” scammers, and Jim’s eventual capture), but despite all the obstacles the river and the raft remain the duo’s one safe haven. “We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft” (79), Huck says, highlighting the affection he feels for the one place that never feels like a prison.
In a sense, the river symbolizes Huck’s coming-of-age and march toward maturity and independence, much like Huck himself represents the same path of self-discovery in a maturing American nation. At novel’s beginning, Huck abides by the restraints of his world even if he may not like them. He agrees to be “sivilized” so that he will not be outcast from Tom’s club, and he endures life with his father despite numerous beatings. The boy makes his first true bid for freedom when he fakes his death to escape his abusive father, and the reader witnesses Huck’s evolution as he comes to value freedom above all else. When faced with the choice of returning his friend Jim to a life of captivity, he makes the following decision regarding a letter revealing Jim’s whereabouts: “I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up” (229). In this crucial turning point of character development, Huck places the principle of freedom above a selfish desire for money or a value for society’s rules. And by novel’s end, he sets out to complete his own liberation in the form of a familiar American tradition, going west (Bridgman 123-124): “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 (304).” Huck wants only to become a free and independent individual, a quintessential American.
Novels, through text and subtext—symbol, character, and language alike—speak for our culture, and for all cultures around the world. One day, these tiny beacons of core values may just be our ancient relics, and our truest testimony to a future America in search of answers….in pursuit of its past and affirmation for its present.
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Bridgman, Richard. Traveling in Mark Twain, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Pocket Books, 2004.
Culley, Margaret, ed. The Awakening. Kate Chopin. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton,1976.
Johnson, Claudia. Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents. Westport: Greenwood Press: 1994.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Portales, Marco A. “The Characterization of Edna Pontellier and the Conclusion of Kate
Chopin’s The Awakening.” Southern Studies 20 (4): 425-436.
Showalter, Elaine. “Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book.” The
Awakening: A Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts,
Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Boston: St.
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Tavernier-Courbin, Jacqueline. “Humor and Humanity in To Kill a Mockingbird.” On Harper
Lee: Essays and Reflections. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Signet Classics, 2002.