In prose, characters will often stand at the crux of the piece, and everything the reader knows about them will be gained from the descriptions the author provides. Their actions, mannerisms, speeches; all are pieces that make up the finished product – a complete character that can be manipulated by the author to shape the narrative. These creations may seem simple, fundamental elements of literature, but through close analysis of them – with particular attention paid to formal and thematic issues – we can often understand many completely new levels of thinking in relation to the text.
Of all the aspects that make up a person, status is perhaps one of the most confusing and indefinable. It is something intangible, elusive; often existing only in the minds of other characters. ‘Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see’ begins the passage of Huckleberry Finn, illustrating the subjective difficulties when dealing with status. Huck’s command to us of ‘You see’ sees him telling us to see Grangerford in the same way as he does, to treat him with the same level of respect. This is backed up by the rather unnatural appendage of ‘Col.’ to his name. Grangerford is elevated above other characters who are referred to singularly by their name – he is afforded this additional instant tag of status. By the very nature of Huck’s colloquial narration, the image we are given of Grangerford is a biased one, coloured by Huck’s thoughts. So when he is introduced to us as ‘Col. Grangerford’, this is directly how Huck imagines him – the status and rank is just as integral part to the man as his name itself.
This concept of someone’s status becoming an integral part of them as a character is continued in the next sentence when Huck describes Grangerford as being ‘a gentleman all over; and so was his family’. There is the sense that describing him as a just ‘a gentleman’ isn’t enough, that it doesn’t do justice to his status. Instead, the sense of him being a gentleman manifests itself in every aspect of his life, even his family. Here, it becomes an all encompassing trait; and this is before the rest of him has even been described. Thus, the reader is presented with the rather unusual situation in which we have been told repeatedly that Grangerford is a gentleman, but not why, or how. Huck’s selected release of information forces us to think similarly to him, and so we are made to approach the characters with a mindset like his own.
In his description of Captain Ahab, Melville uses a number of different techniques to set him up as a man of status. Whereas Twain uses a formal rank to introduce Grangerford and set him apart from other men, Melville sets Ahab apart by his very unnaturalness. There was ‘no sign of common bodily illness about him’, establishing Ahab as uncommon, unusual, somehow beyond the normal mortal man. He too is labelled, but in a very different way to Grangerford. Ishamel’s description of the man focuses primarily on a ‘rod-like mark’ Ahab bears on his skin. The mark is made even more unusual by the techniques of metaphor and analogy Melville uses to describe its appearance. He compares Ahab to the ‘lofty trunk of a great tree’, again highlighting his status with the word ‘lofty’; he is above others, a man of ‘greatness’.
The image presented is of lightning striking, ‘leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded’. The links between this image and Ahab himself are obvious -the language employed emphasises Ahab’s vigour and energy, as well as the natural feel of his lifestyle here amidst the ocean and sea-life. And if Ahab is the tree, then the lightning can be seen as Moby Dick himself; a powerful force of nature in his own right. Moby Dick irreversibly damaged Ahab, like the lightning did to the tree – they remain living but branded by the incident; Ahab’s artificial leg is evident for all to see. It gives an almost mythic quality to the man; the reference to lightning, an immaterial force created in the heavens, could be seen almost as the touch of God – a touch that Ahab has received. The passage continues to describe the ‘elemental strife’ of Ahab’s life at sea, again elevating his life beyond that of normal mortal men. His life is defined by danger and action, a constant battle with nature and forces beyond the comprehension of others.
The idea of a character being made up from their actions and behaviour is something explored in the Huckleberry Finn extract too; in particular, repeated behaviour. The description of Grangerford continuously highlights how he ‘was clean-shaved every morning’, put on a clean shirt ‘every day of his life’ and how ‘he warn’t ever loud’. All these elements create the impression of a very rigid, structured man; his behaviour can be counted on to be exactly the same every single day. All these various elements combine to help make up Grangerford’s character. Indeed, it is the very monotony of his life that has left its impression on Huck. When he describes Grangerford to us, it is a subjective view of him – Huck only relates certain aspects to us. There may be certain elements to Grangerford’s character he leaves out, but as readers, we can only base our opinion of Grangerford on what the text provides us.
As first person narratives, this is an important aspect to consider in both Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick. Huck’s language in particular draws attention to this – his description of Grangerford is centred around the concept of personal opinions. When talking about Widow Douglas, he says how ‘nobody ever denied’ her claims to aristocracy. As Huck continues to talk about Grangerford’s appearance, he employs the phrase ‘as you may say’. In both instances, the reader’s attention is drawn to personal subjectivity. These characters are seen in certain ways, but these ways of ‘seeing’ them are down to the beholder – ‘as you may say’ suggest to the reader a certain way of seeing Grangerford but it is important to remember it is not fact, only Huck’s personal view of him. The passage also draws attention to the dangers of personal subjectivity – the fact that ‘nobody ever denied’ Widow Douglas’s position highlights how when personal opinion becomes common opinion, it is treated more like fact. This links into some of the social and cultural ideas dealt with at large in the rest of Huckleberry Finn, and while this passage only explores the more benign aspects of social norms, it highlights how a certain view can become the accepted standard, and how it then becomes very hard to change back out from that way of life. Indeed, Grangerford’s monotonous and predictable lifestyle is a physical reminder of this aspect of human nature.
In Moby Dick the theme of group opinions manifests itself in a far more mysterious way. Here, the opinions of the other sailors about Ahab come through in superstition and analogy. Ishmael’s narration talks of ‘old sea-traditions’ and we are given the sense of an intensely concentrated society amidst the confines of the boat where individuals are ‘popularly invested’ with the opinions of their peers. Thus, they are not so much a creation of their own actions, but of their beliefs of others. In this way, the analogy of Ahab’s death is not so much a hypothetical scenario, but an almost mythical event that comes to define Ahab even though the events described have not happened.
In addition, when Melville writes that Ahab’s death ‘might hardly come to pass’, we as readers have become invested with the superstitious society of the sailors and the statement becomes almost prophetic, foreshadowing Ahab’s actual death at the end of the book. In this way, the world of fiction created through Melville’s writing becomes something constantly fluid and mutable; characters, opinions and beliefs all flowing together into one overall sensation or feeling that helps to place us, as readers, within the text. This is a world of rumours and gossip, as highlighted when Ishmael says ‘no one could certainly say’ where Ahab got the strange mark from. Information regarding characters is created through mere hear-say, again adding to the mythic quality of Ahab.
The status of characters is explored further in the Huckleberry Finn extract when Grangerford is described as ‘well born’. In this respect, he is potentially very similar to Ahab in Moby Dick – Ahab’s brand is said to be potentially a birth-mark, ‘born with him’. In both cases the theme is an idea of something being imprinted on someone from birth, but having a lasting effect on their status throughout their life – and by association, how other people treat them. This birthright of status is said to be ‘worth as much in a man as it is in a horse’, establishing a contrast between humans and animals that is continued later in the extract when Huck compares ‘pap’ to a ‘mud-cat’. This image of a ‘muddy’ creature has obvious lowly connotations and furthers the theme that a person belonging to a higher class sets them apart as somehow being a person of better ‘quality’; naturally above other people.
In terms of the most detailed levels of description applied to Grangerford and Ahab, there are the precise physical details of their appearances. In both instances, the men are described in largely negative terms. With Grangerford, he is said to be ‘thin’ four times, the repetition reinforcing a specific image of him that Twain is keen to convey to us. Indeed, it is important to note that the majority of this description is focused on the man’s face – his eyes are picked out as ‘deep’, ‘black’ and like ‘caverns’. Individually, these words might seem innocent enough, but placed together in rapid succession – like the repetition of ‘thin’ – the impression created is a negative one. This passage of Huckleberry Finn highlights how a great deal of how we see a person and their personality can be created by their physical appearance and connotations we draw from that.
This sense of categorizing people by their appearance is displayed in Moby Dick too where Ishmael also focuses on a character’s face to describe them. We hear of Ahab’s ‘tawny scorched face’, importantly introduced before we are even introduced to the full nature of the brand on Ahab’s body. As the focal point of a person, the face is the aspect of them we notice first. Interestingly, there is one aspect that both Grangerford and Ahab bear in common, that of whiteness. In Grangerford’s case it is his linen suit, ‘so white it hurt your eyes’ – in Ahab’s case it the ‘lividly white’ brand itself. In both instances, like the rest of their physical features, it is given negative overtones; going against traditional ideas of whiteness as something reflecting purity, innocence and goodness.
In this way, both Grangerford in Huckleberry Finn and Ahab in Moby Dick show how the characterisation of a person can become such a key part of literature. While Twain’s Grangerford has status, it is of a far more immaterial quality, whereas Ahab is a man defined by the physical. Equally though, the two men bear many aspects in common, particularly in the techniques used to illustrate their physical appearances. This draws attention to the importance of signs – every aspect of a character’s description is a sign; something the reader can pick up on. This is how we gain an impression of someone; of what they are like, how they behave. In both Twain and Melville’s works, all that we know of their characters is gleaned from what we are told, and what we can comprehend from the various symbols and signs that are associated with their persona. For us, their lives become almost real before our eyes, a deep well of meaning and association that serve to prompt our thoughts into even further analysis of these characters.
Bryant, John, Moby-Dick as Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Delbanco, Andrew, Melville, His World and Work (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)
Doyno, Victor, Writing Huck Finn: Mark Twain’s creative process (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991)
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher, Lighting out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)
Hutchinson, Stuart, Mark Twain: Critical Assessments (London: Routledge, 1993)
Melville, Herman, Moby Dick (London: Penguin Classics, 2007)
Olson, Charles, Call Me Ishamel (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997)
Twain, Mark, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (London: Penguin Classics, 2007)