The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
by Benjamin Franklin
Tools of Characterization
Education is more than an important theme in Franklin's text (although if you want to know more about that, check out our "Themes" section, but hurry back). Many of his characters present themselves to the world based on complicated class backgrounds, each of which is built in large part on education. As an example, let's think about Franklin and two of his friends, and how education plays out for each of them. Franklin and his friend Collins have really similar educational backgrounds. They're both raised in America and they both depend in large part on self-education (especially Franklin). We see first-hand how their dialogues and interactions compel Franklin to work hard on his ideas and become a stronger writer and thinker.
We also know, from reading the Autobiography, that this strategy serves Franklin extremely well later in life and that he constantly uses the skills he developed with Collins in business and politics. But while Collins has the same early educational opportunities that Franklin does, we don't see the same kind of hard work-induced transformation. Maybe he's not as committed as Franklin, maybe he doesn't work as hard, or maybe he doesn't continue trying to learn. He ends up a drunkard with debts in Barbados, while Franklin's a major player in international diplomacy. We can compare both of these men with Hugh Meredith, who's educated formally at Oxford, but ends up working at Keimer's right alongside Franklin, and doesn't have what it takes to make something of himself afterwards. Whether you work for your education or it comes easily, it gives you the tools to make something of yourself, but, as these men's stories show us, the tools alone aren't enough.
As Franklin himself might have said somewhere in Poor Richard's Almanac, actions speak louder than words. Indeed, for a book like the Autobiography, which is so focused on virtue and self-improvement, actions really do carry more weight than words.
Funnily enough, though, these actions, or the lack of them, which are also connected to virtue, often revolve around the treatment or exchange of money. People like Sir William Keith, John Collins, and James Ralph break their promises, claiming they'll do virtuous things and then not acting on them. It's the absence of honorable actions that defines them. In contrast, someone like Denham goes to great lengths – like crossing oceans – to make up for his debts. But we see Franklin work on thinking and acting virtuously, creating a list of principles to abide by, and then holding himself accountable to them, keeping a checklist of what he does and doesn't accomplish. And in the event where Franklin owes Vernon money, he worries and worries over it until he's able to repay the debt.
Even though this isn't a work of fiction, and so our author can't take credit for naming any of the characters (except his own children), it's funny how people's names still reveal clues about them. For example, it's a pretty amazing coincidence that Franklin, who loves books so much, would marry a girl whose last name is "Read." We mean, in a fictional work this would be way too obvious; we'd be complaining that, "the author's allegory is too blatant," or something. But unless Franklin is somehow drawn to Deborah precisely because of her last name and what that represents in some weird psychological kind of way, that's not what's happening here. Additionally, don't you find it interesting that the names of the two preachers, Samuel Hemphill and George Whitefield have natural words for grassy, open spaces in them ("hill" and "field")? This emphasizes yet another connection between the two.
Franklin also takes great care at the beginning of his book to explain where the root of his name comes from, along with where his ancestors came from and what they did. "Franklin" means "freeholder," which is someone who owns land, like the nobility, but is not him/herself noble. By tracing the meaning of his name, he pretty deliberately addresses the question of status and wealth early in his writing. Franklin may not be an aristocrat, he seems to be saying, but you shouldn't have to be an aristocrat to tell your story.