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Analysis

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Plot Analysis

Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.

Initial Situation

As a kid, Franklin's apprenticed to his brother, but he hates working there and runs away to Philadelphia.

Like any good fairy tale hero, Franklin's stuck in a bad family situation and wants to strike out on his own. Once he escapes this family dynamic, he can get out into the great wide world and start having adventures.

Conflict

Franklin tries to build his business, while knocking down the competition, dealing with government agents, and trying to be virtuous.

This guy's got a lot of energy, and if you're going to dabble in as many things as he is, you're bound to run into a little trouble. People are always telling him they've got money when they don't, which makes it tough to keep his business afloat. After all, it's not easy to be your own boss, especially when you're obsessed with virtue and working on being fair and honorable.

Complication

The French and Indian War breaks out.

Franklin's just dealing with the normal problems you have as a small business owner, like finding clients and getting paid, as well as more unusual stuff like creating fire departments. But then the colonies find themselves in the middle of a war. It's hard enough trying to build up your own small society and make it better without also being a pawn and living in a playground for a clash between two larger empires, don't you think?

Let's make the "Complication" section more complicated: we can get all "meta" here and think of this particular war as also standing in for the American Revolution, which Franklin doesn't talk about. Even though the American Revolution has a big effect on Franklin-the-author's writing process – it's the event that keeps him from writing so long in between Parts 1 and 2 – he really only mentions it a few times; like we keep saying, the Autobiography's narrative finishes before this second war starts. Because we don't get to hear what Franklin thinks of this other war, it makes his observations about this one even more poignant.

Climax

Franklin triumphs over man and sea to reach England, where he's going to go up against the King's privy council about colonists' rights.

During the French and Indian War, Franklin takes on more and more of a leadership role. We see him as the voice of reason while generals and governors screw up over and over. So, obviously, the colonists choose him when they need someone smart and articulate to represent them. What he doesn't expect is how long it will take to get government clearance to travel to England.

Suspense

After making his case and going up against a nasty lawyer, Franklin has to wait for a year.

It's such a hassle just to get on the boat and cross the Atlantic, and Franklin goes through so much to be able to present his court case that it comes as a shock that, after all this, he has to wait a year to find out the decision. We're waiting too, but, luckily for us, Franklin describes that year very rapidly.

Denouement

Lord Mansfield mediates between the colonists' Assembly (represented by Franklin) and the British Proprietors.

After the battles, the sea voyage, the argument, and the wait – basically, all of Part 3 – it's kind of a letdown when Lord Mansfield simply takes guys from both sides into a private room and makes them work things out. This "unknotting" (as you might know, that's what dénouement means in French) happens really quickly and almost makes you wonder what the point of all that governmental grandstanding was about. Maybe Franklin's telling us that's something we should wonder about more often.

Conclusion

Franklin returns to Philadelphia, where he's applauded for his work, and the Assembly tries (unsuccessfully) to sue Governor Denny.

Here, the good are rewarded and the bad are punish– er, we mean, also rewarded. Sure, Denny's fired, but it's not like he got fined, or had to go jail or perform community service. And people weren't lasting too long in the governor's job anyway. Meanwhile, Franklin gets told how great he is, which he likes hearing even if he is working on his humility.

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