The tone of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is complex, to be sure. While we're always getting Charlotte's most private and intimate thoughts, the way in which those thoughts are delivered varies. Charlotte's writing is sometimes demure and unsure, but it can also be confrontational and angry. Her tone is variable and changes through the novel as she develops, which makes sense. For example, the older, adult Charlotte who introduces the novel is pretty aggressive. She writes:
If strong ideas and action offend you read no more. Find another companion to share your idle hours. I intend to tell the truth as I lived it. (Preface.1)
Compare this attitude with young Charlotte's:
Once alone I again gave way to hot tears. Not only did I feel completely isolated, but something worse: I was certain that all the terrible events of the day – the death of two men! – had been caused by me! (12.63)
Pretty different, right? One voice is sure of herself and a smidge angry; the other is crying, confused, and oh-so pitiful. Notice, too, how personal and confessional Charlotte's thoughts are.
The novel challenges assumptions about gender that we might make about adventure stories and who can or cannot be in them. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is about a girl, not a boy, aboard a nineteenth-century ship. That could be considered a bit unusual for the genre.
The novel is written primarily for a young adult audience. In that sense, it speaks specifically to themes that will resonate with younger audiences: education, coming of age, and transformation.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a Bildungsroman, which is a fancy way of saying a coming-of-age novel, or a novel of education. Though we never see her in an actual classroom, the ship becomes a kind of school for Charlotte. She gains lessons and life experiences that fundamentally change her as a person and aid in her maturation.
Avi's novel is, most importantly, set in a very specific time and place: a boat setting sail from England to America in 1832. As with most historical fiction, the novel makes us of its historical backdrop to emphasize thematic concerns. For more, see our section on "Setting."
Each and every word of the title is significant and relates, in its own way, to the themes in the book. Yes, every single one of the words. In the study of literature, every word can matter. Think we're crazy? Well, let's take a look.
"The" is a singular article, and that choice is not insignificant. To be "the" true confession means to be the one and only. Pretty appropriate in a book that's all about what it means to be an individual, don't you think? (Just look at us and our fancy literary analytical skills.) Sure, the title of the book could have been "A" True Confession of Charlotte Doyle, but the story Charlotte tells is not just one of many – it's a unique and definitive account all her own.
Sure, Charlotte is a fictional character, but it's important that her tale purports to be true. And that her story is believed! Remember how at the end of the novel her father doesn't believe that any of the events in her journal could have actually happened? That a girl could never have done or seen those kinds of things? Well, this word declares that yes, they sure did happen, and yes, they are very much "true."
To confess means to make known something that is secret or unknown. A confession might relate to a sin, a transgression, or something that simply goes against the rules – just like Charlotte herself. Charlotte's story is itself a kind of confession as she's making known actions, behaviors, thoughts, and ideas that would definitely have gone against the grain of nineteenth-century society.
What, you thought we would skip "of"? Even after we talked about "the"? Yeah, right. Anyhow… "Of" is a preposition indicating possession. To place the word "of" in the title means that this story belongs to Charlotte and no one else. This is actually very relevant stuff because the concept of ownership would've been very important to a nineteenth-century girl – someone who was usually unable to own anything at all.
At last: her name! Charlotte's full name is included in the title because it's important that we're aware that these are her thoughts and observations and not someone else's. The novel is all about Charlotte's journey toward understanding her identity and who she is as an individual. It's also important that the title has both her first name and last name, as including both individuate her (that means to make her into an individual, or to single her out). For more on Charlotte's name see: "Character Clues: Names."
Charlotte's narrative is set in 1832, a significant year for England. This is the year in which the Reform Act of 1832 was passed there (also known as The Representation of the People Act 1832). This legislation changed the UK's electoral system to give representation to many who had otherwise not been represented, a victory for England's fervent reformers.
Aside from the actual legislation that was being passed, the nineteenth century can be more broadly characterized as a time of social change and upheaval. The abolition movement was in full swing. Slavery and the slave trade had been abolished in England by 1807, though was still flourishing in America. Women's rights were also a prominent topic of debate, with many feminist writers bringing up questions about gender inequalities. (Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792, is an example of one of the first fiery opinion pieces written on this subject.) The Industrial Revolution ensured that class inequality was a part of public discourse, with writers such as Charles Dickens penning the terrible conditions suffered by the poor.
The novel spans the Atlantic Ocean, between England and America, and because of this we would call The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle a transatlantic (across the Atlantic) novel. The ship's crossing of the Atlantic Ocean is important because the journey calls our attention to other things that crossed the Atlantic too: cargo, goods, and most importantly, slaves. Charlotte is American, and her father is a cotton manufacturer. Again, the association with slavery is implied, as cotton was a crop that depended upon slave labor, especially in the American South.
Charlotte's destination is Providence, Rhode Island. Rhode Island is significant because it's one of the only American states, as Zachariah tells us, where slaves are free in 1832 (17.42). America would then seem to be a place of increased freedom. At least, Charlotte appears to think so: "America, where, so I had been long taught to believe, greater freedom held sway" (20.81). But does Charlotte's optimism about America prove to be true? What do the events of the novel suggest?
Instead of a quote or a poem, the novel's prefaced by "An Important Warning." This section is an introduction written by an adult Charlotte Doyle, who's reflecting back on the events of her childhood. Given Charlotte's reference to Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did (1872), the preface can be dated to around 40 years after the events that took place aboard the Seahawk. Charlotte would be a grown woman of at least 53 years old. We are to assume, then, that our narrator is an older and more mature version of the Charlotte from the summer of 1832. The narrative that follows in the remainder of the book is told retrospectively. Why do you think the adult Charlotte chooses this part of her life for her "confession"? Why do you think at this point in her life she feels a need to tell her story?
While you might think you're reading Charlotte's journal, do recall that the journal she kept on the Seahawk was burned by her father. Instead, as her "An Important Warning" tells us, the novel is being written retrospectively. Judging by texts she references in this section, the adult Charlotte would probably in her 50s. This gives Charlotte perspective on the events she's narrating. For example, as the second mutiny is about to get underway she writes, "It's odd perhaps, but I was not frightened. I assumed we could succeed with out plan. Oh, what a power of faith in justice I had then!" (20.80). As this section demonstrates, the adult Charlotte clearly has a different attitude than her naïve, younger self.
The ship is a living, breathing ecosystem that Charlotte becomes very much a part of. When Charlotte goes down into top cargo to fetch her clothing, for example, she refers to it as being in the belly of the whale (6.55). The animal comparison is apt since the Seahawk even seems to have a mind of its own. It sways, it bends, it heaves. The ship also plays a very large role in overthrowing Captain Jaggery (21.78). Is it Charlotte who finally defeats him or is it the ship itself that finally does away with the captain?
The Seahawk's figurehead is the carving of a bird. It's first described as "an angry, avenging angel" (1.60). Mr. Cranick's tale is one of revenge, to be sure, but what other injustices are also being righted over the course of the journey?
The dirk (a knife) appears early on in Charlotte's voyage, and is given to her by Zachariah (2.93). When she first encounters the weapon, she's "horrified" (2.93); however, she gradually learns to wield the weapon. The knife can be used for good [as when she cuts Zachariah free (21.80)] or it can be used for evil [as when Mr. Hollybrass gets stabbed by Captain Jaggery (15.56)]. Also, no snickering please, but the knife is most definitely a phallic symbol. That is, the knife is a symbol of masculine authority that the gender bending Charlotte must learn to use.
The sea is a natural vehicle for force, change, and motion. We think the novel wants you to see that even in the natural world, things change. The sea moves, it upsets things, and it's both dangerous and serene. We'll let Charlotte do the talking:
As for the sea, it was almost the same color as the sky, a menacing claylike gray. And yet, it was in constant motion, its surface heaving rhythmically like the chest of some vast, discomforted sleeper. (4.3)
The round-robin is the circle in which the men sign their names before they're going to start a mutiny. They sign it that way so no one person can be held responsible. Here's Captain Jaggery's take:
"A round-robin," he said. "The men sign it this way so no name shall appear on top, or bottom. How typical of them not to accept responsibility for their own wayward actions. It's a kind of pact." (5.71)
Captain Jaggery sees the round-robin as a symbol of not taking responsibility, but it's clear that the men see it as a representation of egalitarianism (that means they're all equal). Why? Because there's no hierarchy in a circle.
The storm that strikes the boat is a great force of nature: a tempest of wind and waves that washes over the Seahawk and rips her (almost) to shreds (Chapter 15). The storm is part of the natural world. How does natural change accompany change on the boat? Is change natural? We should also take notice of how the storm affects the captain's cabin and all of his belongings (21.36).
A new set of miniature sailor's clothes is given to Charlotte by Zachariah (8.24). These are in great contrast to the clothes she formerly wore on the boat, or liked to don in general. Charlotte's decision to take on the new clothes at the end of Chapter 12 becomes a sign of her change of role on the boat and her willingness to adapt in general. Captain Jaggery uses Charlotte's clothes against her in Chapter 18, arguing that a girl who wears pants is not unusual, but unnatural. Charlotte argues instead that it's not nature, but her station in life, that dictates her clothing (18.192).
The novel is written retrospectively from an adult Charlotte's point of view. Because of this, we're privy to Charlotte's most intimate thoughts: her fears, her desires, and her prejudices. This means that while we can see all of Charlotte's flaws, we also see her courage, her honesty, and her integrity. We come to understand Charlotte as a more fully rounded person. We should also note that Charlotte's point-of-view is privileged over any other in the novel. As she narrates her own adventures, we become particularly attached to her and invested in her character development.
Against her better judgment (and ours), Charlotte sets out on a journey to America aboard the Seahawk, a ship captained by the seemingly charming Andrew Jaggery. Charlotte receives several warnings to not get on the boat, so we know that there will soon be some kind of drama coming our way.
One of the most important conflicts in the novel has to do with who will captain the ship. In other words, who's best fit to lead the small society of the Seahawk? Cranick and the crew try to dethrone Jaggery during the first mutiny, but Cranick gets killed and Zachariah is beaten within an inch of his life. Clearly, a violent upheaval driven by personal revenge isn't the way to get things done around here.
After the mutiny, the captain withdraws his protection of Charlotte, and she begins to live like one of the crew. Things on board were already tense, but Charlotte's gender bending aggravates Jaggery's already cruel behavior. Meanwhile, Charlotte becomes increasingly petulant, spitting at the captain's feet and threatening to take him to court in Providence. That rebellious behavior won't be tolerated for long, though. Something's gotta give.
Talk about an escalating situation! In the midst of the storm, Mr. Hollybrass is found with a knife in his back. The captain then charges Charlotte with his murder. (Talk about injustice!) Everything is coming to a boil here, as a showdown between Charlotte and Jaggery for the crew's loyalty (and control of the ship) seems unavoidable. Not to mention that Captain Jaggery's methods are starting to resemble madness.
Charlotte endures the show trial put on by Captain Jaggery, in which he argues that Charlotte's gender bending is unnatural and hence she's the one who murdered Mr. Hollybrass. (How's that for logic?) The men don't speak up for her, since they think Zachariah (who's still alive and hiding in the hold) is the one who actually murdered Hollybrass. Their silence protects Zachariah, though it condemns Charlotte to hang. The injustices inflicted upon Charlotte just keep piling up.
Charlotte and Zachariah realize that the captain murdered Mr. Hollybrass and stage a second mutiny. Captain Jaggery and Charlotte face off on the deck, and the captain is plunged into the sea by the movement of the ship. (Kind of neat – and convenient – that it's the ship itself that, in the end, does away with the captain.) Order is at long last restored to the boat, and Charlotte becomes the new captain of the ship.
Back in Rhode Island, Charlotte's father doesn't believe that her journal is factual. What's more, he actually goes so far as to burn the book. Unable to accept the mores of nineteenth-century society, Charlotte decides to return to the Seahawk.