Charlotte Doyle begins the novel as a prim and proper young lady, the daughter of a cotton manufacturer, and a student at the Barrington School for Better Girls. Only thirteen years old, she already has preconceived notions about proper behavior for nineteenth-century ladies and gentleman. Ladies drink tea, wear white gloves, and read morally sound (ahem, boring) books. Gentlemen also drink tea, wear dapper clothing, and keep everything ship shape. (Pardon the pun.)
Charlotte's world, however, gets turned upside down when she finds herself to be the only girl on a boat bound for America. The niceties of polite society soon become a distant memory: the food is awful, there's nowhere to wash up, and, to top it all off, the crew stages a mutiny. Who can she trust? What is she to do? In the midst of the chaos, Charlotte ends up taking on a role her boarding school education never prepared her for: she chops off her hair and becomes the ship's boy. As a member of the crew, Charlotte must learn to climb the rigging, swab the deck, and make her own decisions. In order to survive the journey, she must find a new way of seeing the world, one that's all her own.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is what we might call a "coming-of-age novel," or a Bildungsroman (that's German for a "novel of education"). That is, the book is concerned with chronicling Charlotte's education (or re-education, really) on the high seas. On the boat, the rules and regulations she has learned from her father and boarding school simply don't apply. Captain Jaggery appears to be a gentleman, for example, but we find out later that he's actually a pretty nasty tyrant. Charlotte misjudges Zachariah as well because of assumptions she makes about his race and class (he is Black and a lowly cook). And then there's the part about proper young ladies not running around barefoot and carrying a dagger. (Which, of course, she ends up doing before long.) Charlotte's voyage on the boat forces her to challenge what she thought she knew about the world, and to learn to think for herself. In doing so, she becomes an adult, and at the end of the novel, the ship's new captain.
Is Charlotte's gender bending "unusual" or is it "unnatural," would you say? This is one of the book's grounding questions. Charlotte takes on a gender role outside of her normal sphere in that she becomes the ship's boy and does things that proper young ladies don't do. In the novel's courtroom scene (Chapter 18), Captain Jaggery argues that Charlotte's behavior is not just "unusual" (as Charlotte claims it is), but also "unnatural" (18.135). That is, Charlotte's short hair and pants not only go against the laws of society, but also the laws of nature itself. This line of argument allows Jaggery to claim that, since Charlotte is an "unnatural" girl, she's also capable of other unnatural things – like murder!
Charlotte's gender bending is described by Captain Jaggery as behavior that is totally subversive, and to be "subversive" means to challenge authority, or to overturn existing power structures. By upsetting the boundaries of gender, class, and race (i.e., she dresses like a boy, hangs out with the crew, and her best friend is black), Charlotte's actions reveal the way in which gender, class, and race are not at all natural and are not set in stone. They're social constructions (made by society, not by nature), and are therefore totally changeable.
Confused? Here, we'll let Captain Jaggery explain:
Look at the way you acted! The way you've dressed! It doesn't matter that you are different, Miss Doyle. Don't flatter yourself. The difficulty is that your difference encourages them to question their places. And mine. The order of things. (21.22)
If Charlotte can change her gender role, Captain Jaggery fears that the rest of the crew might also challenge their place in the so-called "natural order." The crew might aspire above their station, for example. (Mutiny, anyone?)
Part of the transformation that takes place in the novel is that Charlotte has to learn to take action. She gains agency. (To have "agency" means to be able to take action. It's a good word. Don't be afraid to use it.) Over the course of the novel, Charlotte changes from someone who merely witnesses cruelty and does nothing about it into a person who intervenes in the actions around her – whether that means stopping Mr. Hollybrass from whipping Zachariah (Chapter 11) or writing down her adventures for all the world to read. As Charlotte tells the reader, she no longer wishes to sit idly by, rather she has a "need to do something" (12.64).
Charlotte is American, let's not forget, and the book is very much about forms of government. Remember when Zachariah says that a ship is a "nation of its own" (4.26)? In that case, Captain Jaggery is a despot (a very bad ruler) and the crew is made up of his subjects in revolt. Sound familiar, students of the The American Revolution? It should. But the ship isn't bound to any particular country. The ship's men are from different places all around the globe (Africa, England, America). What sort of nation does the ship envision itself as at the beginning of the novel? And by the end? Who is or is not included? In your opinion, which kinds of government would be most effective on a ship and why?