Study Guide

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle Justice and Judgment

By Avi

Justice and Judgment

Indeed, the one unique aspect of this ship was a carved figurehead of a pale white seahawk beneath the bowsprit. Its wings were thrust back against the bow; its head extended forward, beak wide-open, red tongue protruding as if screaming. In the shadowy light that twisted and distorted its features I was struck by the notion that this figure looked more like an angry, avenging angel than a docile bird. (1.60)

The ship's figurehead makes Charlotte think of an "avenging angel." To be "avenged" means to seek justice for a past wrong. How does the carved seahawk foreshadow the events that will follow? Mr. Cranick is seeking his own personal revenge, but also think about the idea of "justice" in a larger sense – what larger wrongs are righted during this journey?

Mr. Grummage drew himself up. "Miss Doyle," he said loftily, "in my world, judgments as to rights and wrongs are left to my Creator, not to children. Now, be so good as to board the Seahawk. At once!" (1.75)

Mr. Grummage doesn't trust Charlotte's judgment because she's a child. It's no wonder, then, that Charlotte doesn't trust herself to make important decisions. Grummage puts his faith instead in the Creator, though it's sort of unclear why the Creator would want Charlotte to get on the boat with a bunch of scary, manly sailors.

Zachariah cocked his head to one side. "Miss Doyle, do you believe in justice?"

"I am an American, Mr. Zachariah."

"Ah! Justice for all?"

"For those who deserve it." (4.47-4.50)

Charlotte reveals her prejudices in that she does not, at least at this point in the novel, consider "justice" to be a universal human right. Instead, she suggests that justice should be given only to those who deserve it. What exactly does she mean by that? Also, why does she mention being an American? While the Pledge of Allegiance may promise "justice for all," is that always the case? (The Pledge of Allegiance, by the way, was composed in 1892 by Francis Bellamy. That Zachariah references the oath in 1832 is a tiny anachronism. Oh well.)

"I don't believe you!" I exclaimed. "Justice is poorly served when you speak ill of your betters." It was a phrase I had heard my father use many times. (4.52)

Charlotte makes this declaration in reaction to Zachariah's story about Jaggery's cruelty, and given Zachariah's lowly status, she doesn't believe it for a minute (even though it's, well, totally true, as it turns out). Just because someone is poor or elderly or black, does that mean we shouldn't trust what he or she says? Is that really "justice"? That's what Charlotte seems to think here. We also learn that Charlotte's ideas about justice have been inherited from her father.

"If Captain Jaggery was so cruel, why should they have signed on again?"

Zachariah leaned close to me. "Revenge," he whispered.

"Revenge?" I echoed weakly.

The old man nodded. "Because of all this I gave you that dirk." (4.68-4.71)

While Jaggery is clearly a tyrant, the way that the men propose to deal with him is also a bit of a problem. How is cold-blooded revenge not an adequate system of justice? Does exacting personal revenge simply create a never-ending cycle of violence? (Think of all those tragedies out there, especially Romeo and Juliet.) Also, note that the men's need for revenge is precisely why Charlotte is given her own knife. Violence just begets more violence.

"And what kind of justice do you offer?" the captain asked. "Nothing precisely legal, I presume."

"We demand you stand before us in a trial of your peers," Cranick answered.

"Trial! Peers!" the captain cried mockingly. "I see nothing but ruffians and villains, the scum of the sea!"

"Then we proclaim ourselves your peers," Cranick cried. (10.30-10.33)

Cranick wants revenge for Captain Jaggery's crimes – crimes that were brought to the attention of the admiralty courts but went unpunished. Captain Jaggery, however, thinks this idea is ridiculous, since he views the men as mere "scum." Do you think the crew's social standing has any bearing on whether or not they deserve a fair judgment? Do you think mutiny is the best way to obtain justice?

"What's the matter?"

The pain in my heart made it impossible for me to speak.

"Tell me," he coaxed.

"Zachariah..."

"What?"

"You're... a black man."

"That I am. But this state of Rhode Island where we're going, it has no more slaves." He suddenly checked himself. "Or am I wrong?"

"A black man, Zachariah, a common sailor, testifying against a white officer..." I didn't have the heart to finish. (17.36-17.43)

Even though Zachariah is a free man in America, he must still battle inequalities. Because Zachariah is both a black man and a common sailor, the captain (who's white and an officer) will have the advantage in a court of law. (Notice how race and class are closely bound together.) We see that it's not just Captain Jaggery who's the problem; it's the society that favors him. That's how oppression works: it's not just individuals, but whole systems that work to privilege some and not others. Bummer.

In the ship's waist, on the starboard side, he had assembled the crew in two rows, some sitting on the deck, the rest standing behind the front rank. Before them – atop the central cargo hatch - a chair had been placed. The captain hurried me past the crew – none of whom would look me in the eye – and instructed me to sit in the chair, saying it would serve as the prisoner's dock.

Now he took his place in one of his fine cabin chairs. It had been set up high behind the quarterdeck rail, a rail that he pounded sharply with the butt of his pistol. (18.2-18.3)

The captain's sense of justice is highly theatrical: notice how the deck of the ship becomes a stage for him to put on his show trial. Is this captain administering justice or simply the appearance of it? Does the courtroom setting guarantee that Charlotte will receive a fair trial? The fact that he's using a gun as a gavel is also interesting. What does this image suggest about the captain's personal brand of judgment?

It's odd perhaps, but I was not frightened. I assumed we could succeed with our plan. Oh, what a power of faith in justice I had then! (20.80)

On the eve of the second mutiny, Charlotte remains staunchly optimistic; however, does she still have faith in justice at the end of the novel? If so, why does she reject society and return to the high seas?

"What you have written is rubbish of the worst taste. Stuff for penny dreadfuls! Beneath contempt. Justice, Charlotte, is poorly served when you speak ill of your betters such as Poor Captain Jaggery." (22.163)

After reading her journal, Charlotte's father repeats the lines about justice that Charlotte herself had said to Zachariah at the beginning of the novel. Charlotte, however, no longer believes the truth of her father's (and her previous) statement. How are their understandings about justice now different?