Study Guide

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle Themes

  • Identity

    Who is Charlotte Doyle? That's the question this novel asks us not once, not twice, but like about a billion different times. Is Charlotte her father's daughter? Is she Zachariah's friend? Is she just her own sassy self? Identity, you see, can be constructed in many different ways. Sometimes Charlotte sees herself in relation to someone else (for example, the Captain), and at other times as part of a group (like when she joins the crew). There are even moments when Charlotte imagines herself to be completely autonomous (that means that she's an individual who acts all on her own). Which forms of identity do you think the novel portrays most positively? More importantly, how do you identify yourself?

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does Charlotte identify herself at the beginning of the novel? At the end?
    2. Charlotte is always asking herself what her father would do, but do you think her mother has any bearing on Charlotte's idea of who she is?
    3. Why is being independent sometimes dangerous for Charlotte?
    4. How are being independent and being an outsider sometimes similar? What does choice have to do with it?

    Chew on This

    Charlotte must learn to be completely independent. Only then can she figure out who she really is.

    Charlotte finds out who she is by connecting with different people and joining new social groups. It's the choices that she makes that matter.

  • Gender

    Charlotte Doyle is a girl who dresses as a boy. From this we can assume that this novel wants us to think about gender and what it means to bend it, shape it, any way you want it. For example, Charlotte wears a dress around her family and becomes quite feminine, but on the boat, she puts on canvas trousers and becomes masculine. (They even start calling her "Mister," right?) Charlotte's gender can vary depending on the situation. It's malleable, like Silly Putty. If we were feeling particularly academic, we might even say that Charlotte's gender is socially constructed. (Yes, we're pushing our glasses up our nose right now.) Also note that Charlotte's ever-shifting gender is often contrasted with something that does not change: her biological sex. Though she wears boy's clothing, she always keeps her girl's body.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Why are Charlotte's clothes so important to her in the beginning of the novel? At the end?
    2. Captain Jaggery believes that the presence of a woman on the ship will help improve his men. How could this be this true or untrue?
    3. Is Charlotte's gender bending role as a sailor realistic? Why or why not?
    4. Does changing Charlotte's gender lead to bigger kinds of change on the Seahawk?
    5. Why is cross-dressing not an option once Charlotte returns home to her family?

    Chew on This

    By changing her gender, Charlotte paves the way for radical shifts aboard the ship.

    Charlotte may be able to switch genders, but she'll always be a girl. The amount of change she can enact is therefore pretty limited.

  • Transformation

    Avi's novel is about changes of all shapes and all sizes, transformations of all kinds and degrees. Charlotte is a proper young girl, but then she's dressed like a boy. The sea is calm, and then it's stormy, but wait, it's calm again. And hey, Zachariah is dead, but now he's alive! Do you see a pattern here? We thought so. In The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, changes happen to people, to places, and to things. To everything, in fact! We might conclude, then, that the novel wants us to see that change is a part of life. Some is good, some is bad, and some is ugly. The important thing to note, though, is that whether we like it or not, change happens.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Besides in Charlotte, where do we see transformations happening in the novel?
    2. What do you think the sea has to do with change and transformation? Why is it important that Charlotte's journey happens on a boat?
    3. Which transformations in the novel do you think are the most positive?
    4. Can one person's personal transformation inspires others to transform their lives? Is change contagious?
    5. Why does Charlotte not believe that she can change her father's mind? Couldn't he undergo a similar transformation in his thinking?

    Chew on This

    Charlotte's personal transformation is the catalyst for a larger change on the Seahawk: the overthrow of Captain Jaggery.

    Some change is good and some change is bad. It really all just depends on the context.

  • Race

    Race plays an enormous role in The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle since Zachariah, one of the book's most significant characters, is black. Zachariah's race, he tells us many times, is one of the reasons he finds such a connection with Charlotte. Zachariah is an older black man and Charlotte is a young girl: thus they're both outcasts on the society of the boat. Also, though the book doesn't include any slaves or slaveholders, many of its scenes suggest that we should at least have that topic on our mind. For example, the images employed to describe Zachariah's whipping by Mr. Hollybrass and the captain (Chapter 11) should immediately make us think of depictions of slavery we've seen before. We thus align the captain with a tyrannical slave master – and begin to see the larger implications of his cruelty.

    Questions About Race

    1. Charlotte initially objects to being friends with Zachariah because she claims he's her inferior. She changes her mind, of course, but why does she initially believe this?
    2. Why does Zachariah always compare himself to Charlotte? What's the relationship between race and gender at that time, and now?
    3. How would the novel have been different if written from Zachariah's point of view? Could it have been written from Zachariah's point of view?
    4. How does Zachariah see himself in terms of race? Why is it important to Zachariah that he was never a slave?
    5. Though Zachariah is a free man, why does Charlotte fear that he still wouldn't receive a fair trial in America? Is this an example of institutional racism?

    Chew on This

    The alliance between Charlotte and Zachariah suggests that sexism and racism are more similar than dissimilar.

    Though he's a free man, Zachariah's race still prevents him from receiving a fair trial.

  • Rules and Order

    The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle dramatizes the conflict between an individual (Charlotte) and an oppressive system of rules and order (Captain Jaggery's tyrannical rule). Charlotte sees for herself the kind of cruelty inflicted by Captain Jaggery's rules and regulations and even suffers personally when she's wrongfully convicted of a crime she did not commit. Charlotte and the crew are eventually able to overthrow Captain Jaggery; however, when Charlotte returns to her family, she finds the same kinds of rules in place – with no way of challenging them, this time. Ultimately, Charlotte chooses to reject the system of value that organized her former life and return to the Seahawk.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Are all rules oppressive? How do we know whether a rule is good or bad?
    2. Captain Jaggery refers to himself as the "soul of reason" (21.40). What do you make of this statement?
    3. What kind of order takes the place of Captain Jaggery's tyranny? Why is Charlotte captain in name only?
    4. What's the relationship between order and chaos? Are the two related?

    Chew on This

    Rules are necessary for maintaining a society. Even after the captain is overthrown, a new order must be installed.

    Each individual should be free to make choices and live life by his or her own rules.

  • Justice and Judgment

    While we might think of justice and judgment as absolutes, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle suggests that these concepts – especially "justice" – can mean different things to different people. Charlotte's father, for example, thinks justice is best served when members of the lower class absolutely respect those above them. In this sense, some people are perhaps more deserving of justice than others. Charlotte, however, as "the soul of justice" (12.109), will come to have a very different understanding of what it means to fair and balanced. Charlotte will learn that justice is best served when thought of not as a privilege but as a right for all people. Wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, she experiences first-hand the consequences of a system that doesn't treat people equally.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Charlotte is referred to as the "soul of justice" by Zachariah (12.109). Why?
    2. How was Captain Jaggery able to convict Charlotte of a crime she did not commit?
    3. The book informs us that before Cranick came on the ship, the crew petitioned to bring his case before the admiralty courts, and were denied. What happens when the system fails? Is revenge a viable option?
    4. Why does Charlotte think no one will listen to Zachariah if he goes to the authorities? Who's voiceless in this novel?

    Chew on This

    Justice is impossible when the system that administers it is designed to privilege some people over others.

    There will always be social inequalities; however, all people, regardless of race, class, or gender, stand equally before the law.

  • Education

    A novel of education like The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle presents us with many different kinds of learning to think about. As a young girl, Charlotte is educated at Barrington School for Better Girls, an institution where she picks up all of the usual subjects: "penmanship, spelling, and the ancient authors of morality" (14.21). The school provides a sound and traditional education for a proper young lady, that's for sure. On the Seahawk, however, an education of a very different kind takes place. Instead of reading, writing, and arithmetic, Charlotte learns how to handle a knife, climb in the rigging, and walk out onto the bowsprit (she even learns what the heck a bowsprit is). Experience on the high seas is valued over simple book learning. What's more, Charlotte is exposed to, and is fascinated by, the oral legends and lore passed down by the sailors. She also records, and reflects on, her adventures by writing in her journal. All of these forms of education contribute to the substantive development of Charlotte's character.

    Questions About Education

    1. Are some kinds of education considered more appropriate for young girls than others?
    2. How is a ship like or unlike a school?
    3. Compare the stories Charlotte hears from the sailors with the kinds of material she covers at Barrington School for Better Girls. How are stories that are read different from stories that are told out loud? What is the difference between an oral and a written culture?
    4. How does gender determine the kind of education Charlotte receives?
    5. Is learning from books more valuable than learning from personal experience? Or vice versa?

    Chew on This

    Charlotte must combine her formal education with real-world experience in order to truly become an adult.

    Charlotte's education on the boat is flawed because it gives her false expectations about what her role in society will be once she returns to America.

  • Choices

    "To be or not to be? That is the question." OK, fine, it's not the question here. That would be Hamlet. The question for this book might be something more along the lines of "To do or not to do?" Or maybe even "What the heck should I do?" Charlotte Doyle, you see, has a very difficult time trusting herself to do much of anything. And why should she? She's a very young girl, a person whom nineteenth-century society doesn't trust with much of anything – except, of course, keeping quiet and looking pretty. When Charlotte boards the Seahawk, however, she must start making her own choices. Learning to think and act for herself becomes a significant part of Charlotte's maturation – and also plays a role in why Charlotte decides, in the end, to not return to a society that doesn't trust her to make her own choices.

    Questions About Choices

    1. Why does Charlotte have such a difficult time in the beginning of the novel believing that she's capable of making her own decisions?
    2. What is it about the captain's whipping of Zachariah that finally motivates Charlotte to make the decision to speak up?
    3. Why does Charlotte choose to not put on her ladylike clothing and beg Captain Jaggery for forgiveness at the end of the novel?
    4. What are the consequences of Charlotte's final decision to leave her family?

    Chew on This

    Not everything can be a choice. Sometimes we have to do things that we'd rather not do.

    It's not so much the actual choice that is important, as it is the opportunity to make that choice.

  • Appearance

    The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle lets us see the world through Charlotte's eyes, and as it turns out, she has quite an eye for detail. Her writing is characterized by long and vivid descriptions: her cabin, the captain's quarters, what everyone is wearing, and all of the ins and outs of the ship. Charlotte's attention to detail suggests that, as a writer, she's very concerned with what things look like. But is Charlotte only concerned with appearances? That is, does she value style over substance? Charlotte must eventually learn to make judgments that go beyond the mere surface of things. She must understand that there's sometimes a difference between seeming and being.

    Questions About Appearance

    1. Can you judge a book by its cover?
    2. Does Charlotte change her role in life simply by changing her clothes? What else must happen?
    3. While Charlotte is able to dress as a boy on the ship, do you think any of the crew would be able to dress as a woman while on shore? Is gender bending a two-way street?
    4. What are the problems with a society that judges others based solely on appearance?

    Chew on This

    A person's physical appearance can tells us many things, but it's only a person's actions that reveal his or her character.

    Clothing is a language all of its own and can be used to express oneself.

  • Society and Class

    Let's face it: When Charlotte Doyle boards the Seahawk, she's a pretty big snob. With her nose in the air, she rejects poor Zachariah's friendship and chooses to join forces with the captain. How could she not? The captain is handsome. And charming! And has all those pretty things in his cabin. Over the course of the novel, however, Charlotte will find out that wealth and social status isn't all that it's cracked up to be. The fine furnishings in the captain's cabin come at a price. Jaggery drives his crew mercilessly – even endangering the ship by sailing it into the hurricane – all in the name of profit. (And to think we were charmed by all of his bowing and hand kissing!) What's more, Charlotte finds herself improved by breaking down (rather than building up) class barriers and communing with the crew.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Would the crew have treated Charlotte differently if she had been working class or poor? Do you think she would have been respected?
    2. Let's pretend you're the new captain of the Seahawk. How would you furnish your cabin? Why?
    3. Charlotte seems to think that people are freer in America. Is this true for a maid like Bridget?
    4. Why does Charlotte, in the end, reject nineteenth-century society? Or does she?

    Chew on This

    Manners don't equal virtue.

    The novel suggests that when an individual is in conflict with his or her society, that person must either conform or leave that society.

  • Literature and Writing

    The written word is a mighty powerful thing. How do we know? Well, without it we wouldn't have Charlotte Doyle's narrative. (That is, the story she tells about herself.) For the novel's main character, writing becomes a means of education, reflection, and perhaps most importantly of all, a way to record her experiences. Once written down, Charlotte's adventures (and the radical ideas they promote) can be reproduced, circulated, and read by countless people. Her writing can influence, inspire, infuriate, and ignite a whole host of people.

    We should also mention that the written and spoken word are often contrasted in the novel. For example, the captain and Charlotte read and write in books. The captain notes all of the ship's events in the log, and he's always got a copy of the Bible on hand. Likewise, Charlotte writes in her journal and reads her books from school. The crew, however, are mostly illiterate. Their tales and personal histories are passed down through stories told out loud. While Charlotte and the captain are part of a culture that depends upon reading and writing to transmit important information, the crew participates in an oral culture.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Is writing a kind of agency for Charlotte? ("Agency" means the capacity to act.)
    2. What's the difference between words written down and words spoken out loud? Which one is more powerful?
    3. Why does Charlotte's father burn her journal? What does this act symbolize?
    4. Do you think Charlotte should have taught the crewmembers to read and write? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Writing is a form of empowerment. It's only through recording and reflecting on her adventures that Charlotte finds out who she truly is.

    Writing can be used to empower people; however, the written word can also be a means of oppression. Jaggery, for example, uses the Bible and the ship's log to intimidate his crew.