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Symbolism in Charlotte Doyle

written by: Kellie Hayden • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 2/14/2012

In the novel, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, a thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder and changes from a full-skirt wearing proper lady into a sailor. Let's explore some of the symbolism and themes in the novel, written in the 1st person.

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    Review: What is a Symbol?

    A symbol is something that represents or stands for an idea or set of ideas and gives deeper meaning to the story. It is usually an object or character that is mentioned often in the literature, which means it is important. The symbol can be obvious or understated, and usually supports a theme in the literature.

    Charlotte's Clothing

    When the reader first meets Charlotte, she is dressed by her family to be a young woman. She was the symbol of femininity for the 1800's and was obedient to a fault to her father.

    "..bonnet covering my beautiful hair, full skirts, high button shoes, and you may be sure, white gloves."

    Later on the ship after she angers Captain Jaggery and believes Zachariah to be dead, she decides to help the crew. She changes into the canvas seaman's garments that Zachariah made for her. When she changes into the pants and blouse, she begins her transformation from an obedient young lady to a self-assured young woman.

    Charlotte tells Fisk, "I've be one of the crew."

    When she finally makes it to America, she must change out of her seaman's garments to meet her family. She finds the dress confining, which symbolizes how she feels about her life as a young lady in America.

    Charlotte says, “I felt so much pinched and confined I found it difficult to breathe."

    After her father forbids Charlotte to discuss her voyage and keeps her in room to read, Charlotte decides to climb out her window and leave. She again changes out of her lady like dresses and puts on the seaman garments. She goes to the wharf and finds the Seahawk.

    "A sailor," Zachariah said, "chooses the wind and takes the ship from safe port...but winds have a mind of their own."

    Every time Charlotte changes her clothes, there seems to be a change within Charlotte as well. The clothing symbolizes her decision to change from a proper, compliant young lady to a confident sea-going woman.

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    The Journal, Round Robin, Blood Bird & Hurricane

    Charlotte's Journal

    Charlotte's journal symbolizes an exasperating restriction placed on Charlotte by her father. Charlotte is given a diary from her father to write down everything that transpires during her journey to America on the high seas. He tells her it will be of educational value.

    "I was given a volume of blank pages - how typical of my father! - and instructed to keep a daily journal of my voyage across the ocean so that the writing of it should prove of educational value to me."

    It also represents the truth that her father will not allow Charlotte to discuss or to share with her brother and sister. When she arrives home, her father reads the diary and refuses to discuss the problems on the ship during the trip. He seems to be more upset with her spelling and grammar than the deaths. He burns it. However, she rewrites the journal in the blank margins of the books he asks her to study,

    "Keeping the journal then is what enables me to relate now in perfect detail everything that transpired during the fateful voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 1832."

    Round Robin

    A round robin is a slip of paper that has two circles, one within the other. It looks like a doughnut. There are signatures on the "doughnut." The men who sign the round robin make a pact for mutiny. Captain Jaggery asks Charlotte to look for one, and she finds one. The round robin symbolizes rebellion.

    Charlotte thinks about what she had found when searching for a needle, "There had been a pistol. There had been a round robin. With the warnings given to me by Captain Jaggery--and ever mindful of the possibilities revealed to me by Zachariah--I had little doubt about the meanings of my discoveries. The crew was preparing a rebellion."

    Blood Bird

    Charlotte spies a bird from the Caribbean called a blood bird, which lived one thousand miles off, was perched on a branch in the ocean. The bird was a symbol, a warning that a hurricane was coming.

    Charlotte asked, "What kind of storm would blow a bird that far?" Barlow answers, "Hurricane."


    The hurricane symbolizes the conflict on the Seahawk. During the hurricane, Mr. Hollybrass is killed with Charlotte’s dirk and her handkerchief is in his hand. Captain Jaggery tells the crew that Charlotte did it to avenge Zachariah's death. However, she is innocent and Zachariah is alive.

    Charlotte describes the ship in the storm, "It was as if that rhythmic action was the true beating of our own hearts--as if, were we to stop for more than a moment, the heart of the ship might cease all beating too."

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    Did you discover any additional symbols while reading? Share them in the comments.

True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

The following are study guides, lessons, or activities that relate to the novel, the True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.
  1. Book Summary: "The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle"
  2. Symbolism in Charlotte Doyle
  3. Creating a Plot Diagram for Charlotte Doyle
  4. A Practice Quiz on Charlotte Doyle
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