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What’s in a literary name?

By Alastair Fowler

Names and naming are topics of perennial interest, but until recently there were few general discussions of names as a literary feature. This is strange, since questions about names keep coming up in criticism. How are character names chosen? Are literary names always meaningful, or are some characters named quite casually? Does each genre have a list of first names available only for that sort of writing? Corydon, a stock-name for a shepherd, is obviously pastoral, whilst Hodge is clearly georgic. (Thomas Hardy wrote of the farm labourer ‘personified by the pitiable picture known as Hodge’.) Is it necessary for fictional characters to be named at all? After all, in romances a name can be withheld for much or all of the story. When it does emerge it may not be a full name. (Full names, complete with surname, have a history of their own and deserve a dedicated blog post in their own right.)

Some writers, such as George Bernard Shaw, have been able to get going without deciding on names for their characters, simply drafting dialogue for anonymous characters. Others, though – Charles Dickens and Henry James for example, couldn’t begin without the right names. They used to keep lists of possible names for future use. They collected them from previous literature, newspapers, official lists, or even advertisements on the side of vans, and agonized over which was the most appropriate name for a character. It was as if they had to know the true name before the character came into focus, or into existence; as if only one name was exactly right for the character’s personality and social standing. A casual choice might have been inconsistent. When he came to choose, Dickens rightly rejected Young Innocent (too explicitly allegorical), Copperstone, and Stonebury (implausible). He seems to have looked for associations that weren’t obvious. Steerforth suggests a bold and facile person, but doesn’t spell out boldness explicitly. Hard Times‘ Gradgrind perfectly suits the unimaginative utilitarian, with his daily grind of graduated educational tasks. Even the structure of the word is repetitive. The reader may think of Gradgrind as grinding the faces of the poor.

Every name has a history of political and social associations. In Victorian times some thought it wouldn’t do for their servants to have more impressive names than their own. Both in real life and fiction they gave servants new names, from a fairly small pool that changed with the fashion. Servants, like slaves, were made to go by names chosen by their masters and mistresses. Often these imposed names were associated with particular duties. A coachman was quite likely to be called James, a lady’s maid Abigail. In literature, choosing names is of course only one aspect: the development of a name is often more significant.

Some novelists and poets have been specially interested in naming – Spenser, Milton, Dickens, Joyce, and Nabokov, for example. It’s well known that Edmund Spenser conveys much of the meaning of The Faerie Queene through his character names, which have a grammar of their own. Sansfoy, Sansloy, and Sansjoy exhibit related deficiencies – faithless, lawless, joyless. So too the sisters Perissa and Elissa contrast an excess and deficiency of desire. Great writers are brilliant in naming as in everything else. They make naming enter into their plots, as when Milton changes the fallen angels’ names in Paradise Lost as a consequence of their Fall – using Satan only for the fallen character, Lucifer for the unfallen. In Finnegans Wake, the ever-changing names reiterate acrostic patterns that are one of our best guides to Joyce’s universal themes – besides being a source of much of the fun. The universal Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker ranges through history and geography, becoming now Haroun Childeric Eggeberth, now Hung Chung Egglyfella, now Howth Castle and Environs.

Names are focal points of more literary works than most people recognize. Until the end of the seventeenth century, names were often concealed below the overt, grammatical surface of writing. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, many literary names were hidden away in acrostics, anagrams, and similar devices. If they could be brought back into critical discourse we might have a better hold on literature’s political content. In Spenser’s case, it might lead to restoration of the politics of The Faerie Queene. And in Joyce the dismantling and reassembling of names restores many of his best satiric jokes. Every reader of Dickens has enjoyed some of his grotesque names, like Quilp, or Uncle Pumblechook. But that’s only the beginning of criticism. His familiar names – Oliver Twist and the rest – have often developed further associations as time has gone by. Many associate ‘Oliver Twist’ with asking for more, without perhaps reflecting that ‘twist’ is Cockney slang for ‘appetite’ – and already was so in Dickens’s time. Nabokov tells us what the variants of “Lolita” mean; but what about the many other names – the motels, the places, the school register? In literature, names are often doors to meaning, and words giving glimpses of the writer’s intentions.

Alastair Fowler is Regius Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh and was previously Professor of English at the University of Virginia. For many years he divided his time between the United States and Britain, where he now lives. His publications include Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature, an annotated edition of Paradise Lost (1968), Kinds of Literature (1982), Renaissance Realism (2003), and How to Write (2006). His interest in literary names goes back to his Witter Byner lecture at Harvard in 1974.

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Image credits: Charles Dickens woodcut, via ZU_09, iStockphoto.
Finnegans Wake, Oxford World Classics jacket cover

Recent Comments

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  3. Mike Walter

    What a fascinating article. This is a topic I’ve been devoting a fair amount of time to over the last few weeks as I plan my next novel.

    I think there’s a tension between naming a character and plotting a novel. Name a character too early and their autonomy begins to spiral out of control; they start to take on qualities and traits without the author’s intent. They can easily become a poor fit for the role the story requires of them.

  4. Tyler

    This is really a great article. Its interesting the different ways that great authors go about drafting their novels. Names can often make or break the character and can even enhance or inhibit character development.

  5. LovePoet

    Great article, I think this is a great quote: “Names are focal points of more literary works than most people recognize”

  6. […] the character’s identity in the reader’s mind.  As Alastair Fowler writes on the Oxford University Press’ blog, “In literature, names are often doors to meaning, and words giving glimpses of the […]

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