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The Name Game



What's in a name?" famously asked the great writer named Will Shakespeare, who was named history's most over-rated writer by a great writer named Leo Tolstoy. Which all goes to prove only that there is no agreement on what constitutes genius, even one for another. ...

It's hard to answer the Shakespearean query, but there's no denying that many a well-known novel is known best by the name of its protagonist/title character.

It's a practice that dates back to Gilgamesh, but more comfortably to Cervantes. That worthy writer is credited with the first modern novel in Don Quixote by most of those whose business it is to know such things. Don Quixote is a crazed man but, as this advice to Sancho Panza illustrates, not unmindful of the fickleness of language:

To eruct, Sancho, is the same as to belch, which is one of the most unpleasant words in our Castilian tongue, although an expressive one! For this reason, those that are careful of their choice of language, in place of 'belch' and 'belchings,' say 'eruct' and 'eructions.' If someone fails to understand these terms, it makes little difference; in the course of time they will come to be readily understood and thus the language will be enriched, for it is determined by popular usage.

Chronologically, the next great novelist hero was Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, the civilized man who suspects even the wonderful primitive Friday of the vices of civilization:

While my jealousy of him lasted, you may be sure I was every day pumping him to see if he would discover any of the new thoughts, which I suspected were in him, but I found everything he said was so Honest, and so Innocent, that I could find nothing to nourish my Suspicion, and in spite of all my Uneasiness he made me at last entirely his own again, nor did he in the least perceive that I was Uneasy, and therefore I could not suspect him of Deceit.

Far more open-hearted is Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, a title character of more charm than prudence. Here's a description, an ambivalent one, by a character ambivalently named Honour:

To be sure, one can't help pitying the poor young man, and yet he doth not deserve much pity either, for demeaning himself with such kind of trumpery. Yet he is so pretty a gentleman, I should be sorry to have him turned out of doors. I dares to swear the wench was as willing as he, for she was always a forward kind of body. And when wenches are so coming, young men are not so much to be blamed neither, for to be sure they do more than what is natural. Indeed it is beneath them to meddle with such dirty draggle-tails. ...

Far less attractive was the monster created and named for the doctor created and named Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Mary's monster, however, was far more articulate than Karoff's cinematic version; hear him berate his creator:

Cursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God in pity made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image, but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid from its very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and detested.

Novels named for their main characters were not unknown to American authors either. Here's Herman Melville describing the hanging of the hero of Billy Budd:

Billy stood facing aft. At the penultimate moment, his words, his only ones, words wholly unobstructed in the utterance, were these -- 'God bless Captain Vere!' Syllables so unanticipated coming from one with the ignominious hemp about his neck ... syllables, too, delivered in the clear melody of a singing bird on the point of launching. ...

Mark Twain wrote a couple of novels named for their child-heroes and separate cultures. The lesser of those was Tom Sawyer, which championed the very superstitions that the modernist Twain would scorn in other places. Here Tom and Huck swear an oath:

So Tom unwound the thread from one of his needles, and each boy pricked the ball of his thumb and squeezed out a drop of blood. In time, after many squeezes, Tom managed to sign his initials, using the ball of his little finger for a pen. Then he showed Huckleberry how to make an H and an F, and the oath was complete. They buried the shingle close to the wall, with some dismal ceremonies and incantations, and the fetters that bound their tongues were considered to be locked and the key thrown away.

Not always does the named novel bear a man's name. Tolstoy turned the trick wonderfully with his Anna Karenina. In this passage, Anna discovers the depth of her marriage's failure, a discovery triggered by her husband's ears:

'Oh heavens, why has he such ears?' she thought, looking at his cold and imposing figure, and particularly with amazement at the fleshy parts of his ears, as they propped up the rim of his round hat. ... A certain unpleasant feeling caught at her heart when she encountered his fixed and weary gaze, as though she had expected to find him different. What struck her particularly was the feeling of dissatisfaction with herself which she experienced on meeting him. The feeling was an old and familiar one akin to a sense of hypocrisy, which she experienced in her relations with her husband; but before she had not noticed this feeling, now she clearly and painfully recognized it.

The trend among novel-writers these days seems to be against books with proper names. I have heard there are protests against this trend, from folks with monickers like Studs Lonigan, Nicholas Nickleby, Anthony Adverse, Madame Bovary and a scrivner named Bartleby.

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