Thursday, 4 October 2012

LITERARY CORNER: Character Names

In my book The Literary Detective, I teach the method behind expert reading.  In brief, I argue that “becoming a good reader is essentially the method involved in becoming a good detective of literature. Just as a detective is trained to find clues at a crime scene, so too can the reader be trained to detect clues left by the author” (Hammond, 23).

The following is an excerpt from the chapter Staples of Interpretation, which outlines common techniques that many diverse writers employ:

The name an author gives to a character is also an access point into meaning. Caricatures meant to represent types are often given satirical names. This indicates the author’s attitude toward a recognized group of people.
The famous heroine of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is called Becky Sharp. Known for her ability to manipulate others, Becky Sharp is highly intelligent and cunning. In a word, she is sharp.
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the crude and ugly sounding names of Gatsby’s guests to allude to the unsavoury nature of the people who frequent his parties. As caricatures, they too are meant to suggest types rather than actual individuals. Along with being crude, many of the names evoke racist or sexually explicit slang words.

…Hornbeams…Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck…and Edgar Beaver…and the Ripley Snells…

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman uses the name of the playwright’s main character (Willy Loman, or “Low man”) to suggest his low social status as well as his low self-worth. As Biff Loman later states, the Lomans are examples of the average American – they are a dime a dozen. The play’s social statement is clear: the average American is viewed and treated in a low, demeaning way. This fact is made more tragic by the realization that average Americans also share this demeaning view of their own social class.
The name of Willy’s youngest son is also full of meaning.  Following the logic behind the oft quoted phrase Ignorance is Bliss, Happy Loman’s happiness in Death of a Salesman is attributed to his unawareness:

He, like his brother [Biff], is lost, but in a different way, for he has never allowed himself to turn his face toward defeat and is thus more confused and hard-skinned, although seemingly more content.

The name Happy, then, is an ironic one. The author means to show that happiness based on lies is a false happiness. Since he has purposely remained unaware of his failures and shortcomings, he does not have to deal with the negative feelings attached to them. As a consequence, Happy Loman will never make an attempt to improve his life situation.
Another character whose name is significant in Miller’s play is Dave Singleman. Dave Singleman, unlike Willy Loman, is a successful salesman. Willy Loman longs to “be remembered and loved and helped” the way Dave Singleman is by his clientele. However, as Singleman’s name suggests, Willy is remembered, loved, and helped in a way that Dave Singleman is not:  by both a wife and family. The argument of Dave Singleman’s marital status is made solely on the character’s last name. It takes time and hard work to become a successful salesman, time away from family and friends. Arthur Miller illustrates that Willy Loman is a success where Dave Singleman is not – in his personal life. It is for the reader to decide which kind of success is better: professional or personal.


1.  Match each lettered descriptive sentence with its corresponding name below:

 _____  Jake Barnes
 _____  Mr. Gradgrind  
 _____  Jack Thriftless        
 _____  Cheeryble Brothers 
 _____  Mrs. Mantrap           

A. a woman who ensnares men like prey
B. a man who owes money in every capital in Europe.
C. a cruel schoolmaster
D. always looking on the good side of things

2.  Which of the above names did you not select?  Why?

"Travelling again, Mr. Wanderlust?"

Hammond, Glen Paul.  The Literary Detective: A Guide to the Study of Great Literary
     Works.  Blurb, 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment