I Have Issues with Fictional Characters’ Names

I’m teaching Henry James’s “Daisy Miller: A Study,” a very frequently taught short story, in my just-started American lit class.  If you haven’t read it, or read it a long time ago, it’s an ostentatiously written drama from 1878 about a group of privileged Americans living in Europe and their reaction to a new-money girl, the title character, as seen through the perspective of Winterbourne, a young man who finds her, in a word repeated a million times, “pretty.”  Nearly everything about the story is ambiguous or could be argued from either side, which is one of the reasons it works so well in a class: is Daisy a strong, free-spirited proto-feminist, or a foolish girl?  Does she understand the way the vicious polite society talks about her behind her back—and if so, what does this say about her behavior?  Does Winterbourne really love her—or does Daisy really love him—or are they both toying with each other in different ways?  Does Daisy—does Winterbourne?—understand what she—or he?—is doing?  Does Daisy’s [do I really need to say Spoiler Alert about a story that’s over 130 years old? Fine. “Spoiler Alert.”] death at the end suggest a misogynistic society, a kind of death wish, recklessness,  or just a fogey author who needs to punish his own literary creation?  Is Daisy “innocent”—another repeated word throughout the story—or, in the words of Jimi Hendrix, experienced?  Is this even a fair question?  Does Winterbourne experience an epiphany at the end thanks to some revealed information, or has he learned nothing? And over a hundred years of scholarship more.

HOWEVER.  For all the complexity, intricacy, and layered ways of reading, one aspect stands out: for all of James’s painstaking realism and period detail—clothes, speech, scenery—Daisy’s and Winterbourne’s names are so heavy-handedly symbolic that they threaten to bring everything down.  “Daisy”=fresh, lovely flower; “Winterbourne”=bearing or aspiring toward cold. ‘Cause you know, winter kills flowers! So much for subtlety.    

Maybe it’s more complicated—Daisy’s real first name isn’t even “Daisy;” it’s “Annie.” Her last name “Miller” could be analyzed, and Winterbourne’s first name, “Frederick,” could be worked in.  But the headline “WINTER KILLS FLOWER!” is inescapable.

Last month I wrote about Lev Grossman and The Magicians.  As much as I love the novel and admire the marriage of magic and realism, the main character’s name, Quentin Coldwater, still leaves me, um, cold.  A book-smart kid from Brooklyn (something I know a little about) is far more likely to have a name like Chang, or Furci, or Jackson, or Reddy, or really, for that matter, Grossman.  Like Winterbourne, Coldwater connotes someone chilled in his emotions, and “throw cold water on” means “criticize something that people are enthusiastic about,”  both of which describe Quentin well.  (“Coldwater Creek” and women’s apparel, less so).    

And the alliteration is reminiscent of real-life writer Quentin Crisp; of course, Crisp changed his name from Dennis Pratt.  Quentin Coldwater is closer to Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, but for me is most reminiscent of superhero names—especially recent X-Men villain Quentin Quire—and the never ending litany of Clark Kents, Peter Parkers, Lex Luthors, and Bruce Banners.   OK, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have alliteration, but he has two first names, along with Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Steve Trevor (Wonder Woman’s love interest).   Speaking of Steve, Dr. Stephen Strange gets—who could have seen it coming?—mystical powers! Dr. Victor Freeze develops cold powers!  And Dr. Victor Von Doom’s parents should have changed every name involved.  I don’t know what he’s a doctor of, but I’m guessing it’s not English.  As J. Jonah Jameson (triple alliteration!) slyly notes, of Dr. Octopus, “Guy named Otto Octavius winds up with eight limbs. Four mechanical arms welded right onto his body. What are the odds?”  Pretty good, I’d say.    

Would you take a college course from this man?

The Wizard of Oz pits sweet but sassy Dorothy Gale (meaning: “a very strong wind”—cyclone?) against wicked Mrs. Gulch (“a rocky ravine”).  The Bourne Identity’s Jason Bourne—Quentin Coldwater gets the Winter, Jason gets the Bourne—rediscovers his true self after losing his memory and becoming, quote unquote “born,” if you will, by fighting the covert operations who had previously employed him.  Guy named Bourne gets amnesia.  What are the odds?   Lev Grossman held a contest in December on his blog to provide a last name for one of his main characters, Julia.  The result: Julia Wicker. Gal named Wicker winds up becoming a witch.  What are the odds?   

But what’s the alternative to non-symbolic names?  While Hermione Granger gets both mythological allusion and a last name metaphorically fitting her reading habits, title character Harry Potter gets the Everyman treatment—no allusions, no symbolism.  But then, the LACK becomes the point.  His nonsymbolic name symbolizes his very ordinariness and relatability.  The Big Lebowski’s unliterary name is itself funny, and like Daisy, he then anoints himself anew. (The Dude also Anoints.)  I would quote Juliet’s “What’s in a name?” here, but Romeo and Juliet’s names have become symbolic, even if they didn’t start that way. 

When names belong to fictional characters, then, they’re either already filled with meaning, or we can’t help but fill them with meaning ourselves. 

Even if it would be unfair to warn women with floral names to stay away from Winterbournes , or Coldwaters, in real life.  Maybe they should, just to be on the safe side.

Time: 60 minutes, not counting making the My Name Is Daisy Miller image or, as usual, uploading.

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13 thoughts on “I Have Issues with Fictional Characters’ Names

  1. Michelle says:

    Very insightful post. Not too often have I stopped to ponder the thought about characters names in correlation to the type of character being portrayed in books or in movies. I love food for thought so I definitely look forward to reading more from your blog!

    • jkavadlo says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Michelle. I’m pretty sure that most writers put a lot of thought into their characters’ names, not unlike the thought people put into the names for their children! But unlike real people’s names, fictional names are fair game for analysis. Hope to read more comments from you.

  2. Jaime B. says:

    I kind of have a thing for names and etymology, so I also notice these things about characters in fiction (I won’t call it literature). Still, when reading this post, I kept picturing Stephenie Meyer saying (of Edward and Bella’s daughter Reneesme), “Well, I couldn’t call her Jennifer or Ashley. What do you name the most unique baby in the world? I looked through a lot of baby name websites. Eventually I realized that there was no human name that was going to work for me, so I surrendered to necessity and made up my own.” I’d like to poke Ms. Meyer with a spork.

    • jkavadlo says:

      Hi Jaime. I didn’t get that far in Twilight, although the name “Bella Swan” did cross my mind as I was writing this. So I don’t know anything about Edward and Bella’s daughter Renezsfsadxsfuyubsme. I do feel sorry for Kristin S and Robert P when they need to pronounce that monstrosity regularly in the last movie. Thanks for posting and bringing this to my attention.

      • Jaime B. says:

        I just need to say that I didn’t make it past the first half of the first Twilight book. I didn’t want you to think that’s the kind of thing I read. LOL.

  3. Janice Cable says:

    Or why novelists (at least contemporary novelists and those not writing for children) should take a more subtle approach to character names than burlesque dancers do.

  4. jkavadlo says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Janice. I wonder if the reason for characters’ and dancers’ overt names are even similar: to get the reader (or viewer) to picture specific, certain, er, things.

  5. jkavadlo says:

    Thanks for clarifying, Jaime. I don’t judge.

  6. Another ping-back, meaning I cross-indexed/refered to this entry in another entry.

    […] 2/6/12: Here’s that blog on Quentin’s name: https://jessekavadlo.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/i-have-issues-with-fictional-characters-names/ Share this:TwitterFacebookMoreTumblrLinkedInLike this:LikeOne blogger likes this post. Tagged […]

  7. Jeff says:

    I enjoyed this, and found it insightful, but what’s a writer to do, then?

    I’ve finished the rough draft of a novel that transformed itself as I was writing from what was originally supposed to be a bit of fun genre fiction into something a more literary. My main character (although not [I hope,] a Mary Sue,) is not an everyman, or intended to be seen as such.

    It feels like the name ought to relate to the character’s themes (humanism, hope, and sacrifice) or to something about him, but how can I tell what choices would be truly insightful, merely clever, or even trite?

    Thanks for posting this, and for any thoughts you’re willing to share.

    • Hourman says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jeff. Yes, self-conscious writers will have a problem with names, but rest assured that the majority of readers don’t share my concerns, hence 50 Shades of Gray’s Anastasia Steele and Christian Gray, possibly the least likely and most ham-handed fictional names yet. Or there’s always Dickens’s and Pynchon’s approach, which is to go for the most over the top name with gusto.

      Funny that I didn’t give much thoughts to famous fictional characters who actually have effective names. It would be a great future blog piece. Thanks for the inspiration.

  8. […] Kavadlo, the author of the blog Hourman takes issue with the meanings of names in Henry James’ Daisy Miller, calling “Daisy”, and […]

  9. […] the basic Superhero 101 stuff: Walter White has an alliterative name   : Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Reed Richards, ad infinitum); he has a sidekick who is younger and […]

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