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.
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.