What’s In a Name?

One of the fundamental principles of structuralism is “the arbitrariness of the sign,” the idea that there is no necessary, existential connection between a word and its referent. Not “rightly is they called pigs,” as the man said, but by linguistic chance. Other words serve the same purpose in other languages. As Shakespeare observed, anticipating Ferdinand de Saussure by three centuries, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Proper names have an odd and interesting status in this respect. Our first names are usually given to us with semantic intent, having for our parents some pleasant or hopeful association which we may or may not live up to. Surnames however are generally perceived as arbitrary, whatever descriptive force they may once have had. We don’t expect our neighbour Mr Shepherd to look after sheep, or mentally associate him with that occupation. If he is a character in a novel, however, pastoral and perhaps biblical associations will inevitably come into play. One of the great mysteries of literary history is what exactly the supremely respectable Henry James meant by calling one of his characters Fanny Assingham.

In a novel names are never neutral. They always signify, if it is only ordinariness. Comic, satiric or didactic writers can afford to be exuberantly inventive, or obviously allegorical, in their naming (Thwackum, Pumblechook, Pilgrim). Realistic novelists favour mundane names with appropriate connotations (Emma Woodhouse, Adam Bede). The naming of characters is always an important part of creating them, involving many considerations and hesitations, which I can most conveniently illustrate from my own experience. …

This novel [Nice Work] concerns the relationship between the managing director of an engineering company and a young academic who is obliged to “shadow” him. … [I]n naming the characters I was looking for names that would seem “natural” enough to mask their symbolic appropriateness. I named the man Vic Wilcox to suggest, beneath the ordinariness and Englishness of the name, a rather aggressive, even coarse masculinity (by association with victor, will and cock), and I soon settled on Penrose for the surname of my heroine for its contrasting connotations of literature and beauty (pen and rose). I hesitated for some time, however, about the choice of her first name, vacillating between Rachel, Rebecca and Roberta, and I remember that this held up progress on Chapter Two considerably because I couldn’t imaginatively inhabit this character until her name was fixed. Eventually I discovered in a dictionary of names that Robin or Robyn is sometimes used as a familiar form of Roberta. An androgynous name seemed highly appropriate to my feminist and assertive heroine, and immediately suggested a new twist to the plot: Wilcox would be expecting a male Robin to turn up at his factory.

About halfway through writing the novel I realized that I had selected for Vic, perhaps by the same mental route as E. M. Forster, the surname of the chief male character in Howard’s End, Henry Wilcox—another man of business who becomes enamoured of an intellectual woman. Rather than change my hero’s name, I incorporated Howard’s End into the intertextual level of the novel, emphasizing the parallels between the two books—by, for instance, the legend on the tee-shirt of Robyn’s student, Marion, “only connect” (the epigraph to Forster’s novel). And why Marion? Perhaps because she is a “maid” whose innocence and virtue Robyn (cf. Robin Hood) is anxious to protect, perhaps because the young, as it were potential, George Eliot (who figures prominently in Robyn’s teaching) was called Marian Evans. I say “perhaps” because authors are not always conscious of their motivation in these matters.

David Lodge

Transcribed by me from pages 36–38 of my American first edition copy of The Art of Fiction, © 1993 Viking Penguin.


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