When a Book Title’s Words Return

Tommy Orange and his novel.

Amid the big pleasures of reading fiction are some small pleasures, and one of them is when a novel’s title appears in the body of the book.

I’m of course not talking about novels whose titles are a person or place; those names will inevitably be mentioned multiple times in a book’s pages. I’m talking about the more evocative matter of novels with titles you might initially puzzle over, or with titles you’re kind of familiar with but are curious how they’ll be used in the book.

I just read There There, whose title can be interpreted in various ways. Tommy Orange’s impressive, compelling, VERY painful 2018 novel focuses on about a dozen contemporary Native-American characters — mostly residents of Oakland, Calif., and its urban milieu. Many of the characters are struggling with racism (at the hands of the white power structure), poverty, broken families, addiction, and other problems. They are “accidents waiting to happen,” which happens to be a line in Radiohead’s 2003 song “There There” — a song Orange mentions in the book. Later on, the author also mentions Gertrude Stein’s famous quote “There is no there there” — about…Oakland, Calif.

On top of that, Orange constantly bounces the narrative from one character to another, or, to put it a different way, from one household (there) to another household (there). Finally, we think of “there, there…” as a phrase expressing sympathy — something many of Orange’s characters can use, especially during the novel’s shattering climax.

Another impressive, compelling, VERY painful recent novel — Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give — has a title many readers have heard somewhere before. Sure enough, the book mentions rapper Tupac Shakur’s concept of “THUG LIFE”: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” The traumatic events in Thomas’ 2017 novel — about a white cop’s murder of a young black man and what ensues — certainly bear that out.

The two words in Zadie Smith’s intriguingly titled White Teeth show up more than once in her multiethnic novel. Those words refer to how people of all types are essentially the same (most originally have white teeth) yet have some differences (teeth can turn yellow or be in various other conditions). And one way racism is historically mentioned in Smith’s novel is via the horrid memory of racist/murderous white soldiers spotting vulnerable Africans in the dark by the contrast of their white teeth and dark skin.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has a title that of course conveys the anger of exploited, impoverished people (including the Joad family) treated badly by such entities as American big business and law enforcement. But will those four words, also known for being part of the 19th-century “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” turn up in the novel? They do, in this memorably striking passage: “…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

In some cases, readers think a title means one thing but it turns out to mean something else when the words pop up in the novel — an ambiguity often crafted deliberately by the authors. For instance, the latest Jack Reacher thriller by Lee Child and Andrew Child is called The Sentinel and one of course thinks of someone who stands guard. But we eventually learn that “The Sentinel” is the name of a software program pivotal to the novel’s plot.

Any examples you’d like to offer that fit the theme of this post?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which looks at allegations of mayoral conflicts of interest — is here.

69 thoughts on “When a Book Title’s Words Return

  1. Hi Dave,

    Sorry, I’m a little late to this particular party. I’m glad you liked The Hate U Give. I must admit, the misspelling of “you” bothered me a little when I first picked this book up, but the meaning of the title is explained very well in the novel. I’m embarrassed to think how naive I was when I first read this, thinking that it was both over-exaggerated, and unlikely for the characters that Angie Thomas created to go through such misery just because they were black.

    I recently read Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer which is the exact opposite of this week’s topic, but I loved it too much to not mention it. Though the title isn’t even remotely obscure. It’s about lots of perfume, and just a little bit of murder. But absolutely unputdownable. And I’m still undecided about whether I fell in love with the main character, or whether I completely loathed him!

    I’ve also started reading The Remains of the Day. Being that the title is about “remains”, I’m thinking that I might have to wait until the end of the book before I know exactly how it fits. It doesn’t seem like it’s gong to take me too long to get through this shortish book by Kazuo Ishiguo though. It’s so nice to actually be reading again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! “The Hate U Give” is indeed a devastating novel, and unfortunately not over-exaggerated in a U.S. awash with racism and way too much violence by white police officers against Black citizens.

      Yes, some book titles are more direct/informational than evocative, and that’s totally fine.

      “The Remains of the Day” is such a gorgeously written, subtle, memorable novel. I would be interested in hearing what you think when you finish it!


  2. Puppet by Joy Fielding comes to mind.
    It’s been years since I read the book. I do remember the word “puppet” being repeated throughout the novel, it’s a haunting of sorts.
    Although, this is not my fave book by Joy, that part is memorable.
    Grand Avenue is my fave book by her. I’ve read most of her books.

    Funny, the first thing I thought was “View to a Kill”, a James Bond movie. I know it’s a movie not a book. Still the line is repeated at some point when the bad guys are high up… on a bridge I think. The main bad guy looks down and says “a view to a kill”.

    Fun with books and Dave!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa!

      It can be very effective when a repeated word “haunts” a book. Reminds me a bit of the multiple use of the phrase “So it goes” in Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” though of course “So it goes” wasn’t that novel’s title. I will look for “Grand Avenue” or another Joy Fielding novel during a future library visit; I’ve never read her work.

      Clever re-use of the “view to kill” phrase in that Bond film!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Robbie! That’s an excellent, memorable example of a title repeated in the body of the novel! (A shame Stephen Crane died so young, in his 20s. Many great books not written.)


  3. Initially all I could think was that Shakespeare must have used many of his titles in his plays – ‘As you Like it’, ‘All’s Well that End’s Well’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’….I’m not 100% sure of course but it seems like he should have done at the very least!
    And then my mind went off on a tangent, when writers haven’t so much as used the titles of their novels in their writing but actually inserted themselves writing a book as some sort of meta-reference. Orhan Pamuk in ‘Silent House’ refers to himself…of course I can’t find the exact quote now.
    And then I came up with a legitimate one – ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James.
    Got there in the end!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! I haven’t read enough Shakespeare to know for sure, but it would seem logical that the plays of his that had phrase titles rather than people-name titles might have the phrases in the play’s dialogue.

      And, yes, it’s interesting when authors insert themselves in their novels — sort of “breaking the fourth wall.” Herman Melville did that in a way via the semiautobiographical novel-writing protagonist in his novel “Pierre.”

      Liked by 2 people

  4. In a hurry, for the moment–
    I admit this week I haven’t read all the comments before making my own, so if has been mentioned by others, I apologize:

    The “Charterhouse of Parma” by Stendhal. The title reappears once– on the last page.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m so glad you got to read this book! It is one of those that has stuck with me ever since I read it. The first ten pages alone were enough to keep me pretty somber for a good few days after I read them. Although I have to admit, while I noticed the direct uses of the title throughout the book, I never thought much about the symbolic callbacks that you mentioned here. Really good pick up! 🙂 And you know I’m always going to love it when you mention the Grapes of Wrath, probably one of my favorite books of all time. The Hate U Give is also so good, one of those that has stuck with me. She released a prequel recently that has to do with Star’s father. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard good things! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! And, again, I’m very glad you recommended “There There”!

      Yes, the novel’s first few pages about the abhorrent way Native Americans were treated in U.S. history were shocking and heartbreaking. 😦

      “The Grapes of Wrath” is also one of my favorite novels ever. And, like you, I’ve heard good things about “The Hate U Give” prequel. Maverick absolutely was an interesting enough character to have his own book.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. At first sight I thought that I couldn’t think of any answer to your very interesting question, Dave, but then Ca’ts Eye by Margaret Atwood came to my mind and the way Elaine, as a child, was somehow continuously under strict controll, like by cat’s eyes, above all, by her good friend Cordelia, which could not be hated for this reason. Cat’s eyes even accompanied me, when later on the roles of these two girls were swapped and the problem not solved.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I am going to go off on a tangent because I just found a new book – non-fiction – on why we need to get rid of the word “slum.” I have always despised that word because it leads to stereotyping!!! “In the new book Slums: The History of a Global Injustice, Australian academic Alan Mayne argues that the term is so freighted with historical distortions that it should be retired.” This would be an interesting read, because many novels speak of the idea of “slums” I’m looking back into Victorian literature beginning with Dickens. Novels give a call to action and alert us to the need. Seeking policies to overcome poverty must be wholistic and embrace stories and cultural memory. As always, Dave, you have given me something to think about in the coming days. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-10/the-case-for-retiring-the-word-slum

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca! Glad you went off on that tangent. Some words can be so loaded with negative connotations that it’s worthwhile not to use them. Even well-meaning authors — such as Dickens, who you mentioned — could/can always do better. Of course, some use of loaded language was “of its time,” but still…

      Liked by 3 people

        • I recently used the term ‘slumlord’ to describe property owners who, especially when I became aware of it in the 60s, referred to those who failed to maintain safe living conditions for their tenants. We often use simple words, because it takes too long to describe exactly what the behavior depicts. I read There There and what it showed me was actual identity theft, not the money related kind or cultural appropriation or the woke crowd’s self identification. The people depicted in Orange’s story struggle with what it means to be, culturally speaking, part of a specific community. Another author who presents this well is Louise Erdrich, especially her Love Medicine series. Simply brilliant. The history of governments destroying culture continues to grow today through the power of destroying language.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Thank you, Mary Jo! Well said, and profound. Native Americans have indeed been stripped, or nearly stripped, of so much: land, identity, culture… It’s no wonder that many of them have difficulties ranging from economic to emotional — as Tommy Orange expertly and painfully depicts in “There There.”

            Liked by 2 people

      • I was looking up the definition of “slum” and came up with this: a squalid and overcrowded urban street or district inhabited by very poor people. This definition begs that we investigate other terms such as the word “poor” “overcrowded” “Squalid.” There is room for interpretation and stereotyping. Charles Dickens was brilliant as were other Victorian writers in pointing out the necessity to change – mostly with mindset. I found an excellent article on VictorianWeb.org which I think you will find very interesting: https://victorianweb.org/genre/slumfiction/intro.html. As for the use of the word, slum – it has made a comeback in 1999 when the United Nations initiative “Cities Without Slums” was introduced. Then there was a UN 2003 report “The Challenges of Slums.” Slum is just a word, but as you know so well, there is meaning in words. I love our conversations, Liz!

        Liked by 2 people

    • It’s interesting that you should bring this up. I was writing a blog and almost used the word “ghetto” but felt uncomfortable doing so. Ended using the phrase “poor neighbourhood” but not sure whether those words were a better substitute?

      Liked by 2 people

      • I understand your hesitancy. Poverty is so difficult to describe. I remember visiting a home where we had to share a glass because they only had one glass in their home. But there was no poverty of spirit, only a wonderful welcome and acceptance. I have experienced great loneliness in places where there were many glasses. We define poor in monetary terms, but poor covers so much more.

        Liked by 2 people

    • For me Rebecca, the word slum is associated with criminality more than poverty. I think this is a factor of the way ‘slums’ are depicted in thrillers. They are the places where the criminal element always originate from. Here in SA we don’t use the word slums. We have squatter camps. Many of the inhabitants are foreigners who have built a makeshift home out of corrugated iron and other discarded material and live in it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • “…the word slum is associated with criminality more than poverty” — that’s an excellent point, Roberta! Another reason why that word is not good to use in most situations, because of course most lower-income people are not criminals. Heck, when one takes “white-collar crime” into account, a higher percentage of rich people are criminals.

        Liked by 1 person

      • An excellent insight, Robbie. We are influenced by the definitions described in the the news, articles and books. The statistics on homelessness are staggering. This is a complex problem that will require a multi-disciplinary approach. For example, Vancouver’s real estate prices are soaring making it difficult for home ownership. I believe that books have the power to increase empathy. Richard Wagamese, a brilliant Canadian author was able to speak of his past without generating guilt. Instead, he gave readers a glimpse of his world and in so doing, prompted a paradigm shift in thinking. He wrote: “ When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness. That’s what they inflicted on us.” Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse

        Liked by 1 person

        • So true, Rebecca! Homelessness is not a “moral failing,” but often the result of outside pressures — such as soaring housing prices while wages stay stagnant (if one hasn’t lost their job). And those are very wise, sobering words from Richard Wagamese. Thank you for citing them.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. It turns out, Dave, that “The Sentinel” you mention near the end of your post was the name of the first commercial newspaper for which I worked one summer in my hometown, The Woodstock (Ill.) Daily Sentinel. May it rest in peace. It stood guard, as you say, for years, but now the only local paper there is The Woodstock Independent (https://www.thewoodstockindependent.com/), whose publisher is a friend. And it does a really fine job.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Bill! I love “Sentinel” as a newspaper name; there’s also the Orlando Sentinel, among others. Evocative name, and it describes what newspapers do at their best (with some of course falling woefully short of that ideal). The first newspaper I worked for after college — The Register in Shrewsbury, New Jersey — is also gone, like so many others.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This sounds a fascinating book Dave, I must check it out. talking Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men …apart from the Rabbie Burns connection always struck me a s great title for that book. All the little plans George and Lenny are just that. Bit on some other level, the title always struck me as deeper than that. Talking titles that strike you as a reader , as one thing and turn out to mean another, I know I’ve talked about A Pin to see the Peepshow before, but I thought it was like making a pinprick in a box to see the peepshow, which is a little world of cut outs in a cardboard box, that looks incredible apparently when you peep through the hole. But the title comes from the cost of viewing the contents of the box. A pin in other words.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne!

      “Of Mice and Men” IS a terrific title — like the titles of a number of other Steinbeck novels: “East of Eden,” “The Winter of Our Discontent,” “Of Dubious Battle”…

      “A Pin to See the Peepshow” does sound like a memorable example of an evocative title that doesn’t quite mean what readers would initially think it means.

      Liked by 3 people

        • Very well said, Shehanne, and you’re absolutely right! Some authors definitely had/have the title knack. Also W. Somerset Maugham, Erich Maria Remarque, Carson McCullers, and Barbara Kingsolver, to name a few others.

          Liked by 3 people

          • Then there’s “The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure”, by Jack Handey. The title made me open the book; the laughs within made me buy it.

            As did “Hope: A Tragedy”, by Shalom Auslander.

            I also own “Fanaticism, by the Author of Natural History of Enthusiasm”, (Isaac Taylor, 1833)– bought on the strength of the title alone. But inside, I found something that helped me understand phenomena such as Q-anon:
            “…superstition, as if with a power of fascination, has always been drawing men from extensive surfaces toward some one vortex of delusion…”

            Liked by 2 people

            • Of course, now that I think of it, I should have listed a book you’ve read too: “The Financial Lives of the Poets”, by Jess Walter– I figured, at time of purchase, knowing nothing of Walter, that the title alone earned him a chance on my reading table.

              Liked by 2 people

              • All terrific, VERY intriguing titles, jhNY — containing irony, surprise, humor, and other offbeat elements. The juxtaposition of “Stench” and beautiful, seemingly pristine Hawaii is definitely an eye-opener. And that’s an excellent excerpt from “Fanaticism”!

                Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, incarceratedshadows! That’s a great example! Many fiction fans (and others) now know what the phrase “Catch-22” means, but it was so interesting to first find out the meaning when reading Joseph Heller’s hilarious/scathing novel for the first time.

      Liked by 2 people

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