Doubling Down on Double Meanings of Book Titles

Titles of novels can be interesting for various reasons, including occasionally having more than one meaning.

Take the book I’m currently reading — Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars. Its main character, Elma York, is a brilliant mathematician who’s among the novel’s “calculating stars.” The apocalyptic work’s story line is also about sending rockets into outer space, where I hear there are stars. Perhaps “calculating stars,” if those heavenly bodies had anything to do with sending a meteorite crashing down at the start of Kowal’s book — obliterating much of America’s East Coast and setting off a cascade of climate change that could imperil the entire planet.

Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel Remarkable Creatures stars Mary Anning, a 19th-century amateur British paleontologist expert at finding and identifying fossils of dinosaurs (remarkable creatures indeed). This brilliant working-class woman and her friend Elizabeth are themselves remarkable creatures (humans) for the work they do and how they deal with sexist, condescending male scientists.

Elma York also deals with plenty of infuriating sexism in the 1950s as she attempts to become an astronaut in The Calculating Stars.

Then we have Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, which features Dellarobia Turnbow’s attempted flight from an unsatisfying marriage and is also about climate change affecting the flight behavior of monarch butterflies. But no space flight here. ๐Ÿ™‚

The title of (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That is of course a phrase referencing a feeling of resignation. Given the novel’s strong focus on the problematic U.S. medical system, the title can also refer to how expensive health care often is for individual Americans (yes, “so much for that” care).

Walter Mosley’s mystery A Red Death has a title that evokes both bloodshed and the era it’s set in — the “Red Scare” time when vile right-wing Senator Joe McCarthy targeted communists, alleged communists, and other innocent liberal-leaning people.

Colleen McCullough’s 18th-century-set Morgan’s Run has a title that evokes both a place and Richard Morgan’s dismaying run of bad luck that included being slammed with bogus criminal charges and shipped to an Australian penal colony. But his run of dramatic experiences has positive moments, too.

Jane Smiley’s Perestroika in Paris is about a French race horse named Perestroika who roams the City of Light after getting loose from her stable. The adventurous animal is aptly named because she ends up “restructuring” her life and the lives of several other critters and humans. The Russian word “perestroika,” which became well known under the leadership of the late Mikhail Gorbachev, means “restructuring.”

Philippa Gregory’s novel Earthly Joys has a title that refers to gardening/landscaping andโ€ฆsex.

Lisa Genova’s Still Alice stars brilliant Harvard professor Dr. Alice Howland, who is STILL Alice even after her mind is devastated by early-onset Alzheimer’s. Another title interpretation might be a bit of a stretch, but, as the disease advances, parts of Alice’s once-active mind become increasingly dormant (as in still).

And, in a different form of titular double meaning, Jack London gave the semi-autobiographical protagonist in his novel Martin Eden that name so it would have the initials “me.”

Any other multiple-meaning titles you’d like to mention?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a large, welcome promise of state money to help fix my town’s old school buildings — is here.

96 thoughts on “Doubling Down on Double Meanings of Book Titles

  1. This one really had me reaching into memory, Dave – you come up with such thought provoking posts!
    Thomas Hardyโ€™s โ€œTess of the Dโ€™Urbervillesโ€ comes to mind for me. The full title is โ€œTess of the Dโ€™Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presentedโ€. Tess is not โ€œof the Dโ€™Urbervillesโ€, but her life and the woman she becomes is shaped tragically by attempts to claim the potential heritage or derive some benefit from it. Her life is derailed by her husbandโ€™s ridiculous (I said it) reaction to considering her โ€œunpureโ€.

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  2. Given the reasonable expectations of readers familiar with other treatments of his deeds and misdeeds, the title of Byron’s satire “Don Juan” should be construed as ironic too. Because Byron’s Don Juan is a youthful and beautiful innocent, and most often during the rambling course of the poem, seduced by more powerful and more worldly women, and not the other way around. Juan responds to their attentions, but in no instance carries on a spirited campaign of romantic conquest and deception; nor does he treat his partners with cruelty. In nearly every conceivable way, Byron’s Juan behaves as if he were the traditional Spanish character’s opposite– though he does gladden the eye of several ladies.

    Given Byron’s own beauty and the heaps of trouble that more than once fell upon him as he followed his own inclinations in matters of love and marriage, in the writing of “Don Juan” he was making a sort of turnabout joke of his notorious past, and at the same time, a plea and a claim for his posterity– which he also saw as a fleeting thing unworthy of pursuit, yet somehow still in need of derisive defense by way of his pen.

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      • Changed.

        Fascinating comment, jhNY! “Don Juan” indeed sounds like an ironic title, from what you describe. And, yes, some writers try to massage their future, posthumous historical reputation by depicting a somewhat or very idealized version of themselves in semi-autobiographical works of fiction. And, of course, in more factual memoirs, if they write them.

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        • Inviting readers to consider the wronged innocence of his fictional construction gave Byron some room to riposte his critics, and some room to have a bit of fun– but I do think he was sincere as to the emptiness and futility of the pursuit of fame. Moreover, I think he was insulted by the fickleness of English taste, which placed him at the pinnacle of poets short years prior only to turn, of late, to such as Wordsworth and Coleridge– who Byron found to be likewise fickle, having, in the early days of the French Revolution, praised and promoted notions of equality and the rights of man, only to turn increasingly and conveniently conservative over the ensuing years. Byron, by contrast, maintained a decidedly republican and anti-monarchy point of view till he died, literally in the midst of a fight for independence from despotism.

          Although he wrote this line about a newspaper, William Hazlitt provides a pertinent quote: “There is nothing truly contemptible, save that which tacks and veers relentlessly before the breath of power.”

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  3. Hi Dave, i used the title Through the Nethergate for my first novel. Nethergate Street is the physical location where part of the novel is set. The Nether is also the world of the dead so Nethergate is the gateway to the afterlife in Norse mythology. A Ghost and His Gold also had a double meaning with my two main ghosts, Pieter and Estelle both having a relationship with physical gold. Britain’s determination to control the gold n the Witwatersrand and Queen Victoria’s death during the Second Anglo Boer War is also encapsulated in my title as was the missing Kruger gold, the whereabouts of which died with Paul Kruger. Many believe he stole the gold resources of the Republic of South African and took it abroad with him when he fled the war.

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  4. Natural History by Andrea Barrett, short stories about connections between a family’s nature and history rather than its usual definition. As re Frankenstein, I have to mention Frankkisstein by Jeanette Winterson a wonderful reimagination of Shelley’s novel. A few others: Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand’s darling book of the ultra conservative, even though she collected social security benefits quel surprise, ha) Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Not sure if all the above fit into your theme or no. Re: Frankisstein a link to a video summary by Winterson: https://youtu.be/pL0K1tzPk7U
    Thanx Dave for another thought provoking post. Susi

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susi! A clever use of “Natural History” by Andrea Barrett. And “Frankissstein” is some kind of wordplay! ๐Ÿ™‚ Last but not least, while Ayn Rand came up with some memorable book titles, she was indeed a flaming hypocrite.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Tana French’s first novel, “In the Woods”, has a title with a double meaning at least. On one level, it literally refers to three youngsters who went out into the trees near their homes, but it also refers to the enduring mystery of where two of them, or their bodies, might be, since only one was found, bereft of any useful memory which might lead to the discovery of his missing mates. The circumstances of their disappearance, the identity of their attackers remain, years later, lost in the wilds of time and memory “In the Woods”, literal and metaphorical. As does the career of a young detective, grown up, who was the boy who was found.

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  6. This is not a double meaning title but originally the title of Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel “Frankenstein” referred to the protagonist Victor Frankenstein. However, most people since the 19th Century thought that the title referred to the monster he constructed. I found this information on Wikipedia.

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    • I read the novel. It’s beautifully written and very atmospheric, better than any Frankenstein movie, frankly. I have never understood how people came to confuse the nameless ‘monster’ (really a metaphor of civic society outcasts) with his creator, Dr. Frankenstein.

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    • The whole title of the novel was “Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus”. An intercessor between the gods and Man, who brought the gift and curse of fire, but whose liver, after the judgment of the gods, was the eternal food of ravens daily, ‘Prometheus’ seems at first glance a strange appellation, in that a liver was removed from a cadaver and placed into the body cavity of the Monster, not taken from him.

      And the Doctor, suffering no doubt the condemnations and revulsion of the public due to the doings of his creation, and his own presumption of godlike power, suffered but little, and for very little time, in comparison with the trickster Titan.

      Yet each was a sort of embodied defiance of the gods, the Doctor for clumsily trespassing on the sacred province of creative divinity, the Monster for his existence itself, alone, without fellows, to suffer, his practical immortality beyond the powers of gods or Man.

      So maybe, the novel’s title could also be an example of a double meaning, in that the Doctor and the Monster might each be termed ‘a modern Prometheus’.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Dave – this post was indeed serendipitous for I just discovered the book, Finding the MotherTree, by Suzanne Simard. We have been in transit, traveling Via Rail. We happened to sit with someone who was in the middle of the book. With her recommendation, I logged into my on-line Vancouver Public Library and placed a hold on Finding the Mother Tree. It will be 18 weeks before it will come to me, a testament to the profound message that is held within the pages. This is not a novel, but it is a story that goes deep into our soul. Humanity is the lost child. When we find the Mother Tree, we are connected to a powerful force. I am reminded my Treebeard from J.R.R. Tolkienโ€™s, LOTR.

    โ€œSimard writes โ€“ in inspiring, illuminating, and accessible ways โ€“ how trees, living side by side for hundreds of years, have evolved, how they perceive one another, learn and adapt their behaviors, recognize neighbors, and remember the past; how they have agency about the future; elicit warnings and mount defenses, compete and cooperate with one another with sophistication, characteristics ascribed to human intelligence, traits that are the essence of civil societies โ€“ and at the center of it all, the Mother Trees: the mysterious, powerful forces that connect and sustain the others that surround them.โ€ https://suzannesimard.com/

    Liked by 4 people

      • Thank you, Rebecca and Audrey! Sounds like an amazing book — reminiscent somewhat of Richard Powers’ riveting tree-focused novel “The Overstory,” which I read a few months ago. From your descriptions of those long waits, “Finding the Mother Tree” is a much-desired work. And it has an excellent title!

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  8. I can’t think of a novel title with double meaning, but Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd” has an ironical title. It showed that the supposedly idyllic countryside was not immune to the irrational human behavior that was associated with crowded cities.

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    • Thank you! Yes, that Hardy novel has an ironic title — and “the supposedly idyllic countryside” is indeed not always idyllic. Heck, in the U.S., much of Trump’s base of support is of course in rural areas — which doesn’t exactly put those areas in the best light.

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  9. I’m inclined to think that most book titles refer to something extraneous to the book itself or have a layered meaning within the context of the book. An example of the latter: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, referring of course not just to the outlandish house on Middlesex boulevard, that has a central function in the novel, but to the protagonist’s dubious gender. A random example of the former is The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook, with the title referring to the aftermath of WW II, but also to that of personal loss of the main characters and their struggle for closure. Sometimes the title of a novel refers to a novel or body of work it is inspired by or builds on. The Hours by Michael Cunningham is a case in point, celebrating the art of Virginia Wolf even in the title, which, with similar effective succinctness, reminisces of Virginia Woolf’s masterpieces The Waves and The Years.ย 

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    • Thank you, Dingenom, for those three great examples of titles that can be looked at in different ways! Somehow I forgot to mention “Middlesex” in my post despite reading it several years ago and marveling at not only the novel itself but its dual-meaning title.

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      • And Woolf’s choice of the title “Orlando” for her book and its main character, a peculiarly long-lived nobleman/noblewoman, has its origins in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” wherein the character Orlando falls in love with a woman, Rosalind, who, disguised as a man, Ganymede, exchanges pastoral poems with Orlando while the latter is on the lam in the Forest of Arden.

        Maybe an alternate title for Woolf’s novel would be “Muddlesex”.

        Liked by 1 person

              • I’ve been reading a biography of Stendhal, which mentioned his boyhood enjoyment of the Ariosto poem, so I decided I’d take a look at it. Turns out to be a sort of transitional literary object, “a satire of chivalric tradition”, according to wikipedia– ‘Orlando’ being another name for ‘Roland’, as in Song Of– but written centuries after the historical era it would depict, and with a comparatively modern slant, as evidenced by Ariosto’s coinage of the term ‘humanism’. Wikipedia also describes “Orlando Furioso”(1516) as a “romance epic”. Read a few dozen verses out of an old translation from the Gutenberg Project, and found this arresting image:

                As a young roe or fawn of fallow deer,
                Who, mid the shelter of its native glade,
                Has seen a hungry pard or tiger tear
                The bosom of its bleeding dam, dismayed,
                Bounds, through the forest green in ceaseless fear
                Of the destroying beast, from shade to shade,
                And at each sapling touched, amid its pangs,
                Believes itself between the monster’s fangs”

                –Ariosto, “Orlando Furioso”, Book 1, Verse 34

                A kind of reverse Daphne image– Daphne being transformed into a tree, her fingers extending to branchlets and leaves as she flees the pursuing god, while here Angelica flees a pursuing foe as a doe might, fearful every branch that she brushes by are teeth.

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                  • That “satire of the chivalric tradition” made me think there’s a bit of a connection between Cervantes, writing a century later, and Ariosto. And yep, Cervantes quotes the man, though just where and how often I cannot get at, as the articles discussing both that cropped up in my search all require registration via my academic institution, and I ain’t got.

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  10. Great post Dave, with some great examples. Like the sound of the Chevalier one I must admit. Anyway, a very interesting topic cos I think of books I’ve picked up because of a word in the title and then found the book was about something entirely different. I remember reading Webb’s Precious Bane and somehow having the feeling that the bane would be a person. And actually while it’s said refer to the heroine’s brother’s love of money but then also this harelip she has, I still can’t help thinking of the brother as the bane of her life because he;s sher brother and she cares for him, despite all the cruel things he does. A Pin to See the Peepshow is another one with a double meaning title if you think of the word peep. The Peepshow is a cardboard box with this pin prick you look thorough to this magical world inside but a pin is also the cost of getting to see inside the box.

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    • Thank you, Shehanne! Yes, titles with double meanings can be appreciated while titles with misleading meanings are less appreciated. Your interpretation of “Precious Bane” does sound like it makes more sense than what it’s actually referring to. And “A Pin to See the Peepshow” is a great example fitting the theme of this post.

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      • Thanks Dave. I saw that one of the things that the Bane title was meant to be was about the money but I was never sure re how the precious ibit fitted with that. Another of her books, Gone to Earth seems to fit with the theme of the heroine’s pet fox and the fact that their den is called their earth, and is a term used in hunting them. But at the end of the book it’s the heroine who is being hunted along with her pet and how every step she’s taken throughout the story has led her to the moment of her going to earth.

        Liked by 3 people

    • Great, thought-provoking question, and examples! Another one could be books with the same title ๐Ÿ™‚

      How about Great Expectations? Seems to have several meanings, not only because of Pip’s changing expectations, and also because of Miss Havisham’s and Magwitchโ€™s “great” expectations. But mostly because of the irony behind the “great expectations”…

      Liked by 7 people

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