When It Comes to Character Names in Fiction, These Monikers Have Meaning

A character name can be any name, but sometimes it’s a very significant name.

Take Christopher Newman in Henry James’ The American. He’s depicted as seemingly a new type of man — unlike the supposed old type of men in the Europe visited by U.S. citizen Christopher.

In a later novel, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, we have 19th-century character Newland Archer — who lives in the “new land” of the U.S.

The idea for this blog post was suggested by my friend and National Society of Newspaper Columnists colleague Suzette Martinez Standring, who mentioned the Gogol character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Gogol’s father gave his son that name after the father’s life was saved in a train accident by a collection of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s short stories.

How about Roger Chillingworth of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter? That malevolent husband of Hester Prynne is…chilling.

On a more positive note, the first name of majestic attorney Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird just sounds so…majestic.

And Valancy Stirling of L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle has a character that’s…sterling.

Also, we have the “Plain Jane” trope, embodied by Jane Chapman before she undergoes a change in Liane Moriarty’s superb Big Little Lies (which I read this past week) and the iconic star of  Jane Eyre (though Charlotte Bronte’s novel predates that trope’s origins).

In Wuthering Heights by Charlotte’s sister Emily Bronte, the name Heathcliff has a raw, wild, earthy quality befitting that force-of-nature character.

Then there’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, of Walter Mosley’s mystery novels, whose first and last names juxtapose that character’s traits of having a prophetic, almost-biblical sense of justice combined with a relatively casual nature.

And the long-living Lazarus Long in a number of Robert A. Heinlein’s science-fiction works.

How about all the meaningful names in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series? Among them are the spacey/kindhearted Luna Lovegood, the tricky and weird Bellatrix Lestrange, the always-takes-umbrage Dolores Umbridge, the snake-like yet not-snake-like Severus Snape, and the mostly villainous Malfoy family — whose last name alludes to the French term for bad faith.

Then there’s the initials method of giving characters significant names. The semi-autobiographical protagonist in David Copperfield has the same-but-flipped initials of that novel’s author Charles Dickens — who of course also created many colorful/quirky characters with colorful/quirky names such as Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Wilkins Micawber, Martin Chuzzlewit, Betsey Trotwood, Cornelia Blimber, Kit Nubbles, Polly Toodle, Thomas Gradgrind, Fanny Squeers, and Newman Noggs.

Other initials-meaningful protagonists include Edith Wharton’s greedy/materialistic Undine Spragg (same opening letters as the United States) from The Custom of the Country; Jack London’s semi-autobiographical Martin Eden title character (“me,” i.e. London); and John Steinbeck’s righteous/injustice-fighting Jim Casy, the ex-preacher in The Grapes of Wrath with the same initials as Jesus Christ.

What names in literature strike you as being significant to the characters?

My 2017 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which looks at the death of an historic movie theater and a very much alive development travesty near my local library, is here.

Unfairness in Literature

I have unfairness on my mind these days. The unfairness of Trump — almost exactly a year ago — defeating the flawed but infinitely more qualified Hillary Clinton because of sexism, racism, the Electoral College, Russian interference, Republican voter-suppression efforts, etc. The unfairness of Democratic National Committee shenanigans helping to give Clinton an advantage in the 2016 primaries over the more progressive/less-corporate-tied Bernie Sanders — shenanigans again confirmed this month in a book by DNC insider Donna Brazile. And there are other unfair things, in and out of politics, too numerous to mention here.

That got me thinking about the many depictions of unfairness in literature — depictions that evoke all kinds of reader emotions: sorrow, anger, frustration, “I can relate to that in real life,” or “glad it wasn’t me in real life.” Sometimes things end well in those fictional works, and we’re happy in a wish-fulfillment sort of way. Other times things end badly, which is upsetting but perhaps more believable. Here are just a few examples:

In George Eliot’s Silas Marner, the title character is betrayed by his best friend — who not only falsely frames Silas of a crime but also ends up marrying Mr. Marner’s fiancee. Silas is devastated by those horribly unfair blows, and only an unexpected event helps him recover.

Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred shows African-American protagonist Dana living a pretty good life in 1970s California before she’s yanked back to a plantation in pre-Civil War years. As terribly unfair a destination as there is for someone involuntarily traveling in time.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin includes the slaveowner character Augustine St. Clare, who pledges to free Tom but never does the necessary paperwork before he (Augustine) unexpectedly dies. The results are tragic for Tom, who’s then sold to vicious plantation owner Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. Unfair is a gross understatement here.

The two main characters in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars have nothing but unfair lives as they each deal with ultra-serious medical conditions. But they meet and develop a wonderful relationship, until the unfairness escalates to another level…

In W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Philip Carey is unfairly born with a club foot that’s one of the things that takes a toll on his self-esteem. So, even though he’s a smart guy with good prospects, he ends up pathetically enamored with an unlikable woman spectacularly unsuited for him.

But, more often than not, female characters in literature experience more unfairness than male ones — whether it’s beleaguered welfare recipient Connie Ramos in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, several women in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, or the basically enslaved women in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, to name just three examples.

Then there’s the unfair way so many gay characters are treated by other characters in literature, as is the case with Molly Bolt of Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle.

In Peter Straub’s “Blue Rose” short story, which I read last month, a young boy is part of an extremely dysfunctional family. That unfair accident of birth is bad enough, but then his older brother begins manipulating him through hypnosis — leading to a shocking fate for the poor kid.

An example of the very ultimate in unfairness? In Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Australia’s residents await certain death from a wave of radiation set off by a nuclear war their country had nothing to do with.

What are some memorable fictional works that fit this topic for you?

(Also, debate about my first paragraph is welcome. 🙂 I know there are some Hillary Clinton supporters who regularly comment here, while I preferred Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. It would have been nice if Donna Brazile had waited until after the November 7 election to release her book, but it didn’t seem to hurt the Democrats last Tuesday.)

My 2017 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which looks at Election Day results, is here.

‘Compartment’-alizing With Trains in Literature

This blog sometimes goes off the rails, but I’d like to stay within them this week by offering a post about…trains.

Yes, trains have been a memorable part of various novels — maybe even more so than planes, buses, and other forms of mass transit (which, for churchgoers, can include any way you travel to Sunday mass).

There’s something sort of romantic about rail travel, even though trains (especially in the underfunded-mass-transit United States) are often rather unromantic. Other potential dramatic elements: the many-hours length of some train rides, strangers sitting near each other, long corridors, dining cars, station stops, sleeping berths, etc. And of course trains take characters to other locales — temporarily or permanently. So, with all the above, there’s plenty of time and places for great, good, bad, and awful things to happen.

Famous novels with a railway milieu? Of course, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, whose title says it all; and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, in which a man suggests to another man that they “trade” murders. Both made into memorable, well-known movies.

Somewhat less known, but perhaps the quintessential railway novel, is The Beast in Man. The train is practically a living character as its engine driver and other characters play out Emile Zola’s riveting tale of romance and violence — including an astonishing depiction of a train “accident” caused by sabotaged tracks. Obviously, 19th-century novels such as Zola’s were written pre-airplane and pre-car (or in the very early years of cars), so trains were a much more prominent travel option — in real life and novels.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake contains a horrific train accident in the father’s past — a significant moment that impacts the novel’s present.

Speaking of the present, I’m currently reading Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, in which we learn a lot about the protagonist in the novel’s first chapter as he rides a train, interacts with passengers and the porter, and uneasily dreams in a sleeping berth.

Then we of course have the Hogwarts Express in J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books. Harry, Hermione, and Ron first meet on that train, and many other things happen there as well. In the subsequent play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, there’s a pivotal Hogwarts Express scene involving the sons of Harry and Draco Malfoy.

On the subject of plays, the excellent On the Twentieth Century by Betty Comden and others is set on a train. Part musical, part drama, part screwball comedy, part farce.

And speaking of pivotal, there are several important rail scenes in Darryl Brock’s novel If I Never Get Back — including one in which the 20th-century protagonist goes back in time to the 19th century, and another in which that protagonist meets Mark Twain in a train-car corridor.

One obviously can’t forget Holocaust-novel scenes on or near the horrific Nazi death trains, such as a shocking/heart-wrenching moment in the William Styron-authored Sophie’s Choice.

And Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s description of the corpse train of murdered on-strike workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude is shattering.

One of the iconic rail scenes in literature involves the train-related fate of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina character.

Then there are subways. One gripping, suicidal, New York City-set underground event occurs in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novel Gone Tomorrow.

I see I’ve described a lot of bad things happening on trains. But some fictional works do offer positive tales of things like falling in love on the rails.

Novels can “take you places,” and trains help readers do that.

What are some of your favorite fictional works with train elements?

My 2017 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which comically previews Election Day, is here.

Deserving ‘Nobel Prize in Literature’ Recipients Who Haven’t Won Yet

Earlier this month, Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’ve read only one of his books — The Remains of the Day — but just from that novel alone I can see that he was deserving of fiction’s top honor. A magnificent, subtle work.

Ishiguro’s win got me thinking about living authors who have yet to receive a deserved Nobel. They include, among others, Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits, etc.), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, etc.), John Irving (The Cider House Rules, etc.), Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, etc.), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, etc.), Philip Roth (American Pastoral, etc.), and Alice Walker (The Color Purple, etc.).

Heck, when interviewed after learning of his Nobel naming, Ishiguro mentioned how deserving Atwood is of literature’s utmost prize.

Other writers I’ve read who should at least be considered? A.S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Haruki Murakami, and Anne Tyler, to name a few.

And how about Stephen King? Sure, he’s a mega-mass-audience writer, but some of his novels (I’ve read 15 of them) have plenty of literary elements. Plus King’s relentless output!

Or J.K. Rowling? Not only has she written the amazing Harry Potter books but the compelling non-fantasy novel The Casual Vacancy and detective fiction.

Then there are authors I’ve never read who, from their reputations, seem Nobel-worthy. Joyce Carol Oates is one prime example.

Heck, I wish any of the many names above had won the prize last year rather than Bob Dylan, a great songwriter but hardly a Nobel fit, in my opinion.

Perhaps they haven’t had enough output or long-enough careers yet, but I could also see future Nobel Prize in Literature consideration for Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Liane Moriarty, (Ms.) Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, and Donna Tartt, among others.

I’m sure I left out some very deserving names, including writers obscure to many readers. Who do you think should win the fiction Nobel who hasn’t — including authors I mentioned or didn’t mention?

My 2017 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which has a Halloween theme, is here.

Fiction’s Great and Grating Parental Expectations

You want drama in literature? How about story lines that focus on parents’ expectations for children, and the success or failure of their kids to meet those expectations. Also, does what the parents want match what their daughters or sons want? Often not.

Expectations are a big issue in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — the J.K. Rowling/Jack Thorne/John Tiffany play of which I’m currently reading the script in book form. The action takes place about 20 years after the amazing events in the seven Harry Potter novels, and Harry’s son Albus is having a heckuva time living up to his heroic, ultra-famous father.

In L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle (which features a different “castle” than Hogwarts), the narrow-minded mother has little confidence in the social and intellectual abilities of her bright daughter Valancy Stirling. Valancy proves her wrong by showing she’s an absolutely amazing person after leaving her oppressive childhood home.

Did the mother expect less of Valancy because of Valancy being a daughter rather than son? That reminds me of how the Tulliver parents in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss give their son Tom more respect, education, and responsibility than their much smarter, much nicer, stifled-in-her-ambition daughter Maggie. Patriarchy, sexism, and all that in what is probably Eliot’s most autobiographical novel.

On the more positive side, the man (not her biological father) who raises the title character in Fanny Burney’s 18th-century novel Evelina is a really nice guy who thinks the world of Evelina. While having some trepidation about her going to the big city (London), he believes she will do well in life. Evelina proves him correct.

The father-daughter dynamic is not as pleasant in Henry James’ Washington Square, in which Dr. Sloper is mean and controlling with his rather dull, dutiful daughter Catherine. Obviously, the dad doesn’t have high expectations for Catherine, who, while ending up having a mostly unhappy life, does become a more independent person who stands up for herself.

Another example of the father-son dynamic (besides Harry Potter and Albus) involves Gabriel Grimes and his stepson John in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. Gabriel is a religious hypocrite who expects John (a semi-autobiographical teen version of Baldwin) to be obedient and religious. The conflicted John sees Gabriel for the nasty man he is, but does have sort of a religious conversion that the reader figures will not last long.

Then there’s the obnoxiously “manly” dad (Henry Stamper) who expects little of his weak-ish younger son (Leland) in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Leland subverts that expectation, but only a little.

What have been some of the memorable novels for you that touch on this topic?

My 2017 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, about both overdevelopment and a curriculum that downplays novels, is here.

Elegiac to the Future: The End of Eras in Novels

This blog post will be about novels with strong elements of EOAE. Examples Of Author Excellence? Well, yes, but I’m actually referring to End Of An Era.

Yes, a number of novels have a poignant feeling that something major has ended or is coming to a close. Or it might be a “good riddance” feeling, if the era was rotten and better days could be ahead. Or it can be a combination of negative and positive.

My most recently read example of all this was Larry McMurtry’s The Last Kind Words Saloon — which includes an aging Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Buffalo Bill Cody in a cast experiencing the end of the Wild West. Sort of sad, because the frontier era was a major/crucial part of U.S. history, but it was also a time of huge negatives such as the decimation of the Native-American population.

Of course, Alex Haley’s Roots and other novels that include the demise of slavery after the American Civil War make a reader pleased that an atrocious era has ended. Yet there are still plenty of horrors to think about as U.S. racism continued to rear its ugly head in countless ways post-1865, as we see in books such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Then there are many novels that expertly capture the feeling of life immediately after the carnage of World War II. The relief and the optimism, but also the pessimism that sets in when some of the optimism is found wanting. One novel that does the pessimism part of that really well is Walter Mosley’s crime mystery Devil in a Blue Dress, set in late-1940s Los Angeles.

Speaking of WWII, Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion includes a major story line about women who served as pilots during that war. The part-nostalgic, part-indignant-at-sexism novel is set many decades later — when many of the characters are now old or deceased.

Set in an earlier time, Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons depicts, among other things, the end of the horse-and-buggy era and the start of the automobile age.

Going back even further in time, one of the compelling things about Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is the way a rural, homogenous English village begins to experience the industrial age and the arrival of people with more of an international background.

The end of an era can also involve a specific person, as is the case with the James Hilton novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips that chronicles the life of a beloved teacher at career’s end.

What are some of your favorite fictional works that fit the theme of this post?

My 2017 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which has a literature theme! — is here.

Graphic Novels Can Be Novels That Are Graphic Rather Than Graphic Novels!

I’ve written about literature for more than six years (including three-plus years at my own blog here), so it can sometimes be difficult to come up with new themes to discuss.

Case in point: I read The Fault in Our Stars late last month and, after shedding many tears, tried hard to think of how to fit John Green’s page-turningly impressive book into a theme I hadn’t specifically written about before. Death in literature? Been there. Young-adult (YA) novels? Done that. Etc. Also, I almost never focus on just one fictional work — this is not a book-review blog.

Then it occurred to me: Write about novels that don’t shy away from showing how painful and gruesome illness and death can be. Books — especially those written decades or centuries ago — often sanitize or sentimentalize those sorts of things, which can spare readers some emotional upheaval but make some of us feel we’re not getting enough realism.

The Fault in Our Stars, while extraordinarily inspiring and funny in many ways, does not go that latter route. What its two ill protagonists face (I won’t give specific details to avoid spoilers) is often depicted graphically and disgustingly. And a secondary character suffering from eye cancer? There’s a heartbreaking scene that will leave you totally shaken.

In So Much For That, Lionel Shriver also gets down and dirty with the details of three of her characters’ major physical ailments. But, as with John Green, Shriver offers enough upbeat moments to keep us reading. After all, most literature lovers don’t want to be depressed on every page. It also helps that Shriver, Green, and certain other authors offer tons of high-quality writing.

Things can also get pretty graphic when some novels depict (sexual or non-sexual) assaults, as is the case with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Abigail Tarttelin’s Golden Boy, Stephen King’s Misery, Richard Matheson’s Hunted Past Reason, Frank Bill’s Donnybrook, and James Patterson’s Kiss the Girls, among many other books. (Of course, sexual assault is really about violence rather than sex.) There’s a high blood quotient in many of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, too.

And some novels show the grievous physical and psychic toll of war more graphically than others. Among the books that don’t pull many punches in that area are Geraldine Brooks’ March, Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.

In the usually more sanitized pre-1900 era of literature, one of the most stomach-turning depictions of death comes near the end of Emile Zola’s 1880 novel Nana.

What are some of the memorable novels you’ve read that mostly tell it like it is when it comes to things like illness and death?

My next blog post will appear Monday, October 16, rather than Sunday, October 15. I have something to do that Sunday…what is it…what is it…oh…my older daughter Maggie is getting married! (Monday, October 16, note: I’m now shooting for a new blog posting on Tuesday, October 17.)

My 2017 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which includes advice to dress like a developer for Halloween, is here.