Naming and Identity in Literature

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Behavior or Character Traits

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

A character in Robert Bird’s Nick of the Woods (1837) is Nathan Slaughter, suggesting possible character trait identity. This is confirmed when Nathan, also known as “Nick,” (“nick” seems an appropriate verb) gains the name “Bloody Nathan.” The apparently gentle Quaker turns out to be a violent man. Several characters in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841) are named or undergo name changes that describe behavior. One is Hurry Harry March in The Deerslayer (1841). His shooting an Indian girl impulsively and endangering his companions demonstrates the behavior that his name suggests. The identity of the title character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is revealed in his name. He represents Everyman, capable of yielding to temptation and desire as all humans are. His wife’s allegorical name, Faith, identifies her with the force of goodness in the world. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character Evangeline St. Clare, nicknamed Little Eva, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) has a name that fits this angelic, blond, blue-eyed maiden who dresses in pure white and embodies the Christian virtue of charity.

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In twentieth century literature, the inherently royal aspect of Uncle Caesar in O. Henry’s “A Municipal Report” is emphasized in “King Cettiwayo,” a nickname given at first in jest. Upon finding that Uncle Caesar (also suggesting royalty) is descended from African nobility, the narrator better understands the depth of his loyalty. The name of Sinclair Lewis’ Martin Arrowsmith in Arrowsmith (1925) suggests “straight as an arrow,” or steadfast, which is appropriate for this humanitarian scientist. Arrowsmith is an idealist who fights the temptation to compromise his integrity. The name Burden identifies characters in William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932) and Faulkner’s Joanna Burden is obsessed with the issue of slavery; her “burden” is to fight for equality to the end. Ellen Glasgow’s Mrs. Burden, in They Stooped to Folly (1929), is unable to free herself from the burden that her conscience imposes on her. The nickname “Haze” aptly describes the character Hazel Motes, a preacher with a flawed vision in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (1952). With a figurative “mote,” or particle, in his eye, his judgment is “hazy,” and he preaches an antireligious doctrine rather than Christian love. In another O’Connor story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953), the nickname the Misfit establishes the identity of a notorious escaped murderer. The African American writer Toni Morrison creates the character Dead Macon in Song of Solomon (1977). Because he is “dead” to human feeling as he relentlessly pursues material success, the name is a suitable one for this wealthy black businessman. The Native American writer James Welch nicknames the Blackfeet tribesman Fools Crow “White Man’s Dog” in Fools Crow (1986). Whatever his virtues are, Fools Crow is identified as being weak and overly subservient to whites.

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