Naming and Identity in Literature Analysis

The Issue

Names provide the primary means by which persons are known. The importance attached to naming a child varies among cultures. In some, naming is a ritual carried out with great ceremony; in others, the pleasing sound of a name or names of favorite book characters may be sources. In the United States, criteria for naming a child span the entire range from highly informal, even whimsical ones, to those based on considerable reflection.

Sometimes nicknames are temporary; others stick for a lifetime. Some nicknames are complimentary; others are neutral or derogatory. In any case, they are used when some characteristic is so marked that the nickname seems to identify the person more suitably than the actual name does. Furthermore, a person may acquire a name completely different from that given at birth. Some are adopted to hide one’s identity or to show significant behavioral change, for example. In literature as in life, nicknames fall into several categories such as those associated with ethnicity or race, status or position, regional practices or customs, geographical location, and identification with religious or classical figures.

Ethnicity or Race

Names or name changes that identify a character’s ethnic group or race abound in North American literature. The African American writer, Harriet E. Wilson, published Our Nig (1859), in which Frado, a mulatto, is called “Our Nig” by her white masters. The subtitle, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North, Showing that Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There, explains the irony of the nickname. Willa Cather is representative of American writers who have focused on the experience of immigrants in the United States. Her use of noticeably Old World names establishes that identity. Among these works is O Pioneers! (1913) which tells of the experiences of the Swedish immigrants in the Bergson family on the Nebraska frontier. In The Song of the Lark (1915), the Swedish immigrant is Thea Kronborg, daughter of a Methodist minister in Colorado. My Ántonia (1918) returns to the Nebraska prairie in the story of Ántonia Shimerda, daughter of Bohemian immigrants. The mixture of Anglo-American and Asian names in such novels as Yoshiko Uchida’s The Best Bad Thing (1983) demonstrates the family’s sense of being torn between tradition and the desire to become more American.

The World War II era produced a number of works in which names identify ethnicity. For example, in 1941, Thomas Bell (originally Belejcak) published Out of This Furnace, in which John Dobrejcak is given two nicknames: “Dobie,” reflecting a shortened name, and “Hunky” to indicate his Bohemian background. Tennessee Williams, in The Glass Menagerie (1944), deliberately uses the Irish name Jim O’Connor for the “gentleman caller”; because of his Irish name, Laura’s mother automatically assumes that he surely must like to drink, a behavior that she rejects. Norman Mailer, in the World War II novel The Naked and the Dead (1948), uses names to highlight racial diversity. Julio Martinez is a Latino from San Antonio, Texas; Roy Gallagher has an Irish background; Joey Goldstein is stereotypically New York Jewish; “Polack” Czienwiez’s name and nickname reflect his Polish-American ethnicity; Steve Minetta is Italian American; and William Brown represents the “all-round American,” the “typical” white Protestant American.

Social Status Labels

Names or nicknames can also indicate social standing, or lack of it, as representative examples indicate. Thomas N. Page is only one writer who names a character Mammy to designate a black slave in his Red Rock (1898). At the other end of the social scale, Williams, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), nicknames a wealthy plantation owner and his wife Big Daddy and Big Mama Pollitt. Rather than size, the nicknames identify them as the “bosses” on the plantation. Ralph Ellison’s character of the Invisible Man emphasizes a total lack of identity, for in a racist society, he feels invisible, without an identity.

Skills or Talents

Another name source identifies some skill or inherent gift. One early example is Hawkeye in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo is called Hawkeye because of his precise marksmanship. In the later novel The Pathfinder (1840), he is called Pathfinder because of his extraordinary ability in the forest. Although the infant could not know of the “gift” he was credited with having, Tommy Luck in Bret Harte’s “The Luck of Roaring Camp” is so named because, when he is born into a rough, untamed work camp community, he has an amazing softening effect on the profane, tough men. In a later novel, Lady Oracle (1976) by the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, Joan Foster first adopts her late aunt’s name, Louisa K. Delacourt, and later develops an alter ego, Lady Oracle, because of her success as a mystic poet. Claude McKay, in Banjo: A Story Without a Plot (1929), gives the nickname “Banjo” to the character Lincoln Agrippa Daily because of his identity as a banjo player.


Some characters are associated with physical characteristics. For example, in Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick (1867), the title character is never identified by any other name in this “rags to riches” story. John Steinbeck’s adolescent character Edward Carson in The Wayward Bus (1947) is nicknamed “Pimples” because of his skin condition. Similarly, in James Jones’s World War II novel From Here to Eternity (1951) Judson is known as “Fatso” because of his size. The title character Little Big Man in Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel serves a double purpose: to identify him with his short stature and to become his Indian name as a brave. The “Big” is indicative of his bravery and worthiness, since the lad is described as slender.


Especially in literature of the American South, although not exclusively, a number of novels and stories contain characters who are identifiable largely by nicknames that reflect regional practices or geographic location. In the works of many Southern writers, use of the title “Miss” plus the first name (Miss Sallie, for example) identifies the character with the South. In some cases, the reader is never told the complete name. In the case of Kentuck in Harte’s “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” the miner who carries this nickname is identified with a place of geographical origin.


In the case of characters who are given names of figures in classical or biblical literature or with religious associations, their identity is dependent on the reader’s knowing what the intended symbolic association is. For example, Pauline Cambron, who takes the name Sister Dolorosa in James L. Allen’s story “Sister Dolorosa,” illustrates a double intention. Her identity as a Roman Catholic nun is straightforward; however, the name “Dolorosa” further establishes an identity with suffering (dolorosa means “painful” or “suffering pain”). This is in character with the nun, for although she is attracted to a man, she keeps her vows and consigns herself to lifelong penance for having entertained thoughts of...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Blicksilver, Edith, ed. The Ethnic American Woman: Problems, Protests, Lifestyle. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1978. While naming is not the focus of this work, it provides the background out of which stereotyping of minority groups can occur.

Butcher, Philip, ed. The Minority Presence in American Literature: 1600-1900. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1977. Excerpts from more than thirty writers whose work contains ethnic minority characters.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. An insightful...

(The entire section is 145 words.)