A Curious Affectation

January 7th, 2005 · 3 Comments
by Booksquare

We don’t often talk about books we’ve read (mostly because there are others who do such talking far more eloquently), but there was something curious in the last two books we read. Both featured a large cast of characters, all of whom were named. Except one. In both books, one character, the same character, was not given the dignity of a name, a persona.

It was peculiar: two nameless husbands in a row. In both cases, the marriages were bad, but throughout both books, so were countless other relationships. It was unclear why these husbands were treated so cavalierly — no really, we have pondered this issue for days, and do not understand the literary logic behind this. The men were clearly unimportant to protagonists (and we use the term rather loosely), the dissolution of marriage was not treated as a significant emotional milestone, but neighborhood dogs and ex-boyfriends were given more character than the men the heroines slept with.

One of our critique partners once reviewed one of her early works and noted that she’d been so name-happy, she’d, “Even named the heroine’s childhood horse that was only mentioned once. In passing.” Jill spent considerable time creating a character name — the name needed to reflect the man inside. Names provide information about a character, serving as a type of shorthand. And not naming a character has meaning — usually it is someone minor or mysterious or something. We couldn’t find anything mysterious about nameless husbands. They were without name for what we can only presume is some sort of curious fashion in the literary world.

File Under: Tools and Craft

3 responses so far ↓

  • Karen // Jan 7, 2005 at 6:43 pm

    Funny you should mention this. Old Hag had a post today about how hard it is to get into Susan Sontag’s novels — I commented that The Volcano Lover is compelling, once you get past the chilly style. Afterwards, I started thinking about how Sontag never once names Lord Nelson in that book (everyone else is named), going for things like “The Commander.” (At least I THINK that’s what she did — I’ve just spent 20 minutes cruising my bookshelves and I can’t find the damn thing.) Since it was Sontag, she undoubtedly had a good reason, but what? It bothers me. And now I’ll never know.

  • booksquare // Jan 8, 2005 at 11:19 am

    You know, I can almost understand the approach Sontag took — Nelson was as much a title as he was a human being (though I cannot imagine Emma Hamilton calling Commander in private moments. It was a great period for bizarre nicknames.

    I understand about not finding things on the bookshelves. It is well known that many books are able to rearrange themselves based on a cataloguing system known only to them. Our human concepts of alphabet and order are no match for the logic of a book.

    Curious in soaking wet Pasadena,

  • Karen // Jan 8, 2005 at 5:37 pm

    Well, I’m relieved that it wasn’t just my imagination that Nelson went unnamed in the novel. Your line about him being a “title” made me laugh.

    I’ve been following your monsoon in the news. My cousin in Altadena has had flooding at her house. Here in Rainland (Oregon) it’s cold, but all brilliant blue skies. Very odd.