“What’s in a name?”: On the Omission of Names as a Literary Device

While some literary characters have memorable names, others aren't mentioned by their names at all. Let's find out why some authors decide not to name their characters.

What do the novels Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell have in common? “I’ve never read them,” you could say, or “nothing at all,” or even “they’ve all been written by women.” Although at first there may not be many similarities between these three wildly different books, there is one aspect they all share: The main characters remain nameless throughout all three novels. It is an interesting choice, so let’s take a close look at these three novels and find out why their authors have decided to omit names. Read on!

Let’s start with the most famous of these three books: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.The name Frankenstein usually evokes an image of a greenish creature with a mop of black hair and bolts through its neck. It’s one of the most famous monsters in literature, and was made immortal through Boris Karloff’s depiction in the screen adaptation of Frankenstein. Written in 1818 when she was only eighteen years old, this novel is about Victor Frankenstein, an ambitious scientist who wants to create life. While his motives are pure, his experiment goes terribly wrong; it turns out that the creature, which he put together by using body parts of the deceased, is ugly, unable to talk, and quite terrifying to look at. Victor runs away and leaves the monster behind. While the monster desperately wants to belong in society, nobody accepts it because of his horrifying appearance. It then decides to take revenge on his creator.

            Interestingly, this creature does not have a name, since its creator was preoccupied with being scared and running away from it. However, a more interesting reason is that naming something means one will become attached to it. Keeping the monster nameless shows just how alone it is in the world, without a single soul caring enough about it to give it a name. This monster compares itself to Lucifer, the angel turned devil who rebelled against God in Paradise Lost by John Milton, but it soon realises that the angel did have friends, and it was named by God himself. This illustrates that even God’s adversary was loved at the beginning. Also, note how I keep referring to the monster as an It? This makes it even less human and more monster-like.

            It is said that Mary Shelley did give a name to her famous monster, and, like Lucifer, it is a biblical reference. She called him Adam, after the very first man. Clearly Mary Shelley, unlike all the characters in her classic novel, cared about her monster very, very much.

Arguably the least famous of the three texts I will discuss here is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. This is ironic, since it is a sort-of prequel one of the most famous novels in English literature, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This nineteenth-century classic is about the eponymous heroine who, after many adventures, marries a Mr Rochester. He is old, ugly, blind, and, worst of all, married to a Creole madwoman. Wide Sargasso Sea is about this madwoman, Antoinetta Cosway, before she married Mr Rochester. While her future husband is an important character in the novel, he is never mentioned by his name. That’s because it’s not about him. Instead, it’s about how a rich Creole heiress is eventually driven into madness by the man who is forced to marry her.

            It is of great importance that Mr Rochester’s name is never mentioned, since his first wife has two; she is born as Antoinetta, but her husband keeps calling her Bertha. While the novel takes place right after slavery was abolished in the British Empire, Mr Rochester apparently still considers her his property, and is therefore entitled to change her name whenever he sees fit. Most slaves didn’t even have names.

            Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, is often considered a postcolonial novel, and it draws attention to the fact that Mr Rochester, representing England, rejected his Creole wife, which caused her descent into madness. Because Mr Rochester isn’t mentioned by his name, this notion of England taking colonies and leaving them to rot only becomes that much stronger. Rhys gave this madwoman a name and a history, and reduced Mr Rochester to a nameless man who took away her freedom and sanity. As such, she has reversed the roles commonly assigned to colonists and their so-called subjects.

Finally, let’s take a look at a person who is so famous that he doesn’t need to be addressed by his name. I don’t think there are many people on this world who haven’t heard of the name William Shakespeare. He’s the most famous playwright in the world, with plays such as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, and of course Hamlet. He has been dead for over four centuries, but his plays are still performed all over the world. It’s worth noting, therefore, that we don’t really know much about him – in fact, some people claim he never existed in the first place.

            While these theories would provide enough inspiration for at least ten blog posts, I would now like to focus on Hamnet, written by Maggie O’Farrell. The novel is about Shakespeare’s youngest son, who died of the Plague when he was still very young. In Hamnet, O’Farrell presents the theoryShakespeare was so overcome by grief at the death of his son, that he based a play on it, called Hamlet. While William Shakespeare plays a very important part in this novel, he is absent for most of it, and his name isn’t mentioned anywhere. Instead, Hamnet revolves around Hamnet, his sister Judith, and his mother Agnes, and is written from their points of view. Whenever they think of the man we know as William Shakespeare, they simply think of them as father or husband. Occasionally he is referred to as ‘the playwright’.

            There are two main reasons why Shakespeare isn’t mentioned by name in Hamnet. Firstly, this novel isn’t really about him; instead, it is about the family he left behind in his birth place Stratford-Upon-Avon, the family that is slowly falling apart in his absence. Secondly, O’Farrell must have made this choice to remind everyone that he was a man, too, with a wife and children. She demythifies (I am not sure whether this is actually a word, but since Shakespeare is regarded as the most inventive writer ever, adding thousands of words to the English language, I bet he wouldn’t mind) the legendary playwright, and turns him into a man of flesh and blood. The husband, the father, even the son, is the same as every single person who has ever lost a child. 

            As a reader, there is not a single moment you’re not aware of the fact that the absent father is William Shakespeare. Calling him by his name, however, would have drawn attention away from the tragedy that was taking place at his home, while he was in London making himself immortal.

In a nutshell, authors can have many reasons to leave out the names of their main characters. It could be because they do not want the audience to become attached to them, or it could be to address important issues, or it could be to place our attention elsewhere. Regardless of their reasons, omitting names is a literary device which, ironically, only increases the importance of these characters.  

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