Friday, 23 November 2012

Names and Naming

The publication of Alastair Fowler’s Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature affords an opportunity to think about William Morris’s naming practices. Basically, there are two options in the field of literary nomenclature. Realist fiction wants its characters’ names to signify as little as possible, and ideally not at all, so Fielding’s Tom Jones, which Colin Burrow calls ‘the least interpretable name you could imagine’, is representative here. Other modes of fiction, such as allegory or Gothic, aspire towards the ‘Cratylic name’: in this case name and nature bond, as the former very strongly signifies what the character is or does. Charlotte Brontë gives us Jane Eyre (air) and Helen Burns (fire) as the four elements make themselves felt in her Gothic characterisation in that novel.

Morris doesn’t write realist fiction and in his late romances names are often unashamedly Cratylic. The central figures in The Story of the Glittering Plain are Hallblithe and Hostage, so we at once know exactly how and where the former likes to spend his time and what’s soon going to happen, in plot terms, to the latter. News from Nowhere, however, doesn’t fall into either camp and its names are therefore unsettling, we can’t quite tell if they are meaningful or not. George Brightling sounds like a Sigurdian sun-god appropriate to this happy utopia (compare Marissa Brightcloud in Callenbach’s Ecotopia), but though we hear of him he never actually features in the narrative. And consider Hammond/Hammersmith: is Morris working a pun there, phonetically asserting the unity of man and nature in his utopia? I’m not sure: maybe, maybe not. Or what about Biffen/Boffin? Why should those two names (Victorian boatyard/utopian dustman) be so curiously akin to each other? Is that phonetic resemblance semantically meaningful for Morris? Perhaps, then, we shall need a third category, beyond the realist/Cratylic binarism, for Morrisian naming in News from Nowhere.


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Tony Pinkney said...

Reading for our Morris-Browning session the other day reminded me of how Cratylic the names in Morris's poetry can be too. Godmar from 'The Haystack in the Floods' is surely the most spectacular example - how could you be other than morally vile with a name like that (God-mar)?