Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Best Dickens Name Ever?

The success of the new BBC "Bleak House" miniseries has reminded the world once again of the most important thing about Charles Dickens: the man really knew how to come up with a name for a character.

For the most part, names of characters in fiction tend to be a) chosen at random; b) chosen for some very obvious symbolic significance; or c) shout-outs to the writer's friends. Dickens was not averse to any of those reasons -- names like "Dedlock" or "Krook" are obviously supposed to tell us something about the characters they're attached to, and occasionally he'll disappoint us all with a conventional name, like "Mary Graham" (a bland name for the bland heroine of "Martin Chuzzlewit"). But the most memorable Dickensian names are the ones that don't have any particular meaning, but shape our reactions to the characters just by the way they sound. A good Dickens name is like a musical theme: it has no literal meaning, but it has all sorts of connotations.

Some examples from "Bleak House": Tulkinghorn, Jarndyce, Chadband, Rouncewell, Turveydrop, Skimpole, Hawdon. You can analyze why these names have the effects they do. "Tulkinghorn" sounds sinister because "tulk" mostly rhymes with mean-sounding words (bulk, hulk) and "horn" has several unpleasant connotations; "Skimpole" sounds like a perversion of "simple," and that's what the character's behavior amounts to. But analysis is almost beside the point: it's the pure sound that works. These names resonate in a way that more conventional names never could.

What's your choice for best Dickens name ever, or, beyond Dickens, the best name in fiction? My choice for best Dickensian name might well be the conventional choice, "Ebenezer Scrooge." I don't think the story could even work if he were called anything else; the name just seems to tell us exactly what he is without ever meaning anything specific. I'm also very partial to "Podsnap" ("Our Mutual Friend"), which Dickens liked enough that he tried to turn it into a catchphrase within the novel itself (sub-titling one of the chapters "Podsnappery").

1 comment:

Violet Cactus said...

Cool article! I completely agree with your ideas on the sounds of these names conjuring emotional reactions in the reader. Dickens was a genius!