One of the joys in reading Dickens’ novels is discovering the wonderful names he creates for his characters. The most famous characters – Pip, Estella, David Copperfield, Sydney Carton, Scrooge — do not usually possess the most delightful names. It is often the minor characters whose names bring a moment of joy to Dickensian readers. Could anyone but Dickens have created the wretched school principal in Hard Times named Mr. McChoakumchild? Is it possible to come up with a name at once more ludicrous, pompous, and flabby-sounding than the ludicrous, pompous, flabby Uncle Pumblechook? And even bored high school students, when forced to read Oliver Twist, become breathless with shock and glee over the name of one of Oliver’s little pals, Charlie Bates. Dickens insists on using the term “Master” in front of the last name and metamorphoses the young man into the memorable and quite risqué Master Bates!
As a novelist, Dickens was aware of the great opportunity he had when naming his characters, who, by the way, numbered over 3,000 (!) by the end of his writing career. Clues to the character’s personality could be blatantly or subtly suggested in the name itself. Dickens took full advantage of this technique. Look at his famous character in the yellowed wedding dress whom Pip mistakenly thinks of as his benefactress in Great Expectations: Miss Havisham. She lived her entire life with the warped belief that revenge should consume the betrayed victim. Dickens proves to us that such an idea is a dangerous sham. Because she possessed this wrongful spirit of revenge which ultimately possessed her, Dickens names her Miss “Have-A-Sham” or “Havisham.”
As an author, Dickens had an advantage with naming that we lack in real life. Authors are able to name their creations after they’ve decided what personality that character will possess. But parents must name their children at birth, long before they have many clues as to what type of person their child will actually become. I’m convinced that our first names can help shape our future character and ambitions, and I use my own name as an example.
I was named for my father’s favorite brother, who had died at a young age shortly before I was born. His name was “Ernest,” but my father thought the name was a bit too old-fashioned and merely kept its initial and so I became “Elliot.” Given the fact that I am now a professor of Victorian literature, it’s probably for the best that I do not bear a first name which represents the one virtue that Victorians most admired and that Oscar Wilde most deplored in his anti-Victorian satire, The Importance of Being Earnest.
I was not happy at all with my first name during elementary school. I longed for a more regular-sounding name such as “Bob” or “Bill” or “Steve.” And since “The Untouchables with Eliot Ness” was a very popular television show during my early years, I was good-naturedly taunted with “Elliot Mess” more times than I care to remember.
But the name I most wanted was that of the boy who sat across the aisle from me in third grade: Butch. Now THERE was a name that peers respected. He went on to play football in college and almost made a professional team. I went on to a doctoral program in English literature. Somehow, I almost believe that if I had been named “Butch” and he “Elliot” I would have been the pigskin star and you would now be reading his literary essay.
In any event, I have come to be quite fond of my first name. When Mary Ann Evans, the Victorian novelist, was asked why she chose “George Eliot” for her pen name she said she had always liked the word “Eliot” because it was a “good, mouth-filling word.” I now agree. The three syllables of "Elliot" do not flow trippingly from the tongue; they are all rather substantial and, I like to believe, a bit sophisticated (perhaps because the last syllable is pronounced “yacht”). My father might have dismissed the name “Ernest” for its Victorianism (as Wilde did in his famous play), but he produced a son who not only has embraced the Victorians for his profession but has spent his life writing, directing, and starring in a rather tolerable, or, perhaps to my critics, an INtolerable drama entitled “The Importance of Being Elliot.”