One of the most important parts of anyone’s identity is that one’s name. Using a name gives one a unique personhood, which makes it easier to be seen as a real human being. Authors sometimes use this – by naming some characters and not naming others – to show which characters ‘matter’ and which don’t. Not naming a character can send an important message about other characters’ or society’s, view of that character.
For example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper introduces a young couple who’ve just had a baby. The husband is a physician named John; his wife (the narrator) is unnamed. That in itself says a great deal about her status. And, as the story goes on, we see that she’s got almost no agency. At John’s suggestion, the couple takes a summer home so his wife can recover from ‘temporary nervous depression.’ She is largely confined to the upstairs nursery and is strongly discouraged from going anywhere or seeing anyone. Little by little, she becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in the nursery, and with the woman she comes to believe is trapped there. Throughout the whole story, we see how John dominates his wife, and how little her own self seems to matter.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is written from the point of view of Maxim de Winter’s second wife. She is never named, and that’s consistent with the way she is portrayed in the novel. De Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, or at least her memory, still seems to dominate the household. Certainly Maxim’s housekeeper Mrs. Danvers doesn’t accept the new lady of the house. In fact, she finds all sorts of ways to be malicious and to put the new Mrs. de Winter ‘in her place.’ Gradually, we learn more about Rebecca and her marriage to Maxim. We also learn what happened when she died. It turns out that her death might not have been as straightforward as it seems at first. Throughout the novel, it’s clear that Maxim de Winter and his housekeeper ‘matter’ much more than his wife does, and du Maurier shows that in several ways, including not giving Mrs. de Winter a name.
Agatha Christie makes use of this strategy, too. In fact, in one of her novels (no titles, no spoilers!), the invisibility that comes from not really having a name, helps to ‘hide’ a murderer – for a time, at least. After all, if someone doesn’t really matter, and doesn’t really have an identity, who pays attention to that someone?
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men isn’t always thought of as a crime novel. Still, there is a tragic death, and several crimes are committed. In the story, migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Small travel to a farm looking for work. They are hired, and settle in. Things soon become difficult for them, though. For one thing, they left their last employment because Lennie was accused of attempted rape. He’s not guilty, by most people’s reckoning. He’s of limited intelligence, and didn’t understand why wanting to stroke a girl’s soft dress was wrong. Still, the incident haunts the two men. What’s more, the boss’ son Curley is arrogant and malicious, and his wife is flirtatious. Things soon spin out of control, until the situation ends in death. Although Curley’s wife matters in the plot, she is never given a name. That fact sends a message about her status. Another character, Crooks, is a Black stable hand who has his own quarters (so he doesn’t share quarters with white men). He’s called Crooks – nobody uses his real name – because of his crooked back. As a character, he has a personality, but isn’t given a name in the way many of the other characters are. That, too, sends a message about status.
Beryl Bainbridge’s Harriet Said takes place in a coastal village in Lancashire. The narrator, an unnamed 13-year-old girl, is waiting for her friend, 14-year-old Harriet, to return from a trip to Wales. The two of them have been collecting experiences and recording them in a journal that Harriet dictates. The narrator wants to keep doing this, but she doesn’t want to go on with the project until Harriet gets back. A bit at loose ends, the narrator strikes up a friendship with Peter Biggs, an unhappily married man in his forties. When Harriet returns, the narrator tells her about this new friendship. Harriet doesn’t want the narrator to be so emotional and obsessed about the man, so the two girls hatch a plan to ‘humble’ Biggs. When the girls see something they weren’t meant to see, everything changes and their plan spins out of control. The end result is tragic and horrible. Throughout the novel, Harriet dominates the relationship. She makes the decisions about what to do, when to do it, and what the narrator should think. She’s the one who ‘matters,’ and Bainbridge reinforces that by not giving the narrator a name.
Barbara Neely’s Blanche White is a strong protagonist who has a name and a definite personality. She’s a Black professional housekeeper who’s had several different employers (she does temporary as well as longer-term jobs). What’s interesting is that several of her employers don’t really see her as a person with a name. Some of them don’t even remember her name, or much about her. Part of the reason is race (her employers are often white). Part of it is also a matter of social class (‘I’ve hired a housekeeper.’ ‘Oh, who is she?’ ‘I don’t know, I got her from a temp agency.’) And for those employers, Blanche is more or less invisible. So long as dinner is on time, party menus are as planned, and the laundry done, it doesn’t matter. Neither does she. On the one hand, of course, that’s insulting. On the other, Blanche is often free to investigate, because no-one really notices what she’s doing.
There are other examples, too, of characters who are not named. That strategy is sometimes used to let readers know a character’s status. It can be an effective ‘show-not-tell’ way to convey something important about a character. Which have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fred Ebbs’ and Bob Fosse’s Mr. Cellophane.