Our favorite characters often have really kick-ass, interesting, or otherwise unheard-of names. Since writers have full license over their imaginary worlds, why would they bother with Bobs, Henrys, or Sallys when they can pull names like “Violet Osbourne” or “Marty McFly” out of their authorial magicians’ hats? Maybe they know a name’s actual origins, or maybe they’re more concerned with their aesthetic. With some detective work into your favorite characters’ names, you may discover some clues concerning their deeper meanings or even ancestral origins.
Perhaps one of the most controversial books of the last century, Lolita has stirred the sentiments (and stomachs) of its readers with its beautiful narration of a terrible tale. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, tells us the story of how and why he abducted a little girl named Dolores Haze, whom he calls “Lolita.”
The name “Lolita” on its own doesn’t mean anything independent of the novel, winning a dictionary definition after the story gained widespread popularity in 1959. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “lolita” as a “precociously seductive girl” as a result of the character being the object of Humbert Humbert’s sexual fantasies. But let’s cut to the core of Nabokov’s intentions with some grammatical and semantic inspection.
The original character’s name “Dolores” is actually a Spanish name that translates as “sorrows,” and is commonly associated with the Virgin Mary: Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, “Our Lady of Sorrows.” This allusion conveniently equates Humbert Humbert’s victim with a heroic martyr, someone who had to suffer for a cause beyond themselves, in this case an underage girl to satisfy a monster’s pleasures.
By giving Lolita a Spanish name, Humbert has perhaps also made her “foreign” in his mind, creating a safe distance between him and her grief. In fact, by adding the diminutive suffix “-ita” to “Lola,” which means tiny or small, the name “Lolita” explicitly translates to “little sorrows.”
Is her last name just a coincidence? Maybe not. Haze ran refer to a thick mist or a state of disarray and confusion. Is this not what Humbert does with his narration, obscuring the true feelings of this young woman who he’s abused? Has he not glazed over her suffering in placing his enjoyment and desires at the forefront of the novel?
Perhaps the most tragic part of the story is we never will get to know the story of Dolores Haze. Maybe “Lolita” says it all.
A Brave New World
In A Brave New World, Bernard Marx is a character of contradictions: dominating but short in stature, outwardly condemning lascivious behaviors but brewing with sexual frustration, masculine but full of insecurities. This juxtaposition between outward social attitudes and a person’s true inner nature is a core conflict that Adolf Huxley aimed to expose in an “Age of Utopias.” This era marked the rise of ideas of a “perfect society,” leading to the nightmares of fascist, communist, and eugenicist governments on a global scale.
The contradictions in Bernard Marx’s character are gripping. But this isn’t the most interesting thing about him.
The first name comes from the Irish playwright, Bernard Shaw. Although Bernard Shaw was a critic of social injustices, he also propagated the idea that social welfare should only be given to the healthy and genetically fit, ideas that fall in line with the elitism and eugenic ideals in Huxley’s dystopian society. Bernard Marx’s last name comes from the theoretical founder of communism, Karl Marx, who touted egalitarian politics whilst leading a sloppy life in his London flat and cheating on his devoted wife.
Both intellectuals embody a host of contradictory motives, just as Bernard Marx does as he criticizes status-seeking and lustful behaviors in the process of becoming a power-hungry, womanizing fiend.
Maybe Huxley was trying to tell us to be wary of the morally righteous because we never know what contradictions are waiting to be discovered. Even if they’re right there in in their name.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
A Series of Unfortunate Events is riddled with mysterious origins and other puzzles that have the reader’s brow furrowed all throughout the series. The three orphans, Sunny, Violet, and Klaus Baudelaire embark on a journey to find the truth about their parents and the secrets that gradually overwhelm their lives. Their last name “Baudelaire” and its origin is equally cryptic.
In French, the name is recorded historically as Badelaire and Bazelaire, which both refer to a short knife.
The author Daniel Handler, a.k.a. “Lemony Snicket,” alludes to their relation to the famous French poet, Charles Baudelaire, who, like the Baudelaire orphans, lived in continual misery and mayhem in an industrialized Paris. He believed in a rightness beyond popular conceptions of morality, a persistent theme throughout the series as the orphans find themselves doing “wrong” things that, in their despondent circumstances, feel like the right thing to do. During many instances, we revel in the most tragic moments of the story, resonating with a statement made by the dreary Charles Baudelaire:
“I can barely conceive of a beauty in which there is no melancholy.”
Despite this allusion to some kind of relation with the poet, Handler stated in an interview with Nicole Epstein that “the Baudelaires are Jewish! I guess we would not know for sure, but we would strongly suspect it,” citing their “manner” as an indicator. He elaborated: “I think there is something naturally Jewish about unending misery. […] I’m Jewish so, by default, the characters I create are Jewish, I think.”
I guess their origins, along with many other Snicket puzzles, will remain a mystery.
There are many more character names to investigate. Just a little detective work, a dictionary, and literary analysis may bring you closer to understanding who your favorite characters are, what they represent, and why their author breathed life into them. We can never be sure of what an author’s intentions were in naming their creations, but we can speculate for a minute that their origins and meanings lie outside of the pages. And don’t they already do?