Nominal Control: Dickens’s Little Dorrit and the Challenges of Onomancy

by Harry Heuser

The Skin Game

“A, B, C, D.  DA, DE, DI, DO.  Dictionary order.  Dorrit.  That’s the name, sir?” Mr. Pancks approaches a dumbfounded Arthur Clennam.  “That’s the name I want to know about” (Dickens 275).  Equipped with little more than this cognominal clue—and a notebook in which “supplementary information of any sort” is recorded (276)—Mr. Pancks sets out to restore the good name of the Dorrit family.  The name, so long hidden in the confines of a debtor’s prison, is once again made public, made publishable; it serves as a key to the fortunes of the Dorrits of Dorsetshire to which the Marshalsea Dorrits have been proven to be entitled.  Apparently secured and settled in futurity by this nominal link to the past, the Dorrits still have to face the perennial challenge of filling an old name with new meaning.  Yet about what names mean and how they fit each character properly there seems to be little certainty in Little Dorrit.

In Acts of Naming, Michael Ragussis posits that

the entire tradition of the novel exposes the way in which personal names function not as neutral referents but as labels of meaning—for the other characters in the text, who use naming to establish the meaning and value and use of a person, and for the reader, who inevitably uses the name to recall the meaning (the allegory) of the life story that the text inscribes.  (244)

That Dickens, throughout his career, was particularly attracted—and indeed indebted—to names “as labels of meaning” seems hardly in need of substantiation.  Even though it “has remained for more than a century the least popular of Dickens’s major novels, attracting less critical interest [. . .] than most of his other books” (Rosenberg 33), Little Dorrit has all the onomastic allurements of, say, David Copperfield.  It has, namely, a rich assortment of suggestive surnames, such as Plornish, Flintwinch, or Stiltstalking, and sobriquets such as Pet, Tip, or Altro.  It has its mispronounced names (Biraud for Rigaud, Cavallooro for Cavalletto) and its unpronounced names (A. B., P. Q., and X. Y.); its aptonyms (Mrs. Peddle and Pool, solicitors) and eponyms (Barnacleism); its cognominal chameleon (Rigaud, alias Blandois, alias Lagnier) and its renamed renegade (Harriet Beadle, alias Hattey, alias Tattycoram); its allegoric Everyman (Bishop, Bar, or Bench) and its Nobody.  In his Life of Charles Dickens, John Forster already noted that “Dickens has generally been thought, by the curious, to display not a few of his most characteristic traits in this particular field of invention” (309).

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