Nominal Control: Dickens’s Little Dorrit and the Challenges of Onomancy
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).
As one among the many curious, Donald Hawes, remarks in his discussion of “David Copperfield’s Names”:
Interpretation of the different names and styles can be an interpretation of the stages in the development of [the hero’s] character, his social status, his emotions [. . .] and his personal relationships. (87)
In his comparison of the names and fates of Murdstone, Headstone, Durdles, and Little Dorrit’s very own Merdle, Harry Stone goes even further when he asserts that:
[e]ach character enacts his name. Each name, in turn, signals the truth within; each name is a token of being and of destiny. Each name, to use a formula from the catechism that Dickens loved to echo and to parody, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace—or, in these four instances, gracelessness. (“What’s in a Name” 203; emphasis added)
Even in the case of Edwin Drood, its author having met his Atropos before the narrative’s knotted threads could reach their denouement, critics continue to speculate in how far the names of Dickens’s characters “seem to suggest their fates” (Bleiler 141).
Apparently, readers are not satisfied merely recalling the “meaning (the allegory) of the life story that the text inscribes,” as Ragussis suggests. Instead, they actively participate in co-creating characters, in fashioning lives and predicting fates based on the nominal signposts the author provides. In Dichtung und Wahrheit, Goethe declares that a name is like a living integument to the person whose identity it envelops, since it is “wie die Haut selbst ihm über und über angewachsen, an der man nicht schaben und schinden darf, ohne ihn selbst zu verletzen” (447). Dickens’s names, however, seem to resemble instead the tattooed skin of Melville’s Queequeg: lives wrapped up and destinies foreshadowed in indelible ink, visible to all, but entirely legible only to the authorial pelt-prophet and the mantic interpreters of integumentation. That anything might have been left to chance, that the ink might have been applied by a tattoo artist ignorant of or indifferent to the fates of his subjects seems unfathomable to most readers.
Indeed, onomastically inclined readers generally approach Dickens’s novels with the confidence that personal names are deeply meaningful; while temporarily corrupted or artfully concealed, Dickens’s name-pelts with all their manifold inscriptions and corrugations are expected to be pellucid, are argued to represent character and, ultimately, to reveal truths. Ragussis suggests that the
family’s attempt to fix identity through the name has its parallel in the critic’s most characteristic approach to names in fiction. The critic elucidates character through the name, sometimes even making an equation between name and person that fixes character once and for all. (8)
In other words, whereas Dickens’s characters are expected to fashion their lives by trying to make a name for themselves, Dickens’s readers often seek to determine the destiny of these characters by investigating in how far they live up to the surnames furnished by the cunning chronicler.
In Little Dorrit, however, a reader’s trust in names as tokens of being and destiny is thoroughly tested: meanings are assigned and destinies altered in an elaborate—and highly self-conscious—naming game that engages reader, character, and author alike without ever disclosing its regle du jeu. And although names are a conspicuous feature in Little Dorrit—as they always are in Dickens’ art—their prominence is often made suspect. As a result, the existence of a Dickensian philosophy of names is continuously hinted at, promised perhaps, but, at the same time, denied.
While, as Joseph Bottum argues, David Copperfield’s nomenclature may already suggest that the “tension between meaning and reference—the tension of that word for this thing—is no longer just in the author’s struggle against his own writing but rather is translated into the story” (437), the existence of suitable names is, despite much deception, not questioned. Indeed, the ability to disclose false names and identities is crucial to David’s maturation. Bottum concludes that, in David Copperfield, “[t]rue names [. . .] survive to signify the unity of concept and thing” (455). Little Dorrit, on the other hand, may be read at once as an attempt to shatter the reader’s faith in suitable and synoptic surnames, and as a response to, if not a recantation of, the traditional naming plot exemplified by novels such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.
Whereas the first book of Little Dorrit ends with the restoration of the good name of the Dorrit family—thus with a traditional ending to the naming plot—the story continues in ways our confident name-conjurer Mr. Pancks did not foresee. William Dorrit, after all, is not destined to enjoy the newly restored privileges of his name. Even though he now finds himself in the company of the “illustrious Merdle, Bar, Bishop, Treasury, Chorus, Everybody” who are anxious to make his acquaintance, even though he is aware that “the name of Dorrit was always a passport to the great presence of Merdle” (619), Amy’s father has been shaped instead by a title bestowed upon him by the inmates of the debtor’s prison.
The prison society, consisting of men who “assumed facetious names, as the Brick, Bellows, Old Gooseberry, Wideawake, Snooks, Mops, Cutaway, the Dogs-meat Man,” has successfully supplanted the name Dorrit with the title “Father of the Marshalsea” (65). “Father of the Marshalsea” is a handle by which Amy’s father, “so loftily conscious of the family name” (232), is pulled back into the past, the memory of which he seeks to suppress. As an earned title granted to him, it has become far more meaningful to—and representative of—the former prisoner than “Dorrit,” the inherited, resurrected family name. Shortly before his death, Amy’s father breaks down in front of his assembled guests, muttering:
I am accustomed to be complimented by strangers as the—ha—Father of the Marshalsea. Certainly, if years of residence may establish a claim to so—ha—honourable a title, I may accept the—hum—conferred distinction. (648)
It is an act of unmasking in which a genuine family name is revealed to be a persona, and in which a fitting title, chosen with care, has proven to be the living skin of the person underneath.
In many ways, names are the old man’s undoing. When his servant announces Flora Finching, Amy’s father is still secure under his mask, scoffing at Flora’s own “ridiculous name” (620). Flora, however, plays an important role as messenger, as remembrancer to the old man. She has learned about the Dorrits’s connections to Arthur Clennam in a newspaper (622), and by voicing the name of the old man’s former friend, “summoned back discarded reminiscences which jarred with the Merdle dinner-table” (625). Finally, unable to imbue his old name with new meaning, unable to strip the title that has defined his adult life, the old man, “he” whom Dickens no longer calls William Dorrit, ceases to exist: and as “a deeper shadow than the shadow of the Marshalsea” steals over his “cherished face,” all expressions of personality fade away, leaving his countenance “fair and blank” (650). Thus, the naming plot in Little Dorrit, or at least this particular plot line, ends not in the disclosure of a real name, or of the real meaning of a name, but rather in the disclosure of the name as meaningless and unsuitable. “That there was a right name,” Stone argues, Dickens “had no doubt” (“What’s in a Name” 191). Yet Little Dorrit seems rather determined to expose this very confidence in naming as dubious.
True, right, or well-chosen names, after all, may not only serve to foreshadow the development of character and plot; they may also threaten to overshadow the very life of a novel. Can it be deemed expedient, Dickens may have wondered, that, in the reader’s mind, a small number of proper nouns like Fagin, Scrooge, or Quilp should absorb the luxuriance of his richly irrigated imaginary landscape, that they should freeze and congeal into cubes of meaning the pulsating stream of his fiction?
Indeed, the very notion of predetermined, fixed characterizations through names and labels appears to be antithetical to the novel in general and the bildungsroman in particular. As Ragussis asserts, the theory of natural names
comes dangerously close to reducing people to things, to assigning a “meaning” to a person and thereby neglecting what I take to be the tacit goal of the novel—the telling of a complicated and varied individual life story. (11)
Yet, as Ragussis points out, Dickens himself has often come “dangerously close” to this act of reduction:
The farthest extreme of the theory of the natural name would require of a character the predictable reenactment over and over of a central trait—what Dickens’s minor characters often produce, in the background of the primary action. (11)
In Little Dorrit, the debate whether nomen ought to be considered omen, usually enacted by Dickens’s minor characters, is brought to the fore and posited as a central argument. As acts of naming are being questioned and the traditional naming plots are being uprooted and subverted, everyone delighting in onomancy and dictionary order—reader, character, and author alike—is urged to reflect upon, and perhaps reconsider, the worship of names, Christian and otherwise.
The Lexical Fix
DA, DE, DI, DO. Dorrit. How can a small group of characters be expected to enact the name Dorrit? What—and how—does D-o-r-r-i-t (a small group of characters) mean? After all, the name seems to spell rags one day and riches another, just as the name Bellows can be found among the Marshalsea’s inmates (Dickens 65), as well as among Merdle’s intimates (249). “[E]verything in fiction is under powerful pressure to have sense,” Paul Pickrel remarks in “Character as Nominal,” and “names are under particular pressure to mean for the very reason that they are far less lexically fixed than the words around them” (68). In their pursuit of meaning by means of lexical fixing, critics, unless content to discover Dickensian anthroponyms “actually borne by living people” (Roe 83) or to demonstrate Dickens’s “preference for double consonants in surnames” (Conrow 91), invariably turn to the Oxford English Dictionary for definitive dictionary order.
Under this lexical influence Kalyan B. Ray observes that “dorr”—the closest approximation to Dorrit the OED seems to yield—”means variously a dung beetle or a bumble bee, and figuratively a drone, a lazy idler. This is a good description of William, Edward, and Fanny Dorrit” (10). Ray continues this investigation by adding that
“dor” also means a “fool.” And “dort” means “ill humor and sulkiness” which are the characteristics of William, Edward, and Fanny Dorrit when they are balked. To be “dorty” also means to be “saucy and haughty” and Fanny Dorrit is certainly both [. . .]. (11)
At a loss to account for Amy Dorrit’s personality in this fashion, Ray concludes that “from such a perspective Amy has little of Dorrit in her, although she is born amid filth, stench, and flies” (11).
Onomastic scholars anxious to trace the “hidden springs of meaning” (Stone, “What’s in a Name” 203) often seek to manifest the legitimacy of their lexical explorations by demonstrating in how far the spring relates to the entire novelistic stream. The fact that Dickens named most of his novels, from Pickwick Papers to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, after one or several of his characters seems to lend particular validity to such an approach. Despite its necessary limitations, the title of a novel is often treated like the caption for a painting, too tempting to ignore. And although titles such as Little Dorrit include nonce words that cannot conclusively be proven to have clear lexical meanings, the names they furnish are nonetheless relied upon as building blocks, as keystones not only to character development, but to the construction of plot and the thematic design of the Dickensian bildungsroman. A novel titled Little Dorrit is expected to be about someone or something called Dorrit and deemed, whether justly or otherwise, small in size or influence; and it is the reader’s first challenge to make the novel’s title meaningful by determining how this appellation fits and applies to the novelistic pattern. Dickens himself, having renamed his novel, tentatively titled “Nobody’s Fault,” reasoned that Little Dorrit had a “pleasanter sound in [his] ears,” but was also quick to point out that the new title was at least “equally applicable to the story” (qtd. in Kaplan, Dickens 337).
While Stone cautions us that Dickens’s names are “deceptive,” he maintains that they “often seem clear or even simple” because we “have been made privy to the grand design of a novel” (“What’s in a Name” 191). Apparently, as James R. Kincaid, discussing the “unstable and shifting nature of a Dickens novel and of our response to it,” reminds us: “The search for coherence and a unifying principle is not usually given up so easily” (“’All the Wickedness’” 258; 273). Kincaid suggests that
the drive toward that which is ascertainable and accountable is countered by a feeling of artistic free play, a parody of truth-telling and truth-seeking. Interpretative accuracy is both sought for and laughed at. (270)
Yet elsewhere Kincaid, too, has been tempted to declare that in Little Dorritthe details do coalesce around a general pattern more firm and clear than in any other novel. There is a consistent tendency to relate all details to the pattern [. . . ]. (Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter 197)
Thus, Dickens’s names, titular and otherwise, are frequently employed to establish the “relationship of character to the topical matrix of [a] novel” (Hochberg 86) in order to conflate the conflicting elements the vast Dickensian canvas has to offer. The names Harriet Beadle and Tattycoram, for instance, can be seen as nominal fetters, and are quite easily worked into the theme of freedom and imprisonment in Little Dorrit. The entire history of a girl’s life in servitude, her failure to escape, and her return to Mr. Meagles as the master of her destiny seems to be captured in these names and the process of renaming. When Arthur Clennam wonders at the “oddity” of the name Tattycoram (17), Mr. Meagles, himself indifferent to his powers as name-giver and fate-forger, replies:
I was forgetting the name itself. Why, she was called in the Institution, Harriet Beadle—an arbitrary name, of course. Now, Harriet we changed into Hattey, and then into Tatty, because, as practical people, we thought even a playful name might be a new thing to her, and might have a softening and affectionate kind of effect, don’t you see? As to Beadle, that I needn’t say was wholly out of the question. If there is anything that is not to be tolerated on any terms, anything that is a type of Jack-in-office insolence and absurdity, anything that represents [. . .] our English holding-on by nonsense [. . .] it is a beadle. (Dickens 18)
The “playful” yet “practical” Mr. Meagles, to whom the name Beadle is at once arbitrary and intolerably suggestive, but to whom Tattycoram, Coram being the “originator of the Institution” (19), seems rather innocuous, suggests that in Little Dorrit the policing and controlling forces of naming cannot be expected to rest always in the hands—or minds—of responsible people.
Are critics responsible people? Are they partners or pawns in Dickens’s naming game? Little Dorrit seems to deride the critic’s confidence in—and dependence on—dictionary dictate, while, at the same time, goading readers on by providing them with proper nouns such as Sparkler, General, and Barnacle. D. N. F. your OED, the novel lectures us, without providing those eager to fix meanings with proper nouns that are lexically inflexible. That Mr. Sparkler is neither brilliant nor effervescent is merely a slight joke—one most readers will grasp effortlessly; that the domineering yet dull Mrs. General “seems to have two identities, the one individual, the other representative or allegorical” (Bell 179), is a rewarding pun; the Barnacles, however, are quite a different kettle of fish. “The head of the Circumlocution Office is called Tite (tight) Barnacle, with clear allegorical intent,” Sylvère Monod argues (398). Yet how many meanings can the reader attach to the word Barnacle?
The ubiquitous Barnacles warrant eleven entries in Philip’s Dickens Dictionary; and while some of the entries refer to individual, if flat, characters, such as Ferdinand, the “sprightly young Barnacle,” or Clarence, the “born idiot of the family” (15), the name is not so much attached to particular personages as to “all the Barnacles in the family ocean” (Dickens 191), to the entire “Shoal of Barnacles” (400). Little Dorrit clearly encourages readers to perceive the “adhesive Barnacles” (407), each “sticking to a post” (514), as reminiscent of the “pedunculate genus of Cirripedes, which attach themselves to objects floating in the water” (“Barnacle”), stubbornly clinging to the ship of England:
[W]hat the Barnacles had to do, was to stick on to the national ship as long as they could. That to trim the ship, lighten the ship, clean the ship, would be to knock them off; that they could but be knocked off once; and that if the ship went down with them yet sticking to it, that was the ship’s look out, not theirs. (Dickens 121)
And, faced with a sea of only slightly submerged signposts, readers cannot not fail to embark upon the quest of working the Barnacle name into the topical matrix of the novel. Bert G. Hornback, for example, notes that Little Dorrit
is permeated with an imagery of water travel, nautical expressions, and metaphors of the sea. When Dickens refers to Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle as “the Pilot of the ship” [LD 405] he is using the common ship-of-state metaphor, extended with a suggestion that “the ship” can be kept “above water” only “by dint of hard pumping” on the part of the crew . Henry Gowan had earlier used the metaphor in the same way, remarking that “the Circumlocution Office may ultimately shipwreck everybody and everything” . (105-6)
A Barnacle as “the Pilot of the ship”? The maritime metaphors, while sustained, are remarkably incongruous. At times, as Hornback point out, the “Barnacles, who cling to the ship nominally, are [. . .] called fishermen” or even suggest the ship itself (106). Thus, upon closer inspection, parasite and host are one, which makes the Barnacles at once harder to categorize and to combat. Kincaid asserts that the
Barnacles, in fact, are not enemies of England so much as they are England, a cross-section which includes the snobbish and the open, the austere and the friendly, the mean and the kind. (207)
Seemingly allegoric, yet surprisingly amorphous, the Barnacle name, borne by people “all over the world” (Dickens 400), resists lexical fixing. Even the OED will give the onomastic scholar quite a number of alternative definitions to fit into the thematic design of Little Dorrit, from the “powerful bit or twitch for the mouth of horse or ass, used to restrain a restive animal” to “spectacles,” from a “companion or follower that sticks close, and will not be dismissed” to a “species of wild goose” (“Barnacle”). To be sure, the uncertain etymology of the noun, “which has puzzled all the great authorities” (Potter and Sargent 76), may suggest Dickens’ commentary on the dubious pedigree of the Victorian nouveaux riches; yet defining the Barnacles by their name may ultimately prove to be a wild goose chase after meaning.
Instead, the Barnacles, as the engaging young Ferdinand reminds an imprisoned Arthur Clennam, only ask to be “left alone” (Dickens 736). “[N]othing but forms” (736), the faceless (albeit not nameless) Barnacles thrive on being elusive. In Darwin and the Novelists, George Levine suggests that in “Dickens, the emphasis on the particular is life-giving, on the general (and the institutional, which seems to dominate in Little Dorrit) is deadly” (159). Yet our desire to build Little Dorrit’s Darwinism on slippery crustaceans is countered by Ferdinand’s own account of the Barnacles, of their purpose and function in society: “We must have humbug, we all like humbug, we couldn’t get on without humbug. A little humbug, and a groove, and everything goes on admirably, if you leave it alone” (738).
Could the naming game itself be a grandiose hoax? Could some readers, intent on proving “how Dickens could make thematic capital out of one of his most unforced gifts as a novelist, his ear for names” (Stewart 105), have taken their own—and hardly unforced—gift of interpretation too seriously? Bah, humbug! Critics seem to sneer at the very notion that, in terms of interpretation, Dickens may have shown us “How not to do it.” As the common attachment to names as “labels of meaning” reveals, Kincaid’s “basic question” whether “details mean at all” (“’All the Wickedness’” 264) is rarely allowed to be voiced. The question what’s not in a name, is, after all, anathematic to onomatological scholarship.
In fact, the potential arbitrariness of nomenclature is so troublesome to some that, if a name does not quite fit into the “topical matrix” of a novel, eager critics assume control by suiting it to the “topical matrix” of their individual critical responses. In “Do It or Dorrit,” for example, Ruth Bernard Yeazell, trying to create the connections between doing and dying in Little Dorrit, turns to “the heroic inventor whose alliterative name clearly emphasizes that Daniel Doyce is a do-er” (35). Are the Dorrits do-ers as well, or are they, as Ray argues, mere drones? Apparently, if the name-pelt cannot always be stretched sufficiently to wrap up an entire novel, it is subjected to carefully selective skin grafting.
As the discussion of the “celebrated name” of Barnacle (Dickens 188) suggests, the names in Little Dorrit, albeit significant, are not necessarily attached to lexical items, nor to specific individuals. Instead, in the novel’s “general atmosphere of uncertainty and contradiction,” which is “combined with a more specific fascination with the elusiveness of character” (Rosenberg 45), names, while holding many promises, are rarely elucidating. And whereas Dickens’s readers may still expect to reap benefits from betting on the meaning of proper nouns, it may profit them to take note of how Dickens’s characters often risk their livelihood gambling on names. If, as Rosenberg observes, “many of the book’s characters fail to make adequate sense of themselves or their world” (47), name-idolatry is surely at the very core of this failure; and never is this brought home more forcefully than in the case of the “famous name of Merdle” (Dickens 556).
An Inspection of Namedroppings
The name, Ragussis suggests, “is valorized in Oliver Twist in the simplest way: it literally carries a monetary value” (38). This may also be said of the society portrayed in Little Dorrit which worships “the famous name of Merdle,” a name that “became, every day, more famous in the land” (Dickens 556). “[A]llusions to the magic name” are in “everybody’s mouth” (572), and even alphabetarians, such as young Master Plornish, invariably link “Merdle” to “Millions” (575). Lucre-lured men are swarming around Merdle as flies hover over a heap of dung. That the object of worship, “the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows” (710), is ill-chosen indeed is certainly expressed in the very name of the idol. The proximity of “Merdle,” or “Mairdale” (614), to merde has hardly escaped the readers of Little Dorrit, Monod among them (399). The chosen name may also be indicative of Dickens’ attitude toward banking as a profession (Harder 39). After all, as Kentley Bromhill points out, “Dickens’s lively invention enables him to express so much—whole sermons sometimes—in one word” (93). The characters in the novel, however, place great trust in a name they equate with mammon, not manure: “The weightiest of men had said to projectors, ‘Now, what name have you got? Have you got Merdle?’ And, the reply being in the negative, had said ‘Then I won’t look at you'” (247).
Beyond this mythic name, likened to Midas (246), nothing is known of its bearer—at least not to the “multitude” that “worshipped on trust” (556); and being known by name only proves, at first, rather advantageous to the idol:
[N]obody knew that he had any capacity or utterance of any sort in him, which had ever thrown, for any creature, the feeblest farthing-candle ray of light on any path of duty or diversion, pain or pleasure, toil or rest, fact or fancy, among the multiplicity of paths in the labyrinth trodden by the sons of Adam; nobody had the smallest reason for supposing the clay of which this object of worship was made, to be other than the commonest clay, with as clogged a wick smouldering inside of it as ever kept an image of humanity from tumbling to pieces. (556)
Yet being reduced to a name, having made a name for and perhaps of himself, is ultimately the downfall of Mr. Merdle. When his name is announced in the newspaper, Mr. Merdle’s past is revealed. Merdle’s name, “the shining wonder, the new constellation to be followed” turns into “certain carrion at the bottom of a bath” (710), an image which, as Stone puts it, is, once again, “consonant with his name” (“What’s in a Name” 198).
If Merdle’s name seems ominous to the reader, it holds nothing but promises of prosperity to Mr. Dorrit, who declares that the “name of Merdle is the name of the age” (484), and to Mrs. General, who accepts the name as an “undeniable guarantee” of a suitable match (483). Yet, once again, it is Mr. Pancks whose faith in names, already apparent in his failed attempt to restore the good name of Dorrit, proves particularly ill-advised. As it turns out, the investigative Pancks, who fancies himself a “fortune-teller,” a “gipsy” (289), plays a pivotal role in Dickens’ naming game.
That Pancks’s fascination with the power of names is not restricted to his efforts to rescue the Dorrits from ignominy is clear. Before tracing the Dorrit lineage, Pancks already tried to establish a connection between the wealthy “Clennams of Cornwall” and Arthur’s mother, who, Pancks declares, “has too much character to let a chance escape her” (161; emphasis added). Apparently, Pancks has too much trust in the power of names and too little knowledge of character, as his veneration of the famed name of Merdle makes unmistakably manifest. Ultimately, Pancks’s name worship jeopardizes the fortunes of Arthur Clennam, Daniel Doyce, and the Dorrits. It is Pancks, after all, who brings Arthur Clennam to the brink of ruin by encouraging him to invest in Merdle stock: “They’re safe. They’re certain” (582).
Performing his “anonymous craft” (297) of genealogical match-making, Pancks may be argued to serve as middleman for author and reader—or as a fictional representation of both. “Mr. Pancks was not a man to waste his time and trouble in researches prompted by idle curiosity. That he had a specific object Clennam could not doubt” (319). Not unlike Pancks, author and critic both have a specific object; they are name-servants, hankering after nominal control. Not unlike Pancks, the critic is convinced that the true meaning of names can be discovered. And not unlike Pancks, who records names into his little notebook, Dickens began entering lists of names in his notebook titled “Memoranda,” just when he started thinking about Little Dorrit. Said notebook suggests at once that Dickens’ tried to remain in control over his creations, and that such artistic control became harder to assume. Dickens’s letters of the mid-1850s reveal a writer in crisis, as they show “the difficulty [Dickens] had in deciding on a subject as well as in getting started” (Kaplan, Charles Dickens’s Book 1). Being, like Pancks, “first attracted by the name alone” (Dickens 410), may result in a surrender to the potentially treacherous arcana of names. Ultimately, Pancks, while remorseful, can only wish a ruined Clennam “Better luck” (711).
Yet the disastrous consequences of Pancks’s stooping to insalubrious namedroppings notwithstanding, Little Dorrit does not advocate the abstinence from name-worship either. After all, the two characters who have abandoned their faith in names, Mr. Blandois and Miss Wade, fare considerably worse than Pancks and Clennam. Miss Wade, who claims to “know many names” and to “have forgotten many more” (655), who proclaims that Pet Meagles’ “broken plaything” “has no name,” that she herself has “no name” (330), ultimately has no hold over Tattycoram, who, by predilection, “is trapped again with her suffocating foster-parents and her dreadful name” (Scott 123). And the drifting name-changer and shapeshifter Blandois, Rigaud, Lagnier, who, avenging himself on a society that “deeply wronged” him (Dickens 132), exclaims that “[w]ords . . . never influence the course of the cards, or the course of the dice. . . . I also play a game, and words are without power over it” (745), only to perish in the ruins of the house whose history he was eager to name (771). It seems that both the defiant Miss Wade and the deviant Mr. Blandois, who mocks Mrs. Clennam by suggesting that the initials D. N. F. on her watch stand for “some tender lovely fascinating fair-creature” (355), lack the proper respect for proper nouns. And in Dickens’s game, such utter disregard for the wondrous art of word-weaponry cannot be tolerated.
A Philosophy of Names?
DA, DE, DI, DO—Doubt remains. How much of this naming game is planned, staged for our delight? Is the aleatory nature of naming in Little Dorrit, after all, an illusion, carefully constructed by the author? There is, of course, the clever opening paragraph of book 2, in which Dickens, whose usual method it is “to introduce characters by brief descriptive phrases and to add the name only when the character in question has made one or two remarks which give him individuality in the reader’s mind” (Brook 221), describes to us a room full of people without naming them, characters we easily recognize despite the unfamiliar setting of the scene. The chapter concludes with a list of all characters, captured in a book of names—”Blandois” added “with a long lean flourish, not unlike a lasso thrown at all the rest of the names” (Dickens 446)—just as Dickens had planned it: “All the names last. Not told before,” the author’s notes read (Stone, Dickens’ Working Notes 291).
Thus, Little Dorrit—which ends with our eponymous heroine marrying the purveyor of her sobriquet, “a-writing her little name as a bride” in the marriage register (Dickens 826)—is indeed artfully conceived, a complex commentary on the attempt of critics and authors to capture characters and determine their destinies through acts of naming, an attempt arguably at odds with the concept of change and development in the bildungsroman. Yet Little Dorrit responds to the naming challenge by suggesting that the meanings of names are not written in stone; and even John Chivery, who can only think of making a name for himself by imagining the inscription on his tombstone, must adjust to the altered realities of life by turning said monument into a palimpsest (212, 734).
In all this, of course, Little Dorrit, which also tells the story of a middle-aged Arthur Clennam who discovers that the tyrannical Mrs. Clennam is his mother in name only, remains inextricably enmeshed in—and perhaps governed by—the naming game it appears to deride, parodying that which it is unable to renounce. Indeed, Little Dorrit suggests not only “that people shape destinies—others’ and their own—by the immense power they accord to names” (Ragussis 11), but also that this “immense power” of names and naming, while not easily controlled, is a force irresistible to reader, character, and author alike.
It may behoove us to conclude with the inspired words of Ms. Onomantia Coda-Crux, an eminent scholar of nomenclature, worthy colleague of philologist Karl Eil, whom we had the fortune of chancing upon at a baccarat table at Baden-Baden. Ms. Coda-Crux undertakes to make manifest, in its thousandfold bearings, this grand Proposition, that Dickens’s novelistic interests “are all hooked and buttoned together, and held up, by Names.” Indeed, she says in so many words that the “Dickensian novel is founded upon Names.”
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