City Kids, Country Kids in Children’s Literature

children playing hopscotch in an alleyway

Read enough children’s literature and you’ll be left in no doubt: The city is bad for children. Take them out to the country, which is utopian, pristine and a veritable fantasy landscape.

There was once an old woman who left the city to get away from all the noise and confusion. Out in the country she found a small house by a creek with a big shade tree in the back yard.

Duck Cakes For Sale, 1989

This ideology is a specifically white ideology (the ideology of publishing and children’s books):

White people love to be outside.  But not everyone knows that another thing they like to do is make people feel bad for wanting to watch sports on TV or play video games.  While it would be easy to get angry at white people for this, remember it is hard wired in their head that the greatest thing a person can do in their free time is to hike/walk/bike outdoors.

Stuff White People Like: Making you feel bad about not going outside

Forget futuristic computer games: Reading some classic literature you soon get the idea that many authors don’t even approve of cities. We see this particular anti-video game ideology in stories from award-winning picture book creators such as Chris Van Allsburg, in Just A Dream to hugely popular children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (with Mike Teevee).

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CITIES

Do you live in a small town? I do. Ours numbers about 17,000 people. We think of it as a small country area, but that was more than enough to comprise a ‘provincial centre’ in the 1700s.

By 1700, urban areas with five thousand or more persons comprised some 15 percent of England’s population of five million inhabitants, a proportion slightly above the norm for Western Europe as a whole. The country’s metropolis, London, boasted a citizenry of 575,000 dwarfing provincial centres with between twelve and thirty thousand inhabitants apiece. By then, large-scale urbanization had already transformed much of continental Europe, from the Italian peninsula to southern Scandinavia. Most cities and towns resembled a rabbit warren of narrow streets and alleys — cramped, crooked, and dark. Upper facades, by projecting over streets below, obstructed light from both sun and moon. Already by the 1600s, buildings in Amsterdam towered four stories high. Not until the eighteenth century would linear thoroughfares of ample breadth set the standard in urban design.

— A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close

TOWN/COUNTRY SYMBOLISM IN LITERATURE

COUNTRY = NATURAL, CITY = NOISE

[The] symbolic significance of the city is better understood in contrast with the “non-city” which surrounds it. The city versus nature contrast is one of the major symbolic contrasts in story forms for the city is the greatest overall symbol of mankind. Raymond Williams in The Country And The City notes that the country offers “the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue.” On the other hand, the city:

“…has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition: on the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance and limitation. A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times.”

Symbolism of Place

City in a story for adults
The symbolism on this novel for adults is clear: cities have a dark, sinister underside. Can you imagine if the top half of this bookcover were a pastoral scene?

Many classic children’s books are written with the ideology that children should be outside, self-governed, exploring, free and unencumbered by the rules of the city. Sometimes when I’m reading classic children’s books I hear the voice of my seventy-something-year-old friend, and I wonder what Edith Nesbit and Enid Blyton would say if they saw the way children are playing together today?

The Beasts Of Clawstone Castle cover

Eva Ibbotson was aware of this well-understood dichotomy evident throughout British children’s literature in particular. In her middle grade novel The Beasts of Clawstone Castle, the adventures begin when two children are sent from a nice part of London to stay for the summer in a castle in the country. The parents decide to go to America, but there’s that pesky matter of the children:

“We can’t possibly leave them,” said Mr Hamilton.

“And we can’t possibly take them along,” said Mrs Hamilton.

“So we’ll have to refuse.”

“Yes.”

But the Americans had offered a lot of money and the car was making terrible noises and bills were dropping through the letter box in droves.

“Unless we send them to the country. They ought to be in the country,” said Mrs Hamilton. “It’s where children ought to be.

Cities themselves have a PR problem in children’s literature. In adolescent fantasy the city often symbolises a threat. The city is the dangerous world of adults, who often succumb to temptation in cities. Often, the city is symbolically equivalent to an ocean, where inhabitants are under constant threat from bigger creatures.

SEND ‘EM OUTSIDE WITH A STICK AND A HOOP

There may be a generation gap between parents of young children today and older adults who raised their families before computer games were a thing. I know a woman in her seventies who is completely against computer games of any sort for any child under the age of 18. (I did press her on the exact age at which computer games become acceptable, yes.) Yet for our resident eight-year-old, computer games — especially Minecraft, which she plays online with a friend — are an important part of her life. Minecraft in particular can be of huge benefit for children with AD/HD and LD, for example, and the reasons are explained in detail in this webinar from ADDitude. There seems to be some research to suggest that one hour per day of gaming is better than none at all, whereas three hours is too much. This is partly because other kids are also playing games, which makes friendships easier, but also to do with the fact that young people are unable to remain computer free until adulthood if they’re also expected to be productive members of a computer-filled workforce.

See also: Kids who play video games do better as adults from Penelope Trunk. The dominant professional view of children and videogames seems to be: Set limits, and include video games as part of a balanced ‘play diet’.

IDEOLOGY OF COUNTRY GOODNESS IN THE FIRST AND SECOND GOLDEN AGES OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Let’s take a look at what the septuagenarians in our lives were reading as children, and again, no doubt, to their own children. Is this ‘country kids are superior to urban kids’ ideology seen in children’s books published today?

Town Mouse Country Mouse in which the town equals the city

What did Aesop think of the town versus country? Here’s the thing about Aesop’s fables, which applies equally to religious texts: The reader brings their own values to the text rather than the other way around. Each age of readers has interpreted these fables according to their own existing worldview.

Was Aesop criticising sophisticated city folk, or did he just happen to situate the proud mouse in the town, and the humble mouse in the country?

Aesop’s Fables are still published today as picture books for children — often cheaply produced.

BEATRIX POTTER

The Tale of Johnny Town Mouse in which town equals city

John Town-Mouse is Beatrix Potter’s retelling of the Aesop Fable. Potter wrote this story in a scramble as she was busy dealing with jobs on her new farm. Her publisher was telling her to provide them with a new story.

Despite the utter busyness involved in farm life, it’s clear from a cursory glance at Potter’s illustrations which of the two environments she preferred. Her censure of town mice (children) is clear from the dialogue below:

Timmy Willie longed to be at home in his peaceful nest in a sunny bank. The food disagreed with him; the noise prevented him from sleeping. In a few days he grew so thin that Johnny Town-mouse noticed it, and questioned him. He listened to Timmy Willie’s story and inquired about the garden. “It sounds rather a dull place? What do you do when it rains?”

 

EDITH NESBIT

E. Nesbit was particularly clear on her views of child-rearing in London:

London is like prison for children, especially if their relations are not rich.

Of course there are the shops and the theatres, and Maskelyne and Cook’s, and things, but if your people are rather poor you don’t get taken to the theatres, and you can’t buy things out of the shops; and London has none of those nice things that children may play with without hurting the things or themselves – such as trees and sand and woods and waters. And nearly everything in London is the wrong sort of shape – all straight lines and flat streets, instead of being all sorts of odd shapes, like things are in the country. Trees are all different, as you know, and I am sure some tiresome person must have told you that there are no two blades of grass exactly alike. But in streets, where the blades of grass don’t grow, everything is like everything else. This is why so many children who live in towns are so extremely naughty. They do not know what is the matter with them, and no more do their fathers and mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, tutors, governesses, and nurses; but I know. And so do you now. Children in the country are naughty sometimes, too, but that is for quite different reasons.

Five Children and It

In the Edwardian era it was thought not only that the countryside itself was better, but also that people who came from the country were better… at least, if you needed their services as staff:

Children, particularly girls, also made up a significant proportion of the lower posts in a large household and the higher up the social scale the employer, the more cachet was awarded to the positions in the house. Young girls would be looking for a post in a good home from the age of twelve or thirteen, and in some cases they started as young as ten. And while many of these came from the city slums, employers often preferred to take the children of rural families, who were considered to be more conscientious and hard-working than those from the cities.

— Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney

ENID BLYTON

Enid Blyton was another author of the view that country kids are wholesome whereas city kids are corrupt. At the beginning of The Enchanted Wood, Jo, Bessie and Fanny move from the city to the country, where they are immediately absorbed and influenced by the natural landscape. In the later books they are visited first by Dick and next by Connie. Both of these children, being from the city, are therefore separate from the landscape and problematic. Blyton is particularly harsh on Connie, and punishes the character for her interest in pretty clothes by covering her in water out of Dame Wash-a-lot’s soapy old washing water. Country kids — pure and unadulterated — do not care about their clothes, wearing them only for practical reasons.

Connie Wet Folk Faraway Tree is from the city

Blyton’s love of the country comes through most clearly in her Cherry Tree Farm books, in which children from the city have their lives dramatically improved after moving to an idyllic farm of the kind you’re likely to see on margarine lids. I absolutely loved this idyll as a child reader.

The Children Of Cherry Tree Farm are moved away from the city to a rural idyll

enid blyton nature books

COUNTRY VS TOWN IN MODERN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

In modern children’s literature you won’t find that kind of proselytising. It’s far more subtle than that.

A problem faced by children’s authors writing in a modern setting is that there is little legitimate room for adventure. One solution is to take the children into ‘the wild’, where they can undergo the requisite maturity without the interference of adults.

On the other hand, the city itself can be turned into a symbolic wilderness, and there’s nothing stopping modern authors from doing just that. Cities, after all, can be just as terrifying as jungles and forests. John Truby explains:

City As Jungle

City as jungle is the opposite of the city as ocean. Here the three-dimensional quality of the city is not liberating but rather the source of deathenemies lurk all around, and a fatal attack comes from any direction in an instant. This kind of city is typically closely packed, steaming and wet, with the residents portrayed as animals who differ only in the way they kill. Many detective and cop stories have used this metaphor, to such a degree that it long ago became a cliché.

  • Spider-man (New York) and other superhero stories such as Jessica Jones and Batman
  • Fish Tank (Essex)
  • Blade Runner (L.A.)

City As Forest

City as forest is the positive version of the city as jungle. In this technique, the buildings are a scaled-down version of the city, more human, as though people were living in trees. This city looks and feels like a neighbourhood or a town in the midst of impersonal towers. When the city is portrayed as a forest, it is usually a utopian vision in which people enjoy the benefits of teeming urban life while living in the coziness of a tree house.

Anatomy of Story

  • Ghostbusters
  • Harriet The Spy

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk recaptures something of the country/city divide. Set in West Pennsylvania in 1043, a city girl arrives from the country. This girl is more sophisticated and meaner than the country kids, who have only just got electricity, for instance. Living in a small town, Annabelle — the main character — must learn some city-like sophistication. She must learn to lie.

Don’t forget, too, that the suburbs can just as terrifying, especially as they are ‘snail under the leaf settings‘, rotten just beneath the surface.

Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan Cover

In picture books for younger readers we have examples such as Olivia by Ian Falconer. Olivia lives in New York, which you might expect to be a stifling place for children, and I’m sure it can be if money is tight. But Olivia is taken out to museums and ballet performances as well as to parks and to the seaside. It’s hard to argue that city kid Olivia is at all psychologically bereft for having been brought up in the city.

Olivia cover

You’ll still find plenty of ‘storybook farms’, but these exist alongside more realistic depictions of rural life, such as the Australian picture book Two Summers, which is about drought.

twosummers

THE COUNTRY CITY DIVIDE IN STORIES FOR ADULTS

Interestingly, the message is often the direct opposite in stories for adults. Take the 2016 indie American film Little Boxes starring Melanie Lynskey and Nelsan Ellis. This is an academic, woke, left-leaning couple who move from New York to a small, predominantly white town in Washington State when Lynskey’s character achieves tenure as a professor at the local university. They make quite a few social mistakes, highlighting the small-town insecurities of the people who live there. Overall, the message is that small town folk are equally small-minded.

Amanda Craig makes a comment on the English country/city divide when speaking of her novel The Lie Of The Land:

The divorcing couple in your new novel move to Devon together because they can’t afford to buy separate homes in London. Where did that idea come from?
My husband and I bought this bolthole in Devon and it was a revelation. As a result, this book is absolutely not about people moving to the country and having a lovely time. It’s about the difficult aspects of living in the countryside as well as its beauty, and how it’s really not helped by the metropolitan elite.

In the novel’s tension between city and country, your heart seems to be with the countryside…
My heart is perpetually divided between the two. I still live in London and I completely rejoice in its energy and multiculturalism and optimism, but I think there’s this community – many of them the people who stunned half the electorate by voting for Brexit – who are very angry. They’re people who are not racist, they’re not stupid. They’re good people and they have justifiable complaints that have not been listened to.

Do you think Londoners are out of touch with the rest of the country?
I think some Londoners view the countryside as a kind of toytown. There’s this fantasy that everything’s incredibly pretty and it’s not a place where people do serious work, and this could not be further from the truth. They’re real people with real problems and real talents and they’re utterly neglected by the powerbrokers in the capital.

The Guardian

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Header photo by Ludomił

Gypsies In Classic Children’s Literature

Samuel David Colkett - A Gypsy Encampment

What did Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit have in common? Apart from a dislike of only children and a shared love of ginger beer, they both wrote stories about groups of children going out into the countryside and finding adventure. In these natural environments the children came across good people and bad people (policemen, shopkeepers etc, smugglers etc.) and then there were ‘gypsies’, who readers understood were instant opponents.

Five Children and It cover

The four children encounter gypsies in chapter 3 of Five Children and It. They get sick of their baby brother and wish someone, anyone, would take him. So the Psammead arranges for that to happen, and no they can’t take the wish back. But since the wishes only last until sunset, this chapter gives E. Nesbit a chance to dismantle a popular anglo belief at the time: That gypsies stole children. Much like the Elf on the Shelf, who it was said kept an eye on children even in parental absence, if children did not do as required it was often said that if they were not careful the gypsies would come and get them.

Even today it’s thought that gypsies abduct children. The high profile Madeleine McCann case is a good example.

See The Legend of the Child Snatching Gypsies.

Thomas Acton, a renowned Professor of Romani Studies, says that there is no documented case of Roma or Travellers stealing non-Gypsy children anywhere.

Peter McGuire

Thomas Gainsborough Landscape with Gipsies c.1753–4
Thomas Gainsborough Landscape with Gipsies c.1753–4

In Shadow The Sheepdog we see that gypsies came in useful as an archetype for missing dogs, too. Johnny is required to enter a gypsy caravan, where he finds the drugged Shadow inside a bag.

shadow-the-sheep-dog-1

Madeline and the Gypsies is one of the few children’s book from the Second Golden Age of Children’s Literature to portray a gypsy as a rounded, caring and responsible individual.

WANDERERS NOT GYPSIES

  • Today, calling the Roma or the Irish Travellers ‘gypsies’ is very similar to calling Native Americans ‘Indian’. The word ‘Gypsy’ is often used in a derogatory way and is based on the mistaken idea that gypsies came from Egypt.
  • There are two main, distinct groups of travellers — the Roma and the Irish travellers. They are both nomadic but are separate. Romany gypsies have roots in India but Irish Travellers are, well, Irish.
  • Irish travellers speak a language called Cant, Gammon or Shelta. The hit UKTV show Big Fat Gypsy Wedding focuses on a group of Irish Travellers and is considered to be a poor representation of travellers. Back in the 1940s these people were called ‘Tinkers’. They became travellers due to a history of discrimination against the Irish, and may have had land taken from them.
  • The Romani language is based on Punjabi/Hindi.
  • The word ‘Romani’ has nothing to do, by the way, with the country Romania, or the Ancient Romans.
  • Australia has its own Romani population, who first came to Australia in the early 1900s from Greece.
  • Meanwhile in America, these wanderers might be referred to as hobos.

Alfred Vickers - A gypsy encampment in the Isle of Wight
Alfred Vickers – A gypsy encampment in the Isle of Wight

POPULAR WESTERN BOGEYMEN

No matter how safe childhood becomes, modern folklore still requires bogeymen. Apart from the Roma, we’ve also had:

  1. Fairies — originally fairies were used as the bogeyman: “Be good or the fairies will take you!”
  2. Jews — It was thought Jews abduct Christian children and use them as sacrifice in strange rituals.
  3. Witches — as portrayed in Roald Dahl’s middle grade novel, in which he explains witches look like everyday women.
  4. Black cars — in Estonia black cars were supposed to be especially dangerous because they contained people who wanted to kidnap you for your organs. Black cars are also suspicious in the West.

black car mystic river
the black car from Mystic River

And now we have men in white vans.

from Silence Of The Lambs
from Silence Of The Lambs

Header painting: Samuel David Colkett – A Gypsy Encampment

Enid Blyton, Food and Ginger Beer

I’m no Enid Blyton apologist when it comes to word echo and other matters of style, but Enid Blyton never wrote the phrase ‘lashings of ginger beer’. This phrase was used in a popular parody called Five Go Mad In Dorset, and is now often mistakenly attributed to the author herself.

Enid Blyton ginger beer
an advertisement for commercially produced ginger ale from 1894

 

Enid Blyton did use the word ‘lashings’, and there was a lot of ginger beer. I also remember lemonade, but what was it the children were actually drinking? Well, it wasn’t 7UP. The lemonade consumed by the Famous Five would have been sugar and lemon juice mixed in cold water, not the very high sugar carbonated variety. That’s simple enough to make. What about the ginger beer? Was it alcoholic? Were the children getting drunk, imagining those pixies, goblins and mushroom rings with lands at the tops of trees and chairs that grew wings?

In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, the Swallows pretend that they’re drinking ‘grog’ instead of ginger beer. (This is all part of their pirate fantasy.)

Enid Blyton food drink schweppe's advertisement
Do you call it fizzy drink, soda or pop? In 1894 it was called ‘table water’.

To make traditionally brewed, homemade ginger beer, you will also need some lemons. Lemons plus ginger root and sugar and cream of tartar and brewer’s yeast. You can find a recipe for it here. The fizziness comes from the fermentation process, and required about four days to make — these are cooking skills which have been lost today. But our guts coevolved with the bacteria found in fermented foods and we should probably to go back to eating more of them to achieve well-balanced guts. That fermented stuff would not have been as sweet as today’s beverages by far, despite requiring quite a bit of sugar — that’s because bacteria eat the sugars in order to populate. (Hence, traditionally made sauerkraut is so sour — the bacteria has eaten any fructose out of it.)

Ginger Beer Brew

There probably was a bit of alcohol in it if left for weeks, but if left for less than a week the alcohol is negligible. Basically, we don’t really know if Joe, Bessie and Fanny were getting pissed when they took a picnic into the woods, because we didn’t know how long it had been brewed for.

Edith Nesbit was also a fan of ginger beer. It makes me wince when Robert uses it to wash sand out of Lamb’s eyes, but remember it wasn’t the super fizzy stuff you’re probably thinking of:

The thoughtful Robert had brought one solid brown bottle of ginger-beer with him, relying on a thirst that had never yet failed him. This had to be uncorked hurriedly — it was the only wet thing within reach, and it was necessary to wash the sand out of the Lamb’s eyes somehow. Of course the ginger hurt horribly, and he howled more than ever. And, amid his anguish of kicking, the bottle was upset and the beautiful ginger-beer frothed out into the sand and was lost for ever.

Five Children and It

Australians were busy making their own ginger fizzy drinks, lest you think it was limited to the British Isles:

Ginger ale advertisement from 1880
from 1880

Food In The Work Of Enid Blyton

Blyton’s most prolific period of writing took place during the war era when food rationing meant that the majority of people in England were eating less than they had throughout the whole of the twentieth century. Following the outbreak of WW2, food rationing began in January 1940 and continued until 1954. The average weekly rations consisted of one shilling and sixpence worth of meat, eight ounces of sugar, four ounces of butter or fat, one egg, one ounce of cheese, with jam and honey also heavily rationed. Fresh vegetables were in short supply, unless grown in the home vegetable garden.

While the Famous Five were consuming fat red radishes, their readers were being fed banana sandwiches made with parsnips and banana essence or carrot tart glazed with lemon jelly to make a pudding, and while the Secret Seven breakfasted off well-buttered home-baked bread with chunky marmalade, their devotees never even saw fruit like oranges and bananas and had to make do with the infamous Woolton Pie, a combination of carrots, parsnips, turnips, and potatoes, covered with white sauce and pastry.

— Barker

[…] Blyton can hardly be portraying the period realistically. […] the original appeal of Blyton’s food fantasies was intensified by the reader’s knowledge that their own family teatime was never likely to be as scrumptious as the feast Blyton served for them. And, for contemporary readers, the appeal lies in the huge quantities and the exoticism of the homemade foods in her narratives which, because of healthy-eating discourses and the lack of time generally available in contemporary households to produce such meals, are usually denied them. From this perspective it can be seen that a large proportion of the readers’ enjoyment is vicarious, a form of voyeurism, a chance to experience gluttony second-hand.

— Carolyn Daniels, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature

 

Enid Blyton and Froebel Training

Enid Blyton would have had all the skills of a good housekeeper, even if she preferred to write instead. As a student teacher Blyton received Froebel training, which encourages housekeeping, cooking, gardening and farming as a means of expression for young children.

Blyton’s ideal was one in which the earth-mother or a substitute earth mother provides food (preferably home-grown) for her cubs.

— Barker

Mothers in Enid Blyton’s books tend to be plump, good at home-making and cheerful. While the children were out having their adventures, we can guess at what the mothers were doing: They were in the kitchen, fermenting fizzy beverages and making fruit cakes.

Symbolic Names In Storytelling

Generally speaking, a lot of thought goes into choosing character names. Sometimes a name is chosen because it is appropriate to the age of the character, culture and era. Sometimes the name is aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes the name is symbolic.

NEW NAME, NEW SELF

When Walter White changes his name to Heisenberg, he has created an entire alter ego. Breaking Bad is a modern superhero story. We are familiar with superheroes, ever since Super-man/Clark Kent. This is such obvious symbolism it doesn’t hold up to much more scrutiny than that.

breaking bad remember my name

LOSS OF NAME, LOSS OF TRUE SELF

This is a pervasive idea throughout literature, even though we obviously don’t subscribe to it in real life. Women in the West are still largely expected (and do) change surnames when marrying a man, yet we don’t believe she has lost a part of herself. When Chinese speakers immigrate to English speaking countries they quite often adopt a name which is pronounceable and memorable for native English speakers. Do those immigrants with several names feel they have lost a part of themselves? Or do they feel their name is simply the label they attach to themselves in certain contexts?

How many names do you have?

My name (Lynley) is a ridiculous tongue-twister to native Japanese speakers, so while I lived in Japan my name was switched to my last name (Stace). It’s common for even young Japanese people to go by their last name in Japan — it seems to be a bit of a lucky dip whether you’re known by your first or your last name, whereas in my home country (New Zealand) young people very rarely go by their last name, unless there’s a specific reason for doing so. (One of my brothers made friends with all of the Davids in his year so he, too, went by the name Stace for clarity purposes.) I have never gone by our last name Stace outside Japan, though I like to keep it for use online. I felt nothing about me changed when my moniker changed.

That doesn’t tend to be true when it comes to fictional characters.

Take the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away. Chihiro becomes Sen — the Chinese reading of a shortening of her Japanese name — until she can escape from the enslaving world ruled by the bath woman.

After Yubaba steals part of Chihiro’s name, Haku warns Sen not to forget her former name or she will be trapped in the spirit world forever. Sen must remember the qualities that make her who she is and remain true to them, even though her name, the one word that defines her, has changed. Sen succeeds in keeping her identity and also helps Haku regain his, ultimately freeing them both. Haku is living proof of the dangers inherent in forgetting one’s true identity. Names are of fundamental importance in the spirit world, and those in power keep their control by stealing and changing names. Only those characters with the inner strength to hold onto their names and identities can free themselves.

— Spark Notes

After The First Death is young adult thriller from the 1970s by Robert Cormier. This story contains similar name symbolism — characters forfeit their names.

Part One opens with a first person narrator who feeds us his name in dribs and drabs.

Part Two switches point of view. These Middle Eastern terrorists have lost their names entirely, trained to forget them by means of dedicating themselves to the cause. Cormier is careful to emphasise that these terrorist, foreign boys have names — or had them. This turns them into individuals. The sociopathic terrorist among the group shows us his true colours by angering a waitress when he chooses to ignore her wishes to be called by her own name rather than one he has designated. By taking her name he demonstrates his ability to turn off empathy. This guy is therefore posited from the beginning as a cold-blooded killer.

“That will be all, Myra,” Artkin said.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“I said, ‘That will be all, Myra.”
“My name’s not Myra,” the girl said.
Artkin smiled at her. “Of course it isn’t,” he said. But his voice suggested the opposite, his voice and his smile. They hinted wickedly of deep secrets.
“Well, it isnt,” she said. “My name’s Bonnie, although the priest didn’t like it because there’s no Saint Bonnie.”
“Please give us the check, Myra,” Artkin said, voice cold now, uninterested.
“I said my name’s not Myra,” she muttered as she totaled up the bill.
“Myra’s a nice name. It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Artkin said.
Her face reddened, accentuating the acne, the pimples and small scabs. Artkin could do that to people, intimidate them, draw them into conversations they did not want to be drawn into, force the into confrontations.
“Think about it, Myra. How old were you when you were baptized? Two weeks, two months? Do you remember being baptized with the name Bonnie? Of course not. It’s what people have told you. Have you ever seen your birth certificate? Not he thing they give you when you go to City Hall for a copy, but the original? The one that says your name is Myra. You’ve never seen it, have you? But that doesn’t mean it does not exist. You have never seen me before but I exist. I have existed all this time. I might have been there when you were baptized, Myra.”
She stood there for a moment, the check in her hand, hesitant, doubtful, her eyes wary, and Miro knew that this was what Artkin had worked to do: create this split second of doubt and hesitation. He knew that he had reached his mark, drawn blood. Then the moment vanished. The girl flung the check on the table.
“You’re nuts,” she said, and turned away, shaking her head at all the strange people loose in the world.

After The First Death by Robert Cormier

NAMES AS CHARACTER SYMBOLS

symbolic names character symbols
The only way to view this image clearly is to download it, until I can work out the finer points of WordPress.

A symbol is a packet of highly compressed meaning. These symbols highlight and communicate different aspects of the characters/setting/plot. A subcategory of the literary symbol is the ‘character symbol’.

A character’s name is a children’s story is quite often symbolic. Symbolic names are also common in comedy, but are less frequently seen elsewhere, in stories that aim for mimesis (realism). In the real world, after all, people’s personalities are not connected to their names. (And even if your teacher is called Mrs Bellringer and your dermatologist is called Dr Healsmith, that isn’t useful in a suspenseful crime novel.)

Also known as:

  • a label name
  • allegorical name
  • When the name of a fictional character describes their personality or occupation, it is called an aptronym. Or sometimes aptonym (without the ‘r’)

mrs ticklefeather

SYMBOLIC NAMES IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
  • Enid Blyton loved label names — think Watzisname, Dame Washalot, Silky and Moonface. from The Magic Faraway Tree series. These names were very literal. Blyton steered clear of ironic symbolism.
  • The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig by Emer Stamp features some farmers called Mr and Mrs Sandal, who happen to be vegetarian. This is a symbolic name for the adult co-reader, as I’m not sure young readers would always know how heavily sandals are associated with vegetarianism — mostly because this was true back in the 1970s, I think.
  • The entire cast of Mr Men and The Smurfs
  • Beautiful Bella from the Twilight series

Some names are symbolic mainly because of the history of stories that precede them. In children’s literature, having Little before your name means chances are slim of you ever becoming Big. You’ll probably die.

DO SYMBOLIC NAMES COMPROMISE REALISM?

The middle grade novel A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is filled with characters with colourful names. Early in the story we meet the Cowgills. The child narrator lampshades the symbolism of the name by writing: “It may have been just a coincidence that a family named Cowgill owned the dairy. I never knew.” This lampshading is necessary because Peck is basically going for nostalgic historical realism. It also leads to some humour.

It works because sometimes a real person does seem to have a symbolic name, in which case it’s comically coincidental. Donald Trump springs to mind. I do know a teacher called Mrs Bellringer.

A Slate culture writer makes a good case for avoiding subtlety, and he’s talking about stories for adults.

Writers of popular adult stories seem to subscribe to this view, though symbolic names for adult characters tend to take on a different form — the main characters in True Detective are called Hart and Cohle, which is symbolically linked (Heart and Coal) to their personalities and character arcs. This weaker connection is safer if you’re hoping to avoid metafiction.

Another very similar example occurs in The Sixth Sense, starring a main character called Malcolm Crowe. Crowe is dead, so one could argue Shyamalan is giving us a big clue in with the character’s name. Cole Sear: “Cole” compared to “coal” which is black like death. “Sear” compared to “seer,” someone who has keen insight. Of course, Cole has the insight that Malcolm is a ghost (“I see dead people”).

SYMBOLIC NAMES IN STORIES FOR ADULTS

Stories for adults also feature characters with symbolic names, especially if they are comedies. Will Freeman of About A Boy is one example. Tied down to no one, this man-child really does live under the illusion of free will.

 

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