The Importance of Names in Frankenstein and the Handmaid's Tale
Names are a very important thing that most people are given shortly after birth. A name is “the word or words that a person, thing or place is known by” (Cambridge Online Dictionary (2011), Retrieved November 6th 2012). Names are given to identify an individual in replace of calling someone “it”, a term used to refer to something inanimate or without a name. A name shows that someone loves us enough to name us; to think about it with care and affection.
Names surrounding the author have a great influence also and the main character in Frankenstein shares the penname of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood uses the influence of feminism to create the names of the majority of the female characters. This relates to the way women are portrayed in Frankenstein and how their names represent their personalities. The names of the male characters in both novels represent the Victorian and Modern Eras respectively.
The main character of Frankenstein is Victor.
Victor comes from the word ‘victory’, which means “an engagement ending in such triumph” (Online Dictionary (2012), Retrieved November 6th 2012). In the novel, Victor lives up to his name by being hubristic, especially when he starts creating the monster: “…I was thus engaged, heart and soul, in one pursuit. ” The verb “engaged” has connotations of marriage and a life-long tie to a person or object, but we know that Victor disowns the creature. The nouns “heart and soul” link to being human and suggest that Victor expects the creature to be human, like himself.
It is also possible that Victor is trying to prove to Walton that, at this point, he is still completely human, and not a mad person obsessed with trying to “bestow animation upon lifeless matter”. Hubris is when a person has excessive pride or self-confidence. They can also be seen as arrogant; and hubris is always followed by punishment, which is Victor’s death and the many deaths his family encounter. Victor’s hubris links to the story of Prometheus, who tricked Zeus into eating rotten foods to benefit humans which caused Prometheus to be punished.
Victor’s hubris can also link to Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Formerly the most beautiful of all angels in Heaven, he is a tragic figure best described by the now-famous quote “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven” (Paradise Lost, Book One, Page 263). He is introduced to Hell after he leads a failed rebellion to wrestle control of Heaven from God. (Wikipedia (2012), Retrieved November 8th 2012). Anne Mellor said that “Frankenstein’s scientific project is clearly an attempt to gain power” (A Feminist Critique of Science).
This can be seen though Victor’s speech about creating the Creature and his toils. We know that Victor is punished because he says “one by one, my friends were snatched away; I was left desolate. ” The use of the term “friends” in this quote suggests that Victor does not feel any relation to William, his brother. He does not say “friends and family” which would have described his punishment accurately. The use of “one by one” creates imagery of the domino effect. The repetition of “one” can suggest that each death is linked; which inevitably they are.
There was also no choice in the loss of his friends as they were “snatched” away from him. This violent verb represents the creature in a vicious light. The adjective “desolate” suggests that he is completely alone, even though he still has people that care for him. Victor’s best friend, Henry Clerval, whose name is phonetically similar to ‘clear’, has been seen as Victor’s conscience. Throughout the novel, up until his death, Henry supports and comforts Victor. Martin Tropp said that “One of Clerval’s functions in the novel is repeatedly to remind Frankenstein of his need to love man and nature” (Mary Shelley’s Monster).
This can be seen when he advises Victor to write a letter to his father and cousin who “…would be very happy if they received a letter…” Victor has been cut off from his family and now Henry is persuading him to contact those he cares for, but making sure Victor knows that they care for him too. The use of the intensifier ‘very’ shows how much Victor’s family miss him and Henry hopes that contacting his family will make Victor recover quicker. In spite of this, Henry says, after William’s death, “I can offer you no consolation”.
This contradicts the fact that he is there to comfort Victor as he understands that some things cannot be consoled. Similarly, the male names in The Handmaid’s Tale also hold great significance. Firstly, the Handmaids are protected by men called ‘Angels’. “Angel” suggests protection and has connotations of Heaven, and an idealistic place. The Angels are soldiers that fight for the country – try to make it a better place, like Heaven. However, it is never said exactly who the country would be better for once the war is over. The main male characters in the novel are the Commanders.
These are “the ruling class”. “Commander” creates the image of the highest person – which they are. It also has connotations of war. Guardians are thought to be “little Angels”. The connotations of “Guardian” are Heaven, angels and protection. However, the Guardians are placed around Gilead to make sure the Handmaids are following the new regime which shows that they are following orders but it can been seen as them protecting the Handmaids from punishment. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Shelley uses the names of the male characters to represent their personality and status.
Along with the male names in both novels, the names of the female characters play a huge part. Victor’s mother is named Caroline Beaufort. Beaufort is a merge between the two French words ‘beau’ meaning pretty, and ‘fort’ meaning strong. This is relevant to Caroline because, like most of the women in the 1800s, she is admired for her beauty. She is also admired for her strength. Whilst her father is ill, she worked to support them and “procured plain work; she plaited straw”. The plosives represent the idea of the hardness of the work.
The harsh sound could symbolise her determination and strength. As Frankenstein was written in the Victorian Era, it was highly unusual for a woman to be working as there were men around who could fulfill these roles. The adjective “plain” shows that the work Caroline was doing was of a minimalistic level which suggests that whilst Shelley was brave enough to allow Caroline to work, she did not make her do an important profession such as a doctor or a teacher. Victor’s cousin is called Elizabeth, which means “Gift of God”.
When Victor first meets Elizabeth, she is given to him “as a pretty present”. The adjective “pretty” highlights that she is admired for her looks. This plosive, alliterative metaphor creates the image that Elizabeth is a toy, or play thing to be owned, and possibly controlled, by Victor. This is further enhanced when Victor says “I looked upon Elizabeth as mine”. The possessive pronoun “mine” shows us that Victor thinks Elizabeth belongs to him only. This links to the Victorian attitude to women which was that they should be controlled by men.
Paul O’Flinn commented that “Mary Shelley is … a woman writer whose text articulates and has been convincingly shown to articulate elements of women’s experience of patriarchy, the family …” This is seen through the women in Frankenstein and definitely Elizabeth. In comparison with Frankenstein, Atwood uses the names of the female characters to represent them. When a woman becomes a Handmaid, her name changes to ‘Of’ followed by the name of her Commander. The protagonist’s Commander is named ‘Fred’ and therefore the protagonist Handmaid is named ‘Offred’.
This shows that women ‘belong’ to male figures – whether they are their husband or not. The women who ‘train’ the Handmaids before they are sent to families are called ‘Aunts’. “Aunt” has connotations of love, care, affection and family but, in contrast, the Aunts are far from caring – they “patrolled” and have “electric cattle prods”. The use of the verb “patrolled” has connotations of confinement, forcefulness and war. The use of the noun “cattle” can be seen as referring to the Handmaids as cows, dehumanising them. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Shelley uses female names to represent the character in Frankenstein.
In Frankenstein, the Creature is a key character and one who is not given a name. This suggests that nobody cared enough for him. He is referred to with many different nouns, none of which are polite. Several times, he is called a “wretch” such as by William Frankenstein, when the Creature tries to befriend him. “Wretch” has connotations of a despicable being, something which rouses disgust. However, it could also suggest an unfortunate being. This links to the Creature because he tells Victor that when he was created and rejected, he “sat down and wept” The verb “wept” is emotive and suggests unfortunate circumstances.
It is also an unexpected act from a monster, suggesting the Creature does not deserve the derogatory names he is given. The Creature later refers to himself as Adam. He says that he is Victor’s “Adam of your labours”. This links to Paradise Lost because Victor created the monster in the same way God created Adam. Both Frankenstein and The Handmaid’s Tale use names to represent their characters. Mary Shelley uses the actual names to represent the characters whilst Margaret Atwood uses connotations and deeper meaning of the names. Even when someone is not given a name, it is still relevant because it shows the purpose of their character.
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