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Emma, Shirley, Rebecca

June 22, 2017

Emma, Shirley, Rebecca: what do those names have in common? Yes, that’s right, they are all the titles of famous novels.

I think there is an asymmetry in English novel titles, in that a one-word title which is a woman’s first name is not at all uncommon (I could also have mentioned Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, Fanny Burney’s Camilla, Andre Gide’s Madeleine, Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Stephen King’s Carrie); but a one-word title which is a man’s first name is rare or non-existent. Novels are sometimes given men’s names for titles, but then you get the surname too: Joseph Andrews, Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, Silas Marner, Barry Lyndon, etc. In fact sometimes the first name is dispensed with and the surname alone designates the male protagonist (Babbitt, Enderby). But that would never happen with a female protagonist.

Explanations welcome (I assume it has something to do with patriarchy).

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Brandon, at first glance this seems a lot easier than it is: Alfie, Lucky Jim, Shoeless Joe.
    The only, very slight reason, I can think of is that eponymous female characters traditionally marry and so change their names.

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    What an interesting observation ! I am still thinking about this, but my first thought is to wonder whether the role of a female protagonist is normally the fuller realisation of herself, whereas that of the male, by and large, is of his finding his place in society. I appreciate that these are broad generalisations and assume volumes about the historical position of women in life and in the novel, ( the patriarchal element) but it is the best I can come up with at the moment. And perhaps this view is only confirmed by the fact that the only book I can think of off the top of my head which traces the growth of an individual male consciousness is – surprise, surprise – Stephen Dedalus.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Could it just be that traditionally girls have been more commonly called by their first name than boys? That was certainly the case at school.

  4. Simon Carter permalink

    An unrelated observation. It’s odd how several male Hollywood stars names (Errol, Clark, Tyrone, Spencer, Rock, Cary) tended toward the exotic while female stars (Ruby, Rita, Jean, Joan, Bette, Gloria, Norma, Maureen) sound like dinner ladies.

  5. Yes – good point!

  6. phwatisyernam permalink


  7. phwatisyernam permalink

    Orlando, Kim, Ivanhoe, Dracula, Tarzan

  8. Well, these are interesting counter-examples. But they’e not exactly the names of ordinary people, are they? And it’s not in every case clear that they are first or Christian names. (Also, Orlando is of unstable sex!) If you’d been able to come up with novels called Thomas, Richard and Harold I would have confessed my theory was refuted.

  9. phwatisyernam permalink

    Okay, correction: Ivanhoe isn’t a first name, and Tarzan of the Apes.

  10. Simon Carter permalink

    Ivanhoe was Jimmy Cliff’s characters first name in the film The Harder They Come. Also Emile Heskey’s middle name.
    Think I’ll settle on Bill Naughton’s Alfie as the best known novel.

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