March 8, 2004

Trollope’s Symbolic Names

Category: Hermeneutics,Literature :: Permalink

Often exegetes of Scripture get nervous about symbolism and typology, or even about conclusions drawn from literary features of the text (repeated words, chiasms, and so forth) — after all, those things aren’t completely provable or (as one person expressed it to me once) they aren’t “falsifiable.” You never have the kind of certainty about symbolism that you do about Greek grammar or about the identity of the Pontius Pilate referred to in the Gospels.

As I read through Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne a question came to mind: How would you respond to someone who asked you to prove that many of the names in this book are plays on words or have some symbolic reference? I’m thinking of names such as Dr. Fillgrave or the pub manager Mr. Reddypalm who just wants his little bill paid (by the candidate for the election).

Clearly those names aren’t just random syllables Trollope has put together, nor are they simply common English names which Trollope happened to pick because they sounded nice. Trollope crafted those names, intending them to have significance (and intending them, especially, to make us chuckle).

But if you were exegeting the novel using the sort of strict grammatical-historical approach many exegetes apply to Scripture, what would you do with those names? If you were to approach Trollope with the same caution with which some exegetes approach Scripture, with the fear of not having quasi-scientific certainty in your exegesis, could you say anything about the significance of those names? What kind of proof would you provide someone who claimed that Dr. Fillgrave’s name isn’t funny?

The proof wouldn’t be grammatical or historical. Part of your response, I suspect, would be to take the questioner to a number of other books (including perhaps The Pilgrim’s Progress) in which characters have significant names: It’s a common feature of English literature. But your questioner would likely say that you haven’t proven anything; you’ve simply moved his question from Doctor Thorne to the rest of English literature.

You might also want to assert that the meanings of the names do fit well with the way the characters are described in the book and with the events that involve them. In other words, within the framework of the story, this interpretation of the names seems to fit and make good sense and even contribute something to the story. Would that satisfy your questioner? Probably not. But I’m not sure how much more proof you need.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:33 am | Discuss (0)

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