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The literary lineage of names in The Great Gatsby.

Tom Buchanan, fighting to keep Daisy from his rival, denied Jay Gatsby a name and called him "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere" (The Great Gatsby, NY: Scribner's, 1925, 130). But the names of Fitzgerald's main characters in the novel are intriguing allusive. The faithless Daisy Fay (her maiden name) recalls Henry James' enchanting and reckless Daisy Miller. Carraway suggests Hemingway, whom Fitzgerald had heard about from their mutual friend Edmund Wilson. George Wilson, the impoverished cuckold and murderer, is a sly dig at Edmund Wilson. George's wife, the crude Myrtle, is ironically named after the emblem of love, sacred to Venus. Jordan, an androgynous name, is--ironically--the sacred river where Christ was baptized by St. John. The name of the rapacious and dangerous Wolfsheim means "wolf's lair."

The list of seventy people (on the first three pages of Chapter 4) who come to Gatsby's parties in the summer of 1922 is one of the wittiest parts of the novel. Gatsby is not acquainted with anyone in Manhattan and Long Island "society," so he invites everyone he can find to his parties. He scarcely knows any of his guests and almost none of them know him, and his deliberate mystification inspires numerous questions about the identity and whereabouts of the elusive host. Many other people crash the lavish events, fueled by bootlegged whiskey, which degenerate into vast vulgarity and drunken orgies. Social climbers, freeloaders and parasites, with dubious origins and perverse personalities, conduct themselves as if they were in an amusement park.

Their bizarre names are comic and satiric, degrading and occasionally obscene. Many of them suggest animals (Roebuck, Beaver, Catlips) and fish (Beluga, Whitebait, Fishguard), and incongruously yoke the exotic and the banal. They indicate the kind of corrupt people who are attracted to Gatsby's festivities and help create the louche atmosphere. Six of the guests have disastrous experiences. Brewer's nose was shot off in the war, Ripley Snell was sent to the penitentiary, Ulysses Swett was run over by an automobile, Webster Civet was drowned, Muldoon strangled his wife and Henry L. Palmetto killed himself. Also in attendance are the enervated Eckhaust, the snide Smirkes, the precious Newton Orchid, the eructating S. W. Belcher, the militaristic Stonewall Jackson Abrams and the wily distiller "Rot-Gut" Ferret.

Fitzgerald's satiric list has a distinguished literary lineage. The characters in eighteenth-century novels had emblematic names that clearly signified their personalities: the dashing rake Lovelace in Clarissa, Squire Allworthy and the brutish Thwackum in Tom Jones, the incompetent Dr. Slop in Tristram Shandy and the kindly vicar Dr. Primrose in The Vicar of Wakefield. Dickens novels, following this denotative tradition, teem with strangely suggestive names: Verisopht, Sliderskew, Grewgious, M'Choakumchild, and--with suffixes adopted for Gatsby--Jellyby and Bounderby. Even the ultra-refined Henry James shocked his respectable readers by introducing the leaky Mrs. Condrip in The Wings of the Dove and ample Mrs. Fanny Assingham in The Golden Bowl. Dostoyevsky and Proust gave their characters outrageous names, inspired by the French merde and by Dickens' Murdstone in David Copperfield and Merdle in Little Dorrit: Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov and Cambremer[de], which stops just in time, in Remembrance of Things Past.

But, weirdness apart, there are four specific models for Fitzgerald's long catalogue. In Chapter 51 of Vanity Fair (1847), Thackeray provides a satiric list of guests who are entertained by Colonel and Mrs. Crawley at their dinner in Mayfair. They include the noble but suspiciously cheesy Duchess of Stilton, Duc de la Gruyere, Marchioness of Cheshire, Marchese Stracchino and Comte de Brie; the exotic Turkish Papoosh Pasha (attended by the grilled Kibob Bey) and the Indian Bobbachy Bahawder; and the degraded Wagg, Fogey, Slingstone and murderous Macbeth.

The strange names of Gatsby's guests--whom Tom Buchanan alls "crazy fish" in a "menagerie"--were influenced, closer to home, by two of the most important writers of the twentieth century. T. S. Eliot gave the characters in "Gerontion" (1920) peculiar foreign names: Mr. Silvero, "Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians; /Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room/Shifting the candles; Fraulein von Kulp/Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door" (The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950, NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1952, 22).

James Joyce assembled the whole diplomatic corps, with absurdly comical names, to witness the execution scene in the "Cyclops" chapter of Ulysses (1922). Present at the hanging--and strongly influenced by the catalogue in Vanity Fair--are representatives from Italy, France, Russia, Austria, Hungary, America, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Japan, China, Norway, Holland, Poland, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and German Switzerland. Fitzgerald lifted the most obscene name in his own novel--Vladimir Tostoff--from Joyce's double pun on the name of one of his characters. This unregenerate masturbator, who obsessively "tossed off" and destroyed his own sexual organ, was named "Toby Tostoff (a ruined Pole)." (Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler, NY: Vintage, 1986, 252 and 178).

The last significant source, also published just before The Great Gatsby, was Emily Post's Etiquette (1922). Fitzgerald, always keen to absorb popular culture, knew this best-seller. Edmund Wilson recalled that Fitzgerald once told him that "he had looked into Emily Post and been inspired with the idea of a play in which all the motivations should consist of trying to do the right thing" ("Books of Etiquette and Emily Post," Classics and Commercials, 1950; NY: Vintage, 1962, 374). In her book Post, imitating eighteenth-century emblematic names, combined the snobbery of her elite characters with the humiliation of those who failed to meet her exalted standards of behavior. On the right side of Emily, the omnipotent arbiter, were Wellborn, Oldname, Toplofty, Gilding, Smartlington, Clubwin, Lovejoy and Kindheart. Those condemned to gnash their teeth in the outer darkness included the hopelessly gauche Nobackground, Richan Vulgar, Upstart, Spendeasy, Smalltalk, (like Smorltolk in Dickens' Pickwick Papers), Bluffington, the insect-like Entomoid and plain old Bugge. Fitzgerald reaped a rich linguistic harvest from the ludicrous catalogue of names in Thackeray, Eliot, Joyce and Emily Post.

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, Berkeley, California
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Author:Meyers, Jeffrey
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2013
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