The Name Game

Names in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy play an interesting role. We have already discussed in class and on the blog the name Patrician, the absence of a name for the Blacksmith, and the name Messalina/Lina. I’ve grown to enjoy finding etymologies for words, and if an author pays attention to names, as Morrison clearly does, then looking for meanings behind names can be equally fun, if not insightful.

A few disclaimers though, well, more like a disclaimer, a personal rule, and an acknowledgment. First, if I mention something that someone in our class has already pointed out and I don’t attribute it to that person then please let me know so I can promptly fix the offense. Second, I didn’t use any online or textual A Mercy guides or articles for this blog post. I don’t think there is anything wrong with using someone else’s research if you acknowledge it, but this removes some of the fun and it may be limiting if you don’t search beyond it. Lastly, sometimes the name game can be taken “too far” and the interpretations can begin to become less insightful and less pertinent. Our class is full of English majors, so I’m sure this gray area of interpretation is not too strange to any of you, but it seems particularly common in the name game. Anyway…

Messalina/Lina- Rachel has already done a great job attending to the two major historical players with this name. I’d like to add to her inquiries that the name “Lina” apparently means “tender” in Arabic and “absorbed, united” in Sanskrit. Also, “Messa” has several origins relating to Mass and Church services, not surprising considering the book’s influx of religious allusions and language. All of this seems to point to Lina’s identification with St. Messalina, however it’s also interesting that Messalina (Claudius’s wife) apparently exerted a good deal of control over the Emperor’s decisions. This brings to mind Sorrow’s quote, “…Lina ruled and decided everything Sir and Mistress did not.” (144) All things considered, I tend to believe that Morrison was consciously playing of both of the historical women in her building of Lina’s duality.

Jacob & Rebekka- It seems necessary to examine both of these names together.  First, let’s look at Jacob. Jacob is an important character in the Old Testament (again, the Bible). He is the twin brother of Esau, and eventually he is the one whom is called “Israel.” The name Jacob is thought to mean, “supplanter”—a word with meaning similar to “surrogate”—or “Holder of the heel,” which is apparently (according to this footnote) a Hebrew idiom for “he takes advantage of” or “he deceives.” This may be relevant to A Mercy since it could be said that Jacob takes advantage of the  slaves in Barbados/Rum trade, or that he deceives himself (or the reader) into believing he is morally higher that D’Ortega, “And there was a profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies at Jublio and a remote labor force in Barbados. Right?” (40) Now, the reason I find Jacob’s name really interesting is because of his wife’s name, “Rebekka.” Rebekka was Jacob’s mother in the Bible. I’m not trying to say that A Mercy is purely allegorical, but I can’t help but think that Morrison did this on purpose since the book is quite interested in the subject of Mothers. To make the relationship even more interesting, Rebekka (in the Bible) favored her son Jacob over her son Esau and she assisted Jacob in deceiving his father, Isaac, and taking the blessing that was meant for Esau. It also may be worth noting that Rebbeka could only assist Jacob because she had been eavesdropping on her husband, and that when Jacob expressed his concern over deceiving his father Rebekka willingly took the blame, “My son, let the curse fall on me.” This is no surprise, considering the Old Testament’s habit of blaming the woman (for example, Eve.)

Willard and Scully- I couldn’t find much for Willard, but Scully seems to come from the Irish name, O Scolaidehe, which comes from the word scholaidhe, which means “descendant of the scholar.” Anyone want to try and draw any meaning from that? There is also something called a “horned scully,” which is apparently a, “tapered block of concrete with projecting steel rails, placed underwater to tear holes in the bottom of boats.” This may mean something if you consider the book’s ubiquitous use of water as a symbol.

Patrician- Dr. McCoy noted in class the connection of the names meaning to noblemen, and how this further reveals Jacob’s desires.

Vaark- Not much. Only thing I came up with was V.A.R.K., “an acronym that stands for Visual, Aural, Read/write, and Kinesthetic sensory modalities that are used for learning information.” Maybe Morrison was aware of this and she was using it to point the reader towards the book’s focus on literacy and how people read signs and symbols—something she discusses in the interview Dr. McCoy initially posted on the blog—but  personally I’m leaning towards pleasant coincidence on this one.

Peter Downes- He has a small part in the book, yet the text seems to draw attention to his name, “Downes was his name. Peter Downes.” (34) Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything significant about the name choice.

Sorrow/Complete- This name seems to be obvious in its meaning. But, when you realize that it may be the only name obvious in its meaning, does this give it another meaning? Also, W.E.B. Dubois “The Songs of Sorrow” comes to mind.

Twin- Only wanted to point out that the two most notable pairs of twins in the Bible are Jacob and Esau, as well as Pharez and Zarah. P&Z are notable not only because they are Jacob’s grandchildren, but also because the story of their birth centers on a misinterpretation of signs.

“It had no name” (145) – all we know of Sorrow’s baby is that she thought she saw it yawn and, “Lina wrapped it in a piece of sacking and set it a-sail in the widest part of the stream and far below the beavers’ dam” (145). To me this seems to be a Biblical allusion to Moses. Moses was similarly thought to have been sent down the river by his Mother in order to be saved from the Egyptians. Moses would later free the Hebrews from their Egyptian enslavement.

“Instantly, she knew what to name her” (157) – This quotation draws the reader’s attention to the name of Sorrow’s second child. However, the reader is never explicitly told the baby’s name, unless I’ve made a grave mistake and overlooked it, in which case I hope someone will let me know. But if I’m right, then I think this omission is interesting. Anyone want to take a guess? Maybe, “Hope”?

Florens- I saved this one for last because it’s my favorite. Florens is Latin for, “blooming/in bloom: flowering; flowery: bright/shining; flourishing: prosperous” In a way, Florens entire journey could be considered a type of maturing, but the words “blooming” and “flowering” both seem to be too optimistic in regards to Florens story. Also, note that Florens describes herself as, “withering” (187) when she mentions the episode in the Widow’s closet. The flower metaphor can also be extended to when the blacksmith describes her as “nothing but wilderness” (166). In this sense she is a wildflower, which the online Oxford Dictionary defines as, “A flower of an uncultivated variety or a flower growing freely without human intervention.” It’s hard to identify Florens’ life as one that has been without human intervention, but I still find the definition of wildflower interesting because it seems to convey a more positive meaning than what the Blacksmith intended. Perhaps this is why Florens comes to the conclusion, “Slave. Free. I last.” (189) Finally I want to mention a description of the Blacksmith’s gate on page 176, “Looking more closely he saw the gilded vines were actually serpents, scales and all, but ending not in fangs but flowers. When the gate was opened, each one separated its petals from the other. When closed, the blossoms merged.” Since the book ends with the gates forever closed, therefore the blossoms have merged and are no longer separated, recalling Florens’ words, “I am become wilderness but I am also Florens. In full. (189)

Malaik- I lied, this is the last one. In Arabic, Malik means “king.”

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