Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Meaning of Names in Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

Some regular readers may think this is just a post where I can witter on about my favorite story. You may be partly right, but it’s also an essay about how an author can use names to create a subconscious message.
If you’ve not read the book or seen the film, or even read my review of Oscar and Lucinda, I’ll recap. In Victorian England, Oscar, a motherless boy grows up in Devon with a strict, religious father, Theophilus(friend of God). He is a nervous, sensitive person with a severe phobia of drowning and depends on games of chance to guide his path through life. He goes to Oxford to become an Anglican priest and eventually decides to become a missionary in Australia as a penance for his gambling. On the shipboard voyage, he meets Lucinda, a young woman who shares his penchant for gambling and owns the Prince Rupert Glass Works in Sydney. Later, their secret card games get him fired from his pastoral duties and Lucinda offers him platonic refuge in her home, where they continue to fall in love with each other, though Oscar believes Lucinda is attracted to another pastor, the Rev. Dennis Hasset. In order to win her affections, he conceives a wager that he can deliver a glass church to a tiny town in the Queensland rainforest. The journey and it’s ending is part of the tragedy of the story, leaving the reader with many “if onlys” amid the tears. The film has a different, brighter ending than the novel, but they both have merit.
I won’t presume to know how authors select the names they use in their books or whether they choose certain ones on purpose, but it seems evident that at least some of the names in O&L were deliberate. Peter Carey said in an interview that he was thinking of Hermione at first, until his wife suggested Lucinda. I’m glad she did, if only because Lucinda is easier to say. And by now Hermione is a name too much associated with a certain young wizard. Lucinda means ‘light’, which is perfect for a glass maker and also for someone who brightens Oscar’s life with the light of love. Her glass factory are named after the nephew of Charles I of England, naval officer, scientist and inventor, who demonstrated how a drip of hardened glass will explode when the tail is twisted. A Prince Rupert’s Drop is an object which repeatedly shows up throughout Lucinda’s life, much of the time symbolizing happiness.
The ship on which our protagonists meet is the Leviathan, which is often used as a synonym for sea monster. It’s an apt name for Oscar especially, considering his phobia of water. In the Bible, a leviathan refers to a whale. Applied to our story, Oscar could be Jonah, his journey to Australia filled with the same storms, resistance and relief, once he’s landed. To continue the aquatic references, Oscar’s only friend at Oxford is another student named Wardley-Fish, there is an irony of his loneliness being broken by sea creature.
Oscar means ‘God’s spearman’ which at first seems laughable for someone so scrawny and fearful. But beneath that oddness is a courageous soul who does not hesitate to call out hypocrisy and who stands firm on his morals, despite adversity. He also battles his fears, not just on the Leviathan, but also as he travels with the glass church part of the way on rivers.
Oscar acquires nicknames as well and not complimentary ones either. On the ship, his scuttling attempts to evade sight of the water lead his fellow passengers to call him “Mr. Crab”. After he is fired from the church, he briefly works in an office, where the manager, Mr. Jeffris(territory, hostage) is a nasty man and mocks him as “Mr. Smudge”. This refers not only to Oscar’s clumsiness as he tries to learn the job, but also is a personal insult as a mistake, a blot, something that needs to be erased. Jeffris lies his way into leading the expedition to deliver the church and so continues the mistreatment of Oscar until he gets his just reward. As the church is transported, Oscar’s role as the reason for the trip is forgotten and he’s viewed as a burden to the other members of the expedition. His only defender is Percy, whose name is a shortened form of Percival, one of King Arthur’s knights, which is very fitting.
So you see that the author used names to underline traits of people and things to give greater emphasis to their part in the story and to influence, in many cases subconsciously, our reaction to them. As readers, this adds layers and elements that increases our enjoyment. This is one of the reasons Carey is considered a master of his craft. And one of the reasons Oscar and Lucinda remains my favorite book

Vintage 1988 433 pp. ISBN 0-679-77750-4

5 comments on “The Meaning of Names in Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

  1. Lisa
    January 23, 2013

    This was fascinating, Jackie. How have I not read Oscar and Lucinda? I bought it ages ago and have it on the bookcase but I haven’t even opened it yet. Must rectify that. Thanks for the nudge!

  2. rosyb
    January 24, 2013

    I want to read it now too. I particularly like your idea of Lucinda and light and glass. Like the word Lucid. Is there a link there at all? I don’t know if writers pick names deliberately or not. I suspect sometimes they don’t pick them deliberately but they choose them and they “sound right” and when you look at them closer they do have associations – that maybe the writer made also, like the reader does, at a more subconscious level. I think the sound of words is very important to me. And sound can be as important as meaning in terms of the way I have associations. LIke Scarpetta above I was thinking also sounds a bit like Scalpel as well as Scar. I think you can make associations with sharp spiky sounds and soft meek sounds and active sounds etc. Spiky sounds like Spiky. Splodge sounds like a splodge. That sort of thing.

    I remember chatting about the way we read with Lisa, though and she is kerazy the way she reads – counting words and all sorts of impressive stuff. So maybe she is less sound-orientated. Should ask her.

  3. Hilary
    January 24, 2013

    Jackie, these are beautiful reflections on the choice of names in Oscar and Lucinda, and just how much they add to the book (which I also want to read now!). You really brought out just how cleverly the names had been chosen for the particular resonance they would have throughout the novel. Thank you for such a great contribution to names week.

    Oh dear – I’m joining the queue of foxes who are confessing to not having read O&L – I hope you will still speak to us 😉

  4. Rhoda Baxter
    January 25, 2013

    I have a love-hate relationship with Oscar and Lucinda. It’s an astounding book and I really enjoyed reading it, but the ending made me so Angry. I ranted about it for weeks (my work colleagues banned me from talking about it at tea breaks). I hadn’t noticed the synergy with the names, but I loved the symbolism of the Prince Rupert’s drop. Clear, beautiful and strong in general, but put pressure on its vulnerable point and it shatters into a million pieces.

  5. Pingback: The Fat Man in History by Peter Carey | Rafferty's Rules

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