The Genius Behind Nameless Protagonists

I believe one of the greatest things that a bibliophile can do is to question everything “to the nitty-gritty”, as my older relatives would say. We need to call into question some of the more obvious components of human life that we automatically claim as conventions.  You might not believe this but I was thinking about how nameless, fictional protagonists operate vis a vis named ones at around the same time that Sam Sacks published his piece “The Rise of the Nameless Protagonist” in The New Yorker.  His argument, to which I somewhat agree, is that :

Credit: David de la Mano

Credit: David de la Mano

“..namelessness..is a social as well as a metaphysical disease, one that tends to afflict women, minorities, the poor, the outcast—those treated as background extras in the primary story lines of history. With this in mind, one can spot a contradictory trend that  runs parallel to the recent spate of namelessness: novels whose mission is to belatedly grant identities to past figures who have been unjustly unknown.”

But I would add that nameless protagonists not only reveal the genius of their creators, but also the paradoxical solidarity between the characters and their readers.

As we all know, names are very important.  The word “name” comes from the Old English word nama. In Sanskrit, its translation is naman which denotes the signature sign or mark. In fact, in some Hindu schools, a philosophical term is applied to naman in order to convey essence and substance to a human’s immaterial qualities. In Latin, the term nomen traces back to ancient Roman times where a citizen’s nomen was representative of his or her race, clan, and descent.  Generally speaking, humans have a least two names, a given name and a surname.  In certain cultures, such as Spanish, a person retains both patrilineal and matrilineal surnames.  Overall, what we can deduce from all of these influences is that a name has a sort of power. It binds a person to the past, keeps him grounded in the present, and accompanies him well into the future.

For most novels, we are given the protagonist’s name: Humbert Humbert, Anna Karenina, Lily Briscoe, Jay Gatsby, Howard Roark.  And whether or not it was the authors’ intentions, their histories that make their character motivations relevant are tied to their names.  When we try to remember characters, we name them first before getting into what makes them unique.  The most interesting fact about is that it’s instinctual. Think about it: If I asked you to tell me about To Kill A Mockingbird, you would need to use specific names or else I would get confused. “He”, “she”, and “they” would not suffice.

So what happens when you come across a nameless protagonist like that in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground? The simple answer is everything. These two novels open in similar ways. For Invisible Man, it’s “I am an invisible man..I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids…” For Notes from the Underground, “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am unpleasant man.” Both protagonists introduce themselves as “I am.” Who are they?  We can never be sure.  But they are letting you know that they exist.  Be mindful that they never state “I am the invisible man” or “I am the sick man”. Arguably, these linguistic choices convey to use that there are one of many. There are others who exist that are just like them, invisible and/or sick, but we’ve never encountered them. Or maybe we have.

Kōbō Abe wrote two postwar novels that feature nameless protagonists, “Face of Another” and “The Ruined Map”.  The former uses “I” and the latter begins with “you”, blurring the distinction between us as the voyeurs and the protagonist as our subject. For all three authors, they are living in a dystopia because society has failed them. Whether it was through systemic oppression, Europeanized, cultural upheaval, or societal leanings toward modernity, these characters are caught in the middle between history and present.  They are the physical representations of oscillations. This rupture in temporal continuity is why all four novels tend to be claustrophobic as we are trying to understand who they are without knowing anything about them.

The splendor of nameless protagonists can be most understood when as readers, we realize that we cannot tie them to another other person, clan, or background. They are who they are and we have no other choice to take them as such. They may confuse us but in the end, we may discover that we are more like them that we had ever imagined. So to return to Sam Sacks’ point, I’m not sure nameless protagonists grant us identities to past figures relatively unknown. On the contrary, I think we do know these identities because we exhibit them as we all navigate this absurd world.  Nameless protagonists provide a mirror into our own souls while trying to assess their own simultaneously.

And for that, the revelation is that although we have no names for the characters with whom we resonate, we know them intuitively.  They know us too or else their words wouldn’t be so frank and matter-of-factly. Regardless of how old their stories are, they are still relevant for we, like him, experience social and metaphysical changes.

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