Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Naming in Invisible Man and Moby Dick

Having a name implies having an identity tied to other relations.  Parents give their newborn children names to indicate claiming and possession.   To have a first and last name implies relations that care enough to come up with a title for the child and that there is a need to have something that others can use to refer to them by later in life.   In both Moby Dick and Invisible Man, Melville and Ellison have narrators whose personal identities follow a different pattern of naming.  The lack of a specific name for the author in Invisible Man can be interpreted as Ellison taking Melville’s technique as a way to show the narrator is a nameless member of a unit rather than a distinct individual.
In Melville, the narrator tells the reader what to call him in the famous “Call me Ishmael” (Melville 1).   This seems to be perhaps for the convenience of the reader to have a name to which to refer to the narrator throughout the reading and is not referring to any familial relation.  Additionally it may be interpreted as Ishmael removing his previous relation, showing his personal transition to a whole new identity with new ties, best defined by a chosen Biblical name himself rather than a name given by relatives. Another perspective is that Ishmael throughout Moby Dick is not the driving force, and tends to dissolve entirely at points to give way to the more influential characters on the ship, specifically Ahab and to perhaps a lesser degree Queegueg.  Ishmael happens to be the only one who survives the crash at the end and comes back to relay the story to others in society.  Telling the reader to call him Ishmael, may be a way to tell the reader that his identity is not important.  This may be related to the descriptions given in the text about how the ship is a machine, with Ahab as the central calculating unit and the others as cogs doing his bidding.  The members of the ship other than Ahab become living pieces of the machine, and in Ishmael’s case, nearly nameless.    One quotation that directly relates to this is: “They were one man, not thirty.  For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things […]  all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to”(Melville 636).
                In Invisible Man, the narrator does have a name but it is not (yet?) explicitly given to the reader.  The narrator does talk about family relations,  most influential being that of his grandfather but this seems to be more haunting him than anything.  There are numerous instances in the text, when a person asks the name of the narrator including secretaries, Mr. Emerson’s son, Mr. Broadway and the doctors in the factory hospital yet in all of these case, the narrator does not reveal the specific name to the reader.  In the specific example of the factory hospital, the narrator after the electrical treatment, can’t recall his own name: “Who am I? It was no good.  I felt like a clown.  Nor was I up to being both criminal and detective - though criminal I didn’t know” (Ellison 242).  This specific passage is interesting as it brings up aspects of naming present in Moby Dick as well.  Here when the narrator can’t remember his name, he suddenly thinks of himself as a criminal.  Though he doesn’t understand the connection at the moment, it makes sense as part of being in prison is being referred to by numbers and not by a name.  The prison metaphor as well as the machine metaphor are very present in Moby-Dick as the men on the ship are in an enclosed area with no women, and the majority are there out of financial necessity – perhaps a reason why a number of people are in prison.
                Another interesting connection to Melville on the subject of naming is the interaction with Mr. Broadway and the narrator in regards to what to call him.  When the narrator meets him for the first time, he calls him by his first name Lucius and he frowns and says “That’s me-and don’t come calling me by my first name,  To you and all like you I’m Mister Broadway…”(Ellison 207).  Late Mr. Broadway discusses his importance to the factory and the fact that his knowledge of the machines is really what makes the Optic White paint the best.  From the beginning of their interactions, it is established that the narrator is replaceable and is in a position not necessary.  This relates to the fact that Mister Broadway has earned the right to be referred to with a title of respect, whereas the narrator is referred to by Mr. Broadway as “Boy.”  A quotation that directly relates this to Melville is spoken by Mr. Broadway when he discusses his work on the plant as “They got all this machinery, but that ain’t everything; we the machines inside the machines”(Ellison 217).  This mechanical analogy relates rightly to the one in Melville about the ship, in that the workers are simply an extension of the machinery.  Mister Broadway, in a way, like Ahab, has earned a higher position in the mechanism to gain a title. Yet Ishmael and the narrator in Invisible Man are expendable and their names are not important to the functioning of the machine.  In this way, they individuality does not need to be referred to and their previous relations are not important.  Their importance comes from being part of a unit and thus there is no need to have or remember their names.


  1. I like the ideas you have in this, but I think the execution is somewhat lacking (I understand some of that might have to do with being so close to the end of the semester). The connection between Ishmael and the narrator in Invisible Man is fairly obvious, but I like where you go with it (i.e. the concept of being part of a unit > being an individual). I think it would benefit, however, from some research on the history of naming in general and not just in a common-sense type of way (which is how you address the idea of what names mean in the beginning). Also, I was a little thrown by the addition of the connection between Broadway and Ahab towards the end of the essay. Even though you mentioned it very briefly, the connection could be an entire paper on its own, which contributed to the somewhat scattered feel of this blog. The way you include the theme of prison was a strength to me, but I would like to see it fleshed out. Overall I enjoyed this comparison between Ellison and Melville, and (although I know you probably already chose your final project) this would be an interesting piece to revise.

  2. I like your reading of the Moby-Dick in particular; you have a succinct and interesting take on the meaning of Ishmael's relative namelessness, although it would be stronger in the context of the name that he *chooses*. Thus, even though this isn't a comprehensive take on Ishmael's name/namelessness, it's an interesting one.

    I think your reading of Ellison's narrator's namelessness is good, too. Unlike Alison, I thought the point of greatest weakness was in the leap between the two. Ishmael chooses a name (other than his real one), arguably to signify his variety of powerlessness. The IM does not give us his name, in order to emphasize his invisibility, even from us.

    These are closely related concepts, and you're right to bring them together - what bothers me (and really the only thing that bothers me - I thought that it all flowed rather well) is your lack of attention to *difference* here.