Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Naming the Trees: Literary Onomastics in Susan Warner's the Wide, Wide World

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Naming the Trees: Literary Onomastics in Susan Warner's the Wide, Wide World

Article excerpt

"I wish we could name them all. But there's no end to them." ... "If you are a-going to name them all," said Nancy, "we sha'n't get home to-night; you might as well name all the trees."

--Susan Warner, The Wide, Wide World

Without a Name

"We have both got the same name," said she, as they went along a wide corridor; "how shall we know which is which?"

"Why," said Ellen, laughing, "when you say Ellen I shall know you mean me, and when I say it you will know I mean you. I shouldn't be calling myself, you know."

"Yes, but when somebody else calls, Ellen, we shall both have to run. Do you run when you are called?"

"Sometimes," said Ellen, laughing.

"Ah, but I do always; mamma always makes me." (1)

This meeting between Ellen Montgomery, the heroine of The Wide, Wide World, and Ellen Chauncey, her young doppelganger, comes at the halfway point of the novel, when the former Ellen has already lived for a time with the emotionally cold Aunt Fortune, and learned to live independent of the daily comforts of a loving family by seeking the "higher" comfort of Christ's love. At this point, she has left her second, surrogate home and ventured back into the wide world of acquaintances, equipped with the determination to be Christ-like (and not, as we are frequently reminded, merely Christian). With each new acquaintance, Ellen discovers, a transaction takes place in which greetings are offered, trivialities are shared, and names are exchanged.

On the occasion of this particular meeting, both parties share a name, so there is no impediment to their friendship, and they form an instant bond. That a nominal similarity would render the two Ellens fundamentally compatible would appear at first to be a crude and superstitious claim. But the resemblance of names is used elsewhere in the novel to determine compatibility, such as when Ellen Montgomery first inquires about her Aunt Fortune, and concludes by her name that they will not get along--a prejudgment that turns out to be, for the most part, correct:

"What is my aunt's name, mamma?"

"I think you must have heard that already, Ellen: Fortune Emerson."

"Emerson! I thought she was papa's sister?"

"So she is."

"Then how comes her name not to be Montgomery?"

"She is only his half-sister; the daughter of his mother, not his father."

"I am very sorry for that," said Ellen, gravely.

"Why, my daughter?"

"I am afraid she will not be so likely to love me." (1:23)

In this scene, affection, blood relation, and appellation are triune. Where one is absent, the others are apt to vanish as well. Implicit in Ellen's perception too is the belief that such difference is insurmountable. These three areas meet in the relationship of Ellen and her mother, accounting for the strength of their attachment. Noting the lack of a shared name with her Aunt Fortune, Ellen finds little hope of such a bond.

But in the meeting with Ellen Chauncey, when "the two Ellen's creep down to find their stockings" on Christmas, it is suggested twice that the resemblance between them is more than nominal: in response to the question, "But how shall we know which is which?" Ellen Montgomery responds, tellingly, "Perhaps they are both alike" (2:35). In their stockings, they find "two great scarlet satin pincushions, with E.C. and E.M. very neatly stuck in pins" (2:37). Thus, in both instances, a common name is a common kind: "two Ellens" finding two identical stockings, with two identical presents in them, establishes continuity between the characters, and marks the growth of Ellen Montgomery (juxtaposed with the young and uninitiated Ellen Chauncey) as she learns to transcend earthly attachments.

Following directly after this fond introduction is another, somewhat less fond one, between Ellen Montgomery and the boy William Gillespie. …

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