Names and Self-Image in This Dark Road to Mercy

Photo by Jack Dorsey (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Jack Dorsey (copied from Flickr)

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet?”

According to an article in the New Yorker – and rather awkwardly for Juliet – quite a bit. There has been a rise in research over the past century suggesting that names can not only shape how others view us but shape how we view ourselves. Adam Alter (‘The Surprising Psychology of How Names Shape our Thoughts’, The New Yorker, June 3 2013) strongly argues for a link between names and perception bias; one study indicates that simple company names performed better in a stock market boom (Alter and Oppenheimer: 2006) and another that people ‘prefer’ politicians with ‘simpler’ names (Alter, Laham and Koval: 2011). Another study of interest is Coffey and Mclaughlin (2009), who claim that women with more ‘masculine’ sounding names have better legal careers. These works show us that names are psychologically very important to self-development and (to borrow Alter’s term) the ‘Heisenberg principle’, or new name equals new image, is a prevalent trend within the growth of Easter, Ruby, Brady and others in This Dark Road to Mercy.

When Easter narrates her mother’s decision for naming her and her sister Easter and Ruby she comments “Mom always said she’d named us what she’d named us…” (p.11). Although this syntax is attributed to Easter’s adolescent narrative style the phrasal repetition emphasizes the corresponding nounal significance of their names. Easter and Ruby are firstly, two of their mother’s ‘favourite things’, but they also take on certain aspects of their corresponding nouns; Ruby is treated as ‘precious’ throughout and is protected by both the adult figures and by Easter. In turn, Easter (as discussed here) represents the holiday of resurrection and forgiveness; Wade’s resurrection of ‘fatherhood’ and Easter’s forgiveness of him are two themes in which she is central.

So what do the nicknames ‘Boston Terrier’ and ‘Purple Journey’ bring to Easter and Ruby’s self-development? Both names are still ‘birthed’ from their mother’s collection of ‘favourite things’ but these names are selected by Easter and Ruby and made their own. Easter describes Boston Terrier as “the name of a woman in an action movie the hero can’t quite trust but falls in love with anyway”. They use these ‘grown-up’ alter-egos to have the strength to cope in certain situations; Easter claims it was “easier to imagine” discovering her mother as Boston Terrier, and the sexualised aspect of this demeanour presumably allows her to explore her sexuality and budding relationship with Marcus more confidently than she would as mere Easter. Likewise, (premised by the fact they said they’d run away as these two characters), we can assume that Easter and Ruby are trying to embody this template of ‘otherness’ throughout This Dark Road. Wade enters into this picture when they attempt to become the template of familial normality, completing ‘family’ activities such as going to the fair and a baseball game; unfortunately, their public audience does not accept this facade. This is evident from the incident where Easter is mocked by the older children, and Wade’s comically heart-wrenching attempt to mimic the baseball player that he had once been.

Elsewhere Cash plays with the links between noun, name and role. When Marcus asks who was “the man” Easter was with, she replies “Wade,” to which Marcus asks “who is he?” (p.23) Although this simple exchange shows us that an unfamiliar name is meaningless without a personal relevance built in the term “Wade” becomes almost an ‘anti-name’, as it symbolises the parental vacuum that he is failing to fill in Easter’s life. Wade will be a name that signifies no more to Easter than the fact that he is not ‘Dad’. ‘Dad’ is used later on as a kind of encouragement, such as when Easter uses it encourage Wade to win the baseball competition.

Wade’s transformation from his dark past as fallen baseball player turned thief into ‘Dad’ is shown through his own name change from Charleston to Chesterfield, the former referring to a city in South Carolina, a eastern state, and the latter a city in Missouri, a western state, suggests that Wade truly is attempting to turning over a new leaf (although the similar spelling leads us to question how successful this ‘reformation’ is).

This suggestion that a name states who you should be rather than who you are is interesting when we consider Brady Weller’s status as guardian ad litem. A role that is emotionally unfamiliar to most readers, Cash makes a point of attributing characteristics to his personal name; when Brady Weller is introduced his name is used four times over ten lines (p.29). Easter sets him amongst conditional phrases; their mom should have been friends with him, he would have smiled at them had he known they felt like smiling back, casting his name as an ideal template of ‘guardian’. However, this is again a label that does not fit. Upon meeting Brady, we realise he is a failed detective divorcee and part-time dad, who also has a conspicuous love to gamble with the very characters he used to squeeze for criminal information. This is hardly the ideal role model for Easter and Ruby, or someone that you would hope for someone to aspire to socially.

A further instance is where a character fails his ‘naming’ template is Pruitt’s referral to Broughton as ‘The Boss’. Later revealed to be a less threatening ‘Tommy Broughton’, he controls virtually no action within This Dark Road; Pruitt goes into his office and tells him he will kill Wade, he tries to call Pruitt off Wade but he refuses, he is easily threatened by Brady Weller, and finally caught by the police. I think maybe the larger question, when we turn back to Alter’s ‘Heisenberg principle’, is firstly to think about whether we should be considering nouns, names and functions as windows to the self or templates of what we should aspire to be; and secondly, whether (unless one is planning to go into a legal career) ‘name-changing’ is really a game-changer when it comes to self-development. In This Dark Road to Mercy it seems no more than a quick fix that conceals a much deeper dissatisfaction.

Claire Rodwell

About Claire Rodwell

Claire Rodwell is completing an internship at Litro this month. She is an Oxford based writer and an English finalist at St Anne's College. She has a passion for flash fiction, slam poetry and theatre design.

Claire Rodwell is completing an internship at Litro this month. She is an Oxford based writer and an English finalist at St Anne's College. She has a passion for flash fiction, slam poetry and theatre design.

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