Happy birthday, Ralph Ellison. The late author is perhaps most famous for his 1952 existentialist novel, Invisible Man, which touched upon issues facing African-Americans, as told through one man’s search for his identity in New York City during the 1930s. The title spent 16 weeks on the best-seller list and won the prestigious National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. Ellison’s use of the nameless protagonist echoes themes of social blindness throughout the novel. The narrator describes himself as “invisible” in the prologue:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
Sometimes misunderstood, other times preferring the cloak of anonymity, the unnamed protagonist has acted as the voice of many throughout literature. Here are ten compelling uses of the literary device.
The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A nameless woman is confined to her bedroom by her physician husband. She’s been diagnosed with a vague nervous affliction, the details of which are recorded in a secret journal she hides from him. The conclusion of the story is hotly debated. Some see the character’s surreal visions of women hidden within the wallpaper of her room as a descent into madness. Others call it a feminist epiphany — a realization that there is no freedom in marriage and a triumph over her inner world. The nameless woman becomes a universal symbol of female social oppression during the 19th century.
The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
Haunted by his past, pursued by an anti-clerical government, and struggling with his devotion to God, the unnamed “whiskey” priest in Greene’s parable reflects his uncertainty and weakness. His formlessness and failings allow us to identify with the man who is ultimately “too human for heroism, too humble for martyrdom.”
Everyman, Philip Roth
Roth’s spare novel recounts one man’s death. We are introduced to his working class beginnings, spent working in his father’s jewelry store. We learn of three marriages and divorces, mistresses, surgeries, and later, retirement at the New Jersey shore. Roth makes us face the inevitability of aging and death in a mere 182 pages — our identity quickly torn asunder. “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.”
The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe
Poe’s macabre short story, as told by a murderer who tries to convince us of his sanity, is a classic example of the unreliable narrator. The mystery surrounding the gender of the storyteller has led some people to speculate that the “madman” could very well be a woman, even suggesting that this could influence our sympathies for the troubled narrator.
Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress, Daniel Defoe
The name Roxana has a long connection to theater and became a common moniker adopted by the stage’s villainesses. Defoe’s 17th-century courtesan first takes on the disguise of “Roxana” after being abandoned by her husband and forced to prostitute herself for survival. The name takes on a different tone when the accumulation of wealth, and therefore power, seduces her and alters her motives.
“Boys and Girls,” Alice Munro
Gender roles are examined in Alice Munro’s short story, told by an unnamed adolescent girl who feels drawn to the duties of the men and boys on her family farm rather than that of her mother. She is eventually forced to becoming more typically “feminine.” Her brother’s name, Laird, has roots in the word “lord,” emphasizing male power and identity, while she has none. Not even a name.
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tale, following a father and his young son as they travel across the wasteland in search of food and other survivors, makes a profound impact. In a dying world, names have no meaning, and the characters are fitting archetypes in the author’s grand myth.
Blindness, José Saramago
A mysterious epidemic inflicting sightlessness upon the unnamed residents of an unnamed city threatens the collapse of society. Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago reveals a simultaneously bleak and hopeful view of humankind — people incapable of saving even themselves by banding together and those who offer selfless generosity. The dystopian allegory reveals the universality of these social orders in Saramago’s unnamed players with a striking, intimate style.
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
Who needs names? Not Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk — who explained why his protagonist has a name in the movie adaptation of his story, but not the book:
His name was never given in the book. They needed a name for the screenplay to put next to the character’s lines so they just put Jack in there for the hell of it. In the book at one point he even takes out his drivers license and shows it to Marla to prove that he’s not Tyler Durden, but Marla was introduced to him under a dozen different names in the support groups. So when he finally comes to save her as Tyler, that’s who she knows him as. All the people who have met him have met him as Tyler, so that’s who they know him as. But his name is really… I have no idea.
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
We never learn the “lovely and unusual name” of English author Daphne du Maurier’s narrator — the second wife of wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter. The De Winter home is dominated by the memory of his late wife Rebecca, whose presence is preserved by the family’s sinister servant — a taunting housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. The new Mrs. De Winter remains symbolically nameless, she herself as much of a ghost as the specter of Rebecca who “haunts” the Manderley estate.