They say that the eyes are the window to the soul, but when it comes to literary characters names are the written equivalent. Perhaps nowadays in a world where most celebrities have unknowingly entered themselves into a “weirdest baby name” competition, names have taken on a different purpose and reasoning.
The modern state of naming, whether it be in the literary sense or not, is questionable. However back in the days of yore (for the sake of this post the Restoration period), names in literary works had a multitude of wonderful functions.
William Wycherley’s The Country Wife is a standout example when it comes to the multi-functionality of character names. These character’s names perform two major functions:
1. to illuminate the character’s true nature
2. to inspire humor within the reader
One of the main characters (he might even be our antagonist…that’s up for debate), Mr. Horner, is one of the most obvious illustrations of these functions. His surname is explicitly tied to his inclination towards debauchery, as the main plot point for the play is Horner’s rumor-fueled quest to conquer every one of his friend’s wives. As Martha Fletcher Bellinger writes in her article on Restoration drama,
“The heroes of the Restoration comedies were lively gentlemen of the city, profligates and loose livers, with a strong tendency to make love to their neighbors’ wives.”
In plain terms, our main character is a rakish man who is “horny” and certainly potent, though his male counterparts are led to believe otherwise. So, Horner’s name performs both of the functions we defined; it illustrates his intentions in an obvious way and that in itself fulfills the second function. The blunt nature of his name is what contributes to the humor surrounding it, as despite the repetition of his surname by the various characters he interacts with (combined with his questionable actions), they all remain more or less oblivious.
Horner makes his intentions towards women very clear from the beginning. In Act I, Scene I he tells the quack, “Doctor, a good name is seldom got by giving it one’s self, and Women no more than honor are compassed by bragging.” In other words, Horner is a by-product of his reputation just as women are. Yes, his surname is of Anglo-Saxon origin and comes from those who make musical instruments, but in Wycherley’s play Horner is Horner because it is, simply put, his nature. The Restoration period is defined by its obsession with wit and nature (of the human variety), and Wycherley harnesses both of these concepts within The Country Wife.
Another possibility regarding the significance of Horner’s name is that it is a reference to the devil himself. Considering that Restoration literature is a rebellion against the staunch restrictions imposed by Puritan rule, Wycherley naming one of his main characters after Satan is an ironic throwback to more pious days. Horner…horny…horned? No need to leap very far to get to that one!
Another character from Wycherley’s comedy of manners is Pinchwife, and boy is his name full of sad, sad truth. Pinchwife is newly married to Margery, an “innocent” country girl, and he fears that his friends will steal her away from him therefore rendering him a lowly cuckold.
Pinchwife’s attitude towards his wife (really, just women in general) and his tendency towards violence is hidden within his surname. This exchange between Horner and Pinchwife in Act I, Scene I speaks to his unsavory and undesirable nature:
Horner: But tell me, has Marriage cured thee of whoring?
Pinchwife: Well, Gentlemen, you may laugh at me, but I know the Town.
Horner: But prithee, was not the way you were in better than Marriage?
Pinchwife: A Pox on it, the Jades would jilt me. I could never keep a Whore to myself.
Pinchwife’s name denotes two possible interpretations, both wholly valid and telling. The first is that as a bachelor he cannot keep a whore and he can barely even “pinch” a wife, taking to the country to find an innocent girl who will marry him. The dialogue between Horner and Pinchwife is dripping with sarcasm, as Pinchwife is not in any way a “lady’s man” like his male counterpart. Horner uses this as ammunition and fires metaphorically at Pinchwife knowing that it will only bother him further.
Another way to construe the name Pinchwife is as a reference to his violent nature. Though his name is quite lighthearted and even humorous, his empty threats point towards darker realities. One of these many empty threats can be found in Act IV, Scene II:
Pinchwife: Write as I bid you, or I will write “Whore”with this knife in your Face.
These numerous empty threats made by Pinchwife, while not fulfilled, also reveal what it was life was like for women during this period. Women were practically powerless and what power they did wield was gifted to them in the form of reputation. Pinchwife threatening to carve “whore” into Margery’s face is 17th century domestic violence coupled with the possibility of crippling his spouse’s livelihood. And any hope she might have of marrying someone who actually loves her and doesn’t try to mutilate her.
As previously mentioned, the two major functions of naming are to illuminate a character’s true nature and to inspire humor within the reader. As far as Pinchwife is concerned, the first function is absolutely met however the second function is not as successful as with Horner. Sure, Pinchwife’s sad-sack status with women is comical in conjunction with the banter of the other men however the emphasis is less on humor in his case.
With the Restoration author’s obsession with the classics in mind, it only makes sense that the names of the characters within their works would be meaningful and complimentary to the themes and motifs of the play. Horner and Pinchwife’s names are much more than something to call them, they are a brilliant device utilized by Wycherley to embody these themes and motifs in a literal sense. Horner and Pinchwife, with their qualms about women and marriage, are called Horner and Pinchwife to illustrate their complex relationship with these ideas. Wycherley’s The Country Wife is a bawdy representation of life during the Restoration period and the characters that dwell within play a major role in portraying how human nature is flawed and in turn humorous.