Sister Marie was right, of course: everyone has a name.
— Kate DiCamillo, The Magician’s Elephant
A recent survey by Mumsnet suggests that one in five mothers experiences “namer’s remorse, “ a phenomenon in which, whether for simple second-guessing to the effects of changing circumstances or world events (imagine if you had, for instance, named your child the once-popular Isis), a parent might wish they had named their child something else. Some six percent, the survey shows, have harbored enough regret that they have taken pains to change the name legally.
Everyone does have a name. Or at least that’s what Sister Marie told Adele—sister of Peter Augustus Duchene—who lives in the Orphanage of the Sisters of Perpetual Light, a “grim, dark building” the author finds to be improbably named. It seems not improbable at all, then, to find this building “in a narrow alley, off a narrow street, ” both, unsurprisingly, quite unnamed.
When we meet small Adele, her name feels as small as she does in her small bed, in her “cavernous dorm room.” And yet we will soon discover Adele’s name to be the largest of all the names (and there are many) in Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant. a book we are reading together in community over the next three weeks. It is Adele’s name, though it may feel small in the mouth, that is vast enough to find its way into a beggar’s song, that finds its way to Peter on the street, that finds its way into the words of an elephant in a dream who calls again and again for small Adele, who said over and over, “It is the one you are calling Adele I am coming for to keep.”
It was Adele’s name that would bring the elephant, and the beggar, and Peter, and yes, Adele herself, together. That simple, small name, Adele, was given to her at the insistence of a dying mother with no time for namer’s remorse.
“The midwife said that your mother, before she died, had insisted that you be called Adele. I knew your name, and I spoke it to you.”
“And I smiled, ” said Adele.
“Yes, ” said Sister Marie. “And suddenly, it seemed there was light everywhere. The world was filled with light.”
Sister Marie’s words settled down over Adele like a warm and familiar blanket, and she closed her eyes. “Do you think, ” she said, “that elephant’s have names?” (p. 90)
As a matter of fact, we will learn, elephants do have names. The elephant we are interested in here—the elephant in the story, the magician’s elephant, the elephant summoned abruptly from her happy life on the savannah only to crash into the opera house and permanently maim an unsuspecting noblewoman—that elephant indeed had a name. But the elephant is the only figure in the story whose name we do not learn.
She should have been sleeping, but she was awake.
The elephant was saying her name to herself.
It was not a name that would make any sense to humans. It was an elephant name—a name that her brothers and sisters knew her by, a name that they spoke to her in laughter and in play. It was the name that her mother had given to her and that she had spoken to her often and with love.
Deep within herself, the elephant said this name, her name, over and over again.
She was working to remind herself of who she was. She was working to remember that, somewhere, in another place entirely, she was known and loved. (pp. 94-95)
The elephant had a name. And no one in this strange new world in which she found herself could know her name, being it was an elephant name, after all. Even so she found a way to keep telling herself her name, remind herself she was, somewhere, known and loved.
Until she didn’t.
In the home of the count and countess Quintet, inside the ballroom, as the people filed by her, touching her, pulling at her, leaning against her, spitting, laughing, weeping, praying, and singing, the elephant stood brokenhearted.
There were too many things she did not understand.
Where were her brothers and sisters? Her mother?
Where was the long grass and the bright sun? Where were the hot days and the dark pools of shade and the cool nights?
The world had become too cold and confusing and chaotic to bear.
She stopped reminding herself of her name.
She decided that she would like to die. (p. 119)
When she had lost everything, she forgot her own name. Or maybe it happened the other way around. When she forgot her name, she lost everything. Either way, the implication is clear: The elephant’s name, as perhaps does our own, connected her to her life.
It is the connection between a name and identity and between identity and life, that makes naming something worthy of delight (or, sadly, regret). Perhaps this stems from our belief in nominative determinism, the theory that our name will in some way influence who or what we become. Perhaps it is just, theories aside, a sense as strong as that of an elephant that our names will show us who we are.
We can wonder what it might mean, then, that DiCamillo chose not to utter the name of the magician until the final pages of the book—until he had set things right and settled into a home with a new career and someone who loved him, where he sought out the star which, much like the elephant’s name, kept him alive:
The magician showed his wife the star that he had gazed upon so often in prison, the star that, he felt, had kept him alive.
“It is that one, ” he said, pointing. “No, it is that one.”
“It makes no never mind which it was, Frederick, ” his wife said gently. “All of them are beautiful.” (p. 197-198)
It may be true, as she says, that all of them are beautiful.
We’re reading The Magician’s Elephant together this month. Are you reading along? Perhaps you would share your observations about names and naming in the comments. How important is a name? What would you do with “namer’s regret?” What did you notice about DiCamillo’s use of names in the story?
During our book club, we’ll be exploring some of the overarching themes of the book together, rather than a chapter-by-chapter conversation, so you’ll want to read the whole book before we begin. (Don’t worry, it’s not a book you’ll want to set down once you start anyway.) Then, join us for thoughtful discussion here in the comments again on the next two Wednesdays September 14, and 21.
Get another take on The Magician’s Elephant in What If Natural Selection is Wrong