Nunsense: The Irony of Naming

By: Hannah Smith, Joe Sharak, Mia Sidoti, Liz Roos, & Susanna Dolan

When reading Percival Everett’s novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier, our group observed the multitude of intertextual references to Sidney Poitier movies in his novel. Celena Kusch defines intertextuality in Literary Analysis: The Basics as “The web of interrelationships among texts of various times and contexts, including indebtedness to earlier plots, common metaphors, idioms, and other literary figures, and other influences and repetitions of language.” One example is Everett’s reference to  Lilies of the Field. In referencing this movie, Everett changed the names of the nuns. Professor McCoy prompted us to look deeper and interpret why Everett may have done this. Our group believes the irony in Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a driving literary device. His decision to convert the names of the nuns in his interpretation of Lilies of the Field plays off of this overarching irony by illuminating the juxtaposition between novel characters names and their actions, highlighting how a name is only a name.

Lilies of the Field was released to audiences on October 1st, 1963 and it depicts a black handyman, Homer Smith, who stumbles upon a group of German nuns in the middle of Arizona. After asking for some water for his car, the nuns convince him to fix the roof, and eventually build them a chapel. Smith believes that he will be paid for all of his work, but in the end drives away with the same amount of money he had when he arrived. In the novel, Everett uses excerpts from Lilies of the Field to depict the situation Not Sidney has found himself in. In the book, Not Sidney also encounters the nuns and is put to work right away. While Not Sidney is very wealthy and can pay fifty-thousand dollars for the chapel to be built, Homer Smith has to build the chapel from the ground up with people living in the surrounding area. While there are obvious connections throughout the movie and book, we can also focus on the differences that appear, such as nuns having different names and Not Sidney spending far less time there than Homer Smith did.

Irony in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms is defined as: “A contradiction or incongruity between appearance or expectation and reality.” Moreover, there are multiple types of irony. Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier is fueled by verbal and situational irony, but it is the latter which will be the focus. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms denotes situational irony as: “…deriving primarily from events or situations themselves, as opposed to statements made by individuals, whether or not they understand the situation as ironic.” Not Sidney Poitier, the narrator, exemplifies this irony by simply living his life, and telling his story. Despite being named “Not Sidney Poitier,” the narrator arguably lives Sidney Poitier’s life to a higher degree than the actor himself. Although the narrator does his best to carve out a life that is uniquely his, originally by attending a college, and later by attempting to travel from Georgia to California, these actions only lead to the reinforcement of his life as a series of Sidney Poitier movies. It is on that cross country road trip where Not Sidney Poitier encounters five nuns by the names of Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Firmillian, and Chrysostom. These names have deep histories in the Catholic church, dating back to times prior to the Crusades. They are all either of Greek or Roman roots, and all originated in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Despite the complexity of their names, the nuns that Not Sidney runs into are from North Dakota. Therefore, Percival Everett writes his nuns to have very foregin, and Catholic names, but to not be foreign to the United States. This is reversed in the movie Lilies of the Field. The nuns are given the names Maria, Gertrude, Agnes, Albertine and Elizabeth. They are not from North Dakota, but from Germany. Despite their foreignness by birthplace, their names are rather familiar, or at least not as entrenched in Catholicism as the names bestowed upon the nuns in the novel. The juxtaposition between the names and birthplaces in the novel emphasizes the author’s use of situational irony as a persistent device in I Am Not Sidney Poitier. However, the name-change is not the only alteration to the nuns that Everett makes in his parody of Lilies of the Field. In the movie, the nuns are stereotypical. They bawk at even the slightest utterance of profanity, and are stern, but generally benevolently-intentioned. In the novel, on the other hand, the nuns’ integrity is questionable, as Irenaues steals Not Sidney’s money, despite his unreasonable generosity. Everett’s characterization of the nuns suggests that one’s given name does not necessarily determine their character. Despite bearing overly-saintly names, the nuns partake in less-than-saintly acts. Similarly, Not Sidney experiences a similar paradox, as despite the denial in his name of his status as Sidney Poitier, he lives the actor’s life almost uncannily. Percival Everett’s contrasts between names and actions for the sisters and Not Sidney Poitier, emphasizes to the reader the futileness of determining one’s actions based solely on their name. 

As stated previously, irony is one of the central themes that can be observed throughout I Am Not Sidney Poitier. By changing the names of the nuns from Lilies of the Field to less traditional, more ludicrously religious names such as Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Firmilian, and Chrysostom, Everett is able to highlight just how different the movie nuns’ dispositions are from the book nuns. Though in the movie the nuns, especially Mother Maria, are portrayed as intelligent characters, in the book they are much less fleshed out, and do little more than simply repeat “You have to build our church.” While the events in the book might not seem more realistic than what occurs in the movie, I Am Not Sidney Poitier’s nuns are far from the innocent nuns depicted in Lilies of the Field. This can be seen when they, along with Thornton Scrunchy, become involved with the murder of Not Sidney’s doppelgänger in an attempt to steal the money Not Sidney arranged for the building of the nuns’ church. Regardless of the meaning behind the nuns being named how they are, it is just as likely that Everett changed their names because of copyright. Pulling the narrative from not one, but two of the movies that Sidney Poitier starred in was already borderline plagiarism, and changing the names of the nuns could have just merely been another way to avoid the book being withheld from publishing.

Throughout the novel, Everett chooses unique names to draw attention to different characters. Due to his unusual name, Not Sidney faces bullying throughout his childhood and has to deal with the emotional strain of being compared to the “real” Sidney Poitier. As the story progresses, Not Sidney alters his introduction by simply calling himself Poitier so as not to face the confusion. By the end, he accepts the identity of Sidney Poitier when he receives an award by the wrong name. In the final paragraph of the book, Not Sidney proclaims one of the course epigraphs when he states “I have learned that my name is not my name. It seems you all know me and nothing could be further from the truth and yet you know me better than I know myself, perhaps better than I can know myself.” This statement brings us back to the essential element; that our names do not necessarily determine our identity. When Not Sidney is on the stage he ends the book stating “I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.” Although Everett chooses to name the nun characters in his novel after historically moral figures the nuns do not display moral actions.  The idea of naming reminded us of a famous Shakespearean quote from Romeo and Juliet “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This novel shows that ultimately our names do not define our character. Not Sidney Poitier is still not Sidney Poitier, and the nuns are both holy and unholy, regardless of their given names. 

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