The Power of Names in Establishing Character

By: Cole Barber, Hailey Schiller, Ryan Silverstein, Sarah Ramsaroop, and Ashley Kupiec

Lilies of the Field, a 1963 film starring Sidney Poitier, tells the story of Homer Smith and his interaction with a group of poor German nuns. After Smith’s car breaks down he stumbles upon a group of nuns’ modest abode. The head nun, Mother Maria, believes that he is a gift sent from God, and that he will help them pursue the goal of building a chapel. While skeptical at first, he is roped in by the idea of getting paid for his labor. Though he never actually receives payment, he sticks around because of his drive to have something that he built himself. In the novel, I Am Not Sidney Poiter, Percival Everett recycles the plot of the movie, having his protagonist, Not Sidney, go through a similar sequence of events as Homer Smith.  However, certain details of the plot are changed, perhaps most importantly the names of the nuns. By making this change, Everett makes a statement about the power of names; names themselves can reveal an incredible amount about an individual’s characteristics and personal values.

Originally, in the film, the nuns are named Sister Gertrude, Albertine, Elizabeth, and Agnes, along with Mother Maria. These names are all based off of famous female figures in Christian canon. In the novel, though, Everett changes their names to “Origen, Eusebius, Firmilian, and Chrysostom” and changes the head nun’s name to “Sister Irenaeus” (171). Irenaeus, the head nun’s namesake, was a Greek bishop and martyr who introduced Christianity to the current south of France. Origen, an Alexandrian theologian, was known as one of the greatest teachers of Christianity. Eusebius was another bishop from Palestine, who was known for being incredibly well-versed in Christian history https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eusebius. Saint Firmilian was a disciple of Origen and is compared to Dionysus of Alexandria https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firmilian. John Chrysostom was a Church Father who opposed the abuse of power by “ecclesiastical and political leaders” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Chrysostom. Our group noticed two similarities between the five Christian figures that seemed especially prevalent: the fact that they were all men and that they were all against the practice of Gnosticism.

The fact that the nuns in I Am Not Sidney Poitier are named after significant religious male figures is in contrast with the nuns in the film who are all named after female saints. In the time period (around 145BC to 204BC) when the book’s nuns’ namesakes lived, the male gender was considered to be more powerful within the religious and social hierarchy compared to women; women were not seen as strong enough to hold positions of power. Women still struggle to overcome this stereotypical “weakness” in the present day, as well as in the context of Not Sidney’s story line. Perhaps by giving them male names in his novel, Everett is attempting to attribute more power to the nuns by separating them from the “traditional” cliches of women having less power. On the other hand, the nuns in the movie have female names and the screenwriter appoints the head nun, Maria, the title of “Mother.” Compared to the head nun’s title in the novel, which is Sister, Maria’s title has much more power associated with it. This could be an attempt by the writer to show that the nuns can stay on equal ground with men despite their gender. 

Another similarity that all of the nuns’ namesakes in the novel share is their antagonistic views on Gnosticism. According to LearnReligions, Gnosticism is a belief that is characterized by adherence to a dualistic perspective, in which the world is divided into spiritual and physical realms. Gnostics believe the physical aspects of life, such as the use of material goods, is evil; they think importance should only be assigned to the spiritual. The figures Everett’s nuns are named after, mainly Origen and Eusibeus, were known for their avid opposition of Gnosticism; they claimed it to be heresy. The nuns who are named after them support this view as well, as shown when they tell Not Sidney that, “We need a church, and you have been sent to build it” (180).  A church is considered by Gnostics as part of the material world and would therefore be deemed unnecessary and even evil. 

The nuns in the movie share a similar viewpoint as Everett’s nuns; they also desire a physical place of worship, theirs being a chapel. In Lilies of the Field, the nuns are portrayed as being strange, and relying too much on prayer. However, these nuns are vindicated by the end of the movie when their prayer provides everything they would need to build a chapel. Their prayers and desire for a chapel are holy ones, as they want to pray in a blessed space with the rest of their community. Although the nuns’ religious goal is to gain a material space, they are not characterized as being materialists. They only pray for religious materials, and scoff at Homer’s use of his money to buy what they consider to be luxury food items. By changing the nuns’ names to those of prominent anti-Gnostic figures, I Am Not Sidney Poitier emphasizes the nun’s materialism. The narrative therefore establishes that their position in I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a selfish, rather than a pious one.

In having the names of the nuns reflect their personal beliefs, I Am Not Sidney Poitier is commenting on the reality of the nuns’ entitlement; therefore established as being materialistic and vapid in the novel, whereas they are characterized as being devoutly religious and validated in their religious demands in the movie. The novel therefore argues for a more realistic interpretation of Not Sidney’s reality; he ultimately does not discover a higher purpose in giving to the nuns. Instead, he feeds into not only the nuns’ purpose, but his own personal purpose of getting rid of the money that has dictated his identity (164).

When the nuns in I Am Not Sidney Poitier and Lilies of the Field are first introduced, all that is known about them is their names. The nuns’ names serve to establish a contrast between Lilies of the Field and I Am Not Sidney Poitier, changing the implication of the nuns’ actions from benevolent to self-serving.  The names act as an entryway into the characters’ differing desires and temperaments.  The power of names is such that they can build a character without directly characterizing them at all.  

One Reply to “The Power of Names in Establishing Character”

  1. I really like the thesis you guys provided and the connection established between its association to an individual’s characteristics and personal values. You guys really broke every element of your post down; good job!!

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