After reading such a complex and chaotic book as Bleak House, I needed to find something to connect the various storylines and characters to one another, leading me back to one of my favorite subjects: etymology. Etymology is the study of the origins of words and their meanings, especially a word’s development through history. For me, researching the names of the characters in books adds another layer to the character’s purpose and personality, as well as references to literature, history, religion, etc. Though I could go through every person in Bleak House, I have chosen to discuss Esther Summerson, since her name seems to me both heavy with religious meaning, and unexpected in the time and because she is a Christian.
Of the many characters, Esther’s name has the most significance and background attached to it. In the bible, Esther has an entire book in her name, telling the story behind the Jewish holiday of Purim. I’ll provide a brief description of the story to help with the possible connections between the biblical figure and any allusions in Esther Summerson’s story and character in Bleak House.
The Persian king, after banishing his wife for not obeying him (she refuses to come when he summons her after a lot of partying), decides to have all of the eligible virgin women brought to him, in order to choose a new wife. Esther, a young Jewish woman, enters into this competition at the urging of her cousin and guardian, Mordecai. Eventually, the king chooses Esther as his new queen, not knowing her religious identity (as a Jew). Another plot line parallels this one, starting with two seemingly unrelated figures: Mordecai, who saves the king from assassins (he overheard them planning); and a man named Haman, promoted to the second-in-command to the king. When Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman, Haman decides to take revenge on him by punishing all of the Jews, sending out a law (with the vague approval of the king) telling of a certain day when everyone loyal to the king should murder the Jews. Mordecai warns Esther of Haman’s plan, and pleads with her to get help from the king to protect her people, suggesting her appointment as Queen is an act of God for this very purpose. She agrees (though not immediately) to go before the king, inviting him and Haman to dinner in her rooms.
You might be asking, why is this such a big deal, especially since she is the queen? Shouldn’t she be able to ask him anything she wants at anytime? In this King’s court, however, anyone who comes before the king without his approval or invitation is killed, making this unannounced and self-initiated meeting by Esther extremely risky. The king doesn’t seem to mind, and both Haman and the King come to dinner (which Esther repeats twice more). After the first dinner, the King, unable to fall asleep, has his history books read to him, and finds that he never thanked Mordecai for saving his life. He asks Haman to honor Mordecai the next day, increasing Haman’s jealousy. During the third dinner, Esther dramatically reveals her cultural identity and the plan of her (likewise) enemy, Haman. The King hangs Haman, appoints Mordecai to Haman’s previous position, and tells him to fix the problem. Mordecai sends out another decree, telling the Jews that they can defend themselves and kill everyone who is their enemy. They kill a lot of people over two days, which become the two days of Purim, celebrated for God’s plan to save them from extinction and their victory.
Although from such an important and sacred story to many major religions, the name Esther does not have a clear meaning. Most of my research agrees on three possibilities: “myrtle,” “star,” or “a Hebrew form of the name of the Persian goddess Ishtar” (Hanks). The first meaning of “myrtle” comes from Hadassah, Esther’s Hebrew name, possibly changed to Esther when translated into the Persian language. The second, comes from the Persian language itself, possibly deriving from “stara,” meaning “star.” Finally, the Persian goddess Ishtar (if you say it out loud it sounds fairly close to Esther) “was the Babylonian and Assyrian mother goddess who presided over love, war and fertility” (Campbell).
Applying all of this information to Esther’s story, I think it fits Esther Summerson’s character very well. As one of the two narrators, the connection between nearly every character in the book, and the center of a mystery (and later, a murder), Esther is like a “star,” shining on the entire book and leading the reader through the fog of modernity to the happy ending of the book. The myrtle tree, in Jewish literature and scholarship, represents “the righteous,” because “‘man is like a tree of the field.’ Therefore the righteous are called myrtles, likened to a good tree with a pleasant smell” (Zaklikowski). Esther Summerson is extremely righteous throughout the book, constantly questioning her actions and humbling herself from any praise. Because she was thought to be a still born child, and dead at her own birth, she was never given a name by her mother. Therefore, her name comes from her Aunt (her Godmother, and her Mother’s sister), who raises her to make up for her illegitimate birth. Perhaps this was a wish for her rising above any sin tainting Esther in her aunt’s eyes, while reaffirming her aunt’s choice to hide Esther from Esther’s mother, Lady Dedlock. Additionally, nearly everyone comes to Esther for comfort, support, strength, etc., only a few of the many symbolic and physical characteristics given to trees.
When compared to the story, Esther has incalculable moments where she stands up to people on behalf of people she cares for. Her self-less actions are similarly rewarded in the ending, with the murder of an evil man threatening the lives of her family–in Bleak House, this figure is Mr. Tulkinghorn, a lawyer holding Lady Dedlock’s secret (Esther’s birth).
To me, the extreme weight of Esther’s name further illuminates her in the book, drawing attention to each of her actions and foreshadowing her central role in the novel.
Campbell, Mike. “Ishtar.” Behind the Name. Behind the Name, n.d. Web. 4 Oct. 2015. <http://www.behindthename.com/name/ishtar>.
Hanks, Patrick, Kate Hardcastle, and Flavia Hodges. “Esther.” A Dictionary of First Names. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Oxford Reference, 2006. Web. 4 Oct. 2015. <http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198610601.001.0001/acref-9780198610601-e-1099>.
Zaklikowski, Chana Raizel. “What Does the Name Hadassah Mean?” Chabad.org. Chabad.org, n.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2015. <http:// http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1769366/jewish/What-Does-the-Name-Hadassah-Mean.htm>.