Age of Iron
by J.M. Coetzee
Usually, names provide a quick and snappy way to define who people are. In Age of Iron, though, names can be kind of slippery. Mrs. Curren continually wonders whether peoples' names are their real names – for all she knows, for example, Florence's name isn't actually Florence, and Vercueil's name isn't actually Vercueil. She knows for a fact that Bheki's real name isn't Bheki, because up until recently he was called by another name altogether – he used to go by Digby. Bheki's friend introduces himself as John, but then the police refer to him as Johannes… huh? Names aren't permanent by any means.
What's also interesting about names in Age of Iron is the way it seems to take us forever to learn characters' actual names. We get almost halfway through the book before we learn that Mrs. Curren's initials are E.C., and we're close to being finished with the entire novel before we learn that she goes by Mrs. Curren. We mainly think of John as "Bheki's friend" until the day before he dies. We learn that Vercueil is Vercueil in Chapter 2, but we never witness the introduction.
Why is this the case? Well, one possible explanation is that names give people individual identities. When we refer to someone as "the narrator" or "Bheki's friend," it's easier to see them as figures or symbols rather than as individuals. When we look at it this way, one person's life story can become representative of all people's stories under an oppressive regime.
By extension, the idea of manipulating names as a way of using one person's story to tell many other people's stories too suggests that it's possible to see each of these characters not as individuals, but as representative figures in a larger struggle. When we think about it this way, then it's really interesting to consider the names of Florence's daughters, Hope and Beauty. Mrs. Curren is quite fascinated by their names and repeatedly refers to them as walking allegories (that is, their names supposedly have hidden meanings). Hope and Beauty don't play the biggest roles ever in Age of Iron, but maybe that's because they live in a world where there's far too much suffering for people to pay much attention to Beauty or Hope. The fact that they are two little girls suggests that maybe when all of this political turmoil ends, Hope and Beauty will grow and flourish (for more, check out Hope and Beauty under "Symbolism, Imagery, and Allegory").
The characters in Age of Iron are occupied in a variety of professions, and these professions tell us a lot about where they fit in this great big puzzle. For some, their occupation is related to their place in society. For example, the affluent Mrs. Curren is a retired Classics professor. This tells us that she's learned, contemplative, and a little bit upper crust. On the other hand, Florence is a housekeeper. This doesn't just tell us that she works with her hands; she also always works for someone else. Even if she occasionally mouths off to Mrs. Curren, she still has to answer to her. Just as blacks in the Apartheid system are subordinate to whites, so is Florence subordinate to Mrs. Curren professionally.
Another interesting thing we uncover when we think about occupations is what happens when people don't do their "job" in the right way. Bheki and John are technically students by occupation. When the schools are shut down and they can't do their "job" – that is, when they can't go to school – things just seem kind of out of order. Likewise, let's take a look at the police: we usually think of the police as being obligated to protect and serve the public, right? Clearly, this doesn't happen. Bheki sees the police as terrorists, and in this novel, we have to agree with him. When we see people in traditional roles not doing their jobs the way they should, we can view the situation as a sign that something is quite wrong with society.
Mrs. Curren's personal habits tell us a lot about the person that she is and where she comes from. In her greatest moments of pain, she turns to solitary yet intellectual pursuits: she writes to her daughter and listens to classical music. Oh, does she love that classical music. These habits don't just tell us that she loves the life of the mind (though we could expect this much from a retired professor); more than that, they demonstrate that she finds comfort in seeking out beauty and tranquility.
Vercueil also has some interesting habits. In direct counterpoint to Mrs. Curren, Vercueil's tendencies show us that he's not quite so refined. Often when we see Vercueil, he's either drinking or already drunk. He naps all day. He swears at people. He tries to get Mrs. Curren to loosen up and get drunk with him, pouring brandy and sweet wine down her throat. Their very distinct habits help us see how different Vercueil and Mrs. Curren are; maybe the emphasis on their differences makes it all the more interesting that they still manage to get along so well.