Study Guide

Serena Names

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Did you ever wonder why Pemberton is rarely called by his first name—George? Or why Rachel isn't called her name sometimes? That's because names are a way of showing us a lot more than what's on someone's birth certificate in Serena. Let's take the opening sentence of the book as an example:

When Pemberton returns to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father's estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton's child. (1.1)

Check out how Rachel is described only as "a young woman pregnant" as if that's her only importance. Right away, we get that Pemberton doesn't care about this chick—in fact, he can barely even recall the girl's name. That juicy tidbit sets us up for their relationship, which to Pemberton was purely physical. (Fun fact: In the Bible, Jacob and Rachel are married… but in this book, they're son and mother.)

Then there's the man himself. Pemberton is called by his last name by everyone, including his wife. Perhaps that's because that's how she views the guy. When she looks at her hubby, she sees money, power, his family history, and a legacy—all of which is wrapped up in a last name, not some flimsy first name like George. Last names represent where we come from, and they place us in a familial legacy. In calling her husband by his last name, Serena is making what she values about him clear.

We also should mention that Serena's name is a big deal. Dr. Cheney tells her "Your own parents misconstrued your nature" (19.57) when naming her. Huh? That's because Serena comes from serene, meaning peaceful and tranquil—two things that definitely do not describe our leading lady.

We're supposed to think about the significance of names in the book as a way of characterizing everyone. What's in a name? As it turns out, a lot.

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