Everyone knows that it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover, but there aren’t similar platitudes advising against judging a book by its title. But what if we did? What does a book’s title really tell the reader about the characters or the story that lies inside?
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was originally supposed to be titled First Impressions. Would her most well-known novel be as beloved so many years later if she had stuck with her original inclination? The genius of Pride and Prejudice is that both adjectives in the title could easily be attributed to both Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Darcy is immediately detested around Hertfordshire for his proud ways, and Elizabeth does seem prejudiced against him from the start, but is it not Darcy’s prejudice against the Bennet family that keeps him from acknowledging his real feelings for Elizabeth? And is it not Elizabeth’s pride that prevents her from accepting Darcy’s first proposal? So much speculation could not arise from the title First Impressions.
The title To Kill a Mockingbird almost doesn’t make sense, even to someone who’s read the novel (or seen the movie). A reader has to pay very careful to attention to the dialogue to spot the title’s mention. To Kill a Mockingbird is full of quotable lines, and it’s ironic that one of the most famous To Kill a Mockingbird quotes isn’t even the titular line, “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Taken literally, that phrase means almost nothing, but when applied to the other events in the story, it’s a commentary on who should be picked on who should be stood up for, which is a major theme of the novel.
The Great Gatsby is a wonderful title, but a tad misleading right at the beginning, because it at least implies that this Great Gatsby fellow is the protagonist of the novel, when in fact it’s Nick Carraway. Not to get into too deep of a Great Gatsby summary, but Gatsby doesn’t even live to see the end of the book that’s his namesake.
The Catcher in the Rye is similarly misleading. It’s quite a while into the novel before the reader learns why J.D. Salinger chose that particular title for his novel. One might assume that the Catcher in the Rye is the one telling the story, but in fact the narrator is a confused, frequently irritating adolescent boy named Holden Caulfield. Unable to get over the untimely death of his brother Allie, Holden is obsessed with the idea of saving things and wants to be a “catcher in the rye” who saves small children from falling off a cliff. Holden puts on a big show about not caring about anyone, but concludes his story with the sweetest of all the Catcher in the Rye quotes, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” This quote verifies that Holden is terrified of getting close to another person again because he knows just how hard it is to lose someone you love. It doesn’t make him any less irritating, but it does make him more sympathetic.