Roxana by Daniel Defoe
Defoe’s “memoir” of an invented 17th-century courtesan has acquired a title that is but one of his anti-heroine’s pseudonyms. “The Fortunate Mistress” (as the novel was originally called) keeps her true name secret, masquerading as a “woman of quality” in order to beguile rich men.
The Aspern Papers by Henry James
The namelessness of James’s narrator seems fitting in a tale of genteel deceit. He tells us of his obsession with a dead poet called Jeffrey Aspern, whose papers may be in the possession of a former lover, now living in Venice. He can only gain these manuscripts by marrying her dowdy niece. What to do?
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A doctor has confined his wife to her bedroom, decreeing that she is suffering from some nervous affliction. She keeps a secret journal, whose entries constitute this short story. Her fevered imagination is fed by patterns in the wallpaper. Her namelessness has made her, for some, a representative of 19th-century womanhood.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Du Maurier’s melodrama is narrated by the most famously unnamed character in 20th-century fiction. She has married rich and charming Maxim de Winter and returned to his estate, ruled by the terrifying housekeeper Mrs Danvers. The story is of course dominated by the personality – and therefore the name – of Maxim’s dead wife.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
Greene liked to find unusual names – Bendrix, Querry – for his protagonists, so his refusal to name the alcoholic Mexican priest on the run from the anti-clerical authorities is significant. The protagonist’s discovery of a religious mission through danger and suffering is made a Greenian parable about the need for religious belief.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The African-American narrator of Ellison’s postwar novel considers himself invisible, and the withholding of his name is a sign that he has no social identity. Ironically, having migrated from the south, he has become a political activist in New York, acquiring a “name” as a speech-maker. But his true self remains secret.
Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
“I can’t believe I’m on this road again.” With her lover, Joe, and two friends, the protagonist of Atwood’s novel returns to a remote island on a lake in Quebec to investigate her father’s disappearance. It becomes a journey into the protagonist’s past and into the wilderness. A name would be too much solace.
Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud
The child narrator of Freud’s autobiographical novel omits all sorts of information that an adult would provide. Her account of living in Morocco with her sister and hippy mother is minutely observed, yet unsettled by our awareness of the missing facts about her life – which include her name.
Everyman by Philip Roth
The title tells you why the central character in Roth’s frighteningly condensed novel – a man’s whole life has been crammed into these few pages – has to be nameless. We start from his funeral and go back over his life, and the record of failure and illness is a memento mori for every one of us.
Cockroach by Rawi Hage
The protagonist of Hage’s novel is a refugee from some war, now living in Montreal, undergoing psychotherapy and working as a waiter. His Kafkaesque conviction is that he often morphs into a cockroach, able to find his way unobserved into people’s lives. “Yes, I am poor, I am vermin, a bug, I am at the bottom of the scale. But I still exist.” Thoroughly existentialist.