What’s in a name? From Don Quixote to Mary Washington

My students this week have been blogging about the theme of identity in Don Quixote, and in their own lives as first year college students. They’ve produced a few very insightful posts about the subject, for example this post by Julian, who ties Don Quixote’s life to his own new experiences in college, stating

As I’ve learned recently in my Anthropology class, change is the only constant. Everything, everyone, everywhere is constantly changing. Indeed, we experience this very change in the novel Don Quixote, where our protagonist undergoes change and embarks in an adventure.

One of the first changes that Don Quixote makes in his life is his name. In fact in the novel, the real names of the places and characters are a little hazy. We see this in the curious first line of the novel:

In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind*

And we see it in the same first paragraph in the narrator’s fuzzy memory of the main character’s real name:

They will have it his surname was Quixada or Quesada (for here there is some difference of opinion among the authors who write on the subject), although from reasonable conjectures it seems plain that he was called Quexana. This, however, is of but little importance to our tale; it will be enough not to stray a hair’s breadth from the truth in the telling of it.

Names don’t matter to this narrator–not the name of the town where it all starts, not the name of the character we’re about to spend an entire semester with. But names matter enormously to Don Quixote himself. In fact, his first actions towards changing his identity and becoming a knight errant involve names–first selecting a name for his broken down horse–Rocinante–and then changing his own name to something more appropriate of his new status:

Recollecting, however, that the valiant Amadis was not content to call himself curtly Amadis and nothing more, but added the name of his kingdom and country to make it famous, and called himself Amadis of Gaul, he, like a good knight, resolved to add on the name of his, and to style himself Don Quixote of La Mancha, whereby, he considered, he described accurately his origin and country, and did honour to it in taking his surname from it.

Don Quixote chooses his name to change his image in the eyes of others, to be the same sort of romantic hero as the heroes from his beloved novels.The name he chooses is meant to elicit laughter from Cervantes’ seventeenth-century readership, who would have never seen La Mancha as an heroic or noble land.

Of course, many people consider changing their names, for many reasons. Some of my students wrote about considering dropping their old nicknames now that they were in college, or about picking up a new one. They, like Don Quixote, like many of us, know that a person’s name conveys so much about him or herself to others. But what about the name of a place? Or of an institution? Are they unimportant, as the narrator of the novel implies in his opening line? The University of Mary Washington has certainly thought so a various times in its 107 year history.

I’m guessing that my first-year students in 2017 may have no idea of the controversy over the naming of their own college, the University of Mary Washington. Once upon a time, up until 2004 , the University of Mary Washington was Mary Washington College. Here is a sort of funny article from July 19, 2004 in the Washington Post about the change.  But speaking as one who lived through it, the debate that led to that name change was not very funny. There was talk about leaving «Mary» out altogether, in favor of a name more palatable to potential male students, and for a very brief moment the administration at the time even floated around the very strange name of the «University of the Golden Crescent»! Students and alumni alike were vociferous in their opposition, as this editorial from the April 3rd 2003 student newspaper, The Bullet (now known as the Blue and Gray Press–another name change).

The Bullet, April 3, 2003. University of Mary Washington Special Collections Archive.

The funny thing is that Mary Washington wasn’t always Mary Washington. It started in 1908, as many colleges for women in Virginia did, as a teachers college, and ours was known quite simply as the Fredericksburg Teacher’s College. In 1938, is was renamed for the mother of George Washington, Mary Ball Washington, a resident of Fredericksburg back in the 18th century. Later, in 1944, Mary Washington College became the women’s college of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. Not long after UVa started admitting women students (1970), Mary Washington followed suit with opening their admissions to men in 1972. (Source, «University of Mary Washington,» Wikipedia. Accessed 15 September, 2017). Despite more than 4 decades of admitting male students, Mary Washington maintains its majority female student body even today. Certainly the debate over how to attract more male students remains among certain segments of our campus community, but there are many (myself included) that think it is just fine to be known as a school of so many smart women, and I think the men who are here feel the same. So, it’s not that the real Mary Washington is all that special to us (and it appears she might not have been as special to her son George as myth would have it if you believe this funny mother’s day article from May 12 , 2017 in the Washington Post’s RetropolisThe mother who made George Washington — and made him miserable»). It is that we’re proud of our history as a women’s college, and it’s part of our identity that we don’t want to lose.

Mary Washington and George Washington. Source, The Washington Post. May 12, 2017.

Change is inevitable, and as many of my students have acknowledged, change can be a good thing, but sometimes it can go horribly wrong. In Don Quixote’s case, the rest of the world didn’t really see him as he wanted to be seen, which often resulted in him being beaten to a pulp. That might have happened to our college/university if Mary Washington had become the Golden Crescent. Thank goodness we kept our wits about us and kept mother Mary!

Photo by «Taste of Home»

*All quotes from the novel are from the Ornsby translation on 

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