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What Is The Impact Of The Nickname ‘Doss’ In L M Montgomery’s The Blue Castle?

‘Doss’ – verb, Brit:
    1) Sleep in rough or makeshift conditions
    2) Spend time in a lazy or aimless way

— Waite, Maurice (ed) Paperback Oxford English Dictionary, 7th ed, Collins, Glasgow.

Book cover of L M Montgomery's The Blue Castle

The nickname the Stirling family give to heroine Valancy of The Blue Castle has always bothered me, as well it might. To me it has always sounded a bit too close to ‘diss’, a slang term used in recent years (though since overtaken by even newer terms) to dismiss another person’s opinion or self, to disrespect. ‘Dis’ fits a far amount with ‘doss’.

But as we’ve seen, ‘doss’ is itself a word and in the case of the story, that second dictionary meaning matches the usage of the nickname perfectly. I’ve always thought that the lack of any similarity to the name ‘Valancy’ was crucial in Montgomery’s employment of it and the idea of Valancy being lazy and aimless in her family’s opinion fits like a glove.

You wouldn’t buy good gloves for a Doss.

If we consider that dictionary definition to fit, then everything the family believes, as well as what they force Valancy to fit into, is contained within that nickname; as much as Montgomery shows through dialogue and action how awfully the family regard and treat Valancy, you could almost remove the scenes in their entirety in favour of just the one simple word. It says it all.

(‘Doss’ is also one letter away from ‘toss’ which Brits have expanded to ‘tosser’ – the politest definition may be one found online: ‘an obnoxious jerk’.)

Is there irony in the way ‘doss’ is used, that it’s so obvious (at least in a British dictionary)? If we consider the definition, then the family might have simply called her ‘Lazy’, which, whilst becoming old quickly, would make swifter work of the meaning. In calling her ‘Doss’ there is a lighter feel to the whole idea; it’s easier to call it a cute nickname – who would object to such a sweet name?

Valancy definitely would not have said, whilst working on that rosebush that never blooms, that a rose by any other name would smell so sweet.

Unsurprisingly, Valancy objects to the nickname. This comes before her wrongful medical diagnosis:

But on this particular morning Valancy’s unbearable grievance was that she was called Doss. She had endured it for twenty-nine years, and all at once she felt she could not endure it any longer. Her full name was Valancy Jane. Valancy Jane was rather terrible, but she liked Valancy, with its odd, out-land tang. It was always a wonder to Valancy that the Stirlings had allowed her to be so christened. She had been told that her maternal grandfather, old Amos Wansbarra, had chosen the name for her. Her father had tacked on the Jane by way of civilising it, and the whole connection got out of the difficulty by nicknaming her Doss. She never got Valancy from any one but outsiders.

    “Mother,” she said timidly, “would you mind calling me Valancy after this? Doss seems so–so–I don’t like it.”
    Mrs. Frederick looked at her daughter in astonishment. She wore glasses with enormously strong lenses that gave her eyes a peculiarly disagreeable appearance.
    “What is the matter with Doss?”
    “It seems so childish,” faltered Valancy.
    “Oh!” Mrs. Frederick had been a Wansbarra and the Wansbarra smile was not an asset. “I see. Well, it should suit you then. You are childish enough in all conscience, my dear child.”
    “I am twenty-nine,” said the dear child desperately.
    “I wouldn’t proclaim it from the house-tops if I were you, dear,” said Mrs. Frederick. “Twenty-nine! I had been married nine years when I was twenty-nine.” (Chapter 3)

The family never do change tack; whilst they start using the nickname in slightly more positive terms more often, it remains a way of communicating Valancy’s lesser status. She’s still a silly child.

And as Valancy grows as a person, the continuing use of the nickname by her family shows the difference between her – a changing person – and them – set in their ways. The continued usage highlights differences in perception and the growing irrelevance – if it ever was relevant – of the family’s opinion of the heroine.

It’s interesting – literarily good – that the impact of ‘Doss’ has to do with our view of the family rather than Valancy. The word is a whole description for a perception that has had its day and its continual use shows the impossibility for fair change. The family come to see Valancy differently – at least some of them do – but it takes her marrying Barney for that to happen, an event that backs up Mrs Frederick’s above refrain in regards to Valancy’s ‘old maid’ status. And then there is all that wealth to be considered…

 
 

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