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HYGIENE, By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, in There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, published this fall by Penguin. Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers.

Only Nikolai and Elena are named in this story. My first instinct is that an author intends to empathize with named characters more than the unnamed ones, but this does not seem to be the case in this story. I am wondering if there's any other reason why an author would do this, or better yet some evidence of Petrushevskaya's motivation here.

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I don't think there is a special reason. Just the language convenience.

Ideally, there would be no names at all. Like a traditional scary story, it would be abstract. "Once upon a time there was a little girl..." etc.

However, with more than 2-3 related characters it quickly becomes messy. There is a three-generation family in the story, plus a young man. The girl, grandma and grandpa are unambiguous. Incidentally, these are normal and common adresses for people in Russian. However, it is not normal to address someone as "man" or "woman". There are not many workarounds that wouldn't be awkward or sound odd in the context. It is common to say "young man", but this designator is already taken by another character, and there is no equivalent in Russian for a woman [1]. Besides, the lack of definite article in Russian makes references a bit more ambiguous and/or repetitive.

Addressing as "father" and "mother" would be ambiguous in a family with grandparents. The easiest thing is just to name them.


[1] Technically, this is constructed as "young human [masculine]" in Russian, and it is not possible to say "human" (человек) in feminine.

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  • This seems correct. It's worth remarking (to support this answer) that no other first names are given in the story: the only name which is anonymised is the surname R., while "the little girl" and "the grandmother" and "the grandfather" and "the young man" aren't designated by names at all. So there was no option (like anonymising first names) which was chosen for other characters and would have worked for Nikolai and Elena too. – Rand al'Thor Jun 6 at 19:32

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