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Two major characters in Toni Morrison's Love are local youth Romen and street-smart Junior, who carry on a love affair while both are employed at the Cosey household.

In a 2003 review, Elaine Showalter describes them thus:

That love is mirrored by a sadomasochistic affair between a local boy, Romen, and a tough reform-school girl, Junior, who both work for Heed (the pair are a kind of Romeo and Juliet).

A connection to Romeo and Juliet would never have occurred to me -- they aren't forbidden lovers; they don't seem to be breaking social or cultural barriers; they don't seem to share any of Romeo and Juliets iconic traits or contrast with them (in anything but youthful, sexual passion).

But the character names seem heavily suggestive, and Showalter clearly found a link. Is there a significant comparison to be drawn here?

  • "Romeo and Juliet" is often used as a metaphor for a romantic couple. Are you sure that Showalter is making a deep connection between the two works? – user111 Feb 21 '17 at 15:15
  • @Hamlet : I only have her text on this -- so no, I'm not sure. But it seems an odd phrasing to say "they're having an affair... they're a kind of Romeo and Juliet." And, well, the names clicked. But I could be barking up the wrong tree here, certainly. – Standback Feb 21 '17 at 15:27
  • @Hamlet Even if Showalter wasn't, other critics have; it's certainly a valid question. – Rand al'Thor Aug 25 '17 at 15:10
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Unclear.

There's certainly some evidence that characters' names in Love were chosen carefully:

  • the names Vida and Vivian both refer to life[1], and these characters (Romen's grandmother and Junior's mother) are in some sense the people who gave life to Romen and Junior;
  • Roman's surname Gibbons could be a reference to the classical historian Edward Gibbon, most famous as the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which could clue that the book is a rewriting/reinvention of classical tragedies and molestation stories[1];
  • Junior's surname Vivian(e) was one she gave herself after her mother, and naming herself is an indication of her strong and independent nature[1];
  • the unusual name "Heed the Night" hints at the sexuality so prevalent in the novel[1];

... and that leaves Romen and Junior. The names certainly look very similar to Romeo and Juliet, and if Morrison was as careful in choosing names as it seems she was, then surely this can't have been an accident. It must be the first thing many people think of when seeing the names "Romen and Junior" paired together, and Morrison must have realised that at some point.

But there are also other possible interpretations of these names. "Romen" sounds a lot like Roman, perhaps hinting at the connection with classical literature[1]; but it also sounds like Roaming, which could be hinting at his inability to stay in his 'place' in society, e.g. his refusal to be peer-pressured into taking part in gang rape[2] (perhaps like Romeo, gatecrashing a Capulet party?). "Junior" is an ironic name, both in the way she got it (after her mother's boyfriend Ethan Payne Jr., or at least plausibly so) and in the fact that she's actually older than Romen. This is one place where we find contrast - and yet, somehow, similarity - with Romeo and Juliet: where Romen is 14 and Junior 19, Juliet is 13 and Romeo is usually taken to be older. (That makes Juliet the "junior" member ... significant?)

The case could be made that they're akin to Romeo and Juliet not in coming from warring families but in coming from very different places and being raised in different ways.[2] Our introduction to Junior's place of origin is to tell us that it's very far from Romen's:

The Settlement is a planet away from One Monarch Street. [...] the only crime was departure. One such treason was undertaken by a girl with merged toes called Junior.

O Romen, Romen! Wherefore art thou Romen? Deny thy grandfather and refuse thy Gibbons - or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Settlement girl.


Further reading and references:

  • [1] Karen F. Stein, Reading, Learning, Teaching Toni Morrison (2009). Available on Google Books - see in particular the section "Names and Naming" on pp. 69-70.
  • [2] Pelagia Goulimari, Toni Morrison (2011). Available on Google Books - see in particular the discussion of Romen and Junior (linking them to Romeo and Juliet) around p. 120.
  • Assorted other online reviews and summaries which I've read while writing this answer.

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