‘She Unnames Them’: Plot Summary
The short story 'She Unnames Them' by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in the New Yorker in 1985, presents a unique twist on the biblical story of Adam and Eve. The narrative is told from the perspective of Eve after she has taken on the task of removing the names Adam had given to all the animals in the Garden of Eden. This act of "unnaming" the creatures challenges the conventional idea of humans having dominion over nature and explores the consequences of unraveling the linguistic barriers between humans and animals.Read the Story Text
Animals Embracing Namelessness
In Le Guin's story, the animals willingly accept their new state of namelessness. While some species, like yaks, initially resist letting go of their assigned names, they eventually acquiesce. Horses, indifferent to the names humans bestowed upon them, remain unperturbed. Farmyard animals, in general, are content to part with their names as well.
The cats, having never truly recognized human names, continue unaffected by the act of unnaming. However, pets with greater verbal capabilities, such as dogs, parrots, and ravens, adamantly refuse to relinquish their names. Despite their resistance, Eve explains that retaining personal names is a matter of individual choice. She assures them that they can still be addressed by their preferred names, but the general labels used to categorize them are being removed to free them from burdensome stereotypes.
Insects and fish also willingly shed the words used to describe them, embracing their namelessness. The act of unnaming liberates the animals from the constraints imposed by language, allowing them to exist without preconceived notions and societal expectations.
Eve's Liberation and Departure
The unnamed narrator, later revealed to be Eve, expresses a sense of closeness to the animals now that the linguistic barriers have been removed. The dismantling of the hierarchical relationship between the "hunter" and the "hunted" brings about a new understanding and connection. While the narrator acknowledges her connection to Adam, her partner in the Garden of Eden, it remains uncertain whether she represents the biblical Eve or a contemporary embodiment of her spirit.
In a pivotal moment, Eve approaches Adam to return the name that he and God had given her. However, Adam's lack of attentiveness and dismissal of her gesture highlights a disconnect between them. Eve announces her decision to leave and live among the animals, signified by her use of the term "them." Adam fails to grasp the significance of her departure, consumed by his own disinterest. With a renewed sense of liberation, Eve departs from the garden, bidding Adam farewell and choosing a new path.
‘She Unnames Them’: Analysis
The Power of Words and Perception
Ursula K. Le Guin's 'She Unnames Them' delves into the power dynamics and the influence of language on our perception of the world. The story serves as a counter-parable to the traditional biblical narrative, challenging the notion of Adam's dominion over the animals by giving Eve the power to unname them.
Le Guin prompts readers to reflect on the profound influence of words, not only in defining and categorizing the natural world but also in shaping our perceptions of it. The act of naming, as exemplified by Adam, establishes a hierarchical relationship, wherein the one who names exercises control over the named. By removing the names, Eve disrupts these power structures and challenges the fixed roles and hierarchies.
Arbitrariness of Names and Liberation
Le Guin emphasizes the arbitrary nature of names by showcasing their variations across languages and cultures. The creatures known as 'dog' in English are called 'chien' in French. By un-naming the animals, Eve defies the notion that they are dependent on the names arbitrarily assigned to them by Adam. This act symbolizes a liberation from the control imposed by human dominance.
However, Le Guin does not present an idealistic utopia in the absence of names. The fear that once existed between Eve and the animals remains, but it is transformed into a shared fear, reflecting a mutual recognition of vulnerability. The story suggests a reconfiguration of the man-animal hierarchy, where humans exist as equals among other animals rather than as their superiors.
Unraveling Gender Hierarchy
The second half of the story shifts the focus to the unequal power dynamics between the sexes. In the traditional narrative, Adam was given dominion over both the animals and Eve. By returning her name to Adam, Eve reclaims her agency and breaks free from his control. The relinquishment of the name signifies a rejection of the patriarchal structures that have shaped their relationship.
Notably, the name Eve gives up is not her individual name but the generic label 'woman.' This gesture suggests a renouncement of the societal construct that links her identity solely to being a companion for Adam. By shedding the name 'woman,' Eve asserts her independence and chooses to forge her own path, symbolized by her departure from the Garden of Eden.