By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘She Unnames Them’ is a short story by the American writer Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018), published in the New Yorker in 1985. The story, which runs to just a couple of pages, can best be described as a piece of flash fiction or micro-fiction.
‘She Unnames Them’ is narrated by Eve, of Adam and Eve, after she has unnamed all of the animals which Adam has named. You can read the story here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of this clever tale below.
‘She Unnames Them’: plot summary
The story is about the animals of the world having their names removed, specifically the words used to describe them, such as ‘yak’, ‘cat’, and so on. This premise reverses the biblical story of Adam, the first man, giving names to all of God’s creatures in the Book of Genesis.
Le Guin’s narrator tells us whilst most animals accepted their new state of namelessness, the yaks were initially reluctant to give up the name ‘yak’, but were eventually convinced. Horses didn’t much care what their human owners called them (Le Guin alludes to Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, which features a race of talking horses named Houyhnhnms). Many farmyard animals were happy to part with their names.
The cats had never acknowledged the name humans gave to them anyway, but the more ‘verbally talented’ pets, such as dogs, parrots, ravens and so on, flatly refused to give up their names. However, it was pointed out that it was a matter of personal choice, and an individual dog might be addressed as Rover if it so wished; it was merely the general names (poodle, dog, bird, parrot, and so on) that were being removed, because they were burdens the animals shouldn’t have to bear. Then the animals were happy with this arrangement. The insects and the fish also happily parted with the words used to describe them.
The narrator, who now reveals herself to be the ‘she’ of the story’s title who ‘unnames’ the animals, tells us that she felt closer to the animals now that the linguistic barriers between her and them had been removed. The hierarchy between ‘hunter’ and ‘hunted’ was also collapsed. She reveals herself to be Eve, when she refers to Adam, her partner in the Garden of Eden, although whether she is the biblical Eve or a new, latter-day incarnation.
She tells us that she went to Adam and gave back the name which he, and God, had given to her. But Adam isn’t really listening to her and just tells her to put the name down ‘over there’. She announces that she is leaving to go and live among ‘them’, meaning the animals. Adam doesn’t fully grasp that she is bidding him farewell, and she leaves the garden behind.
‘She Unnames Them’: analysis
In Feminist Revision and the Bible, Alicia Ostriker called ‘She Unnames Them’ a ‘counter-parable’ for the way Le Guin overturns the Biblical (and patriarchal) story of Adam having dominion over the animals, including the power to name them, by giving Eve the power to unname all living things.
In other words, the story invites us to consider to what extent words have power: not only over the things which they name, but over our perception of them. By calling a dog ‘dog’, we arguably fix it into a particular role which must be seen in relation to ourselves: the man has power over the dog, the dog is under the control of the man. If we use a derogatory term to describe a different race, we are (the theory goes) attempting to fix a certain perception of a group of people because of their ethnicity or nationality.
This is obvious in ‘She Unnames Them’ when Eve talks about how her relationship with the animals immediately changed after she had removed their names. The old dichotomies and hierarchies – power structures, in other words – collapsed, and, we are told, she could no longer tell hunter from hunted, or eater from food. Every living thing, including Eve herself, is freed from the shackles of language which had influenced not only her perception of them, but their perception of themselves. The boundaries keeping living beings apart have been removed: boundaries shaped and created by language.
And of course, these names are arbitrary: the creature known as a dog is no more intrinsically bound to the three letters d-o-g than it is to the c-h-i-e-n which gives it its name in French (chien). These labels are arbitrary rather than intrinsic, and can differ between languages and among different peoples. In unnaming the animals, Eve is rejecting the idea that the creatures somehow need the names Adam has arbitrarily given them, and thus freeing them from his control.
This is not to suggest that Le Guin, or Eve, offers a utopian dream-world in place of the old: note how the fear she had of them and their fear of her have not disappeared, but simply become ‘one same fear’. But the important thing is that the man-animal hierarchy which the Bible had established has been undone by Eve’s actions. Man is not above the animals, merely another animal living alongside them.
Of course, ‘She Unnames Them’ is only partly about animals. In the second half of this very short counter-parable, Le Guin shifts the focus to another kind of unequal relationship: the hierarchy that exists between the sexes. Adam was given dominion over the animals but also over Eve, the woman created as companion for him. In returning her own name to him, Eve is removing the power he has over her, too, and is free to walk out of the Garden of Eden and leave him behind.
But exactly what ‘name’ does Eve give up and return to Adam at the end of the story? Eve, or the more general ‘woman’? Since the first half of the story had been concerned with generic names such as ‘dog’ and ‘parrot’ and ‘yak’ and so on, one can only conclude that the name she relinquishes is ‘woman’ itself: a word which is itself linked, of course, to ‘man’ in the way that Eve, created from Adam’s rib, was a kind of offshoot of that first man.
Image: by Oregon State University, via Wikimedia Commons.