Analysis of 'She Unnames Them' by Ursula K. Le Guin

Rewriting Genesis

Painting of "Adam and Eve in Garden of Eden" by Wenzel Peter.
Painting by Wenzel Peter. Image courtesy of Anthony.

Ursula K. Le Guin, a writer predominantly of science fiction and fantasy, was awarded the 2014 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. "She Unnames Them," a work of flash fiction, takes its premise from the Biblical book of Genesis, in which Adam names the animals.

The story originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1985, where it is available to subscribers.

 A free audio version of the author reading her story is also available.

Genesis

If you're familiar with the Bible, you'll know that in Genesis 2:19-20, God creates the animals, and Adam chooses their names:

"And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam would call every living creature, that was the name thereof. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field."

Then, as Adam sleeps, God takes one of his ribs and forms a companion for Adam, who chooses her name ("woman") just as he has chosen names for the animals.

Le Guin's story reverses the events described here, as Eve unnames the animals one by one.

Who Tells the Story?

Even though the story is very short, it's divided into two separate sections. The first section is a third-person account explaining how the animals react to their unnaming.

The second section switches to first-person, and we realize that the story all along has been told by Eve (though the name "Eve" is never used). In this section, Eve describes the effect of unnaming the animals and narrates her own unnaming. 

What's in a Name?

Eve clearly views names as a way to control and categorize others.

In returning the names, she rejects the uneven power relations of having Adam in charge of everything and everybody.

So "She Unnames Them" is a defense of the right to self-determination. As Eve explains to the cats, "the issue was precisely one of individual choice."

It is also a story about tearing down barriers. Names serve to emphasize the differences between the animals, but without names, their similarities become more evident. Eve explains:

"They seemed far closer than when their names had stood between myself and them like a clear barrier."

Though the story focuses on the animals, Eve's own unnaming is ultimately more important. The story is about power relations between men and women. The story rejects not just the names, but also the subservient relationship indicated in Genesis, which portrays women as a smaller part of men, given that they were formed from Adam's rib. Consider that Adam declares, "She shall be called Woman,/Because she was taken out of Man" (Genesis 2:23).

Precision of Language

Much of Le Guin's language in this story is beautiful and evocative, often evoking the characteristics of the animals as an antidote to simply using their names. For example, she writes:

"The insects parted with their names in vast clouds and swarms of ephemeral syllables buzzing and stinging and humming and flitting and crawling and tunneling away."

In this section, her language almost paints an image of the insects, forcing readers to look closely and think about the insects, how they move, and how they sound.

And this is the point on which the story ends: that if we choose our words carefully, we'll have to stop "taking it all for granted" and really consider the world -- and the beings -- around us. Once Eve herself considers the world, she must necessarily leave Adam. Self-determination, for her, is more than just choosing her name; it's choosing her life.   

The fact that Adam doesn't listen to Eve and instead asks her when dinner will be might seem a little clichéd to 21st-century readers.

But it still serves to represent the casual thoughtlessness of "taking it all for granted" that the story, at every level, asks readers to work against. After all, "unname" isn't even a word, so right from the beginning, Eve has been imagining a world unlike the one we know.