Sunday, November 10, 2013

What's in a Name? A Summary of LeGuin's short, "She Unnames Them"

In this powerful short story by LeGuin, the lead character is never named, but it is inferred that it is Eve, as in Adam and Eve of the Garden. Eve narrates the story, telling of how she convinced the animals that names are unimportant. One by one, the animals agree to let go of their names, though the Yaks have trouble with this concept. The female Yaks hold a council, deciding to let their names go, and after awhile, the male Yaks agree.
Pets, specifically dogs and parrots, take great issue in letting go of their names. As pets are closer to man than wild animals, it is understandable that they would have a harder time in letting go of their identifiers. Yet, Eve makes the pets understand that they can hold onto their capitalized names, like Froo Froo, if only they let go of their generic monikers, like dog or parrot, and so the pets too shed their names.
Among each other, nameless and free, Eve feels a closeness with the animals of the garden that she has never felt before: “They seemed far closer than when their names had stood between myself and them like a clear barrier: so close that my fear of them and their fear of me became one same fear.” The giving back of names (“loss of names” would hold the wrong connotation) by the animals makes them equal to Eve, but she realizes that she is the last being in the garden with a name, and it is not fair of her to hold on to her name when she asked all the animals to give theirs back.
Eve goes to Adam to tell him that she is giving back the name bestowed by “you and your father […] It's been really useful, but it doesn't exactly seem to fit very well lately. But thanks very much! It's really been very useful." Though Eve’s actions are revelatory, Adam does not care. He is described as working on something, putting parts together, and overall he is only half-listening to what Eve is telling him. The reader (and Eve) know that Adam does not understand the import of what she has done by forgoing her name when he asks the stereotypical patriarchal question: “When’s dinner?”
Names can have power, and that power can be a divisive one, or at least that is what LeGuin insinuates with her short story. The binary names humans give to gender (man, woman), the names humans give to animals, or to objects, those are ways that humans seek to control what is around them, not to give meaning, but to separate themselves from nature, to say “I am better than you. I have control over you, and with that control, I will name you and distance you from me”. Eve, like other women in sf stories, does the opposite by placing herself in nature and making herself an equal part of nature. Again, the motif of a loss of identity is explored in this story, and again the author clearly states that one can be an individual while at the same time surrendering themselves to the communal way of living. It is an idea that humans struggle with, because humans only know individuality in the form that it has been handed to us for generations: it comes with separation from others, in the form of gender, class, or racial individual names and personalities.

With Adam’s response, and his lack of interest, LeGuin is stating that men may not be ready to be a part of nature. To be equal with women, and then to be equal with nature, is something men may not conceive of just yet.