Summary, Themes & Analysis of “She Unnames Them” by Ursula K. Le Guin: Meaning

Ursula Le Guin’s short story “She Unnames Them” is easy to read at around 1,000 words, but there’s a lot of meaning to uncover in it. It can be found in The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin

Of course, interpretation can easily be taken too far, especially for a story of which the author said: “I don’t want to flog that little story to death, because it was meant partly as a joke . . .” With this caveat in mind, this article looks at some of the potential meaning in the story. It starts with a summary, then looks at themes and two questions to consider. Let’s start the flogging.

Summary of “She Unnames Them”

Someone has unnamed all the animals and insects. Most are indifferent to the change, and a few accept it readily. Only the yaks protest on the grounds that “yak” sounds right. A council of elderly females take it under advisement, and eventually the yaks agree to give up the name.

Most domestic animals enthusiastically give their names back to their owners. The cats denied ever having names other than the ones they gave themselves. Other pets refused to give up their names. When it was explained that this applied only to generic names—dog or parrot, for example—and that they were still free to use whatever personal names they wanted—like Rover or Polly—no one objected.

Insects and fish give up their names with ease.

When the unnaming is complete, the narrator feels closer to the animals. The fear and attraction between her and the animals mixes, unifying them. This was her intention, and she can’t make herself an exception. She goes to Adam and politely gives back her own name. She’s prepared to defend her position and, so, is a bit let down when Adam accepts it without paying much attention.

She says goodbye. Adam asks about supper. She says she’s leaving with the animals. She realizes that explaining herself would have been difficult, because she can’t talk glibly as she used to. Her words will have to be much more considered now. She walks away from the house through the trees.

Theme: Uses and Limits of Labels

In the story, it’s not personal names but generic names that are done away with, the ones that function as labels. While these names are useful for broad identification, they can also limit our view.

One potential problem is the division they can cause. After the unnaming, the narrator acknowledges this when she says, “. . . how close I felt to them”, and “They seemed far closer than when their names had stood between myself and them like a clear barrier.” When a label readily comes to mind, it can distance us from each other because the focus is on our differences. With these labels removed, we could focus on our similarities instead. The narrator now feels a sense of community with all the animals.

Another problem with labels is that they can limit us. When giving back her own name, the narrator says, “It’s been really useful, but it doesn’t exactly seem to fit very well lately.” Her label of “woman” implies she should act in a certain way, a way that’s different from how she wants to act. This label doesn’t fit well anymore; she needs to move beyond it. This is emphasized when she’s saying goodbye. Adam isn’t listening to what she’s saying, and asks when dinner will be ready.

Taking the idea of the implications of language a bit further, it can also apply to euphemisms. Using generic terms to describe serious things can affect how we view them. Referring to accidental killings as “collateral damage” or a murder as “rubbing someone out” might prevent us from thinking about the seriousness of what we’re hearing.

Theme: The Artist’s Challenge

As the narrator takes her leave, the results of what she has done could be compared to the challenge artists face, particularly writers.

The story’s last paragraph indicates the scope of change that unnaming the animals has wrought. The narrator now realizes “how hard it would have been to explain [herself]”, and that she “could not chatter away”. Her words, now, must be “slow” and “new”.

She can’t use ready-made names and phrases anymore but must describe everything in a fresh way. Similarly, the writer, especially a literary one or a poet, is always trying to express ideas in a new way. They can’t simply “chatter away” either. Ideally, this will make the audience think about something familiar in a way they never have before.

Theme: Rejection of Patriarchy/Religion

The narrator’s act of unnaming undoes the work of Adam, which was done at God’s prompting. (Genesis 20: 19,20) This reversal could represent a rejection of patriarchy and the traditional religious role for women.

This point is related to the one above about the limits of labels. When the narrator gives back her name because it “doesn’t exactly seem to fit very well lately”, the limits of her name are related to the role a woman is expected to fill.

One of her reasons for taking this dramatic step is that “talk was getting us nowhere.” The traditional limits of her label seemed to prevent the established powers from even considering her opinion. She decides that her only recourse is to reject this authority by disavowing her name and leaving.

1. Is the story saying we should do away with all generic names?

No. This would be impossible. The story uses the unnaming as a symbol for the themes discussed above, and others.  Eliminating names wouldn’t work because they do have their uses, as the narrator acknowledges.

At the story’s end, there’s an obvious problem with the new state of language. The trees are described as “dark-branched, tall dancers”. While this is a novel way of describing trees, it still relies on terms we understand with their own implications. We have to know the meaning of dark, branch, tall and dancer to make any sense of this description, and when we put it all together, we identify it as “trees”. Even ignoring this issue, we’re left with two options with obvious drawbacks:

  1. Coming up with an original description for tree and everything else every time we say it, or
  2. Calling trees “dark-branched, tall dancers” from now on, replacing one label with another.

Clearly, labels aren’t a problem in themselves. They’re necessary for normal communication. The take-away lesson regarding labels is brought out at the end when the narrator says her words now must be:

  • “slow”
  • “new”
  • “single”, and
  • “tentative”

This implies that before she puts a label on something, she’s going to put thought into making sure it fits properly. As her actions in the story indicate, she also reserves the right to do away with any label that outlives its usefulness in the future.

2. Knowing that Le Guin said the story was “meant partly as a joke”, are there any details that support this?

There are some things in the story that could have symbolic meaning, but I tend to think they don’t. Some details that could just be for added interest include:

  • The reactions of the various animals to the loss of their name, particularly the yaks and cats.
  • When leaving, the narrator says “I hope the garden key turns up”, referring to the ousting of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 3: 23, 24)

Undoubtedly, there have been interpretations offered for these details, and there could be meaning in them. I just haven’t been able to come up with anything that fits.