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Allusion and Allegory in “She Unnames Them”

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Ursula Le Guin’s short story “She Unnames Them” takes place in the time of Adam and Eve. God had given Adam the task of naming every animal on the earth, but in Le Guin’s story, Eve feels separated from the animals. She feels that the names of the animals do not fit them and that by giving them names, they are attempting to label the essences of the animals. She begins to go around unnaming the animals, and in doing so, she begins to feel the wall of separation between her and the animals coming down.

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Predator and prey can no longer be distinguished, because Eve and all the animals began to feel the same simultaneous fear of one another and the desire to interact with one another. In this way, Eve and the animals become equals, and she realizes that she can even give up her own name. She gives it back to Adam, who does not even notice, and goes out to be with the animals.

Part of what makes “She Unnames Them” work is allusion. At first, it is not obvious that the story is about the Adam and Eve of Genesis, but it can be inferred that it is because of some important details Le Guin includes. When Eve goes to Adam to give him back her name, she says, “You and your father lent me this—gave it to me, actually.” This is a reference to God, the father, giving Eve her name when he created her.

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Later in her interaction with Adam, as she is trying to leave, she tells him that she hopes “the garden key turns up.” Le Guin is alluding to the Garden of Eden here and suggesting humorously that instead of being thrown out of the Garden, Adam and Eve simply lost the key. In addition to her references to Adam and Eve, Le Guin also alludes to two famous writers and one scientist. She mentions Jonathan Swift’s attempt to name horses in Gulliver’s Travels as well as the poem in which T.S. Eliot makes the claim that cats have “ineffably personal names” which they give themselves and share with no one else.

Carolus Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century scientist who invented the system of scientific classification of plants and animals, is also referred to. These instances serve the story by helping the reader to understand that the naming of things is a subject that has been pondered and studied by intelligent people throughout history.

The other prominent literary element in “She Unnames Them” is allegory. Le Guin’s story is about Eve unnaming the animals and herself, but the story is much more than that. Eve represents everyone who has ever felt limited or stunted by the labels stuck onto him or her by the rest of the world. She especially represents women. The story is a bit feministic, as can be seen by Adam being characterized as the stereotypical male who does not pay much attention to his female counterpart.

Also, Eve rejects the label given to her by a man, putting herself on the same level of authority as him. She claims the power of the language of the man for herself and thus makes herself equal to him. During the time when Le Guin was writing this story, women were still trying to gain equal rights with men in all sorts of areas, so it can be assumed that this non-equality frustrated Le Guin, since she made Eve, her character, so against the idea of a male-female hierarchy. Women were looking to be seen as individuals, not grouped together as a flock of acquiescent hens. Many of them wanted to break out of the stereotype of the homemaker, as Eve does in the story (at one point, Adam asks her when dinner will be, to which she replies that she is not sure).

“She Unnames Them” is more than just a feministic story, however; it also applies to all who have felt labeled by people in their lives. It brings to mind Shakespeare’s famous line, “What’s in a name?” Eve feels that the names given to her and the animals do not do them justice. There is no way that something’s name can describe the essence of who or what it is. A pigeon is not just a pigeon; each one is unique, different in some way from all the other pigeons. Why, then, are they all given the same name?

And even it was given an individual name, as we humans tend to be, how could that one word encompass all the aspects that make it up? Names are only labels, and labels are limiting. They can also be tinted with bias. When I think of someone’s name, I recall my own ideas about who that person is based on my memories of them, but I can never know the essence of who they are, and thus my perception of him or her is incomplete and skewed. This can even apply to other people groups who are stereotyped and judged based on the color of their skin or the accent of their speech.

However, when Eve and the animals let go of their names, they suddenly feel closer to one another. “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,” Eve tells the reader. She also describes “the desire to smell one another’s smells, feel or rub or caress one another’s scales or skin or feathers or fur, taste one another’s blood or flesh, [to] keep one another warm.”

Suddenly, they all become simultaneously vulnerable and in tune to one another. Eve also realizes that now that she has chosen this path, she must choose her words carefully: “My words,” she says, “must be as slow, as new, as single, as tentative as the steps I took going down the path away from the house, between the dark-branched, tall dancers motionless against the winter shining.” The “tall dancers” she refers to are trees, and the “winter shining” is the sun, but her words paint so much more of a picture than the words “trees” and “sun.”

The words she chooses capture more of the effect the trees and sun have on her, making her carefully chosen vocabulary more effective than Adam’s labels. It gives an image of peaceful stillness and resolution as Eve walks away from Adam, ready now to be her own person.

Le Guin’s short story is a beautiful picture of finding one’s individuality. It causes the reader to question the usefulness of a name as a descriptive tool. Although practical, a name is nothing more than a label, and cannot describe the essence of anyone or anything. Le Guin uses the literary devices of allegory and allusion to provoke her readers to think about the labels which they are given and which they give others.

Cite this Allusion and Allegory in “She Unnames Them”

Allusion and Allegory in “She Unnames Them”. (2016, Jun 09). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/allusion-and-allegory-in-she-unnames-them/

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