Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 929

The most pervasive theme of The Unnamed is humanity’s struggle against death. The novel’s title is especially significant to this theme. Tim’s disease, which forces him to inordinately strain his body, ultimately causes his death. His illness does not have a name, which furthers his psychological discomfort. Tim once told one of his doctors that he would rather have a fatal illness like Lou Gehrig’s disease, because then he could “understand.” The doctor responded, “Do you think you understand Lou Gehrig’s?” No one truly knows the name or nuances of what will kill them, and healthy people and individuals diagnosed with a fatal disease all have one thing in common: inevitable death. Despite this bleak knowledge, most people are driven by the instinct to survive. Even after Tim sinks into despair after the experiment with the helmet proves to be hopeless, he is not physically capable of shooting himself. In the same scene, the narrator calls this struggle between the will to live and the will to succumb to death “so primitive that it could not be named.”

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Imagery and symbols that develop the conflict between these two “wills” appear throughout the novel. As with Tim’s suicide attempt, representations of the life instinct and death instinct often appear in the same scene. For example, Tim notices and ponders about honeybees several times, wishing he knew more about them. Traditionally in literature, bees represent love and life: they pollinate flowers and signify sex, spring, and rebirth. However, in the middle of the book, Tim walks through what he thinks are dead leaves, but he soon discovers the ground is covered with dead bees. In another scene, Tim and Jane walk through a field together. Jane sees a snake (a symbol of death and evil) and becomes terrified. The couple then drives through a rural neighborhood that has recently fallen victim to a wildfire. Tim asks his wife what she thinks of the destruction, and she says:

It’s either the world just doing its thing or something we’ve never known before.

Life is littered with many manifestations of death and destruction, some of which may be unfamiliar, but in the end, death is nothing new. Readers can see the life instinct even in this chapter because Tim and Jane just had the best sex they have had in years, in the very field where Jane saw the snake. Ferris shows readers that love is just as ubiquitous as death. For some, love is a reason for living.

Ferris also develops the theme of the body versus the mind versus the soul. The Unnamed poses the following questions: Which has greater control over the individual—the body or the mind? Is there such a thing as the soul? If the soul exists, does God exist? With or without God, do people have free will or are they merely at the mercy of a higher power, bodily needs, or cognitive patterns that they cannot control? Tim answers some of these questions, but his opinion changes as often as do his antipsychotic medications and his desire to take them.

The different aspects of the self wage war within the protagonist. One doctor tells Tim, “There is no reason to believe the disease... even exists at all.” Tim is convinced he is not crazy; he believes his body is responsible for the disease, not his mind. Becka comes to agree with him when she sees her father walk circles in the air while he sleeps. Once, in a fit of desperation, Tim ran instead of walked, thinking he would exhaust himself and cut the walk short, but his legs made him continue even after “his lungs hit a wall.” This question of who or what is in control is universal, applying not only to those with an unnamed illness. For example, when one’s body shows signs of hunger or starvation, one must obey those cues and find food or suffer the consequences. Most would argue that the body and mind are connected, but Tim keeps separating these entities when he contemplates his disease. At first, he refuses to believe that the mind is “just body more refined” because he thinks his mind is proof of the soul’s existence, and the soul is different from the body.

Despite his belief in the soul, Tim is an atheist at the beginning of the book. Then, after his disease forces him to flee the luxurious life of a law partner, he goes through a period of mania. He talks to himself (or to “the other,” the disease), speaks to other people incoherently, and walks around half naked in the snow. He tries to beat the illness down by depriving his body of what it needs. Tim considers himself logical and the disease a “brute.” However, when Tim nears death because he has taken such poor care of himself for so long, his legs walk him to a hospital, as if his body were capable of reason, and he emerges a believer. For a while, his body, mind, and soul seem to be connected, but then his medication is adjusted and he becomes an atheist again. He decides, “There’s no soul,” but Ferris adds complexity to that statement in the very end of the novel. He closes the book with a gustatory image of the delicious taste of cool water in the morning, which is “the exquisite thought” of Tim’s “eternal rest.” This uplifting passage does not provide a final answer but allows for many different interpretations.

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