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The Old Woman Who Named Things

by Cynthia Rylant


The Old Woman Who Named Things presents a sweet message of the importance of friendship over the fear of loss.

An old lady who has outlived all of her friends fears that she will be a lonely old woman without any friends to call by name. She feels the need to name inanimate objects that she is sure will outlast her, such as her chair, her car, her bed, and her house, and treat them as friends who will never leave her. One day when she is out in her yard, a shy brown puppy with no collar appears at her gate. Will the old woman risk naming the puppy and making a friend that she might lose?

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Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The Old Woman Who Named Things presents a sweet message of the importance of friendship over the fear of loss.

The old lady in this story has dealt with a lot of loss in her life and has made an active decision to distance herself from things that could disappoint her or leave her. Since to her, giving a name to something is to have a relationship with it, the lady picks up the habit of naming only the hardiest objects in her life. By putting up this defense and only naming inanimate objects, the old lady is not allowing herself to be open to any new relationships in her life.

Interestingly, the lady does not seem to worry about her own death, but just the loneliness that accompanies the death of her friends. Before meeting the puppy, she seems to live a pleasant, busy life limited to her inanimate friends. She seems to be living within the guidelines of Epicurus, who believed in minimizing pain and maximizing happiness. He warned against an overindulgent life because it often leads to pain. Would the lady have been better off staying content alone until her own eventual death? Did the presence of the puppy add enough enrichment to her life to outweigh the risk of his loss?

There are those who see Epicurus’s way of life as too safe and unsatisfying. If one is too afraid to deal with pain in life, they end up never experiencing the heights of pleasure, and instead are left in a middle area throughout life. To some, the experience of greater happiness may be worth enduring more hardship. Is there more to life than the assessing risk of pleasure versus pain? Also, can you even truly appreciate pleasure without experiencing pain?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion


  1. What was the meaning of names for the lady?
  2. Do you think the lady was really friends with the Car, the bed, etc.? Where they friends with her?
  3. What makes a friend? How do you treat your friends?
  4. Are the woman and the dog friends? How are they friends in a way that is different from the women and the Car, the bed, etc?
  5. How do you think having friends affects your life?
  6. Is there risk to friendship? Why or why not?


  1. Would you want to be friends with someone even though you know they are leaving? Why?
  2. Have you ever made a mistake you’ve enjoyed? (Have you ever eaten too much ice cream and gotten a tummy ache?)
  3. Do you think that the lady made the right decision in accepting the puppy into her life?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Kelly Lhungay. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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Back to All Books Illustrated book cover for The Old Woman Who Named Things featuring an elderly white woman handing food to a small brown puppy. She has tall white hair, glasses, and colorful clothing. She is standing at a wooden fence in front of her house and car. Download & Print Email Book Module

About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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