Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

220px-TheLeftHandOfDarkness1stEdMichelle Erica Green penned this review.

“Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political; it is individual, it is personal, it is both more or less than political…[it is] mystical.”

For the first several pages of The Left Hand of Darkness, readers see the country of Karhide on the planet Gethen as a typical Western monarchy. Through the eye of Genly Ai (pronounced “I,” like a cry), we witness all the traditional trappings of power, military might and courtly intrigue as a king officiates at a pompous ritual. The narrator notices only men at the ceremony, but this may seem quite natural to readers accustomed to European history narratives, which often fail to account for the presence of women at public functions. The Left Hand of Darkness could be historical fiction set just about anywhere — until we learn that the king is pregnant.

Matters in Karhide are not as they appear. The “men” of Gethen are actually androgynes. For twenty-four days of each month, Gethenians are sexually inactive, impotent, lacking the physical attributes particular to either sex. But during the days when they are “in kemmer,” they develop the secondary sexual characteristics of males or females and are driven to mate. Every individual is capable of becoming either sex upon entering estrus, but no one can decide or control which role the hormones will assign. After the “kemmer” period ends, if conception has not occurred, Gethenians return to their normal sexless condition; if conception has occurred, the Gethenian who took on the female sexual role retains female anatomical characteristics until breastfeeding ceases. Nobody is predisposed to either sexual role; most adult Gethenians have both fathered and mothered children.

In all other anatomical respects, Gethenians are identical to Terrans. Yet Earth-born male Genly Ai does not feel comfortable with them. He has come as an envoy from a galactic league of planets, and cannot escape the feeling that these beings are alternately sexless or homoerotic, too “effeminate” to be men and too “masculine” to be women. Certainly they do not seem to be “human,” even though Genly knows that Gethen and Earth were both colonies of the same ancient race with common ancestors. Genly’s thinking demands that Gethenians be identified as male (like himself) or as female (the “opposite” sex), but nothing about his hosts seems “normal” or “natural” to him, even when he can think of Earth-based parallels.

Gethenians do not share prevalent human perceptions of sexuality as private, since it intersects with all aspects of their public lives. No one is expected to work or to think while it’s that time of the month, when explosive erotic urges require immediate attention. Because sex education and birth control are essential to keep population growth in check, both are readily available even to the very young. The tasks of childrearing, education, and socialization fall equally to both parents. No gender-specific sports, arts, or hobbies exist; no one can be ridiculed for failing to fit in with others of his gender.

Androgyny seems to hold out the possibility of an end to the gender struggle which has persisted on Earth into Genly’s era. Yet he struggles with the difficulty of accepting both the personal and political implications of this discovery. Though his use of masculine pronouns for the androgynes may make readers inclined to think of the Gethenians as male, Genly finds them “effeminate” in a “fleshy…passive” sense. He thinks the king of Karhide is mad in a feminine fashion, like “a woman who has lost her baby.” Worse, the king governs intuitively rather than logically, a method of rule that seems foolish to Genly, who does not trust the deep spirituality of the Karhiders. He views the realm of the personal as feminine, the political as masculine, and prefers orderly, bureaucratic, regimented nations to the “color, choler, and passion” of Karhide, “an incoherent land with a pregnant king.”

Genly’s simplistic sexism nearly sabotages his political mission, for he mistakenly interprets the Gethenian concept of shifgrethor — a term which indicates social position, personal honor and competitiveness, but derives from a word suggesting contrasts — as a variation on the human concept of macho pride. He makes the error of thinking of the Gethenians as “men,” for in order to reach the accord he seeks, he must deal with them as equals, which to his mind requires the identification of “masculine” traits. In his language, there is no pronoun for a person which does not label that person masculine, feminine, or not human. While his philosophy struggles with this “incoherence,” Genly’s psyche strains with the effort to maintain his identity as a human male. He fears he will go mad.

Definitions of masculinity and femininity are so ingrained in and vital to Genly and his culture that he cannot discuss them without oversimplification. Are women really softer? Did childrearing ever really make them less capable of higher learning? If not, then what is the difference? What is the relationship between the sexual body and the body politic? Genly knows that his reality is shaped by his background — he says that he could perceive an individual’s scrupulousness as “either housewifely or scientific,” and understands that the term he chooses will reflect an ideology as well as a relationship to the subject. Words create reality, particularly words (or lack thereof) for abstracts like individuality, gender, power, faith.

In a religious chant from Karhide exemplifying the religion/philosophy of that nation,

Light is The Left Hand of Darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way..

This chant ties in not only with Jungian and Taoist notions of duality and wholeness, and with the glimmering erotic potential of a world where every friend may be a lover at the new moon, but with Le Guin’s emphasis on openness and difference as the means to personal and political freedom. Genly cannot understand the horrors of the oppressive nation of Orgoreyn until he understands the values of Karhide. He sees at first only order in relation to chaos, answers instead of constant questioning. In Orgoreyn, words are deliberately abstract: “commensals,” for example, may refer to individual citizens, members of the ruling Commensality, or the entire Commensality itself, with the result that citizens cannot separate themselves from the state. Language polices thought.

In Karhide, the admonition “to ignore the abstraction, to hold fast to the thing” — an attitude which Genly sees at first as “feminine, a refusal of the abstract, the ideal, a submissiveness to the given” — later teaches him that simple right-and-wrong binaries, yes-and-no questions, self-vs.-other thinking may easily lead to dogmatism. He learns instead to relate to the personal, mystical aspects of the Gethenians and their culture…what he would previously have considered the “feminine” aspects.

In terms of both plot and structure, The Left Hand of Darkness reveals overtly feminist aims. By destabilizing notions of normalcy and nature where sex is concerned, Le Guin makes it possible for readers to investigate their own expectations about gender and sexuality; indeed, it is hardly possible to read the book without thinking about the behaviors Genly considers “feminine” and “masculine” and the bisexuality that makes him so uncomfortable. But it is also impossible not to think about the pronouns, the difficulty of coming up with a neutral term for “landlord,” and the oxymoron of the phrase “pregnant king.” The book has dated somewhat in terms of Genly’s misogynistic stereotyping, but not much; some readers may be annoyed at the portrayal of the character’s rigidity, but others may still find it has the ring of accuracy.

In her introduction to “Winter’s King” (also set on Gethen, and also originally published in 1969), LeGuin attributes the masculine bias of the novel to her male narrator’s prejudices. She explains in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975) that she called the Gethenians by masculine pronouns because “the exclusion of the feminine (she) and the neuter (it) from the generic/masculine (he) makes the use of either of them more specific, more unjust, as it were, than the use of ‘he.'” She did not want call a Gethenian “she” simply to reverse an unjust polarity, while “it” dehumanized, and “made-up pronouns, ‘te’ and ‘heshe’ and so on,” became “dreary and annoying.” In the years following the publication of The Left Hand of Darkness, however, the author changed her position; when she revised “Winter’s King” for inclusion in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, she replaced masculine pronouns and references with feminine ones, “preserving certain masculine titles such as King and Lord, just to remind one of the ambiguity.” She had concluded that “I left out too much…one does not see [an androgyne] in any role that we automatically perceive as ‘female’: and therefore, we tend to see ‘him’ as a man.”

At times the style is purposefully jarring. Chapter Five concludes with the line, “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next;” Chapter Six begins by putting that principle into action, switching narrators so that before we realize it we are seeing Gethen through the eyes of a Gethenian, the mind of the Other. The language of Karhide seems deliberately artificial, using words which signify opposites, yet this too seems purposeful, a reminder that realism in a text depends on the reader feeling comfortable within the text’s premises. This novel does not seek to make readers comfortable but to remind them of the artificiality and arbitrariness of language and social systems. When “realism” fails — when we recognize that Gethen is not what it seems to be — then can we see through our expectations to identify the underlying beliefs that inform them.

The Karhidish use the reversals to point out the imprecision of language; they compare speaking in abstract terms to walking across a patch of ice so white that it is impossible to tell where the ice ends and the sky begins. This locale is called “unshadow” on Gethen, since everything is light, but the lack of shadows does not yet enable one to see clearly. Without shadow, without gray areas, objects are invisible. Similarly, ideas cannot be grasped without understanding of their variations and opposites. To define something is to abstract it; a definition can only be tested in comparison with another definition, a synonym or antonym, qualifiers, adjectives, explanations that convolute the language even further. The state religion of Orgoreyn emphasizes the visibility of all things to God and the state, with an absence of darkness or shadows, maintaining itself by requiring its citizens to live without privacy or power. This is the price of absolute clarity: a world like Orwell’s 1984.

The Left Hand of Darkness is thus not the most lyrically written of LeGuin’s books, and it often ends scenes with jarring, frustrating events. Yet it’s a book that forces transformative thinking — a forerunner of dozens of utopian novels from Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to Melissa Scott’s The Kindly Ones. The characters won’t necessarily stick with readers, but the ideas never fade. This is fiction that aims to transform the world one mind at a time, to shed light on age-old problems from a new angle, and from that standpoint, it succeeds phenomenally.

(Ace, 1969)

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