The Left Hand of Darkness

I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners—almost everything. Vocabulary. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food. Women … women tend to eat less. … It’s extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones.

So Genly Ai, lone human envoy to the planet Winter (also known as Gethen), attempts to explain the differences between men and women to Estraven, one of the people of Winter. Estraven does not understand male and female as separate sexes because on Winter, all the people are androgynous, taking on male and female characteristics only when they are in kemmering, which is rather like being in heat. While in kemmering, an individual Gethenian might take on female sexual and reproductive traits one time and male another, and those traits are retained only until their purpose is achieved—that is, until the period of heat is over or, for those who become pregnant, until the resulting child has finished nursing.

The androgyny of the Gethenians is perhaps the most famous aspect of Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel, but on the surface, it seems remarkably irrelevant to the plot. Genly, who narrates most of the novel, gives a lot of thought to it, as I imagine any human living there would do. He thinks about how not having to expend energy on sexual desires might give the Gethenians the endurance they need to survive their planet’s harsh climate. When he ends up in a nation that oppresses its citizens and meets little resistance, he realizes that the sex drive introduces and unstable element to society. And the Gethenians marvel that Genly lives in what seems to them like a state of kemmer all the time.

But on a day-to-day basis, this difference between humans and Gethenians doesn’t come into play that much. Most of the book focuses on political machinations and Genly’s journeys around the planet to attempt to create a diplomatic relationship between the Gethenians and the Ekumen, a league of planets that Genly represents. Like any explorer encountering a new culture, Genly must interpret and react to communications and actions that have nuanced meanings he cannot comprehend, and he wrong-foots it or lets himself get caught in squabbles between the planet’s two major nations, Karhide and Orgoreyn, or among the people within those nations. Le Guin keeps the reader in the dark about many of the other characters’ motivations until late in the book, when we start to get excerpts from Estraven’s journal. We’re just as lost as Genly.

The narrative is interspersed with bits of Gethenian myth and history, some of which are echoed in the main story. We read what appears to be a myth of two brothers, for example, and we later learn something of the close relationship between Estraven and his brother. The effect is to make Gethen, as well as the Ekumen, feel like a larger world than the one confined to these pages. This is what much of the best speculative fiction does. Look, for example, at Tolkien, whose Lord of the Rings is but a tiny piece of a much bigger story. Indeed, Ursula Le Guin wrote several books and stories about this world, which is actually our own world far into the future. Left Hand of Darkness is the fourth.

As I mentioned already, the Gethenian androgyny is more of a matter of discussion in the novel than a driver of the plot, but I wonder how much Genly’s own perceptions are influenced by the inescapable presence of gender binaries in his thinking. He refers to all the Gethenians as he, noting that “the very use of this pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider  I am with is not a man, but a manwoman.” As a reader, I found myself facing the same limitation. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that Genry typically spends time with people in roles traditionally ascribed to men or in environments that would likely be all-male. We don’t meet a Gethenian mother, although we learn of a king giving birth. The language makes the society seems predominately male, and this maleness doesn’t seem strange, which shows just how easy it is to accept male as the default gender, especially when you’re in the courts of power.

The Left Hand of Darkness gave me lots to mull over, but I can’t say that I fell in love with it. It’s interesting, and as an exercise in speculation, it has a lot to offer. But the characters and the story never felt entirely real to me. Le Guin notes in her excellent introduction to this book that “in reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it.” I didn’t quite believe in this novel, and that keeps it from making my personal list of favorites.

I did love the introduction though. I’ve read a couple of essays by Le Guin in the past, and she says so many smart things about reading and writing that I think I’ll have to seek out more of her nonfiction, even if I don’t read another of her novels.

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18 Responses to The Left Hand of Darkness

  1. smithford says:

    First of all, I’ve never heard of this book.

    Second, I am sooo reading it! This may be the inspiration for Ritual of Proof, a book I started out hating and grew very much to love. Thank you!

    Sam

  2. Alex says:

    I’ve just bought a copy of this for a course I’m doing. I can’t understand how I’ve never come to read it before, especially as I’ve always loved not only the Earthsea books but many of Le Guin’s essays. I’m now very interested to see how the course tutor addresses it.

    • Teresa says:

      I enjoyed the Earthsea books, too, perhaps a little more than this, although I wish now I hadn’t read them all at once because by the end I was tired of the story.

      I think this would be a great book to discuss in the course. I hope you get a chance to share some of what you learn!

  3. biblioglobal says:

    I had the same reaction to the gender in Left Hand of Darkness, as you did. I just ended up picturing all the characters as male. I wonder what would happen if Le Guin had written using all female pronouns instead. Would I have then seen them as female? I’m not sure that I would have; I might just have felt more cognitive dissonance about their genders.

    • Teresa says:

      I was annoyed at myself for not being able to get the idea of their maleness out of my head, but I think it shows just how powerful language is. I think if they had been “she” I would have seen them as women, but would I have seen the situation–that so many leaders were women–as strange and read the characters differently.

    • smithford says:

      Ritual of Proof threw me for a loop when I first started reading it. I struggled with the switch of gender roles in the society.

  4. Stefanie says:

    it’s been ages since I read this book so all the details are fuzzy. But I think I felt like you in many respects. I liked the book a lot but I didn’t love it. The world and the ideas were really interesting to think about. I like your observation about how the default pronoun is “he” and how that affects Genly’s perceptions and the reader’s. I wonder if Le Guin thought about which pronoun to use and if so, why she chose “he”?

    • Teresa says:

      I wondered the same thing. I read somewhere that when one of the earlier stories about Gethen was republished Le Guin did change the pronouns. I also wondered whether, in the 1960s, when gender-neutral language was less the default style, readers would have read the characters as male. The fact that Le Guin has Genly talk about his perception leads me to think that she believed language would have an effect on people’s perceptions. But there really isn’t a great solution, so maybe she had Genly talk about it as a way of acknowledging her awareness of the issue.

  5. Jeanne says:

    Another of the novels this one influenced is Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Halfway Human, which does some interesting things with pronouns. You might like it.

  6. gaskella says:

    I can’t remember having read this one – I must have … but it would have been as a teenager, when I devoured all the SF I could get my hands on, and it was already influential back then. I do own a copy though, and I think I shall start a new SF&F to (re)read pile – The Sparrow is already on it.

  7. Stephanie says:

    I haven’t read this novel, but I’ve read several short stories, by this author, on similar themes. I found them fascinating. I loved your point about the best speculative fiction telling only part of the story about a larger, richer world.

  8. Katrina says:

    I’ve enjoyed quite a lot of her short stories and recommend Searoad.

  9. Pingback: The left hand of darkness | Susan Hated Literature

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