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The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

February 27, 2012

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Ace Books (1976), Mass Market Paperback.

LeGuin’s classic presentation of an alternative to a male/female world. I reread Left Hand of Darkness for the Gender-in-Fantasy-and-Scifi-challenge and enjoyed it despite my disappointment with her vision of gender.

An envoy from the intergalactic federation comes to planet of Winter to encourage its people to join the organization and engage in more contact with other planets. Besides its intense cold weather, the planet is unusual because its population is basically androgynous. They become male and female only briefly when hormonal changes make it possible for them to reproduce. Afterward they return to their former non-gendered selves with one or the other pregnant. An individual can be both the “man” or “woman” in different situations over time.

Le Guin’s creation of a world without rigid gender demarcations is ingenious and thought-provoking. But the people of her world seldom live up to her claims that they are truly androgynous. Despite such wonderful lines as “The King is pregnant,” I found it hard to envision the residents of the planet as anything but males. Even Le Guin, and the visiting Envoy who is the major narrator, have this trouble. The only mentions of womanly traits are negative; sneaky, untrustworthy, and demanding. I am uncomfortable with the idea that to be a woman is to be such an unpleasant and dislikable creature.

Le Guin has been writing over a long lifetime. In recent years, she has written very perceptively about gender. I consider her “Bryn Mawr Commencement Speech” one of the best analysis ever on language, power, and gender. Some of her early books, however, are boy’s adventure stories, fun for girls willing to imagine being boys, but never considering alternative gender patterns. Given the overall trajectory of her work, I am unwilling to fault her for not having been more visionary when she wrote Left Hand of Darkness 40 years ago. If Le Guin’s vision was limited when she wrote the book, so was mine when I first read it. We have come a long way together.

In addition to raising questions about gender, Le Guin gives us a gripping adventure story of two individuals, alien to each other in a most fundamental way spend months alone together crossing Winter’s massive ice field and never knowing if they will survive. In the isolation of this trip, the envoy begins to see the fundamental truth of the planet Winter, that “Light is the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light.” Le Guin is too sophisticated a writer to equate darkness and women here, but readers must beware of making that mistake. The envoy also comes to accept his alien companion in all his alieness, “it was the difference between us, not the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that love came: and it was the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us.”

If the book breaks less ground than I would have like on gender, it is still a classic that I recommend to a wide variety of readers of all ages.

See Eva’s review of this book for a more negative view.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2012 4:56 pm

    I read and loved this book many years ago. It would be fascinating to revisit it now.

    Have you written on gender, Marilyn? I’d be very interested to read your views.

  2. February 28, 2012 9:01 am

    Re-reading is always an adventure.

    No, I haven’t written about gender, but I will try to write and post something soon. Ive been thinking about it and would like to put my thoughts in order. My views are pretty mainstream U.S. feminist.

    I probably should have refered to Le Guin’s world as having alternative sexuality rather than gender.

  3. February 28, 2012 8:44 pm

    When I read it (more than five but not quite ten years ago, I think?) I had a similar response, at least as far as imagining all the characters as masculine. I’ve heard that there are editions of this book that use a feminine pronoun (or perhaps just part of it? That’s what I’m seeing here), and I’d like to read them back to back just to see what the effect is.

  4. February 29, 2012 10:27 am

    Yes, that would be interesting. But it wasn’t the pronouns that bothered me most. It was the failure to include any positive characteristics as womanly.

  5. February 29, 2012 9:20 pm

    >>The only mentions of womanly traits are negative; sneaky, untrustworthy, and demanding. I am uncomfortable with the idea that to be a woman is to be such an unpleasant and dislikable creature.

    This really bothered me too. I’m willing to give le Guin a bit of leeway in case she was showing how sexist her narrator was, but it made me feel a bit icky.

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