Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Genly Ai (GEHN-lee AY-ee), an envoy to the planet Gethen from the Ekumen, a league of planets. Not yet thirty years old, dark-skinned, and somewhat taller and stronger than the native Gethenians, Ai is occasionally impatient, quick to despair and to rejoice, somewhat of an innocent, and not always aware of the motives of others. Ai’s mission is to prepare the way for Gethenians to join the Ekumen, offering opportunities for “communication, trade, treaty, and alliance, nothing else.” He begins his stay on Gethen in Karhide, a country loosely run by a monarch and his council. Betrayed, as he believes, by the prime minister, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, he travels to Orgoreyn, a country tightly controlled by the Commensal, the thirty-three heads of its districts. There, he is truly betrayed and sent to a work camp, from which Estraven rescues him. The two cross the vast northern expanse of ice back to Karhide, a difficult journey during which they become friends.
Therem Harth rem ir Estraven
Therem Harth rem ir Estraven (THAYR-ehm hahrth rehm ihr ehs-TRAY-vehn), the “King’s Ear,” or prime minister of Karhide. Stocky and dark, with a layer of fat to protect against the constant cold of Gethen, he has black eyes and sleek hair. Estraven is an androgyne, neither man nor woman but...
(The entire section is 745 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Left Hand of Darkness Characters. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Two strong characters dominate the novel. One is the narrator and protagonist, Genly Ai, both the "I" involved and the "eye" observing. He moves from innocence and misperception through experience to understanding. At first naive and egotistic, he responds negatively to the Gethenian Estraven's subtle style, which he deems effeminate but which is actually highly skilled "shifgrethor." Estraven is much more complex than Genly Ai, in some ways representing the feminine side of the man which he has always failed to understand or even to recognize. Through their shared sufferings they both learn much about human nature, and, in confrontation with death, they learn to think in terms of humanity rather than self.
(The entire section is 113 words.)
Ai is the main character of the story, often called "Genry" by the Gethenians, who have trouble pronouncing the letter "l" in their language. At the start of the book, he has been on Gethen for two years, trying to become accustomed to the ways of the planet's inhabitants and to get them accustomed to the idea of him. He arrived with basic information about the language and culture because a team of investigators from the Ekumen had come before him and lived among the Gethenians without revealing their identities or their mission. Still, Ai's obstacles are many. For one thing, he knows that it will not be easy to explain to people who have never even thought of air flight that men can arrive from space. In Karhide, the king is reluctant to acknowledge him or discuss his diplomatic mission because admitting the existence of beings who have mastered travel and communications would diminish the king's importance. The new Prime Minister is bound to oppose Ai because the old Prime Minister, who is being forced out of power, supported him. Moving to another country, Orgoreyn, Ai is accepted more easily by the political leaders and believes that they will help him to accomplish his mission; it turns out, though, that their political system is more complex and subtle than Karhide's, and, while he is trying to sort out which factions are sincere about offering help and which have a hidden agenda, Ai is arrested, stripped of his clothes, drugged and sent to a work camp to die...
(The entire section is 444 words.)
In the first chapter, Estraven, trying to imply that Orgoreyn might be a better place for Ai to look for acceptance, tells him, "the Commensals of Orgoreyn are mostly sane men, if unintelligent, while the king of Karhide is not only insane but rather stupid." Chapter 3, in which Ai finally is granted an audience with Argavan after half a year's wait, is titled "The Mad King." The book is never clear, however, whether the king is mad or stupid, or if he is just working from a different set of assumptions than everyone else. In being protective of his people, he appears to Ai to be small-minded and frightened: while Ai can see no reason for him to turn down an alliance with the Ekumen, the king sees great reason to be suspicious of the strange alien who makes promises, especially with hostilities against the neighboring country of Orgoreyn increasing and the great chance that Ai's story is just a trick to humiliate him. Added to his natural suspicions is the advice of his Prime Minister, Tibe, who recently ascended to his position precisely because he encouraged the king's fears. At the end of the story, when Argavan agrees to host a landing party of Ai's comrades, he is disappointed that Ai called them before asking permission, but other than that he seems to believe that all that has happened was according to his plan: "You've served me well," he tells Ai. Again, it is not clear whether he is delusional or cunning.
(The entire section is 253 words.)
Therem Harth rem ir Estraven
In the beginning of the book, Genly Ai is indebted to Estraven for having arranged an audience with the king, but he is also frustrated because he sees Estraven as being cold and aloof, and he is angry because he feels that, as Prime Minister, he should have done more to make the audience go more smoothly. What Ai does not realize at the time is that Estraven is out of favor with the government, and in fact will be sent into exile the next morning. Several of the book's chapters are written as excerpts from Estraven's diaries, so readers are able to develop a sense of what he is trying to accomplish and what he feels his limitations are, which is an understanding that Ai is incapable of. Estraven accepts his exile almost passively: he takes a menial job in Orgoreyn, and when the Commensal rescues him and he is taken to be a dependent of Commensal Yegey, he does not use the opportunity to sell out the government that banished him. Throughout the story, Estraven works diplomatically to help Ai achieve his goal, but his maneuvering is so diplomatic that Ai does not recognize its implications, and counts him as untrustworthy, if not actually a foe. When he risks his life to save Ai from the prison farm in Pulefen, there can be no doubt that his loyalty is to Ai's cause. On the trip across the ice to safety, Ai learns that Estraven, far from being a self-serving politician, is actually a spiritual man whose actions were hard to understand, in part, because he was not...
(The entire section is 348 words.)
Estraven's Kemmering, or spiritual partner, for seven years, Ashe bore two sons with him. Ashe left three years earlier to join a Fastness at Orgny and became celibate. Before Ai goes to Orgoreyn, Ashe gives him money to take to Estraven.
See Therem Harth rem ir Estraven
Faxe is the leader of the Handdarata, a religious sect living in the area known as Ariskostor Fastness. A Fastness is a religious place like a monastery, where people can retreat from the world, spending "the night or a lifetime." Faxe is the Weaver of the Foretellers of the Handdarata, which means that he is at the center of the spiritual ceremony they use to foretell what will happen in the future. He is the one to weave the power of the other participants—the Zanies, the Pervert, the Celibates, etc.—into an answer for the question asked. He is also the one to explain, later, that knowing the future is generally useless: the reason the Handdarata developed Foretelling, he says, was "to exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question." In the end, when Ai...
(The entire section is 492 words.)