Growth and Development
In establishing the basic facts of life on Gethen, this novel raises the fundamental question of "nature" versus "nurture": which cultural traits are learned and passed on from generations, and which are direct results of one's immediate surroundings? Since the people on this planet have no gender distinctions, their society is less restrictive about where citizens can go and what jobs they can take; the phrase "The king is pregnant" may sound strange to Earth ears because the associations that go with the word "king" are not the same as those that go with "pregnancy," but nobody on Gethen is fazed by the announcement. What does startle them is that humans are capable of sexuality every day, instead of being on monthly cycles. The effects of having sexuality kept aside for certain occasions are, first, that when they are in their "kemmer" or their sexual cycle, they are overpowered by it, and that without its distraction throughout most days they are able to concentrate on wholeness and not differences. The spiritually enlightened Gethenians have developed the ability to band together and tell the future, although they see no real benefit in it; the advanced members of the Ekumen know how to reach out to the minds of others, a skill developed from the basic concept of differences. The other main factor influencing development on Winter is the fact that it is in an Ice Age. There are no birds, and so they have no model for air flight, and therefore no basis for space flight; much of their body energy goes toward producing heat, leaving them with somewhat underdeveloped muscles; and, as indicated by the Creation Myth in Chapter 17, in which a house made of the corpses of Edondurth's brothers provides warmth, they have learned all their lives to be more careful with resources than cultures are when waste is not a matter of life and death.
When asked by his Gethenian friend how women on Earth are different from men, Genly Ai responds, "It's extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones. Even where women participate equally with men in the society, they still do all of the child-bearing, and so most of the child-rearing...." After mulling over how little the differences are between men and women, yet how different their roles in society, he concludes, "In a sense, women are more alien to me than you are. With you I share one sex, anyhow...." One of the most discussed ideas in this novel is that it creates a race of people on Gethen who are not encumbered with having to live up to the expectations of gender identity, and so their...
(The entire section is 1084 words.)
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In addition to the central theme of androgyny, Le Guin deals with the large issues of war, politics, and religion, as well as the more personal ones of love, friendship, and integrity. One of the most striking features of life on Gethen is the total absence of war. Their languages do not even have a word for war. Since war as ultimate aggression is likened to rape, the absence of war is attributed in part to the fact that men and women are not separate. The absence of war also affects politics. Political behavior on Gethen is a sophisticated code called "shifgrethor," based on subtleties of language and gesture. The complexities of this code serve as a substitute for overt aggression.
Two major religions are found on Gethen, opposites in belief and ritual. One is mystical and inspired while the other is rational and philosophical. The contrast between them is explored in the imagery of light and darkness, including an explanation of the title, taken from a line of poetry, "Light is the left hand of darkness."
On the personal level the themes of love and friendship are developed through the relationship of the protagonist-narrator with a Gethenian politician. Their relationship moves from an initial antagonism, resulting from the Gethenian's apparent femininity of manner, to a friendship based on trust, and, eventually, through the hardships of an epic journey across a glacier, to a profound but not sexual love. The role of gender and its...
(The entire section is 261 words.)