Ursula K. Le Guin Essay - Critical Essays

Ursula K. Le Guin American Literature Analysis

Jungian psychoanalysis and Daoism are central to Le Guin’s worldview, though she has been influenced by many other thinkers and writers and by her lifelong interest in anthropology. Many of her novels and stories explore oppositions between, on one hand, an aggressive, technological, male-dominated culture that depends upon coercive controls to produce and maintain social order and, on the other hand, a more peace-loving, egalitarian, female dominated culture that depends on consensus and nature-based “magic” and ritual for social cohesion and cooperation. Though a reader might easily conclude that Le Guin would simply affirm the egalitarian in place of the authoritarian mode, Le Guin’s Daoism and Jungian ideas lead her to recognize that both sides of this opposition are necessary to human existence. The tension between them produces change and the possibility of progress, keeping society lively and interesting. The key to a culture’s success in Le Guin’s works is achieving a balance between these human tendencies that is creative and life-affirming. A culture that allows either tendency to stifle the other becomes stagnant, oppressive, and finally deadly.

Though this opposition is central to her work, Le Guin does not believe that the basis of writing is conflict. In her essay, “Conflict,” from Dancing at the Edge of the World, she writes that to base one’s writing on conflict is “to use an aspect of existence, conflict, to subsume all other aspects, many of which it does not include and does not comprehend.”

Philosophically, Le Guin recognizes a need for balance between traditional masculine and feminine modes, but she also makes clear that for much of history, little attention has been paid to articulating and understanding the “feminine” side of humanity. For example, in her short story “Crosswords” (first published in The New Yorker on July 30, 1990), her main character describes the easiest way of dealing with most men:It was easier to smile. It’s like there’s a kind of oil that makes their wheels go round, and smiling is part of it, women smiling. They expect it, and when they don’t get it they may not know what’s missing but they tend to seize up and get mean, like a motor you don’t oil.

Part of her point is that while women are required to understand how men operate in order to function in society, men seem not to be under a similar requirement with regard to women. Le Guin saw part of her mission as pushing readers to remedy this basic injustice. She said in a 1990 interview with Publishers Weekly that neither she nor “literature was ready for a female point of view in the early 1970’s.”

Until she wrote Tehanu, she believed herself unable to write fiction from the viewpoint of a mature woman. The absence of females as main characters in her early fiction had been noted by some feminist critics, though Le Guin had been incisively exploring gender issues throughout her career. Le Guin has said that she does not make up ideas; rather, images present themselves, and she writes about these images. Therefore, her choice of a male over a female protagonist is not an antifeminist statement; it is merely based on the image that appears, an arbitrary happening, not a choice. Le Guin does not view feminism as a side in a perpetual gender war, but as an assertion that in gender relations, balance and cooperation and justice and the affirmations of life and creativity are the essential elements. Many of her works, notably The Left Hand of Darkness and Always Coming Home (1985), represent sexual difference as creative on multiple levels.

With Tehanu, Le Guin took an important step toward exploring mature feminine consciousness, and she continued in this direction from that point onward. She has described her works as “thought experiments about the meaning of sexuality and gender.” She does not blindly assume that female qualities are innately good and male qualities are naturally bad. Her female characters are not perfect; the problems they face are not solved any more easily because they are applying “female intelligence” to them.

During her career, Le Guin has achieved ever wider recognition and appreciation. Her work has helped to expand the audience for science fiction and fantasy, and she has broadened readers’ ideas about the potential and the values of these genres.

The Left Hand of Darkness

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

An alien envoy tries to convince the inhabitants of the planet Gethen to join a loose federation of other planets.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen, an ambassador sent to recruit the planet Gethen to join this assemblage of planets in peaceful intergalactic exchange. The Ekumen offers communication with many distant worlds throughout the known universe.

Gethen’s inhabitants are different from most human inhabitants of the known planets in that they do not have two separate sexes; each person is a hermaphrodite. The Gethenians regard Ai as the freak, a person perpetually male and perpetually ready to reproduce, while they have monthly reproductive cycles and hormonal systems that arbitrarily determine which sexual role each member of a pair will assume during the reproductive period.

Ai’s mission is complicated mainly by the fact that Gethen’s two main cultures are differentiating. Ai first negotiates with the king of Karhide, a culture that is feudal and tribal in its organization. Failing there, he travels to Orgoreyn, which is shifting into a nationalistic and authoritarian, bureaucratic state.

Ai’s success depends finally upon his relationship with Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide, who is persuaded of the value of Ai’s mission and risks “his” life and reputation to help Ai. Ai finds the process of understanding and dealing with a person who is both sexes at once disconcerting and complicated. Political intrigue and physical hardships bring the two into a deep friendship that eventually allows Ai to think “outside the box” and, with Estraven’s help, to develop a risky strategy that will allow the planet to accept the offered contact with the Ekumen.

The novel takes the form of an official report. Ai’s narrative chapters are interspersed with folktales of Gethen and selections from Estraven’s journal. These three voices help the reader to appreciate different points of view and the difficulty Ai faces in attempting to understand an alien culture. Ai is like an anthropologist who undertakes the study of a new and previously unknown culture. This is a form that Le Guin uses often in her works. In addition to the gender themes, such stories also raise themes of tolerance, cooperation among people with deep differences, and the values and difficulties of dealing with cultural...

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