Ursula Le Guin Essay - Critical Essays

Guin, Ursula Le

Introduction

Ursula Le Guin 1929-

(Full name Ursula Kroeber Le Guin) American novelist, short story writer, children's writer, poet, essayist, critic, dramatist, screenwriter, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Le Guin's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 13, 22, 45, and 71.

Acclaimed for her contributions to fantasy, science fiction, and children's literature, Le Guin is a highly respected author often credited with expanding the scope of the fantasy genre by combining conventional elements of science fiction with more traditional literary techniques. She is known for creating fictional worlds in works that express her conviction that humans must live in balance and harmony both with one another and with their environment. Central to all of Le Guin's writing is the importance of individual moral responsibility, played out by her characters as they face difficult choices and navigate conflicting demands that directly impact the state of balance—or imbalance—in their world. Le Guin's works are noted for their mythic creativity, elegant prose style, complex characterization, vibrant imagery, and for their feminist themes and concerns. Recipient of numerous literary awards, including multiple Nebula and Hugo awards, Le Guin is best known for her novels, including The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Dispossessed (1974), and her Earthsea cycle—A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972), and Tehanu (1990).

Biographical Information

Born in Berkeley, California, Le Guin grew up in a home where intellectual life was celebrated and famous scholars were regular visitors. Her father, Alfred Louis Kroeber, was an acclaimed anthropologist; her mother, Theodora, wrote Ishi in Two Worlds, the biography of a Native American who was a friend of the Kroeber family. Storytelling, reading, and a respect for diverse cultures informed life in the Kroeber household and were lasting influences on Le Guin. She wrote her first piece of fiction at age nine and submitted a story to Amazing Stories at age eleven. She studied French and Italian at Radcliffe College and earned a B.A. in Renaissance literature in 1951. She continued her literary studies at Columbia University, earning a master's degree in 1952. She was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1953 and sailed to Paris to begin a year of study in preparation for her doctoral dissertation. However, en route she met a fellow scholar, Charles Le Guin, whom she married in December 1953, at which point she ceased her own doctoral studies. By 1959 the Le Guins settled in Portland, Oregon, where they still reside. From 1966 to 1968 Le Guin published her first four novels—Rocannon's World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966), and City of Illusions (1967), known as the Hainish trilogy, and A Wizard of Earthsea, which received the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Le Guin's first literary prize. The bulk of her acclaimed fiction followed soon thereafter. Le Guin published consistently throughout the 1980s and 1990s, receiving numerous honors and awards along the way. In 1995 Le Guin was presented with a Life Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention.

Major Works

Le Guin's first three Earthsea books were originally directed toward a young adult audience; however, like the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and the Narnia books of C. S. Lewis, they have been accepted into the first rank of adult fantasy fiction. All are concerned with righting a world out of balance and show personal growth in the protagonist as a result of a journey taken and obstacles overcome. A Wizard of Earthsea introduces the young Ged, an apprentice wizard who uses his power unwisely and must confront the shadow side of himself in order to become a man. The Tombs of Atuan tells the coming-of-age story of a young girl named Tenar. She saves Ged's life after he ventures into an underground labyrinth. Together, they leave the labyrinth just as an earthquake destroys it. Tenar risks more than any other character in the trilogy, for though she knows she may die, she leaves the tombs in favor of the unknown. The Farthest Shore opens with Earthsea in crisis. An outlaw wizard eager to gain eternal life opens the door between life and death, creating an imbalance in Earthsea. Ged uses the last of his powers to shut the door, allowing Earthsea to return to equilibrium. The Earthsea books draw on thematic threads that run through all of Le Guin's work: archetypes common to all myths; Jungian contrast in both characters and language; and elements of Taoist philosophy. The final novel in the Earthsea group, Tehanu, appeared twenty years after The Farthest Shore. Tenar reappears in a role as caregiver to two characters: a young girl who has been horribly abused; and to an aging Ged, who has lost his powers. Tenar's strength leads Ged to understand himself as a human being rather than as a wizard and to find joy and usefulness in his life. The final Earthsea book is the result of Le Guin's own journey toward a realization of feminist values. Le Guin's work can be seen as representative of a generation of women who gradually transformed their thinking about themselves and their roles as women. Le Guin moves from being unable to imagine a future for a strong, independent woman like Tenar to finding a place for her in the fourth Earthsea novel. The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are both part of the Hainish cycle that began with Le Guin's first three novels. The Left Hand of Darkness received considerable critical attention because of its androgynous characters. Except for their mating season, during which they can adopt either male or female roles, the characters in the novel are genderless. Le Guin elaborated upon this thought-provoking theme in the 1976 essay, “Is Gender Necessary?,” which questions the social construction of gender and sexuality. The protagonist of The Dispossessed is the brilliant physicist Shevek, whose breakthrough work on the nature of time and space is repeatedly discounted. Central to the novel are the concepts of linearity and circularity, the essential joining of sequence with a circular whole. The novella The Word for World Is Forest (1972) significantly embodies Le Guin's opposition to the Vietnam War and emphasizes her concern for living in harmony with nature and with other societies. The Language of the Night (1979) provided a forum for Le Guin to write critical essays about both science fiction and fantasy. Le Guin has also written acclaimed books for children and young adults, including Leese Webster (1979), The Beginning Place (1980), Solomon Leviathan's 931st Trip around the World (1983), Catwings (1988), and Jane on Her Own (1999). Le Guin ventured into realistic fiction in Searoad (1987), a series of interrelated short stories set in a small, coastal Oregon town. Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989), a collection of literary essays, commencement speeches, reviews, and occasional pieces, presents Le Guin's insightful views on a range of topics, including sexual politics and science fiction writing. Le Guin returned to poetry with Sixty Odd (1999).

Critical Reception

For many years, Le Guin's work received scant critical attention largely because it could not be easily classified. Rather than considering her experimentation with genre a sign of versatility, critics saw the lack of a clearly defined genre as a barrier to assessing her work. Even the Earthsea series initially received little in the way of critical review—first, because it was fantasy, and second because it was perceived as children's literature. Published during the women's movement of the 1970s, the series was criticized by some feminists for its male bias. The Left Hand of Darkness provoked considerable comment among critics who felt that the theme of androgyny fell short because the Gethens all appear to be male rather than bisexual. Le Guin's primary concern, however, is that her characters are human and exhibit moral responsibility for their actions regardless of gender. Both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed were criticized for not adhering to the accepted, narrow definition of science fiction. Critics only belatedly acknowledged that Le Guin's books broke rich new ground in the world of science fiction literature, considerably deepening and broadening the definition of the genre.

Principal Works

Planet of Exile (novel) 1966

Rocannon's World (novel) 1966

City of Illusions (novel) 1967

A Wizard of Earthsea (novel) 1968

The Left Hand of Darkness (novel) 1969

The Lathe of Heaven (novel) 1971

The Tombs of Atuan (novel) 1971

The Farthest Shore (novel) 1972

The Word for World Is Forest (novel) 1972

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (novel) 1974

Dreams Must Explain Themselves (essays) 1975

Wild Angels (poetry) 1975

The Wind's Twelve Quarters (short stories) 1975

No Use to Talk to Me [in The Altered Eye, edited by Lee Harding] (drama) 1976

Orsinian Tales (short stories) 1976

Very Far away from Anywhere Else (novel) 1976

The Water Is Wide (short stories) 1976

*Earthsea (novels) 1977

The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction [edited by Susan Wood; revised edition, 1989] (criticism) 1979

Leese Webster (juvenilia) 1979

Malafrena (novel) 1979...

(The entire section is 462 words.)

Criticism

Charlotte Spivack (essay date Summer 1984)

SOURCE: “‘Only in Dying, Life’: The Dynamics of Old Age in the Fiction of Ursula Le Guin,1” in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 43-53.

[In the following essay, Spivack examines the unconventional portrayal of elderly characters and old age in Planet of Exile, “The Day Before the Revolution,” and the Earthsea trilogy. According to Spivack, Le Guin challenges common stereotypes of the elderly as feeble-minded, inert, and weak.]

Falstaff and the Wife of Bath meet at the local pub. Their conversation over ale turns to reminiscence. “Whan it remembreth me upon my youthe and on my jollitee, it tickleth me about mine...

(The entire section is 5923 words.)

Peter Kobel (review date 6 October 1985)

SOURCE: “Le Guin's Novel Depicts Tribal ‘Utopia,’” in Chicago Tribune Books, October 6, 1985, p. 40.

[In the following review, Kobel offers a tempered assessment of Always Coming Home, which he describes as “an ambitious, imaginative work” that “is not entirely successful.”]

One approaches Ursula Le Guin’s novel, Always Coming Home, with a measure of skepticism. A collaboration that includes 100 drawings by Margaret Chodos and a cassette of music by Todd Barton, this work of “future archeology” seems at first “gimmicky.” But if it is not entirely successful, it is an ambitious, imaginative work.

Le Guin has...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

M. Teresa Tavormina (essay date Winter 1988)

SOURCE: “A Gate of Horn and Ivory: Dreaming True and False in Earthsea,1” in Extrapolation, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 338-48.

[In the following essay, Tavormina examines classical Western motifs in Le Guin's work. In particular, Tavormina links the symbolism of truth and discovery in the Earthsea trilogy to similar imagery in Virgil's Aeneid.]

Many critics have explored the Taoist elements of Ursula Le Guin’s fiction (Bain, Barbour, Cogell, and Galbreath, inter alia), rightly following her express avowals of sympathy with Eastern philosophy and cosmology (see, for instance, Language of the Night 49, 141, 143, 169)....

(The entire section is 5029 words.)

Carol P. Hovanec (essay date Spring 1989)

SOURCE: “Visions of Nature in The Word for World Is Forest: A Mirror of the American Consciousness,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 84-92.

[In the following essay, Hovanec examines Le Guin's symbolic portrayal of American environmental consciousness and opposing attitudes toward the natural world in The Word for World Is Forest.]

In a chapter entitled “Nature: Dynamism and Change” in Lois and Stephen Rose’s study The Shattered Ring: Science Fiction and the Quest for Meaning, the authors point out that “space travel in science fiction provides the most obvious avenue to an expanded perception of nature, both in terms of...

(The entire section is 3845 words.)

Nancy Mairs (review date 5 March 1989)

SOURCE: “A Medicine Bundle of a Book,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 5, 1989, pp. 1, 8.

[In the following review of Dancing at the Edge of the World, Mairs concludes that the volume lacks unity but serves as “a fine companion” to Le Guin's fiction.]

All writers want to preserve the words they’ve labored hour upon hour to squeeze out onto the page—even, or perhaps especially, the ones composed for specific occasions, ephemeral words, which threaten to dissolve in the May sunshine gracing a college commencement or fade along with the snapshots of a cross-country journey or vanish with the magazine gone belly-up after two promising issues....

(The entire section is 975 words.)

Paul Baumann (review date 11 August 1989)

SOURCE: “Beckoned by the Mother Tongue,” in Commonweal, August 11, 1989, pp. 438-41.

[In the following excerpt, Baumann offers a positive appraisal of Dancing at the Edge of the World.]

Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection of essays, talks, and reviews, Dancing at the Edge of the World, takes us, both figuratively and physically, to another part of the world. Le Guin, a science-fiction novelist, lives in Oregon and considers California her spiritual home. Her writing exhibits a wonderfully open and unpretentious western American sensibility. She has an interest in this continent’s natural history and prehistoric past that is, in part, a family tradition. Her...

(The entire section is 626 words.)

Amanda Mitchison (review date 11 August 1989)

SOURCE: “Little Green Men,” in New Statesman and Society, August 11, 1989, pp. 27, 29.

[In the following review, Mitchison gives approbative evaluations of The Language of the Night and Dancing at the Edge of the World.]

In the light of George Bush’s new space programme, it is perhaps appropriate that science fiction is slowly being subsumed into the canon of English literature. Ursula K Le Guin, one of America’s most talented fantasy writers, claims that in the United States the professors have set up camp on Aldebaran. Gloobian Slime Monsters and Antipastomater Denudifiers are becoming acceptable objective correlatives. She points to “that face...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

Joan Gordon (review date March 1990)

SOURCE: “Dancing Gracefully but Cautiously: Ursula LeGuin's Criticism,” Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 17, Part 1, March, 1990, pp. 117-19.

[In the following review, Gordon notes that “Le Guin's harmless, charming persona” may dilute the subversive power of her feminist message in Dancing at the Edge of the World.]

Ursula Le Guin’s second collection of non-fiction is, to use her image, a carrier bag of critical essays, reviews, and poetry. With reviews in a separate section, the work is organized chronologically. Oddly, the pieces are keyed according to content: feminism, social responsibility, literature, and travel. This system is meant to further the goal...

(The entire section is 1036 words.)

Rebecca O'Rourke (review date 16 March 1990)

SOURCE: “Beauty of the Beasts,” in New Statesman and Society, March 16, 1990, p. 39.

[In the following review, O'Rourke appraises positively Le Guin's Buffalo Gals.]

All too often, collections of shorter pieces by novelists turn out to be a great mistake. Like children’s pastry shapes baked alongside the apple pie, they draw praise for the effort rather than the achievement. How was Buffalo Gals—worryingly subtitled animal presences—going to turn out? Trick or Treat?

Definitely more treat than trick, although there were moments when it threatened otherwise. Those animal presences sometimes pull the writing off into sentimental...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Susan Bassnett (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Remaking the Old World: Ursula Le Guin and the American Tradition,” in Where No Man Has Gone Before, edited by Lucie Armitt, Routledge, 1991, pp. 50-66.

[In the following essay, Bassnett examines Le Guin's fiction in the literary and cultural context of postwar American history, feminism, and liberal political activism, noting thematic shifts and continuities in Le Guin's work over the course of her career.]

In a much-quoted passage from her essay, ‘A Citizen of Mondath’, Ursula Le Guin notes that there is ‘little real criticism’ for a science fiction writer, and that despite enthusiastic responses from fans serious comment on the quality of a...

(The entire section is 6574 words.)

Jim Jose (essay date July 1991)

SOURCE: “Reflections on the Politics of Le Guin's Narrative Shifts,1” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 18, Part 2, July, 1991, pp. 180-97.

[In the following essay, Jose examines Le Guin's effort to develop narrative structures that resist and redefine conventional “masculine” notions of utopia, particularly in her The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home.]

Throughout her writings Ursula Le Guin has been concerned with exploring alternative social formations and relations. Even when the articulation of an alternative society is not the primary focus of a story, aspects of her political world-view underpin her approach. Informing her works has...

(The entire section is 9024 words.)

Frances Taliaferro (review date 8 December 1991)

SOURCE: “The Sisters of Rain and Foam,” in Washington Post Book World, December 8, 1991, p. 11.

[In the following review, Taliaferro calls Searoad a pleasure, comparing its structure to that of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.]

Searoad is Ursula K. Le Guin’s “first completely mainstream book of fiction,” according to her publishers. This is good news for those of us who got hives when we first tried science fiction. Friends who were devout sci-fi readers urged us to start with novels of acknowledged merit like Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land or Le Guin’s own The Left Hand of Darkness. We’d have liked to make...

(The entire section is 759 words.)

Isobel Armstrong (review date 13 March 1992)

SOURCE: “Stories of Small-Town Struggles,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 13, 1992, p. 23.

[In the following review, Armstrong admires Searoad for being a work which “refuses an easy distinction between fantasy and realism.”]

A visionary with the knack of being self-critical, ironic and funny about her visions, Ursula Le Guin is always trying something new. Searoad is another experiment. After nearly twenty novels and volumes of short stories exploring the genres of fantasy and science fiction for children and adults, not to speak of poems and essays, she has turned to another mode, a chronicle of contemporary American small-town life....

(The entire section is 838 words.)

Mario Klarer (essay date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: “Gender and the ‘Simultaneity Principle’: Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed,” in Mosaic, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 107-21.

[In the following essay, Klarer examines the narrative structure, symbolism, and metafictional techniques employed in The Dispossessed in light of new feminist theory and literary criticism. According to Klarer, Le Guin's subversion of conventional gender divisions anticipated many later developments in contemporary feminist theory.]

For the last several decades, Ursula K. Le Guin has been acclaimed as a leading “female” writer of science fiction. The term “female” seems more appropriate than...

(The entire section is 6858 words.)

Nora Barry and Mary Prescott (essay date Summer 1992)

SOURCE: “Beyond Words: The Impact of Rhythm as Narrative Technique in The Left Hand of Darkness,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 154-65.

[In the following essay, Barry and Prescott discuss the function of narrative rhythm in The Left Hand of Darkness as a method of juxtaposing, and ultimately transcending, opposing preconceptions about gender and sexuality.]

In her extraordinary introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin sets for herself an apparently impossible task, claiming that “the novelist says in words what cannot be said in words” (vi). Like all paradoxes this one seems unresolvable until...

(The entire section is 5839 words.)

Dean Flower (review date Summer 1992)

SOURCE: “Invasions of Privacy,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLV, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 331-38.

[In the following excerpt, Flower offers a positive assessment of Searoad.]

Fiction, especially modern fiction, licenses a certain amount of prurience. It invites us into the mind of a character or a narrator, and lets us indulge ourselves there rather freely. We are pleasantly exempt from the risks of any real intimacy. Readers are supposed to be eavesdroppers and spies, of a certain kind at least. Filmgoers have to confront their own voyeurism at some point, morally, but readers of Lambert Strether or Lily Briscoe or Quentin Compson are not likely to have that...

(The entire section is 987 words.)

Holly Littlefield (essay date Fall 1995)

SOURCE: “Unlearning Patriarchy: Ursula Le Guin's Feminist Consciousness in The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 244-58.

[In the following essay, Littlefield discusses Le Guin's evolving feminist perspective and themes.]

The Writer at her work:
I see her walking
on a path through a pathless forest,
or a maze, a labyrinth.
As she walks she spins,
and the fine thread falls behind her
following her way,
telling
where she is going,
where she has gone.
Telling the story.
The line, the thread of voice,
the sentences saying the way.

This stanza from Ursula K. Le Guin’s poem “The Writer on, and...

(The entire section is 7571 words.)

Carol Franko (essay date Winter 1996)

SOURCE: “Acts of Attention at the Borderlands: Le Guin's The Beginning Place Revisited,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 37, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 302-15.

[In the following essay, Franko reexamines the feminist themes and narrative techniques of The Beginning Placein light of Le Guin's later more explicit feminist stance.]

The concept [of] “attentive love” … designates a cognitive capacity—attention—and a virtue love.… Attention lets difference emerge without searching for comforting commonalities, dwells upon the other, and lets otherness be. Acts of attention strengthen a love that does not clutch at or cling to the...

(The entire section is 7042 words.)

Charles Nicol (review date 25 February 1996)

SOURCE: “The Very Different Worlds of Ursula Le Guin,” in Chicago Tribune Books, February 25, 1996, p. 5.

[In the following review, Nicol depicts Le Guin's Unlocking the Air and Other Stories as “the best available introduction to the visionary universe of their author, a dark universe that always strives toward the light.”]

It is hard to imagine someone winning Newbery as well as Hugo and Nebula Awards while writing fiction for the New Yorker, Playboy and Ms. But Ursula Le Guin, who has written children’s literature, experimental fiction, fantasy and science fiction, is a very versatile storyteller. This collection [Unlocking...

(The entire section is 992 words.)

W. A. Senior (essay date December 1996)

SOURCE: “Cultural Anthropology and the Rituals of Exchange in Ursula K. Le Guin's ‘Earthsea,’” in Mosaic, Vol. 29, No. 4, December, 1996, pp. 101-13.

[In the following essay, Senior draws attention to gift-giving, or ritualized exchange, in the Earthsea saga. Senior argues that such exchanges define and reinforce essential aspects of the fictionalized culture's values, social communication, and spiritual order.]

To the extent that literary works are attempts to construct worlds and societies that “model” our own, cultural anthropology offers a vast array of features on which to focus: myths, marriage customs, taboos, kinship structures, linguistic...

(The entire section is 6304 words.)

Peter Brigg (essay date Spring 1997)

SOURCE: “A ‘Literary Anthropology’ of the Hainish, Derived from the Tracings of the Species Guin,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 38, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 15-24.

[In the following essay, Brigg attempts to reconstruct the origins, character, and history of the Hainish, Le Guin's fictional race of ancient beings, through clues and allusions in the Hainish cycle.]

Before the paper, a mysterious letter left upon my desk, which may be relevant. Its source I cannot be certain of, but there were paw marks in the deep dust of my monkish cell.

Sir:

We (a royal we) know your type, and we know them to be totally out of step with the...

(The entire section is 4042 words.)

Susan McLean (essay date Summer 1997)

SOURCE: “The Power of Women in Ursula K. Le Guin's Tehanu,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 38, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 110-18.

[In the following essay, McLean examines Le Guin's shifting portrayal of female empowerment in Tehanu,focusing on the tension between compassion, acceptance, and justified anger over patriarchal abuses.]

In Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, published in 1990, Ursula K. Le Guin returned to the fantasy world of Earthsea that she had created in the first three books of the children’s series published between 1968 and 1972. In the years after the first three books were written, her evolving feminism made her uncomfortable with...

(The entire section is 4665 words.)

Ursula Le Guin with Jane Slaughter (interview date March 1998)

SOURCE: “Ursula Le Guin,” in Progressive, Vol. 62, No. 3, March, 1998, pp. 36-9.

[In the following interview, Le Guin discusses her experiences as one of the first female—and feminist—science-fiction writers, the portrayal of women in contemporary science fiction, her utopian vision in The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home, Taoism, and her objection to fundamentalist Christian criticism of imaginative literature.]

Ursula Le Guin, sci-fi feminist, was a gender bender before the second wave hit shore. Since The Left Hand of Darkness, a tale of an androgynous world published in 1969, Le Guin’s work has endeared her to women and has won her...

(The entire section is 3273 words.)

Pamela Uschuk (review date August 1999)

SOURCE: A review of Sixty Odd, in Parabola, Vol. 24, No. 3, August, 1999, pp. 107-09.

[In the following review, Uschuk discusses the poetry of Le Guin's Sixty Odd in terms of its Taoist influences.]

Influenced by Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, which Ursula K. Le Guin translated, this collection of sixty-nine poems is also linked to the divinatory hexagrams of the I Ching. Sixty Odd refers to Le Guin’s age as well as to poem count. In her preface, Le Guin divides the poems into two groups, “catching” and “following.” “Catching,” she explains, is “a desire to catch, to hold, surround, describe the sight, the emotion, the...

(The entire section is 603 words.)