Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756

Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin writes in her preface to the novel, is a possible archaeology of the future, and the story unfolds through narration, poetry, pictures, and drama. To shape Kesh’s culture in Always Coming Home, Le Guin displays her signature Taoist principles, in which oneness with the world is a significant driver of plot and characterization. In the valley, all life is interdependent, and each entity relies on all others to be whole. Rather than use the yin and yang that Taoism uses to symbolize balance, Le Guin uses a double spiral, with two arms moving outward from a central hinge. Towns are shaped like this double spiral, with sacred places on one arm, a common area in the center hinge, and living and working spaces along the other arm. She also draws on American Indian beliefs to create valley lore; the Coyote, a central figure in much American Indian folklore, is a sacred figure in the valley.

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Le Guin’s Pandora, from Greek mythology, addresses the reader directly and poses philosophical conundrums. In mythology, Pandora had disobeyed the gods and had opened a jar, releasing all human evils and retaining only hope. In Le Guin’s tale, Pandora is an external force, a visitor who marvels at the valley people, sometimes with jealousy, sometimes with spite. Uneasy with the valley, she nonetheless values it and constantly examines it. She engages in a dialogue with one character, an archivist, about the utopian nature of the valley. Though the archivist insists the valley is not a utopia, Pandora argues that it is, and she suggests that, ironic though it may seem, only through a utopian lens can reality be properly evaluated.

Children serve a similar purpose throughout the work, disrupting the world in ways that help readers connect with the work. These forces, while they interrupt the story, serve as bridges to readers and help keep the novel from becoming too difficult to follow—the novel moves from short poems to short dramas to short stories, without offering a central character other than Stone Telling. This stylistic technique, however, is also one of the book’s primary strengths.

Shaking readers loose from traditional narrative patterns invites them to participate in the dialogue more directly. It allows a glimpse inside the writer’s mind, encouraging readers to imagine this future world in contrast to their own. Le Guin insists that this future is only a possible future, and thus only a possible history of the future. Indeed, the work is set so far in the future that nuclear apocalypse is long past and nuclear wastelands are once more habitable, though chemically polluted areas still remain. San Francisco, for example, has sunk into the ocean, and the waters of the bay now cover the remains of the city. In one short story, characters marvel that where they now ride in the water in boats, homes once stood.

Stone Telling’s story enhances reader understanding of the conflict between the Condor and the Valley peoples, illustrating the differences between the two groups that some of the shorter pieces treat as common knowledge. In turn, the poetry, drama, and folklore surrounding the sections of Stone Telling’s tale draw out concepts she does not need to explain, such as how The Exchange works or why trains, but not automobiles, still exist. This interdependence is a crucial facet of the work, as it reflects both the Taoist and American Indian principles expressed in the valley’s religions and in Le Guin’s body of literature as a whole.

Always Coming Home displays several unique tendencies that are now common in fiction. The novel is the first to use interactive media as an important part of the story. Todd Barton composed music to accompany the words of Le Guin, who had written several valley songs; the music was released on cassette tape and sold with the 1985 edition of the book. Early reviewers expressed astonishment, insisting that it was lucky the book stood alone, because readers would not want to use (and pay for) added content. Similarly, the artwork of Margaret Chodos (now Chodos-Irvine) is included in the novel as examples of Keshian art. Interactive media are now commonly included with books, in the form of compact discs and digital files. Indeed, novels themselves have become interactive, as readers and writers can interact and change stories through the Web. The success of Always Coming Home marks its connection with a real future that had been, in 1985, only a possibility.

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Critical Overview