The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy The Dispossessed Analysis

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Like most of Le Guin’s heroes, Shevek embodies the author’s imaginative quest to balance poles of paradox. In physics, his quest is to reconcile sequency, “the arrow of time,” and simultaneity, “the circle of time”—that is, becoming and being. His General Temporal Theory, a restatement of Odo’s dictum, “true voyage is return,” asserts that “you can go home again . . . so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.” A well-lived life comes full circle, linking past and future by fulfilling long-term promises, but also gets somewhere, effecting meaningful change.

The novel’s structure embodies this gnomic principle. Odd-numbered chapters chronicle Shevek’s sojourn on the mother planet Urras; even-numbered chapters bring his life on Anarres from infancy to the moment he decides that he must go to Urras. The two narratives merge in chapter 13, which anticipates Shevek’s return home to an Anarres transformed by his rebellious journey—that is, to a place he has never been.

Le Guin has voiced the hope that science fiction can achieve the kind of idiosyncratic characterization championed by Virginia Woolf and widely considered integral to realistic fiction. The Dispossessed, however, reflects a different imaginative goal, indeed a passion, common to virtually all of Le Guin’s work: to imagine an ideal person—in this case, as the embodiment of a nearly ideal society. “What is it like,” asks the Terran ambassador Keng, “what can it be like, the society that made you? . . . you are not like other men.”

Although Le Guin is not much interested in Christian paradigms, she is keenly conscious of archetypal formulations of the hero’s journey, and she quite pointedly sends Shevek to hell and back on both worlds. His sojourn in “the dust” during the famine on Anarres is one hell. Out of the long separation comes renewed commitment—to marriage, to work, and to continuing the Anarresti revolution. On Urras, Shevek’s quest to “break down walls” is consummated by his three-day basement ordeal, which he equates with hell. It is after rising from this depth that Shevek releases his theory, thus extending the blessings of communication and brotherhood that are “the Promise” of Anarres.

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