Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a complex novel that can be approached either as a work of literature or as a statement of social philosophy couched as fiction. It occupies a position somewhat intermediate between a work of pure science fiction—such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (1951-1993), which...

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Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a complex novel that can be approached either as a work of literature or as a statement of social philosophy couched as fiction. It occupies a position somewhat intermediate between a work of pure science fiction—such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (1951-1993), which is set in the distant future, involves a plethora of inventions critical to the plot, and is populated by characters who think and behave like American men—and a philosophical work such as Thomas More’s De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula Utopia (1516; Utopia, 1551), which is couched as fiction but has minimal action and characterization and is mainly a vehicle for ideas.

The Dispossessed is as much about the process by which new ideas develop as about the ideas themselves. The narrative framework of the novel consists of pairs of chapters, the first describing Shevek’s upbringing and scientific career on Annares, the second his life during the time (roughly a year) he spends on Urras. The chapter pairs portray Shevek undergoing parallel odysseys of discovery, thwarted aspirations, and finally a personal breakthrough under extremely adverse conditions that translates into scientific revolution.

Much critical analysis of the novel focuses on the details of the social structure represented by Annares, arguing whether the author intended to provide a sort of blueprint for an ideal society, or, alternatively, a warning about how egalitarianism stifles individual creativity. Such critiques sometimes overlook the facts that the novel is about two different societies, each one unlike actual Earth societies in different ways, and that it portrays the relationship between these societies as much as it portrays each society in itself. Le Guin herself downplays the importance of specific ideas. In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek response to Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman’s scholarly The New Utopian Politics of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” (2005), “a response, by ansible, from Tau Ceti,” she writes I’ve spent a good deal of vehemence objecting to the reduction of fiction to ideas. . . . When treated—even with much praise—as a methodical ax grinder, I’m driven to deny that there’s any didactic intention at all in my fiction. . . . Of course there is. I’m dead set against preaching, but the teaching impulse is often stronger than I am.

Le Guin’s approach to human similarities and differences, whether in the science fiction context of the Hainish cycle, the fantasy world of Earthsea, or the imaginary but plausibly Slavic country of Orsinia, is strongly influenced by her upbringing. Le Guin is the daughter of noted anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, best known for his work with Native Americans in California. Her childhood exposed her to a cosmopolitan community of scholars who shared a common respect for the value of cultures very different from those of middle-class America. She has said that, whereas the science in most works of science fiction is physics, the science in her works is often anthropology.

A common thread throughout the Hainish cycle is that of intercultural journeys and returns that open channels of communication and stimulate socio-spiritual growth in both cultures. The Dispossessed differs from most utopian fiction in that it involves a citizen of a utopia journeying to and interacting with a culture more closely resembling real-world cultures. In that respect, it more closely resembles Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia: A Tale by S. Johnson (1759) than it does More’s Utopia (1516). Shevek’s journey opens the way for communication not only between two planets but also among all the known worlds.

As one of a small number of women science fiction and fantasy writers considered to be writing enduring literature, Le Guin has been criticized for not presenting a sufficiently feminist point of view, particularly in The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which is set on a planet all of whose inhabitants are hermaphroditic. In both novels the principal protagonist is male or masculine. While Annares’s ambiguous utopia was designed by a woman and theoretically allows equality of the sexes, Takver’s struggles to find love, create beauty, and raise children reveal that it is not a woman-friendly environment. One is left wondering whether some melding of the cultures will produce a better alternative, but this is never stated explicitly.

The balance achieved by the union of opposites, epitomized by the yin-yang symbol, also forms a subtext in several of Le Guin’s works. In The Dispossessed, the contrast is between the two worlds: one lush, the other barren, one egalitarian and poor, the other stratified and rich. As a single interconnected unit, they achieve what neither could on its own.

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