The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

by Ursula K. Le Guin
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The Plot

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia is one of several of Ursula Le Guin’s works chronicling the evolution of a “League of all Worlds” governed by principles superior to those of known political and colonial systems. Although The Dispossessed takes place in the League’s prehistory, the novel’s loving portrait of a working anarchist society on one world develops in detail the principles of noncoercive social organization.

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The novel chronicles the life of Shevek, a physicist reared on a world settled by the followers of an anarchist philosopher, Odo. The Odonians, “bought off” 170 years before Shevek’s time with an offer to settle their mother planet’s arid moon, Anarres, live without laws, according to the apparently irreconcilable principles of absolute individual freedom and absolute commitment to the good of the community. Anarresti social order is maintained primarily by education, which inculcates a horror of “egoizing.” The Anarresti live in isolation from their mother planet, Urras, a lush world that Anarresti education demonizes as a place of injustice and evil.

Through a series of struggles, Shevek strives to balance loyalty to the society that formed him with rebellion against subtle conformist pressures that stifle his ambitious work in theoretical physics. The conflict climaxes after a long famine, during which Shevek accepts four years of separation from his wife and his work to perform manual labor in his planet’s harshest desert. After this trial of physical, emotional, and intellectual self-denial, Shevek vows, “by damn, I will do my own work for a while now!”

That work has been kept alive, ironically, through extended contact with the physicists of the mother planet, Urras—that is, with despised “propertarians.” After his desert ordeal, Shevek accepts a standing invitation based on his groundbreaking physics and becomes the first Anarresti in 170 years to visit the mother planet. In the face of intense opposition, he vows to “go to Urras and break down walls.”

On Urras, Shevek is treated as an honored but subtly controlled guest, kept from any genuine contact with the poor. His hosts are determined to “buy” him. They believe that his work, once completed, will bring them wealth, power, and prestige. Shevek moves from admiring awe and a kind of racial homesickness for the lush mother planet to revulsion against a social world dominated by competitive struggles for power and wealth. When a chance comes to lend support to the poor people of Ai-Io, the wealthy host-nation, Shevek seizes it, traveling secretly to the slums and leading a demonstration against an unjust war. This self-liberation from a luxurious “prison” comes in the wake of the fulfillment of Shevek’s scientific work: completion of a General Temporal Theory that unites apparently irreconcilable theories about time.

The antiwar demonstration, climaxing with Shevek’s speech urging renewed Odonian revolt, is broken up by a military crackdown. Shevek hides for three days in a basement with a mortally wounded demonstrator who dies in Shevek’s care. Following this near-death descent, Shevek emerges suddenly in the Terran (Earth) Embassy, where he gains asylum and arranges for his theory to be broadcast to all worlds, thus eluding his hosts’ desire to possess it and enabling instantaneous communication between the “nine known worlds.” In a final wall-breaking action, Shevek agrees to let a young man from Hain, oldest of the known inhabited worlds, accompany him home to Anarres.

Form and Content

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The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia is the story of the twin planets Anarres and Urras. Anarres is populated by the descendants of the Settlers, a radical anarchist group which broke away from Urrasti society. The Settlers are the followers of the philosopher Odo, who advocated a society without centralized control or even organized government or religion. Urras, the planet from which the Odonians wished to escape, is very similar to Earth (or Terra, as it is referred to in the novel): It is a planet dominated by competing forms of government and characterized by both extreme poverty and the grotesque accumulation of wealth. Shevek, a physicist from Anarres, represents the link between the two planets. As the first traveler from Anarres to Urras in decades, he represents progress to both the Anarresti and the Urrasti. He provides the hope for a synthesis between the contradictory forces that are represented by the two planets.

The narration alternates between the planets: For example, the first chapter features Shevek’s departure for Urras, while the next chapter flashes back to Shevek’s infant and childhood years on Anarres. This pattern of alternation helps to highlight the contrast between the two worlds; as readers become more convinced that the world of Urras is an undesirable extrapolation of present-day societies, they also become aware that Anarres is at best the “ambiguous utopia” of the novel’s subtitle. Shevek’s personal mission as ambassador to Urras becomes complicated by the same power politics from which he had hoped to escape. As it becomes apparent that the Urrasti governments want him to visit only so that they can benefit from his theories, Shevek begins to look for a third alternative to the impasse present on the twin planets.

Shevek finds himself controlled on Anarres by Sabul, the head of the Physics Institute, and on Urras by the government and official university of A-Io, the dominant nation of the planet. After his arrival on Urras, Shevek tries to reach out to the working classes, delivering an inspiring speech on behalf of interplanetary unity at a mass meeting of the groups representing labor in A-Io. As his departure from Anarres caused one of the first riots in the planet’s history, his speech on Urras precipitates a Haymarket style massacre when the government of A-Io violently represses the labor gathering, killing many of the participants and scattering the remainder. Shevek then turns to the only independent party left, the aliens who have established contact with the governments of Urras.

Shevek first seeks asylum at the embassy of the Terrans, representatives of the Earth of the distant future. The Terrans are there because of the charity of the Hains, the most advanced and ancient race in the galaxy. Earth itself has long been decimated from the type of greed of ownership that is only too apparent on Urras and is being surreptitiously established on Anarres. With the aid of the unbelieving yet understanding Terran ambassador, Shevek arranges for a simultaneous broadcast of his theories to all known civilizations in the galaxy. His discoveries will profit all equally by allowing for instant communication between the planets, leading to the destruction of barriers that have been established between the races. With his work accomplished, Shevek is free to return to Takver, his partner on Anarres, ready to undertake the new project of helping to ensure a continuation of the permanent revolution that originally formed the basis of Anarresti society.

Context

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Despite the fact that the central character in The Dispossessed is male, the novel provides considerable commentary on issues of concern to women. At the forefront is another investigation of the concept of androgyny, or the sharing of traits among men and women. While not as complete an analysis of androgyny as Le Guin’s previous novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, this novel addresses more thoroughly the question of equality and partnership between the sexes, arguing for a reality which goes far beyond the present institutions of marriage and childbearing.

Le Guin develops her analysis of equality through two female characters, Takver, Shevek’s partner on Anarres, and Vea Doem Oiie, an attractive Urrasti woman. Takver represents the complete equality demanded by the sexes on Anarres. Because there are no laws concerning property on Anarres (in fact there is no property officially), women are freed from their traditional status as the property of a husband, father, or brother. The Urrasti institution of marriage, based on property law, has been replaced on Anarres with the concept of “partnership,” where each member of the partnership is equal to the other. Unlike marriage, partnerships are rarely if ever dissolved, despite the fact that it is a moral instead of a legal agreement. Also unlike marriage, childbearing is considered an issue separate from partnering. Takver, a research scientist in her own right, chooses to keep the children with her while Shevek is posted to a remote part of the planet. It is her idea, also, for Shevek to travel to Urras. Vea Doem Oiie, on the other hand, fits into the category of women that Takver calls “body profiteers.” Married to a prominent official in the government of A-Io, she uses her attractiveness to control and manipulate. Her flirtatious charm is reinforced down to the magnetically implanted jewel in her navel. It is eventually revealed, however, that her interest in Shevek is attributable to her job as a Mata-Hari style agent for the government. Though her type is more common on a profit-oriented planet such as Urras, Takver concludes that there are also body profiteers on a utopian planet.

Literary Techniques

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The narrative structure is ingenious. Since Shevek is a theoretical physicist concerned with the nature of time, the alternating chapters are designed to reflect two aspects of his theories. Time is seen as either simultaneous or sequential, either being or becoming. One set of chapters deals with the events going on simultaneously during Shevek's visit to Urras, while the alternating set deals with the sequence of events from Shevek's birth through his childhood until he becomes an adult. His aim is to reconcile these two views in order to create a unified field theory of time. After the final chapter of the book, Shevek is about ready to leave his home planet to come to Urras, just as he leaves Urras to come home.

Another technique is the use of the "wall" as pervasive image. It is Shevek's aim to break down walls separating humanity both on individual planets and on differing planets, and in several scenes either a literal or a figurative wall frustrates his plans. Walls also figure in Shevek's dreams.

Le Guin also uses the technique of authenticating detail. Readers are made to feel and see both the spare, marginal subsistence on Anarres and the wildly lavish indulgences of life on Urras.

Literary Precedents

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The Dispossessed is written in the tradition of the Utopian/dystopian fiction, going back to Thomas More's work which gave it a name. More specifically, in terms of its particular social vision, it is most influenced by the revolutionary ideas of Shelley and Kropotkin and by the philosophy of Taoism.

Bibliography

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Cupp, Jeff, and Charles Avinger. “Do Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Have Postmodern Dreams?” Literature, Interpretation, Theory 4 (July, 1993): 175-184. The writers argue that science-fiction and fantasy novels better demonstrate the conventions of postmodernism than many of the canonically accepted representatives. Discusses both The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.

Gallagher, Nora. “Ursula Le Guin: In a World of Her Own.” Mother Jones 9 (January, 1984): 23. An excellent profile of Le Guin, including a discussion of her life and work.

Jameson, Frederic. “World-Reduction in Le Guin: The Emergence of Utopian Narrative.” In Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness,” edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. An influential essay on Le Guin’s narrative strategy, presenting an interpretive paradigm that is easily applied to much of her work.

Jose, Jim. “Reflections on the Politics of Le Guin’s Narrative Shifts.” Science-Fiction Studies 18 (July, 1991): 180-197. Another analysis of Le Guin’s narrative strategy, arguing that her choice of narrative patterns derives as much from political practice as from literary style.

Klarer, Mario. “Gender and the ‘Simultaneity Principle’: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.” Mosaic 25 (Spring, 1992): 107-122. Argues that Le Guin is both a precursor of contemporary feminist writing and a mainstream novelist. According to Klarer, The Dispossessed explores androgyny from the male viewpoint.

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