The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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In The Dispossessed, do Shevek and Annares' stories question our dreams of a better society?

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In The Dispossessed , the interconnected stories of Shevek and Annares suggest that dreams of a better society are difficult to turn into reality. Not only does Shevek benefit from growing up with Annaresti communal values, but his individual exceptionalism propels him into scientific research. Realizing that hierarchy and hypocrisy pervade Annares leads to Shevek’s disillusionment with socialist principles. However, after learning on Urras that competition also breeds social ills, Shevek becomes an advocate for interplanetary cooperation.

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In providing “an ambiguous utopia” as the subtitle to her novel The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin suggests that supposedly ideal societies are likely to have flaws. The colonizers of Annares seized the opportunity to create a society that valued equality and downplayed difference. Shevek and other anomalous children were generally discouraged from highlighting their individuality. Nevertheless, the society was actually monitoring their gifts and challenging them toward greater social benefit. Shevek’s unusual combination of genius-level intellect and insatiable curiosity propelled him into the field of science, specifically physics.

While the pursuit of knowledge and excellence stimulated Shevek to achieve new breakthroughs, in the lab he also learned about the hidden hierarchy that actually structured his society. His experiences with an unethical scientist not only made him recognize the hypocrisy throughout Annares but also made him seek connections with their supposed rivals on Urras.

Changing settings to the strongly contrasted, individualistic world of Urras, Shevek expects to thrive in an atmosphere that rewards excellence. Instead, he encounters the many hazards of competition. Furthermore, he comes to see that his research will be co-opted and used for violent, imperialist ends. Shevek is reluctantly transformed from a pure scientist into an advocate for social change. Not only does he seek a middle ground, but he joins forces with others who promote interplanetary cooperation. The novel serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of extremism in promoting utopian policies.

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