The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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How would you discuss the concept and ideal of utopia using the theme of The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia?

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A utopian society is usually envisioned as one which provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, but each person’s idea of utopia will be different. Sir Thomas More, who invented the term “utopia” in 1516, envisioned a world where there was no private property, houses were exchanged every ten years, people were moved around as population dictated, there was little privacy, and misbehavior was punished by enslavement (every household had two slaves).

LeGuinn presents Anarres as a utopian society living on the moon of Urras, a planet modeled on our earth, with wealthy, deeply stratified countries and communist dictatorships and poor countries. Anarres has an anarchist society of equals who have all left Urras at the same time to form a society where everyone can live as equals and no one is oppressed by government. However, Anarras does not have a hospitable environment for human life, so freedoms must be restricted for the good of the community.

As members of an anti-capitalistic society, the children are raised to believe that nothing belongs to an individual—everything belongs to everyone equally. Anarrasti are required to work in physical labor camps for months or years at a time when necessary for the survival of the society. Marriage is unknown, although some pairs do form permanent couples. Sexuality is not restricted in any way. Everyone, no matter their position, lives in dorms with many beds in a room or small utilitarian apartments—luxuries are unknown. Everyone dresses the same. Children are raised in state-run nurseries.

Shrevek’s mother is sent away to a work assignment for years, and Shrevek’s father puts him into a state-run nursery and visits only every sixty days. Palat, Shrevek’s father, misses his partner and would prefer a society where human relationships are valued over work. A person’s work does not belong to him but to everyone, a concept which bothers Shrevek as he is a brilliant physicist whose work is constantly being taken from him by a nominal supervisor. Shrevek misses his partner when she is posted to a distant part of the planet for a work assignment at a time when they have a young child. There is no difference in social status between anyone on Urras, although there are people who have some authority over others.

Would we earthlings want to live on a planet where nothing belongs to anyone, not even one’s partner, children, or work, where everything belongs to everyone equally, where there is nothing to be acquired, where privacy is considered selfishness, where there are no prisons because technically nothing is illegal because there is no central government? Unsocial behavior is punished by banishment into the hinterlands. There is no religion, just a belief in the anarchistic vision of Odo, the founder of this utopia’s blueprint of life outside of capitalism. There is no war, because there are no competing countries on Anarres, only one visionary society, but Anarres maintains its patriotism and inspiration by modeling itself in opposition to Urras, which is described in Anarresti schools as a planet plagued by war, inequality, poverty, and suffering. A wealthy citizen of A-Io might consider living on Anarres, with its required periods of manual labor, lack of privacy or material goods, utilitarian architecture and undervaluing of family values as being much inferior to life in his country. Think about what you would want in a utopia and how closely Anarres values what you value as the highest good for the greatest number of people.

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