The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 577 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The narrative structure is ingenious. Since Shevek is a theoretical physicist concerned with the nature of time, the alternating chapters are...

(The entire section is 205 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Dispossessed is written in the tradition of the Utopian/dystopian fiction, going back to Thomas More's work which gave it a name....

(The entire section is 50 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Three short stories are closely related to this novel. "The ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (1973) deals with the theoretical question of...

(The entire section is 169 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.