The Eye of the Heron

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Two small groups of people live on the prison planet, Victoria. One group, the inhabitants of the City, are descendants of criminals exiled from South America early in the twenty-first century, while the other group, the inhabitants of Shantih (peace), are descendants of protesters exiled about forty years later because of their refusal to cooperate in a long East-West war. In the sixty years since the arrival of the Shantih people, the two groups have not intermixed, but they have become to some degree interdependent.

In time, however, the City people have come to think of themselves as masters of the planet, though they only control a few square miles. They think of the “Shanty-Towners” as peasants, a labor pool over which they rightfully exercise power. The Shantih, on the other hand, are largely self-sufficient. They provide basic raw materials to the City: food, fuel, and fiber. Though their original agreement was for exchange, the Shantih have come to receive almost nothing for their work. The villagers continue to provide materials out of inertia and out of a faith that a unified community will eventually emerge. The City’s view of unity differs from the Town’s. Luis Falco, chief councillor or boss of the City, plans to complete the formation of an oligarchy in which the Shantih will become a permanent peasant class. For their part, the Shantih expect the City to be converted to their pacifist and egalitarian principles. A crisis grows from these differing points of view.

This crisis becomes the occasion for the maturation of Luz Falco, daughter of Luis. Her efforts to break free from various forms of ideology reveal Ursula Le Guin’s thematic concerns in this novel.

Luz is a prisoner in her father’s house, as all women are prisoners in the patriarchal society of the City. Through her contacts with the Shantih, especially Vera Adelson and Lev Shults, she has come to see that her position at home mirrors the relation of the Town to the City. She is expected to suspend significant choice and to be the willing tool of the men to whom she belongs.

Luz breaks away from her father and the City when she comes to understand her father’s plan to subjugate brutally the Shantih. In a scheme which also implicates an attractive potential husband for Luz, Herman Macmilan, Falco intends to provoke violence, label the violence rebellion, and sentence the rebels to forced labor on the new estates. Repelled by this cruel design, Luz impulsively reveals the plan to the Shantih. Once she has made this break, she finds herself unable to return to Casa Falco, and she joins the Shantih.

The Shantih, however, are also imprisoned in a set of ideas. While they do not organize their society around ideas of dominance and submission, their tradition is tied to the City’s system. They are enormously proud of their nonviolent philosophy, derived from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Nonviolent resistance, however, is appropriate and effective only when a powerful group oppresses a weak group and when confrontation is unavoidable; the Shantih fail to realize that their situation only meets the first of these conditions.

The emergence of Lev Shults as a spokesman for the Shantih shows that these people have failed as yet to understand their new situation on Victoria. To rebuild their society, they need to reject the old polarities that they have brought from Earth. Lev’s leadership is characterized by the female characters as male leadership: rational, dualistic, and tending to prefer the testing of principles in confrontation. For this reason, Le Guin’s narrative voice grows ironic as Lev becomes “boss” of Shantih,...

(The entire section is 1515 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

The Atlantic. CCLI, February, 1983, p. 105.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 16, 1983, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. May 22, 1983, pp. 15.