(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen, an ambassador sent to recruit the planet Gethen to join this assemblage of planets in peaceful intergalactic exchange. The Ekumen offers communication with many distant worlds throughout the known universe.

Gethen’s inhabitants are different from most human inhabitants of the known planets in that they do not have two separate sexes; each person is a hermaphrodite. The Gethenians regard Ai as the freak, a person perpetually male and perpetually ready to reproduce, while they have monthly reproductive cycles and hormonal systems that arbitrarily determine which sexual role each member of a pair will assume during the reproductive period.

Ai’s mission is complicated mainly by the fact that Gethen’s two main cultures are differentiating. Ai first negotiates with the king of Karhide, a culture that is feudal and tribal in its organization. Failing there, he travels to Orgoreyn, which is shifting into a nationalistic and authoritarian, bureaucratic state.

Ai’s success depends finally upon his relationship with Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide, who is persuaded of the value of Ai’s mission and risks “his” life and reputation to help Ai. Ai finds the process of understanding and dealing with a person who is both sexes at once disconcerting and complicated. Political intrigue and physical hardships bring the two into a deep friendship that...

(The entire section is 422 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Genly Ai, the Ekumen’s envoy to the planet Gethen/Winter, is dealt a setback in his mission to recruit Gethen to the Ekumen when Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, formerly Ai’s ally, withdraws support. Estraven has fallen from favor with Karhide’s King Argaven XV because his efforts to avoid a war between his country and the neighboring nation of Orgoreyn have caused the king to lose shifgrethor, a complex Karhidish version of honor. Estraven tries to explain to Ai that his new coolness toward the Ekumen is a ploy to keep his dishonor from infecting the Ekumen’s mission, but Ai, a stranger to the intricate subtleties of shifgrethor and still unused to Gethen’s politics, fails to see anything but betrayal in Estraven’s actions.

Ai’s alien nature haunts his mission. He is unused to the planet’s intense cold, its complex cultural codes, and, most of all, its unique form of human sexuality. Gethenians are ambisexual, uninterested four-fifths of the time, then intensely sexual during “kemmer,” when they might manifest as male for a kemmer or two, then female during the next cycle. Ai persists in trying to interpret Gethenians as men or women, even though intellectually he knows better. The Gethenians face a similar problem in that they view Ai’s persistent maleness as a perversion.

Ai meets with the king on the day Estraven is banished from the country. Argaven, although suspicious of the Ekumen and Ai, nevertheless gives the envoy freedom to travel throughout Karhide. Ai uses his freedom to explore, and he meets with the Handdara Foretellers, who practice a meditative religion based on unlearning what culture has taught them. For the price of two rubies, the Foretellers undertake to answer Ai’s question, Will Gethen join the Ekumen within five years? Their answer, after a harrowing ceremony, comes back as a single word—yes.

Ai applies for admission to the neighboring country of Orgoreyn, where Estraven has fled after his banishment. Estraven’s influence gains him swift entry, and Ai immediately notices differences between the nations: Karhide is feudal and anarchic; Orgoreyn is socialistic and totalitarian.

Ai’s first night in Orgoreyn is disrupted by raiders from Karhide, involved in the same Sinoth valley land dispute that has cost Estraven his position. Ai’s...

(The entire section is 961 words.)