The Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Left Hand of Darkness Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

In form as well as content, Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel emphasizes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Ai’s mission asks the Gethenians to look beyond their personal interests, to join in solidarity with other lives and other worlds. Estraven is the only Gethenian capable of such large-mindedness, and even so, Ai initially thinks him disloyal or unpatriotic, because he does not care whether Karhide or Orgoreyn is the first to join the Ekumen. By the end of the novel, however, Ai understands the selflessness of Estraven’s motives. He tells Argaven XV that Estraven had served neither Karhide nor its king, but the same master that he himself served. When the king asks suspiciously whether that master is the Ekumen, Ai answers that it is humankind. Similarly, The Left Hand of Darkness asks readers to look beyond gender roles and sexual identities, and to focus instead on the common humanity that all people share.

The novel’s title emphasizes this theme. “Light is the left hand of darkness/ and darkness the right hand of light,” according to a poem of the Handdarata that Estraven recites to Ai as they cross the Gobrin Ice. The novel consistently acknowledges dualities such as light and dark, left and right, but emphasizes that they are complementary rather than opposed. Together, they make up something greater than either alone, as the poem’s ending suggests:

Two are one, life and death, lyingtogether like lovers in kemmer,like hands joined together,like the end and the way.

It is fitting that a sacred poem from an imaginary religion, which one character recites to another, should gloss the title of The Left Hand of Darkness. The novel is filled with embedded texts that add depth and verisimilitude to the story. Chapters that develop the plot alternate with others that feature Karhide folk tales, Handdarata or Yomeshta writings, Orgota creation myths, or the field notes of the first Ekumenical investigator on Gethen. Each interlude provides a mythic, religious, or anthropological context for an episode in the novel’s plot; it also generates suspense, since the reader is anxious to return to the main story line. Most important, these fragments of other writings serve as complements to the story of Ai and Estraven.

In chapter 6, Le Guin’s narrative strategy becomes more complicated. Up to this point, the chapters developing the main story line are narrated in the first person by Ai. Now they are narrated alternately by Ai and Estraven, as each describes his own adventures in Orgoreyn; later, the two take turns describing their shared adventures on the Gobrin Ice. The reader gradually understands that Ai, the novel’s frame narrator, believed that he could most accurately describe his experiences by including other voices and other texts in his report to the Ekumen. As he explains on the novel’s first page, “I’ll make my report as if I told a story. . . . The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone.” The novel’s narration thus reiterates the theme that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

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