Ursula K. Le Guin has described The Left Hand of Darkness as a thought experiment, a place where she changed the world in her imagination, then observed how this change affected her understanding of human nature. The book was written in 1969, near the start of the late twentieth century women’s movement, when women were struggling with the issues of what is essential about their gender and what seemingly gender-driven behaviors are the results of cultural adaptation. The novel won two prestigious awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, both given for excellence in the genre of science fiction.
Drawing on her background in mythology and anthropology, Le Guin incorporates several different points of view in chapters that retell the mythical tales of the planet and other chapters written as scientific reports from the Ekumen’s first, anonymous corps of observers. All deal with the concepts of duality and unity, and seek to explain how the Gethenians’ unique sexual nature has influenced their civilization and worldview.
Some critics, including science-fiction writer Stanisaw Lem, have taken Le Guin to task for creating androgynous beings who seem more male than female. She has challenged these critics to show her a single action performed by a character in the novel that had to be performed by a specifically male or female character. At the same time, she has noted, the novel does not show many characters engaging in activities that have traditionally been regarded as feminine, such as child rearing. Le Guin has also lamented the lack of a genderless pronoun in the English language that would have allowed her to avoid calling the Gethenians “he” and “him.”
Without a male/female split to suggest an intrinsically dualistic worldview to the Gethenians, they have created a society that, in many ways, seeks to see all in one. Genly Ai at one moment muses, “Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.” Because this world is seen through Genly Ai’s eyes, readers can perceive how different it is from their own experience. Ai cannot shake his desire to see Gethenians as male or female, nor can he feel comfortable with someone who does not give him some sexual regard. He continually describes Estraven using feminine qualities as the basis for his dislike, calling the other “womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance.” This shifts during their flight across the Gobrin Ice, when Estraven enters kemmer. He asks Ai about women, bringing the envoy to realize that gender is “the heaviest single factor in one’s life” and that he knows nothing of a woman’s life, that women are, in fact, “more alien to me than you are.”
While Le Guin exposes disturbing trends in the ways culture shapes gendered behavior, she does not advocate life without duality. As Ai and Estraven realize, even in the absence of a second gender, humans will always face the gap between self and other. Le Guin insists, however, that humans seek the creative tension between opposites that comes when both sides of a duality are honored. She shows the importance of this as she compares the two religions of Gethen: the Handdara, which actively explores the dark unknowns of human existence, and the Yomeshta, which insists that light is the only truth. The Handdara religion has made Karhide anarchic and individualistic, but essentially human. The Yomeshta, worshiping Orgota, have created a socialistic bureaucracy in which the individual is completely subordinated to the public good. As a result, the Orgota commit acts of great barbarity without any thought of conscience.
The shadow as metaphor for other also...
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surfaces as Ai and Estraven labor across the Gobrin Ice. The weather changes to a white mist, and the shadows disappear, leading Ai to realize that without the shadows he cannot see the dangers that lie in his path: the crevasses, the rotten ice, the cracks. He draws the Daoist yin-yang symbol for Estraven, finally understanding in a deep way the need for duality in the world and the ability of one human being to contain both light and shadow, working in creative harmony.
Le Guin’s depiction of the world of Gethen in minute and realistic detail further adds to the thematic material of the novel. Winter is both a cruel reality of the planet and a mythological setting for the journey Gethenians make from an isolated and relatively static planet to a planet preparing to join an alliance of similarly human, yet largely alien, brethren. Genly Ai’s journey, beginning and ending in spring, takes both him and Gethen from a flowering abundance to near destruction and back, into a springtime of regeneration and re-creation.