The Problems of Androgyny

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1678

An Androgyne is a person possessing the traits of both sexes, a hermaphrodite—strictly speaking, a sexual aberrant. But on the planet Winter in Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, everyone is an androgyne, fully functioning as a male at certain times, a female at others, and favoring neither sex. This intriguing notion, so brilliantly conceived by the author, has elevated the Hugo-and Nebula-winning novel to classic status. Yet, androgyny is the element most often criticized in this landmark work, androgyny as it relates to plot and the choice of pronoun. The plot might have been made whole, although the pronoun problem remains, had Le Guin fleshed out a missing scene.

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World-famous science fiction writer and critic Stanislaw Lem, of Poland, and critic David Ketterer have both questioned whether androgyny in The Left Hand of Darkness is integral to the plot. Ketterer gives a plot summary without mentioning androgyny as a way to demonstrate this. Even Le Guin, in her earlier defense of the issue in the essay "Is Gender Necessary? Redux," claimed the most fundamental theme of the novel was betrayal and fidelity. Her whole purpose in using androgyny was to eradicate sexual tensions of male dominance and female compliance and describe how a world would evolve without them. On Winter (or Gethen), the country of Karhide contrasts with that of Orgoreyn religiously, politically, and culturally, despite their androgyny, but neither has experienced war, nor is there a word for it in their separate tongues. However, Le Guin, ever the dualist, undercuts this argument by suggesting war is coming and the only hope of stopping it is to join the Ekumen. Seemingly, not even androgyny can forestall the inevitable eruption of combat among supposedly intelligent beings. This would make androgyny a side issue and not integral to the plot.

The main issue of this novel is survival—political, cultural, physical, and psychological. Ai and Estraven have a plan to ensure Winter's peaceful survival which will favorably impact the cultures of Karhide and Orgoreyn instead of turning them against each other; Ai and Estraven have physically conquered the Gobrin Ice and resolved the psychological impediment to their friendship when Estraven dies. What remains is hope for the planet through the Ekumen, the memory of the deep friendship between a human and an androgyne, and a bright future in the person of Estraven's son who asks Ai to tell him stories of other worlds. So, Estraven could have been a man whom Ai was struggling to understand, and the ending would have been the same.

But Estraven isn't a man and yet his manliness lingers—which leads to the question of the pronoun. Why did Le Guin refer to the androgynes as "he"? Until the women's liberation movement in the 1960s, in a general statement where sex was not imperative, "he" represented "he" and "she." With consciousness raising, "he/she" and sometimes "she" began to replace the all-purpose "he." Although this came into vogue after Le Guin had written her novel in 1969, she missed an opportunity to impact English at its root. Despite her genius for inventing words, she chose not to "mangle" the language, as she says in her original version of "Is Gender Necessary? Redux." She later regretted this choice and experimented with "she" and even invented pronouns for a screenplay of The Left Hand of Darkness, but the novel remains unchanged.

Feminists have long criticized Le Guin for using "he" and exacerbating this issue by her focus on the stereotypical male roles of Estraven. As prime minister of Karhide exiled under pain of death, as an exploited factory worker in Orgoreyn, as a daring rescuer of Genly Ai from prison, and as an adventurer crossing the Gobrin Ice in a death-defying journey, Estraven evokes the...

(The entire section contains 5167 words.)

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