The Problems of Androgyny

(Novels for Students)

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.

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 masculine ideal. He's a modern-day action figure, a latter-day James Bond, an early-twentieth-century Hemingway code hero. He's never seen with a child or tidying up a hearth. And if this isn't enough, the protagonist, Genly Ai, is another "he."

Although it seems "she" would be as...

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The Left Hand of Darkness: Androgyny, Future, Present, Past

(Novels for Students)

Much of the impact of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) results from the fact that the novel is an exploration of the concept of the dichotomous/androgynous one on three time levels: future, present, and past. First and most obviously, it is future directed, presenting a possible androgynous world on the planet Winter. Second, it is rooted in the present. As Le Guin affirms in her introduction to the Ace edition, the purpose of her science fiction is descriptive, not predictive: "I'm merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of the day ... we already are [androgynous]." Third, The Left Hand of Darkness is directed to the past. In her exploration of androgyny, Le Guin examines a subject whose origins are buried deep in our mythic past....

The very origins of the word, lying in our past, in ancient Greece suggest a beginning definition. Androgyny is a combination of andro meaning male and gyn meaning female. It suggests by its form a blending in which human characteristics of males and females are not rigidly assigned. One might simply assert then that the androgyne is the dichotomous one, incorporating male and female psychological duality in one physical entity. There are, though, more complex ideas currently associated with the word. Androgyny is an affirmation that humanity should reject all forms of sexual polarization, emerge from the prison of gender into a world in which individual behavior can and is freely chosen....

In practical terms, then, the theory of androgyny affirms that we should develop a mature sexuality in which an open system of all possible behavior is accepted, the temperament of the individual and the surrounding circumstances being the determining factors, rather than gender....

The preceding interpretation of androgyny in the present is certainly part of what concerns Le Guin. However, her presentation of the androgynous beings in The Left Hand of Darkness also encompasses the original archetypes. These archetypes express the underlying human conviction that man had once experienced a unity that is now denied by the basic division into male and female. Any review of the creation myths reveals an astounding number of androgynous situations.... Some of the more obvious examples are briefly referred to here. Consider that the Bible includes two versions of creation. In Genesis I, it is an androgynous God who creates both man and woman in his image. In the second version in Genesis, it is the hermaphroditic Adam who produces Eve from his side....

Similarly, this concept of the paradoxical, split yet unified, male and female principle is found in Chinese mythology. This traditional belief is embodied in the I Ching or Book of Changes dated sometime between 2000 to 1300 B.C. Here the supreme ultimate generates the primary forms, the Yin and the Yang. All nature then consists of a perpetual interplay between this primordial pair. They are Yang and Yin, heat and cold, fire and water, active and passive, masculine and feminine....

According to the perceptions of many writers, we are, indeed, male and female. This recognition of androgyny as our ideal is buried in our mythology, in our literature, in our subconscious, and in our cells. Ursula Le Guin draws upon this past tradition of the mythic and literary androgyne and her recognition of the androgynous behavior in our present society when she writes her future-based novel, The Left Hand of Darkness.

Le Guin is aware how difficult her readers will find acceptance of the androgynous principle. To make explicit the need for such a non-Western interpretation of experience, she first establishes the movement from duality to unity on all levels of Genly Ai's experience, then depicts his increasing sensitivity to the peripheral ambiguities of truth that contradict the central facts.

We begin with duality into unity in terms of imagery, setting, characters, action, and philosophy. Traditionally, the right side has been associated with light representing knowledge, rationality, and the male principle; the left with darkness, ignorance, and the female principle. In The Left Hand of Darkness the initial description of the setting immediately establishes this light/dark, left/right polarity. The novel opens with "Rain clouds over dark towers ... a dark storm-beaten city." Yet there is one vein of slowly winding gold. This is the parade. Genly, the protagonist, sees these as contrasts, separate facets of the scene. They are, though, part of one unified vision of the world of Winter.

The wider universe is depicted in terms of light and dark. The mad Argaven, King of Karhide, mentions that the stars are bright and blinding, providing a traditional account of the universe. Continuing the description, he expands it, insisting on the surrounding void, the terror and the darkness that counterpoint the rational light of the interplanetary alliance of the Ekumen that Genly symbolizes. The glacier, the heart of Winter, is so bright on the Gobrin Ice it almost blinds Genly and his travelling companion, Estraven, the proscribed first minister of Karhide. Yet it is dark and terrible when they are caught between Drumner and Dremegale, the volcanos, spewing out black smoke and ash.

The action in the novel is often described in terms of dualities. At Arikostor Fastness, Genly specifically mentions the thin strips of light that creep across the circle. They are the counterpoints of the slats of dimness. The weaver, Faxe, a man, is seen as a woman dressed in light in the center of darkness. The foretellers are a part of a bright spider web, light against dark.

Toward the conclusion of his journey, both Genly and the reader perceive the merging pattern of dualities on these levels of setting and action. Light and dark, left and right, and, by implication, male and female become whole. Estraven quotes Tormer's Lay to Genly:

Light is the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light. Two are one, life and death, lying together like lovers in kemmer, like hands joined together, like the end and the way.

Genly and Estraven yearn for the dark of the shadow when they are in the antarctic void of the white darkness. Without shadow, without dark, there is a surfeit of light. They cannot see ahead to avoid the threatening changes in the terrain. In total understanding, Genly draws for Estraven the Yang and the Yin, the light and the dark. "Both and one," he says; "A shadow on snow." Both are necessary. Ultimately, Genly recognizes their crossing of the ice is both success and failure: union with the Ekumen, death for Estraven. Both are necessary.

But light and dark, left and right are not the only polarities that are unified as preparatory patterns for the central sexual unification. There is political duality in the opposed states of Orgoreyn...

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Science Fiction as Conscience: John Brunner and Ursula K. Le Guin

(Novels for Students)

Ursula K. Le Guin works in a very different manner from John Brunner. Her fiction is closer to fantasy than naturalism, but it is just as grounded in ethical concerns as Brunner's work, despite its apparent distance from present actualities. Though some would argue that her political novel, The Dispossessed (1974), is her best work, and others might favor her ecological romance, The Word for World is Forest (1972, 1976), or her young people's fantasy, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), today's critical consensus is still that her best single work is The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

In The Left Hand of Darkness Le Guin moves far...

(The entire section is 614 words.)