The Plot

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

The Left Hand of Darkness is a report from representative Genly Ai to the Ekumen of Known Worlds, an organization of about eighty planets clearly analogous to the United Nations. Ai has been sent to enlist the two hostile countries of the planet Gethen, Karhide and Orgoreyn, to join the Ekumen. He needs a formal guarantee of welcome for his orbiting spaceship and the Ekumen representatives therein. This requirement is complicated for the ill-at-ease Ai by the dislike between Karhide and Orgoreyn, by their unsettled internal political states, and especially by the sexual ambiguity of the people of this world. They are hermaphroditic, combining both female and male sexual characteristics and playing one or the other sexual role at different points in their lives, depending on complex psychohormonal circumstances.

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The Gethenians’ competing governments are a challenge for Ai. His Terran reliance on sexual identity as a basis for forming relations of trust with another human offers no guidance on Gethen, only confusion and distrust. Estraven, the head minister to the king of Karhide, is banished, ending Ai’s hopes of a friendly reception. The Terran envoy feels little for the exiled ally on whom he had pinned his hopes. Seers known as “Foretellers” predict that Gethen will join the Ekumen within five years. Hopeful of a better reception elsewhere, Ai moves from the medieval-flavored monarchy of Karhide to the bureaucratic country of Orgoreyn, a seemingly orderly and thoroughly organized nation-state reminiscent of both ancient Egypt in its monolithic building style and the Soviet Union in its centralized systems and icebound prison camps for freethinkers.

Ai fails there as well, even though he has the support of Estraven, who has been granted an uncertain refugee status. Ai sides with the Open Trade Faction, a losing political movement, and is sent to a frozen labor camp similar to Soviet Siberia. Estraven rescues him, and both begin an arduous and hazardous trek across the Gobrin Ice that is the no-person’s land between the two countries. Estraven’s know-how and Gethenian cold-weather gear make for a successful crossing.

Finally, Ai can call in his spaceship, for the Orgoreyn leaders have trapped themselves in a lie by reporting Ai’s “accidental” death. Karhide’s king can gain an advantage on Orgoreyn by welcoming Ekumen. Lord Tibe of Karhide has Estraven killed because he had been exiled under sentence of death. Ai’s mission therefore is successful, but at the sacrifice of his new friend. The book ends with Ai meeting Estraven’s parent (Gethenians do not mate for life) and child, both androgynous, and telling them of his friendship with Estraven on the ice. The implication is that Ai has come to accept the humanity of people without clear gender.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 651

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of several novels describing the results of experiments carried out on other planets by beings from the planet Hain. On Gethen, the Hainish established a race of ambisexual humans. Gethenians are usually androgynous and asexual; once a month, however, they enter a state called “kemmer.” During this period sexuality predominates over everything else. In kemmer, Gethenians develop male or female characteristics, but their specific gender is completely arbitrary and may vary from one cycle to another.

The novel takes place thousands of years later, when Genly Ai comes to this ambisexual world as an envoy from the Ekumen. Gethen has evolved into a complex society, shaped not by gender differences but by the alternation of frigidity and sexual activity; it has also developed two national superpowers (Karhide, a monarchy, and Orgoreyn, a communist state)...

(The entire section contains 5334 words.)

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