The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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.

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,...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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) and two principal religions (the Handdara and the Yomesh). The Left Hand of Darkness traces Ai’s adventures on this planet in the course of fulfilling his mission. He gradually convinces the Gethenians—in particular, Estraven—that his stories of other worlds are true. Equally important, he himself comes to understand Gethen.

The novel begins in Ehrenrang, Karhide’s capital, where Estraven has arranged Ai’s audience with the king. Ai does not trust Estraven, however, and he is scarcely surprised when Estraven tells him that he can no longer represent Ai’s interests to the king. The following morning, however, Estraven is gone, banished from Karhide on pain of...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Gethen/Winter. Planet similar to earth in size and having an atmosphere capable of supporting a humanoid but not human population. It exists in an unspecified galaxy and in a distant future. It is called Gethen by the people of Hain, an advanced and distant planet from which the protagonist comes, and is sometimes called Winter for reasons that quickly become obvious. The central figure is Genly Ai, a diplomat who represents an intergalactic political organization called the Ekumen; it is Ai’s task to live on Winter for as long as it takes to slowly and gently convince the Gethenians that they want, of their own free will, to join the Ekumen. This organization, a noncoercive political confederation of loosely linked planets, is often alluded to in the novel but is never directly encountered. It is Ursula K. Le Guin’s ideal political organization, and its purpose is to represent a potential alternative to the modern organization of competing nation-states.

Modern nationalism/patriotism is the subject against which the novel cleverly and entertainingly argues. Genly Ai’s mission is impeded by the two conditions that are the most significant features of the planet. First, Gethen is in the midst of an ice age: This means that every feature of the planet, from its flora and fauna to its various cultural rituals and religions to its machines and technology, is shaped by the fact that Gethen is at all times extremely cold....

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Left Hand of Darkness can be compared to other works of fantasy or science fiction that concentrate on gender. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s separatist feminist novel Herland (1915; 1979) imagines an entire society of women. Herland—whose architecture, economy, industry, and religion is described in considerable detail—is a land of peace, harmony, and creativity. So, at first, is the society of hermaphrodites that Theodore Sturgeon describes in his classic science-fiction novel Venus Plus X (1965); Sturgeon’s novel darkly suggests, however, that such utopias can only be attained by means of genetic engineering. Doris Lessing’s science-fiction novel The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980) suggests the difficulty and necessity of leaving behind separatist models of men’s and women’s “zones.”

Because science fiction facilitates imagining alternatives to contemporary society, many feminists choose this genre to express their ideas. Yet The Left Hand of Darkness—which won both Hugo and Nebula Awards for best science-fiction novel of 1969—stands out among other works, for both the originality of its conception and the care with which it is worked out. The novel was a “thought-experiment,” as Le Guin explains in her introduction, in which she tried to imagine a world without gender. Le Guin’s solution to this problem—making the Gethenians utterly androgynous and asexual,...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Gender roles were being redefined in 1969, when Left Hand of Darkness was published. At a 1968 protest against the Miss America Pageant, these women voiced their opposition to what they saw as a practice of objectifying women. Published by Gale Cengage

The Space Race
The year that The Left Hand of Darkness was published, 1969, was the year that the first human,...

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Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

The structure of this novel is a cluster of information from various sources. The main one, in terms of...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Left Hand of Darkness is a brilliant experiment in narrative structure. Although Genly Ai is the structuring consciousness of the...

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Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A sophisticated novel of ideas as well as a work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness deals with a number of human, social,...

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1969: The Woodstock Music festival took place on a farm outside of Bethel, New York, drawing between 300,000 and 500,000...

(The entire section is 390 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

In the novel, Genly Ai draws the "yin and yang" symbol for Estraven. Study the ancient Chinese Naturalist movement that developed the...

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Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A highly original work, The Left Hand of Darkness is not so much specifically indebted to any particular work as it is reflective of...

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Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

An audiocassette version of The Left Hand of Darkness, read by the author, was released by Warner Home Audio in 1985.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Three of Le Guin's novels that follow the same cycle as this one—Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, and City of...

(The entire section is 227 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

James W. Bittner, "A Survey of Le Guin Criticism," in Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Barrow, Craig, and Diana Barrow. “The Left Hand of Darkness: Feminism for Men.” Mosaic 20, no. 1 (Winter, 1987): 83-96. This insightful essay suggests that Le Guin’s feminist novel was specifically intended for male readers.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of chronologically ordered and previously published essays tracing the general critical reception of Le Guin’s work.

Bloom, Harold. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This useful collection contains nine previously published...

(The entire section is 564 words.)