Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1084
Growth and Development
In establishing the basic facts of life on Gethen, this novel raises the fundamental question of "nature" versus "nurture": which cultural traits are learned and passed on from generations, and which are direct results of one's immediate surroundings? Since the people on this planet have no gender distinctions, their society is less restrictive about where citizens can go and what jobs they can take; the phrase "The king is pregnant" may sound strange to Earth ears because the associations that go with the word "king" are not the same as those that go with "pregnancy," but nobody on Gethen is fazed by the announcement. What does startle them is that humans are capable of sexuality every day, instead of being on monthly cycles. The effects of having sexuality kept aside for certain occasions are, first, that when they are in their "kemmer" or their sexual cycle, they are overpowered by it, and that without its distraction throughout most days they are able to concentrate on wholeness and not differences. The spiritually enlightened Gethenians have developed the ability to band together and tell the future, although they see no real benefit in it; the advanced members of the Ekumen know how to reach out to the minds of others, a skill developed from the basic concept of differences. The other main factor influencing development on Winter is the fact that it is in an Ice Age. There are no birds, and so they have no model for air flight, and therefore no basis for space flight; much of their body energy goes toward producing heat, leaving them with somewhat underdeveloped muscles; and, as indicated by the Creation Myth in Chapter 17, in which a house made of the corpses of Edondurth's brothers provides warmth, they have learned all their lives to be more careful with resources than cultures are when waste is not a matter of life and death.
When asked by his Gethenian friend how women on Earth are different from men, Genly Ai responds, "It's extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones. Even where women participate equally with men in the society, they still do all of the child-bearing, and so most of the child-rearing...." After mulling over how little the differences are between men and women, yet how different their roles in society, he concludes, "In a sense, women are more alien to me than you are. With you I share one sex, anyhow...." One of the most discussed ideas in this novel is that it creates a race of people on Gethen who are not encumbered with having to live up to the expectations of gender identity, and so their characteristics develop in response to environment and situation. This makes it difficult for Genly Ai, raised on Earth, to be an effective envoy, because he has trouble determining what they are thinking. He is used to thinking of human identity as divided into two separate groups, to seeing people as either like him or unlike him, and this leads him to some bizarre and unfounded conclusions about his hosts. For example, he finds the lack of war in their history to be more of a fault than an achievement: "They lacked, it seemed, the capacity to mobilize. They behaved like animals, in that respect; or like women. They did not behave like men, or ants." His inability to see them for who they really are makes him disappointed early in the book, when Estraven is not as aggressive with the king on his behalf as he thinks he could be. Because they do develop sexual identities every twenty-six days, and pregnancy can fix a Gethenian into the maternal role during the time of carrying and nursing the child, it is not accurate to say that they are asexual: they are ambisexual. Rather than having no sexes, they have experience with both roles. Because of the limitations of the English language,...
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