Ursula K. Le Guin Short Fiction Analysis
As literary scholars and critics give more attention to fantasy and science fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin attracts a large share of their interest because she creates possible worlds that cast an informative light on perennial human problems, she explores gender issues that make her fiction popular among feminist readers, and she is precise and powerful in her use of language.
When Le Guin writes about her craft and her works, she often refers to Jungian psychology and Daoist philosophy as major components of her worldview. In her 1975 essay “The Child and the Shadow,” Le Guin uses Jungian psychology to support her contention that fantasy is “the language of the night,” an important means by which the collective unconscious speaks to the growing individual. In Le Guin’s understanding of Jungian thought, consciousness, the part of the self that can be expressed in everyday language, emerges from the unconscious as a child matures. The individual’s unconscious is shared in its essentials with all other humans and so is called the collective unconscious.
To become an adult, an individual must find ways of realizing the greatest potential of the unconscious. For Le Guin, these are summed up in the recognition by the individual that on unconscious levels, he or she is identical with all other humans. This recognition releases the irrational forces of social binding, such as compassion, love, creativity, and the sense of belonging to the human community. A major problem in achieving this recognition is learning to deal with “the shadow.” Choosing to be one person involves choosing not to be other persons that one could be. Both the positive and the negative choices must be maintained to sustain an identity; the negative choices become one’s shadow. The process of achieving adulthood is blocked by the shadow, an unconscious antiself with which one must deal in order to take possession of the rest of the unconscious.
For Le Guin, a child becomes an adult when he or she is able to cease projecting evil impulses onto others and to recognize that these impulses are part of the self. This process, she believes, is symbolically represented in the many fairy tales and fantasies in which an animal helps the protagonist to discover and attain his true identity. Such stories speak to the unconscious, telling the child by means of myth and symbol how to achieve wholeness of self.
Le Guin’s writings tend to equate Daoism, a Chinese philosophy expressed about two thousand years ago in the Dao De Jing, with Jungian psychology. This goal of wholeness, as expressed in the Circle of Life, or yin and yang symbol of Daoist philosophy, is a recurrent theme in her fiction. The Circle of Life is a diagram of the dynamic relationship between being and nonbeing in the universe. Le Guin celebrates the balancing of such oppositions.
This metaphysic leads to an ethic of passive activity. All acts in the world of being imply their opposites, the assertion of being activating the potential for nonbeing of the end one seeks. Acts of coercion aimed at controlling human behavior are especially prone to produce equal and opposite reactions. Therefore, Le Guin’s more successful characters do not try to influence people’s actions by direct persuasion or by force but rather by being models of the desired activity.
Le Guin’s science fiction differs from her fantasy and psychomyths in that the distinguishing feature of the story’s world is technology rather than magic. Her best science-fiction stories accept the unique technology as a given and center on fully realized characters coming to terms with the problems or implications of that technology. “The Eye Altering” recounts the struggle of colonists trying to adjust to a new planet that does not quite mesh with their metabolism, especially the difficulties they encounter when they discover that they are bearing children who, in fact, are better suited to this new planet than to Earth. In “The Diary of the Rose,” the psychoscope, a therapeutic tool, allows a form of mind reading. An apprentice analyst confronts the problem of how to treat a patient who seems perfectly sane but who is accused of political deviation. Several of Le Guin’s best science-fiction stories became the seeds of later novels or developed in relation to her novels. “Winter’s King” led to The Left Hand of Darkness. Written after The Dispossessed, “The Day Before the Revolution” is about the death of Odo, the woman who founded Odonianism, the anarchist philosophy of Anarres society in The Dispossessed. In “The New Atlantis,” Le Guin combines psychomyth and science fiction. While a future America sinks into the sea under the weight of political tyranny and ecological sin, a mythical new world awakens and rises from the sea. In each of these stories, the fates of fully realized characters are more central than the science-fiction settings and technology.
Though Le Guin’s stories nearly always contain multiple layers of meaning that repay rereading, they are usually also engaging and entertaining on first reading. She interests the reader in her characters or she sets up her problems in images and symbols that stimulate the imagination and lead to speculation. Many of her stories are also witty. Sometimes the wit is broad, as in “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” which tells of efforts to translate the writings of ants. Sometimes, her wit is more subtle, as in “Sur,” an account of the “real” first expedition to the South Pole, made by a group of women who kept their feat a secret to avoid embarrassing Roald Amundsen.
This brief account cannot deal with many of Le Guin’s themes. She...
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