Ursula K. Le Guin Le Guin, Ursula K. - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Ursula K. Le Guin 1929–-

(Full name Ursula Kroeber Le Guin) American novelist, short story and novella writer, poet, essayist, lecturer, author of children's books, editor, dramatist, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents criticism of Le Guin's short fiction from 1990 to 2000. See also Ursula Le Guinn Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 8, 13, 22.

A highly respected award-winning author of fantasy and science fiction, Le Guin is best known for her stories in which alternative societies serve as the backdrop for discussion about philosophic and social issues such as morality, individual identity, political ideology, and racial interaction. Perhaps unexpectedly, Le Guin's works seem to be shaped more by the social sciences than the physical sciences, as evidenced in her writing by the prominent inclusion of historical context, varied political and economic systems, diverse cultures, and psychological characteristics.

Biographical Information

Born in Berkeley, California, Le Guin grew up in a home where intellectual life was celebrated and famous scholars were regular visitors. Her father, Alfred Louis Kroeber, was an acclaimed anthropologist; her mother, Theodora, wrote Ishi in Two Worlds, the biography of a Native American who was a friend of the Kroeber family. Storytelling, reading, and a respect for diverse cultures informed life in the Kroeber household and were lasting influences on Le Guin. She wrote her first piece of fiction at age nine and submitted a story to Amazing Stories at age eleven. She studied French and Italian at Radcliffe College and earned a B.A. in Renaissance literature in 1951. She continued her literary studies at Columbia University, earning a master's degree in 1952. She was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1953 and sailed to Paris to begin a year of study in preparation for her doctoral dissertation. However, en route she met a fellow scholar, Charles Le Guin, whom she married in December 1953, at which point she ceased her own doctoral studies. From 1966 to 1968 Le Guin published her first four novels—Rocannon's World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966), and City of Illusions (1967), known as the Hainish trilogy, and A Wizard of Earthsea (1967), which received the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Le Guin's first literary prize. Le Guin published consistently into the twentieth-first century, receiving numerous honors and awards along the way. In 2004 Le Guin was given the Margaret A. Edwards Award by the American Library Association, honoring her lifetime contribution to young adult readers.

Major Works

Le Guin's short fiction often explores political concerns. For example, The Word for World Is Forest (1972) is by Le Guin's own admission an analogy for American military involvement in Vietnam; the novella depicts a heavily forested environment and the subjugation of native people by means of force. Some commentators have criticized Le Guin's work as overtly polemical, a charge commonly leveled at the novella The Eye of the Heron (1978), which details the response of pacifists to the threat posed by a violent group with whom they share their space colony. However, works such as Orsinian Tales (1976), which comprises stories set from 1150 through 1965 in an imagined Central European country, are judged subtle renderings of political climate: in a description of the efforts of one person to assist people past the border patrol, “A Week in the Country” intimates the slightly dystopian temper of the government. Some commentators note the psychological emphasis to Le Guin's work. “The Good Trip” is about a man whose wife suffers from insanity. He hallucinates a meaningful conversation with his wife and, after initially ascribing the visionary encounter to the effects of LSD, recognizes the experience as the result of his fervent, unwavering love for his wife. In Four Ways to Forgiveness (1996), the four stories in the collection are set on Yeowe, a planet that was once a colony. Le Guin explores the political, cultural, and psychological effects of slavery and liberation on the populace.

Le Guin's stories sometimes impart general philosophical observations. She has suggested that “The Masters” and “The Stars Below” can be interpreted as allegories in which the suppression of science represents the rejection of art and creativity. “Schrödinger's Cat” emphasizes the uncertainty inherent in life and dismisses the belief that science can be an alternative to or substitute for spiritual hope. Le Guin's fiction commonly presents encounters with the unfamiliar, a theme that critics assert is greatly molded by the anthropological work of her parents, who published several works about North American Indians and introduced their daughter to the culture and history of those people. “Mazes” depicts a scientist who attempts to test the intelligence of an alien yet comprehends neither the alien's behavior nor dietary needs, a misunderstanding that leads to starvation of the creature. “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” relates the mutual unease of an exploration team and the vast sentient vegetable organism inhabiting the planet that they are scouting; one explorer, however, comes to understand and appreciate the creature. By contrast, The Word for World Is Forest provides no optimistic resolution of confrontation between colonialists and the forest people whose planet they have commandeered. Another story, “Nine Lives,” describes the unlikely friendship that develops between a genetically engineered, constitutionally superior clone and a feeble human.

Critical Reception

For many years, Le Guin's work received scant critical attention largely because it could not be easily classified. Rather than considering her experimentation with genre a sign of versatility, critics saw the lack of a clearly defined genre as a barrier to assessing her work. Even the Earthsea series initially received little in the way of critical review—first, because it was fantasy, and second, because it was perceived as children's literature. Published during the women's movement of the 1970s, the series was criticized by some feminists for its male bias. In more recent times, her development as a feminist author has been a topic of critical discussion. Commentators have explored political, feminist, psychological, and sociocultural themes in Le Guin's short fiction, often asserting that her stories provide insight into contemporary political, social, and cultural concerns. Critics only belatedly acknowledged that Le Guin's books broke rich new ground in the world of science fiction literature, considerably deepening and broadening the definition of the genre. Today she is regarded as one of the most important science fiction writers in contemporary literature.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

The Word for World is Forest (novella) 1972

The New Atlantis (novella) 1975

The Wind's Twelve Quarters 1975

Orsinian Tales 1976

“The Water is Wide” (short story) 1976

The Eye of the Heron (novella) 1978

The Compass Rose 1982

*“The Visionary: The Life Story of Flicker of the Serpentine” (short story) 1984

Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (short stories and poetry) 1987

Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand 1991

The Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Science Fiction Stories 1994

Four Ways to Forgiveness 1996

Unlocking the Air and Other Stories 1996

Tales from Earthsea 2001

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories 2002

Changing Planes 2003

Planet of Exile (novel) 1966

Rocannon's World (novel) 1966

City of Illusions (novel) 1967

A Wizard of Earthsea (novel) 1967

The Left Hand of Darkness (novel) 1969

The Lathe of Heaven (novel) 1971

The Tombs of Atuan (novel) 1971

The Farthest Shore (novel)...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Jerre Collins (essay date fall 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Collins, Jerre. “Leaving Omelas: Questions of Faith and Understanding.” Studies in Short Fiction 27, no. 4 (fall 1990): 525-35.

[In the following essay, Collins discusses Le Guin's “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a piece of sociopolitical fiction, and asks why this and other such stories have not succeeded in transforming the American conscience.]

Ursula Le Guin's short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” subtitled “Variations on a theme by William James,” is a critique of American moral life.1 At least that is what Ms. Le Guin tells us in the introduction she added when the story was collected in The Wind's Twelve...

(The entire section is 4423 words.)

Marleen S. Barr (essay date spring 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Barr, Marleen. “Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand as a Pathway toward New Directions in Feminist Science Fiction: Or, Who's Afraid of Connecting Ursula Le Guin to Virginia Woolf?” Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, no. 60 (spring 1994): 58-67.

[In the following essay, Barr cites the apparent strategies for marketing Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand as “mainstream literature,” and asserts that the book “explores new directions for feminist science fiction which point the way toward ending the sharp distinction between denigrated feminist science fiction and exalted mainstream literature.”]

She was eating the...

(The entire section is 4543 words.)

Elyce Rae Helford (essay date autumn 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Helford, Elyce Rae. “Going ‘Native’: Le Guin, Misha, and the Politics of Speculative Literature.” Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, no. 71 (autumn 1997): 77-88.

[In the following essay, Helford examines Le Guin's “Buffalo Gals Won't You Come out Tonight,” finding it a “highly problematic cultural text, embedded in Anglo-Native American struggles over language, meaning, and culture; rich in the contradictions of the white, mainstream worldview through which it was written.”]

Imagine—white Canadians and Americans telling Native stories because their governments outlawed Native languages and lifeways, and...

(The entire section is 5958 words.)

Suzanne Elizabeth Reid (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Reid, Suzanne Elizabeth. “Connecting the Hainish Dance and Collective Power: The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Word for the World Is Forest, and The Dispossessed.” In Presenting Ursula K. Le Guin, pp. 49-66. New York: Twayne, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Reid outlines the plot and major themes of The Word for the World Is Forest and views the volume to be a collection of stories challenging the morality of American involvement in the Vietnam War.]

While exploring mythic questions in the Earthsea series, Ursula K. Le Guin was also considering the effects of various political and social formats on the Hainish world....

(The entire section is 1310 words.)

Suzanne Elizabeth Reid (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Reid, Suzanne Elizabeth. “Orsinia and Other Far Away Places: The Wind's Twelve Quarters, Orsinian Tales, The Eye of the Heron, Malafrena, Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, The Beginning Place, The Rose Compass, and Stories for Children.” In Presenting Ursula K. Le Guin, pp. 67-83. New York: Twayne, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Reid investigates Le Guin's political concerns as evinced in her short story collections with an eye to her political concerns.]

Although first renowned for her science fiction and fantasy writing, Le Guin also uses her academic background in European culture to explore the tensions between public and personal...

(The entire section is 2864 words.)

Heinz Tschachler (essay date fall 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Tschachler, Heinz. “‘How to Walk with My People’: Ursula K. Le Guin's Futuristic Frontier Mythology.” Western American Literature 33, no. 3 (fall 1998): 254-72.

[In the following essay, Tschachler regards the four novellas of Four Ways to Forgiveness as statements on the evolution in American literature toward reconsideration of American values and conditions.]

Toward the end of the third novella in Ursula K. Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995) conflict is resolved once the hero has learned “‘[h]ow to walk. … How to walk with [his] people’” (144). Who are those people? Are they simply the inhabitants of a science fiction...

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Karla Armbruster (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Armbruster, Karla. “‘Buffalo Gals Won't You Come out Tonight’: A Call for Boundary-Crossing in Ecofeminist Literary Criticism.” In Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Theory, Interpretation, Pedagogy, edited by Greta Gaard and Patrick D. Murphy, pp. 97-122. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Armbruster considers the state of ecofeminist literary criticism and offers a poststructuralist ecofeminist reading of Le Guin's “Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come out Tonight.”]

The developing field of ecofeminism has recently produced an impressive array of anthologies, special issues of journals, and articles devoted to exploring and...

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Deirdre Byrne (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Byrne, Deirdre. “Truth and Story: History in Ursula K. Le Guin's Short Fiction and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” In Future Females The Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, edited by Marleen S. Barr, pp. 237-46. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

[In the following essay, Byrne argues that Le Guin's “recent Science Fiction and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission Share important assumptions about truth, story, and how history is made.”]

Leon de Kock approaches history with particularly South African skepticism when he comments that the dialogue between events...

(The entire section is 4499 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Brown, Barbara. “Feminist Myth in Le Guin's ‘Sur.’” Mythlore 16, no. 4 (summer 1990): 56-9.

Considers feminist myth in Le Guin's “Sur.”

Le Guin, Ursula, and Jonathan White. “Coming Back from the Silence.” Whole Earth Review, no. 85 (spring 1995): 76-83.

Interview in which Le Guin discusses the reasons she is drawn to science fiction as a genre, how history interfaces with oral storytelling, and the reasons language is important.

Malmgren, Carl. “Meta-SF: The Examples of Dick, LeGuin, and Russ.” Extrapolation 43, no. 1 (spring 2002): 22-35.


(The entire section is 368 words.)