Ursula Le Guin Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ursula Le Guin 1929-

(Full name Ursula Kroeber Le Guin) American novelist, short story writer, children's writer, poet, essayist, critic, dramatist, screenwriter, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Le Guin's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 13, 22, 45, and 71.

Acclaimed for her contributions to fantasy, science fiction, and children's literature, Le Guin is a highly respected author often credited with expanding the scope of the fantasy genre by combining conventional elements of science fiction with more traditional literary techniques. She is known for creating fictional worlds in works that express her conviction that humans must live in balance and harmony both with one another and with their environment. Central to all of Le Guin's writing is the importance of individual moral responsibility, played out by her characters as they face difficult choices and navigate conflicting demands that directly impact the state of balance—or imbalance—in their world. Le Guin's works are noted for their mythic creativity, elegant prose style, complex characterization, vibrant imagery, and for their feminist themes and concerns. Recipient of numerous literary awards, including multiple Nebula and Hugo awards, Le Guin is best known for her novels, including The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Dispossessed (1974), and her Earthsea cycle—A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972), and Tehanu (1990).

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. By 1959 the Le Guins settled in Portland, Oregon, where they still reside. 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, which received the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Le Guin's first literary prize. The bulk of her acclaimed fiction followed soon thereafter. Le Guin published consistently throughout the 1980s and 1990s, receiving numerous honors and awards along the way. In 1995 Le Guin was presented with a Life Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention.

Major Works

Le Guin's first three Earthsea books were originally directed toward a young adult audience; however, like the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and the Narnia books of C. S. Lewis, they have been accepted into the first rank of adult fantasy fiction. All are concerned with righting a world out of balance and show personal growth in the protagonist as a result of a journey taken and obstacles overcome. A Wizard of Earthsea introduces the young Ged, an apprentice wizard who uses his power unwisely and must confront the shadow side of himself in order to become a man. The Tombs of Atuan tells the coming-of-age story of a young girl named Tenar. She saves Ged's life after he ventures into an underground labyrinth. Together, they leave the labyrinth just as an earthquake destroys it. Tenar risks more than any other character in the trilogy, for though she knows she may die, she leaves the tombs in favor of the unknown. The Farthest Shore opens with Earthsea in crisis. An outlaw wizard eager to gain eternal life opens the door between life and death, creating an imbalance in Earthsea. Ged uses the last of his powers to shut the door, allowing Earthsea to return to equilibrium. The Earthsea books draw on thematic threads that run through all of Le Guin's work: archetypes common to all myths; Jungian contrast in both characters and language; and elements of Taoist philosophy. The final novel in the Earthsea group, Tehanu, appeared twenty years after The Farthest Shore. Tenar reappears in a role as caregiver to two characters: a young girl who has been horribly abused; and to an aging Ged, who has lost his powers. Tenar's strength leads Ged to understand himself as a human being rather than as a wizard and to find joy and usefulness in his life. The final Earthsea book is the result of Le Guin's own journey toward a realization of feminist values. Le Guin's work can be seen as representative of a generation of women who gradually transformed their thinking about themselves and their roles as women. Le Guin moves from being unable to imagine a future for a strong, independent woman like Tenar to finding a place for her in the fourth Earthsea novel. The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are both part of the Hainish cycle that began with Le Guin's first three novels. The Left Hand of Darkness received considerable critical attention because of its androgynous characters. Except for their mating season, during which they can adopt either male or female roles, the characters in the novel are genderless. Le Guin elaborated upon this thought-provoking theme in the 1976 essay, “Is Gender Necessary?,” which questions the social construction of gender and sexuality. The protagonist of The Dispossessed is the brilliant physicist Shevek, whose breakthrough work on the nature of time and space is repeatedly discounted. Central to the novel are the concepts of linearity and circularity, the essential joining of sequence with a circular whole. The novella The Word for World Is Forest (1972) significantly embodies Le Guin's opposition to the Vietnam War and emphasizes her concern for living in harmony with nature and with other societies. The Language of the Night (1979) provided a forum for Le Guin to write critical essays about both science fiction and fantasy. Le Guin has also written acclaimed books for children and young adults, including Leese Webster (1979), The Beginning Place (1980), Solomon Leviathan's 931st Trip around the World (1983), Catwings (1988), and Jane on Her Own (1999). Le Guin ventured into realistic fiction in Searoad (1987), a series of interrelated short stories set in a small, coastal Oregon town. Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989), a collection of literary essays, commencement speeches, reviews, and occasional pieces, presents Le Guin's insightful views on a range of topics, including sexual politics and science fiction writing. Le Guin returned to poetry with Sixty Odd (1999).

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. The Left Hand of Darkness provoked considerable comment among critics who felt that the theme of androgyny fell short because the Gethens all appear to be male rather than bisexual. Le Guin's primary concern, however, is that her characters are human and exhibit moral responsibility for their actions regardless of gender. Both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed were criticized for not adhering to the accepted, narrow definition of science fiction. 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.