Book review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Feminists have been reading, and re-reading, The Left Hand of Darkness for a long time. Ursula LeGuin herself has gone back to the book and its setting more than once, re-conceptualising its portrayal of gender as her feminism developed alongside and through her writing. Now, over four decades after it was first published in 1969, the text itself has become bound up with the history of its various interpretations.

What to say about a book on which so much has been written?

Perhaps I can begin by returning to my own first reading of The Left Hand of Darkness two years ago. Pushing away the image that had imprinted upon my mind’s eye – those two tiny figures, all alone upon the ice – I remember feeling smug and ready to criticise. The book had begun, in LeGuin’s own words, as a “thought-experiment”: she “eliminated gender, to find out what was left.”[i] Yet in insisting so strongly upon a people in whom the masculine and the feminine were blended, LeGuin had made the gender binary – and the very idea of masculine and feminine characteristics – stronger than ever. If there was a radical point to that experiment – that is, the deconstruction of gender, as opposed to its hypothetical elimination – then the experiment had failed.

But reading it now, I feel that the book is not so much about that experiment as it is about impossibilities. The impossibilities created by our insistence upon dualities; the impossibility of representation, by the self and of the other, and also the impossibility of contact between the two. It is about the violence done to the other’s subjecthood in ascribing them to one half of a duality, and the impossibility of exiting a worldview premised on dualities to see an other as they really are.

I do not want to spend too much time summing up the plot; it is sparse and far from fast-paced, but in a good way. A man, Genly Ai, comes as an envoy from Earth to the planet Gethen, seeking to persuade its rulers to join a coalition of eighty-three planets called the Ekumen. Gethen has an Earth-like atmosphere, but a semi-arctic climate, for which, on other worlds, it is known as ‘Winter’. But most of all it is a world set apart by the biology of its inhabitants, who are androgynous and sexually inactive except for an oestrus period each month known as kemmer. During kemmer, the Gethenians can take on the role of either male or female, in sex and also in reproduction. The rest of the time, Gethen is a society without sex.

The effect of the Gethenians’ ambisexuality, we are told, is multiple:

“Anyone can turn his hand to anything… The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be… ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be — psychologically or physically… Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.”

On Gethen, Genly is seen as a “pervert”, a “sexual freak” whose state of “permanent kemmer” and fixed maleness make him the subject of both suspicion and wonder. When he fails to convince the paranoid, capricious (and pregnant) king of Karhide to form an alliance with planets beyond his own, he decides to try his luck in the neighbouring nation of Orgoreyn, which has a very different government. Arrested and taken to a labour camp in the far north of Orgoreyn, he is rescued by Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who was once Genly’s patron at the court of Karhide. Together, the two of them undertake an incredible eighty-day journey back to Karhide across the Gobrin Glacier.

At first, for all the book’s far-flung setting, this sounds incredibly familiar. The male hero, by going on a physical journey through an unfamiliar and threatening landscape, undergoes a transformation. But for me, the most interesting part of the book is the extent to which that transformation does not, and can never, succeed, due to the effect of symbolically entrenched binaries and hierarchies on Genly’s ability to make connections with others.

When the story begins, Genly has been on Gethen for over a year. Yet he has by no means come to terms with being surrounded by people who, for three quarters of the time, have no sex at all. He insists on labeling the Gethenians he encounters as either “masculine” and “feminine”, despite himself acknowledging that this is a purely artificial game – and one that usually fails. When he asks his building superintendent, whose curvy figure and “prying, spying, ignoble, kindly” nature lends itself to the label “landlady”, if “he” has borne children, he is answered in the negative; the lady has borne none, but sired four.

But the way Genly plays the game also betrays his internalised misogyny. The characteristics he associates with femaleness – in the absence of females capable of serving him as sexual objects – are mostly negative. He admits to disliking and distrusting Estraven’s “femininity”, which he describes as “all charm and tact and lack of substance”. At any sign of shiftiness, spying, intrigue, playfulness – but also, later, softness and vulnerability — in a Gethenian, he categorises them as female (and therefore other to himself). His difficulty with Estraven, then, is one of intimacy. Knowing him better than anyone else in Karhide, he cannot truly call him either a man or a woman without knowing the insufficiency of either label. And yet as long as he is unable to perceive Estraven as “an integral man”, he is also unable to trust him.

To some extent, this changes out on the ice. Genly is forced to confront the violence that his insistence on a gender binary does to the non-conforming subjectivity of his companion. When Estraven goes into kemmer, Genly realises that all along he had been pretending not to see the female in him:

“Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality… I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship, to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.”

But to what extent does Genly — to whom even the women of his own world are “more alien” than the Gethenians — become capable of accepting that kind of “reality”? Reflecting on their journey, Genly later concludes that he and Estraven “had touched, in the only way [they] could touch.” Yet was it only the man (who was also a woman) that he reached out to?

One conversation between Genly and Estraven certainly suggests that it is not possible to transcend thinking in terms that divide and bisect the other, while remaining intelligible to oneself.

“You are isolated, and undivided,” Genly says to Estraven. “Perhaps you are obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.”

“We are dualists too,” Estraven replies. “Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”

“I and Thou…Yes, it does, after all, go even wider than sex…”

It is impossible for Genly to conceive of wholeness. But then, is it possible for anyone? Genly is unable to conceive of an other as a full person. He can only reach out and touch — the mindspeech between him and Estraven is certainly some kind of connection — but to represent that connection, or the being with whom that connection was made — that’s something else altogether. This connection remains depressingly untranslated, by the end of the book, into the ability to see the Gethenians for who they really are. Or, for that matter, to really see women.

“There are no women in it,” wrote Joanna Russ of The Left Hand of Darkness in 1972.

The absence of women is not only a result of LeGuin’s (later regretted) insistence upon using the masculine pronoun ‘he’ throughout the book. It is also exacerbated by the fact that although the book insists that the Gethenians are manwomen, we see almost nothing of their alleged femaleness (except for the associations made by Genly). We see nothing of childbearing, or child rearing. If no one on Gethen is quite so free as a male anywhere else, or as “tied down” as women elsewhere, we are shown only the freedom, and nothing of the being “tied down”.

The woman-shaped gap in The Left Hand of Darkness seems to be very much a consequence of LeGuin’s commitment, when the book was written, to a bourgeois individualist writing tradition – and to a science fiction that answered questions about what another world might look like only in relation to its male population. It was, after all, written at a time when a major category of science fiction comprised what Russ described as “intergalactic suburbia” – where the world building, however imaginative in relation to things like technology, left unquestioned the gendered division of labour, and replicated on faraway planets the core values of the American middle class.

To be fair, LeGuin’s “thought-experiment” does question the universality of some of these values. For instance, the book does not export laissez-faire capitalism to Gethen (though the precise nature of the economics of Karhide and Orgoreyn is left relatively vague). Gethen is also a planet that has never known war. Yet a comment by Genly makes it clear that the causal link between biological sex and the division of labour is one thing that will not be questioned:

“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 after all do all the childbearing, and so most of the child rearing…”

Genly’s assumption – that women’s biological role in reproduction should also be determinative of the division of labour in the raising of children – is a depressing outlook for what is supposed to be a league of (I repeat, eighty-three!) futuristic worlds. If Gethen is to be the odd one out, it is doubly to be expected that the allocation of responsibility for the raising of children – not to mention the structure of a family – will be a point of interest to an outsider (and certainly to the reader, looking in). There is no excuse for deeming that side of life too matter of course – too humble, too ordinary – to be the subject of a novel.

And yet, for all its shortcomings, The Left Hand of Darkness has a feminist following well beyond the usual readership of science fiction. Perhaps this is not so much because of what the book has to say about gender as it is about the questions that it leaves unanswered – and the questions it inspires.

Perhaps it is also because its shortcomings have been acknowledged by LeGuin herself, who admitted that the book had Estraven doing only “manly things” during his journey across the ice, and regretted locking the Gethenians into heterosexuality. After over 20 years of experience as a feminist, LeGuin admitted that in her early years as a writer, she did not yet “know how to write about women.” Certainly the story “Coming of Age in Karhide”, published nearly 30 years after The Left Hand of Darkness, focuses back on the family, gives an insight into Gethenian child rearing practices, and incorporates same-sex encounters into the story. And LeGuin’s later works – such as the other stories that make up The Birthday of the World (2002), and her latest installments in the Earthsea saga – also focus directly on the perspectives of women, without marginalising their experiences.

The Left Hand of Darkness thus becomes more than a thought-experiment. In being bound up with its many re-readings, it also becomes about the growth and development of LeGuin as a writer, and the journeys traced by her and other feminists in the context of science fiction. It becomes about the growth of the women who read and re-read it, who are inspired to take a new look at gender, and ask questions of their own.


[i] If you’re interested, check out LeGuin’s short essay ‘Is Gender Necessary’ (1976-87) in Ursula K LeGuin, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Place (1989).

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One Response to Book review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

  1. Pingback: The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin | SF Mistressworks

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