The Wisdom of Opposites: a Review of The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

lohdcoverIn 1970, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness won the Hugo Award, the first book written by a woman to do so. LeGuin is my literary idol, and every few years I reread at least one her novels. I had last read Darkness as a teenager in the 1980s. I didn’t understand it then, and before the reread I couldn’t remember what happens except that it features a hermaphroditic race of humans. I also vaguely knew (or assumed) that Darkness inspired “The Outcast,” an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that aired in 1992 that features a similar nongendered species. So I began my reread as if I’d never looked at anything more detailed than the Cliff’s Notes summaries that appear in every LeGuin biography. This time around, I found Darkness to be a compelling masterpiece that examines how binary opposites create unity within and between individuals and societies. It’s also a resonant read that, nearly 50 years after it was written, remains highly relevant today.

Darkness takes place on the planet Gethen, which is populated by people who exist in a nongendered state except during “kemmer,” a period lasting about a week out of each month, when they develop either male or female reproductive organs so they can mate. A Gethenian might be female during one kemmer and male in another, and any given individual might have sired some children and borne others. The novel’s primary protagonist, Genly Ai, a cis-gendered male visitor from Earth, observes that because all individuals can experience childbirth, everyone is sensitive to the risks and rigors of child bearing. Birth control and sexual promiscuity are well accepted in society, but life-long monogamy is equally common. Finally, because there are no permanent genders, there is no gendered division of labor.

Genly is an emissary of the Ekumen, a loose federation of planets that forms the backdrop of most of LeGuin’s science fiction novels, and his mission is to convince Gethen’s rulers to join the federation. Prior to Genly’s arrival, Gethenians thought themselves alone in the universe, and because Terrans (aka, Earthlings) and Gethenians superficially resemble each other, many Gethenians think Genly is a fraud. Others believe in Genly’s off-world origin but view the Ekumenical invitation as a threat rather than an opportunity. One exception is Therem, the prime minister of the nation of Karhide and the novel’s secondary protagonist. Therem’s support for Genly’s mission turns the political winds against him, and he flees under threat of death to Orgoreyn, a rival country. Meanwhile, Karhide’s ruler rebuffs Genly’s proposed alliance with the Ekumen. Believing this diplomatic failure is the result of Therem’s machinations, Genly travels to Orgoreyn to try his luck there. At first, he is warmly received but then imprisoned. Therem undertakes a daring rescue, and the pair escape back to Karhide, traveling across a vast frozen wasteland on foot. Along the way, Genly learns to trust Therem, and the two develop a strong bond of friendship and love.

Like all LeGuin’s fiction, Left Hand of Darkness is beautifully written and offers a deeply sympathetic portrait of its protagonists. The plot is a slow burn, and the story didn’t really grab me until I was about a quarter of the way in. The storytelling, however, is brilliant, and the theme of duality is explored on every level. The backdrop involves a pair of rival nations with diametrically opposed systems of government: Karhide is a monarchy with titled nobility (Therem goes by the title “Estraven” and is a sort of baron), and Orgoreyn is an authoritarian collective. Karhide’s monarch and nobility make all public policy decisions, while the common people live beneath them in a free-wheeling society. In contrast, Orgoreyn was founded upon egalitarian ideals, but a vast bureaucracy and secret police keep iron control over people’s day-to-day lives. The landscape is a portrait of opposites as well. Gethen is in the midst of an ice age, and there is a constant opposition of cold and warmth in the novel. In their flight from Orgoreyn, Genly and Therem pass through an area of heavy volcanic activity at the edge of a glacier, where the clash between ice and fire almost derails their escape.

The opposing narratives of Genly and Therem form the core of the story. Each tells his tale in first person, although Therem’s narrative consists of diary entries while Genly’s story is a traditional, first-person point of view, as if he were recounting it later (in other words, there’s an opposition between written and oral forms of storytelling). Genly is young, peaceable, and guileless, but also arrogant, impatient, and physically larger and stronger than the Gethenians. Therem is middle aged and wily, but also wise, disciplined, and graceful. During the pair’s long journey across a continent-wide glacier, Therem enters a sexual cycle and manifests as female, highlighting his status as Genly’s “opposite” as well as his partner.

Some critics have faulted LeGuin for presenting a binary view of human sexuality rather than a broader framework that leaves room for trans individuals. However, Therem’s manifestation of female traits is integral to the book’s theme and Genly’s character growth. Genly is a courageous and sympathetic protagonist, but he is also a misogynist who dislikes working with women and believes they are conniving and weak, and who expresses fear about seeing and acknowledging “female” traits in the Gethenians. LeGuin consistently uses male pronouns (he, him, his) and referents (e.g., all offspring are “sons”), solidifying Genly’s worldview, where males represent the norm and females the “other.” As a reader, I found the book’s misogyny shocking and off-putting, but after thinking about it, I realized that the viewpoint is not LeGuin’s, but Genly’s. In fact, the novel turns on Genly’s misogyny. It is the reason his mission initially fails, and overcoming it will be the key to his success.

As a writer, I’m in awe of LeGuin’s technical mastery in how she worked the binary theme into every layer of the novel. The lynchpin comes when overcast skies and a smooth glacial plain create an area of diffuse light without shadows. Traveling through this white void, Genly struggles against despair caused by an inability to gauge progress without a reference point. In response, Therem quotes a Gethenian poem:

Light is the left hand of darkness

And darkness the right hand of light

Two are one, life and death, lying

Together like lovers in kemmer

Like hands joined together

Like the end and the way

Through the journey, as Genly learns to trust, like, and (platonically) love Therem, he not only overcomes his fear and dislike of the “female,” but recognizes how male and female represent two equally necessary halves of a whole. The coin has two sides, and doesn’t exist without both. His worldview expands, and as a result he becomes a better person and diplomat when he resumes his mission for the Ekumen in Karhide.

I reread Left Hand of Darkness in September and October, but didn’t feel an urgency to review it until after the US election. For the past week, I’ve been sad, fearful, and furious, and searching for some way to channel my feelings into something positive. Writing this, I am struck by the message that opposition creates unity, and that to move forward, we have to listen and learn from those not like us. We also have to look for the shadows, because it will be the darkness that will guide us forward.