Analysis of ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

This Resource is for Year 11 English students studying in the Victorian VCE Curriculum.

Did you Love The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin or Hate it?

Science Fiction as a Genre is sometimes defined as being an analytical and foretelling narrative at which a type of prediction is made.  Quite often Science Fiction is so bizarre that you read it and become so confused you put it down and never pick it up again.

For those students who have read The Left Hand of Darkness did you get the story the first time?  Or did it take you repeated readings to understand it?  Once you read the novel a couple of times so many layers become obvious that you can understand why Le Guin won many prestigious literary awards for her writing.

I must admit the first time I started to read The Left Hand of Darkness I had to ‘get my head around’ the structure of the narrative, the names of the characters, the countries, the Hainnish calendar and Ursula K. Le Guin’s terminology for her fictional Hainnish Universe all set in the year 4870.  While The Left Hand of Darkness is definitely part of the Science Fiction Genre, the narrative does also cover other Genres such as Fantasy, Mythology, Legend, Folklore and Feminism.

This Analysis Uses Shortened Versions of the Names of Characters

In this analysis of The Left Hand of Darkness, I have used a shortened version of the names of the two main characters rather than use their much longer versions that Le Guin has in the novel.  So Therem Harth rem ir Estraven is just ‘Estraven’ and Genly Ai is just ‘Genly’.  All my page number references are for the 1992 Orbit Edition of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (as pictured above).

Le Guin’s Purpose of Meaning

Le Guin’s purpose in this novel was not, in her own words, “[to predict] that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or [to announce] that… we damned well ought to be androgynous.”  Rather, she is observing that, in some ways, “we already are.”  Le Guin’s purpose is not to convince us to move in a certain direction towards the future; rather, she is enabling us to examine ourselves from a different perspective and embrace alternate forms of identity and reality.

Two Halves of the Whole – Yin and Yang

Once I began to understand that The Left Hand of Darkness is not simply a science fiction novel; I could see how Le Guin’s described the novel in her own words as ‘a thought-experiment’.  It forces us to examine ourselves and the nature of our existence.  It provides a deep, scholarly, metaphorical analysis on gender, patriotism, and the concept of opposites.

The more I delved into the story I began to appreciate the characters of Genly and Estraven and how Le Guin developed the concept of “self and other”.  Then I discovered the clever contrasts Le Guin explored of the binaries and the juxtapositions that exist on almost every level of the novel.

What fascinated me the most was the Daoist philosophy of yin and yang, opposites and reversals, which is shaped so beautifully by Le Guin.  In true Daoist fashion, The Left Hand of Darkness not only highlights opposites for the sake of contrast, but stresses the necessity of accepting both extremes to realise the whole.  The entire story is one of integration, on the personal, international and cosmic level, from existing divisions towards reconciliation and balance.

Le Guin asks us to question the very nature of binaries [dualism] themselves as Estraven said in the lines of the Handdara to Genly (p.190):

Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light
Two are one, life and death
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

The Bond between Genly and Estraven

The central bond between Genly and Estraven is explored by Le Guin with immense subtlety.  Le Guin cleverly describes the changes in a relationship that almost founders on misapprehensions and mistakes.  Estraven is Genly’s surest and most selfless ally, and yet is the person Genly most distrusts.  In his innocence and ignorance it seems that Genly will not survive the power struggles of which he has become the living symbol.

As Genly comes to accept Estraven as he is, he becomes less absorbed, more aware of his actions on his companion and in the end a wiser and more appreciative person.  Genly’s companionship (is it really love?) with Estraven profoundly changes him and how he perceives the alien world that is now his home.  Genly’s growth highlights the notion that one’s own wholeness of being can arise from a relationship in which both parties strive to accept one another.  Estraven admits to Genly that they were “… equals at last, equal, alien, alone” on the Gobrin Ice (p.189).

However, in a heart-breaking reversal of expectation it is Estraven who finally pays the price in chapter 19 ‘The Homecoming’.

The Inhospitable Landscape of Gethen

What I did love was Le Guin’s wonderful creation of the inhospitable landscape of Gethen. The journey that Estraven and Genly make together on foot across the Gobrin Ice is described in all its frozen spendour.  I was awestruck by the bleak beauty of this fictional planet and the prose and imagery of Le Guin as Estraven and Genly trekked through a “deep cold porridge of rain-sodden snow” (p.176), past a volcano with “worms of fire crawl down its black sides” (p.184).  Le Guin took not only Genly and Estraven on a bitter winter journey, but us as readers, as we too saw the raw fury of nature on display in Gethen.

What is the Significance of the Title?

The title comes from the Handdara religion recited in a poem by Estraven on page 190 (shown in detail above).  It refers to dualism and the importance of unity of opposites.

Le Guin’s Style of Writing

Le Guin’s writing style is descriptive with finer details of life on Gethen from architecture to weather patterns, diets to travelling habits.  The novel is a blend of nature writing with anthropology and an understanding of a people’s connection to that place.  Her treatment of Gethen as both a setting and a character infuses her world with vivid descriptions of landscape, character stories, adventures and traditional mythology.

Le Guin’s Narrative and Tone

Some stories are in 1st person narrative when Genly is reporting or from Estraven’s journal but when myths, legends or tales are told the narrative is in 3rd person omniscient.  The myths form a backdrop for the story and explain specific features about Gethenian culture as well as larger philosophical aspects of society.

Le Guin presents the novel as Genly’s field report to the Ekumen so his tone is exact.  As Genly develops understanding of the Gethenians he evolves with more awareness and he becomes descriptive.

Estraven’s chapters take on a journalistic tone since they are journal entries.  The mythological stories have a folk tale tone.

The narrative can also be seen as a Bildungsroman or coming of age story of Genly as his journey of transformation.

The Plot in a Nutshell

The plot consists of 3 major sections and a brief conclusion.  The first section is set in Karhide, the second in Orgoreyn, the third on the Gobrin Ice and the conclusion is set in Karhide.

In a nutshell it is the story of an icy snowbound planet called Gethen (Winter) where a solitary envoy from the Ekumen, Genly Ai is sent to try and persuade the inhabitants of Gethen to join a federation of nations for the purpose of expanding trade and an interplanetary alliance.  Gethen is an isolated and harsh world of ice and snow whose inhabitants are unique in their physiology as they are androgynous beings; neither male nor female.  Unfortunately Genly discovers two hostile nations, Karhide and Orgoreyn gearing up for war and his arrival feeds the rivalries between the two states.

In Karhide, King Argaven is reluctant to accept Genly’s diplomatic mission.  In Orgoreyn, Genly is seemingly accepted more easily by the political leaders, yet he is arrested, stripped of his clothes, drugged, and sent to a work camp.

Rescued by Estraven, the deposed Prime Minister of Karhide, Genly realizes that cultural differences, specifically shifgrethor, gender roles and Gethenian sexuality, had kept him from understanding their relationship previously.

During their 80-day journey across the frozen land of the Gobrin Ice to return to Karhide, Genly learns to understand and love Estraven and is able to fulfill his mission to join Karhide and Orgoreyn within the federation of the Ekumen.

 Major Themes/Issues/Ideas

Language / communication / storytelling / gender / politics/ religion / fear of difference & fear of change / the ‘other’ / acceptance / duty / man & the natural world / warfare / love / human relationships / dualism / yin & yang / unity / loyalty / betrayal / honour / ethnic differences /respecting differences / sexuality/ androgyny

 Symbols and Motifs

Shadows / light / darkness / the ansible [communication device] / religious teachings / keystone / yin & yang / shifgrethor [equality or honour]

Characters – Major

Genly Ai = the first Envoy of the Ekumen on Gethen.  He is the protagonist of the novel, a native of Terra (Earth).

Estraven, Therem Harth rem ir = is a Gethenian from the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land in the southern part of the Kardish continent.  He is Prime Minister of Karhide at the beginning of the novel.

Argaven, Harge XV = is the King of Karhide during the events of the novel.

Tibe, Pemmer Harge rem ir = is Argaven’s cousin and later becomes Prime Minister of Karhide when Estraven is exiled.

Obsle, Yegey, Shusgis = are Commensals that rule Orgoreyn.

Faxe, The Weaver = is a Foreteller of Otherhord

Ashe = is Estraven’s former kemmering

Characters – Minor

Goss = helps Genly find his way to the Fastnesses

Mavriva = is a fur trader who helps Estraven

Thessicher = is a old friend of Estraven but later betrays him

Arek = is Estraven’s dead brother

Sorth = is Estraven’s son

Esvans = is Estraven’s father

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Genly and Estraven Characters from ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

This Resource is for Year 11 English students studying in the Victorian VCE Curriculum.

Image result for left hand of darkness imagesLook carefully at the similarities and differences between the two main characters Genly Ai and Therem Harth Rem Ir Estraven in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  The list of differences and similarities between the two characters is from my interpretation only and therefore could be added to by students who develop their own interpretation of Genly and Estraven.

For ease of writing I call Genly Ai (Genly) and Therem Harth Rem Ir Estraven (Estraven) in the notes below.

Estraven and Genly Ai

Genly Ai

Genly’s Differences from Estraven

  • Genly Ai is from Terra (Earth), almost 30 years old
  • 1st Envoy from the Ekumen to recruit the planet Gethen to the Ekumen to become part of a universal and mystical trade venture of planets
  • Different physical characteristics – tall, black skin, strong, less hair, large hands, not built for cold
  • Stereotypical male – heterosexual, sexually active all the time considered a ‘pervert’ by Gethenians
  • Has been in Karhide for 2 years in an attempt to gain favour with King Argaven and convince him and Karhide to join the Ekumen
  • Inability to trust and uncertainty factors influence his decisions & fear of the unknown
  • Gender fear of difference especially the feminine traits of Gethenians which he sees as negative traits
  • Non believer in androgynous Gethenians, can’t comprehend their reactions or faces that he sees as not human but like animals – cat, seal, an otter
  • Often is impatient, quick to despair and then to rejoice
  • Lacks insight to understand and seen as an alien in Gethen is not to be trusted
  • Has trouble communicating and understanding the intricate subtleties of ‘shifgrethor’
  • Unaware of other people’s motives especially Estraven
  • Does not have the qualities of the Handdara in regards to intuition or ‘nusuth’
  • Struggles with too much yang in order to create harmony at the beginning of the novel
  • Effectively in terms of dualism, Genly is the ‘right hand’ of Estraven (Le Guin stresses that each yang contains it’s yin, each yin contains it’s yang)

Genly’s Similarities with Estraven

  • Believes in the mission to persuade the inhabitants of Gethen to join the Ekumen for the purpose of expanding trade and interplanetary alliance
  • Even though Genly has been on Gethen for 2 years he does not give up trying to carry out his mission
  • This is similar to Estraven in his continued mission to join Gethen with the Ekumen as he believes in the benefits of uniting his planet with other worlds even if it means exile
  • Genly is loyal, honourable and idealistic like Estraven
  • They both have sacrificed a lot for their ambitions but see the big picture of helping humanity
  • Both are in exile, Genly from his planet and Estraven from his home of Estre
  • On the Gobrin Ice they both pull together for survival
  • On the Gobrin Ice Genly transforms and understands the significance of the yin and yang in Estraven and the importance of harmony as a whole person
  • Therefore Genly finally accepts Estraven as an androgynous person not as male/female but as one
  • The relationship of Genly with Estraven is described by Le Guin as ‘profound love’ and one that changes Genly

Therem Harth Rem Ir Estraven

Estraven’s Differences from Genly

  • Estraven is from the Domain of Estre in Kerm land, a southern end of Karhide on the planet Gethen (age not sure)
  • Prime Minister of Karhide at the start of the novel
  • Different physical characteristics – stocky, dark, with a layer of fat to protect against the cold, black eyes and sleek hair
  • He is an androgyne, neither male nor female but both, as are all Gethenians
  • Typical androgyne goes into kemmer
  • Had a son Sorve to his brother Arek and swore a ‘vow of faithfulness’ to Arek
  • He had a kemmering with Ashe and they had 2 sons
  • His personal life has been steeped in profound and tumultuous human emotions, involving love and death, which feed his soul
  • He is honest, quick minded, wise, versatile and adaptable, courageous, creative in responding to new situations, a shrewd politician, powerful, aggressive when needed & constantly pushing forward
  • He has a strength of character and diplomacy by preventing Karhide and Orgoreyn from going to war over the Sinnoth Valley dispute
  • Has highly trained skills of the Handdara which makes him respond intuitively doing no more or no less than what is required
  • His spiritualism is an important part of his character
  • He praises ‘darkness’ when it comes and it’s counterpart ‘light’
  • He is not moved by personal desire, interest or advantage and acts spontaneously in accordance with his true nature as the quality of the Handdara teaches
  • He uses his feminine intuition as a good quality and has perfected the balance of yin and yang in his harmonious actions which demonstrates that both male and female characteristics are necessary for survival
  • Effectively Estraven is the ‘left hand’ of Genly and without Estraven, Genly would not have been able to undertake his transformation of character that leads him to a deeper understanding of Gethenians and himself
  • Estraven is willing to sacrifice his life to achieve the success of the mission and the good of the whole world

Estraven’s Similarities with Genly

  • Believes in Genly’s mission to persuade the inhabitants of Gethen to join the Ekumen for the purpose of expanding trade and interplanetary alliance
  • Estraven continues his belief in the mission to join Gethen with the Ekumen as he believes in the benefits of uniting his planet with other worlds even if it means his exile
  • Both are in exile, Genly from his planet and Estraven from his home of Estre
  • Estraven is loyal, honourable and idealistic like Genly
  • They both have sacrificed a lot for their ambitions but see the big picture of helping humanity
  • On the Gobrin Ice they both pull together for survival
  • Accepts Genly as different, but it is the likeness, the wholeness that he understands and the importance of harmony
  • The relationship of Estraven with Genly is described by Le Guin as ‘profound love’ and one that embodies Genly’s physical as well as spiritual journey to greater self knowledge and understanding

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