Ambiguous Utopias in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed
Societies attempt to create a world which is beneficial for all, in which all individuals are happy and content. A world like this, however, is hard to attain: People have various conceptions of how a perfect world operates, and how to achieve a society that makes every individual satisfied. This type of world is called a utopia, defined as an imaginary state in which everything is perfect. Contrarily, a dystopia is a world in which the society is unfavourable to all. In such a world, people are oppressed and controlled blindly. In Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, readers are introduced to two very different worlds: Anarres and Urras. Both worlds contradict each other greatly: Anarres is a world in which governed by no one in particular. Rather, it is an anarchist society in which everyone is considered an equal, without ruling or government. Urras is opposite: They are inhabited by people who seek power, wealth, and reputation. This makes it seem as if Anares is the utopian world, a place where people share and are liberated. However, this novel shows that is not the case. In fact, it shows that there can be no true utopia, because a utopian world depends on a person’s conception of a utopian world, and with human nature intact, it simply cannot exist. The setting in The Dispossessed come to show that dystopian/utopian fiction can, and does indeed, serve a didactic purpose: Namely, it shows that utopias are essentially conceptualized depending on a person’s views (and no one utopia truly exists), how viewpoints can affect government and political ideals, and how morality and social stability varies depending on the society.
The novel introduces the readers to the protagonist, Shevek, an Anarasti physicist. He inhabits a world in which government control is non-existent. People work together and hierarchy does not exist in their society. Meanwhile, Urras is a propertarian world, a place that Shevek’s ancestors have fled from in hopes of a better society. In this novel, the chapters alternate, with even numbers set on Anarres and odd chapters set on Urras. The only exception to this rule, however, is the very first and the final chapters. This structure of the novel help illustrate how very different the world of Anarres and Urras are, and how both worlds can essentially be seen as a utopia/dystopia, depending on the character and their perspective. This structure of the novel show that utopias are conceptualized by an individual’s mind, and that idea of a utopia simply depends on the person. Both planets are examined through alternating chapters, emphasizing the differences that exist in both worlds. Urras, the planet in which Shevek travels to in order to further his scientific research, is a rich world that supports multiple nations, and is considered a “propertarian” world in the eyes of Anarrestis. Meanwhile, Anarres is a planet that does not believe in governments, but rather, sharing and societal cooperation. In fact, people of Anarres do not even use possessive pronouns because their world is revolved around sharing, and no one thing truly belongs to anyone. These drastic differences are emphasized through the alternation of the chapters, while Shevek begins to discover more about the new world of Urras and draws comparisons with his home planet.
When Shevek reaches Urras, he immediately notices the differences between his home planet and the new one. For one, women are not viewed as equal counterparts as men. When asked about his opinion on women, Shevek explains, “Men maybe work faster – the big ones – but the women work longer. Often, I have wished I was tough as a woman” (17). Patriarchy exists in Urras, which seems to be an alien concept to Anarrestis such as Shevek. Moreover, people of Urras begin to tell Shevek what is his and what is not. On page 23, the escorts of Urras explain to him that the room of the hotel was “his,” a term that Shevek is not comfortable with. In the following chapter, set on Anarres, the readers begin to discover that nothing in that planet belongs to anyone. When Shevek says to a woman that the sun is his, the woman explains to him, “It is not yours. Nothing is yours. It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it” (27). These alternating chapters show the drastic differences between the two worlds, and how Shevek comes to discover that these differences are seen as positive or negative, depending on the person.
Approaching the end of the novel, when Shevek reaches the Terran Embassy in hopes to return to his home planet, Shevek states his final beliefs on what a utopian society is. He says to Keng:Because there is nothing, nothing on Urras an Anarresti need! We left with empty hands, a hundred and seventy years ago, and we were right. Because there is nothing here but States and their weapons, the rich and their lies, and the poor and their misery. You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is ‘superior’ to the other, or trying to prove it. There is no freedom… (346).
It is obvious from the above quote that the differences between the two worlds has led Shevek to believe that his society is the better, more perfect world due to the fact that his is revolved around sharing and equality, unlike Urras, which revolves around power constructs. He has grown up in a world where people were equal, and the foundation for everyone was the same. Because of the way he was raised, his way of life seemed the most perfect because that was normal for him. Life on Urras, however, was abnormal – he was so used to living in a different world, that he could never become accustomed to the life of an Urrasti. Meanwhile, Keng states the opposite:
Urras is the kindliest, most various, most beautiful of all the inhabited worlds. It is the world that comes as close as any could to Paradise. I know it is full of evils, greed waste. But it is also full of good, of beauty, vitality, achievement. It is alive…is that not true? (347). From this quote, one can see how these two opposing views are spoken of about the exact same planet, but from different viewpoints. Shevek and Keng hold opposing beliefs of what a true utopian planet is. Keng finds beauty in the power structure, in the world’s landscape, and in the people. Shevek only sees the greed, lies, and restrictions (laws and such). This shows that utopias are ultimately conceptualized by a person, and that a real utopia does not exist because each person has their own standards of what a utopian society is composed of. The alternating chapter structure of the novel emphasize these differences, and show how these differences can be seen in various ways depending on the individual. For example, Keng noticed these contrasts in a positive light, while Shevek viewed it negatively. While the Commander found women being seen equal as men in Anarres ridiculous, Shevek believed otherwise. A utopian society is ultimately decided by the perceiver.
On page 41, when teenage Tirin, Bedap, Shevek, and Kvetur are having a conversation over the Northsetting Regional Institute, Tirin points out that people of Urras think Anarres is the moon, while people of Anarres think the opposite. Bedap questions, “Where, then, is the truth?” (41). Tirin responds, “In the hill one happens to be sitting on” (41). Through this quote, one notices how the perceiver plays a huge role in deciding what something is or is not, such as what is considered the moon, or what is considered a utopian society.
The setting of a utopia/dystopia serves a didactic purpose in other ways. One of these lessons it serves is that utopian settings analyze the fact that human nature will always come into play when creating a utopian/dystopian society, making it virtually impossible to actualize a true utopia. In the planet of Anarres, Shevek lives in a voluntary society in which people volunteer for the jobs they wish to participate in. He believes that there are no power hierarchies, and that everyone is equal – until he discovers the truth. On page 165, Bedap, Shevek’s childhood friend, makes Shevek realize the truth about their so-called utopian society. Their society, which was not supposed to consist of power structures, does indeed have power structures, only hidden. When Shevek was doing his research, he was always under the control of Sabul, his fellow scientist. Bedap states:
We have no government, no laws, all right. But as far as I can see, ideas were never controlled on Urras…Sabul uses you where he can, and where he can’t, he prevents you from writing, teaching…That’s the power structure he’s part of. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind (165).
Through this passage, Shevek slowly becomes aware of the fact that there is, in fact, a government, and although it is not obvious, it exists. When the Anarresti tried to escape Urras due to suffering, which is physical and can be seen (starvation, for example), the people of Anarresti ironically suffer too, from what Bedap calls “spiritual suffering” (166). It is in human nature to always find ways to ruin what would seem to be a utopian society because human nature is naturally selfish and seek to gain. There will always be a natural tendency to excel, as Shevek did as a scientist, and things like that brew jealousy, such as that of Sabul. Human nature makes it impossible to attain a utopian society. This passage in the novel with Bedap and Shevek teach readers that there can be political and government ideals, but those ideals cannot always be achieved due to natural human tendencies. Although it may seem that no official government structure means no control or societal oppression, the truth of the matter is that control can still be rendered, even if secretly. Although in Anarres every person seems to be equal and anarcists, some people still lived better than others (like the researchers who had their own rooms) and ideas were still being controlled. It is a great political ideal to have, but it is impossible to follow through.
Likewise, in Urras, human nature causes their “utopian” world to crash down as well. Even though they have the wealth, the riches, the beautiful land, there is still a lot they lack in other areas. On top of greed, people do not treat each other equally and the world has become worse off because of it. Keng states, “My world is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. The air is grey, the sky is grey. We failed as a species…a social species” (348). From this quote, one can notice how Keng’s utopian world is not at all truly utopian. Human nature has caused their world to deteriorate from a seemingly perfect society, to one that is full of flaws – essentially, a dystopia. Ultimately, human nature makes it virtually impossible for utopias to exist, even if the government or political viewpoints of the society seem perfect or ideal. It is in the human nature to be selfish, and to want the best for oneself – this in itself is already a cause for destruction of an imagined utopia. These instances teaches the readers that a utopia can be sought, but will perpetually be out of reach. In the words of Bedap, “We forgot the will to dominance is as central in human beings as the impulse to mutual aid is, and has to be trained in each individual, in each new generation” (167-168).
Le Guin also attempts to demonstrate through the setting that people place a lot of effort in order to reach the truth or revolutionize, but morality and social stability will always simply depend on the society. During Shevek’s journey, he learns what it is like to be free. The people of Anarres seem to be free due to the lack of government control, and lack of rules or regulation. However, this proves to be false later on in the novel. Shevek and his people are not truly liberated, as Bedap points out, because their ideas are controlled and he cannot have a say when the other people do not believe what he believes in. The people of Urras are not free either because they are controlled by the upper class, or the upper class are essentially “controlled” by money. By using the setting of utopias/dystopias, one can see how no one is truly free in either society; in any society, no one will ever be truly free, no matter how hard one tries to attain liberation. This novel attempts to explore political ideals and freedom, but discovers that ultimately both cannot be achieved, at least not “perfect” political ideals nor perfect, full freedom. Urras believes that they have ultimately achieved freedom and that they are socially stable as opposed to Anarres. However, Shevek states towards the end of the novel, “You don’t understand what time is. You say the past is gone, the future is not real, there is no change, no hope. So there is nothing but the present, this Urras, the rich, real, stable present, the moment now. But it is not real, you know. It is not stable, not solid – nothing is. Things change” (349). Through this quote, he is stating that nothing stays the same. Everything is in a constant state of flux. This is an argument against Urras, a capitalist world that depends on money. He is stating that there is no real security in a capitalist society since things are always changing. Even though the people of Urras may feel safe within their blanket of capitalism, they will always be at risk – it is not exactly a utopia. On top of that, the morals and values differ between two worlds, making it ambigious as to what world is exactly the utopia (or if they are both, in fact, dystopias). On page 219, Shevek states that his world has morals, and that they attempt to moralize at all times. Without laws, they can choose between good and evil. Vea replies back that people are stuck inside their consciences, and that Anarrestis aren’t really free. After all, there are “Queen Teaea’s” inside of people telling people what to do (219). If there were a real queen/ruler, then at least people would be able to rebel against that leader, unlike the leader in one’s mind. Through Vea, Shevek learns about gender in the world of Urras, and how it differs from his own. He sees Vea as a “body profiteer,” offering her body as if a commodity (213). Women are viewed differently in Urras than from Anarres. The fact that Vea dresses a certain way shows how the society of Urras is shaped, one that sees women as a commodity and showing that Urras is indeed a planet that operates on patriarchal ideals. Ultimately, the morals and social stability is different in both planets, allowing Le Guin to demonstrate that people can have conflicting morals/social standards but still see their own world as the utopia and another as a dystopia.
In conclusion, it is important to note that The Dispossessed uses the utopian/dystopian setting to remind the readers that utopias are often ambiguous and may not even exist. In this novel, one can see how utopias are normally conceptualized depending on the person, and one person’s view of an utotpia may not be another’s view of a utopia, such as that of Shevek and Keng. While Shevek believed his planet to be the most ideal, Keng saw his planet as dead while hers was alive. Viewpoints can ultimately affect how a person sees an ‘ideal’ government or political stances, but this, too, is ambiguous. Hence, Le Guin used the setting of this novel to promote the didactic purpose of informing readers that utopias are not all that they are made out to seem. Ultimately, Shevek helps illustrate the point that utopias are very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, because varying individuals have conflicting views of what is ideal, as seen by the worlds of Anarres and Urras.
Le Guin, Ursula. The Dispossessed. New York: Harper and Row, 1974. 387. Print.
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