The Left Hand of Darkness
The Hurdles in the Journey of Love: Genly Ai’s Character Development
“Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand’s touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were no flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us” (229). Genly Ai doesn’t think that he will ever be friends with the alien named Estraven because Genly Ai has firm personal prejudices acquired from Earth. On his journey to Gethen, an unfamiliar planet, Genly Ai discovers that the Gethenians challenge his ways of thinking. In Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin describes Genly Ai’s journey to overcome the barriers of gender, fear, trust and communication that prevent him from forming a loving friendship with Estraven, a genuine Gethenian. Ultimately, Genly Ai finds that although interpersonal differences can be a barrier to a loving relationship, they are essential to it.
Genly Ai’s shock of the gender and sexuality differences prevents him from developing any relationships upon arriving on Gethen with a mission to form an alliance between Gethen and Ekumen, an organization of eighty-three worlds including Earth. All Gethenians are referred to as “he” and are mostly male until they enter a kemmer period when a feminine side emerges. During this time, a Gethenian can find a partner, and in order to reproduce, one of the partners randomly serves as the female and gives birth. The lack of clear gender lines disturbs Ai as he describes his thinking process of “seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own” (12). Genly Ai notices within himself the conflict between his personal gender categories and the Gethenian society’s notions of sexuality. This conflict torments him because he constantly focuses on gender differences. Similarly, Genly Ai explains later to Estraven that gender on Earth is, “‘the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life”’ (252-253). Stereotypes and prejudices accompany Genly Ai’s strong views of gender as well. Ai is “galled” by Estraven’s “patronizing” because he is “built more like a woman than a man” (235). Genly Ai’s annoyance derives from the challenge of his fundamental beliefs about gender when Estraven’s feminine gender contrasts with his masculine power over Genly Ai.
Genly Ai’s dependence on gender difference generates fear in him, which unknowingly hinders his relationship with Estraven. Genly Ai notices that he is “obsessed” by fear after speaking with Estraven, yet he cannot identify the source of the fear (22). During their conversation, Genly Ai observes a feminine side in Estraven and then suddenly notices that he is alone with this alien and feels suddenly fearful. In contrast, towards the end of Genly Ai’s and Estraven’s journey through the land of ice Genly Ai reacts to Estraven’s feminine appearance, “And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was” (266). Once Genly Ai accepts both sides of Estraven and stops trying to fit him into his own rigid gender categories, he appreciates the duality in Estraven and is not afraid of his homosexuality.
Genly Ai’s initial fear of Estraven leads to distrust that further hinders their relationship even though Estraven never fails to trust Genly Ai. In the first chapter, Genly Ai alleges, “I don’t trust Estraven” (7). Genly Ai’s unfounded distrust mirrors his fear of the Gethenian society as a whole. Furthermore, Genly Ai is not moved by Estraven’s comment, “‘I believe you’”, the first time any Gethenian trusted Genly Ai, an alien in Gethen. The gender difference doesn’t prevent Estraven from trusting Genly Ai, yet his trust is not reciprocated because Genly Ai too quickly and fearfully built a barrier. He reflects on his fear and trust after finally accepting Estraven, “I had been afraid to give it [personal loyalty]. I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man” (267). Genly Ai can reflect back and notice his unwillingness to trust a hermaphroditic person whom he was afraid of. Perhaps Ursula Le Guin portrays Genly Ai’s realization because she doesn’t want people in the 1970s to feel afraid of homosexuals and prejudge them because of their gender.
After Genly Ai eliminates his personal prejudices, communication becomes the missing link between Estraven and Genly Ai’s intimate relationship. Since they are from completely different planets, their languages are very different. Even though Genly Ai can communicate fairly well, he and Estraven cannot speak on the more intimate level required for love and friendship. In addition, they both have unique and subtle communicating practices. Shiftgrethor, from the Gethenian word of darkness, is a profound way of communicating that involves manipulating the other speaker, yet with honor. Ursula Le Guin purposely makes this concept confusing to the reader and therefore demonstrates Genly Ai’s difficulty in learning the communication technique. He feels frustrated when he tells Estraven, “I’ve made some mistake in shifgrethor. I’m sorry; I can’t learn. I’ve never even really understood the meaning of the word” (266). Genly Ai gives up trying to learn shiftgrethor and instead teaches Estraven mindspeech, or telepathy. Estraven is enthusiastic and says, “‘There’s so much I want to know’” (21). Estraven’s positive attitude changes however after he learns mindspeech because Genly Ai’s voice sounds very similar to Estraven’s dead brother whom he was very close with. The relationship between Genly Ai and Estraven become so intimate that they are like brothers.
Through Genly Ai’s relationship with Estraven, he discovers the necessities of forming a loving friendship. He realizes that his own prejudices were hindering his acceptance and were not just derived from the unfamiliar Gethenian society. Ursula Le Guin’s complex and invented planet symbolizes the different peoples existing on Earth. The differences between people should not hinder love, but encourage it. Genly Ai notices, “But it was from the difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that the love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us” (267). Forming a love bridge with someone very different creates an even more trusting relationship. If people love only people like themselves, then the relationship is based on self-love instead of fidelity, trust and acceptance.
Winter and Warmth in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness
In Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, protagonists Estraven and Genly Ai embark on a bleak journey across the Gobrin Glacier only to discover that they will fail without the balance of light and shadows. In response to Estraven falling into a crevasse neither character could see, Genly Ai draws a yin-yang sign and says to him, “light is the left hand of darkness…how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one” (Le Guin, 267). Although their journey depends on the combination of darkness and light in order to see on the ice, the novel makes use of each of the contradictions he mentions and their codependence on one another. The contradiction of coldness and warmth appears almost instantly since the planet Genly Ai visits, Gethen, is just steps away from being a frozen wasteland. However, the weather in Gethen and it’s opposing warmth between characters prove significant beyond the story’s setting. Indeed, there is much significance to the ideas of warmth and coolness to the plot beyond temperature and setting in The Left Hand of Darkness.
Warmth has a wide range of meanings in literature, and its meaning changes throughout The Left Hand of Darkness as the plot develops. When he arrives in Gethen, Genly Ai participates in a celebratory parade only to find himself uncomfortable and hot. Moments later, Genly Ai notices his instant distrust for Prime Minister Estraven, saying “I don’t trust Estraven, whose motives are forever obscure; I don’t like him; yet I feel and respond to his authority as surely as I do to the warmth of the sun” (Le Guin, 7). This situation causes the reader to associate heat with the discomfort of a character, which proves true throughout the rest of the novel. However, for Genly Ai, this discomfort becomes a symbol of the value of certain relationships. For instance, throughout their journey, Estraven prepares to go into kemmer, the state of sexual readiness or being “in heat.” Just prior to Estraven mentioning this, Genly Ai repeatedly mentions the “heart of warmth” that surrounds them when they are together (241). He also discusses how Estraven used the warmth of his hands and his breath to thaw Genly Ai’s frozen eye. Then, after warmth is mentioned several times, Estraven admits to Genly Ai that he has been avoiding him since he is in kemmer, and they agree it is best that they do not have sex. When Genly Ai explains that their love is based on difference and that having sex would only cause them to be alienated for their differences, he is reiterating the fact that the discomfort he would find in feeling Estraven’s intimate “warmth” is a sign of how much he values their relationship. The dualism of warmth and coolness deepens the relationships between characters and therefore the plot since it relies on the reader’s own digging. Although the reader must seek out warmth and its significance to the novel, iciness and viciousness are everywhere.
After their uncomfortable conversation by the fireplace and Genly Ai’s revelation that he has been cold since he arrived, Estraven asks Genly Ai what the Ekumen, a United Nations-type organization, calls Gethen, to which Genly Ai replies “Winter” (Le Guin, 20). At this point, the discomfort does not belong to the characters, but to the reader: the Genly Ai and the Gethenians are skeptical of each other, but Estraven’s revelation that he has fallen out of favor with the king and cannot help Genly Ai makes the reader fear what is in store for them. After this point, both Genly Ai and Estraven are dealing with a bitter government and the bitter cold. Although the warmest parts of their journey are uncomfortable, the coldest parts are the most uncomfortable; for instance, when Genly Ai is at the Kundershaden Prison, the prisoners huddle together to protect themselves not only from the cold, but also from the guards. While the uncomfortable heat proves to have a deeper meaning and to not be completely good or bad, coldness fails to do this––the cruel weather and the cruel government force Genly Ai and the Gethenians to seek warmth within each other, forging relationships.
This reading of the novel is similar to that of David Lake in his essay “Le Guin’s Twofold Vision: Contrary Image-Sets in The Left Hand of Darkness.” An early response to Le Guin’s novel, this essay focuses on the novel’s symbols of dualism, which Lake refers to as the “cold team” and the “warm team.” The cold team, which consists of qualities such as coldness, lightness, whiteness, and iciness, is known for “rationalism, certain knowledge, tyranny, isolation, betrayal, death” (Lake, 156). The warm team, meanwhile, consists of darkness, redness, earth, and blood, and is known for “intuition, ignorance, freedom, relationship, fidelity, life” (156). Lake argues that it is important to note that neither group is riddled with inherently positive or negative qualities, but instead, they are reflections of one another––however, there is little evidence to support any positivity associated with the cold. Lake takes this argument a step further, claiming that the city of Orgoreyn is portrayed as a member of the cold team and the city of Karhide a member of the warm team. At a glance, Orgoreyn seems much more friendly and welcoming than Karhide, but a closer examination reveals that the valuable discomfort in Karhide is merely masked by its rigid social structure and the cruelty in Orgoreyn is hidden by its false friendliness and claims of equality. The characters’ key qualities, such as discomfort in love, are revealed to the reader by being a part of the warm team or cool team, the dark team or light team, the awkward team or angry team, and the Karhide team or the Orgoreyn team.
Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a novel composed of contradictions, and it relies heavily on their symbolism and the reader’s interpretation. As the title suggests, the novel is set in a realm of light and ice, the opposite of darkness, but the characters’ struggle to move between the two spheres brings the setting to life. As Genly Ai tells Estraven, life is reliant on contradictions––no matter the value of either side. Although warmth proves more valuable at certain times, the characters prove that they cannot survive without the balance of the two teams
Lake, David J. “Le Guin’s Twofold Vision: Contrary Image-Sets in ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ (Vision Contrastée Chez Le Guin: Les Oppositions d’Images Dans ‘La Main Gauche De La Nuit’).” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 1981, pp. 156–164.Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace, 1969. Print.