The Left Hand of Darkness
The Undermining of Feminine Roles in Le Guin’s Genderless Novel
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, describes a utopian world in which there is an absence of gender. The novel takes place in Karhide, where winter is the nation’s only season and its inhabitants are Gethenian’s — androgynous beings. Although Le Guin sought to create a genderless world, she still created a completely masculinized text. The undermining of femininity was seen through her choice of using masculine pronouns, and in the conflicting masculine and feminine connotations attached to societal roles. Additionally, the only male, human character within the text assigns gender stereotypes to the asexual Gethenians based on their actions and behaviours. Science-fiction has been deemed a male dominated genre, and although Le Guin sought to avoid the aspect of gender in The Left Hand of Darkness, women and femininity are continuously marginalized, even in a novel in which gender does not exist.
Gender may be absent in Le Guin’s novel; however, sex and sexual ambiguity are still abundantly present. The Gethenians’ sexual nature corresponds with the female menstrual cycle and as well, the Gethenians’ ambisexuality was argued to have no adaptive value. The Gethenian sexual cycle lasts twenty-six to twenty-eight days, and for about twenty-one to twenty-two days, one is sexually latent and inactive. From then, one enters a masculinized stage called kemmer, in which one becomes sexually active and changes from female hormones to male hormones. Throughout the mating cycles, the Gethenians are further injected with male or female hormones. Wendy Gay Pearson, author of Postcolonialism, Gender, Sexuality/ies and the Legacy of ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’: Gwyneth Jone’s Aleutians Talk Back argues that Le Guin links the human women’s menstruation cycle experience to the experience of sex and gender in her novel (Pearson). There is a strong sense of sexual arousal and attraction throughout Le Guin’s text concerning the Gethenians, as well as through Genly Ai. Estraven develops a closeness with Genly Ai, as they flee Orgoreyn together and travel back to Karhide; they come to love one another, further developing a strong sexual tension. Although they travelled together across the ice in the severe cold for months on end, they manage to restrain from any sexual activity. Kathy Rudy, author of Ethics, Reproduction, Utopia: Gender and Childbearing in “Woman on the Edge of Time argues that if Genly Ai and Estraven were to have sex, as an alien and a human, this act would have the same effect of reifying gender, regardless of Estravens androgyny (Ruby).
The Gethenians view Genly Ai’s sexuality as perversion. Sexual perverts and abnormals are called halfdeads in Gethenian slang and are not acceptable within their society, as they are in Genly Ai’s modern human society. Gently Ai’s seeking to acclimate and understand the Gethenian’s sexuality and cycle leads him to set up a barrier between himself and the Gethenians. Moreover, Genly Ai experiences a short and abrupt state of erotic rage, rising perversion and sexual frustrations due to being a foreigner in an ambisexual world. When discussing females and their anatomy in their entirety, Genly Ai describes females to Estraven as being the same as Estraven and himself, but having larger breasts and looking like pregnant Gethenians. However, the Gethenians are able to possess both male and female sexual traits depending on the cycle. Fayad Mona, author of Aliens, Androgynes and Anthropology: Le Guin’s Critique of Representation in The Left Hand of Darkness argues that within the text Le Guin uses the relegation of gender to describe those who possess masculinity, and uses biological characteristics to describe those who possess femininity (Mona). Through Le Guin creating a world in which gender is deconstructed, it is important for reproduction to be available by all, rather than to just those who just possess an abundance of female growth hormones; we see in the text that Argaven, the King of Karhide, was able to become pregnant (Ruby). Yet Genly Ai expresses his understandings of the distinctions between paternal and maternal instincts, claiming that this distinction is “scarcely worth making,” for he believes that parental instinct is not a sex-linked characteristic, but is gender behavioural (106). With the absence of gender, Le Guin uses sex and sexual biology to examine and highlight the differing gender roles of masculinity and femininity. Le Guin undermines the roles of women and femininity in her text; however, she incorporates the same capability of biological functions for all Gethenians.
Although gender was absent and the Gethenians identify as asexual, Genly Ai, as a human, coped with living among the Gethenians by assigning gender according to ones actions and behaviours. Genly Ai identifies any Gethenian who is considered weak as feminine, especially in discussing Estraven and Argaven. As Genly Ai explains, “Was it in fact perhaps his soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him?” indicating his dislike of Estraven’s persona due to his feminine aspects, which he does not see as fit for his societal role (13). Genly Ai sees Estraven as both feminine and masculine, but it is the feminine aspects of his behaviour which he finds to be unsettling. Pearson argues that the notion of sex and gender can be viewed as an interrogation of our current sex and gender systems and of the implications of the relationships between men and women. The novel leads us to begin to think about how gender functions in our society and also about the implications of each sex (Pearson). Since Genly Ai was a human male, he understood the difference between common male and female behaviour, while his explanation of females regarding Estraven determined how he distinguished the Gethenians in Karhide:
Suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners — almost everything. Vocabulary. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food. Women … women tend to eat less … 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 (253).
Genly Ai adheres to a clear distinction between males and females and between the gender roles attached to each sex. In coming to Karhide, where gender did not exist but one could change depending on the cycle, and or inject different sex hormones, Genly Ai coped with his new situation by assigning gender to the Gethenians he came in contact with. In doing so, Genly Ai places a negative and feminine connotation on those who are weak or do not perform their jobs in a masculine manner. Le Guin’s novel may be initially seen as an attack on binaries; however, it has functioned more so as an attack on the damaging stereotypes separating males and females (Mona).
Due to the accepted gender stereotypes that Genly Ai has been accustomed to in human life, he associates certain roles with the more masculine and feminine characters in the novel. Genly Ai describes women and femininity to Estraven, who was ignorant of such constructs: “They don’t often seem to turn up mathematicians, or composers of music, or inventors, or abstract thinkers. But it isn’t that they are stupid. Physically they’re less muscular, but a little more durable than men. Psychologically” (253). Genly Ai uses his knowledge of the modern-day human male and female gender roles towards the Gethenians, making assumptions based on their roles in the Karhide society: “Argaven was less kingly, less manly, than he looked at a distance among his courtiers. His voice was thin and he held his fierce lunatic head at an angle of bizarre arrogance” (33). Genly Ai thus discusses Argaven’s role as King, hinting that he is an unfit King due to his pressing femininity overcoming his kingly duties. Genly Ai also harbors preconceptions about Estraven based on his social position as a profound politician, but he later rejects his preconceptions of him once he notices his feminine behaviour (Mona). The prominent social roles in Karhide were argued as imperative for one who exemplifies masculinity to take on. Genly Ai meets a foreteller named Faxe, who claims, “That’s a discipline that must arouse the interest of kings, politicians, men of business” (72). Ultimately, Genly Ai advocates gender bias and sexism in discussing the necessity of a man in certain social positions, claiming, “Even in a bisexual society the politician is very often something less than an integral man” (15). The Left Hand of Darkness seeks to lessen the oppression and exploitation of women by eliminating women and gender as a whole (Rudy). Nonetheless, even with the absence of gender, femininity is being undermined due to this doctrine that the challenging and audacious positions in Karhide (such as the responsibilities of politicians, businessmen, or Kings) need to be administered by those who possess masculinity and male gender roles. This notion is based on the premise that those who possess femininity and female gender roles are not qualified.
Le Guin creates a genderless world; however, in her novel she chooses to use sexist male pronouns in discussing all of the Gethenians. Everyone in the text was referred to as he, him, sir or brother — Le Guin had also only constituted a King of Karhide, rather than a Queen. In doing so, Le Guin has created a flawed work in terms of eliminating gender distinctions, as she rejects the option of creating a new language for the Gethenians to depart from sexist pronouns (Pennington). Pennington argues that Le Guin attempted to challenge the way in which we think about gender, yet her work is flawed because male and female readers are confined to their own perspectives of gender and will interpret the text accordingly. Le Guin explains, “I eliminated gender, to find out what was left. Whatever was left would be presumably, simply human. It would define the area that is shared by men and women alike” (Pennington). Pennington believes that this attempt at deconstructing gender has failed due to the sexist pronouns, on account of the still-present gender stereotypes and of the readers unconsciously interpreting the text based on sex. Additionally, as the reader seeks to deconstruct the gender differences in the text, the reader’s individual response comes to be an essential theme (Pennington). Genly Ai, as the only male human in the text, nonetheless recognizes his use of masculine pronouns towards the asexual Gethenians: “Wiping sweat from his dark forehead the man — man I must say, having said he and his the man answers” (5). Le Guin’s experiment in eliminating gender is ambitious, a departure from the norms of the traditional science-fiction novel. Yet The Left Hand of Darkness had missed the mark as the implication of gender was present through her style of writing, in the masculine pronouns and contrasting interpretations of the sex and gender of the Gethenians depending on the sex of the reader.
The Left Hand of Darkness allows us as readers to think differently about the implications of gender in its entirety. As a science-fiction novel, it allows us to comprehend the genre as a whole, and how in this male dominated genre, women have been marginalized as characters. Le Guin’s attempt at destructing gender and creating an asexual race of Gethenians, which were created as “heuristic devices” and a “thought experiment” had ultimately failed, as she continuously marginalizes females and femininity in her text (Pennington). The novel questions what it means to be human and non-human. Still, Le Guin’s take on being human in society was taken as being a white, masculine male, such as Genly Ai (Pearson). Genly Ai saw the Gethenians, such as Argaven and Estraven, as possessing female characteristics, since he presumed that they were weak and incapable of the masculine roles of being Kings and politicians. Femininity and the role of women has been undermined in a text which was supposed to be constructed as an androgynous document, making strength and masculinity deemed necessary in order to pertain to a role of high power among the Gethenians in the nation of Karhide. Gender may not have existed in Karhide, but sexism was still prevalent in the text as masculine and feminine behaviours are still presented, stereotyped, and given value to in terms of the roles in society. There is no clear distinction between male and female gender roles, as there is no gender assigned to the characters; however, femininity and female behaviours are given an adverse undertone which parallels more traditional science-fiction novels, which have been known to dismiss the role of women and to be dominated by men.
Fayad, Mona. “Aliens, Androgynes, and Anthropology: Le Guin’s Critique of Representation in the Left Hand of Darkness.” Mosaic : a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 30.3. ProQuest. (1997). Web.
Pearson, Wendy Gay. “Postcolonialism/s, Gender/s, Sexuality/ies and the Legacy of ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’: Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutians Talk Back.” Modern Humanities Research Association (2007). Web.
Pennington, John. “Exorcizing Gender: Resisting Readers in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness.” Extrapolation ProQuest. (2000). Web.
Rudy, Kathy. “Ethics, Reproduction, Utopia: Gender and Childbearing in “Woman on the Edge of Time” and ” The Left Hand of Darkness”” The Johns Hopkins University Press (1997). Web.
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.