Light And Darkness In The Left Hand Of Darkness

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

On planet Earth, human interaction and relationships serve as foundations for a thriving humanity and community, as these connections define a human being’s purpose and meaning in life. Relationships are fostered by a mutual feeling of togetherness, or kinship, often through discovering similarities with others. On the contrary, having differences and opposing beliefs can lead to an unsuccessful relationship, or a seemingly impossible one to even attempt. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai is an anthropologist from Earth in the Ekumen, an interplanetary trade coalition with the purpose of developing communication and harmony across the universe through trade. Ai is sent to the planet Gethen as an Envoy on a mission to bring about an alliance with the planet, which he greatly struggles with due to the cultural and biological differences, for Gethen is an androgynous society where inhabitants are neither men nor women, but simply classified as a being. Ai already struggles to connect and communicate with humans on Earth, much less on an alien planet where Ai himself becomes the “alien” among the androgynous Gethenians. Despite the initial hardships, Ai eventually accomplishes his goal with the help of an unusual ally, the exiled prime minister of Karhide, — one of the main countries of Gethen — Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who says, “Duality is an essential… so long as there is myself and the other.” (252). Ai realizes this strange partnership as the key to reaching the goal of unity and takes on the mission with Estraven. Le Guin illustrates the recurring themes of dualism, one’s growth from alienation to kinship, and loyalty through the developing relationship between Ai and Estraven, which illuminates the importance of cooperation and overcoming differences to achieve the greater goal.

Just like the concept of light and darkness as opposing forces in the Gethenian Handdara religion, the friendship and collaboration between Ai and Estraven embody this central principle of dualism as they come together as opposites to achieve balance and harmony, despite their different backgrounds. Estraven shares a Handdara proverb with Ai: “Light is the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light. Two are one, life and death. Lying together… like hands joined together, like the end and the way” (252). Similar to this proverb, Ai, a human being and Estraven, an alien, act as opposing forces that interact with each other to create a balance and make harmony across the universe. Their unexpected collaboration and journey through dark, tough situations illuminate a gleam of hope in their friendship in achieving their shared goal, as Ai and Estraven learn to look beyond their discrepancies and contrasting characteristics. As the two trudge along through their exhausting journey, Estraven shares words of encouragement: “Fear’s very useful. Like darkness; like shadows… It’s queer that daylight’s not enough. We need the shadow, in order to walk…” (286); Ai agrees and responds: “It is yin and yang… Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow” (287). In dualism, a one-sided attempt is not sufficient to make things work since the effort of both sides, even as opposites, are needed for a successful balance. Ai needs Estraven’s companionship and efforts to accomplish his mission just as how Estraven would not survive without Ai’s strength and courage to endure the severe circumstances they are put in. Dualism does not strictly pertain to light and darkness but also to man and woman, oneself and the other, human and alien, as Ai and Estraven learn that opposites coexist to create a balance and proportion, which reveals their learned ability to conquer their obstacles and own differences.

Although Ai feels alienated while on Gethen at first, the kinship and trust he develops with Estraven allows Ai to surpass the differences that separate him from Gethenians and ultimately achieve the union of Gethen and the Ekumen. From the beginning of his stay on Gethen, Ai feels estranged and alone: “That’s him, look, there’s the Envoy. Of course that was part of my job, but it was a part that got harder not easier as time went on; more and more often I longed for anonymity, for sameness. I craved to be like everybody else.” (8). Not only is he biologically different in appearance, but he is culturally different as well, for Ai is a man, unlike the Gethenians who don’t adhere to one gender. Ai’s otherness makes it difficult to communicate or connect with Gethenians to further his mission and only ends up gaining Estraven’s trust and aid out of the entire Gethen nation. As Ai and Estraven go on their arduous mission of Gethen’s unification with the Ekumen, Estraven realizes that “[this] friendship [is] so much needed… But it was from the difference between [them], not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided [them]” (267). As both sides put their differences aside and come together as outsiders, Ai and Estraven form a friendship by empathizing with one another, the first step and the key in completing the mission and in uniting Gethen and the Ekumen. Through the harsh experiences of their journey, Ai and Estraven learn to collaborate and communicate with each other as they unite their own differences to create a bridge between their two worlds. By connecting with an individual on Gethen, Ai attains an understanding of the planet as a whole, making this single relationship the source of a universal alliance and union, which emphasizes the positive outcome of overcoming differences and ultimately coming together as one.

Throughout the novel, Ai and Estraven’s goals and duties remain unchanged even as their loyalties shift, as they put away the concern of serving the nation and turn their focus onto serving the Gethenians as a whole for the benefit of mankind. After his exile, Estraven makes clear of his intentions: “I was after what you’re after: the alliance of my world with your worlds… What does it matter which country awakens first, so long as we waken?” (213). Estraven was the prime minister of Karhide until exiled for attempting to resolve the Sinoth Valley land control dispute with Orgoreyn for the wellbeing of Gethen and its people as a whole, which shows Estraven’s heavier concern for the Gethenians rather than his own political status. Estraven’s loyalty to the Gethenians and not the king of Karhide supports Ai’s mission to further unite his people with the rest of the universe, which indicates his growing relationship with Ai as their goals start to come together as one. Even after Estraven’s death, Ai clarifies and makes sure of their intentions and reconfirms their loyalties: “[Estraven] loved his country very dearly, sir, but he did not serve it, or you. He served the master I serve… Mankind… My own survival doesn’t matter all that much, but I have and had then a duty towards Gethen and the Ekumen, a task to fulfill” (315). Although they come from completely different backgrounds, Ai and Estraven come to share the same duty of unifying the humanity of the universe through peaceful alliances instead of sticking to their own, separate sides. Ai and Estraven are willing to sacrifice their own lives and well-being for the greater good, for they need to finish the duty no matter what means, further depicting their loyalty to one another. Although Ai comes to Gethen with the sole purpose of bringing Gethen into the Ekumen, his loyalties, in the end, also extend to Estraven as they both are able to fulfill their duties through their friendship, revealing both Ai and Estraven’s growth in their leadership as well as their universal duties.

Le Guin weaves the three themes of dualism, connectedness, and loyalty together within the novel to present how the alliance between Ai and Estraven ultimately leads to a universal alliance. Although Ai struggles to connect his own culture with one that is completely alien and foreign to him at first, he is changed by the cultural diversity he is exposed to on Gethen and expands his new understanding and perspective of the universe. As the two opposites come together, both alien to each other, Ai and Estraven develop a strong connection through their differences, overcome their mutual otherness, and successfully fulfill their universal duty. The relationship between Ai and Estraven that forms through an unlikely interaction ultimately proves that any type of relationship is possible if both sides learn to overlook the endless dissimilarities that may come across, even between an alien and a human being.  

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