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Ursula K. Le Guin’s exploration of binary thinking in society through The Left Hand of Darkness

Posted on:December 15, 2023 at 12:00 PM

Introduction

There are many individuals who like to frame arguments or ideas in all-or-nothing terms. Perhaps you’ve been told that cars are for boys and dolls are for girls, or that you should choose a college major depending on how much money you’ll make after graduation. A certain country has the moral high ground in a war over the other, there’s only one belief system that correctly explains the workings of the world. Though these propositions are presented to us as binary choices, one can deconstruct these premises with critical thinking and introspection about their own lived realities. Ursula K. Le Guin found herself in the midst of a paradigm shift in late 1960s America. As Second-wave Feminism, anti-establishment counterculture and New Age Spirituality spread through America, the status-quo that Americans had lived with started to be challenged and met with resistance. Whether in response to these movements or independently of them, Le Guin’s writing provides a thoughtful commentary on perceived societal binaries in gender, nationalism and spirituality. We see these themes show up in The Left Hand of Darkness, a work in which she ponders alternatives to binary thinking in an evolving sociocultural landscape.

Binary 1: Gender

In a 1976 essay entitled “Is Gender Necessary?”, Ursula K. Le Guin recounts that she envisioned for the Gethenians a society of androgynous human beings who only develop sexual organs once a month during their oestrus cycle. After delving further into the specifics of ‘kemmer’, she answers the question of why she invented this physiological function: “Because of our lifelong social conditioning, it is hard for us to see clearly what, besides purely physiological form and function, truly differentiates men and women.” Despite acknowledging that the book was written in the midst of the women’s movement, and despite considering herself a feminist, she didn’t want it to be considered a feminist book insofar as critics would overlook other themes of the story. By ‘eliminating gender to find out what was left’, Le Guin posits that one would be forced to consider a pure version of humanity, “the area that is shared by men and women alike”. This shows us that Le Guin wasn’t necessarily interested in advancing the women’s movement by advocating for female figures over male ones; rather, she wanted readers to explore the gray area of gender, to understand that one part of the binary isn’t necessarily greater than the other.

The character arc of Genly Ai, the protagonist of the story, shows us how Le Guin explores the journey of acceptance of the non-binary gender. Though Genly has already been on the world of Gethen for two years at the onset of the story, he recounts that “…my efforts took the form of self-consciously 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” (Chapter 1). Unable to reconcile this inequality, he expresses contempt for ‘womanly’ qualities, characterizing Estraven, the soon-to-be disgraced prime minister of the world, as “all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit,” qualities he found he “disliked and distrusted” (Chapter 1) However, while imprisoned in Orgoreyn, he witnesses the inhumanity of the anti-kemmer drugs used to keep prisoners at bay. “They were without shame and without desire, like the angels,” he reflects of his fellow inmates, “But it is not human to be without shame and without desire” (Chapter 13). From that moment on, Genly began to truly perceive Gethenians without preconceived biases that led to his initial fear: “Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of [Estraven] as he was” (Chapter 18). As such, Genly’s journey shows readers that by deconstructing the gender binary one is able to connect directly with a person’s humanity as opposed to doing so through a gendered lens.

Le Guin’s exploration of the non-binary comes in the midst of Second-wave feminism, which was a time at which equality was mainly being explored by linking gender to biological sex (Maulding, abstract). This seems to have thoroughly informed Le Guin’s thought process, as she describes her novel in terms of masculinity and femininity and still imagines sex as a binary act between a male and female. In the usage of pronouns for Gethenians, she defaults to “he” as a generic pronoun, having not conceptualized an alternative to use for non-binary individuals. At the same time, Le Guin entertains the idea of androgynous beings existing as the default in a society, which resonates much more with the trans movement and third-wave feminism. Le Guin’s conception of the Gethenian people straddles both these movements, challenging the reader to look beyond the established view of the gender binary.

Binary 2: Nationalism

Though interwoven with some of the other themes, Le Guin ponders the concept of nationalism in an androgynous society. Le Guin imagines Gethenian society as one that lacks war. Specifically, due to the communal structure of the ‘hearth’, a group of two to eight hundred Gethenians that serves as the common denominator of all societies in Gethen, and that arose due to ‘sexual necessity’ rather than ‘economic convenience’, the world lacks the rapid changes in population and centralization needed to stage great invasions on a global scale. In contrast to this, the Ekumen is a coalition of worlds that are actively expansionist and whose central worlds are, in Genly’s words to the commensals of Orgoreyn, “still recovering from a disastrous era a couple centuries ago” (Chapter 10). Genly often finds himself unable to relate to the Gethenians in a myriad of ways throughout the novel, not least because he’s often referred to as “the Pervert” due to his alien anatomy, but in that moment he finds himself at a loss of how to communicate that grave age “to a people who had no word for war” (Chapter 10).

However, the Gethenian world is in the process of changing during the span of the novel. The nation of Orgoreyn is ever-increasingly mobilizing, achieving “state capitalism and the centralization of power, authoritarian government, and a secret police.” On the other hand, the Karhide nation sticks to more of a “cellular pattern”: despite the presence of a king in the nation, authority isn’t enforced by ideals of patriotism or divine right but more by decentralized culture and ritual. Le Guin writes in her essay that “It has been the male who enforces order, who constructs power structures,” while the female “values order without constraint, rule by custom not by force.” Though the two principles exist in a state of balance on Gethen, Le Guin sets the story at a point in time where the balance is tipping away from the feminine towards the masculine, from the decentralized towards the organized.

In the initial stages of the book, we see that Genly seems to have a greater affinity for Orgoreyn than Karhide due to his distrust towards Karhide’s feminine-leaning society. He mocks the physical characteristics of the superintendent of the island he stays on, calling him his landlady, and dismisses the new prime minister’s efforts to press the country’s claims to a disputed region, believing that the Karhidish, unlike men or ants, lack the capacity to mobilize, like animals or women do (Chapter 5). Conversely, he finds Orgoreyn to be “an increasingly mobilizable society, a real nation-state,” thereby associating them with more masculine societal traits (Chapter 5). This dynamic is what motivates Genly, drawn to the familiarity of masculinity, to make the journey to Orgoreyn.

Le Guin’s exploration of Gethenian society in the book resonates with the counterculture and anti-war sentiments prevalent in the 1960s. As Orgoreyn adopts an increasingly authoritarian stance, it echoes the growing concerns about the rise of oppressive governments and the erosion of individual freedoms during that turbulent time. The contrast between Orgoreyn’s mobilization and Karhide’s decentralized cultural patterns and ‘shifgrethor’ reflects the broader dichotomy between the organized, masculine structures associated with war and the more decentralized, feminine values that resist such aggression. This invites readers to consider states that exist not to perpetuate their own national identity, but to navigate the delicate equilibrium between organization and anarchy.

Binary 3: Spirituality

The Left Hand of Darkness explores two major religions: Yomeshta, a monotheistic religion who worships a single, omnipotent man, and Handdara, a religion that studies the interactions between the light and the dark. Over the course of the novel, Le Guin’s descriptions about these religions help us understand how Gethenians explored binary thinking in spirituality, and what these religions said about the changing spiritual landscape in America.

We’re first introduced to the two religions as Genly talks to his ‘landlady’, a believer of the Yomeshta religion (Chapter 5). A notable characteristic about Yomeshta is that its deity, Meshe, is at the forefront of all thought in the religion. Unlike the standard form of numbering years on the planet, which adjusts all dates around the current year, the Yomeshta count years from the Birth of Meshe, which took place 2022 years ago. The Yomeshta believe that Meshe is all-seeing and represents a pure force of light that is untainted by darkness. Perhaps this is why the nation of Orgoreyn sponsors the religion, out of its desire to position itself as a force of righteousness that cannot be challenged.

By contrast, the Handdara religion is ten thousand years older, and is referred to as the Old Way, suggesting that it isn’t commonly practiced anymore. Being “a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows,” Genly is initially confused about their purpose. As he meets Faxe and the foretellers, however, it becomes clear that though they have the power to see the future, they believe that there are some questions that are not worth asking, details that do not need to be illuminated. The religion seems to have split from Handdara when Meshe was the only surviving foreteller when faced with the Question of Shoreth, which was “What is the meaning of life?” In a way, the divergence of these two religions around this question serves to inform the reader of their purposes: the Yomeshta religion serves to provide an answer for everything, whereas the Handdara religion basks in its ignorance and rule of non-interference.

Both these religions have ties to real-world religions: Yomeshta seems to resemble Judeo-Christian religions that center around a single entity as their source of truth, whereas the Handdara religion is more closely related to Taoism and its principles of inaction and simplicity. Le Guin has noted in an interview that she has a deep affinity to Taoism and Buddhism, stating that “Taoism gave me a handle on how to look at life and how to lead it when I was an adolescent hunting for ways to make sense of the world without going off into the God business.” She has also noted that she isn’t “a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it.” These anecdotes help us understand Le Guin’s motivations for writing about Taoism as religious communities across the United States shifted from being predominantly Judeo-Christian to embracing Eastern and New Age spirituality. Social and political events such as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and disillusionment of the 1960s counterculture led many to “turn away from the traditional Judeo-Christian model of religion and “the commercialized, competitive, power-hungry West” that it symbolized” (Hart). Le Guin’s positioning of the two religions reflects a time period where people were starting to turn away from the ‘absolute truth’ that Judeo-Christians preach in favor of a more holistic outlook on life.

Conclusion

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s exploration of binary thinking in society, particularly in the realms of gender, nationalism, and spirituality, she weaves together several ideas that challenge conventional dichotomies. Through the lens of The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin delves into the complexities of gender identity, illustrating how the rejection of a strict gender binary leads to a deeper understanding of shared humanity. In the context of nationalism, the novel reflects the counterculture movements of the 1960s, questioning the balance between organized authority and decentralized cultural values in the face of societal change. Le Guin’s exploration of spirituality, manifested through the Yomeshta and Handdara religions, provides a nuanced commentary on the evolving religious landscape in America during a time of shifting beliefs and a growing interest in Eastern philosophies. Ultimately, Le Guin invites readers to transcend binary thinking, encouraging a more nuanced and open-minded approach to the complexities of human existence.

Sources

Maulding, Sean (2019) “Pussy Hats and Anti-Trans Sentiments: When Second-Wave and Third-Wave Collide,” OSR Journal of Student Research: Vol. 5, Article 210.

Guin, U. K. (1992). Is Gender Real? Redux. In The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (pp. 155-172). HarperCollins.

Guin, U. K. (2019). The Left Hand of Darkness. Penguin.

Hart, A. (2015). Religious communities of 1960s America. Forum, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.15368/forum.2015v7n1.4

Le Guin, U. K. (2013). Ursula K. Le Guin, The Art of Fiction No. 221. Interview by The Paris Review. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6253/the-art-of-fiction-no-221-ursula-k-le-guin.