Issues to Consider While Preparing to Discuss Ursula K. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness

Le Guin's novel, as you know from our in-class introduction and from the author's "Introduction" to the novel, puts considerable pressure on us to interpret individual characters' statements as well as the events that govern the action.  We can see from the novel's opening lines that Le Guin will stress the ambiguity that she identifies as central to the relationship of Truth and imagination.  In fact, the novel proceeds by presenting a series of oppositions that are never fully resolved, that always exist in a state of tension, and it is our responsibility to make judgments, select the "truths" that we choose to believe, to interpret the text.  Consider, for example, the novel's opening 10 words:

                                                                    "I'll make my report as if I told a story..." [emphasis is mine]

Here, the terms, "report" and "story" form an opposition, exist in tension, as do the terms "Truth" and "imagination" in the latter half of the opening sentence.  Which do we typically consider more reliable, more accurate?  Report or story?  Generally, we consider a report to be a factual presentation of what happened supported by evidence;  a story is generally considered to be an embellishment if not a fiction based on fact.  However, Genly Ai seems unable to capture the "truth" of his experience on Gethen in a fact-based report; instead, he feels that he must tell the "story" of his experience and that "story" will contain the essence, the "truth."  The novel opens, then, as an illustration of Le Guin's argument in her "Introduction": "The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words" [xvi]. Her point, her message, can only be presented to us "metaphorically."  The "Truth" of this novel, then, can only come to us indirectly, through metaphor and through an exploration of the oppositions presented to us--and to Ai--through the experience of the distinctly opposite cultures of Karhide and Orgoreyn. 

One of the ways to explore the novel is to map out the opposing terms that exist in tension throughout the novel as well as the contrasting features of Karhide and Orgoreyn and to consider how Ai's task is to some extent to bring these disparate terms and disparate cultures together.  Here are two charts. The first lists the broad interrelated terms that form some of the basic oppositions in the novel and the other the contrasting perspectives of Karhide and Orgoreyn.

Some Fundamental Oppositions Explored in the Novel

Story Report
Imagination Truth
Patriot Traitor
Religion Science
Ignorance Knowledge


Karhide vs. Orgoreyn





Image Darkness and Shadows Light and Openness
Speech/Communication Ambiguous, Reserved, Indirect Direct, Open, Friendly [But fundamentally dishonest?]
Government Monarchy led by an "insane" King; Chaotic hearth structure [Karhide is a "family quarrel"]; Local interests supersede national interests; No border guards. Ordered, highly bureaucratic structure; national interests supersede local interests; communal society; guards and checkpoints everywhere; a pass seems to be necessary for everything.
Clothing Elaborate, well-made, ornate designs. Simple, direct, lacks ornament
Religion Handdarata--Over 12,200years old, foretelling in darkness, no priests, elusive, no creed, no vows, no hierarchy; "ignorance" is knowledge; meditation rituals drawing on Dothe "strength out of darkness" and the "dark" sleep of Thangen; Faxe, the foreteller shines as a "woman dressed in light."  See 54-70. Yomesheta--2,200 year old religion; priests and prophets; have a written creed; measure time; light is privileged over darkness; the prophet, Meshe, was a weaver in a foretelling session that attempted to answer the question, "What is the meaning of life?"   All others in the session were driven mad, but Meshe became the prophet of the new religion and is revered in Orgota.
Shifgrethor In Karhide, to give advice to anyone is to offend that person's "shifgrethor," or status.  In this country, each person is to cast his/her own "shadow," which in the Karhide language is the root word from which the term, "shifgrethor," comes.  The King's insanity is tied to this concept, for no one has the status to advise the King and the King's chief advisor is called the King's Ear--that is, he listens to the King, but cannot directly give advice.  The grounding of this culture in shifgrethor relations results in the rather confusing indirect forms of communication and in Genly Ai's initial distrust of Estraven.  This concept is tied to the seriousness of vows in the culture and especially to vows of kemmering. The Orgota claim to waive shifgrethor constantly, creating the impression that theirs is a much more open and direct  society.  However, as the events unfold, we learn to distrust the surface openness of most Orgota and begin to realize that, in Karhider terms, the Orgota do not cast shadows.  That is, they have little self-respect or respect for others.  The "light" of Orgoreyn seems to conceal a pernicious and deceptive "darkness."

The items listed above show us two cultures on one planet who perceive reality and create political, spiritual, and personal values differently.  Is Le Guin, through these contrasts, trying to show us something about our own experience, our own pursuit of truth and knowledge?  When she adds two biologically different human species who cannot possibly fully conceptualize and understand each others sexuality, is she urging us to understand something basic about communication between gendered human beings in our reality? About the possibility of clear and full communication between any two individuals who have distinctly different life experiences?  Does one have to tell one's own complete story to be understood, or will the simple reductive facts suffice?

Relative to these issues, is it possible to see each paired set of terms not as conflicting perspectives and values, but as complementary perspectives and values?  In other words, if the words of Tormer's Lay are meant to lead us to some kind of understanding and "Light is the left hand of darkness/and darkness the right hand of light" [233], then is Orgoreyn the left hand of Karhide, and does each opposing term complement or complete the other?

Finally, students in past semesters e-mailed me about how difficult it is to keep names straight and to determine exactly where--physically--Ai is at any time in the novel. Here is some advice on those issues:

  1. All character names, though presented initially as a string of names indicating heritage and title, are typically reduced to one informal term.  Therem harth rem ir Estraven, for example, reduces to Estraven.  The Karhide king drops his full name and becomes Argaven, while his cousin, Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe, becomes simply Tibe.  The full names are not as important--on first reading of this novel--as are the attributes assigned--Tibe's teeth for example and the idea, coming from the emphasis on his many sharp teeth, that he is both dangerous and duplicitous.  If the names confuse, simply keep a list of them with brief identifying features.
  2. Some confusion about place often has also been mentioned in e-mails.  This entire novel is set on one planet:  Gethen [or "Winter" in English].  While other less powerful cultures seem to exist on the planet, the action takes place in three broad settings:  the feudal land of Karhide and its hearths [small towns and villages]; the commensals of Orgoreyn; and the Gobrin Ice that forms a formidable natural boundary between the two cultures. 
  3. The novel consists of at least three different kinds of chapters that complement each other: Genly Ai's story, a report from the first landing party that studied Gethen in secret [Ch. 7], and the myth and/or legend chapters revealing the sources of religion and cultural practices in both Orgoreyn and Karhide [Chs 2, 4, 9, 12, & 17].  Chapter 7, of course, serves to develop the theme of story vs. report that opens the novel.  The myth/legend chapters serve to explain some of the behaviors that are inscribed in the two cultures.  It is important when reading them to distinguish the Karhide from the Orgota myths and legends whenever possible, for these chapters help us to understand the values of each culture.  Sometimes, these myth chapters comment directly on the action.  For example, Ch. 9, "Estraven the Traitor," exposes a legendary event in the character Estraven's domain that shows the contemporary Estraven--Genly Ai's supporter--as connected to his ancestors and their values, just as chapters 2 & 4 on vowing kemmering and foretelling help us to understand the relationship between Estraven and his ex-kemmer-mate, Ashe. The events and comments in these myth chapters, then, often prepare us for what comes next in Ai's story or comment on something that has happened to Ai in a previous chapter.