Science Fiction Studies

# 11 = Volume 4, Part 1 = March 1977

Martin Bickman

Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness: Form and Content

One of the most effective aspects of Ursula Le Guin's writing is the way "form" and "content" make a seamless whole for which these distinctions can be used only to demonstrate their ultimate unity. This form-content interrelationship, of course, should be evident in any fine work of literature, but science-fiction writers have traditionally had difficulty in this area. Masters like Clarke, Asimov, Herbert can tell a story skillfully, but seldom see the possibilities of literary form beyond those of direct narrative. On the other hand, SF "experimentalists" in style such as, at various times, Harlan Ellison, Brian Aldiss, John Brunner have been so concerned with "technique" that the results are sometimes more audacious than successful. This article will use The Left Hand of Darkness to suggest some of the ways form and content can be wedded in SF in a functional, organic, and aesthetically meaningful way.                

The very opening not only shows the book explicitly concerned with this issue, but also gives us clues as to the specific structures used and the underlying rationales.

I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.
                The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story. [§1]

Most immediately, the opening suggests that Genly Ai is the structuring consciousness of the book, that his "story" is not only those sections he tells in his own person, but the selection and ordering of everything that appears. That Genly includes Therem's narrative in the latter's own words, that Genly places legends, myths, tales, field notes as they were actually told or written, instead of hammering them into his own single-perspective, linear narrative reflects the "I-Thou" understanding he achieves through the experiences related in the novel. That Genly is in an immediate way the architect of the entire book is implied in his comments about altered voices, and his recognition that, although he cannot say whose story it is, he knows that it is all one story. This notion is further corroborated by apparently off-hand comments such as "He [Therem] lay in the tent writing, in a little notebook, in his small, rapid, vertical-cursive Karhidish hand, the account that appears as the previous chapter" (§15). The book can be read, in the words of a writer on symbolisme, as "the imaginative graph of the experience the artist lived in the course of his journey to knowledge."1 Or, more accurately, since this is a novel, not a lyric poem, as a kind of bildungsroman, where we share in the central character's process of growth.                

As with much modern literature, then, the complex patterning of the book is not so much a way to tell the story as it is the story itself. The opening paragraphs suggest the main lines of this patterning: apparent dualities are placed in a harmonious, complementary relationship without collapsing important distinctions between them. Facts, like pearls, do have an independent existence, are themselves "solid," "round," "real," yet the extent to which they penetrate the consciousness depends on their presentation and context. Similarly, the novel achieves unity not in spite of, but because of its variety of voices and perspectives—different angles of vision that create a certain dimensionality and heft. More generally, the two paragraphs suggest the interweaving pairs of tensions that shape the book: the relationship between fact and imagination, the literal and the figurative, and that between the one and the many, unity and diversity.                

Since few people are either absolute monists or absolute pluralists, the problem is to find a workable relationship between the extremes; and the structure of the book grapples with this problem as it appears in the interrelated levels of individual psychology, social and political organization, and religious and philosophical ideas. In the first third we see Karhide moving from a precarious balance between oneness and divisiveness towards a state of mobilization, a premature and ultimately spurious kind of unification. This movement sweeps us into the Orgoreyn section, where a similar unification has been taking place for centuries, revealing more clearly its effects on the people and culture. In the final third, Genly and Therem create a relationship where the balance between unity and diversity is established on a basis more solid and vital than that depicted at the beginning of the book. Thus, in respect to the unity-diversity tension, the structure of the book follows a dynamic movement that can be viewed roughly as thesis-antithesis-synthesis.2 Counterpointing this movement is the alternating rhythm of "reality" and "myth," a movement examined later in this paper.                

The opening scene, the parade in Karhide, where nobody marches in step, images that country's social and political structure. "The various banners of the great Domains tangle in a rain-beaten confusion of color with the yellow pennants that bedeck the way, and the various musics of each group clash and interweave in many rhythms echoing in the deep, stone street." The contrast of the "tangle" and "confusion" of the variegated flags of the domains with the ordered, single-color pennants that mark out the parade route suggests, along with the phrase "clash and interweave," the balance between the cohesive and the dispersive, a balance clearly tilted at this point towards the latter. Even the Royal Music, the theme of the one man who rules over all this, is a nerve-shaking discord, a "preposterous, disconsolate bellow." The scene prepares us for Therem's aphorism at parade's end: "Karhide is not a nation but a family quarrel" (§1). Genly himself later elaborates: "The principalities, towns, villages, 'pseudo-feudal tribal economic units,' a sprawl and splatter of vigorous, competent, quarrelsome inclividualities over which a grid of authority was insecurely and lightly laid" (§8). This structure, or lack of it, is only part of an entire cultural configuration shaped by the primary religion of Karhide, the Handdara, "a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed."                

After spending some time at a Handdara retreat, Genly comes to realize the forceful presence of this elusive, impalpable religion, a realization underscored later by his discovery that the former prime minister is a Handdara adept: "Under the nation's politics and parades runs an old darkness, passive, anarchic, silent, the fecund darkness of the Handdara" (§5).               

Rather than actually breaking into anarchy, however, Karhide succumbs to a demagogue who would "unite" the country by creating the fear and hatred of the Other that some call patriotism. Although this mobilization seems to run counter to Karhide's basic disposition, one cannot help wondering if the very passivity and formlessness of the culture helps Tibe succeed. Further, if we view the political shift in terms of the Gethenian androgynous psychology, we can see that an over-emphasis on qualities we might consider "feminine" may bring about a reaction or overcompensation in the direction of "masculine" qualities. As Le Guin writes in a restrospective article on the book:

To me the "female principle" is, or at least historically has been, basically anarchic. It values order without constraint, rule by custom not by force. It has been the male who enforces the order, who constructs power-structures, who makes, enforces, and breaks laws. On Gethen, these two principles are in balance: the decentralising against the centralising, the flexible against the rigid, the circular against the linear. But balance is a precarious state, and at the moment of the novel the balance, which had leaned towards the "feminine," is tipping the other way.3

As Genly, who is described in the same article as a "conventional, indeed rather stuffy young man,"4 moves into Orgoreyn, he is pleased by what he experiences as a welcome change from the earlier Karhide: "There was no clutter and contortion, no sense of always being under the shadow of something high and gloomy, as in Erhenrang; everything was simple, grandly conceived, and orderly. I felt as if I had come out of a dark age, and wished I had not wasted two years in Karhicle" (§8). But if the earlier Karhide is a little too fragmented, shadowy, diverse, Orgoreyn leans much further and more dangerously in the other direction. Uniqueness and individuality are sacrificed to an overriding unity, the concrete, immediate reality to a larger, less substantial abstraction. Genly begins to miss the shadows of Karhide. "There was something fluid, insubstantial in the very heaviness of this city built of monoliths, this monolithic state which called the part and the whole by the same name" (§10).                

As the Handdara stood behind the kingdom of Karhide, the Yomesh religion, with its stress on ultimate oneness, on the lack of division in time and space, stands behind the nation-state of Orgoreyn: "One center, one seeing, one law, one light." The Yomesh make the contrast of their world-view with that of Handdara, explicit and unflattering: "In the sign of Meshe there is no darkness. Therefore those who call upon the darkness are made fools of and spat out from the mouth of Meshe, for they name what is not, calling it source and end" (§12). As with all monisms, there is something emotionally and spiritually appealing; but monisms also, as William James points out, generally run counter to our experience of being in the world, and most often the ultimate principle of unity is kept vague and inaccessible.5               

The first two sections of the book, then, can be seen as antithetical on a variety of levels, revolving around the relationship between unity and diversity. As suggested already, though, these sections are not static tableaux: in the first we see a radical shift in the society itself; in the second, a significant change in Genly's perception of the situation. In the third section, process is even more crucial, for the focus is on the dynamics through which Genly and Therem form a relationship of optimum harmony through unity and separateness.                

This section is set geographically and metaphorically both above and between Karhide and Orgoreyn, where the two humans are less bound by norms, attitudes, and restraints of any culture. This very separation leads to the fresh perceptions necessary for mutual understanding. Genly is able to see an exhausted, vulnerable Therem without the cultural envelopment of social role and custom:

He wore nothing but his breeches; he was hot. The dark secret face was laid bare to the light, to my gaze. Estraven asleep looked a little stupid, like everyone else asleep: a round, strong face relaxed and remote, small drops of sweat on the upper lip and over the heavy eyebrows. I remembered how he had stood sweating on the parade-stand in Erhenrang in panoply of rank and sunlight. I saw him now defenseless and half naked in a colder light, and for the first time saw him as he was. [§15]

An equivalent recognition on Therem's part is shown when he asks Genly about his family, and realizes that the Terran is as isolated in time as in space. Estraven says: "Long since in Erhenrang he had explained to me how time is shortened inside the ships that go almost as fast as starlight between the stars, but I had not laid this fact down against the length of a man's life or the lives he leaves behind him on his own world" (§16). This realization is a particularly effective example of the first sentence of the book: one can "know" a fact but not fully apprehend it without the imagination.                

The growing together continues, and can be said to reach a climax (or anticlimax) when Therem, sharing a small tent with Genly, enters kemmer. This crucial scene is one of the few places in the book where Genly has his own narrative overlap with Therem's, where the same incident is presented from both points of view. Some readers have seen the abstention from physical love-making as a failure of nerve or imagination on Le Guin's part. But in the context this article is trying to establish, Genly's explanation is an important key: "It was from the difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch" (§18). An accurate and sensitive realization of the differences as well as the similarities is central to the "I-Thou" relationship. The reason the hands match, both in Tormer's Lay and in the repeated motif of the tale "Estraven the Traitor," is not because they are identical but because they are different: left hand matches with right, right with left. This need for contrasts within harmony is underscored by Genly's use of the yin-yang symbol and by Estraven's comment: "It's queer that daylight's not enough. We need shadows, in order to walk" (§19).                

The important question, though, is whether the kind of relationship Genly and Therem form has any relevance in a large political and social context, whether the "I-Thou" bond has any meaning when there are many I's and Thou's. The structure of the book suggests a complex, tentative, partially tragic yes. For, although the protagonists cannot move their own relationship back into society—Therem, an exile, a person without a country, skis into the guns of Tibe's border patrol; and Genly reneges on a personal promise—these very acts of suicide and betrayal evince a tendency in the "I-Thou" relationship to move beyond its original two members, to encompass and expand rather than exclude. As Genly reasons: "I had said I would not bring the ship down till his banishment was ended, his name cleared. I could not throw away what he had died for, by insisting on the condition" (§20).                

More specifically, what Therem did die for was to bring the planet of Gethen into harmony—"Our border now is no line between two hills, but the line our planet makes in circling the Sun" (§6)—and to have that planet take its place in an even larger unity, the Ekumen. Indeed, the Ekumen, whose goal is "the augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life. The enrichment of harmony..." (§3), comes perhaps as close an any political system can to a viable reconciliation of unity and diversity, as suggested by the juxtaposition of the words "harmony" and "complexity." And it does this only by stressing what Genly learns in the course of the novel—the I-Thou relationship on the individual level must be ontologically prior and more valued than any unification on a larger scale. It is both beginning and basis. Towards the end of the book Genly says:

Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal.... So I was sent alone, for your sake? or for my own? I don't know. [§8]

The question raised at the end of this passage echoes the opening of the novel when Genly wonders whose story it actually is. In the context of the entire book, the question is rhetorical: it is the story not primarily about single and separate entities but about the relations among them.                

Weaving through the thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure sketched above is the alternation and interpenetration of fact and myth, the literal and the figurative. While this pattern is most obvious in the sections of myth, tales, and legends that seem to interrupt the central narrative, it is also discernible within that narrative itself. For example, the proverb used by Obsle—"We can pull a sledge together without being kemmerings" (§6)—takes on a literal immediacy in the last part of the book. A movement in the opposite direction, from the literal to the figurative, can be seen in the use of the keystone. We first encounter it as a concrete fact in the opening scene, where King Argaven is mortaring a keystone between two piers, "making them one, one thing, an arch" (§1). The repetition of "one" does create some resonance, but it is only later, at the beginning of the winter journey, that Genly explicitly associates certain qualities of mind with it, that object and action take on fuller symbolic reverberations. Looking at Estraven, Genly says: "He sat writing up his records with the same obdurate patient thoroughness I had seen in a mad king up on a scaffolding mortaring a joint, and said, 'When we reach Karhide...'" (§15). At the end of the book Genly uses the image without any reference to an actual scene—"I must set the keystone in the arch" (§20)—yet it is only through the previous uses that the words rise above cliche and take on power. The approach here is what Charles Feidelson calls "symbolistic,"6 where stress is put not only on the symbol as symbol, but on its origins, on its relations with the "real" world, on the very process of symbolization. The use of symbol, then, becomes a theme as well as a technique, where the epistemological complexities of how we experience the universe come to the fore.                

The Left Hand of Darkness effectively uses science-fiction situations to explore some of these complexities. Other SF writers like Dick and Lem, and "mainstream" writers like Pynchon, Gaddis, Nabokov, and Borges, have created artistic visions that demonstrate our commonsense view of the world is merely an artificial construct, created primarily by language and other cultural preconceptions. Le Guin herself has spoken explicitly about this situation7 but, more importantly, embodies these insights in her fiction. For example, we hear Genly's conversation with the dying prisoner Asra at Pulefen Farm.

Once I said, "I know about people who live on another world."
                "What kind of world would that be?"
                "One like this one, all in all; but it doesn't go around the sun. It goes around the star you call Selemy. That's a yellow star like the sun, and on that world, under that sun, live other people."
                "That's in the Sanovy teachings, that about the other worlds. There used to be an old Sanovy crazy-priest would come by my hearth when I was little and tell us children all about that, where the liars go when they die, and where the suicides go, and where the thieves go—that's where we're going, me and you, eh, one of those places?"
                "No, this I'm telling of isn't a spirit world. A real one. The people that live on it are real people, alive, just like here. But very-long-ago they learned how to fly."
                Asra grinned. [§13]

Here we see that one man's legend may be another's homeland; one's life, another's story. That which seems occult, supernatural, fabulous may be due to lack of experience or knowledge, as is emphasized by Terra being the storied land, revolving about "a yellow star like the sun." On the positive side, the primary example of increasingly expanding visions of the universe is the widening of range of each of the protagonists as their relationship develops. Genly realizes at one point: "Until then I had rejected him [Therem], refused him his own reality" (§18).                

Probably the most complex use of this sense of the multiplicity of reality, of the reciprocal relation between "fact" and "myth," is the way Gethenian legends, hearthtales, scriptures are used in the book. For example, Genly places prominently near the beginning the tale "The Place Inside the Blizzard" not merely for the background it gives us about Gethenian culture and values but because it is a condensed and displaced version of the main action: an exile encounters his dead sibling-kernmering in a place away and apart from the society that makes them outcasts. Later, Therem, in the literal counterpart of the "Place Inside the Blizzard" encounters his dead sibling-kemmering Arek in the mindspeech of his new friend, Genly. Further, the names "Therem" and "Arek" take on resonance from another hearthtale, located at the center of the book, "Estraven the Traitor." Here we learn that "Therem" had never been used as a name in Estre, until Arek of Estre and Therem of Stok transgressed the feud between their domains and vowed kemmering. The ultimate result of this union is peace between the two lands, as underscored by the Therem of the longer narrative mentioning a journey he once took with "four of our friends, from Stok" (§15).                

This kind of interaction among myth and legend and narrative comes full circle when Genly, at the end of the novel, brings Therem's journals to his native hearth, there to be incorporated in the domain's records, later, perhaps, to become the stuff of future legends and tales. Indeed, in the last paragraph, Therem's father asks us to hear the "tale" of how Genly and his son crossed the Gobrin ice, while Therem's son eagerly asks Genly for the kind of story about "other worlds out among the stars" (§20) that had puzzled and bored the dying Asra. While formerly the myths could be seen as interpolations within a more "realistic" narrative, we begin to wonder if Genly's suggestion in the first sentence, of making his report as if he told a story, contains a truth we may have missed at first, a truth suggested by Borges' parable about the Quixote.

The whole scheme of the work consisted in the opposition of the two worlds: the unreal world of books of chivalry, the ordinary everyday world of the seventeenth century.
                They did not suspect that the years would finally smooth away that discord, they did not suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight's lean figure would be, for posterity, no less poetic than the episodes of Sinbad or the vast geographies of Ariosto.
                For in the beginning of literature is the myth, and in the end as well.8


                1. Joseph Chiari, Symbolisme from Poe to Mallarmé. The Growth of a Myth (UK 1956), p 37.
                2. David Ketterer, in his seminal book New Worlds for Old: Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (US 1974), also sees a thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure in the novel, but I find it difficult to match his terms with sections of the text itself and wonder if he is imposing too heavily on this individual work his paradigm for science fiction in general. His contention that the book "may be viewed as a science-fiction novel about the theoretical definition of science fiction" has been repudiated by Le Guin in SFS 2(1975):139.
                3. "Is Gender Necessary?" in Aurora: Beyond Equality, ed. S. Anderson and V. McIntyre (Fawcett pb 1976), pp 135-36.
                4. Ibid., p 135.
5. Some Problems of Philosophy (UK 1940), pp 136-40.
                6. Symbolism and American Literature (US 1953).
7. Interview, Vertex, Dec 1974, p 92.
                8. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (US 1964), p 242.


Back to Home