The Left Hand of Darkness Dystopian Novel Analysis by Ralph K Jones

Dystopian Literature Review

The Left Hand of Darkness: Friendship in Exile

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin contains all the classic elements of a science fiction novel: an alien race, a harsh and unforgiving world, and interstellar travel, but the crux of it all revolves around a simple friendship being formed. It is in this friendship between the two narrators of the story that we find out a great deal about ourselves and our own way of living and forming connections.

The Left Hand of Darkness

The story takes place on a cold, icy planet known as Gethen, which is consequently inhabited by a race known as Gethenians. The people of Gethen are all androgynous. They assume either the male or female sex during a period of fertility known as “Kemmer”. Gethen is divided into two main nations: Karhide and Orgoreyn; Karhide consists of a kingdom led by a monarch, and Orgoreyn is run by a democracy. The two nations have disputes, but they don’t know of the concept of war. Most Gethenians are non-aggressive, superstitious, and live almost entirely according to the fluctuating cycles of kemmer. The people of Gethen are relatively stuck in their ways, at least until a strange being threatens to change all of this.

The Left Hand of Darkness In-depth Review

An “alien” known as Genly Ai is just that being, who serves as an envoy for an interplanetary league known as the Ekumen. He resides in Karhide on a mission to convince the Gethenians to join this league and participate in open trade. He is taken in by their king, Agraven XV, and advised by an administrator known as Estraven, but he has difficulty building trust. Estraven is exiled after expressing support for Genly’s mission, which King Agraven doesn’t approve of.

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

With no other options, Genly seeks counsel from the Foretellers, a group of diviners. They tell him that Gethen will become a member of the Ekumen within five years, and he becomes optimistic. He then sets off to Orgoreyn, where he assumes he’ll have more luck. The story switches to Estraven’s perspective in wake of his exile. He is targeted by men who have orders to kill him, but he makes it out alive. He then settles in Orgoreyn and tries to convince the officials there that Genly’s mission will benefit them.

Genly travels to Orgoreyn to appeal to the “Commensalities”. They seem to embrace and accept him at first, but he ends up getting betrayed and is shipped off to a labor camp called Pulefen Farm. The people there are made to work tirelessly in the cold and are deprived of their sexual hormonal shifts, which causes them to lose vigor. Genly is continually drugged and interrogated until he becomes too weak to move. However, Estraven manages to rescue Genly from the Farm, and the two embark on a long, hard journey across the wintry landscapes to make it back to Karhide.

The Longest Journey

During the journey, Estraven and Genly bond with each other through their isolation and hardship. The two have many an enlightening conversation, and they learn to appreciate each other despite how vastly different they are. After they finally arrive in Karhide, the two recuperate in the local towns. However, Estraven is betrayed by one of his old friends and the King’s men begin searching for him. As they try to escape, Estraven deliberately runs straight into some guards, and they shoot and kill him.

Despondent after losing his friend, Genly convinces Agraven to accept the Ekumen, and his shipmates come down from orbit to visit Gethen. At the end of the book, Genly visits Estraven’s father and promises to tell him the story of their journey.

The near-inhabitable world of Gethen and its androgynous natives shed a lot of insight on our own society. Since Gethenians cannot be labelled with one sex, they assume both the roles of male and female during their lifetimes. In the book, Genly acknowledges that it is impossible for people in the “real” world to identify someone without using gender, appalling even. However, in their sameness, they are freed of much burden and strife, including war, social inequality, and domestic violence. Furthermore, the Gethenians live on a harsh world that would be sure to lower humanity to a base state, but they’re still able to live in relative harmony. Gethen is not a cold dystopian landscape, but a welcoming planet whose inhabitants are as empathetic as ever.

The Left Hand of Darkness Ralph’s Wrap Up

Lastly, the journey of Genly and Estraven across the ice, along with the friendship they develop, reveals much about life and the process of forming connections. Genly is an alien in a hostile environment who yearns to fit in with a group he can’t possibly identify: the Gethenians. Estraven delimits country from devotion, and instead serves all of “mankind”, as he puts it. For doing so, he is seen as disloyal and a traitor. When the two embark alone on their harrowing journey, they are both “alien” in a sense, though the manner in which they’re alien differs. For the first time on the planet, Genly and Estraven form a loving friendship that is founded on the ways they are aliens or “exiles”, as well as the ways they are different. They are the only two people on the planet who can call themselves friends and really confide in one another. Given how invaluable and enlightening their journey was, it is surely a story worth telling, both to the people of Gethen, and us.

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