No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, October 19, 2012

2012/50: The Left Hand of Darkness -- Ursula Le Guin

I stopped at a street-crossing and thought, Why should I not go east, across the mountains and the plains back to Kerm Land, a poor man afoot, and so come home to Estre where I was born, the stone house on a bitter mountainside: why not go home? Three times or four I stopped and looked back ... each time I thought of the folly of trying to go home. As well kill myself. I was born to live in exile, it appeared, and my one way home was by way of dying. [p. 59]

Reread for the Coursera Fantasy and SF course (a previous review is here). I couldn't believe I no longer had a copy: promptly fixed that problem, thanks to Amazon.

I'm still finding new aspects of this marvellous novel, and it was great to have another opportunity to discuss it, both online and in person, with fellow Coursera students. This time I found myself focussing on Estraven's story, and trying to connect the sparse facts of his life into a coherent whole. (I'm still puzzled as to why, even in critical journals, it's taken as read that Estraven's brother Arek committed suicide. But I think I understand why he writes to Sorve and not to his other sons.)

It's a beautiful tragedy, and Estraven is one of the most compelling politicians I've encountered in fiction. He is competent, pragmatic, capable. I wish he could have lived to travel out into the Ekumen.

My Coursera essay:

The Left Hand of Darkness can be read on a number of levels: an account of the events leading to Gethen's membership of the Ekumen; an exploration of gender issues; a story of betrayal and redemption. Less explicitly, it is the biography of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who goes from Prime Minister of Karhide to disgraced exile and, perhaps, suicide.

Estraven's personal life is sketched in sparse detail. At the time of the novel he* has been 'exiled' from his home for twenty years. He spent seven of those years with Ashe, with whom he had two children: they separated because Estraven's vow of kemmering was "a false vow, a second vow" [60]. Admitting this to Ashe, he thinks of his brother Arek, who has been dead for fourteen years. Only in the final pages of the novel does Genly Ai learn that Estraven and Arek had a child, Sorve.

Estraven would have known the hearth-tale 'The Place Inside the Blizzard', which forms chapter two of the novel. In that story, Getheren vows kemmering to his brother Hode. The brothers conceive a child, and are thus commanded to break their vow of kemmering. Hode, despairing, commits suicide, and Getheren is exiled for having caused his brother's death. Estraven also conceived a child with his brother, but his exile was self-imposed. By leaving home and family he sought to assuage his own guilt, avoid the fate of Getheren, and spare Arek the pain and shame of mandatory separation.

Political exile is less significant to Estraven than the solitude that results from his transgressive love for the brother he still mourns. His double exile forces his perspective and his loyalty outward towards humanity and the 'greater good', rather than inward towards his lover and child. 'Why can I never set my heart on a possible thing?' [128] he berates himself: but without the impossibility of a lasting relationship with Arek, he could not sacrifice career, reputation and life to help bring Gethen into the Ekumen.

* I use the pronouns in Le Guin's first edition: whilst problematic (because they limit gender roles), they are more readable than the pronouns she invented later.

Le Guin, Ursula The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) Page references refer to the Orbit edition, first printed 1992.

Jeanne Murray Walker 'Myth, Exchange and History in The Left Hand of Darkness', Science Fiction Studies #18: accessed online at, 21.09.12

1 comment:

  1. I love this novel so much it is almost painful for me to read an analysis of it. But also I am hungry for reading about it! In some ways, it is less 'perfect' than Dispossessed; it has flaws and is somehow unwieldy; some of the bits don't connect up; some of it hasn't been thought through as bravely as it might have been (LeGuin says so herself decades later). But it has a heart of passion that redeems everything for me. And it is beautifully written. You focus on Estraven (I weep every time at the end; and as you say: he should have gone out into the Ekumen) but I also remember the jolt I had upon first reading when, many pages into the book, it is revealed that Genly Ai is black. This peels open all the reader's own prejudices. Also I can never forget the epic journey across the ice and that moment when they come back to a community and Genly shrinks before all the faces because for months the only human face he's known has been Estraven's.