Gender as Metaphor for Wholeness in Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness

Arin Taylor Dahl

man woman

We live in a culture of “or.” We live in a culture where “or” is one of our most overused terms. Our most mundane decisions are presented in binary choices: “paper or plastic,” “meat or fish.” Likewise, our worldview is informed by oppositional pairs such as “male or female,” “life or death.” Our choices often result in the selection of one thing to the exclusion of the other. We are caught in the push-pull tension between two things or ideas. However, what if we broke from this binary system and began to consider the possibility of “and”? This is the question that Ursula K. Le Guin poses in her science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness.

Through this novel, Le Guin asks the reader to consider, in a sense, the entire coin, not just its two sides. She explores gender in much of the same way by looking at the dynamics surrounding a planet of people that are male, female, neither, and both simultaneously. Gender serves as a good starting point because the reader can readily identify with at least one-fourth of Le Guin’s gender configuration. However, she takes us deeper into a vast system of opposites in which paradox ultimately promotes unity. This task requires some spiritual gymnastics, as it were, and Le Guin draws upon Taoist and Buberian ideas to help us in this exercise. Supporting these spiritual ideas is an underlying current of utilitarianism that provides concrete illustrations of Le Guin’s deeper theme of wholeness in action. To further assist in our inquiry, brief examples from 1984 will act as a contrast to The Left Hand of Darkness and will help to highlight some of the main themes in the book.

Essentially, The Left Hand of Darkness is about friendship, loyalty, and serving the greater good. The Ekumen, the coordinating council of an interplanetary alliance, have sent an envoy to the planet of Gethen. The envoy, Genly Ai, is charged with introducing the concept of the alliance to the people of Gethen and inviting them to join. Gethen, nicknamed Winter by the Ekumen, is a rather isolated and harsh world of ice and snow whose inhabitants are unique in their physiology. Gethenians are androgynous beings, who, for the majority of the time, are sexless and genderless. This state, referred to as “somer,” eventually gives way to a period of estrus, called “kemmer.” During kemmer, the Gethenians develop the secondary sex characteristics of either a male or female, and are able to engage in sex for both procreation and recreation. They remain in kemmer for approximately six days, and then return to their gender-neutral state.

Even though he has resided on Gethen for two years, Genly cannot break away from his preconceived earthly notions of gender. Their androgyny causes him great discomfort, and he insists on addressing all Gethenians as “men.” This failure to connect with the Gethenians on their own level continues to hamper his mission and creates a delay in addressing any Gethenian government. Eventually, the prime minister in Karhide, one of Gethen’s two main nations, is sympathetic to Genly’s mission and arranges an audience with the Karhidish king. However, immediately preceding this appointment, this prime minister, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, is declared a traitor and is exiled from the Karhidish kingdom. Therem had been Genly’s main proponent and so his disgrace heralds the failure of Genly’s mission in Karhide. Discouraged, but not defeated, Genly turns his attention to Orgoreyn, the other nation on Gethen and rival to Karhide. Initially, the Orgota government is receptive to the Ekumen’s invitation, but grows leery of the offworlder and hides him in a desolate prison farm in the icy wasteland.

In the meantime, Therem secures probationary citizenship in Orgoreyn for the express purpose of rescuing Genly. Therem understands that the Envoy must be allowed to signal the Ekumen ship that has been orbiting Gethen’s solar system. This ship is the proof that Gethenians need in order to take the Ekumen’s invitation seriously. Therem rescues Genly and the two begin their trek over 840 miles of ice and snow. During their four month trip across the frozen land, Therem and Genly form a close bond that arises out of their common goal of Gethen’s betterment. To this end, Therem will give up his life so that Genly may live and continue their work.

Life and death are much the same on Gethen, a planet whose very make-up is at once wholistic and dualistic; Gethenian life is an all-encompassing tapestry of opposites and complements. For example, Karhide is ruled by a monarchy and places great emphasis on shifgethor, a cunning practice of pride and prestige. Its cities are dark, cramped, and cluttered; its people are passionate and choleric. The state religion, Handdara, eschews all dogma and ritual, and stresses personal experience of the “Presence.” (LeGuin 1969:57) In contrast, Orgoreyn has a communal government of thirty-three substates with an emphasis on bureaucracy and intimidation. Its cities are light, spacious, and sparse; its people are bland and phlegmatic. The Orgota religion is the Yomesh cult, rigid in hierarchy, doctrine, and discipline.

The ethos of the planet is further reflected in a popular Gethenian chant:

Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.
(LeGuin1969: 233)

The “way” is a reference to the “Tao,” the Chinese concept of the universal “life force.” This force is the eternal union, dissolution, and reintegration of opposites – light/dark, cold/hot and the like - that creates, permeates, and supports all living beings. The lines above are reminiscent of much of the Tao Te Ching, the “guidebook” of sorts for Taoist thought. As stated in the Tao Te Ching:

Having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other.
High and low rest upon each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Front and back follow one another.
(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2)

Taoist themes are found through out The Left Hand of Darkness and it is reasonable to assume that Le Guin was heavily influenced by this philosophy. This influence is most obvious when Genly draws the Taoist yin-yang symbol for Therem. He explains, “It’s found on Earth, and on Hain-Davenant, and on Chiffewar. It is yin and yang…Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one…” (Le Guin 1969: 267).

This pairing of opposites can be found in many other science fiction novels, most notably in 1984. However, these pairs receive quite different treatment in 1984 as demonstrated by the practice of doublethink. Briefly, doublethink is the ability to hold two contradictory notions in mind, while believing the validity of both at the same time. (Orwell 1949: 169) A major component of this practice requires one to forget what has been previously learned about an item in order to remember the presently learned meaning of it. Orwell provides an example in the term blackwhite: “It means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.” (Orwell 1949: 168) To Winston Smith, the term blackwhite means that black can be either black or white, whichever way the Party dictates. He has to forget that black was ever black if the Party now declares it white. In contrast, Therem might interpret blackwhite as the ability to be black or white equally. In Gethenian thinking, black and white are not contradictory, but are complementary. Black gives white depth, while white elevates black. There is no forgetting or remembering on Gethen; there is only potentiality. Such thinking would be considered a thoughtcrime in 1984because the Party does not deal in potentials, only absolutes. Furthermore, doublethink in 1984 is controlled by the Party for its own benefit while on Gethen, the pairing of opposites is fundamental to their biology, and by extension, to their society. There could never be a Gethenian Big Brother; the concept and existence of a domineering male is unknown on Gethen.

However, while there are minor similarities to an Orwellian dystopia, as depicted in the land of Orgoreyn with its ever-present Inspectors and Voluntary Prison Farms, the overall tone of The Left Hand of Darkness is utopian. Le Guin’s utopian vision is most evident in the Gethenian physiology on two levels: equality based upon a genderless society and androgyny as a metaphor for wholeness. However, it should be noted that this vision is not typically utopian in the sense of a perfect and ideal world. In her Introduction to the book, Le Guin insists that she is not suggesting that we will or should become androgynous. (Le Guin 1969: Introduction) Rather, her intent is to provide, as she calls it, “a thought experiment.” (Le Guin 1969: Introduction) What if gender were not an issue? How would that change our society? Le Guin attempts to address these questions through the Gethenians.

What strikes the reader initially is that Gethenians lead sexless and genderless lives for the majority of the time. There are no divisions of labor, politics, or economics. Men do not dominate women; rape is non-existent on Gethen. Moreover, women are not restricted in career advancement due to any potential pregnancies since on Gethen, anyone could become pregnant, even the king. (Le Guin 1969: 100) There are no distinctions of men being strong, active, and aggressive while women are weak, passive, and nurturing. While much of their life conforms to the somer-kemmer cycle, their thoughts are not dominated by sex and their behavior is not dictated by gender roles.

However, Le Guin’s utopian vision is much deeper than equality through biology. She uses Gethenian sexual physiology to explore a culture of “and” because Gethenians contain all possibilities of human construction within their own bodies. Their unique physical make-up translates into a sense of already being complete. At one point in their trek across the ice, Genly accuses Therem and his fellow Gethenians as being “obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.” Therem replies, “We are dualists, too. Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.” (Le Guin 1969: 234) This is the crux of the book: wholeness is achieved internally and externally at the same time; it involves not only the self, but also the other. Le Guin draws from Martin Buber’s idea of the “I-Thou” relationship when Genly states that his mission is really about relationships, not on a political or diplomatic level, but on a personal level. He tells Therem, “Not We and They. Not I and It; but I and Thou.” (Le Guin 1969: 259) This passage mirrors a core idea in Buber’s writings:

The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a Thou to become; becoming I, I say Thou. All actual life is encounter. (Buber 1970: 62)

Meaning, true relationship, and consequently true wholeness, can only be established when two people encounter each other in a spirit of openness, honesty, and love. Moreover, notice that Buber, too, recognizes the value of paradox since he states that wholeness can never be achieved “by me” or “without me.” Therem and Genly overcome the barriers of cultural and physiological differences, and, in Buber’s word, encounter each other. This encounter is not a relinquishing of the self or the vanquishing of the other, but a cooperation and interdependence of the two.

It is the I-Thou relationship that drives both Therem and Genly to the same goal: serving the greater good of all humanity. (Le Guin 1969: 293) They recognize that by promoting the general welfare, they promote their own as well. While Le Guin does not explicitly call this goal utilitarianism, she does make liberal use of this idea. Genly understood that his mission was for the greater good when he requested the position of Envoy. He knew that if he did not succeed in bringing Gethen into the alliance, some other Envoy would at some other time. He informs the Karhidish king, “My own survival doesn’t matter all that much, but I have and had then a duty towards Gethen and the Ekumen, a task to fulfill.” (Le Guin 1969: 293) This is not some cavalier idea about his own life, but rather an understanding that his life is something more than just his own. Therem thought the exact same thing, but was unable to fully communicate this to Genly until they encountered the Thou in each other. When Genly pointedly asks Therem why he risked his own life to save him, Therem replies that he has always wanted what Genly wants: the alliance of Gethen with the Ekumen. It mattered little to Therem if Karhide or Orgoreyn entered into an alliance first because the other would soon follow. Therem rhetorically asks, “What does it matter which country wakens first, as long as we waken?” (Le Guin 1969: 198)

These ideas of the greater good could be construed to have shades of Orwellian self-sacrifice for the good of the Party, but such a presumption would be a mistake. In 1984, there exists no “self” to be sacrificed; there is only the Party. Everything that a member does is for the Party, as Orwell spells out, “He has no freedom of choice in any direction whatever.” (Orwell 1949: 167) He must serve the Party. In contrast, the Party acts only for its benefit, not for those in the Outer Party or among the proletariats. Its main objective is to remain in power, for power’s own sake, (Orwell 1949: 208) and it does so by constant surveillance, control of information, and continuous warfare (or the illusion of it) to create self-sacrificing patriotism for the war effort. This is not utilitarianism; it is totalitarianism.

What motivates the Gethenians, however, is not totalitarianism, but rather totality. Their very physical make-up embodies paradox and predisposes them to a sense of completeness. Given their unique physiology, they can make the leap from self to other in a way that we cannot. As a primarily single-sexed species, anything that is different from us, is separate from us. This sense of separation informs our perceptions. When Therem crosses the Karhide border and is shot, the reader is caught unawares. This act could seem so pointless; after all, he could continue to seek refuge in Orgoreyn and live to see Gethen enter the alliance. Yet from our dualistic nature, we struggle to understand how Therem’s death is just as valuable as his life.

This feeling of uncertainty and discomfort is where Le Guin deliberately guides us. She does not spell out the exact reasons for Therem’s death, presumably because she wants the reader to consider all the possibilities. Likewise, Gethenian physical structure forces us to examine our assumptions about gender, and by extension, our assumptions in general. Le Guin does not provide easy answers or offer ready-made pictures of the future. Instead, she poses a challenge to the reader to look beyond the confines of this or that. Although we are, to an extent, limited by our single-sexed biology, our thinking has no such constraints. The more space we make available in our lives for the “and,” the closer we move into wholeness.


  • Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970.
  • Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.
  • Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 1969.
  • Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Viking Penguin, 1949.
  • Image retrieved from: gfxartist site, June 8, 2006.