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The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ursula K. Le Guin

An American science fiction and fantasy writer, Ursula K. Le Guin was known throughout her life as “America’s greatest living science fiction writer.” Credited with revolutionizing the genre, she incorporated lyrical prose, Taoist influences, and themes of feminism, anarchism, and environmentalism into her many works. Le Guin’s name has become synonymous with the use of fictional worlds to examine the nature of reality, the issues at the heart of the human condition, and the possibilities and dangers that humans face as a species. Born in Berkeley, California to anthropologist parents, Le Guin studied at Radcliffe College and Columbia University, worked as a secretary and a French teacher, and eventually as a full-time writer of science fiction. Le Guin balked at being boxed-in as a sci-fi writer, and preferred to be known simply as a novelist. Nevertheless, her enduring influence on the genre inspired writers like David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas,) Neil Gaiman (American Gods, The Sandman,) Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners,) and Jeff VanderMeer (Annihilation.) 
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Historical Context of The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed, published in 1974, tells the story of an anarchist, anti-capitalist society on Anarres, which has been struggling for over one hundred years against the legacy of its classist, capitalist twin planet Urras. Anarresti society embraces the Taoist principles of compassion, humility, and frugality, and operates within an anarcho-syndicalist structure in which food, possessions, domiciles, and work assignments are shared openly. Money and class do not exist, and the desire of the Anarresti people to be free from the bonds of capitalism and classism have, for all intents and purposes, been achieved—however, Anarresti society faces new ills and evils which threaten to upend the “utopia” that has been created on the desert moon of Urras. The countercultural movement of the 1960s has been cited by Le Guin as a major influence on the story of the two planets, and of the physicist who is desperate to bring them together once more in pursuit of a common good. The idealism and activism of the counterculture during the time Le Guin was writing the novel led her to imagine what it might look like to create a “utopia” that espoused the values of the global counterculture—and to push beyond the optimism of the movement to envision the hardships that such a utopia might face. Le Guin also peppers the narrative with references to the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Sexual Revolution, and the history of border control, further reinforcing the parallels and resonances between the political events of her fictitious world and the political events swirling around her in the ‘60s.

Other Books Related to The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed is set in the same universe as Le Guin’s Hainish novels; The Left Hand of Darkness, one of Le Guin’s best-known novels, is also a part of this cycle of books set in the same fictional universe, and both The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness were praised in the science fiction community as well as in the world of literary fiction for their accomplishments in muddling the often stark lines between the two genres. Le Guin has stated in interviews that her inventive, often lyrical prose style was influenced by Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Virginia Woolf, among others. The inspiration for the world of The Dispossessed, and the anti-capitalist, anarcho-syndicalist society of Anarres is rooted in Le Guin’s study of Taoism—a religious and philosophical tradition which emphasizes compassion, humility, and balance, as well as simplicity, frugality, spontaneity, and freedom. Le Guin’s study of the Tao Te Ching (Taoism’s fundamental text) and the teachings of its author (the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu) inspired the world of Anarres and the deep political, moral, and philosophical conundrums its utopian-minded inhabitants face.
Key Facts about The Dispossessed
  • Full Title: The Dispossessed
  • When Written: Early 1970s
  • Where Written: Portland, Oregon, USA
  • When Published: 1974
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Science fiction
  • Setting: The twin planets of Urras and Anarres
  • Climax: Shevek reveals that he has developed the science to support a technology which will allow for instantaneous, telephone-like communication between worlds far away from one another within the same galaxy.
  • Antagonist: Egosim; capitalism; Sabul, the leader of Shevek’s syndicate
  • Point of View: Third-person

Extra Credit for The Dispossessed

Destroyer of Worlds. The character of Shevek was, according to Le Guin herself, based heavily on the real-life figure J. Robert Oppenheimer. An American physicist who was among the scientists behind the Manhattan Project (the government program to develop the first nuclear weapons during World War II), Oppenheimer famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita in order to describe the feeling of watching atomic bombs explode over Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the first time: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” In the novel, Shevek has a similar power as a physicist whose theories of time and simultaneity contain the potential for revolutionizing—or decimating—relations between his galaxy’s many warring worlds.