In a flashback, the narration transitions to a sunlit nursery on Anarres. A group of children play together, but off in a corner, two babies have separated from the group. A fat baby plays with a peg board, and a knobby baby sits in a square of light and looks up at the sun. In the anteroom outside the nursery, the nursery matron talks with a tall and sad-looking man, Palat, who informs her that his child’s mother has been sent to work in Abbenay, and the child will need to be taken into the nursery full-time. The man himself will be moving back into a dormitory. The matron wonders aloud whether the man will soon be sent along after his partner Rulag, as they are both engineers. Palat explains that his partner is wanted by the Central Institute of Engineering, and that he is not as talented as she is.
Throughout the book, chapters will alternate between Shevek’s present visit to Urras and his past life on Anarres. The novel introduces early on the ways in which Anarresti society places emphasis on work and communal spaces rather than on the more exclusive relationships between romantic partners or parents and children. They seek to limit possessiveness and hierarchy at every level of the human experience. Palat’s sadness over the splitting of his family, however, belies an underlying desire in some Odonians for a different kind of life—a life in which family and partnership are more important than work rotations, and in which some relationships are prioritized over others.
Palat looks in at his child playing in the main room. The fat baby approaches the skinny one, pushing him out of the sunlight and into the shade. The knobby infant throws a fit, telling the fat baby to go away, and proclaiming that the sun belongs to him. The matron enters the room to separate the two children, warning the knobby one—a young Shevek—that “nothing” is his, and that if something cannot be shared it cannot be used at all.
The very young Shevek struggles with concepts of communality. The other children play nicely together, but Shevek is positioned as separate from the group both physically and emotionally. Importantly he longs to possess a celestial body—possession is forbidden on Anarres to begin with, but his desire for an object that inherently defies possession represents the lofty ambitions he will develop as an adult.
Years later, in a Speaking-and-Listening class at an Anarresti learning center, a lanky eight-year-old child stands up to offer his voice. The child is Shevek, and his instructor urges him to share his idea with the group. Shevek describes a complicated physics problem in which a rock being thrown at a tree “always has to go half of the way that’s left to go.” As the class animatedly asks questions and struggles to understand Shevek’s idea, the instructor interjects. He tells Shevek that he is “egoizing”—he is not sharing selflessly with the group. The instructor explains to the class that because Shevek cannot understand speech as a two-way function, he is disruptive to the group, and then he dismisses Shevek from the class.
In childhood as in infancy, Shevek is reprimanded for not sharing selflessly with his fellow brothers and sisters. Shevek is clearly a bright young child who has complicated questions on his mind even at an early age, and when he attempts to investigate those questions publicly, he is seen as a nuisance and an egoist. This theme will continue throughout Shevek’s life, as he constantly comes up against those who wish to silence him as he puzzles out larger questions about the universe that are seen as useless to the common good.
Shevek goes out into the hallway as his classmates begin telling a group story, taking turns to each share a part of it. Shevek stops himself from crying by thinking about an imaginary Square which functions like a complicated math problem, in which numbered rows on each side of the cube all add up equally. Shevek wishes he had a group in which he could talk about the kind of problems he’s interested in.
Though Shevek has been reprimanded and sent out of class, he continues to entertain his “egoistic” ideas. This shows his determination and commitment as well as his desire for personal and intellectual freedom, and sets him up as a character who will, throughout his life, go against the grain and push the envelope.
Shevek decides that he can wait for such a thing to come about—he is good at waiting. He has been waiting for his mother to come back for years, and he regularly waits six decads—a period of sixty days—for his father to come take him away for a visit.
Shevek is patient and wise for a child, despite always getting into trouble. Shevek’s life has been defined by patient waiting, showing how he is ahead of his time and able to see the rewards of biding one’s time.
On one of these visits with his father, Shevek asks Palat if Palat has ever seen a book only made of numbers. Palat takes a mathematics workbook out of his jacket pocket and shows it to Shevek, explaining that the book contains logarithms. In return, Shevek explains his complicated, imaginary Square to his father. By the time the two are done exchanging ideas, it is late, and Palat rushes Shevek back to the children’s dormitory for the night.
Palat indulges Shevek’s desire for intellectual freedom, and gets swept up in the excitement of hearing his son’s ideas. Palat represents freedom to Shevek, and shows Shevek that there are those who will eventually find his kind of thinking important, and will be able to see what he has to offer.
In his dreams that evening, Shevek runs across barren land toward a dark, dense, and high wall. He longs to cross it, but knows that if he does, he will never be able to go home again. Shevek hits at the wall and screams, but his voice comes out strangled and wordless. He hears his father’s voice and senses his mother’s presence, and together they tell him to look at a stone on the ground. The stone bears “the primal number that [is] both unity and plurality.” He is filled with a “piercing joy,” the sensation of which he remembers in the morning though he forgets the details of the dream itself. From then on, Shevek often dreams of the wall, but the dream is always “sullen and without resolution,” devoid of that initial joy.
Shevek’s dream of the wall symbolizes the boundaries he is coming up against, even at a young age, within Anarresti society. Though as a child the dream is a comforting one, as he grows older, the boundary becomes more of an imposing, fearsome structure. As Shevek gets older, the problems he faces become larger and have vaster implications, and it seems as if there is “no resolution” to the challenges that are constantly, ominously rising before and around him.
Some years later, in school, Shevek and his friends are reading the Life of Odo, a book of Anarresti history. The book mentions prisons, which do not exist on Anarres, but which Shevek and his friends imagine in great detail and with which they find themselves deeply fascinated. The boys cannot understand why people in prisons couldn’t just leave, or how they could be sentenced to work during their incarceration. Shevek and his friends Tirin, Kadagv, and Gibesh want to know what prison must have been like, and decide to construct a makeshift prison in a crawl space beneath the learning center. Big enough for one person to lie down in, it is made of concrete, and the boys find another slab of concrete they can use to make a “door.”
In yet another example of the dark pull between Urras and Anarres, Le Guin shows her young Anarresti characters both horrified of but deeply curious about the brutality and rigidity of other worlds. The Anarresti, whose society does not include prisons or punishments, are unable to conceive of restraining another person physically or denying them the freedom that is their birthright as an Odonian. The boys’ dark curiosity spurs them to create a prison of their own, toying with the idea of isolating and subjugating one another.
Many of their friends volunteer to go into the “prison,” but it is Kadagv, a “serious, domineering” twelve-year-old, who wants to undertake the challenge most. When the other children ask him how long he would like to stay in the prison, Kadagv tells them that they, as his captors, must decide the length of his stay. As Kadagv crawls into the hole, the other children hope he won’t stay in too long, as they are all anxious for their turns as well.
Shevek’s friends and classmates clamor for their chance to experience “prison,” as a unique reversal takes place: the freedom they experience in their day-to-day lives now feels oppressive, and it is the foreign nature of true oppression that represents newness, excitement, and thus a different kind of “freedom” to them.
After four hours, the children let Kadagv out. He tells them that he mostly napped, and that though he was a little bit hungry, being imprisoned was no big deal. Tirin asks Kadagv if he would go in again, and Kadagv says he would. Tirin asks Kadagv if he’d go in right now, without knowing when he’d be let out again, and Kadagv agrees. Realizing that in prisons, prisoners were given meals, Shevek urges two other boys to go get some leftovers from the cafeteria, so that Kadagv will at least be fed.
The children are uncertain of how to make a “real” prison, and grasp at approximations of one as they play at incarcerating one another. The prison they’ve constructed does not seem extreme enough, and they attempt to make it more hostile and dangerous as they test the limits of what they can inflict upon one another.
Tirin tells Kadagv to turn around and put his hands on his head. Kadagv asks why, and Tirin tells him that it doesn’t matter why—as guards, they can beat him whenever they want, because he is not free. Tirin pushes Kadagv into the cell, and Kadagv injures a finger landing on the hard concrete. The younger boys return with some food and water, and silently place it in Kadagv’s cell, then lock him in. Gibesh wonders where Kadagv will relieve himself, and Tirin answers that Kadagv will have to piss and crap in his own bed. The boys share a hearty laugh at this idea, aware that Kadagv, on the other side of the wall, can hear them laughing at him.
For no reason other than the fact that they can, the boys experiment with pain and suffering. On Anarres, everyone supports one another, and this kind of cruelty and hostility is extremely rare. The boys are drawn to it because of its newness, and quickly slip into an excessively cruel and violent game that is in stark opposition to the utopian harmony they’ve experienced most of their lives. This “game” echoes the real-life Stanford prison experiment, which took place in 1971 (three years before The Dispossessed was published) and showed how quickly a prisoner/guard relationship can turn cruel and abusive.
Back at their dormitory, Tirin and Shevek decide that they will force Kadagv to spend two full days in prison. The following afternoon, on a trip to work at the lumber recycling workshop, the lumber foreman asks where Kadagv is. The boys reply that he must have joined another work group for the day, and Shevek is full of an “inward and vile” kind of embarrassment. During his work shift, Shevek is unable to think of anything but Kadagv.
As the game continues, Shevek begins to feel a gnawing sense of deep guilt as he considers the magnitude of what he and his friends have done. The boys’ experiment with cruelty, isolation, and forcibly imposed solitude has exposed their darkest instincts, which go entirely against the sense of solidarity, compassion, and humility they have been raised to embody.
After dinner, Gibesh, who has been standing guard outside the “cell,” approaches Tirin and Shevek to tell them that he heard Kadagv calling out in an odd voice. Shevek wants to let Kadagv out, but Tirin insists on keeping him in the cell. Shevek defies Tirin and heads for the “prison,” where he opens the doors to set Kadagv free. Kadagv emerges from the cell, hunched and stinking. He has had a bout of diarrhea, and is covered in his own feces. He asks the other boys how long he was in the cell altogether, and they estimate it was about thirty hours. Kadagv hazily replies that thirty hours is a “pretty long” time.
Shevek emerges as the most moral individual within his friend group, again demonstrating his status as an iconoclast and a bit of an outsider. The pain and humiliation he and his friends have inflicted on Kadagv is palpable, and the boys have discovered that the freedom to inflict pain on another person carries both a dark allure and a high price.
Shevek takes Kadagv to the baths to get cleaned up, and then goes alone to the latrines, where he vomits profusely. Shaking and tired, he returns to his dormitory and goes to bed early. None of the boys ever return to the prison, and none of them ever speak of the “episode” again—except for Gibesh, who tells the story to a group of older boys and girls, but when they do not understand, he drops the subject.
Shevek is the most rattled, clearly, out of his entire friend group. Gibesh speaks glibly about the event at some unknown point in the future, but otherwise, the boys are shamed into silence.
At the Northsetting Regional Institute of the Noble and Material Sciences, four teenage boys sit on a hilltop, looking out at the Institute and up at the Moon. Tirin comments that just as they are all sitting looking at Urras and thinking of it as their own moon, surely there are people on Urras right now looking up at Anarres and thinking of the planet as their moon. One of the boys, Bedap, asks what the Truth is, if both planets are each other’s moons.
Years later, the boys continue to consider Urras frequently, wondering what life is like there and what their world looks like to the Urrasti. Just as they struggle to make sense of how life on Urras has impacted life on Anarres, they struggle to understand their culture’s place and significance in the universe.
The boys have come to the hilltop for some “masculine company,” despairing over their misery about girls. Whether they copulate with the girls around them or ignore them, it makes no difference—girls are everywhere. In history class a few days ago, the boys all watched footage of life on Urras. They saw footage of children’s bodies being burned during a famine in the nation of Thu, and prostitutes in the wealthy state of A-Io lying on the beach all day while they wait for the members of the “propertied class” to “use” them. Meanwhile, members of the “unpropertied” class served dinners to the prostitutes and their men. The luxurious world of A-Io and the disease-ridden Thu were shown side by side to contrast the inequality in Urrasti society.
The boys are fascinated again by the cruelty and inequity that exists in Urrasti society. It is so foreign to them and so unimaginable that the lurid images they watch as part of their education remain with them long after the tapes have been shut off. The allure and the revulsion they feel for different aspects of Urrasti society is confusing, as it corresponds to a system of class and status that does not exist on Anarres—everyone is supposed to be the same on Anarres, but Anarres is also missing the extremities and the dramas of Urrasti society.
The boys speculate that Urrasti society must be more or less the same now as it was in the footage, though it has been a long time since the Odonian Revolution, when Odonian Urrastis fled the planet and settled on Anarres. Tirin says that there is no way to tell what life on Urras is like now, since there is no communication between the two worlds. Bedap interjects, saying that the PDC keeps in touch with Urrasti freighters, as the two planets trade with one another and keep tabs on how much of a threat one planet is to the other.
The only method of contact Urras and Anarres have is a very limited trade provision. Neither planet really knows what life is like on the other now, since contact has been lost for over a century. A deep sense of distrust and suspicion keeps each planet isolated from the other, combined with a disgust and contempt for the morals by which each society has chosen to govern themselves.
The boys talk disgustedly about Urrasti society, though Tirin wonders if all Urrasti are as bad as they seem to be from the hundred-and-fifty-year-old footage. Tirin tells the boys that they only know what they are told about Urras, and that there must be more to the planet and its society. As the boys discuss the value of hating or fearing Urras, Tirin wonders aloud what it would be like to go there, noting that the PDC wants to keep Anarresti from traveling to Urras at any cost.
Just as the boys as children were pulled toward the impulse to imprison one another, the allure of the unknown permeates their adolescence as well. Because Urras is forbidden, and because it is portrayed unilaterally as immoral and unequal, the boys wonder what it is really like there, and express the desire to learn more rather than to allow their elders to form their opinions for them. Le Guin also continues to drop hints that this supposedly “anarchist” society is also repressive in many ways, especially in limiting dissent or contact with outsiders.
If Anarresti society truly is superior to all other societies, Tirin argues, they should be able to go to Urras and help the Urrasti—however, they are forbidden to. Shevek argues that the word “forbidden” is not “organic,” and that no one on Anarres forbids anyone from doing anything. Shevek argues that Anarresti do not leave Anarres because they are Anarres, and that no true Odonian would want to travel to Urras to go live in a prison. Bedap says that though Shevek has a point, Tirin is also right—it would be useful to know the whole truth about Urras. Shevek asks who Bedap thinks is lying to the Anarresti about Urras, and Bedap replies by asking, “Who but ourselves?”
The boys struggle to decide for themselves whether the fact that they do not question the “forbidden” nature of Urras is due to negative ideas about Urras that have been thrust upon them, or the result of their pure and true allegiance to Odonian values and love of Anarres. Bedap, as he will prove to be throughout the course of the novel, is the most subversive voice in any room, and argues that it is a mixture of internal and external pressures that keep Anarresti from seeking the truth about Urras and a deeper understanding of the twin world.
A forest has been constructed on Anarres, but the vast plains of the Southwest are uninhabited, and they make up a region called the Dust. Once the Dust was a forest of holums, but drought has killed the trees and dried the soil, creating a dust that covers everything. At eighteen years old, Shevek, now out of the Institute and stuck in the Dust on a work assignment, longs to get back to physics.
As the action transitions once again, we follow Shevek off on his first work assignment—he is not happy about it, but is doing his duty to Odonian society by venturing out into the Dust. If Anarres could be seen as a vague allegory for the Soviet Union, then the Dust would be something like Siberia—a vast and inhospitable wasteland where people are sent to “work” often as punishment.
Everyone living and working in the Dust suffers from the same cough. Shevek has a few friends, with whom he talks while passing the time working on planting a new forest, but mostly Shevek finds his coworkers dull. Shevek has been at the afforestation project for several decads, and passes the time writing to his friends back at the Institute. Shevek laments the fact that his friends were able to stay behind and work on physics, while he himself has been shipped out to the desert and is “wast[ing his] central function.”
Shevek spends over a month in the Dust, forlorn and is homesick the entire time. He feels as if he is wasting his time, knowing that his interests—and his worth—lie elsewhere. The seeds of Shevek’s questioning of his society and his place in it are planted with this first work assignment, and grow from his feelings of futility and displacement. At the same time, he still thinks of himself primarily as a small piece of a whole, and only wants to be as “functional” as possible for the sake of his entire society.
Despite his dissatisfaction, Shevek marvels at the happiness he achieves from completing tangible work in a group. One night, he propositions one of his coworkers, a woman named Gimar, but she refuses him, stating that she has a partner at home. Shevek tells Gimar that he thinks “life partnership is against the Odonian ethic” of sharing. Gimar argues that in an economy of sharing, nothing is more precious than sharing one’s days and nights with another individual. Shevek confesses that he’s worried he is not built for such intimacy, and Gimar comforts him.
Shevek eventually gets over his ennui and dissatisfaction and begins to learn a lot about himself on this work posting. He discovers that he does derive joy from serving a common good, and wrestles with his feelings about partnership and commitment. His insecurities are rooted in his disparate family life and lonely upbringing, and he wonders whether partnership has any place at all in Odonian society.
Shevek embarks on a sexual relationship with a woman named Beshun. Eventually, Shevek’s rotation on the afforestation project comes to a close, and Shevek becomes emotional as he looks back from the truck bearing him away from camp and sees a “veil of life” over the desert terrain. Beshun, who is leaving camp as well, comforts him as he cries.
Shevek is surprised to find that he is emotional when it is time to leave his first work posting, and not just because it means he might soon be separated from Beshun, who has been his first real relationship. He has created life where there was none in the desert, and has achieved a sense of purpose serving his planet and his people.
At a truck depot on his way back to the Institute, Shevek finds himself in a philosophical discussion with another man, Vokep, who asserts that “all women are propertarians,” and women can only relate to men through the lens of owning or being owned. Shevek, who has recently broken up with Beshun, reflects on the lack of “proprietary idioms for the sexual act” in the Pravic language. Sex and intimacy are not about “having” or “owning,” he thinks, as no one possesses anyone else. After his brief but intense relationship with Beshun, Shevek thinks, he will never have another of its kind. Vokep urges Shevek to never let himself be owned by anyone, and Shevek assures Vokep that he won’t.
Shevek’s refusal to be “owned” by anything or anyone takes root in this passage as he reflects on the differences between men and women. In flash-forwards, Shevek feels that there are no differences between the two sexes, but as a young man confused by an unstable home life and a rollercoaster romance, he felt uncertain about the mechanics of heterosexual relationships and the aspects of partnership that seem to him propertarian or egoistic.
Shevek is delighted to return to the scenic and familiar Regional Institute. Though Shevek believes that “you shall not go down twice to the same river,” he is grateful to have returned to a place he loves, and finds that his relationship to the Institute is more complex now.
In keeping with the novel’s motif of journeys away from and returning to home, Shevek finds that he loves the feeling of returning to a place he knows and finding his relationship to it renewed and reinvigorated.
Shevek feels he has grown up quite a lot in the year he has been away, and thinks that his male friends his age are stuck in childhood. Tirin and Bedap’s lives revolve around copulation and self-centered egoizing, and so Shevek “welcome[s]” isolation. After a year of physical labor, Shevek is ready to return to intellectual work, and excited to explore the ideas he has been contemplating while far away in the Dust. The senior physicist at Northsetting, Mitis, is a wise and calm woman. In a meeting with Shevek, she reveals that she has forwarded one of his papers to a physicist named Sabul in Abbenay, and Sabul has written back with just a single equation. Shevek realizes that the equation is what has been missing from his work, and immediately begins scribbling notes to himself.
Shevek is ready to move on from his childhood and begin his life’s work as a physicist. He has embarked on his first work assignment, learned from it, and now feels justified in focusing on his own personal goals and problems. The idea that he will have the opportunity to flourish as a physicist excites him, and he turns away from the friends and habits of his adolescence in order to reach his full potential. Commitment to his own work is a luxurious freedom, and Shevek revels in it.
Mitis tells Shevek that Sabul will now want him to come to Abbenay to work alongside him. Shevek tells Mitis he does not want to go, but Mitis urges Shevek to seek out the best in his field in order to complete his research. Though Mitis wants Shevek to go, she also warns him to bear in mind that if he goes to study with Sabul, he will become “his man.” In Pravic, possessive pronouns are used infrequently, and Shevek notes that Mitis’s use of the words “his man” strikes him as odd. Nevertheless, Mitis tells Shevek that he has work to do, and he must do it. He interprets her urging him to “get to work” as her urging him to finish the equation in front of him, and will not realize until much later in his life that Mitis was urging him on to something even more.
Mitis is full of hope for her young pupil’s career, and urges him in the direction of greatness, toward the place where he will be able to achieve all he is meant to. She warns him, however, that with Sabul as his mentor Shevek will no longer fully belong to himself. Shevek, who does not even have the language to fully comprehend what Mitis is telling him, cannot understand all she is warning him against, but agrees to move forward in the direction of his dreams.
The night before Shevek leaves for Abbenay, his friends throw him a party. They have pooled their resources to provide an enormous amount of delicious food and fruit drinks, and some students perform skits and songs. As the night winds down, some couples sneak off to private rooms to copulate, while Shevek, Bedap, Tirin, and three girls sit together and talk about everything, from the nature of happiness to temporal theory. One pretty girl with short hair and high cheekbones hangs on Shevek’s every word.
Shevek is preparing to move forward onto the next stage of his life, and his friends send him off in style, symbolically marking the end to his adolescence and his emergence into Odonian society. The night of revelry and celebration reaches its peak, and then Shevek and his friends sit together to hold deep and meaningful conversations about their pasts, presents, and futures.
As Shevek waxes poetic on the nature of suffering, he argues that no society, no matter how egalitarian or how utopic, can prevent suffering. He confesses to his friends that he is afraid of life, and afraid of encountering great pain as he grows older. He recounts a tale from his time in the desert, during which he saw a man caught in an automobile accident suffer for hours as his burns consumed him. Shevek has come to understand, he says, that no one can save anyone else. Brotherhood, he believes, begins in shared pain, though he admits he does yet not know where it ends.
Though Shevek has achieved so much, he is still afraid of what lies ahead—and what lies within. He wonders about whether true collectivism and true solidarity are even possible, and fears that the true nature of life is solitude and pain. As he works through this idea he considers that perhaps pain is the great equalizer from which hope, beauty, strength, and solidarity can emerge, but he is unable to see the full trajectory of togetherness bred from pain and suffering.