The unimportant-looking wall made of “uncut rocks roughly mortared” that surrounds the Port of Anarres functions as a symbol of Anarresti isolation—not only from their rival planet, Urras, but from the rest of the galaxy. “Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depend upon which side of it you were on,” the narrator remarks. Urras and Anarres are twin planets, though many refer to Anarres as the “moon” of Urras. Relations and communications between the planets are hindered by issues of perspective, as the Urrasti are barred from ever visiting Anarres and the Anarresti are more than wary of the Urrasti’s capitalist, materialistic society and values.
The novel centers around Anarresti physicist Shevek’s growing disillusionment with the isolationist lifestyle and politics on Anarres, and his subsequent search for something better. In the early pages of the novel, as Shevek boards the Mindful, a ship bound for Urras, he crosses the wall (he is the first Anarresti to do so in nearly two hundred years). All the while he is harassed and physically threatened by gathered protestors. Le Guin describes the wall as low enough that “even a child could climb it,” and in doing so she emphasizes how easy it would be for the two rival worlds to set aside their differences and come together in the name of common good, if only they would try. Le Guin also writes that the wall “did not look important”; the differences between the Anarresti and the Urrasti are similarly unimportant, though the citizens of each world have vastly exaggerated them, making reconciliation and peace impossible. Shevek, disillusioned with life on Anarres and hopeful that he will be able to find personal and professional fulfilment on the capitalist world of Urras, crosses the unimportant-looking wall and symbolically crosses over the physical, intellectual, and emotional boundary between the worlds, metaphorically preparing himself to no longer see the two worlds in an “ambiguous, two-faced” way, but from the more objective standpoint of a curious and open-minded traveler.
The Wall Quotes in The Dispossessed
There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall. Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.
“It is an ugly world. Anarres is all dusty and dry hills. And the people aren’t beautiful. The towns are very small and dull, they are dreary. Life is dull, and hard work. You can’t always have what you want, or even what you need, because there isn’t enough. You Urrasti have enough. You are rich, you own. We are poor, we lack. You have, we do not have. Everything is beautiful here. Only not the faces. On Anarres nothing is beautiful, nothing but the faces. We have nothing but that, nothing but each other. Here you see the jewels, there you see the eyes. And in the eyes you see the splendor of the human spirit. Because our men and women are free—possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes—the wall, the wall!
“Neither of us chose [to surrender to Sabul’s authoritarianism]. We let Sabul choose for us. Our own, internalized Sabul—convention, moralism, fear of social ostracism, fear of being different, fear of being free! Well, never again. I learn slowly, but I learn.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Takver, a thrill of agreeable excitement in her voice.
“Go to Abbenay with you and start a printing syndicate. Print the Principles, uncut. And whatever else we like. Bedap’s [paper] that the PDC wouldn’t circulate. And Tirin’s play. I owe him that. He taught me what prisons are, and who builds them. Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I’m going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I’m going to go unbuild walls.”
“Things are…a little broken loose, on Anarres. That’s what my friends on the radio have been telling me. It was our purpose all along to shake things up, to break some habits, to make people ask question. To behave like anarchists! All this has been going on while I was gone. So, you see, nobody is quite sure what happens next. And if you land with me, even more gets broken loose…Once you are there, once you walk through the wall with me, then as I see it you are one of us. We are responsible to you and you to us; you become an Anarresti, with the same options as all the others. But they are not safe options. Freedom is never very safe.”