The Dispossessed takes place over the course of forty years on two twin planets, Urras and Anarres, which are often referred to as each other’s moons. Nearly two centuries before the start of the novel, a faction of Urrasti people who called themselves Odonians—and who rejected the capitalist, “profiteering” values of their home planet—defected to Anarres, where they built a new society on the desert-like planet. Anarres, a hundred and sixty years later, is now a society governed by anarcho-syndicalist principles in which no one owns anything and every Odonian is, in theory, free from state rule, free from possessions, and free from capitalism. Over the course of the book, however, Le Guin complicates—and in many ways dismantles—the concept of “freedom.” Things on Anarres are not as perfect as they seem, and through her epic portrait of a utopian experiment in crisis, Le Guin argues that true freedom may not exist at all.
“To be responsible [for] one another is our freedom,” Shevek tells one of his university friends in the early pages of the novel. In this moment, Shevek and his friends are young and hopeful idealists, committed to the Odonian principles of frugality, humility, and compassion, and completely invested in the idea that the system of Syndicates which keeps Odonian society afloat has been put in place for the good of every Anarresti. Shevek and his friends, in their youth, derive their sense of freedom from enthusiastically participating in the machine of their society, and see the foreign Urrasti ideals of egoism, possession, and wealth as stifling and destructive.
As Shevek grows older, experiences the syndicalist system in practice, and advances as a physicist, however, his concept of freedom begins to change. Shortly after the end of his first labor posting in the dusty desert, Shevek is recommended for a post at the Central Institute of the Sciences in the capital of Abbenay to study under a physicist named Sabul. In Abbenay, Sabul makes Shevek study Urrasti texts and learn the Ioti language. As Shevek delves into his new work, he finds freedom in isolation—though he is at first ashamed and worried that he is egoizing, eventually the “lack of physical labor, of occupation, of social and sexual intercourse [do not] appear to him as lacks, but as freedom.” In contrast to his earlier belief that freedom was responsibility for others, Shevek tentatively begins to believe that true freedom is found in responsibility for himself and his work alone. Here, Le Guin sets the stage for Shevek’s eventual desire to experience a freedom different from that of Odonianism.
Over the course of the next several years, Shevek finds himself torn again and again between responsibility to his work and responsibility to his fellow Odonians, and encounters hypocrisy and subterfuge at several levels of Odonian society. In conversations with his partner Takver and his childhood friend Bedap, Shevek begins to realize that the anarcho-syndicalism which governs Anarresti society has in effect become a trap. Odonians are no longer truly free, as they are constantly pulled away from their jobs, lives, and partners to go off on rotating work assignments, and yet are prevented from ever finding true satisfaction in the work they do—Shevek is constantly told that his research in the field of temporality is egoistic and unimportant, and frequently has his research co-opted by Sabul. All of this compounding frustration and disillusionment builds up over the years, and eventually Shevek and Bedap form their own syndicate—the Syndicate of Initiative—whose goal is to establish communication with, and possibly offer asylum to, a splinter group of self-proclaimed Odonians trapped in the war-torn Urrasti state of Benbili.
When the council of Production and Distribution Coordination vehemently opposes Bedap and Shevek, Shevek suggests sending an Anarresti to Urras instead. His mother Rulag, a member of the council, warns him that if he leaves, he may not be welcome back, and if he attempts to return he will likely be met with violence. Shevek, however, knows that he needs Urras’s resources to complete the General Temporal Theory which has become his life’s work—and which he feels will be underappreciated or ignored on Anarres, though it could stand to revolutionize life throughout the galaxy. Urras, then, represents freedom to Shevek—the planet which oppressed his ancestors, and which seemed to him for so much of life to be the antithesis of freedom, is now his only chance at truly being free.
On Urras, Shevek does experience what he initially believes is freedom—he is given a luxurious private room, a bank account, custom shoes and clothing, and full access to all the resources and opportunities the Ieu Eun University in the Urrasti state of A-Io has to offer. Shevek teaches, works, reads, and explores Urrasti life, and marvels at how the Ioti are free from the demands of physical labor or forced occupational rotations. As Shevek contemplates the freedoms that the Urrasti enjoy, he begins to further doubt the truth of Odonian freedom. But as Shevek’s stay on Urras nears a year, he begins to realize that he has been “bought” by the Ioti state—he has been kept in a luxurious apartment and has had his every whim catered to, but he has experienced none of the “real” Urras, and has not had any contact with anyone who is not a wealthy intellectual or propertarian. One of Shevek’s coworkers, a scientist named Chifoilisk from the socialist state of Thu, warns him against ever writing down his General Temporal Theory or sharing it with any of the Ioti—Chifoilisk says that the idea will be snatched away. In conversations with his Ioti mentors, including the lauded physicist Atro, the Ioti men admit as much—they are desperate to prove the superiority of the Cetian race (the race of the Urrasti and Anarresti peoples) and the dominance of the capitalist state of A-Io.
As the war in Benbili escalates, and soon involves the capitalist state of A-Io and the socialist state of Thu, who are battling against one another in Benbili’s capital, Shevek is informed by one of the physicists at the university that he will no longer be permitted to leave. Shevek realizes that he has effectively become a prisoner in a foreign state, and with the help of his manservant Efor, he flees the university and joins a worker’s revolution in a neighboring city. At a demonstration in the Ioti Capitol Square, Shevek is raised up as the figurehead of the revolution, but Ioti helicopters arrive and fire on the enormous crowd. Shevek is now an enemy of—and a threat to—the Ioti state, and realizes that he was never truly free on Urras, either.
Shevek’s journey throughout the novel seems to be a journey that will end in the discovery of true freedom. In the end, however, Shevek despairingly realizes the opposite—true freedom, and the utopic idea thereof, is seemingly impossible to achieve. However, as he hands his General Temporal Theory over to the displaced Terrans—inhabitants of Earth who were forced to flee their decimated planet, and are now confined to spaceships gifted to them by the altruistic Hainish race—Shevek continues to hope that his theory will be used for good, and will foster free and open communication throughout the galaxy. He returns to Anarres optimistic despite the threat of violence upon his return. Though he has learned the difficult lesson that true freedom does not exist, he hopes against hope that he—and the whole of the galaxy—will be able to carry on anyway.
Freedom 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.
“We don’t leave Anarres, because we are Anarres. But are we kept here by force? What force—what laws, governments, police? None. Simply our own being, our nature as Odonians. It’s your nature to be Tirin, and my nature to be Shevek, and our common nature to be Odonians, responsible to one another. And that responsibility is our freedom. To avoid it would be to lose our freedom. Would you really like to live in a society where you had no responsibility and no freedom, no choice, only the false option of obedience to the law, or disobedience followed by punishment? Would you really want to go live in a prison?”
“Take care in Abbenay. Keep free. Power inheres in a center. You’re going to the center. I don’t know Sabul well; I know nothing against him; but keep this in mind; you will be his man.”
The singular forms of the possessive pronoun in Pravic were used mostly for emphasis; idiom avoided them. Little children might say “my mother,” but very soon they learned to say “the mother.” Instead of “my hand hurts,” it was “the hand hurts me,” and so on; to say “this one is mine and that’s yours” in Pravic, one said, “I use this one and you use that.” Mitis’s statement, “You will be his man,” had a strange sound to it. Shevek looked at her blankly.
[Shevek] had no right to tease them. They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed.
When Shevek asked, with some diffidence, if he might see the place where Odo was buried, they whisked him straight to the old cemetery in the Trans-Sua district. They even allowed newsmen to photograph him standing there in the shade of the great old willows, looking at the plain, well-kept tombstone:
Laia Aseio Odo
To be whole is to be part;
True voyage is return.
[Shevek] had come to love Urras, but what good was his yearning love? He was not part of it. Nor was he part of the world of his birth. The loneliness, the certainty of isolation that he had felt in his first hour aboard the Mindful rose up in him and asserted itself as his true condition, ignored, suppressed, but absolute. He was alone here because he came from a self-exiled society. He had always been alone on his own world because he had exiled himself from his society. And he had been fool enough to think that he might serve to bring together two worlds to which he did not belong.
“We have no government, no laws. But as far as I can see, ideas were never controlled by laws and governments, even on Urras. You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that’s precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you, and prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. In other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn’t any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the human mind. Public opinion! That’s the power structure he’s part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules Odonian society by stifling the individual mind… Government [is defined as] the legal use of power to maintain and extend power. Replace ‘legal’ with ‘customary,’ and you’ve got Sabul, and the Syndicate of Instruction, and the PDC.”
“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!
On Anarres [Shevek] had chosen, in defiance of the expectation of his society, to do the work he was individually called to do. To do it was to rebel: to risk the self for the sake of society. Here on Urras, that act of rebellion was a luxury, a self-indulgence. To be a physicist in A-Io was to serve not society, not mankind, not the truth, but the State. On his first night in this room he had asked them, challenging and curious, “What are you going to do with me?” He knew now what they had done with him. Chifoilisk had told him the simple fact. They owned him.
“Do you know what your society has meant, here, to us, these last hundred and fifty years? Do you know that when people here want to wish each other luck they say, ‘May you get reborn on Anarres!’ To know that it exists, to know that there is a society without government, without police, without economic exploitation, that they can never again say that it’s just a mirage, an idealist’s dream! I wonder if you fully understand why they’ve kept you so well hidden out there at Ieu Eun. Why you were never allowed to appear at any meeting open to the public. Why they’ll be after you like dogs after a rabbit the moment they find you’re gone. It’s not just because they want this idea of yours. But because you are an idea. A dangerous one. The idea of anarchism, made flesh. Walking amongst us.”
“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.”
“I only ask your help, for which I have nothing to give in return.”
“Nothing? You call your theory nothing?”
“Weight it in the balance with the freedom of one single human spirit,” [Shevek] said, turning to [Keng], “and which will weigh heavier. Can you tell? I cannot.”
“What we’re after is to remind ourselves that we didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we’re no better than a machine. If an individual can’t work in solidarity with his fellows, it’s his duty to work alone. His duty and his right. We have been denying people that right. We’ve been saying, more and more often, you must work with the others, you must accept the rule of the majority. But any rule is tyranny. The duty of the individual is to accept no rule, to be the initiator of his own acts. Only if he does so will the society live, and change, and adapt, and survive. We are not subjects of a State founded upon law, but members of a society founded upon revolution. Revolution is our obligation. We can’t stop here. We must go on. We must take the risks.”
“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.”
“I will lie down to sleep on Anarres tonight,” [Shevek] thought. “I will lie down beside Takver. I wish I’d brought the picture, the baby sheep, to give Pilun.” But he had not brought anything. His hands were empty, as they had always been.