A “good Odonian” has “empty hands,” Shevek tells his Urrasti hosts early on in the novel. With no money and almost zero individual material possessions, the Anarresti value restraint, frugality, and humility—real-life Taoist principles which inspired Le Guin’s conception of Anarresti values. Shevek’s “empty hands”—like the empty hands with which the Anarresti initially departed from Urras—are a recurring motif throughout the novel, and a metaphor for the anti-materialist values that drive Anarresti society. Meanwhile, on Urras, ego, luxury, and materialism rule the day. When Shevek arrives on the planet, he is bewildered by and suspicious of Urrasti commodities such as leather shoes, alcohol, and feather beds, though he ultimately indulges in the hedonistic and luxurious ways of the Urrasti upper classes. As Le Guin relays Shevek’s life story through the novel’s nonlinear timeline, she highlights the contrast between his utilitarian past and his extravagant present, suggesting that ego and excess can be just as damaging as self-denial and false humility. Shevek’s journey is one towards true humility—and it is one that requires him to find a balance between Urrasti and Anarresti ways in order to make a true change on either planet.
During his stay on Urras, Shevek accompanies a Urrasti woman, Vea, throughout a day and night out on the town, and witnesses the extent of Urrasti hedonism and luxury up-close. For the first time in his life, he overindulges to the point of excess. Vea, an attractive, sharp, and witty woman, takes Shevek out to two rich meals, a performance at a local theatre, and then the two of them ride in a taxi back to Vea’s apartment. Vea makes Shevek pay for all of it, and the exchange of money for goods and services is startling and off-putting to Shevek. Nevertheless, he goes along, hoping to impress and ingratiate himself with Vea. When the two return to Vea’s apartment, guests begin to arrive in fine clothing for an orgiastic cocktail party. Shevek becomes intoxicated and assaults Vea, overcome by his desire for her. Shevek’s colleagues help him home, drunken and disgraced as he is, and as Shevek sees firsthand how destructive the Urrasti way of life can be, he understands for the first time the stringent moral stance against materialism his people have taken on, and why.
In a speech he gives during an Urrasti workers’ uprising, Shevek preaches the promise of freedom that awaits on Anarres. “If it is Anarres you want,” Shevek advises the rebels, “if it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it with empty hands. You must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution.” The Anarresti principles of humility and restraint, which Shevek began to fear he had forgotten during his time on Urras, resurge in him as integral aspects of his being and his philosophy. He can now understand the significance of “empty hands.” Being emptyhanded—free of ego, free of materialism—has the potential to be a selfless act, and a leap of faith—as long as it is a choice, and not an ideal forced upon a person, as it is on Anarres.
In the novel’s very last lines, Shevek prepares for his return to Anarres and his reunion with his partner and children. He wishes that he had brought home a souvenir for them, but notes that his hands are “empty, as they [have] always been.” Despite all he has witnessed on Urras, and the temptations he has faced, Shevek remains optimistic about the principles that govern his beloved Anarres. As he returns, empty-handed, to his homeland, he honors the message of humility his ancestors championed, but also recognizes that in order to give oneself over to a cause, there must be a self to give. On Anarres, Shevek for a long time made himself—and his work—smaller in order to appease the society he functioned in: a society that reviled egoism, possession, and individual gain. Throughout the course of the novel—and Shevek’s life—he has come to realize that by blindly engaging in self-denial, he has been wounding himself and preventing his people from achieving all they could. It is only when he has the choice to be either egotistic or “emptyhanded”—or both, in balance—that he can best enrich his own life and the lives of his people.
Humility and Moderation vs. Ego and Excess ThemeTracker
Humility and Moderation vs. Ego and Excess Quotes in The Dispossessed
The knobby baby stood up. His face was a glare of sunlight and anger. His diapers were about to fall off. “Mine!” He said in a high, ringing voice. “Mine sun!”
“It is not yours,” the one-eyed woman said with the mildness of utter certainty. “Nothing is yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share it you cannot use it.” And she picked the knobby baby up with gentle hands and set him aside, out of the square of sunlight.
“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.
“The law of existence is struggle—competition—elimination of the weak—a ruthless war for survival. And I want to see the best survive. The kind of humanity I know. The Cetians. You and I: Urras and Anarres. We’re ahead of them now, all those Hainish and Terrans and whatever else they call themselves, and we’ve got to stay ahead of them. They brought us the interstellar drive, but we’re making better interstellar ships now than they are. When you come to release your Theory, I earnestly hope you’ll think of your duty to your own people, your own kind. Of what loyalty means, and to whom it’s due.”
“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!
“There is nothing on Urras that we Anarresti need! We left with empty hands, a hundred and seventy years ago, and we were right. We took nothing. Because there is nothing here but States and their weapons, the rich and their lies, and the poor and their misery. There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart, on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into. There is no freedom. It is a box—Urras is a package with all the beautiful wrapping of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open the box, and what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man. A man whose hand was shot off because he held it out to others. I have been in Hell at last, [and] it is Urras.”
“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.”
“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.