On the anarcho-syndicalist planet of Anarres, where everyone is responsible for the well-being of everyone else and no one owns anything, “egoizing” is the ultimate sin. Anarresti are always calling one another out in moments of egoism as they strive to eliminate possessiveness, egocentrism, and self-interest from their society, their language, and their relationships. Meanwhile, on Urras, the self is of central importance, and the drive for self-advancement and self-aggrandizement defines every aspect of Urrasti society. As Shevek observes the differences between the two worlds, he is thrown into conflict and inner turmoil about the values of individualism versus collectivism, as well as the uses—and the moral implications—of isolation versus solidarity. Le Guin uses The Dispossessed as a vehicle for allegorically critiquing the virtues and failures of both capitalism and socialism. The radical collectivism of the Odonians is damaging in ways that are different from the compassionless and greedy patterns of capitalism, and neither system offers utopia, or even real freedom. Using Shevek as a guide, Le Guin urges her readers to evaluate the differing ideologies in Urrasti and Anarresti societies, ultimately suggesting that while neither planet is totally “right,” each has the power to redeem itself only by adopting—even in small part—the mores and ideals of the other.
Anarresti share everything—goods, food, living quarters, and even partners and children. Dormitories are the most common living arrangement, with single or double-room domiciles being reserved for those who are partnered—a small fraction of society. Shevek never knew his mother, who left him and his father when Shevek was still a child (though this is relatively common, as children do not necessarily “belong” to their parents, nor do parents “belong” to their children). Anarresti language has no possessive grammar—such that an Odonian would say “the head hurts” rather than saying “my head hurts.” The idea of ownership is so foreign to Odonians that it has been removed from the language they use to communicate, and though as a child Shevek struggled with a desire for possession, he soon came to adopt the Anarresti ethos of dispossession. Everything on Anarres is shared, and nothing is owned. However, this radical collectivism has its faults, and creates several problems for Shevek throughout the course of his life. On Anarres, Shevek—as a leading physicist—should have been able to be part of an institute of likeminded fellows able to engage with him and his work. However, due to the syndicalist nature of Odonian society and the prioritization of labor which most directly serves Anarresti society as a whole, Shevek was always told that his research was unimportant. His work was frequently co-opted by his mentor, Sabul, who insisted that Shevek did not deserve credit for the theory he developed because it belonged to all of Anarres. Moreover, due to the taboo on communication between Urras and Anarres, Shevek was consistently isolated and cut off from the only others working in his field—Urrasti physicists. On Urras, however, he experiences the “revelation” and “liberation” of finally being able to work alongside his peers, and at last feeling as if his work is important rather than egotistical or isolationist. The desire to create a society completely allegiant to the values of solidarity and collectivism on Anarres ultimately failed Shevek, while on Urras, a planet noted for its isolationism and egoism, he is able to find the camaraderie he has long craved—at least for a while.
On Urras, Shevek is given the freedom and resources he needs to work toward his General Temporal Theory unhindered and unfettered. However, he slowly comes to understand that the Ioti only want his theory for their own advancement and prestige. The co-opting of Shevek’s hard work on Anarres brought him pain and sadness, and on Urras, he realizes that the same fate will eventually befall him. At least on Anarres he was working for the good of his brothers and sisters—on Urras, he is only working to stoke the egoism of the State. Shevek’s work is co-opted in both places, though on Anarres it was done in the name of collectivism, and on Urras it is being done in the name of deepening the individualist and isolationist agenda of the powerful Ioti government.
Many of the people of Urras, though they are regarded on Anarres simply as self-obsessed egoizers, actually long for solidarity and change. When Shevek, exhausted by and fearful of the Urrasti upper classes he has been consorting with since his arrival, ventures out into the “real” Urras, he encounters in the lower classes a burning desire for collectivism, socialism, and revolution. Shevek urges the rebels to consider what they want, and to approach change “empty-handed”—that is, free of ego or expectations. This, he warns them, is the only way forward.
Shevek’s journey from Anarres to Urras and back again is a lesson for him in the virtues and vices inherent in ideals of individualism versus ideals of collectivism. Shevek felt isolated on Anarres, but his isolation is compounded even further on Urras. A man caught between two worlds—and two worldviews—Shevek eventually comes to see the ways in which both societies fall short of their goals and their potentials, and ultimately returns to his home planet with the goal of broadening communication throughout the galaxy with the invention of a device which will allow instantaneous contact between far-away planets. In the end, the ansible—the physical manifestation of Shevek’s years of work on both Urras and Anarres—serves to further collectivism and solidarity throughout the galaxy and stands as a symbolic reconciliation and mediation of Urrasti and Anarresti ideologies, despite the deep flaws inherent in each.
Individualism and Isolation vs. Collectivism and Solidarity ThemeTracker
Individualism and Isolation vs. Collectivism and Solidarity 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.
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.
“I never thought before,” said Tirin, “of the fact that there are people sitting on a hill, up there, on Urras, looking at Anarres, at us, and saying, ‘Look, there’s the Moon.’ Our earth is their Moon; our Moon is their earth.”
“Where, then, is Truth?” declaimed Bedap, and yawned.
“In the hill one happens to be sitting on,” said Tirin.
“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.
“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.”
“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 was difficult for him to distrust the people he was with. He had been brought up in a culture that relied deliberately and constantly on human solidarity, mutual aid. Alienated as he was in some ways from that culture, and alien as he was to this one, still the lifelong habit remained: he assumed people would be helpful. He trusted them. But Chifoilisk’s warnings, which he had tried to dismiss, kept returning to him. His own perceptions and instincts reinforced them. Like it or not, he must learn distrust. He must be silent; he must keep his property to himself; he must keep his bargaining power.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”