As the story of The Dispossessed unfolds, Le Guin—through her conflicted but hopeful protagonist, the Anarresti physicist Shevek—highlights the ways in which utopia is a complex and perhaps unachievable ideal. Anarres was conceived as a utopia by its founders, and Anarresti society rests entirely on the collective belief that their utopian experiment has been a success. However, when Shevek visits Urras, he sees that the upper echelons of Urrasti society also consider themselves to be living in a utopia. The Urrasti idea of utopia—characterized by wealth, luxury, and excess—is very different from the Anarresti ideal of a society founded on principles of equality, communal living, and rejection of the ego. As Shevek grows disillusioned both with his secret admiration of Urras and his preconceived notions about the society in which he was raised, Le Guin uses his internal conflict to show that there is, in truth, no such thing as utopia.
“This is what a world is supposed to look like,” Shevek says to himself while looking out the window on his first morning on Urras. Though skeptical of Urras, Shevek is bewitched by its outward appearance. As he begins to navigate Urrasti society, Shevek continually makes comparisons between the beauty of Urras and the desolation of Anarres. Though Anarres was founded with utopian ideals in mind, the reality of Shevek’s home planet is a harsh one, and Anarres’s many flaws when compared to Urras prompt the steady realization in Shevek that the Odonian utopian experiment has failed. Urras, though seemingly utopic, is revealed to be deep in the throes of a rapidly-worsening civil war. The two major states, Thu and A-Io, are rivals, and are fighting a proxy war in the revolution-torn state of Benbili. Although Urras has the appearance of an idyllic world, full of happiness and beauty, the reality is that its people are deeply unhappy and have begun fighting amongst themselves, and the luxurious life of the planet’s upper classes is only possibly because of the labor of an exploited underclass.
As Shevek begins to realize that Urras, too, is a failed utopia, he becomes more and more disillusioned, and longs to escape the trappings of his new life there. Eventually, Shevek grows tired of only meeting wealthy propertarians and members of the upper classes. With his curiosity piqued by a mysterious note left in the pocket of one of his fine, tailor-made Urrasti jackets, Shevek seeks out the “unpropertied” classes, slipping away from his guards and setting off by himself into the poorer neighborhoods of A-Io. He notices that the people’s faces there have “a certain sameness,” which he believes comes from their anxieties about money and class. Although his brief sojourn out into the city is cut short, Shevek again seeks to go out into the true world of Urras a few days later—this time, with the help of his butler and manservant Efor. In the slums of A-Io, running for his life after realizing that the University will seize his intellectual property upon completion of his theory, Shevek finds refuge and solidarity—as well as violence and discord. There is deep unrest and an enormous cleft in Urrasti society, and as Shevek becomes a voice of the downtrodden, his experiences (having been the only witness in over a hundred years to two failed utopias) allow him to identify the ills of both worlds, as well as the sacrifices that must be made in order to mend each.
Shevek, seeking asylum at the Terran embassy—Earth’s outpost on Urras—meets with Earth’s ambassador Keng. She confesses that to her, having witnessed the horrors of a declining Earth, Urras is “the most beautiful of all the inhabited worlds, the world that comes as close as any could to Paradise.” Shevek implores her to understand that she only sees Urras that way because she is traumatized by her own people’s past and fearful of their future, so she sees Urras as a “rich, stable present” when really it is just as flawed and full of problems as earth, or Anarres, or any other world. Urras is the product of a miserable past, too, and it faces an uncertain future, and is no more of a utopia than anywhere else. The failure of utopia, then, is tied in with Shevek’s life’s work—the search for a theory of time and simultaneity. Utopia represents a perfect present, a present with no painful past and no fearful future. Because the idea of a perfect, stable present moment is a fallacy, “Utopia” is both unreachable and fundamentally unreal.
In the end, though Shevek recognizes the imperfections and the issues that are part of life on Anarres, he decides to return. His return signifies his acceptance of the impossibility of utopia. In this light, the novel’s title becomes more an absolution than an indictment of the state of being dispossessed. Shevek has been dispossessed of the damaging illusion that utopia is possible, and is now free to see his own world, as well as the world of Urras, through clear eyes. In attempting to create a utopia, both Urras and Ananres have both willingly and unwittingly sacrificed the safety and well-being of their peoples. Now, returning to Anarres with the knowledge that utopia is an impossibility, Shevek will hopefully be able to make his world—and the galaxy it’s part of—a better place without forcing utopian ideals upon either.
The Failure of Utopian Ideals ThemeTracker
The Failure of Utopian Ideals 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.
[Shevek] had no right to tease them. They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed.
“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 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.”
“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.”
“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.