Genly Ai has written a report describing his time on the planet Gethen. He explains he will present this report as a story, which will best present the truth of his experiences, if not the literal facts of his time as Envoy. Facts are sensitive, he continues, and change depending on how they are presented. Ai concedes “the story is not all mine, nor told by me alone.” Different voices will present different facts, which will all weave together into a single story.
From the beginning, The Left Hand of Darkness presents itself as a tale told by many voices, in many styles. While the events depicted are technically “true” within the world of the novel, each narrator interprets and presents the truth in a different way. Although each individual account is biased, they all add up to create a comprehensive whole.
The action begins with Genly Ai walking in a parade in Erhenrang, the capital of Karhide. It is raining, although that has not stopped the celebration. Ai observes the various groups participating in the parade: there are representatives from the Domains and Co-Domains of Karhide, jugglers, and musicians, but notably no soldiers. Ai marches in the parade with the royal party. This is composed of guards, ambassadors, and the King himself, King Argaven XV. Behind the King walk ceremonial guards carrying foray guns, a group of men who Ai refers to as “Death.”
Ai watches the parade as an alien observer. Although he marches in it, he remains an outsider. This is partially because he feels himself to be “other,” and partially because the people of Karhide see and know him to be an alien. On Gethen there is no war, and therefore no need for a military. While on Terra, this parade would likely have a significant military presence, in Karhide it has only a contingent of ceremonial guards, carrying outdated ceremonial weapons.
Ai and the royal party gather on a platform next to the unfinished Arch of the River Gate. The finishing of the arch, and the River Gate itself, represents an expansion of trading possibilities. The King lays the keystone into the arch, and Ai is surprised that instead of briefly miming manual labor, Argaven works seriously at the task for many minutes. The keystone is laid with red mortar, and Ai asks Estraven, who is standing next to him, why red mortar is used. Estraven explains keystones used to be set with human blood, but now they use the blood of animals.
Argaven is a different kind of royalty than Ai is used to dealing with. This underscores how little Ai knows about Gethenians. Instead of being too prideful to engage in manual labor, the King genuinely and enthusiastically works to complete the arch. The laying of a keystone bookends the novel. Here, it is a literal keystone, whose laying physically completes the port, and signifies that it is open to trade and to expand the kingdom’s influence.
Ai is bored watching the King work, but he notices the people of Karhide are patient. He is uncomfortable because the sun has come out and he is briefly hot—a sensation, he notes, he will never feel again on Gethen.
Unused to Gethenian weather, Ai is often uncomfortable when others are perfectly content. This is true regarding the climate, but also applies to various social and behavioral protocols.
Ai passes time by asking Estraven about the assembled Domains and Clans. He is impressed by Estraven’s knowledge, but Estraven explains it is his job to know the Domains. The Domains, he continues, are Karhide, and Karhide is “not a nation but a family quarrel.”
Ai distrusts Estraven, although he respects that he seems to be good at his job. The two people are only able to connect professionally, not personally. The structure of Karhidish loyalty is new to Ai, and proves useful in understanding how the government works, and how he can win the trust of the people.
A member of the kyorremy named Tibe (the King’s cousin) interrupts Ai’s conversation so that he can talk to Estraven. Ai can tell the two men do not get along, but doesn’t understand the politics. Still, in the Ekumen, power is subtle and complex, so Ai is familiar enough to be interested in what he sees as “old-fashioned” political intrigue. Ai reveals that he distrusts Estraven, whose authority he recognizes but whose motives he doesn’t understand.
As an outsider, Ai recognizes the complicated politics of Karhide but does not understand them. Although his job is to decipher this alien government and convince it to cooperate with him, his lack of understanding translates to a lack of empathy, which makes it difficult for him to do his job, or understand when he fails to complete a task.
The parade ends when the King finishes laying the stones. As the royal party disperses, Estraven invites Ai to dinner. Ai is surprised because even though Estraven has helped him over the past months, they are not close. Ai suspects this is some kind of “effeminate intrigue,” which annoys him.
Some of Ai’s distrust of Estraven stems from his inability to see him as truly androgynous. Instead, to Ai, Estraven’s dual sexuality seems duplicitous. Additionally, Ai doesn’t understand the political scheming that takes place in Karhide. Although all members of government engage in it, he seems to distrust Estraven more than he distrusts anyone else because he cannot pinpoint to whom he owes his loyalty.
As Ai walks home he is noticed by native Gethenians, who recognize him by his height. Although this recognition is part of his job, he admits he often “longed for anonymity,” and “to be like everybody else.”
Although a key part of Ai’s job is working on an alien world, where he will inevitably be recognized as alien himself, it takes a toll on him. Being an outsider at once makes him the center of attention and isolates him, preventing him from making a connection with the native Gethenians.
Tibe intercepts Ai as he walks. They talk about the ceremony, and Ai says he appreciates Estraven’s explanation of events. Tibe comments that Estraven is “famous for his kindness to foreigners.” Ai remarks that as an alien, he’s the most foreign a person could possibly be—a fact Tibe has forgotten. Tibe jokes that Ai would be safer if he forgot too, and then gets in a car to visit the King. Ai understands that the conversation is somehow significant, but he doesn’t understand any of the double meaning in Tibe’s speech.
When Tibe refers to Estraven’s “kindness to foreigners,” he is implying that Estraven’s loyalties lie outside of Karhide, and that he is a traitor. However, Ai, who understands little about Karhidish politics, doesn’t understand this innuendo. He assumes Tibe is referring to Estraven’s relatively friendly relationship with Ai.
Ai returns to his boarding house, known as an island, and eats dinner, the third of four meals Karhidish people eat each day. Ai feels like he is constantly eating, but notes that he will soon discover that “the Gethenians have perfected the technique not only of perpetually stuffing, but also of indefinitely starving.”
Almost everything in Gethen reminds Ai that he is an outsider. The weather, the way people eat, the way people live, and even the way people are able to tolerate conditions (extreme cold, extreme hunger) that are extremely uncomfortable for Ai.
In the evening, Ai walks past the palace to Estraven’s house. Ai thinks the architecture of the palace, with its walls and dungeons representing “centuries of paranoia on a grand scale.” Estraven greets Ai outside and brings him in to his home. Ai is surprised to discover he is the only guest.
Ai misinterprets Estraven’s invitation, assuming he is being invited to a dinner party, not a private meeting. In a country built upon “centuries of paranoia,” every political action has a second or third meaning. Ai knows this, but cannot decipher the meanings themselves.
Although Ai has been on Gethen for two years, he admits he has trouble seeing Gethenians “through their own eyes” as truly androgynous people. Instead, he sometimes sees them as men, sometimes as women. He considers again how he distrusts Estraven, and wonders whether this is because he distrusts his perceived femininity, or some kind of false masculinity. Ai considers that it might be his own attitude towards Estraven that is confused, which leads to a feeling of distrust.
In few ways is Ai more alien than in his inability to understand the Gethenian gender. Estraven, like all Gethenians, is both a man and a woman, but Ai can only see him as a man with feminine tendencies, or a woman with masculine ones. He distrusts Estraven partially because he sees his gender to be a duplicitous performance, when in fact Ai has a basic misunderstanding of how gender on Gethen works.
Estraven apologizes to Ai for waiting so many months to invite him to his home, but explains that it is more appropriate now that they are no longer political collaborators. Ai is confused, and Estraven explains that he will no longer be acting as an intermediary between Ai and the King. For the past months Estraven has believed Ai’s story about his origin and mission as Envoy, and helped get him recognized by the Karhidish government. Ai is confused as to why now, a day before he is to meet with the King, Estraven is seemingly withdrawing his support.
Once again, Ai understands that Estraven is saying something important, but does not know what he actually means. What Estraven is saying is that he must withdraw his support from Ai, because he, Estraven, has fallen out of favor with the King and doesn’t want to taint Ai by association. Estraven is trying to help Ai and his mission, but Ai sees this as a betrayal, and believes that Estraven is either not confident in him, or else deliberately undermining him.
Ai wonders if Estraven’s behavior is related to shifgrethor, in which case he doesn’t hope to understand it. Estraven points out that the King didn’t speak to him during the parade, and implies he is now out of favor because of his attempt to mitigate a conflict between Karhide and Orgoreyn in the Sinoth Valley. Ai thinks this information irrelevant, and is frustrated that an issue he sees as terrestrial and trivial is influencing his grander mission.
Estraven tries to explain to Ai that politics beyond Ai’s control have affected Estraven’s political standing (which will, in turn, affect the King’s reception of Ai). Because Estraven didn’t support the Sinoth Valley conflict, he knows he will be forced out of the government. Ai doesn’t understand the connection between this dispute and Estraven, although it will prove to be extremely relevant to his future dealings in both Karhide and Orgoreyn.
Estraven warns Ai that there are people in court who oppose his mission as Envoy. Although Estraven has done his best to plead Ai’s case with the King, Argaven sees Ai, and the Ekumen by extension, as a threat to his power. Ai is irritated, as Ekumen, whose goal is co-ordination, just wants Karhide to join its alliance, not to absorb and rule it.
There are misunderstandings on both sides of the aisle. Karhide doesn’t understand the Ekumen’s goal, and assumes they want to rule over Gethen. On the opposite side, the Ekumen doesn’t understand Karhide’s concerns, and therefore Ai has difficulty negotiating with the King.
Estraven explains that the King is patriotic, in that he fears the other. Estraven assures Ai that he (Estraven) is not patriotic, as “there are, after all, other nations on Gethen.” Ai does not understand what he means, and assumes he is saying he has no true loyalties. Supper ends and the two men say farewell. Estraven tells Ai he will be leaving Ehrenrang soon—a fact which surprises Ai—but hopes he will see him again and ask him more about the universe. Ai walks home cold, lonely, and fearful.
The King’s patriotism makes him love his country to the point that he hates everything outside of it. Ai doesn’t fully understand Estraven’s definition of patriotism, and assumes that if Estraven is not loyal to a single country, he is only loyal to himself. This is not true, but Ai will only realize the truth in later chapters.