The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness

by

Ursula K. Le Guin

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The Left Hand of Darkness: Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ai wakes up in a tent with Estraven. He has woken up before, but is finally fully conscious, and understands where he is. Estraven is warm, and so he is sleeping outside of his sleeping bag shirtless. Ai feels as though he is seeing Estraven as he truly is for the first time.
For months, if not years, Ai has seen Estraven as strange and other. He hasn’t trusted him, partially because he hasn’t understood his gender. But now, seeing Estraven naked and vulnerable, Ai begins to see him as he sees himself.
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When Estraven wakes up, the two men discuss how to get out of Orgoreyn. The most practical way is overland, traveling off road to the north, and then across the Gobrin Ice. Ai wonders if this is possible, but Estraven believes it could be. He hopes weather on the glacier might be easier to endure, like the peaceful glacial world within the folktale “The Place Inside the Blizzard.”
In “The Place Inside the Blizzard,” which is recounted in an earlier chapter, a Karhidish man crosses a glacier in a blizzard. In the middle of the blizzard he meets his (dead) brother, who is living in an inexplicably temperate zone within the snowstorm. Although this tale is likely fiction, Estraven hopes it was inspired by real weather patterns, which will protect him and Ai on their journey.
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Estraven tells Ai, “I think we might make it.” He is straightforward in a way Ai had, for many months, interpreted as irony. Ai asks Estraven to forgive him for what he said yesterday, but Estraven brushes it off.
As the pair spends more time together, each begins to better understand the other. What Ai had long interpreted as irony was actually Estraven speaking straightforwardly and earnestly.
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Ai observes that Estraven is “never rash or hurried, but he was always ready.” This constant readiness is why Estraven succeeded politically, and why he accepted Ai’s mission from the start. Estraven confides in Ai about his intuition and “luck.” Ai suspects this is related to the talent of the Foretellers of the Handdara. He also thinks it is related to the Yomeshta belief in seeing “everything at once: seeing whole.”
Ai understands Estraven more and more with each passing day. Part of this comes from an open mind, and part of this comes from increased communication between the two. As they talk, Estraven explains the way in which he can wield luck and a vague sense of the future, which he believes is related both to the Handdara and Yomeshta traditions.
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Estraven leaves for a day and a half. He returns with a huge bag of food. He has stolen it, but is not proud, and will not discuss it further. In Karhide the stigma attached to stealing is second only to suicide.
Because life is so precious on Gethen, anything that jeopardizes life is essentially criminalized. Still, Estraven’s duty to Gethenian law is secondary to his desire to survive and to help Ai complete his mission.
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Estraven carefully calculates the rations required to travel the eight hundred miles across the arching glacier connecting the northernmost point of Orgoreyn to Karhide. They will first travel north onto the glacier, then east across the glacier for six hundred miles, then southeast. They’ll stay off roads and avoid Inspectors. It is a plan Ai admits is both “practical” and “insane.” It seems impossible to get a signal to Ai’s spaceship, and so it the only way for them to survive.
Although Estraven’s plan is risky, it is no riskier than leaving Ai in prison to die. He has decided that his own life and his own survival are less important to him than trying to save Ai’s life, and allowing him a chance to complete his mission.
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The pair decides to leave the next day. They spend their final afternoon doing nothing so as to store up energy. Estraven writes in his journal, which Ai assumes is both an “obligation to and a link with his family.” 
Estraven remains connected to his homeland and to his family (both of which he has been estranged from for at least a decade) through storytelling and language.
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As they sit in the tent Estraven wonders why Ai was sent alone. Ai explains the first Envoy is always alone, as “One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion.” Estraven comments that the First Envoy’s life must be “cheap,” but Ai explains all lives are valuable, which is why fewer are risked. He also reveals he wanted the job. Estraven says, “in danger, honor”; a proverb.
Although Ai has often been gawked at as a stranger and an alien, because he is alone he has rarely been seen as a threat. His singular presence makes him unique, but it also makes him more relatable, easier to engage with one-on-one as a fellow human. 
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The next morning the two set out. They begin using snowshoes, carrying almost three hundred pounds on their sledge. They make it fifteen miles the first day, three miles over their twelve-mile a day goal. In the evening they discuss a previous sledge-trip Estraven took as a younger man. He describes that trip as a journey undertaken for “the augmentation of the complexity and intensity of intelligent life,” an Ekumnical quote borrowed from Ai.  Ai responds with his own Ekumenical quotation.
Only a single day into their several hundred mile trek, Estraven and Ai are brought closer together through shared hard work and conversation. By using Ai’s language and phrasing, Estraven shows that he has been listening to Ai and internalizing his message, and by responding, Ai affirms that he appreciates Estraven’s gesture, increasing the intimacy between the two.
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As they eat, Ai wonders if Estraven hates Orgoreyn. Estraven denies this, and admits he doesn’t understand how someone could hate or love a country. If love of a country is hate of another, he thinks that is dangerous. He adds that “A man who doesn’t detest a bad government is a fool,” but it would be a joy to serve a good government. Ai says he feels the joy of serving a great government.
Estraven has frequently warned against the dangers of patriotism, and once again makes it clear that he has no single allegiance to a single nation. He finds it easy to love the people and places within a nation, but not the concept of a nation itself.
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As they prepare to sleep, Ai wonders if Estraven will continue to call him “Mr. Ai.” The two decide to be less formal, calling each other Ai and Harth. Ai asks Estraven who uses first names, and Estraven explains “Hearth-brothers, or friends.” As they say goodnight to each other, Ai refers to both Estraven and himself as “alien.” As he drifts off to sleep, Ai wonders how he can be friends with someone who, in kemmer, could be his lover. In his mind, someone who is neither man nor a woman is “no flesh of mine.” He believes there could be “no love between us.”
For the past months, Ai and Estraven have called each other by their last names and formal titles. Now, in a more intimate setting, they agree on less formal names for each other, the equivalent of calling a friend or colleague by their last name instead of “Mr.” or “Ms.” Still, there remains a level of separation between the two. They notably do not use their informal first names with each other (Genly and Therem), which would indicate a deeper intimacy, and one which Ai, at least, resists. 
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As they travel through the forest Estraven traps and kills some pesthry, which they eat. The next day, as he and Ai climb into the mountains, Ai becomes ill. Estraven stops their journey before their scheduled break, and orders Ai to rest. Ai is upset by what he sees as patronizing behavior. Ai doesn’t like being ordered around by someone he sees as weaker and more feminine, a “mule” to his “stallion.” Eventually, Ai realizes Estraven wasn’t being purposefully patronizing, he was just trying to help. Without his own sense of masculine pride, Estraven didn’t understand how he was offending Ai’s. Ai decides that if Estraven can lower his shifgrethor and personal pride to better get along with Ai, he can work on being less competitively masculine.
Estraven cares about Ai and his wellbeing, but the two are on different pages when it comes to how to communicate their feelings. Ai, a man, takes pride in his masculinity, which is tied to pride he feels in being strong and healthy. He sees Estraven, who is androgynous, as less of a man, and therefore as someone who cannot and should not be stronger and healthier than he is. However, Estraven hasn’t intentionally insulted Ai’s masculinity; instead, because of cultural differences, he simply didn’t consider it. By trying to be more aware of how the other is feeling, the two hope they can get along better and be kinder to each other.
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The pair continues on. On the ninth day of their journey, thousands of feet above sea level, they come to Fire Hills. This is a borderland between the mountains they’ve been climbing and the Gobrin Ice, a hotbed of volcanic activity puffing smoke and melting ice into steam. Both Ai and Estraven are happy to see this awe-inspiring sight, even if the fire and ice seem to spell “DEATH, DEATH.” 
When Ai and Estraven see the Fire Hills, they have an almost religious moment. Although the volcanic activity is dangerous, it is also beautiful. Additionally, although they do not mention it, volcanic activity often leads to the formation of landforms, thus allowing new life—even if the volcanoes themselves are deadly. In this contrast of fire and ice is the central contrast of light and dark, worshiped by the Handdara. 
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