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 19 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
By the sixty-first day, Estraven and Ai have spotted a series of mountains, which signals that their journey is close to being over. They begin to travel south, which is encouraging, but the ice is rotten, which is dangerous. Additionally, they must navigate severe “white weather,” thick precipitation that reduces all visibility. In this weather there is no sound and no shadows.  
In the previous chapter Ai and Estraven discussed Handdara, and the essential balance of light and dark at the center of the religion. Here, on the glacier, they see a real-life example of the importance of contrasts; in a snowstorm, without darkness or shadow, they have no way of knowing where it is safe to pull their sledge.
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Estraven falls through a crack in the ice, and although Ai pulls him back out, Ai becomes increasingly tense. Estraven makes the decision to stop and set up camp for the day and plot a better, safer route down from the glacier. They reflect on the white weather. Ai fears it, and Estraven observes that “fear’s very useful. Like darkness; like shadows.” He continues, noting “we need the shadows, in order to walk.” This reminds Ai of the symbol for yin and yang, darkness and light, which he draws for Estraven. He tells Estraven this symbol, two balanced opposites, male and female, are like Estraven himself, “a shadow on snow.”
As the chapter progresses Ai and Estraven draw an even more explicit comparison between the light and dark of the Handdara religion and the world in which they live. For example, fear, which Ai worries makes him weak, is a useful companion to bravery; it makes Ai cautious and keeps him alive. Importantly, Ai then shares the Terran yin and yang symbol with Estraven. This strengthens his bond with Estraven through cultural exchange, and also makes the Handdara principle more explicit to readers.
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After the blizzard breaks, the journey becomes easier. Ai and Estraven finally reach the southeastern edge of the glacier. They abandon their sledge and put their supplies into backpacks, navigating down the broken ice more easily. Ai observes that Estraven, who is loyal even to objects, misses the sledge. 
Estraven is a loyal friend, even to the inanimate objects that have helped him on his journey. On Gethen, life is valuable, and objects that maintain life are as well. However, Estraven seems especially empathetic.
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On the 75th day of their journey, after 51 days on the Gorbin Ice, Ai and Estraven finally leave the glacier to ski across the sea ice of the Guthen Bay. Two days later they finally see the Karhidish coast. From here Ai’s recollection of the journey begins to fall apart. He and Estraven have almost run out of food, and although he remembers hunger cramps and moments of joy and exhaustion, he remembers few details until the pair finally reaches land. The day after, they reach a Karhidish village, 81 days after they first set out.
From the beginning of the first chapter Ai has admitted that he is an unreliable narrator. Although he is doing his best to report the truth of his journey, the truth is subjective to his experience. Here is a moment where Ai’s storytelling breaks down entirely. Unable to even remember his journey, he makes no attempt to invent details for the reader. 
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Finally on solid land, after 840 miles of travel (of which 730 were in the right direction), the pair find an inn in the village of Kurkurast. At first, Ai finds the light and noise overwhelming, but he feels as though he is home.
After feeling like an outsider in Karhide for so long, it took a journey to Orgoreyn and then months on a glacier for Ai to begin to think of Karhide fondly—as not only a place where he is welcome, but a place where he belongs.
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Everyone is shocked to hear that the two came over the Gobrin Ice, a journey no one undertakes in the winter. Ai is awed by the generosity of the villagers. They are poor fishermen, with little to give, and yet they give it happily.   
In Karhide, strangers feel obligated to help each other. Thus Estraven and Ai, complete unknowns, are nevertheless treated with amazing hospitality, as though they are friends or family. 
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Estraven knows that he is still considered a traitor and worries that the kind villagers will potentially be punished for helping him. He is careful not to divulge any details of his and Ai’s journey, so as to protect the innocence of their hosts. He decides they must leave, partially for the villagers’ sake, and partially because they need to find a transmitter so Ai can contact his spaceship.
Just as their hosts are looking after their wellbeing, Estraven feels obligated to protect his hosts. He knows that although the villagers are helping him willingly, his traitorous designation could rub off on them and harm them. He feels that he must pay his debt to the townsfolk who helped him by leaving, therefore saving them.
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Estraven intends to return to Orgoreyn after his work is finished. Ai is depressed both by the fact that their journey is not over and by Estraven’s impending departure, and so commits to asking Argaven to revoke Estraven’s banishment before Karhide is inducted into the Ekumen. Estraven appreciates the gesture, but says he has been exiled from his true home for twenty years. 
Occasionally Estraven mentions that he, like Ai, is a stranger far from home. Although Estraven is still on his home planet, Karhide is not truly his home. His home is his Hearth, from which he was exiled far before he was exiled from Karhide. Once he was separated from his family, he felt he would never be truly home again.
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As they prepare to leave again, Estraven tells their hosts the story of their journey. Ai observes that Estraven tells it “as only a person of an oral-literature tradition can tell a story,” turning it into an epic saga that captivates even Ai, who lived it.
In this passage, the reader is able to see the powerful Gethenian oral tradition come to life. Readers have already read Ai’s and Estraven’s accounts of their journey, but Estraven’s retelling is clearly a different experience intended for a different audience — an epic told around a fire, instead of a book read alone.
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On their fifth day in Kurkurast, Ai and Estraven leave. For the next eight days they travel towards Sassinoth, which houses a radio powerful enough for Ai to contact his Ekumenical shipmates. Instead of camping, as they did all winter, the pair relies upon the hospitality of Karhiders. Although the terrain is easy, Ai is joyless. He feels the true journey is over. Once in Sassinoth, Ai and Estraven seek out an old friend of Estraven’s from his early political career. This friend, Thessicher, is a farmer living outside the city. Although he is poor, he opens his home to the travelers, and offers to let Estraven hide out with him for the next few months as he waits for his exile to be revoked. Estraven doesn’t want to burden his friend, but the offer is appealing. 
Once again, Ai and Estraven rely upon the kindness of Karhidish strangers, who are legally obligated to house travelers for three days, but seem to feel morally obligated to house and feed them for as long as they choose to stay. Even Estraven’s friend will happily face legal censure if it means he can accommodate an old friend. Although Ai’s mission is not complete, his friendship with Estraven has by now almost eclipsed his primary task. Knowing that he and Estraven could soon be separated is more important to him than knowing his objective will soon be completed.
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The next day Ai travels into Sassinoth. He sells the stove he and Estraven have carried with them all winter, and uses the money to buy time at the radio station. At the station, he signals a relay satellite in orbit above Gethen, which will in turn wake up the other men and women on his spaceship. He does not know if he is making the right decision, but has learned that life is full of uncertainty. 
Although Ai’s whole purpose on Gethen is to unite it with the Ekumen, his journey has shifted his priority to his personal relationships, as opposed to his celestial obligations. Ai has also begun to internalize the Handdara idea that knowing the future is useless. He has begun to feel more comfortable with uncertainty. 
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It begins to snow, so Ai spends the night in the College that houses the radio station. He feels secure and welcome, confident in Karhide’s kindness to strangers. In this moment he feels Karhide to be superior to Orgoreyn
Ai is unable to avoid the kind of patriotism Estraven warned against. Ai frequently feels warmly towards whatever country is currently housing and feeding him, lulling himself into a false sense of security, while forgetting that no nation is wholly good or wholly bad.
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The next day, Ai begins to ski back to Thessicher’s house from Sassinoth. As he skis he sees Estraven, who is coming in the opposite direction. Thessicher has informed the government of Estraven’s whereabouts, and now Estraven must flee to the border. Ai is angry with Thessicher, but Estraven generously reasons that he asked too much of his old friend. The two men ski to the border, where they hide and watch guards, who Estraven assumes are Tibe’s Inspectors, patrol.
In the end, Thessicher’s concern for his own wellbeing overpowered his desire to protect Estraven from Tibe and the Karhidish government. Ai is angry, but Estraven understands. Even as Thessicher does not look out for him, he looks out for Thessicher, and understands that he was only protecting himself. 
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Now that Estraven has been outed, he can no longer hide in plain sight, but without a tent or food they cannot hide in the wilderness either. Estraven must try to make it through the border to Orgoreyn. As the day progresses, Ai becomes colder and sadder. He begins to realize what Estraven’s plan entails. He will likely be jailed due to his lack of papers or sent to a Voluntary Farm, or shot by the guards before he even makes it to Orgoreyn. Ai sees that Estraven is willing to suffer or die for him, and for his mission.
Estraven has made up his mind to suffer and die for Ai’s cause. He worries that remaining in Karhide will compromise Ai’s wellbeing. Estraven sees the bigger picture — Gethen’s induction into the Ekumen — and is willing to sacrifice himself for it. In contrast Ai, who should be even more dedicated to his cause, is at this point more concerned with Estraven’s safety than his mission.
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As the sky grows darker, Estraven prepares to ski toward the border. Ai asks him to wait but he will not. Estraven skis towards the border and towards the border guard’s guns. They shoot to kill, using foray guns instead of stun guns. Ai skis after his friend. Estraven has collapsed on the ground and is dying. He does not speak, but in mindspeech calls out, “Arek.  
The guards at the border value their orders from Tibe more than they value a human life. Ai, who understands that Estraven is sacrificing himself to save Ai’s mission, still wishes his friend would be less selfless, so the two could continue on together.
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The guards allow Ai to stay with Estraven as he dies. Ai is then escorted to prison, and Estraven journeys “into the dark.”
Ai imagines that Estraven goes into the darkness of death in accordance with Handdara lore.  
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