Loyalty and duty are the glue that holds Gethenian society together. In a world that is hostile to human life, the bonds of lovers, families, and nations help everyone survive. However, some bonds of loyalty are seen as more honorable than others. Generally, selfless obligations are regarded as admirable and worthy of aspiring to, whereas loyalty to oneself, or loyalty to one group of people at the expense of another group, is reproachable. Estraven and Genly Ai, for example, nobly serve the whole of humanity, and are willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause. In contrast, Tibe, Karhide’s prime minister, cares more about how Karhide can increase his own prestige than that of the nation itself.
Monogamous loving relationships form the foundation of much of Gethenian society. Although marriage is not a legally recognized institution, many couples will vow kemmering to each other, which “socially and ethically is an ancient and vigorous institution.” This relationship implies a duty and responsibility between the two partners, and between the parents and any children they might have, which after many generations can lead to a community held together by webs of familial bonds. In her field notes, an Inspector even hypothesizes “the whole structure of the Karhidish Clan-Hearths and Domains is indubitably based upon the institution of monogamous marriage.” The importance of this foundational relationship is highlighted in many of Gethen’s folktales, which describe the ways in which a loving partnership between two people can act as a catalyst for wider societal peace. For example, in the folktale “Estraven the Traitor,” a kemmering pair from warring tribes uses their love for each other to end a generations-old conflict. In an Orgota creation myth, a murderous man who has killed most of his siblings vows kemmering to his last living brother (an incestuous pairing acceptable on Gethen). Although a violent story at the beginning, love ends the killing, and allows the two brothers to have many children, who go on to be the inhabitants of Gethen. On an interplanetary scale, although Ai and Estraven never develop an explicitly sexual relationship, their sexual tension leads to “the great and sudden assurance of friendship.” This friendship allows them to collaborate and survive the long Gethenian winter, which eventually allows Ai to incorporate Gethen into the Ekumen. Although both characters serve humanity first of all, Ai recognizes that Estraven also serves him, and that his sacrifices are partially due to “a sense of responsibility and friendship toward one single human being” (that is, Ai).
Love of country can be a positive thing, but Ai and Estraven frequently criticize unbridled xenophobic patriotism. Although they appreciate small-scale loyalties (between lovers) or grander loyalties (to mankind as a whole), nationalism is depicted negatively. Patriotism and nationalism can easily lead to bigotry, and a lack of understanding of other nations. This can lead to violence, which Gethen has managed to avoid for centuries, but seems more likely after the patriotic Tibe rises to power in Karhide. Although on paper, love of one’s country seems benign, it is this aggressive love for the familiar which leads to the vilification of all other nations that almost throws Karhide and the neighboring Orgoreyn into war. Early in the novel, Estraven makes his stance on patriotism clear. He asks Ai if he knows what patriotism is. Ai knows it only to mean “love of one’s homeland,” but Estraven explains that it means “fear. The fear of the other,” a political “hate, rivalry, aggression.” At this point Ai distrusts Estraven because he cannot tell where his loyalty lies, but Estraven makes it clear that he is working for the good of mankind, and “not acting patriotically.”
The highest form of loyalty in the novel is loyalty to mankind as a whole. This loyalty encompasses not only the people of the planet of Gethen, but also all the people in the known universe. At this level, a person’s commitment to mankind outweighs any other priority, including his own wellbeing. Both Ai and Estraven are willing to sacrifice their lives for what they see as the greater good — the induction of Gethen into the Ekumen. Ai is explicit in his allegiance from the beginning, and although Estraven also tries to be clear, Ai doesn’t understand Estraven’s motivations for over two years after they first meet. Many people on Gethen, who, until Ai’s arrival, were not aware there were more people in the universe than those on their planet, are slow to understand Ai (and eventually Estraven)’s mission. King Argaven, for example, knows Estraven is not serving Karhide, and sees him as a traitor. In fact, Estraven “loved his country very dearly,” but serve all countries, and all men, instead of the specific interests of a single Karhidish king. All of Estraven’s plotting, and even his exile, help him on his mission to get Gethen to join the Ekumen. His own life and his own legacy are of secondary concern. His primary interest is to unite his people with people across the universe. Similarly, Ai’s life, although he values it, is essentially disposable. He prefers to live, but he shows a certain apathy when discussing how his death would affect the mission as a whole, describing how, if for some reason he were to lose contact with his ship, they’d send down a Second Envoy in four years to resume his work.
In Gethen, everyone has a final duty to their own pride, and the pride of their peers. Gethenians as a whole, but people in Karhide specifically, practice shifgrethor, which roughly translates to “prestige, face, place, [and] the pride-relationship” between people. It is a social code, which governs all Gethenian interactions, and involves a careful dance between people to prevent them from offending one another’s pride. Shifgrethor boils down to an unspoken assumption of other people’s competence, which means that it is rude to offer unsolicited advice, and rude to assume anyone is not knowledgeable in any area. On an individual level, Gethenians practice and respect the shifgrethor of each other, but it also governs the political maneuverings of nations.
Duty and loyalty to lovers, to families, and, occasionally, to strangers is what has allowed the people of Gethen to survive for almost thirty thousand years. Ai and Estraven’s duty and loyalty to mankind as a whole is what will allow the people of Gethen to survive for thousands more with the help of an interplanetary coordinating body. On Gethen, selfishness is always eventually punished. The most admirable master to serve is a self-less, universal one.
Duty and Loyalty ThemeTracker
Duty and Loyalty Quotes in The Left Hand of Darkness
“I’m afraid that Argaven also believes you. But he does not trust you. In part because he no longer trusts me. I have made mistakes, been careless. I cannot ask for your trust any longer, either, having put you in jeopardy. I forgot what a king is, forgot that the king in his own eyes is Karhide, forgot what patriotism is and that he is, of necessity, the perfect patriot. Let me ask you this, Mr. Ai: do you know, by your own experience, what patriotism is?”
“No,” I said, shaken by the force of that intense personality suddenly turning itself wholly upon me. “I don’t think I do. If by patriotism you don’t mean the love of one’s homeland, for that I do know.”
“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year. We’ve followed our road too far. And you, who come from a world that outgrew nations centuries ago, who hardly know what I’m talking about, who show us the new road—” He broke off. After a while he went on, in control again, cool and polite: “It’s because of fear that I refuse to urge your cause with the king, now. But not fear for myself, Mr. Ai. I’m not acting patriotically. There are, after all, other nations on Gethen.”
“…if there were anything these Ekumens wanted from us, they wouldn’t have sent you alone. It’s a joke, a hoax. Aliens would be here by the thousand.”
“But it doesn’t take a thousand men to open a door, my lord.”
“It might to keep it open.”
“The Ekumen will wait till you open it, sir. It will force nothing on you. I was sent alone, and remain here alone, in order to make it impossible for you to fear me.”
“Fear you?” said the king, turning his shadow-scarred face, grinning, speaking loud and high. “But I do fear you, Envoy. I fear those who sent you. I fear liars, and I fear tricksters, and worst I fear the bitter truth. And so I rule my country well. Because only fear rules men. Nothing else works. Nothing else lasts long enough. You are what you say you are, yet you’re a joke, a hoax. There’s nothing in between the stars but void and terror and darkness, and you come out of that all alone trying to frighten me. But I am already afraid, and I am the king. Fear is king! Now take your traps and tricks and go, there’s no more needs saying.”
Argaven was not sane; the sinister incoherence of his mind darkened the mood of his capital; he fed on fear. All the good of his reign had been done by his ministers and the kyorremy. But he had not done much harm. His wrestles with his own nightmares had not damaged the Kingdom. His cousin Tibe was another kind of fish, for his insanity had logic. Tibe knew when to act, and how to act. Only he did not know when to stop.
Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn, vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “Integrity of the Kingdom’s borders,” lectures in history and ethics and economics, all in a ranting, canting emotional tone that went shrill with vituperation or adulation. He talked much about pride of country and love of parentland, but little about shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige. Had Karhide lost so much prestige in the Sinoth Valley business that the subject could not be brought up? No; for he often talked about the Sinoth Valley. I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something that the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”
Obsle, speaking to persuade others, had said, “Either Karhide will fear the strength this alliance will give us—and Karhide is always afraid of new ways and new ideas, remember—and so will hang back and be left behind. Or else the Erhenrang Government will get up their courage and come and ask to join, after us, in second place. In either case the shifgrethor of Karhide will be diminished; and in either case, we drive the sledge. If we have the wits to take this advantage now, it will be a permanent advantage and a certain one!” Then turning to me, “But the Ekumen must be willing to help us, Mr. Ai. We have got to have more to show our people than you alone, one man, already known in Erhenrang.”
If you play against your own side you’ll lose the whole game. That’s what these fellows with no patriotism, only self-love, can’t see.
“But for what purpose—all this intriguing, this hiding and power-seeking and plotting—what was it all for, Estraven? What were you after?”
“I was after what you’re after: the alliance of my world with your worlds. What did you think?”
We were staring at each other across the glowing stove like a pair of wooden dolls.
“You mean, even if it was Orgoreyn that made the alliance—?”
“Even if it was Orgoreyn. Karhide would soon have followed. Do you think I would play shifgrethor when so much is at stake for all of us, all my fellow men? What does it matter which country wakens first, so long as we waken?”
…Hate Orgoreyn? No, how should I? How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and river and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession…Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.
“Why the devil did he cheat me?” he demanded in his high strident voice, and for the first time looked straight at me.
“Who?” I said, sending back his stare.
“He saw to it that you didn’t cheat yourself. He got me out of sight when you began to favor a faction unfriendly to me. He brought me back to you when my return would in itself persuade you to receive the Mission of the Ekumen, and the credit for it.”
“Why did he never say anything about this larger ship to me?”
“Because he didn’t know about it: I never spoke to anyone of it until I went to Orgoreyn.”
“And a fine lot you chose to blab to there, you tow. He tried to get the Orgota to receive your Mission. He was working with their Open Traders all along. You’ll tell me that was not betrayal?”
“It was not. He knew that, whichever nation first made alliance with the Ekumen, the other would follow soon: as it will: as Sith and Perunter and the Archipelago will also follow, until you find unity. He loved his country very dearly, sir, but he did not serve it, or you. He served the master I serve.”
“The Ekumen?” said Argaven, startled.
As I spoke I did not know if what I said was true. True in part; an aspect of the truth. It would be no less true to say that Estraven’s acts had risen out of pure personal loyalty, a sense of responsibility and friendship towards one single human being, myself. Nor would that be the whole truth.