A central conflict in The Left Hand of Darkness is the enormous divide between Ai and the people of Gethen. Each is alien to the other, and must learn to practice empathy in order to fully collaborate and communicate. Ai’s mission is one of connectedness, but it first requires convincing the people of Gethen to join an interplanetary organization they’ve just heard of and do not understand. This requires Ai to understand the people of Gethen to better advocate for his cause, and for them to accept him as a human being worth listening to. Ai’s otherness makes his task more difficult, but it also makes him a perfect narrator. Ai, who was born on Terra (Le Guin’s term for earth), is more similar to the reader than the Gethenians are, and so the reader is able to experience their otherness through the lens of an anthropological explorer. However, although Ai and the people of Gethen are very different culturally and biologically, Ai is able to connect with individual Gethenians, which allows him insight into the planet as a whole.
In The Left Hand of Darkness viewing people as alien or other can be dangerous. The nations of Orgoreyn and Karhide have existed for centuries in a world without war, but increasing animosity between the two threatens the peace of the entire planet. For hundreds of years the governments of Orgoreyn and Karhide have regarded the residents of the opposing nation as human beings worthy of respect, under the rule of Prime Minister Tibe, Karhide begins to broadcast on the radio “disparagement of Orgoreyn” and “vilifications of ‘disloyal factions.’” By dehumanizing Orgota citizens, he hopes to mobilize Karhide to commit violence against its neighbor. Similarly, Ai is often called a monster and a pervert, labels that dehumanize him and delegitimize his mission. This threatens his health and wellbeing, but also prevents Gethen from taking advantage of the interplanetary connections he has to offer. Estraven, who shares Ai’s mission, is labeled a Traitor, which instantly devalues his life. As a respected Karhidish civil servant he can live easily in his home country, but when he is suspected as working for Orgoreyn a bounty is put on his head.
However, being an alien and an outsider can occasionally be useful. Genly Ai, although he is recognizably human to readers, is an alien and an outlier on Gethen, a lone man on a planet of androgynous sexless people. His otherness isolates him, but it also allows him to more carefully observe. Aspects of daily life, or details of their sexuality are commonplace to Gethenians, but through Ai’s eyes, as well as through collected myths and field notes of the Inspectors who came before him, they can be freshly described for the reader. Ai’s alienness also means he has no true alliance, and can work without political affiliation, instead dedicating himself to the wellbeing of mankind.
When people come together and connect, their love is powerful enough to unite nations. This kind of love and connectedness is the foundation of much of Gethenian society, and it has a place in many of their founding myths. Love and compassion can bridge the gap between the known and the unknown, the alien and the self. Estraven teaches Ai about the tenets of Handdara, which is a dual religion concerned with both the self and the other. The ideal society is not made up of “We and They,” which implies a separation of an ingroup from an outgroup, and not of “I and It,” which turns one group into inanimate objects or else nonhumans. The ideal society is centered around “I and Thou,” a “mystical” bridge between two beings, “not a body politic, but a body mystic.”
To be an alien, or to be an “other,” simply requires being an outlier amongst a homogenous group. Although Ai is the most recognizably human character, and he begins the novel as a narrator helping readers identify with him, he is in fact the most alien character. Ai is a sexual oddity in a society of primarily nonsexual beings, and this difference is difficult to overcome. Luckily, he is eventually able to form a close relationship with Estraven, and this interpersonal connection instills in him a deeper empathy for Gethenians, which he can then extrapolate to the country at large in order to continue his diplomatic mission. Le Guin makes it clear that extended acts of othering are dangerous, and that a lack of empathy can fracture a nation or a world, leading to violent conflict. However, a single connection with another person can serve as the basis for national, or even universal alliances and unity.
Otherness and Connectedness ThemeTracker
Otherness and Connectedness Quotes in The Left Hand of Darkness
Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own. Thus as I sipped my smoking sour beer I thought that at table Estraven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit. Was it in fact perhaps this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him? For it was impossible to think of him as a woman, that dark, ironic, powerful presence near me in the firelit darkness, and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture: in him, or in my own attitude towards him? His voice was soft and rather resonant but not deep, scarcely a man’s voice, but scarcely a woman’s voice either…but what was it saying?
“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.”
“But we in the Handdara don’t want answers. It’s hard to avoid them, but we try to.”
“Faxe, I don’t think I understand.”
“Well, we come here to the Fastness mostly to learn what questions not to ask.”
“But you’re the Answerers!”
“You don’t see yet, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?”
“To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”
Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…“tied down to childbearing,” implies that no one is quite so thoroughly “tied down” here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be—psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.
…Consider: There is no unconsenting sex, no rape. As with most mammals other than man, coitus can be performed only by mutual invitation and consent; otherwise it is not possible. Seduction certainly is possible, but it must have to be awfully well timed.
Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.
Yet you cannot think of a Gethenian as “it.” They are not neuters. They are potentials or integrals. Lacking the Karhidish “human pronoun” used for persons in somer, I must say “he,” for the same reasons as we use the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine. But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman.
The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.
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.”
He knew I was angry but I am not sure he understood that he was insulted; he seemed to accept my advice despite the manner of its giving; and when my temper cooled I saw this, and was worried by it. Is it possible that all along in Erhenrang he was seeking my advice, not knowing how to tell me that he sought it? If so, then he must have misunderstood half and not understood the rest of what I told him by my fireside in the Palace, the night after the Ceremony of the Keystone. His shifgrethor must be founded, and composed, and sustained, altogether differently from ours; and when I thought myself most blunt and frank with him he may have found me most subtle and unclear.
His obtuseness is ignorance. His arrogance is ignorance. He is ignorant of us: we of him. He is infinitely a stranger, and I a fool, to let my shadow cross the light of hope he brings us.
“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?”
“Is it going to be ‘Mr.’ clear across the Gobrin Ice?”
He looked up and laughed. “I don’t know what to call you.”
“My name is Genly Ai.”
“I know. You use my landname.”
“I don’t know what to call you either.”
“Then I’m Ai—Who uses first names?”
“Hearth-brothers, or friends,” he said, and saying it was remote, out of reach, two feet from me in a tent eight feet across. No answer to that. What is more arrogant than honesty? Cooled, I climbed into my fur bag. “Good night, Ai,” said the alien, and the other alien said, “Good night, Harth.”
A friend. What is a friend, in a world where any friend may be a lover at a new phase of the moon? Not I, locked in my virility: no friend to Therem Harth, or any other of his race. Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand’s touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were no flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us.
I was galled by his patronizing. He was a head shorter than I, and built more like a woman than a man, more fat than muscle; when we hauled together I had to shorten my pace to his, hold in my strength so as not to out-pull him: a stallion in harness with a mule—
“You’re no longer ill, then?”
“No. Of course I’m tired. So are you.”
“Yes, I am,” he said. “I was anxious about you. We have a long way to go.”
He had not meant to patronize. He had thought me sick, and sick men take orders. He was frank, and expected a reciprocal frankness that I might not be able to supply. He, after all, had no standards of manliness, of virility, to complicate his pride.
On the other hand, if he could lower all his standards of shifgrethor, as I realized he had done with me, perhaps I could dispense with the more competitive elements of my masculine self-respect, which he certainly understood as little as I understood shifgrethor…
There is a frailty about him. He is all unprotected, exposed, vulnerable, even to his sexual organ, which he must carry always outside himself; but he is strong, unbelievably strong. I am not sure he can keep hauling any longer than I can, but he can haul harder and faster than I—twice as hard. He can lift the sledge at front or rear to ease it over an obstacle. I could not lift and hold that weight, unless I was in dothe. To match his frailty and strength, he has a spirit easy to despair and quick to defiance: a fierce impatient courage. This slow, hard, crawling work we have been doing these days wears him out in body and will, so that if he were one of my race I should think him a coward, but he is anything but that; he has a ready bravery I have never seen the like of. He is ready, eager, to stake life on the cruel quick test of the precipice.
“Fire and fear, good servants, bad lords.” He makes fear serve him. I would have let fear lead me around by the long way. Courage and reason are with him. What good seeking the safe course, on a journey such as this? There are senseless courses, which I shall not take; but there is no safe one.
After all he is no more an oddity, a sexual freak, than I am; up here on the Ice each of us is singular, isolate, I as cut off from those like me, from my society and its rules, as he from his. There is no world full of other Gethenians here to explain and support my existence. We are equals at last, equal, alien, alone. He did not laugh, of course. Rather he spoke with a gentleness that I did not know was in him. After a while he too came to speak of isolation, of loneliness.
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.
After he had stared a long time at the glowing stove, he shook his head. “Harth,” he said, “I can’t tell you what women are like. I never thought about it much in the abstract, you know, and—God!—by now I’ve practically forgotten. I’ve been here two years….You don’t know. In a sense, women are more alien to me than you are. With you I share one sex, anyhow….” He looked away and laughed, rueful and uneasy. My own feelings were complex, and we let the matter drop.
And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. He had been quite right to say that he, the only person on Gethen who trusted me, was the only Gethenian I distrusted. For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me entire personal loyalty, and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance. I had not been willing to give it. I had been afraid to give it. I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.
“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.