In the 1976 introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin describes her story as a “thought-experiment,” intended not as “predictive,” but rather as “descriptive” of gender roles on earth at the time of writing. Le Guin wrote her novel in the midst of the Second Wave of feminism, a time when American women were fighting for legal protection for equal rights and equal pay. She saw the ways in which women were mistreated or dismissed, and felt that society was divided into “strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.” In writing The Left Hand of Darkness, she says in a 1993 essay, she “eliminated gender to find out what was left.” Le Guin hoped that by creating a genderless society she would be able to see how gender shaped culture, by looking at what culture could be when built around something other than a gender binary. In the Gethenians, Le Guin created a society of androgynous neuters, who, for a few days each month, go into kemmer, during which time they develop sex organs, experience sexual desire, and become briefly able to concieve. For 80% of their cycle, Gethenians are neither male nor female (though Ai describes them with masculine pronouns), and during the other 20%, if they are near someone else also kemmering, they will develop either male or female sex organs. In all other ways, however, Gethenians are a genderless society, which of course has a far-reaching impact on their lives and culture.
The people of Gethen are biologically similar to humans (like Ai) in many aspects unrelated to sex. However, Gethens have developed a radically different society than Terrans (i.e., humans). As an alien Investigator writes, “in the end, the dominant factor in Gethenian life is not sex or any other human thing: it is their environment, their cold world.” Terran societies (as based on Le Guin’s experiences in mid-century America) are segregated according to gender. Only women can become pregnant, and as a result they’re burdened with the majority of childbearing duties. This inequality leads to women being less represented in government and it means that the ruling of the planet is predominantly left to men. By contrast, on Gethen anyone can become pregnant, and since everyone can potentially find themselves rearing a child, Le Guin writes, “no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’” as Terran women. Everyone is “respected and judged only as a human being,” as opposed to as a woman or a man. Ekumenical Investigators hypothesize that wars fought on Terra are a “purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape.” On Gethen, there is no war, merely competition and political maneuvering, perhaps because Gethenians lack aggressive masculinity. On a more personal scale, Gethenian people are not burdened by gender expectations. Since there are no men and women, one group cannot be stereotypically soft and gentle, or the other aggressive and domineering. The male tendency toward domineering behavior and away from vulnerability can be seen easily in Genly Ai’s character. Estraven observes that Ai “considers crying either evil or shameful,” and he notices that Ai turns his face from him when crying, as if ashamed. Ai, for his part observes that “most Karhiders cry easily, being no more ashamed of tears than of laughter.” Their easy weeping contrasts with his manly stoicism. Estraven also notices that Ai is physically stronger, more likely to take risks, and more temperamental than most Gethenians.
As different as Terran society is from life on Gethen, even on Gethen different nations have adapted in different ways. In the nation of Karhide, children are raised by their parent, either the “parent in the flesh” (the one who became pregnant), or, more rarely, by a monogamous couple who have vowed kemmering to each other and conceived a child. Succession is matrilineal, and the government is based around families. Political power passes from parent to child. This is as true in small villages in Karhide’s rural domains as it is in the country’s central monarchy. In the nation of Orgoryen, the extended family has been “nationalized,” and children over a year old are raised in “Commensal Hearths.” Wealth and status are not passed along a bloodline; instead, each generation must fight for status on its own terms. The government cannot be a monarchy, as there is no direct inheritance, so the nation has instead has developed into a vast bureaucracy. In both Gethenian nations, the absence of gender roles influences the societal structure in very different, but equally significant ways.
Genly Ai’s gender, and his familiarity with Terra (where people are born either male or female), impedes his ability to see the Gethenians in all their complexity. Ong Tot Oppong, a female Investigator whose report is quoted in one of the novel’s chapters, expresses having similar difficulty in understanding Gethenians. Ai is constantly commenting on the femininity or masculinity of Gethenians he encounters. These words mean nothing to the people he is encountering, and his reaction is not to attempt to understand this alien world, but rather to impose his own beliefs upon it. Ai initially distrusts Estraven because of his perceived “effeminate deviousness,” and only comes to love him when he is able to understand that Estraven is neither fully male nor fully female. In the novel’s final chapters, Ai understands that Estraven had only wanted recognition, acceptance, and to be seen as he is—as an androgynous person—and not how Ai suspiciously perceived him (as “a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man”). However, prejudice regarding unfamiliar sexualities is not limited to members of the Ekumen. Gethenians, too, view any sexual deviance with suspicion. For instance, people who choose to present as male or female all the time, instead of only during kemmer, are viewed as perverts and cast out from society. Gethenians perceive Ai as an “other” primarily because he looks male all the time, and this occasionally makes people suspicious or distrustful of him and his mission.
Gethenian sexuality influences every aspect of its society. By creating a fictional world in which gender does not exist, Le Guin reveals the multiplicity of ways that gender shapes culture. Gethen is far from a perfect planet, and there is still inequality and prejudice among its inhabitants, but it exists on a much smaller scale than it does on Terra. As an intentionally feminist work, The Left Hand of Darkness elevates Gethenian culture over Terran society. Whereas in a world with two genders, one is frequently subjugated, on Gethen all people are equal, with equal opportunity for failure or success, based on their own merit rather than the gender they were assigned at birth.
Sex, Gender, and Behavior ThemeTracker
Sex, Gender, and Behavior 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?
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.
“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.