Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is written using many different voices and styles. Ai Genly, an alien envoy sent to Gethen, and Estraven, a native of Gethen, are the primary narrators, and together the two of them present a fairly conventional, chronological story. Other chapters, however, make use of documents such as field reports, religious texts, and folktales to help tell the story. Individually, each of these texts and perspectives sheds light on a single facet of the world of Le Guin’s novel, but when taken together, the various viewpoints create an expansive, multifaceted picture of Gethen.
Each type of story—from Ai’s report, to Estraven’s diary, to myths, field notes, and religious works—presents its own version of the truth. Each voice speaks with authority, and although different accounts sometimes come into conflict, the essential truths of the stories resonate even when the literal events they report did not occur. In the very first paragraph of the first chapter, Genly Ai explains, “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child…that Truth is a matter of the imagination.” From the beginning, then, the narrator demonstrates a keen awareness that all narratives, including his, have elements of fiction within them, suggesting that fiction and storytelling are inseparable even when the story being told is true. Early in the novel Ai also concedes that “the story is not all mine,” thereby acknowledging his limited perspective and opening the narrative to additional, occasionally contradictory, voices. By incorporating more voices in the narrative in this way, the narrative becomes richer and more complicated. Rarely is a single, authoritative, version of the truth presented, as different events and conversations are narrated both from Ai’s perspective and from Estraven’s. While the content of the interaction does not change, the two scenes imagine different subtexts, meanings, and motives, ultimately leaving it to the reader to piece together the truth.
The Left Hand of Darkness contains eight chapters that don’t deal directly with the plot of the story, but instead provide the reader with a richer sense of the history and culture of Gethen, where the story takes place. A chapter called “The Question of Sex,” taken from the field notes of an Investigator, provides detailed information about the biology and behavior of the hermaphroditic Gethenian race. Although the nature of Gethenian sexuality (or lack thereof) has already been alluded to within the primary narrative, this chapter helps provide insight into the ways in which sex and gender have influenced Gethenian culture as a whole. Another chapter, “The Place Inside the Blizzard,” gives readers a better sense of Gethenian cultural norms regarding incest and suicide. Elsewhere, folktales and myths give depth to otherwise drily anthropological accounts of the Gethenian people’s habits and customs. For instance, although ice giants likely did not create Gethen (as suggested in one Orgota creation myth), the myth provides a useful insight into Orgota culture, as it explains the culture’s ideas about the cycle of light and death, and the important role that darkness and shadows play in daily life and in mythology.
Le Guin investigates the concept of truth through the subplot involving the Handdarata Foretellers, a group of religious men who work together to answer questions about the future. Ai initially assumes the accuracy of their predictions is the result of chance, or mindreading, but after he has his own question answered he revises his theory. Foretelling, he thinks, is “not so much a prophecy as an observation.” It has the “imperative clarity of a hunch.” That is to say, Foretelling is true, but the prophecies exist outside of the realm of empirical, verifiable fact. The Handdarta themselves see little use in telling the future or revealing life’s great truths. In their religion, and in the minds of many Gethenians, the one true constant in life is death. In the minds of the Handdarata, the only thing that allows human beings to continue to live in the face of eventual death is an ignorance of the specific facts of their future. In this way, the book establishes a key distinction between truth and fact, suggesting that truth is of greater value, and can even be found in fiction.
While Ai and Estraven never explicitly tell lies in their storytelling, their interpretations of events often differ, and each narrator shapes the narrative through his version of the truth. Ai and Estraven come from vastly different backgrounds, and therefore see the world though vastly different lenses. Their different cultural backgrounds influence how each perceives the world and tells his story, which in turn dramatically alters the reader’s interpretation of events. For example, because Genly Ai does not understand Estraven’s language or culture, he often believes Estraven’s speech to be ironic, or else actively deceptive. Early in the novel Ai describes Estraven as “faithless,” a man who cannot be trusted, only realizing months later that much of the behavior he found suspicious was the result of miscommunication. Estraven is perhaps more aware of the language and communication barrier between himself and Ai, but is no better at navigating it. He realizes late in the novel that “when I thought myself most blunt and frank with him he may have found me most subtle and unclear.” In the chapters written from Ai’s perspective, Estraven seems untrustworthy, but in the chapters drawn from Estraven’s diaries, he reveals himself to be a loyal supporter of Ai’s mission.
Finally, the language characters use to tell their stories also affects how different characters experience the world, altering not only their perception of the truth, but also the reader’s perception of truth. Ai, for example, comes from a world with both men and women, and has difficulty comprehending the sexless nature of Gethenians. He therefore makes the choice to refer to all the residents of the world using masculine pronouns—because, as an earlier Investigator noted in a field report, masculine pronouns (he, him, his) seem less defined, and less specific than female pronouns (she, her, hers) or neutral pronouns (they, them, theirs). However, this decision shapes the reader’s perception of the people of Gethen, for even though the Gethenians have no gender, Ai’s use of male pronouns creates a different perception than the use of neutral or female pronouns would.
The Left Hand of Darkness thus posits that there is no single, objective truth about the world. By using many types of stories told from many perspectives, Le Guin weaves a complex and sometimes contradictory picture of reality, showing that a variety of viewpoints gives a more complete picture than a single viewpoint ever could. Genly Ai and earlier Investigators can provide an anthropological account of the world, its people, and their observable biology and behavior, but it is the chapters written from Estraven’s point of view, and the myths and legends of the Gethenians, that render a true depiction of the people of Gethen as fully-formed beings with complex internal lives and centuries of rich culture and tradition.
Truth and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Truth and Storytelling Quotes in The Left Hand of Darkness
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.
The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story.
“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.”
“The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomes, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion…. Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”
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.
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.
We stayed two more days in Kurkurast, getting well fed and rested, waiting for a road-packer that was due in from the south and would give us a lift when it went back again. Our hosts got Estraven to tell them the whole tale of our crossing of the Ice. He told it as only a person of an oral-literature tradition can tell a story, so that it became a saga, full of traditional locutions and even episodes, yet exact and vivid, from the sulphurous fire and dark of the pass between Drumner and Dremegole to the screaming gusts from the mountain-gaps that swept the Bay of Guthen; with comic interludes, such as his fall into the crevasse, and mystical ones, when he spoke of the sounds and silences of the Ice, of the shadowless weather, of the night’s darkness. I listened as fascinated as all the rest, my gaze on my friend’s dark face.