Study Guide

A Left-Handed Commencement Address Analysis

By Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Rhetoric

    Ethos

    According to Aristotle (you know, the guy who came up with this whole ethos-pathos-logos stuff), ethos has to do with whether or not the speaker is perceived by the audience as credible. Even though we weren't graduating from Mills College in 1983, we can still take a pretty good guess as to the extrinsic and intrinsic ethos Ursula Le Guin might've used in her speech.

    Extrinsic ethos has to do with the character, expertise, education, and experience of the speaker. Like, if you were actually in that audience, what about Le Guin would make you want to trust what she says? What does she bring to the table right off the bat? Well, she's got a ton of credentials that establish her as an expert in this particular field: namely, she's a woman. But she's not just a woman, she's a successful woman: a famous author of sci-fi novels, which has traditionally been a career firmly in the purview of men. So when it comes to speaking on sexism in society and particularly academia, Le Guin most likely knows a few things.

    Her intrinsic ethos has to do with the language and attitude she adapts during her speech. Although we don't have it on tape, we can only assume this address went down in history because she spoke with conviction, with authority, and without much hesitation. But, more importantly, her word choice is significant: in a room (mostly) full of women, she chooses to use the pronoun "we", grouping her with her audience and making sure they know that their struggle is a common one:

    Well, we're already foreigners. Women as women are largely excluded form, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that's their country; let's explore our own. (40-42)

    This pretty much seals the deal on her being authentic and experienced in the subject matter, and it also leads into the other form of rhetoric that Le Guin uses pretty heavily in the address.

    Pathos

    Pathos is the attempt to engage an audience's emotions, and Le Guin is a master of the technique. You'd be pretty hard-pressed to listen to this speech in a room full of women, or anywhere for that matter, and not feel inspired, or angry, or even a bit sad about the state of women's rights.

    In 1983, when she gave the speech, equal pay for equal work was just beginning to be a catch phrase in the feminist movement. (How sad is it that we still hear the same cry today, decades later?) Or maybe what you take from it has to do with the impassioned appeal to establish a place for women where their voices are heard on the same frequency as men's, and are moved to "speak as a woman" in public yourself. Maybe you feel like she's making a big deal out of nothing, and is exaggerating the state of gender equality.

    Whatever your reaction to this speech is, we can guess you feel pretty strongly about it: and that's pathos. She taps into the roots of frustration, and empathy, and injustice, and does it in such a way that (most of us) find ourselves agreeing with her.

    Logos

    Even though the speech is emotional and filled with metaphorical imagery, Le Guin also uses a pretty logical approach. She's basically saying, "Men have had all the fun up until now (lists reasons 1, 2, and 3, etc.) so it's our turn. Let's do things our way for once."

    Her arguments make sense—especially to a room full of women graduates. When she talks about how women have been relegated to the "shadows" of life, she lists professions that have historically been in the male domain:

    All that the Warrior denies and refuses is left to us and the men who share it with us and therefore, like us, can't play doctor, only nurse, can't be warriors, only civilians, can't be chiefs, only Indians. (57)

    The people in the audience were probably nodding along with her as she made her points, and that right there is logos.

  • Structure

    Speech

    Le Guin might be better known for her amazing sci-fi novels, but in this particular example, she wrote this piece to be spoken. Out loud. To a room full of excited people.

    That's no easy feat.

    Sometimes speeches are better understood when you read them, because they might contain long sentences that are hard to follow for those of us with short attention spa—oooh! a new Instagram notification!

    What were we saying?

    Oh right—that's not the case with this one. Sure, you can glean more depth of information when you read it and break it down piece-by-piece, but it's pretty evident that she meant for the delivery to be of the oral persuasion. She uses short, simply structured sentences that get her point across in a succinct and straightforward manner. She asks questions of her audience, and you can tell she wants to get them thinking as they listen to her. In fact, it almost sounds like a sermon: it's (relatively) short, full of metaphors, and really makes you think.

    So, her Left-Handed Address could've been an essay, sure, but it doesn't really fit that format. There isn't a clear intro, three body paragraphs, and then a conclusion (like a typical essay would have.) It almost does, but it's more fluid, allowing her to take her audience on a journey with her, while speaking the language of women.

    How it Breaks Down

    Hi. Thanks for Letting Me Talk.

    In this genius intro, Le Guin not only expresses her gratitude for being given the opportunity to speak, but flawlessly segues into her main point: up until then, almost everything honored in American society was created and enjoyed by men. The language most often spoken in public, the world of academia, and the definition of success had all been defined by the patriarchy.

    Men…Right? (Cue Sitcom Laugh Track)

    In the meaty part of her speech, Le Guin addresses all the ways in which men and women differ—and we're not talking anatomy here. She argues that the definition of success, the way they communicate, and their sense of priority vary greatly between the two genders, and it's high time that the women were allowed to advertise their own perspectives, in their own terms, alongside the men's.

    Mic Drop

    To bring this speech to a powerful end, Le Guin states what her hopes are for all the women graduating on that day. This is a pretty typical gesture for a commencement address, but the way she does it is unconventional in the way that she expresses her hopes for them: she's not saying "Go forth! Get high-paying jobs! Use the wisdom you've acquired here!"

    No, she's saying that she hopes they go on to do what makes them happy…and that they better get paid while they're doing it.

  • Tone

    Direct, Amused, but Serious

    Ursula Le Guin's tone for her Left-Handed Address struck such a perfect note, most won't even notice it. This is remarkable because she achieved a sense of balance between seriousness and amusement, and she did so by speaking directly yet vaguely.

    "Uh, you're talking in oxymorons again," you might be thinking. But hear us out:

    Often, these types of speeches can veer towards the preachy end of "inspirational," leaving the audience feeling like they've just been lectured for doing something wrong. That not only leaves a sour taste in their mouths, but it can put people on the defensive pretty quickly.

    But somehow, Le Guin found a way to talk about the various ills of society and solidly place some blame on the unfairness of a patriarchal system, without making it sound like she hates men, or like one specific subgroup is at fault. There's a hint of bitterness, but because it's not directed at anyone other than a society that doesn't seem to know any better, it dissipates quickly.

    Then she goes on, using gorgeous imagery and metaphorical language to present an argument as to how women can go about achieving equality – and none of it is confrontational at all. For example, she says,

    Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you're weak where you thought yourself strong. You'll work for possessions and then find they possess you. (33-36)

    That statement could be pretty accusatory, right? Change the words "human beings" to "women" and it's another declaration entirely. But the way that she tells them that they will encounter failure isn't in such a way to rub it in; it's part of life. It's a matter of fact that these things will happen; it's not men's fault, or anyone's fault at all, really.

    She then talks about embracing and nurturing their natural strengths, and essentially getting comfortable with being women, not "taking down the man", or anything aggressive like that. So, while she is issuing, in a sense, a challenge to the women who are in her audience to take her message and do something about it, it's not done in such a way as to be combative.

    This is why tone can be so critical, because change a few words here and there and the entire message of a speech—and how it is received—could be completely different.

  • Writing Style

    Lyrical, Brief

    Get This Woman Some Bongos, STAT

    We have a feeling that Ursula Le Guin would've made a great beat poet, because her "Left-Handed Address," while being written in a simple and direct style, has a lyrical, almost sing-songy sound to it. If you're just reading it this may not be that obvious, but try reading a section out loud, and you'll find yourself getting into a definite rhythm as you go along.

    For example, recite this one in your best "impassioned speaker" voice:

    Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing – instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls. (69-74)

    It's got a beat to it, doesn't it? Combine that tendency with the fact that her language, while simple, leans towards the metaphorical and vague, and you've got yourself a pretty awesome poem.

    Bless This Speaker

    If you've ever been to a graduation ceremony then you know that they tend to be—how can we say this nicely?—boring and long.

    Sure, everyone's excited because they're moving on to something bigger and better, but if you're one of the people stuck sweating in a rented gown and square hat, the ceremony can feel like it's interminable. Enter the keynote speaker. Sometimes it's an alumni with funny anecdotes to share. Sometimes it's a politician with an agenda to softly lob at the audience. And sometimes you get really, really lucky, and you get a writer like Ursula Le Guin to give a brief but powerful speech.

    And when we say brief, we mean brief. This thing only has seventy-four sentences in it. This is amazing, because she manages to get her point across succinctly and effectively without beating her audience over the head with it. That takes considerable skill, and we're sure the people who got to listen to her deliver this address that day felt incredibly inspired…and yet thankful that she didn't go on for too long.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    You might be wondering how you can give a speech left-handedly…unless you're a southpaw speaking in sign language?

    The title A Left-Handed Commencement Address refers to her famous novel "The Left Hand of Darkness," which is one of the first, and best, examples of feminist sci-fi literature. It won the 1969 Nebula Award, and then the Hugo Award in 1970, and it's the book that established Le Guin as one of the era's leading feminist thinkers.

    But the title of the speech could also be a metaphor. In it, she talks about the differences between men and women, and how the latter have been relegated to the lesser, passive, darker aspects of life. Somehow second-best. Less common. Kind of like left-handedness versus right-handedness, right? (Like, how many times is there actually a pair of left-handed scissors when you need them? That's discrimination, yo.)

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Le Guin starts her address like many other commencement speeches, thanking her audience for having her there. But then, in a curve ball of epic proportions, she reveals she's actually thanking them for the opportunity to speak as a woman.

    I want to thank the Mills College Class of '83 for offering me a rare chance: to speak aloud in public in the language of women. (1)

    She's not just kowtowing to social niceties; she's making her point. It's the perfect introduction to her main theme, because it makes the audience think, "Wait…what? Women have their own language?" And now she can proceed to explain what she means.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    The last paragraph of her address is probably the most poetic part of the whole speech. At first it seems like a bit of a non sequitur, but then you realize that she's making a lyrical conclusion statement that brings it all together:

    Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing – instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.
    (69-74)

    One of the important things to remember is that she was speaking this speech…you know, like, out loud. Because if you just read it quickly, it can get a bit confusing. (Our only hope lies in the earth we look down upon, from below? Huh?) So if you inject the appropriate pauses for emphasis, it makes way more sense:

    Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. / Why did we look up for blessing – instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. / Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. / Not from above, but from below. / Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls. (69-74)

    Can you see the difference?

    And then we get to her very last sentence. She claims that our only hope lies "Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls." That's one of those statements that you could contemplate for days. Why is the dark nourishing? Can human beings grow human souls in the light? Is soul-growing like reverse photosynthesis?

    But that's Le Guin in a nutshell: always thought-provoking.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    One of the best things about Le Guin's address is that it's written in pretty simple language. There are hardly any words with more than two syllables, and she keeps her sentences short and to the point.

    But.

    Her speech is remarkable in the sense that her words, while simple, are very carefully chosen. Every sentence has an obvious meaning, and then a deeper, more ambiguous one that only reveals itself upon some contemplation. You could write entire essays on a single sentence in this address. So, while anyone can read it, not everyone will really understand it.

    …and that's why we're here.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Ivory Tower (17) – term used often to allude to academia

    Historical and Political References

    Margaret Thatcher (10)
    Ronald Reagan (10)
    Indira Gandhi (10)
    General Somoza (10)

    Pop Culture References

    You've come a long way, baby (13) - Slogan for Virginia Slims, a cigarette marketed towards women
    American Dream (29)

  • Trivia

    Neil Gaiman claims to have stolen an idea directly from Ursula Le Guin. Can't say we blame him…the woman has some awesome ideas. (Source)

    Even though she was "raised as irreligious as a jackrabbit," Le Guin admires many aspects of Taoism and Buddhism. What we want to know is: exactly how irreligious is a jackrabbit? (Source)

    Le Guin's first attempt to publish one of her science-fiction stories came at the tender age of eleven. We were still playing pretend and getting into our mother's make-up. #feelingsofinadequacy (Source)

    Thirty years before Harry Potter took the world by storm, Le Guin published a series of books about a school for wizards, too…and the parallels are incredible. She's not bitter about it, though. (Source)

    Ursula and her husband only watch two shows on TV, and neither one of them are Grey's Anatomy. (Source)