Study Guide

A Left-Handed Commencement Address Themes

By Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Power

    Ursula Le Guin would make a terrible despot, because she really doesn't think power is a good thing. We're not talking electricity (we're pretty sure she's a fan…), we're talking about the ability to influence or control other people.

    According to Le Guin, power is a corrupting, negative, male, influence, and she's sick and tired of it. Or, at the very least, our society would be much improved if there were an opposing force that could help balance it out.

    So in "A Left-Handed Commencement," she advocates that none of them go on to hold power over anyone else, but that they are also able to resist being victims of power themselves.

    Questions About Power

    1. According to Le Guin, why is power a negative thing?
    2. Who holds all the power? What are her instructions to help change the way this affects our society?
    3. Why is it so important to consider when Le Guin delivered this speech? What influences from current events are evident within her address?

    Chew on This

    Power in and of itself is a harmful force because it oppresses other people.

    Power is mostly about personal greed and jealousy. Those who have it want more, and those who don't, wouldn't be obsessed with it if they had it.

  • Women and Femininity

    Le Guin was one of the more outspoken feminists at the time she was asked to give what would become "A Left-Handed Commencement," so it's no surprise that her address would touch on the topics of femininity and the role of women in society. In fact, that's probably why they asked her, what with Mills being a women's college and all.

    But what is surprising is how little things have changed since 1983. Many of her thoughts on inequality and injustice towards the "fairer sex" (we have a feeling she'd resent that term) still resonate with women today, which is why her address is still considered one of the greatest graduation speeches in American history.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What was going on in the early '80s that made Le Guin's argument about women finding their own measure of success so appealing?
    2. Why shouldn't women fight against the male power hierarchy? Doesn't that seem contrary to the rest of her message?
    3. What does Le Guin say about the nature of femininity?
    4. How many of the statements about women in the address are still applicable today?

    Chew on This

    Women should just go create their own society. No Men Allowed. It'll be way better.

    Le Guin isn't proposing to start a war between the genders; she's actually advocating a silent, peaceful uprising.

  • Dreams, Hopes and Plans

    It wouldn't be a commencement address without some mention of the hopes and dreams the speaker has for the recent graduates. Well, okay, it could be…but it'd be pretty dismal.

    So Le Guin framed "A Left-Handed Commencement" around the fact that she hopes women will learn to embrace their roles, whatever suits them best, rather than try to compete against men in a man's world. She hopes they'll find their way to lives that are fulfilling, and that they'll find strength in the adversity they've faced already simply because of their gender.

    It's a pretty empowering dream, actually.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes and Plans

    1. What does Le Guin hope for the future of the people listening to her speech?
    2. What does she mean when she says she doesn't "wish you success"?
    3. Where, specifically, does Le Guin say hope lies? What does she mean by that?
    4. Overall, would you say that Le Guin's dreams for the graduating class are positive, or kinda depressing?

    Chew on This

    Le Guin doesn't care what the graduates do with their diplomas. She just hopes they all have babies. Lots and lots of babies.

    According to our intrepid wordsmith, "Hope lies in the earth," so archeology must be the science of the future. (We are supposed to take that literally, right?)

  • Men and Masculinity

    Although Le Guin didn't set out to attack men, she doesn't have a ton of nice things to say about men in general.

    It's her belief that many of society's ills can be blamed on the aggressive, competitive nature of men, and their homogenous leadership of the world. She doesn't do this to be mean or derogatory. At least, we don't think so. (After all, women can be aggressive and competitive, too.)

    In "A Left-Handed Commencement," she's just trying to point out the struggles that women have had to fight against to have their perspectives heard and valued in a society that has traditionally marginalized its female members.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. What is the nickname she gives to the nameless, faceless men in her address? Is it a dismissive gesture, or a rhetorical device?
    2. According to Le Guin, what are the dominant male traits that are emphasized in our society? Does she see these traits as negative or positive?
    3. What was going on leading up to 1983 that made Le Guin feel so oppressed by men? Does she provide any specific examples or insinuations?

    Chew on This

    Based on her choice of the word "Machoman" to describe the common man, we can only assume Le Guin was a huge Village People fan.

    Le Guin feels like men have purposefully oppressed women throughout history, and it's time to put an end to it.

  • Language and Communication

    Ursula Le Guin is a master wordsmith, so its not surprising that much of "A Left-Handed Commencement" focuses on the differences between the language of men and women. Not literally, of course, because it's still American English, but in terms of subject matter and word choice.

    And she uses this theory to expound upon her main point: that women are not men, and it's about time they figured out how to do things their own way in a predominantly male-centered society. Her "rare chance" to give an address in the "language of women" was a great place to start.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Le Guin begins by talking about speaking in the language of women. What does she mean by that?
    2. Is public speaking inherently male? What about our history implies that it is? What does Le Guin think?
    3. Le Guin seems to think that there are definite differences between what men and women wish to talk about, and how they do so, as well. What are some examples of Le Guin's idea of gendered topics?
    4. Are women the Greek in her example, or the foreigner? Does her quote even work that way?

    Chew on This

    Le Guin wants to speak in the language of women, but she's still mimicking male tradition by giving a commencement address.

    The men in the audience were flummoxed. "What is this language she's speaking in?" they asked themselves. Without a clue as to how to interpret her words, they spent the rest of their time in confused silence.