Study Guide

The Left Hand of Darkness Analysis

By Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Tone

    Field Report

    As we mentioned in the "Narrator Point of View" section, Le Guin presents the novel as Genly Ai's field report to the Ekumen. It naturally follows that the tone should also have a field reporty feel to it. Ai's attitude is very exact, even in some of the pretty extreme circumstances he finds himself in. Here's a quick example:

    One day about noon, Odorny Nimmer, the sixty-first day of the journey that bland blind nothingness about us began to flow and writhe. (18.107)

    At this point, Ai is fatigued both emotional and physically and in extreme danger traveling the Ice. But since this report is being written after the fact, he still manages to be exact on the time, the day, and even gives the Gethenian calendar names for the month and day. Of course, Le Guin doesn't sacrifice flare for exactness (notice the awesome alliteration in "bland blind" and the great use of the word "writhe"). It's still a story after all.

    Of course, we should note the field report tone is used exclusively with Ai's report, the bulk of the story. Estraven's chapters take on a journalistic tone since they are journal entries, and the hearth-tale chapters have a folk tale tone because they're just that. It just goes to show how masterful Le Guin's prose is that she can manage to juggle all these tones and still keep a coherent story. Bravo, Le Guin, bravo!

  • Genre

    Science Fiction; Romance; Folklore, Legend, and Mythology

    Science Fiction FTW

    Come on, you must seen this coming. Obviously, The Left Hand of Darkness is science fiction. Le Guin draws on scientific ideas like Einstein's Twin Paradox, alien cultures, and even pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo like ancient astronauts. (Pro tip: ancient astronauts are not real.) There are space ships and devices that let someone talk from one planet to another. The works.

    But most important, Le Guin draws huge inspiration from the field of anthropology—in fact her father Alfred L. Kroeber was a rather famous anthropologist himself. The story revolves around the struggles of Ai trying to understand and integrate himself within the Gethenian culture. His conflict is the same one an anthropologist faces each time she enters the field to do study. So, in a way, the science of Le Guin's science fiction is anthropology more than physics or astronomy (though they deserve their props too).

    More than Just Smooching

    When people today think of stories labeled "Romance," they typically think of stories about love and lust and hunky men with torn shirts whisking off maidens to perform decidedly un-maidenly acts. Not so back in the day. Then, Romance was about knights and quests and maidens, sure, but maidens who needed saving from dragons more than tightly buttoned corsets.

    The Left Hand of Darkness encompasses both aspects of Romance without fitting too neatly into either category. Like any knight of yore, Ai is on a quest to save a kingdom or, since this sci-fi, a planet. Unlike knights with shining armor, Ai's mission is not as easily categorized as "Here be dragons; go kill." Instead, Ai's opponent is the way his alien nature prevents him from navigating the ins-and-outs of Gethenian society, both in Karhide and Orgoreyn. Like a knight though, Ai must grow as a person to succeed in his task.

    Like the Romances of today, The Left Hand of Darkness is a love story. Unlike a typical harlequin romance novel, it's not about creating contrived plots as an excuse for 100+ pages of graphic sexy-sex. Instead, Ai and Estraven fall in love with each other heart and soul, but never become physically intimate. The love story is a mature one, telling us about two people who defy the odds together and grow closer as a result. Okay, we'll admit it; the story's pretty sweet.

    Because You Know You Wanted More

    The Left Hand of Darkness as a whole isn't in the genre of Folklore, Legend, and Mythology. But certain chapters are. For example, Chapter 17 provides a mythological origin for the Gethenian race. Chapter 12 tells a couple of legends surrounding Meshe, the prophet of the Orgoreyn religion. And Chapters 4 and 9 give us little short stories in the form of Gethenian Folk tales—what they call hearth tales.

    These supplemental chapters are like, well, supplemental vitamins. They aren't part of the main diet, but they round it out, give it a little more oomph. In The Left Hand of Darkness, these chapters give us a chance to dive deeper into the history and culture of Gethen and its people. They aren't necessary for us to understand Ai's story, but they are necessary for us to understand the book as a whole. So don't think you can skip them. You're being officially put on the honor system.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    You'd think with a title that snazzy Le Guin would be referencing some famous poem or play, probably something by Shakespeare or Blake. But you'd be wrong. Le Guin does reference a now-famous poem, but it's one she wrote for this very novel.

    The title comes from the poem recited by Estraven while Ai and he traversed the Ice. The poem comes from the Handdara religion. We've included it in full here:

    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
    . (16.44)

    At the most basic level, the title is meant to draw your attention to the poem. It's saying, "Hey, pal, pay attention to this. This stuff is important! Whip out your highlighter, or at least put a little star by it."

    But why is this poem so important that it gets recognition in the title of the entire book?

    Notice that, directly after the poem, Estraven and Ai talk about dualism. Dualism is the idea that states exist in two parts opposite each other—things like man/woman, light/dark, good/bad. Usually in dualism, one thing is traditionally viewed as superior (man, light, good) and the other inferior (woman, dark, bad).

    Note: we used the word traditionally as we know very well women are not inferior to men and dark people are not inferior to light people. You can delete your hate mail now.

    The poem speaks of unity: light and dark joined together like two hands. Unity of opposites is a hugely important theme in the book. The Gethenians are both man and woman. Light and shadow are needed to cross the Ice safely. And Ai's mission for the Ekumen will unite Orgoreyn and Karhide if successful.

    So, the title points the reader to pay attention to this poem because the poem expresses the super-ultra-mega important theme of unity over dualism. And that, Shmooper's, is what's up with the title.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Oh, man, so much. Where to even begin?

    Ai has just completed his mission for the Ekumen. Karhide has agreed to parley with the aliens. Tibe has stepped down as prime minister, and in Orgoreyn, Ai's main(ish) man Obsle has risen to power, meaning they'll probably join the Ekumen too. Not too shabby for a day's work.

    But Ai still feels lost. His shipmates "all looked strange to [him], men and women, well as [he] knew them" (20.79). He's changed, yo. He's learned to view the world through a more Gethenian point of view at last, but the end result means his no longer belongs to his own world, his own people.

    (Side note: This is the problem with the hero's quest. Think about Frodo coming back to the Shire after dropping the stupid One Ring into a volcano—he can take about a year and a half of it before peacing out to the Grey Havens. If you've gone through a life-altering journey, it's really hard to settle back down to your day job.)

    So, Ai takes a trip to Estre. There, he presents Estraven's journals to Esvans, Estraven's father. He also meets Estraven's son, Sorve.

    Each of the Gethenians has a request from him. Esvans wants to hear the tale of how Ai and Estraven crossed the Ice together. Sorve wants to know how his father died as well as "about the other worlds out among the stars—the other kinds of men, the other lives" (20.103).

    In these two requests, we come to a sort of unity, which is a huge theme for the novel*. Esvans wants to hear a Gethen story, but his grandson wants tales about other people and worlds. As Ai noted in the beginning, the stories are not actually so different, they are "all one story" (1.2). So the unity of the Gethen and the other worlds will come from the merging of the stories.

    This merging might potentially help Ai find the comfort he could not find in either the Gethenians or the humans after his friend Estraven's death. Although, we can't say for certain, since the story ends with the request for the story. Anyone up for some fanfic?

    *Don't believe us? Well then click on over to our "What's Up With the Title?" Section. Not to mention our "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section.

  • Setting

    Setting: Gethen, a freezing alien (to us) planet; Karhide and Orgoreyn

    We Come From the Land of Ice and Snow

    The world of Gethen is currently undergoing its ice age, so it's not exactly tourist destination number one. The weather is cold, bitter, and hard, and affects every aspect of life on the planet.

    For example, the Gethenians are undergoing an industrial revolution of sorts, but it's a far slower burn than our own. We went from steam engines to the Internet in a hundred years flat. The Gethenians have used the same landboat vehicles for centuries, and they still haven't gotten off their butts to develop planes. Then again, they've got a lot on their minds just surviving the frigid climate.

    Ai spends most of his time on Gethen, in cities in Karhide and Orgoreyn, so the weather doesn't affect much of the story. But when Ai and Estraven traverse the Gorbin Glacier—a.k.a. the Ice—it becomes another issue entirely.

    Ice, Ice, Baby

    You remember Vanilla Ice? No? Good for you.

    The Ice is what you'd get if you hiked a less friendly version of Siberia. It's a landscape of volcanoes, steep cliffs, and ice crevasses. Each step could lead to injury, which would be a death sentence. (No search-and-rescue out on the Ice.)

    Great. Exactly the sort of place you want to stay, oh, about 250 miles from. But Ai and Estraven must cross it if they want to escape Orgoreyn and get to Karhide. Le Guin spends a lot of time detailing the monstrous landscape of the Ice, but no sentence in the novel better sums it up than: "There is nothing, the Ice says, but Ice" (16.35).

    The Ice also appears in some of the supplemental chapters. In Chapter 2, Getheren finds himself wandering the Ice, and the Orgota Creation Myth of Chapter 17 takes place on the Ice as well. All of the supplemental stories have a key theme: birth and rebirth. Same for Ai and Estraven. Their crossing of the ice means the birth of a new era for Gethen. Only if they can just, you know, not die.

    Of Karhide and Kings

    Ai's first attempt to accomplish his mission takes place in Karhide. Karhide is a country with a King—King Argaven XV to be precise—and lords so the place feels very similar to Earth countries of the past. The King is in charge, so you live by his whim and rule. Thankfully, Karhide has a system of social policy called shifgrethor, which keeps the King's power in check to a degree.

    Karhide is also further along in terms of social equality than our historical king societies or even other Gethenian societies. It has a democratic council that people can be voted to—Estraven and Faxe both serve their countries here. They also have the lovely policy of "no institutions of slavery or personal bondage, hire services not people" (1.72).

    So, Karhide holds an interesting place in Le Guin's world. On the one hand, it seems behind the times with Kings and Lords and all, especially compared to Orgoreyn, which has done away with that stuff. On the other hand, their social interactions are far more in-line with our modern sensibilities (again, unlike Orgoreyn, which practices various forms of social slavery).

    Orgoreyn Welcomes You

    Orgoreyn seems like a friendly enough place. The people there live in a communal society, and this means they all work for the state. In return, the state provides them houses and jobs. (Getting the picture? Think "Soviet Union" circa about the 1960s.) Unfortunately, the airs of equality only serve to mask a hideous truth.

    The people in power at Orgoreyn use their so-called equality to keep themselves in power while everyone else gets not-so-much power. They monitor all communications and information throughout the country. They send political adversaries to Volunteer camps, and even brag about how efficiently they work. The state also raises children rather than the parents (you know, to make sure everything runs smoothly).

    The equality of Orgoreyn only serves to hide their inequality out in the open. Unfortunately for Ai, who is not use to Gethenian ways, the plan works. He doesn't figure it out until it's almost too late.

    The Hainish Universe

    Understanding the greater Hainish universe isn't required to enjoy The Left Hand of Darkness, but hey, it doesn't hurt either.

    A long time ago in a galaxy really, really close by space standards, there was the planet Hain. The Hainish people were an advanced race that set about colonizing other planets, including Earth. As Ai tells King Argaven, "all the worlds of men were settled, eons ago, from one world, Hain. We vary, but we're all sons of the same Hearth" (3.34).

    In Chapter 7, it is speculated that the Gethenians are genetic experiments preformed by the Hainish, one of several other experimental planets. No one knows why they preformed these experiments but our guess is, um, theme park.…?

    Then an unknown variety of catastrophe struck. The Hainish Empire was wiped out, and all their colonized worlds eventually just forgot about them and kept evolving. This is where Le Guin's Hainish Cycle picks up.

    The Hainish Cycle stories tell of the attempts to bring all the Hainish planets back into a centralized union. The League of All Worlds tries first, and their attempts appear in novels like The Dispossessed and Rocannon's World (we've got a "Brain Snack" on the chronology of the novels, if you're interested in giving them a taste). But it seems an alien race called the Shing destroyed the League at some point.

    After the Shing threat ended, the Ekumen we know and love is formed to replace the League. (If you paid attention in history class, this might sound a lot like the United Nations replacing the League of Nations after World War II.) As Ai mentions, "Ekumen is our Terran word, in the common tongue it's called the Household; in Karhidish it would be the Hearth" (10.30). So far as we know, the Ekumen are still going strong in Le Guin's future history universe. But Le Guin is still writing, so we'll have to wait and see what fate awaits them.


    There's just one more thing. Yeah, this book takes place in (presumably) some far-distant future—one where we've got interstellar spaceflight and faster-than-light communication. But the social concerns seem suspiciously familiar.

    The 1960s in the United States and many other Western countries saw a pretty spectacular series of social changes. And we mean "spectacular" in the sense of "majorly major"; jury is still out on whether every single one of them was good.

    Anyway, we're talking Civil Rights Acts, birth control, space flight, drugs, distrust of authority, Woodstock, hippies, war protest, the whole thing. Young people in the 1960s were all about protesting the old order and finding a new way of doing things. Like, questioning entrenched systems of power (such as that in Karhide); or working toward gender equality (such as that on Gethen).

    Get the picture? Even though this book takes place in an entirely different galaxy, it has an experimental, almost naïve feeling about it that could only have come out of the 1960s.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Snow Line

    In a way, The Left Hand of Darkness isn't a difficult novel to read. Le Guin is a fluid, vivid writer, and her prose never feels trying, boring, or difficult to read. You always know what she's talking about, and it's rare to read a passage and then think, "Wait, what the heck just happened?" It's a page turner, and thankfully, you won't have to be turning those pages backwards just to make sense of the proceedings.

    But sometimes you can read a chapter and think, "Wait, what does this have to do with anything, ever?" Take Chapter 2. It's a Gethenian "hearth-tale" that has nothing to do with Genly Ai and doesn't continue the story from Chapter 1 in any foreseeable way. This can make the novel difficult, not because it's hard but because you have to pay attention and connect some of the pieces yourself. By the end of the novel, it's clearer how the chapter extends the novel thematically and how it parallel's Ai and Estraven's story.

    Our point is—hang in there. It can be a difficult climb in some places, but the view at the top makes the climb well worth it.

  • Writing Style

    Planetary Tour Guide

    Le Guin imagined an entire world with The Left Hand of Darkness, and her writing style is going to take you on a platinum, double-decker tour of it. She packs each chapter with paragraphs describing the details of life on Gethen—from architecture to weather patterns, diets to traveling habits. Here's a passage from Ai's description of the city of Rer:

    All the buildings of Rer are fantastically massive, deep-founded, weatherproof and waterproof. In winter the wind of the plains may keep the city clear of snow, but when it blizzards and piles up they do not clear the streets, having no streets to clear. They use stone tunnels, or burrow temporary ones in the snow. (5.16)

    This is like the Lonely Planet Guide to Gethen, and that's just the beginning. Le Guin paints an entire picture of the city, which is just one city in Karhide. Ai visits plenty more.

    If you can imagine a Travel Channel special where Anthony Bourdain goes to another planet in a distance galaxy, then you have a feel for Le Guin's wonderfully picturesque writing style.

  • Ansible

    Every great science fiction story needs an amazing futuristic gadget. Star Wars has the light saber, Back to the Future 2 has the hoverboard, and Stargate has, um, the Stargate. The Left Hand of Darkness has the ansible, a device allowing the user to instantly communicate across the vast distances of space.

    Now, that might not seem more awesome than a ham radio—or a smartphone—but hang on a second. Space is unfathomably huge, meaning any message you send out needs to traverse the vast distances between planets to be received.

    If you send a message from Gethen traveling through space at the speed of light (299,792,458 meters per second!), it would still take 17 years to reach the nearest possible destination. Having a device that cuts 17 years down to a couple seconds really manages the lag time between your conversations. (Too bad it'll still take them 17 years to actually deliver your pizza.)

    But the ansible is also an important symbol in the novel. As Ai notes:

    [The Ekumen] is a form of education; in one aspect it's a sort of very large school—very large indeed. The motives of communication and cooperation are of its essence, and therefore in another aspect it's a league or union of worlds […]. (10.30)

    Without communication, the Ekumen can't learn from other cultures and planets or even let them join. And without the ansible, such communication would be impossible. So the ansible basically represents Ai's only means of accomplishing his mission: opening pathways for communication. Neither war nor trade will do, so it's fitting that story's cool sci-fi gadget isn't a light saber or a machine that turns solid rock into chocolate cake or something.

    Roger, Roger

    Communication is also important for Ai himself. Without it, he can't complete his mission, as he must learn to open communications, so to speak, between the Gethenians and himself. He uses the ansible twice for this purpose: once with King Argaven and another time with the Orgoreyn Commensals.

    Ultimately, each attempt fails as Ai uses the ansible to communicate with them as a member of the Ekumen and not a fellow human being. It is only when the ansible is lost to Ai that he is forced to interact with Estraven as a human and Gethenian, opening the true pathways to communication and completing his mission.

    Something to consider: How do the King and Commensals react to the ansible? What does this tell us about their characters and their ways of communicating?

  • Shadows

    Shadows are an important image in The Left Hand of Darkness, so keep your eyes open for when they show up.

    In our society, we tend to think in terms of light and dark. Light is good; dark, not so much. This is very similar to the Orgoreyns who feel the same way (see Handdara/Yomeshta in "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory" for more on that tidbit).

    But shadows play a positive role in the novel. For example, one day while Estraven and Ai are traveling the Ice, they step "out of the tent onto nothing" where "neither he nor [Ai] cast any shadow" (18.106). This moment starts the most dangerous leg of their journey.

    Without shadow and only light to guide them, the two travelers cannot tell where the crevasses are. Estraven himself almost dive bombs to his death because he can't see one. So, shadow and light both have a purpose in the novel, but they're only useful when used together, like the yin yang symbol (19.28).

    While we're here, let's discuss "shifgrethor." In Karhide, manners and social decorum are dictated by what is called shifgrethor. The word comes from an old Gethenian word meaning—wait for it—shadow (18.26). Shifgrethor is used by the Karhidians to manage differences without resorting to conflict, as opposed to the Orgoreyns who be keeping it real. In a manner of speaking.

    Light and Darkness

    Like a shadow, shifgrethor is only useful when it goes along with some light. Shifgrethor allows Estraven to navigate the Orgoreyn system, climbing his way to the top to help Ai from behind the scenes. This is quite helpful for our human compadre.

    On the other hand, shifgrethor is completely alien to Ai, so he can't recognize it for what it is. This foreignness is why Ai says of Estraven, "of all the dark, obstructive, enigmatic souls I had met in this bleak city, his was the darkest" (1.78). Ai can't recognize the value of Estraven's shadow, his shifgrethor, and he doesn't understand that it's helping him in the same way shadows will later aid him traveling the Ice.

    The realization of the positive side of shadow and shifgrethor comes when Ai presents Estraven with a yin yang symbol, promoting the novel's theme of unity of opposites.

  • Handdara and Yomeshta Religions

    There are two major religions on Gethen. Karhide has Handdara while Orogreyn has Yomeshta. Each roughly corresponds to a major Earth religion.

    A Wise Man Once Said

    Handdara represents a Tao or Zen type religion. It takes much of its inspiration from Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. Here are some examples of what we're talking about:

    From the Tao:

    When you wish to contract something,
    you must momentarily expand it;
    When you wish to weaken something,
    You must momentarily strengthen it.

    And here's Estraven:

    To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else. (11.19)

    Once more from the Tao:

    The bright Way seems dim.
    The forward Way seems backward.
    The level Way seems bumpy.
    Superior integrity seems like a valley
    . (3.2)

    And Estraven brining it home:

    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.

    Taoism is the Chinese philosophy that gave us the yin yang, and similarly, Handarra places its focus on the balance and unity of opposites. Instead of seeing light as good and darkness as evil, Handarra sees both as part of a necessary balance.

    Other opposites that Handarra considers important to keep in balance are unlearning in order to learn (5.90), inaction as the best possible action (5.113), and seeking knowledge by not seeking answers (5.107).

    And while our heads are still hurting with all these opposites, you can check out more in our Shadows and Androgyny entries in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section. Go on, it'll be fun.

    Give Us That Old Time Religion

    The Yomeshta more closely follows Western religions, particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition. It originates with an all-knowing prophet named Meshe. He preaches against darkness, drawing his knowledge from the light instead.

    The Yomeshta consider the Handarra, "those that call upon the darkness," wrong, for "there is neither darkness nor death, for all things are, in the light of the Moment" (12.12-13). That tone will sound pretty familiar to anyone who has ever been to Vacation Bible School.

    Keeping with the idea of unity from opposites, both the Yomeshta and the Handarra religions come from similar origins and are trying to solve similar problems. Meshe was a Handarra foreteller before he was asked to answer the question, "What is the meaning of life?" (5.44). And each religion is trying to contemplate the nature of shadow and light in relation to knowledge.

    Perhaps a small commentary on the religions of our own world, hmm?

  • Androgyny

    Brace yourself. Psycho-talk inbound in 3…2…1…. Go.

    We Are Jung

    Le Guin is a huge fan of this guy named Carl Jung (pronounced "young" since he's German and all). Jung is a famous psychologist who followed Sigmund Freud around for a while but then decided to go and do his own thing. He branded his very own psychotherapy called analytic psychology. And we have to admit that's a spiffy name.

    Here's a quick and dirty rundown of analytic psychology, and we do mean quick:

    Everybody's unconscious minds can be separated into two halves: your personal unconscious (your memories) and the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is social memory, meaning everybody shares and adds to this memory pool, usually in the form of archetypes.

    Okay, well what in the world is an archetype? An archetype is a symbol people use to represent the world with in their minds. They're usually simple, user-friendly images. For example, the hero's quest, the wise old man, the caring mother, and so on. If you've ever wondered why even the most belligerent, idiotic old man is still treated with respect for being an "elder," yeah, that's the fault of the wise old man archetype.

    And finally, we come to anima and animus. The anima is the female archetype; the animus is the male archetype. Every man has a little bit of anima in him, and every woman has some animus in her. Jung believed the balance of anima and animus was necessary for primo mental health.

    See where this is going? The Gethenians are a living, breathing, walking, talking version of Jung's anima and animus. In their personal and collective unconsciousness, the male and female is balanced.

    Men and Wymyn

    Every Gethenian can work any job regardless of gender. The mother/father responsibilities result in a 50/50 split since any Gethenian can be either. In the novel, people think this balance might be responsible for the lack of war on Gethen. On a day-to-day level, all Gethenians are "respected and judged only as a human being" and not as being a manly-man or a dainty-dame (7.18).

    Of course, some critics argue that Le Guin's Gethenians are just men with a slightly different sex-engine under the hood. We've included some of these articles in our "Best of the Web" section so feel free to check them out. We won't say here one way or another; that's for you to decide.

    (Stanislaw Lem's "Lost Opportunities" is perhaps the most famous essay critiquing Le Guin's use of androgyny. Meanwhile, Le Guin defended her use of androgyny in an essay titled "Is Gender Necessary?" We'd love to link to them for you, but they are under copywriter protection and are not available online. If you're interested, pay your local library a visit. Those librarians get so lonely sometimes.)

    The Quest

    Carl Jung may not have had the scientific method on his side, but he sure has literature on his side.

    See, the other thing about Le Guin sprinkling her book with so many archetypes is that it gives the story a nice, hefty feel. People love quest stories. You've got your hero, your goal, your dangerous journey, your team of brave companions—it really tugs at the ol' heart strings. That's not surprising, since quest narratives have been around in Western literature since, you know, The Odyssey itself.

    If you're curious, you can learn more about Carl Jung here. Also, when we say Le Guin was a huge fan, we mean it. Reading Le Guin's work can sometime feel like reading a Where's Waldo? of archetypes. See if you can't spy any more of Jung's archetypes in the novel.

  • Keystone

    First things first: a keystone is a wedge-shaped stone that distributes the forces of an arch to make it stay in place. (You can thank the Romans for that.) So, no keystone, no arch. We bet you're already getting a sense of why this is important.

    Anyway, keystones appear twice in the novel: once at the beginning and once at the end.

    In the first chapter, the parade celebrates the completion of the Port of Erhenrang. King Argaven mortars the keystone into the "gap between the two piers, making them one, one thing, one arch" (1.13). At the end of the novel, Ai heads to the palace and decides he "must set the keystone in the arch" (20.18).

    The keystone serves as a symbol of Ai's mission. Just as it completes the arch, connecting the two sides of an arch into one, so must Ai open the pathways to communication. If he does so, he'll not only bring Karhide to the Gethen, but he'll also help bring Karhide and Orgoreyn into union, not to mention connecting humanity to the Gethenians. In short, the keystone symbolizes unity in the novel. A lot of unities.

    Oh, and let's not forget this fun fact. The cement used to place the keystone is pink. As Estraven says:

    Very-long-ago a keystone was always set in with a mortar of ground bones mixed with blood. Human bones, human blood. Without the blood bond the arch would fall, you see. We use the blood of animals, these days. (1.14)

    A hint at Estraven's own sacrifice, perhaps?

  • Narrator Point of View

    First-Person Central Narrator (Mostly)

    The Basics

    For the most part, The Left Hand of Darkness has a First-Person Central Narrator and said narrator is Genly Ai (we'll get to the not-so-most part in a sec). This means Ai is telling his personal story. Let's take a look at a quick example:

    I almost let go the sledge-bar to go look for [Estraven]. It was pure luck that I did not. I held on, while I stared stupidly about for him, and so I saw the lip of the crevasse. (19.3)

    Notice how the narrator is speaking in the "I" voice. We know what he sees and what he feels, and we can tell it's a central narrator because Ai is central to the action. He travels the Ice, he holds the sledge, and if he lets go, Estraven will plummet to a pretty, if unwelcome, death.

    The Advanced Formula

    But things get tricky quick. Some chapters are not told by Ai, and some take on different narrative voices. For example, Chapters 6, 11, and 14 come from Estraven's journal. They too are told in first-person central narrative, but the person telling the story is Estraven, not Ai. Same with Chapter 7, only it's the Investigator, not Estraven or Ai speaking.

    Chapter 4 is a Karhidish story told in third-person omniscient. Take a look:

    It was not the answer Herbor had hoped, but it was the answer he got, and having a patient heart he went home to Charuthe with it. (4.17)

    Clearly, someone other than Herbor is telling this story since the narrator uses "he" (the third-person tell) and not "I" (your first-person give away). But even though the narrator isn't Herbor, he still has access to Herbor's emotions and thoughts. Notice how Herbor didn't say it wasn't the answer he wanted, but the narrator knew anyway. So, we call this third-person omniscient narration. In other words, the narrator knows all and sees all. Same goes for chapters 9, 12, and 17.

    College-Level Stuff

    Whew, glad that's over. Well, almost. To wrap this up, let's consider the fact that Ai has put all these stories together. He may not have written or told them all, but they are all found his report. So, remember when reading that while some of these chapters are different stories with different narrators it's all, as Ai says, "one story" (1.2).

    This actually connects to the idea that Ai's name sounds the same as the "I" of the first-person narrator. Le Guin toys a bit with our expectations here. Generally, we think of the "I" as being the only teller of the story, but Le Guin is saying this "I" —that is Ai—is not a single person. Rather, he is the "I" of all these stories coming together to create a single tale. We have more on this admittedly mind-boggling idea in Ai's "Character Analysis."

    Okay, time for a break.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    The Call

    In a Quest story, we meet the hero just before he's called on a journey to save the world from oppression, destruction, and all-around evil thingies. Usually, he's sent on the journey after said evil or oppressive force finds its way to his idyllic corner of the world.

    Ai is called to his journey in much the same way. The destructive force threatening the planet of Gethen is war. Gethen has never managed a full-on war before, and when we first meet Ai in Karhide, it's clear that such an event is imminent. War can only be prevented if Ai fulfills his quest of securing a treaty between the Ekumen and at least one Gethen country.

    In keeping with tradition, he even gets some supernatural cheerleading from Faxe the Weaver. Faxe prophesies that Gethen will join the Ekumen within five years time. When Ai hears this, he's off to complete his mission (although anyone who's ever read a story with a prophecy knows it's never that easy).

    The Journey

    Ai's journey really begins when he enters Orgoreyn. A traditional Journey stage consists of battles with monsters and obstacles the hero must overcome. In between these battles, the hero receives help from those supportive of his cause (cough The Lord of the Rings cough).

    The Left Hand of Darkness plays with this concept. The obstacle Ai must overcome is the government of Orgoreyn. To do so, he must convince the 33 Commensals to side with him and join the Ekumen. On the other hand, the enemies and allies the hero receives in support of his cause come from the same source, the Orgoreyn government.

    Also, in a typical Journey stage, the hero has companions helping him achieve his goal (think the Samwise in, yep, The Lord of the Rings. Or Han Solo in Star Wars, if we want to branch out a little). And, again, The Left Hand of Darkness gives this classic plot a fun twist. Estraven is Ai's companion in this journey. Thing is, Ai doesn't realize the guy is trying to help him. Estraven doesn't travel with Ai like a typical quest companion. Instead, he works behind the scenes to help Ai succeed in his mission.

    Arrival and Frustration

    Finally, the hero is just within reach of his goal, when oops: some new obstacle or opponent comes between him and the prize. Just like in The Lord of the Rings…yeah, you get the idea.

    So, Ai thinks the Commensals are ready to side with him. Guess again, Ai old chum. Some of the Commensals have Ai arrested and sent to a forced labor camp. Called the Volunteer Farm, it's the new obstacle standing between Ai and success. There, the guards torture Ai both mentally and physically until his will to live—not to mention his ability to live—is almost broken.

    The Final Ordeals

    In any Quest story, the hero must undergo a final challenge, the last hard push of the race before the finish line. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the final stretch of the race is quite a long one, 840 miles to be exact.

    Estraven arrives at Volunteer Farm and busts Ai out. The two escape into the wilderness. But to get to Karhide, they must hike across 840 miles of the most unforgiving landscape imaginable. It's just like…the planet of Arrakis from Dune only with everything covered in ice and snow instead of sand (thought we were going to say Mordor, didn't you?). The going is tough, but Ai and Estraven managed to survive by growing closer as allies.

    The last and greatest ordeal—the final battle, if you will—is the Gorbin Glacier, a.k.a. the Ice. It's the most unforgiving and toughest bit of land on Gethen, and the heroes must cross it to secure their victory.

    The Goal

    At the end of any Quest, the hero needs to find his treasure, meet his goal, and/or bring peace. Ai does just that by persuading King Argaven of Karhide to join with the Ekumen. Afterward, peace spreads across the land.

    Like for any hero, the journey has changed Ai. When he finally reconnects with his fellow humans, he finds them foreign, alien and unwelcome. So he goes to the only place where he feels like he might fit in: the home of Estraven. There, he tells stories of his adventures to Estraven's father and son.

  • Plot Analysis


    All the Whos Down in Gethen-ville

    Exposition provides the who's who and the what's what of any given story. It's the part of the plot that sets up what the story is about and helps us get to know the characters. In The Left Hand of Darkness, that's basically chapters 1 to 5.

    During these chapters, we get to know Genly Ai, his mission, and his predicament. His mission: to convince the Gethenians to join the Ekumen. His predicament: the Gethenians are androgynous aliens, so he has a hard time navigating their social circles and political games.

    In short, the man is nowhere near equipped to deal with the situation at hand.

    And then there's Estraven, a mysterious Gethenian who may or may not be trying to assist Ai in his mission. Neither Ai nor the reader can tell what Estraven's about because his words are akin to a mental Rubik's cubes—it's (almost) impossible to straighten them out.

    Rising Action

    The Orgoreyn Trail

    During the Rising Action, things get complicated but in a good way (good for the reader, anyway). The protagonist has to deal with new obstacles to meet his goal and encounters new characters who may be trying to help or hinder him.

    In The Left Hand of Darkness, the new complication is Orgoreyn. Here, Ai has to learn to navigate a new Gethenian society after having just failed to navigate Karhide's culture. The Orgoreyn Commensals also complicate the plot because some are trying to help Ai with his mission but others are trying to bury the knife pretty deep in the man's back. If Ai can't tell friend from foe, his mission in Orgoreyn will fail.

    Also, the Ai/Estraven relationship grows more complicated. On the one hand, the reader now knows Estraven is trying to help Ai but can't communicate his purpose to the man. On the other hand, Ai still has no idea what Estraven's trying to accomplish, leading to what your English professor would call "dramatic irony."

    The rising action runs roughly from Chapter 6 to Chapter 12.


    Never Volunteer for Anything. Especially a Slave Farm.

    The Climax marks the point of no return, the event horizon; all bets are in, there's no going back…you get the idea.

    When the Commensals of Orgoreyn betray Ai Caesar-style, the climax begins. Ai's mission is now close to critical failure as he enters the Volunteer Farm. There, he is forced to work in the extreme Gethen weather and is drugged and tortured to near death.

    Falling Action

    Man vs. Wild

    So, you might hear "Falling Action" and think that things are about to settle down. Nope. Often, the Falling Action contains some of the most exciting moments in a story. Those in the biz of story analysis call the stage Falling Action because the story's conflicts wind down toward conclusion—but often in really exciting ways.

    In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ai and Estraven's journey across the Gorbin Glacier—a.k.a. the Ice—represents the falling action (Chapters 15 to 19). Here, some of the conflicts set up during the exposition begin to resolve. Estraven and Ai finally see eye to Ai (get it?). Their conflict of miscommunication slowly breaks down and is replaced with friendship. Likewise, Ai begins to understand Gethenian culture as its own thing and not just from his Earthian perspective.

    Of course, there's still one last conflict that needs wrapping up: Ai's mission for the Ekumen.


    First Second Contact

    And that's what the resolution is for. Resolution provides closure for all the nagging plot threads and conflicts of the story—well, it should at any rate.

    When Ai contacts the Ekumen, his mission is complete. King Argaven's hand has been forced, and he can no longer ignore the reality of the larger universe. With Obsle and his allies taking over the Commensals of Orgoreyn, the same might be said of their country. Also, Tibe resigns from his position, effectively ending the threat of war. The Ekumen ship arrives, and it's time to ride off into the sunset, and….

    But wait, what about Estraven? He was branded a traitor for what he did; doesn't he get resolution?

    Yes and no. Officially, Estraven is still considered a traitor by the story's end. King Argaven just won't repeal the status. But Ai is able to tell the story to Estraven's father and son. So, while Ai's friend may still be considered a traitor, at least there will be those who know being a traitor to one country means not being a traitor to mankind. Not a bad resolution for him, in our humble opinion.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Mission Improbable

    Act 1 establishes the characters, the setting, and the gist of the story, and for this novel, that's Chapters 1 to 5. Here, we meet Genly Ai and Estraven and come to understand Ai's mission as Envoy for the Ekumen. We come to see Estraven as a bit of a mystery, one we're going to solve later in the story. As Ai travels through Gethenian society, we learn about the Gethenians as well as their culture and their planet.

    Act I lasts until the point of no return. For Ai, the point of no return is when he decides he needs to head to Orgoreyn to complete his mission. Of course, he doesn't realize exactly what he's walking into.

    Note: The "point of no return" will be different in a Three-Act plot structure than a classic plot structure. The story changes ever so slightly depending on how you look at it—which is pretty cool if you ask us.

    Act II

    Orgoreyn Bound and Down

    Welcome to Chapters 6 through 14. In a traditional three-act structure, the second act is reserved for more intense action by putting the main character in the worst possible situation. Their darkest hour, if you will. And, dude, does Ai have a dark hour or what.

    The Orgoreyn government wines and dines Ai. Meanwhile, a separate government department, Sarf, has other plans. They have him sent to a forced labor camp where he undergoes extreme emotional and physical stress/torture. Also during this Act, we learn more about Estraven and his plans for Ai, thickening the plot soup.

    Act II ends with Estraven breaking Ai out of the camp, and the two preparing to escape Orgoreyn by traveling 840 miles of inhospitable wilderness.

    Act III

    A Snowball's Chance in…a Really Hot Place

    Now we're at Chapters 15 to 20. Third Acts consist of falling action leading to the end of the story, or resolution. In the case of The Left Hand of Darkness, that's Ai and Estraven's journey across the Ice and the wrap-up.

    As Ai and Estraven travel the Ice, the two become friends. The mystery of Estraven is mostly solved as Ai comes understand Gethenian society better. There's still plenty of action, but the story's conflicts are wrapping up nicely while our questions are being answered. When Estraven dies and Ai convinces the King to join the Ekumen, the final pieces slot into place. We can put the book down and enjoy that lovely feeling of having completed a wonderful book.

  • Allusions

    Le Guin seemed far more interested in creating her own world than making specific allusions to ours. As a result, the direst shout-outs are minimal in the novel. With that said, she does draw parallels between our world and Gethen. See if you can't discover some of those in your readings.