Estraven is Ai's secret friend and helper. He starts off the book as Prime Minister of Karhide and ends up a disgraced traitor—but we know better.
Early in the book, Estraven is removed from his position as Prime Minister and sent into exile for unknown reasons.
Well, he does drop some clues. At one point, he considers the Sinoth Vally dispute and suggests "Why not obviate the subject of dispute? [...] But that's not a patriotic idea" (1.60). This is the first time we hear Estraven speak of patriotism, and later in the conversation he points out "I don't mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical" (1.77).
This makes Estraven the yin to Tibe's yang. Tibe views patriotism as unconditional love for one's country even to the point of war (hm, sound familiar…?). He's also different from King Argaven who puts Karhide first, foremost and always.
We might not know why exactly Estraven was sent into exile, but considering the difference of opinion, it seems we can guess the general theme of the argument. King Argaven finds Estraven to be lacking in patriotism while Estraven feels his duty must lie beyond King Argaven. In other words, Estraven's notion of patriotism seems to be wider than just one little country.
In exile, Estraven follows Ai, protecting him as best he can in Orgoreyn and rescuing him from the Volunteer Camp. Together, they escape onto the Gorbin Glacier and must survive for 840 miles of inhospitable wintery wasteland.
Not exactly summer camp, but the two still manage to become bunk buddies through it all. As Estraven notes in his journal, "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. […] We are equals at last, equal, alien, alone" (16.40). And this equality allows both to share with the other on a level playing field, each changing the other.
As they came to know each other, Ai even discovers why Estraven seemingly betrayed his country. As Ai tells King Argaven:
"[Estraven] served the master I serve."
"The Ekumen?" said Argaven, startled.
"No. Mankind." (20.52-54)
Although he dies before he sees his mission accomplished, Estraven's sacrifice helps bring the Ekumen to Gethen and end the Sonith valley dispute before war comes to Gethen. So, he served all of Gethen while serving Karhide at the same time.
A traitor? We don't think so.
Apparently Estraven had a bit of a secret past we weren't privy to until the end of the novel. And we mean the very end. In the closing pages, we learn Estraven has a son named Sorve whom he fathered with his own brother Arek. How this came about, and what happened are left mysterious for the reader, although Le Guin does drop a few hints:
And there are a few other moments, but we don't want to spoil the surprise of finding them yourself. As to what it all means...well that's anybody's guess. So guess away.
Need help guessing? Here are some questions to jump start the thinking process:
So, what's the point of this Estraven guy anyway? Why do we spend so much time with him if he's ultimately going to remain a mystery?
For starters, Estraven serves as the story's mentor character, the one who teaches Ai what he needs to know to survive the perils of Gethen. Check out our "Character Role Identification" section if you need further discussion.
Estraven also helps build up some ideas about cultural connections. Estraven teaches Ai the ways of the Gethenian society and how to survive on the planet. Meanwhile, Ai teaches Estraven mindspeech—and maybe a little respect for what he seems to have seen as a weaker race. This dual role of teacher and taught promotes Le Guin's view of how cultures might interact for the benefit of all.
As cultures learn from one another and aid each other, they grow in wisdom and knowledge, just like Estraven and Ai do. But just like Estraven, other cultures can sometimes come across as mysterious and difficult to understand. Sometimes we may never solve the mystery of what it means to be from another culture, just like we never truly solve the mystery of who Estraven is. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.