Study Guide

The Left Hand of Darkness Duty

By Ursula K. Le Guin


"Yes indeed, yes indeed! And gratitude's a noble, rare emotion, much praised by the poets. Rare above all here in Erhenrang, no doubt because it's impracticable." (1.31)

One would think gratitude would almost be a duty. Someone does you a favor, hey, be a little grateful. But Tibe finds the practice impractical. What can you say; he's a politician through and through.

There is only one First Mobile. The first news from the Ekumen on any world is spoken by one voice, one man present in the flesh, present and alone. […] One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies, given time; plenty of time […]. (3.1)

Here, we get a nice little glimpse at Ai's duty and just how much responsibility is on his shoulders. Also, can you imagine how lonely he is?

It is hard, I found, to be called traitor. Strange how hard it is, for it's an easy name to call another man; a name that sticks, that fits, that convinces. I was half convinced myself. (6.7)

Estraven was only doing what he felt his duty was, but he was dubbed a traitor. We also find it interesting at how one man's traitor is another's dutiful hero. It's weird how the two mix. How do you know who's right?

"What the devil, I know what you were exiled for my dear: for liking Karhide better than its king."

"Rather for liking the king better than his cousin, perhaps."

"Or for liking Karhide better than Orgoreyn," said Yegey. "Am I wrong, Lord Estraven?" (6.58-60)

The idea that duty is perhaps multilayered. After all, Estraven must be dutiful to Karhide, the King, himself, and mankind in general. All those duties have to conflict at some point, right?

[Tibe] talked much about pride of country and love of the parentland, but little about shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige. […] I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. (8.10)

"Duty" is sometimes a hot topic word. Tell people it's their duty to love their country while hating another, and they'll do so because they don't want to be seen as lacking in duty/patriotism. And is it just us, or does that quote above basically describe every election year ever?

"Well, in a sense. However, the mission I am on overrides all personal debts and loyalties."

"If so," said [Ashe], "it is an immoral mission." (8.28-29)

Sometimes we can take duty too far. Ai initially sees his duty as beyond personal loyalty, but it's only when he rediscovers loyalty with Estraven that his mission ultimately succeeds.

"If you play against your own side you'll lose the whole game. That's what these fellows with no patriotism, only self-love, can't see." (10.86)

Shugis mistakes duty with playing a sport, as if one side's got to lose for the other to win. Has this guy been watching our political channels in his spare time? Cause that sounds familiar.

We did not struggle for the warm place, we simply were in it each night. It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. (13.18)

With nothing to lose, the Gethenians put away duty to country and focus on their duty for the benefit of mankind. Funny how the worst situation brings out the best in people.

[Estraven] was not proud of his exploit, and not able to laugh at it. Stealing is a vile crime on Winter; indeed the only man more despised than the thief is the suicide. (15.44)

Poor Estraven. One duty forcing him to turn away from another. On the one hand, the people he stole those goods from will not be happy. On the other hand, he could prevent a war that would take much more from those people. All we can say is glad we aren't in his shoes.

"[…] [Estraven] served the master I serve."

"The Ekumen?" said Argaven, startled.

"No. Mankind." (20.52-54)

The ultimate duty quote in the novel. Seriously, just let that one sink in and then give yourself a few minutes to contemplate it. It's a great scene. It totally blows Argaven's mind that anyone could see himself as having a duty to something beyond a partisan group—like the good of mankind.