Study Guide

The Left Hand of Darkness Gender

By Ursula K. Le Guin


Wiping sweat from his dark forehead the man—man I must say, having said he and his—the man answers. (1.14)

Gender and language are tightly connected in the novel. Both Ai's language and his views on gender force him to see the Gethenians through a human perspective, which they are not. If this were a sitcom, it'd lead to shenanigans. Since this is a very serious novel, the jokes are notably absent.

Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. (1.38)

But will he ever be able to see Gethenians as they see themselves? These are people who change gender more frequently than our college roommates changed clothes. Can Ai ever reach such a goal?

My landlady, a voluble man, arranged my journey to the East. (5.1)

Ha. Okay, so there are still some jokes to be had. Notice how Ai calls the man a landlady, suggesting that he even sees people's professions in terms of man's job vs. woman's job.

No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more. (7.4)

Wow, just wow. Can you even imagine how different this type of society must be? Of course, it might be interesting: women finally making good on their "if you only knew the pain of childbirth" threats. (On the other hand, no more leveraging that particular threat.)

Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else. (7.12)

Kemmer is a crapshoot. You may end up a man or woman, and there's no way to know until it happens. The upside? It's taken for granted on Gethen that anyone can do any job and be a mother at the same time.

I suspect that the distinction between a maternal and a paternal instinct is scarcely worth making; the paternal instinct, the wish to protect, to further, is not a sex-linked characteristic. (8.5)

Sure, you could argue with this—but it is kind of nice to think that parenting is something everyone can do. And, while we're on the subject, where are all the children in this novel? Nowhere, that's where. Odd, isn't it?

Among my fellow-prisoners I had also for the first time on Winter a certain feeling of being a man among women, or among eunuchs. (13.32)

Gender can be a separating factor same as nationality or skin color. Although the prisoners don't mean it, Ai still feels distinctly separated. Extra irony being he sees them as all women (the traditional macho-man's dream).

"In kemmer all the time…. Is it a place of reward, then? Or a place of punishment?" (13.60)

Good question, Asra. Are we better off being ready to go all the time—or worse? Wise men will ponder this one for ages to come, especially since it has no answer. Tricky.

He, after all, had no standards of manliness, of virility, to complicate his pride. (16.137)

Sometimes we act the way we do because society says men/women should act this way. Naturally, different societies will have different answers to this rule. Save for the Gethenians, obviously, who have shifgrethor (although that's a whole other can-o-problems).

Estraven had figured these differences into the food-ration calculations, in his scrupulous way, which one could see as either house-wifey or scientific […]. (18.9)

Ai begins to see traits beyond their gender specific roles. Sort of. We're kind of wondering why a housewife can't also be scientific, but whatevs. The point is, the trait can serve for either job, so it is not a gender matter but a matter of personality.