Study Guide

The Left Hand of Darkness The Other

By Ursula K. Le Guin

The Other

I'm not much taller than the Gethenian norm, but the difference is most noticeable in a crowd. That's him, look, there's the Envoy. Of course that was part of my job, but it was the part that got harder not easier as time went on; more and more often I longed for anonymity, for sameness. (1.20)

We all play the Other at some point in our life: that moment when we represent the opposite of everyone around us. Most of us don't stay in those situations for too long, but poor Ai must live continuously as the Other thanks to his job as the Envoy.

Brought up in the wide-open, free-wheeling society of Earth, I would never master the protocol, or the impassivity, so valued by Karhiders. (1.67)

Things only get worse. Not only does Ai's otherness separate him from everyone around him, but it's also getting in the way of his mission. Guy just can't win.

"The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression." (1.77)

Here, war and politics both seem to be based around fear of the Other. The book seems written for its time, since the Vietnam War was going in full force then. Or maybe our time? Huh, is that funny or sad?

I was born to live in exile, it appeared, and my one way home was by way of dying. So I went on westward and turned back no more. (6.4)

Estraven shares a sense of the Other with Ai. Like the Envoy, Estraven's otherness comes from his worldview and his desire to perform his duty. They're a match made in outcast heaven.

I did not ask him his [name]. I must learn to live without shadows as they do in Orgoreyn; not to take offense; not to offend uselessly. (6.30)

In Orgoreyn, Estraven must change his shifgrethor or else he'll be labeled an Other (or at least more of an Other than he already is). And that won't help Ai any.

A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience. (7.18)

Okay, setting aside the maybe outdated ideas about what men and women want, the Investigator points out the problem with being an Other in Gethen society. No one treats you as you would expect to be treated. This can be especially frustrating when you're at the bar looking for a date.

[…] so I had nothing with me except the ship and ansible, my box of pictures, the indubitable peculiarity of my body, and the unprovable singularity of my mind. The pictures passed around the table, and were examined with the noncommittal expression you see on the faces of people looking at pictures of somebody else's family. (10.29)

As if to prove the above quote, Orgoreyn Commensals seems to look at Ai as if he's a specimen in a jar. You even get the sense they wouldn't mind sticking him in a cage and charging admission fees.

He gave me Ashe's money as one would give a hired assassin his fee. I have not often been so angry, and I insulted him deliberately. (11.8)

Not only are Ai and Estraven Others in Gethen society, but they're Others to each other…yeah that made sense. Anyway, if they're going to accomplish their mission, that's going to have to change.

But where there is no desire and no shame no one, however anomalous, is singled out; and I think Asra made no connection of this notion with myself and my peculiarities. (13.60)

Although Ai is different from everybody, the prison is a place of a hard and painful life. This trumps any differences as the prisoners must work together to survive.

But they all looked strange to me, men and women, well as I knew them. Their voices sounded strange: too deep, too shrill. They were like a troupe of great, strange animals, of two different species […]. (20.79)

Ai changes so much by his experience on Gethen that his fellow humans look like Others to him. This has to stink for him: he's an Other with the Gethenians, and now he's an Other with his own kind.