Study Guide

The Left Hand of Darkness Themes

By Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Language and Communication

    Can't we all just get along? Maybe if we could actually talk to each other, we could. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ai's task is communication. He needs to open communications with the Gethenians to get them to join the Ekumen. Thing is, he doesn't have the language skills to communicate his goal. He knows the language, he understands the words, but the meaning of the words in relation to the culture is lost on him. Like he's using a Hungarian dictionary or something. Ai's quest becomes one of discovering the relationship between language and culture. Only then can he complete his mission and get paid. He does get paid for all this, right?

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What character do you feel has the most difficultly communicating with others? What character has it the easiest? What does a comparison between the two suggest?
    2. Where do you see language failing Ai in the novel? How does language fail him, and do you see this change at any point in the novel?
    3. Ai ultimately loses the ansible but is still able to complete his mission. How does he accomplish this and what does this tell us about communication regarding the ansible as a symbol?

    Chew on This

    Although Gethenian androgyny has drawn critics' attention, Le Guin was most interested in considering the use of language in society.

    Faxe is The Left Hand of Darkness's language expert. His use of language surpasses cultural boundaries.

  • Gender

    The natives of the planet Gethen are androgynous, neither male nor female while also being both at the same time. This aspect of their biology has put its mark on every aspect of their society, from politics to mating rituals (obviously) to social mores. Seems simple enough until you actually have to live in their society as Genly Ai does. Ai can't figure out how the Gethenians see the world because they are so alien to him. Not just because they are aliens but because he views his world as a man. In trying to force Gethenians into his idea of gender roles, Ai only suffers massive culture shock. Obviously this aspect of Ai's character will have to change if he is to succeed on Gethen. But, easier said than done. The Left Hand of Darkness asks us to consider how deeply ingrained our ideas about gender are.

    Questions About Gender

    1. The Gethenians' androgyny has a huge impact on their society. Where do you see Gethenian culture differing from ours due to androgyny? What about similarities? What conclusions can you draw from these examples?
    2. Where in the text do you see Ai's views on gender being forced on the Gethenians? What does this tell you about Ai's character? Do you think he could have handled it differently?
    3. How do you think Ai's views on gender change by the end of the novel (if at all)?

    Chew on This

    Although the Gethenians are biologically androgynous, they act like men in every other way.

    To say that Gethenians "act like men" is actually a more sexist position than the ones critics accuse Le Guin of, because it assumes that men always act in a certain way.

  • Politics

    Oh, good. If there's one thing we love at Shmoop, it's discussing politics. Thankfully, The Left Hand of Darkness isn't too concerned with promoting one type of politics over another in a "Communism v. Capitalism" fight to the death, Sunday, Sunday, Sunday"-style. Instead, it wants to explore what these political governments have in common. Although each nation in Gethen has its own political structure, none is entirely the same or entirely different. Similarities and differences exist within each; like the yin yang symbol, it is at the borders where the two connect. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends entirely on how the political systems use their shared traits to promote the good of their citizens. Hint: none of them get it right but some get it more right than others.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Why doesn't King Argaven accept the Ekumen's initial offer? Political motivations, or something else? Following up, what changes his mind by the novel's end?
    2. Why are Orgoreyn and Karhide political rivals? At what points in the novel do we get an explanation for their rivalry? What does that suggest about the way Le Guin handles politics?
    3. What characters are at a disadvantage in the political arena? What characters are at an advantage? What does the contrast between these characters suggest about the relationship between politics and the individual?

    Chew on This

    The Left Hand of Darkness is an anti-political novel. It basically says that there's no truly decent political system. The best we can do is make do.

    Le Guin mixes various Earth political systems in both Karhide and Orgoreyn to prevent readers from drawing neat parallels between Karhide-American and Orgoreyn-Russia.

  • Religion

    Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, especially on Gethen, where they never had one. But they do have religion, and a bit of turmoil to go with it. The Left Hand of Darkness's two religions, Handdara and Yomeshta, have some major differences about the proper use of knowledge. Handdara promotes wholeness from opposites, seeing both light and shadow as necessary and useful. Yomeshta, on the other hand, sees one path as worthy (the light one) and the other as unworthy (shadow). These differences might not be much to fuss over, except when religions get used toward political ends. Now that could be a problem.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Faxe is sometimes called the Weaver. What does this name suggest about his relationship with religion? Does it suggest anything about religion in the novel as a whole?
    2. Where do we see religion aiding Ai in his mission? Where do we see religion hindering Ai? Given the nature of Ai's mission, what does this tell us about religion's role in the novel?
    3. Why do you suppose Le Guin chose to have two religious characters, Estraven and Faxe, serve in politics? How do these two characters differ from the other politicians in the novel? What does this tell us?

    Chew on This

    Le Guin is less concerned with an individual's relationship to religion than with religion's role in society.

    Le Guin used Taoism as the basis for Handdara, because it can serve as both philosophy and religion.

  • Duty

    We often see duty and betrayal going hand in hand. If someone performs his duty, he's a person worthy of respect and admiration. But to not perform your duty is an act of betrayal, whether it's to country, family, or even yourself. But what if an act of betrayal is necessary to perform your duty? Now things are getting interesting, and it's this question The Left Hand of Darkness asks us to ponder. Estraven is considered a traitor by King Argaven, but is it possible that the only way to serve Argaven was to betray him? And how does that work anyway? We'll just have to read on to find out.

    Questions About Duty

    1. What character do you think pays the highest price to perform his duty? Which characters fail to perform their duties? What motivates that failure?
    2. What do you think is the relationship between patriotism and duty in the novel? What does The Left Hand of Darkness appear to think about patriotism?
    3. Does the novel offer up any examples of an immoral duty? What is it and who performs it? Do you agree with the novel on this one?

    Chew on This

    King Argaven performs his duty by sending Estraven into exile though he hates himself for doing so.

    Ai's mission shifts at some point in the novel. Originally, his duty is to complete his mission for the Ekumen. By the end of the novel, his duty is to Gethen and Estraven specifically.

  • The Other

    In psychology, the Other helps us define ourselves. We see other people walking about, and by picking out the things that are different between them and us, we create a more solid picture of who we are. Everybody does it. As long as we aren't jerks about it, this isn't inherently a good or bad thing. But what happens when you recognize so many differences that you feel effectively cut off from the society around you? That's the problem Ai faces in The Left Hand of Darkness as he attempts to reconcile his obvious cultural differences with the Gethenians. It's either that or fail at his mission. And since it took him 17 years to get to Gethen by space travel, failure would be an utter waste of gas money.

    Questions About The Other

    1. Do either Ai or Estraven ever successfully rid themselves of the label Other? Why or why not?
    2. What types of Otherness do you see in the text? Do the examples tell us anything about the nature of Other as a theme? Can we draw parallels with our world?
    3. By the novel's end, do you think Ai feels more like an Other with the Gethenians or the humans? What examples from the text support this view?

    Chew on This

    Ai's Otherness has less to do with his biology and more to do with his cultural upbringing.

    In trying to prevent Otherness, the Commensal system of Orgoreyn actually creates a society based on it.

  • Man and the Natural World

    The Gethenians have a heck of a nature to contend with. If you can imagine Siberia in the middle of February, then you can imagine the Gethen equivalent of beachfront Malibu property. Seriously cold ice age they've got going for them on that planet. This exceptionally dangerous form of nature has had a major impact on the development of the Gethen society for centuries. Their technology has grown considerably slower than ours, and their cities are designed for extremely close quarters to share warmth and other necessities. And on a planet where every step could be a death sentence, you tend to get where you're going slowly. In The Left Hand of Darkness, it's all just one more hurdle for Ai to leap over before he can appreciate what it means to be a Gethenian.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What areas of Gethenian life are affected by the natural world of Winter? What does this tell us about the Gethenian relationship with the natural world? Can we draw parallels with our world?
    2. What purpose does the natural world serve in Ai and Estraven's relationship? How does the natural world affect their relationship?
    3. Why do you suppose Le Guin spends so much time describing the natural state of Gethen? Check out some specific passages to think about this question.

    Chew on This

    The slow pace of the Gethenian industrial revolution is not simply the result of the fierce Gethen weather. Social conflicts, minor scuffles, and the Gethenians' androgynous nature also played a part.

    War breeds technology innovation faster than response to the natural world. If the Gethenian really want airplanes, a war would be just the ticket.

  • Warfare

    There has never been a war on Gethen. Seriously, not one. Oh sure, they have raids, murders, assassinations, and bar fights here and there, but war? They don't even have a word for it. The reason why is one of The Left Hand of Darkness's mysteries. It's speculated that their lack of pure masculinity could be the cause. While a lack of men is definitely the reason they don't have monster trucks, is it enough to write off war? Does Le Guin seriously believe that women would never wage war? On the other hand, it could be the weather on Gethen. Who'd want to fight a war on a planet like that? Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain: the countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn are gearing up for something. And it sure looks like war.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Does Le Guin suggest that Gethenians will ultimately succumb to war, even now that they joined the Ekumen? Why or why not?
    2. Do you think it is the Gethenian androgyny that has prevented war on Gethen or the nature of the planet itself? Maybe a bit of both? Neither?
    3. What reasons do characters have for trying to start a war in the novel? Give examples. What does this tell us about war according to the novel?

    Chew on This

    Open communications with the Ekumen will bring the concept of war to Gethen. Once the thought is in mind, it is only a matter of time before war breaks out.

    The Gethenians' violent history shows that their tendencies toward neighborly destruction are the same as any human species.

  • Love

    Love is a tricky issue in The Left Hand of Darkness. It isn't mentioned often in the text itself, but it kind of serves as thematic glue for the entire novel. Love of others, love of one's self, love of country, love of culture: all these loves clash and interact with each other as the novel tells its tale. Perhaps the clearest example of love is the warm-feelings brewing between Ai and Estraven. Together and alone in a frozen wasteland, Ai and Estraven grow to love one another as they learn to better understand and communicate. It's a touching tale of man meets alien, falls in love with alien, and shares tent filled with unconsummated, college-dorm-room-level sexual tension. Sweet.

    Questions About Love

    1. Pick either Chapter 2 or Chapter 9. How does either tale compare to Ai and Estraven's love story? What does this say about love in the novel?
    2. Love of another, love of one's self, love of one's country: at what points in the novel do these different loves come in conflict with each other? What does this tell us, if anything, about love in relation to a specific character or as a theme for the novel?
    3. Do we see any characters incapable of love in the novel? If so, who are they and why do they seem incapable of love?

    Chew on This

    The fact that Ai and Estraven never enact their love sexually actually gives them a deeper bond than if they had done so.

    Estraven's perception of duty is based on his love for his dead brother, Arek.