Study Guide

Heather Lelache in The Lathe of Heaven

Heather Lelache

How can you not love a woman who puts brandy in her 97% caffeine coffee to weaken it? Tell us that.

The Black Widow

Heather Lelache first appears as George's lawyer, but let's be honest: she doesn't do very much actual lawyering in this novel. What's way more important about her is her personality, as well as her relationship with George.

We won't lie. At first we were totally afraid of this lady. Seriously, this is how she's introduced in the novel: "Miss Lelache sat behind the screen of bookcases and files that semi-separated her semi- office from Mr. Pearl's semi-office, and thought of herself as a Black Widow. There she sat, poisonous; hard, shiny, and poisonous; waiting, waiting" (4.2).

Basically, we're being told that Heather is a tough one. She doesn't take any nonsense, and she's no princess in need of someone to rescue her. In fact, she's going to rescue George.

But as with George, all is not as it appears with Heather. She may seem brash and aggressive, but that's only part of the picture: "Why hadn't she been a detective instead of a goddam stupid third-class civil rights lawyer? She hated the law. It took an aggressive, assertive personality. She didn't have it. She had a sneaky, sly, shy, squamous personality. She had French diseases of the soul" (7.21). Basically, Heather's not an aggressor. She doesn't attack; she defends, and she reacts to others' attacks.

If you are wondering what George and Heather have in common, this is it. Heather doesn't like to force things, and neither does George. She seems to have some kind of understanding that there is a right and natural order in the world that shouldn't be disturbed. So even though at first she seems like an even bigger bully than Dr. Haber, she's actually nothing like him at all.

Gray Mrs. Orr

Did we forget to mention that Heather's black? Well, brown, really, according to George.

When we first meet her, Heather Lelache is the child of a white woman and a black man. Apparently, this has caused her some kind of existential crisis, and she's not sure about her identity as a mixed-race woman. But George tries to reassure her and says that she's not black or white: she's brown.

This all becomes important when George has a dream that ends the racism problem by making everyone gray. It seems to work fine except for one hiccup: Heather Lelache disappears. Wait, what? Read on:

That's why she's not here, he thought. She could not have been born gray. Her color, her color of brown, was an essential part of her, not an accident. Her anger, timidity, brashness, gentleness, all were elements of her mixed being, her mixed nature, dark and clear right through, like Baltic amber. She could not exist in the gray people's world. She had not been born. (9.20)

That probably sounds very romantic and beautiful, right?

Well, the problem is that these sentiments are kind of racist, even though Le Guin seems to mean well. Let's remember to put this in context: Ursula Le Guin published The Lathe of Heaven in 1971. This was just after the African American civil rights movement. The depiction of a black female with natural hair in a science fiction novel as a sympathetic main character was probably a big first, and it's still something that's fairly rare in science fiction novels. On top of that, Le Guin places Heather in an interracial relationship that seems genuinely loving.

Those are all the good parts. Now for the bad parts.

Did you notice that even though everyone turns gray, Dr. Haber and George still exist? And they have basically the same personalities? Why is Heather the only one who disappears?

The problem is that Le Guin has made Heather's blackness an essential part of her being in a way that other characters' whiteness is not. In other words, it seems as if these characters' whiteness is a default, while Heather's blackness is an aberration, even if Le Guin depicts it as a positive one. So of course, if everyone is changed into a default gray race, the white people would be unchanged, since their race was the default, anyway.

Oh, and there's one more thing: when George dreams Heather back into life as his wife, her personality is changed. Remember how she was introduced as the Black Widow? Well that's not her anymore. This is how she meets Dr. Haber: "'Come on in, George!' he thundered. She was awed. She cowered. He noticed her. 'Mrs. Orr—glad to see you! Glad you came! You come on in, too' "(10.59). That's definitely not how the old Heather would have met the old doc. He wouldn't awe her.

This gray Heather is also not as violent as the old Heather. What's the underlying message? Well, we're sorry to say it, but the implication is that Heather's blackness is responsible for her harshness, violence, and courage. While those attributes are positive in that they make her a female character who's not totally helpless, they are still part of the stereotype of a "strong black woman."

She Keeps Coming Back

There are not a lot of constants in George's world. Every time he dreams, he gets a new childhood, a new family, and a new history. But one person seems more or less constant, and that's Heather. She is dreamed out of existence not once, but twice, but she keeps coming back for more. We don't want to get all squishy on you, but that's pretty romantic.

But George and Heather's relationship isn't romantic just for romance's sake. It's a bigger statement about which things are essential in the world—and this novel is all about stressing that strong interpersonal relationships, something that Dr. Haber actually avoided, are about as important as it gets.

When the aliens give George a word to say meaning "help," no exact translation is given, but it seems to be related to friendships and relationships. Basically, love is the way to control the damaging effects of George's effective dreaming. Friends and lovers make everything all right—and they're pretty much the only way to make everything all right.