Ursula Le Guin and the Left Hand of Darkness

Where no man had been before…

When Le Guin wrote “The Left hand of Darkness” in 1969 Feminist writing was in its infancy and Science Fiction writing was dominated by male authors. In contrast to her male peers she used her “thought experiment” [1] to explore ideas about masculinity and phobias about homosexuality. Bravely, in the patriarchal environment in which she lived, she raised pertinent questions about how society relies on gender roles to organise its members.

She uses a misogynistic, heterosexual man as her main character and cleverly establishes his patriarchal point of view. He tries to explain the concept of men and women “the most important thing, … is whether one’s born male or female…in most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners—almost everything.” (Le Guin p114).When Genly, attempts to assign a gender to the androgynous Gethenians, he continually tries to make them men and is struck by their unpleasant feminine qualities. “stolid, slovenly, heavy, and to my eyes, effeminate… the sense of being a man among women or among eunuchs.” (Le Guin p. 170). Here Le Guin shows how his attempts to define the masculine gender call attention to the socialized attitudes he cannot discard, highlighting the dangers of gender stereotyping.

Today women writers may complain that Le Guin did not go far enough in challenging the prejudices of a gendered society and the heterosexual status quo. Her use of masculine pronouns throughout [2]; “Yet you cannot think of a Gethenian as “it.” …I must say “he,” …it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine.” (p 45) and her choice of a misogynistic man as her main character has led to her work being considered outdated by modern feminist writers. In her later writing she admits that she could have gone further, but considering the era in which she wrote, she should be considered to have been well ahead of her time.

1. Foreword to the 40th anniversary edition, “I did the best I could, working at the hinge point, the moment the change was happening, when what I wrote was part of the change that was happening.”

2.“There are moments when I would love to rewrite the book… I could take out dozens of utterly unnecessary masculinizations…And I could use accurate words such as sib, wombchild, rather than the masculinized brother, son. “ Ursula K. Le Guin, 1994 Afterword- The Gender of Pronouns

Le Guin, Ursula K. (2000) The Left Hand of Darkness published in 2000 by Ace Books

Image: http://store.omnireboot.com/products/the-left-hand-of-darkness-by-ursula-k-le-guin

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