The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Review of a Classic Exploration of Androgyny

woman with multi color lights
Mads Perch / Getty Images

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin takes the reader to a world where the humans are neither men nor women. They live without gender, except for a brief period each month when they take on sexual characteristics – either male or female, seemingly randomly – and then after a few days return to being non-sexual.

Androgyny and Kemmer

The Left Hand of Darkness holds up a mirror to human society, forcing readers to look at how many aspects of humans' lives are defined by which sex they are.

Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, two of science fiction’s great honors, the 1969 novel grapples with many issues, among them religion, politics, war and the danger of blind patriotism. Ursula Le Guin has stated that it was envisioning a society without war that brought her to the idea of a society without men, who historically have perpetuated war.

One question asked of speculative fiction is whether the author pulls it off. Does the reader believe in Ursula Le Guin’s invented planet Gethen, so cold it is called “Winter” by outsiders?

It is a world where a person lacks “continuous sexual potentiality” and is “respected and judged only as a human being.” The word androgynous can mean “having characteristics of both sexes,” or hermaphrodite, but it can also mean "lacking the distinction of either sex." The people who inhabit Gethen enter a monthly period called “kemmer” in which they take on a sex role and “mate” with another person who happens to be in kemmer at the same time.

Afterward, they go back to normal: neither male nor female. In their daily lives, they function without sex and, notably, without sex as a motivation for their actions.

If conception occurs during kemmer, the person who was in the female role has a gestation period before once again becoming a “perfect androgyne.” A Gethenian could give birth to a child, then later sire another child, taking on the “male” role during the next kemmer.

Erasing Gender?

The chapters alternate points of view, sometimes narrated by Estraven, a native of Gethen, and sometimes narrated by Genly Ai, the Envoy from an Earth that readers recognize. Some chapters consist of Gethen's legends, or the notes of the first exploratory expeditions to the planet.  

“I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female,” the Envoy says while trying to explain the concept of men and women to Estraven. “In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners—almost everything.” 

Twenty-first century readers and theorists who have taken sex biology out of the gender equation might dislike this statement, but they mustn’t forget how much feminists did to force society to reckon with that status quo.

The androgynous Gethenians, even if they seem like men, are more like most women on our Earth. At any time they could potentially become pregnant. Therefore, they are less free than a typical Earth male, the book tells us. This is indeed food for feminist thought.

He Said, It Said

One frustration for feminists is the use of the pronoun he for the genderless beings. The Envoy says he relies on he because it calls less attention to itself than she, and suggests this is why we refer to God as he.

He arguably draws less attention than any neuter pronoun Ursula Le Guin could have invented, but you may find yourself wishing she had made the effort. Even more interesting is the fact that the feminist statement about the divine, that it is only male for humans’ convenience, is lost in the debate over the semantics of mankind.

The Better Half

The first half of The Left Hand of Darkness plunges the reader into the planet without  explaining the surroundings. The way Ursula Le Guin tosses around her invented vocabulary can be exasperating. No dictionary is provided, although a far less essential “Gethenian Calendar and Clock” appears at the end of the book. It is not terribly difficult for a persistent reader to put the pieces together, but the first half of the book is just alienating enough to make more than a few readers give up.

Those who are less than devoted fans of science fiction may have no desire to identify with the experience of the confused visitor to a strange planet .

The second half of The Left Hand of Darkness is more plot and character driven.  Estraven and Genly Ai, who are finally more defined, begin to relate profoundly to each other.  Planetary lessons are still sprinkled throughout, but the trek across hundreds of miles of vast ice sheet in particular is a portion of the story worthy of being called great in an emotional, sweeping sense.

Duality and the Feminist Classic

What, literally, is the left hand of darkness? Light, of course. Yin and yang, fear and courage, cold and warmth, male and female: duality. Ursula Le Guin explores male/female duality by reimagining the common act where the distinction is most relevant  – the sexual act.  

It is immature literary analysis, if not philosophically irrelevant, to focus too much on whether Ursula Le Guin’s heteronormative viewpoint makes The Left Hand of Darkness “outdated.” Great truths can be told by works of literature precisely because times have changed. Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick are just two examples of this. A better question is: how much did this book kick start or encourage such social change?

Ursula Le Guin should have equally erased men and women in creating her genderless human beings, and the book fails to do that: the reader perceives men, even when constantly reminded that they aren’t men. Yet, in terms of forcing the question of how much society relies on sex – or gender – roles in figuring out what to do with its members, The Left Hand of Darkness holds its own as a work of feminist as well as socio-political thought.