The Left Hand of Darkness: A Story of Gender Identity

Since its publication in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness has received both acclaim and criticism. This makes sense, considering that the controversies in the book center around the nature of gender and sex, told from an ardent male viewpoint, hanging heavy with use of masculine pronouns. Despite any monumental achievement in The Left Hand of Darkness, these perceived shortcomings could easily add sour taste in the mouth of any who seek greater female representation, or a viewpoint which eschews gender and sexuality as a means of othering members of a society. No matter how close to the heart of The Left Hand of Darkness these issues may appear, this does not change the incredible impact the story has had on the literary community, readers of SF, and society at large.  

To boil down The Left Hand of Darkness into only the issues around the use of pronouns and perceptions of masculinity misses the point of the tale; the book is not meant to critique masculinity or femininity. Le Guin shows the difficult bridge between understanding gender as a member of a gendered species and culture, revealing the human conditions faced within social classes and constructs both in her time and today.  

Le Guin also drew great inspiration from one text which explored the transition between male and female, pulling in those elements to her creation of The Left Hand of Darkness. At one point in her life, Le Guin, along with a number of other authors, were asked which novels were of greatest inspiration to their work as SF authors. While many of the authors answers fell into what I expected to see of such a question, Le Guin took a different approach: 

[She], however, interpreted the question rather broadly and selected twentieth-century modernist Virginia Woolf and her novel, Orlando, a satirical history of English literature which traces the life and loves of an Elizabethan poet who lives for centuries and changes sex. Le Guin wrote-  ‘I learned a lot from reading the ever-subversive Virginia Woolf. I was seventeen when I read Orlando. It was half revelation, half confusion to me at that age, but one thing was clear: that she imagined a society vastly different from our own, an exotic world, and brought it dramatically alive. I’m thinking of the Elizabethan scenes, the winter when the Thames froze over. Reading, I was there, saw the bonfires blazing in the ice, felt the marvelous strangeness of that moment five hundred years ago -the authentic thrill of being taken absolutely elsewhere.’

(Swank K. 2021, pp. 139)

Another clear sign of Le Guin’s feminism in The Left Hand of Darkness comes in the keeping of lineage by the citizens of Gethen. It is as we would describe ‘matriarchal,’ although such a term would have no meaning on Gethen. “Descent of course is reckoned, all over Gethen, from the mother, the ‘parent of the flesh,’” (Le Guin U. 98). This pattern of putting greater value on the bearer of children appears as a trope in other SF novels where topics of gender and sexuality are points of interest much as they are in The Left Hand of Darkness. This trope is used to show the disparity apparent in our own world:  

Far from providing greater claims to the resultant offspring, in other words, the additional risks and burdens of gestation and childbirth are often considered legally and socially inferior to the male’s genetic contribution. Furthermore, the unequal division of reproductive labor across the sexes often extends beyond the physiological requirements of gestation and lactation, leading to unfair distribution of the burdens of childrearing and restricting women’s full participation in public life. As such, I argue that pregnancy and childbirth may be seen as a potential threat to gender equality, one that is both socially constructed and entrenched in Nature.

(Kendal E. 2018, pp. 67)

Le Guin uses these focal points in The Left Hand of Darkness to imagine a world where the burden of childbearing is shared by all members of society equally. While such lines as “The King was pregnant,” may garner a laugh from readers, the deeper message is that the weight of childbearing and rearing is not placed solely on the shoulders of one social group or another. For real world societies, “Pregnancy is a condition that causes pain and suffering, and that only affects women. The fact that men do not have to go through pregnancy to have a genetically related child, whereas women do, is a natural inequality,” (Smajdor, A 2012, pp 90). For the people in The Left Hand of Darkness, it is a shared responsibility, with the humans of Gethen being as likely to be a mother as a father when kemmering. In Utopian Literature and Bioethics: Exploring Reproductive Difference and Gender Equality, author E. Kendal also said of The Left Hand of Darkness:  

In ethical terms, this novel essentially employs a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” method toward the burdens of pregnancy. According to John Rawls, when people are required to choose a social model dictating the distribution of resources, rights, and positions in a society, but they do not know which position they will personally occupy in the resultant society, they will tend toward a model that promotes equality and guarantees protection for the least advantaged members. Since citizens of Winter cannot know in advance whether they will be personally affected by the conditions created for physical gestation, they are thus motivated to promote the social model most favorable to the disadvantaged. 

(Kendal E. 2018, pp. 71)

The effects of this on the lifestyles of the people of Gethen are clear in many places within The Left Hand of Darkness. The people of Gethen do not have the same views as people of Earth regarding paternity and maternity, with “the distinction between a maternal and a paternal instinct… scarcely worth making; the parental instinct, the wish to protect, to further… not [being] a sex-linked characteristic,” (Le Guin K. pp. 106). They have never known life within the confines of split genders. The presence of the word, “he,” within the novel is not the result of Gethenians preferring male pronouns. Indeed, Gethenians, when not in kemmer, do not have male or female pronouns. The format of the novel is indicative of the narrator, Genly Ai, translating the texts of Estraven and Gethenian lore into English, his own native tongue, and his struggles with identifying those he interacts with without a gendered pronoun.  

It is this struggle, this intentional struggle, that I believe drove Le Guin’s intentions behind not creating new language to define the genderless humans of Gethen. The purpose is not to fill in that gap, but to call attention to the unease created by its existence. “In other words, the novel forces readers to become androgynous readers: readers are asked to resist reading from any gendered perspective. The result of such a request is to keep the reader continuously off guard and unsettled, mirroring Genly Ai’s predicament in the novel.”

(Pennington J. 2000, pp. 99) 

Le Guin has long incorporated a variety of themes into her work regarding social gender stereotypes, crossing cultural boundaries of the western world. In A Wizard of Earthsea, she depicts male characters as deeply emotional, experiencing sadness and loss with a free expression of tears, and relationships with other men that, while platonic, show deep connection and love. The machismo present in the works of other SF authors of her time may be present in some forms, such as Genly Ai’s views on women, yet they are not depicted in such a way as to label them as objective truth. Where Phillip K Dick’s depictions of women in The Man in the High Castle and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch focus mostly on their physical appearance, and how they can be used as sexual set pieces for his male characters, Le Guin creates characters that are fully human, thought out beyond their sexuality, or gender. 

The Left Hand of Darkness has almost no female characters in it, instead having the bulk of the cast of  “Karhiders [the reader is] with as not a man, but a manwoman,” (Le Guin, U. 1969, pp. 101). Genly is the only being through most of the book who reflects the familiar of Earth, a being who does not enter the kemmer state of sexuality and gendering. This move by Le Guin is intentional, to show the issues in our own society in recognizing and understanding a system without constant gender. “Male and female readers cannot escape their own gendered perspectives conditioned by society,” (Pennington J. 2000, pp 98) making it hard for readers to identify with the text without bringing their own gendering terms with them to Gethen.  

It is important to note, though, that when Genly calls down his ship near the end of the novel, “the first off was Lang Heo Hew, unchanged, of course, precisely as I [Genly] had last seen her,” (pp. 318). The presence of Lang Heo Hew shows that in the Ekumen, men and women can and do occupy the same fields of study and employment. Women in The Left Hand of Darkness, and the Hainish novels and the Ekumen in general, are not depicted as less than men. This information reveals that the issues in the text with how women are described by Genly, and the prevalent use of male pronouns, are issues with Genly himself, and not Le Guin, in his record keeping. Indeed, the readers are caught in much the same web as Genly, because they, too, must attempt to separate themselves from the foundations of identity instilled from their earliest infancy: 

The Left Hand of Darkness evokes a powerful individual reader response because each reader must define his or her inner space where gender finds its own ideological space; the novel requires readers to resist a gendered reading of the narrative. A productive approach to embrace when analyzing The Left Hand of Darkness is to examine how Le Guin defines that inner space between male and female textually in her outer space novel, and to examine how the text “activates” readers to enter those alien gender spaces.

(Pennington, J. 2000, pp. 99)

The readers position of viewing all they know about Gethen from the perspective of Genly Ai is central to the message of The Left Hand of Darkness. This confusion, of knowing how to gender humans, but not Gethen humans, is best shown in “The Question of Sex,” where Ong Tot Oppong writes:  

The following must go into my finished Directives: when you meet a Gethenian you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or opposite sex. Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interactions is nonexistent [on Gethen]. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?

(Le Guin, U. pp. 101)

For readers today, this concept may not be as hard to imagine. Transgender rights are growing around the globe, and along with it a greater understanding of what it means to be a person irrespective of the sex one is assigned at birth. There are still confusions in this regard, however, especially for the English language, which remains without a singular, non-gendered pronoun. The word ‘they’ is being used more often in the singular, but as yet official keepers of the English language such as Oxford Dictionary have not added the changing colloquial usage to the overall lexicon. For the English language, and many others, the concept of identity is indelibly connected to gender, with many children being engendered to their social standing as soon as they leave the womb, with pink and blue smocks assigned upon the clipping of the umbilical.  

This issue of gendering perhaps does not exist in Gethenian language, however. It is made clear in “The Domestication of Hunch,” where Genly speaks with Goss, a member of the Handdarata religion about a person who was always “in kemmer.” These individuals in The Left Hand of Darkness are referred to as Perverts, a possible sign that assigning gender for Gethenians is the greater offense, in stark contrast to our own perceptions. At one point while talking about the Pervert, “Goss used the pronoun that designates a male animal, not the pronoun for a human being in the masculine role of kemmer. He looked at little embarrassed,” (Le Guin U. pp. 67). This shows the existence of multiple pronouns in Gethenian language; those for animals, which on Gethen are sexed male, female always (separating them biologically from Gethenian humans), those for individuals in kemmer as male or female, and then by implication, a pronoun for Gethenians during their androgynous phase between kemmering.  

This shows that there are pronouns in Gethenian languages which the narrator Genly Ai could have used in place of the English pronoun, “he.” Yet the use of an alien word was not the desire of Le Guin in this manuscript. As shown earlier, she sought to sow the seeds of confusion and unease in readers as they came upon the pronoun usage of Genly. This confusion is experienced by Genly also, as he navigates the world of Gethen, and the alien culture where he is immersed. The reader travels the world with him, and learns, just as Genly does, to see things outside of their world view, growing and gaining a newfound appreciation for people, very real people, who fall outside the gender duality our societies have for so long required of our species.  

As Genly and Estraven travel along the Gobrin Ice, their bond is forged in love. Genly’s love for Estraven acts as a symbol for his understanding of the humans of Gethen; it acts as a symbol for the readers emergence upon this understanding also, the understanding of loving those who are different, who society tells us to view as an other. Just as Genly and Estraven know that only through joining through the Ekumen can a society finally become one with itself, the reader can find a path to oneness with the human race, even those who differ from themselves. These differences are not limited to male female, either. The symbolism of The Left Hand of Darkness incorporates religious difference, socio-economic, and racial differences. Truly, it is as Genly said: 

For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of friendship between us rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and already so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love. But it was from the differences between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the differences, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us.

(Le Guin, K. pp. 267)

Le Guin set out to create a thought experiment. One looking at a world where gender was not the norm. She created a story of betrayal and trust, of traveling across the cold, unrelenting fields of what is considered immutable in our world—the constructs of gender and the ways it defines our identity. The Left Hand of Darkness brings the reader through the other side of that frightening chasm of facing our gender identity and grants us a serenity only possible through the journey. While critics of her work lose sight of these victories, choosing to focus on the problematic gender pronouns employed by Genly, the truth inherent in her work still shines through, a light in the darkness, there on its left hand. 

Works Cited 

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. Pinguin Random House LLC. 1969 

Kendal E. Utopian Literature and Bioethics: Exploring Reproductive Difference and Gender Equality. Lit Med. 2018;36(1):56-84. doi: 10.1353/lm.2018.0002. 

Pennington J. Exorcising Gender: Resisting Readers in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Extrapolation. 2000;41(4):351-358. doi: 10.3828/extr.2000.41.4.351. 

Smajdor, Anna. In Defense of Ectogenesis. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 21, no. 1 (2012): 90–103. 

Swank K. Ursula’s Bookshelf. Mythlore. 2021;39(138):137-155. 

Published by AC Moore

My goal is to one day change the world in the same way Shakespeare did: by infusing the thoughts of the human race with such language and turn-of-phrase that they say them daily, and never even know it was I who wrote it.

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