In her novel “The Left Hand of Darkness“, does Ursula K. LE Guin succeed in depicting a completely non-gendered society?

Examining feminist criticism of the novel

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

20 Pages, Grade: 1,5




2. Critical Voices

3. Language and Perspective
3.1 Genly Ai
3.2 Therem Estraven
3.3 Ong Tot Oppong
3.4 The Legends

4. The Reader

5. Sexuality in the Novel

6. Conclusion



This paper will go into certain aspects of feminist criticisms of Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 science fiction novel “The Left Hand of Darkness“, discuss their justification question, and further examine the consistency of Le Guin’s description of the genderless society of Gethen.

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, an envoy from Earth (“Terra”), sent by the “Ekumen”, a union of inhabited planets, to planet Gethen in order to convince the planet’s inhabitants to join an interstellar alliance. Throughout the novel Le Guin explores Genly Ai’s difficulties to understand and become part of society on Gethen, which are mainly due to the fact that all the inhabitants are ambisexual; they only take on a biological gender once a month, in a short period of sexual activity. Each individual has the capacity to become either a man or a woman, and their sex can differ from one month to the other.

The Left Hand of Darkness has played an essential role in the history of science fiction. Since Science Fiction was a largely male dominated field of literature in the 1960s, both in its authors and its protagonists, Le Guin’s novel was pathbreaking in many ways. It has attracted a lot of attention for its unusual focus on social science and human relationships as opposed to natural science and technology and for its attempt to show a society of complete equals.

However, Le Guins thought-experiment about a genderless or gender-ambiguous society has frequently been subject to harsh criticism by feminist critics, who hold that she has not succeeded to create a credible picture of this society. They claim the gender situation throughout the book to be inconsistent. According to these critics, instead of depicting a society without any gender roles, Le Guin describes a purely male world, and fails to make the reader see the Gethenians as women as well as men.

In this paper I will discuss the validity of these criticisms. I will start with the main points of criticism, illustrate the significance of narrative perspective in The Left Hand of Darkness and continue to analyse notions of sex and gender in the novel.

2. Critical Voices

In a review of The Left Hand of Darkness in the November 1971 issue of the fanzine Science Fiction Commentary, the prestigious Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem states:

she [Le Guin] has written about a planet where there are no women, but only men ... garments, manners of speech, mores, and behaviour, are masculine ... the male element has remained victorious over the female one.[1]

There are three main aspects of the novel feminist critics base their criticism on.

Firstly, they focus on Le Guin’s use of a male first person narrator. This was actually a fairly common practice among woman writer’s in the field of speculative fiction during the 1960s and early 1970s. Critics like Joanna Russ claim that by deciding for a male Envoy, Le Guin gives the Ekumen a male voice, and deprives the reader of the opportunity to experience Gethen from a female point of view. The female narrator Ong Tot Oppong makes a very short appearance in the novel. The chapter narrated by her is very factual, and not experience-based. Getting to know the native hero Therem Estraven through the eyes of a woman might lead to insights to his character that are impossible through Genly Ai’s male point of view. In respond to this criticism Anna V. Clemens says that

Feminist Critics [...] fail to recognize Le Guin’s ironic intent in her presentation of a protagonist with an excessively masculine point of view.[2]

We must also acknowledge that using Ai as a narrator enables Le Guin to effectively question assumptions about gender identity. Ai’s maleness is necessary, insofar that a man would certainly feel more threatened by the Gethenian gender situation, because he is deprived of the privileges he enjoys in other societies.

The second aspect of The Left Hand of Darkness which critical voices focus on is Le Guin’s lack of exploration of the Gethenian’s - especially Estraven’s-, female side. As Joanna Russ puts it in her 1974 article The image of women in science fiction:

There is a native hero and he [Estraven] is male- at least „he“ is masculine in gender, if not in sex. The native hero has an former spouse who is long-suffering mild and gentle, while he himself is fiery, tough, self-sufficient and proud. There is the Byronesque memory of a past incestuous affair; his lover and sibling is dead. There is an attempted seduction by a kind of Mata Hari who is female (so that the hero, of course, becomes male).[3]

We get to know Estraven, by means of his journals, as a very spiritual, lonely, proud and independent person. He undertakes various physically challenging tasks, long marches, hard work in a fish factory, rescuing Ai from prison and carrying him through the woods, and the trek across the glacier. We meet him as a powerful politician, a person who opens the door to strangers in the nude and has his children raised by his ex-partner. Le Guin herself admits in her 1976 article Is Gender Necessary? That she did this because

I [she] was privately delighted at watching, not a man, but a manwoman, do all these things. [.] But, for the reader, I [she]left out too much. One does not see Estraven [] in any role that we automatically perceive as 'female'.[4]

One example Russ gives, is that Estraven, though parent to various children, seems to completely lack interest in their upbringing. However, is it not just another stereotype to classify child-rearing as a feminine activity and the pursuit of a political career as masculine behavior? As to Gaum’s attempt of seduction Russ refers to, it must be argued that we see Estraven in kemmer twice in the novel, and the second time he takes on the female role.

The third and strongest target of criticism is Le Guin’s use of the generic “he”.

In his book Radical Taoism: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Science Fiction Bruce Woodcock complains that the use of the male pronoun gives us a “biased and partial male narrative view point which itself enforces a gendered categorization on the bisexual Gethenians”[5].

Responding to such criticism Ursula Le Guin first defended her utilization of the male pronoun fervidly: “I utterly refuse to mangle English by inventing a pronoun for ‘he/she.‘ ‘He` is the generic pronoun, damn it.“[6] Later she admitted that her use of the masculine pronoun made it difficult to see Gethenians as women as well as men (s. Ong Tot Oppong). In an afterword to a 1994 edition of the novel she discusses the problem of the pronoun:

In 1967, when I wrote the book, I called them all "he." I believed then that the masculine pronoun in English was genuinely generic, including both male and female referents. This is a pleasant and convenient belief. Unfortunately, the more you look at it, the less credible it becomes. [...]‘He‘ means what it says, no more, no less alas![7]

She continues to discuss various possible solutions for the pronoun problem, and concludes she “ would stick to the masculine pronoun for people in sourer“, because she does not „like any invented pronouns in the long run“. Still, even aside from the difficulty of the pronoun, Le Guin uses masculine terms to refer to Gethenian citizens. In her afterword she comments:

I could take out dozens of utterly unnecessary masculinizations, such as the word “man” when I meant “person” or “people” as I automatically have done in all my writing for years now. And I could use accurate words such as sib, wombchild, rather than the masculinized brother, son.

The strangest twist on this is my use of the phrase "parent in the flesh" instead of mother. My misplaced scrupulousness simply increased the weight of pseudomaleness on the text, instead of helping ungender it.[8]

In the following chapter, Language and Perspective, I will discuss the justification of the usage of masculine pronouns and terminology in the context of the different narrators of the novel.

3. Language and Perspective

At the very outset of The Left Hand of Darkness it becomes clear that the novel includes multiple narrative levels. The significance of this for the understanding of the novel is stressed by the first indication of perspective the reader receives: We are informed by a heterodiegetic narrator, that the text we are reading is a “Transcript of [an] Ansible Document“[9]. Although the uninitiated reader does not at that point know what kind of device an “ansible” might be, the fact that the text is only the transcript of a document indicates there might be some information lost in translation. The text, “from the archives of Hain“, has probably been edited by someone external to the plot.

We also learn that the narrative is a “report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen”[10]. This first of three first person homodiegetic narrators, Ai, then informs us, that this “report” will take the form of a story, because “Truth is always a matter of the imagination”[11]. This can be understood as a hint to the reader to maybe try and surpass Ai’s- and any narrator’s- imagination, or at least take in account that the narrator’s view on things might also be a limited one. Ai then continues to say that “The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling” thus explaining the reader from the very beginning that this story is told from a subjective point of view and none of its statements have any general value. We are also told that ”the story is not all mine [his] nor told by me [him] alone”[12], indicating that the different parts of the novel must be read and interpreted in the light of the deficiencies of the respective unreliable narrator.


[1] Rebecca Rass, Left Hand of Darkness: A Study Guide. Oct 2003.

[2] Anna Valdine Clemens, Art, Myth and Ritual in Ursula K. Le Guins The Left Hand of Darkness‘. Canadian Review of American Studies 17(4).425

[3] Joanna Russ, “The Image of Women in Science Fiction“ in Susan Koppelman [ed.] Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives. (Bowling Green, Ohio : Bowling Green Univ. Popular Press, 1973), 90.

[4] Ursula K. Le Guin, "Is Gender Necessary?" In: The Languages of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. (New York: Harper Collins 1992), 170

[5] Bruce Woodcock, Radical Taoism: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Science Fiction (London: Pluto Press, 1994), 196.

[6] Ursula K. Le Guin, “Is Gender Necessary?” in: The Languages of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. (New York: Harper Collins 1992), 169.

[7] Ursula Le Guin, “Afterword: The Gender of Pronouns“ in The Left Hand of Darkness. (New York: Walker, 1994)

[8] Ibid

[9] Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, 9. London: Orbit, 1992),; All Quotations from this edition.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


In her novel “The Left Hand of Darkness“, does Ursula K. LE Guin succeed in depicting a completely non-gendered society?
Examining feminist criticism of the novel
Free University of Berlin  (John F. Kennedy-Institut für Nordamerikastudien)
The Literature of the Sixties
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Left, Hand, Darkness“, Ursula, Guin, Literature, Sixties
Quote paper
Melanie Walser (Author), 2007, In her novel “The Left Hand of Darkness“, does Ursula K. LE Guin succeed in depicting a completely non-gendered society?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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