LHD Survey                                                                                    Reformated Aug. 1997

Richard D. Erlich in Survey of Science Fiction Literature, ed. Frank N. Magill (Englewood Cliffs: Salem, 1979), 1171-77.



The Left Hand of Darkness


Author: Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-      )

First book publication: 1969

Type of work: Novel

Time: The distant future, no earlier than 3850 and not later than 4870

Locale: The planet Gethen, nicknamed Winter; on the Great Continent in the states of Karhide and Orgoreyn and on the Gobrin Ice that both connects and seperates these two countries


The intergration into the Ekumen ("Household," League) of Known Worlds of the people of Gethen/Winter, brought about by Genly Ai, Ekumenical Envoy, with the aid of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, the banished former prime minister of Karhide


Principal characters:

          GENLY AI, The First Mobile of the Ekumen on Gethen

          ESTRAVEN, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, "King's Ear" to Argaven XV at the beginning of the novel, later in exile

          ARGAVEN XV, King Argaven Harge, the mad ruler of Karhide

          LORD TIBE, Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe, prime minister of Karhide after Estraven's fall and Estraven's mortal enemy

          FAXE, The Weaver of the Foretellers of Otherhord, later an important politician in Karhide, opposed to Tibe


         The plot of The Left Hand of Darkness consists of three major sections and a brief conclusion.  The first section is set in Karhide, the second in Orgoreyn, the third on the Gobrin Ice; the conclusion is set in Karhide, to which Genly Ai returns to bring down his ship and bring Karhide (and soon Orgoreyn and the other Gethenian nations) into the Ekumen—and to bring the novel to a more or less happy ending.

         The novel opens with Ai in Karhide and deep—over his head in fact—in Karhidish politics.  Estraven has arranged for Ai to have an audience with Argaven XV and in other ways has seemed to aid Ai; still, Ai does not trust Estraven and is more surprised than upset when Estraven is banished and Lord Tibe becomes the "King's Ear."  The audience with the King gets Ai nowhere, since the King believes him to be an impostor and/or threat; so Ai leaves the Karhidish capital of Erhenrang to see other parts of the country and then to go to Orgoreyn.  After investigating the Karhidish Foretellers and receiving the prediction that Gethen will be a member of the Ekumen in five years, Ai goes to Orgoreyn to see if his message will be received better there.

         In Orgoreyn Ai becomes an inadvertent player in a political game between two factions of the ruling council of Thirty-Three.  His mission is favored by the Open Trade faction and opposed by the Domination faction and the Sarf (the secret police and their associated bureaucratic apparatus).  The banished Estraven has meanwhile established himself somewhat in Orgoreyn and attempts to aid Ai and the Open Traders.  During this time Ai's mission comes to take on great practical importance for the Gethenians; under the rule of Tibe, Karhide has started to centralize its administration and prepare for conflict with Orgoreyn.  Orgoreyn is already a centralized bureaucracy and will meet what it sees as a Karhidish threat.  Since both societies have evolved into mobilizable nations, such a conflict between the two could lead to war—something unprecedented in Gethenian history. 

         The Open Trade faction loses this round of bureaucratic in-fighting, and Ai is seized and sent to the Pulefen Commensality Third Voluntary Farm and Resettlement Agency—in other words, to a forced-labor camp such as those run in the Terran arctic by the Russian Gulag.

         Estraven saves Ai from death at the camp, and the two of them attempt a winter journey back to Karhide, and Ai awakens his orbiting colleagues and summons them to Gethen, correctly assuming that he and they will be welcomed by King Argaven (as Estraven predicted) as an embarrassment to the rulers of Orgoreyn, who have reported Ai's unfortunate death from disease.  Estraven, however, is banished "man" and under sentence of death in Karhide.  He is soon betrayed and killed by the agents of Lord Tibe.  Tibe then resigns his office, and Ai returns to Erhenrang to complete his mission.  After bringing down the ship and getting his ambassadorial duties taken care of for a while, Ai goes to Estraven's domain of Estre and concludes the novel by meeting Estraven's parent and child (the "son" of Estraven and Estraven's brother Arek).

         Le Guin presents this story as a "Report From Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter" (headnote to Chapter 1).  In this report, the plot remains relatively simple.  What expands the novel to twenty chapters is Ai's giving his superiors and Le Guin's readers both his own story and Estraven's version of their story, plus a detailed anthropological survey of Gethenian culture, plus the outline of a philosophical system which includes a cosmology, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetic.

         The "anthropological survey" portion of The Left Hand of Darkness is necessitated by the alienness, the radical Otherness, of the Gethenians.  As she notes in her introduction to the 1976 edition of the novel, Le Guin is asking us to perform a thought experiment.  What if there were a marginal world at the limit of human endurance of cold, and what if the people of this world were androgynous: five-sixths of the time asexual, neither male nor female but potentially both; one-sixth of the time in rut, as either a male of a female.  What sort of culture would such people produce?  What would "incest" mean to them?  What would their politics and social organization be like?  What sort of philosophies would they develop?  Would they be dualists?  Would they be murderous or basically peaceful?  Would they have wars?  What would people be like who most of the time were neither men nor women but simply human?

         Much of this anthropological information we get from Genly Ai, a stranger in a strange land; as Ai learns, so do we.  Some of this information we can infer from the chapters narrated by Estraven or taken from his journal.  The rest we get from chapters interpolated into the narrative.

         The most blatant of these interpolations is the chapter entitled "The Question of Sex" [ch. 7], presented as an extract from the notes of an Investigator of the Ekumen in the team preceding the First Mobile.  In this chapter we get a detailed account of Gethenian sexuality and the social implications of the Gethenians' unique combination of androgyny and an estrus cycle.  Other interpolated chapters are more subtle.  "The Place Inside the Blizzard" [ch. 2] tells us about Gethenian ideas on incest and suicide and prepares for the allusions to Estraven's relationship with his brother Arek and for the white weather sequence on the Ice later in the novel.  "The Nineteenth Day" [ch. 4] tells us about the dangers for the questioners in asking Foretellers improper questions.  And the tale of "Estraven the Traitor" [ch. 9] foreshadows the sacrifice of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven: like his namesake in the tale, Estraven is called a traitor for trying to bring peace and to integrate feuding peoples.

         More difficult to justify are "On Time and Darkness" [ch. 12] and "An Orgota Creation Myth," [ch. 17] which interrupt the story at very exciting moments and do not have any direct relationship with the plot.

         "On Time and Darkness" immediately follows Estraven's warning to Ai that his life is in danger, a warning that proves quite true in Chapter 13, when Ai is arrested and sent to the Pulefen Voluntary Farm.  "On Time and Darkness" is mostly about epistemology, the investigation of what we can know and how we can know; it presents the view of the Yomeshta that in Meshe (their founder) there is neither darkness nor ignorance: all things are in the Center of Time, unchanging and knowable.  The "Orgotta Creation Myth" [ch. 17] comes during the dangerous winter's journey on the Ice, during a major crisis in the relationship between Estraven and Ai: Estraven's entering kemmer (rut).  This story is just what the title indicates: a creation myth dating back to prehistoric times, a primitive exercise in cosmology giving the origins of hills and valleys, rivers and seas and living things—and of human life and death on Gethen.

         The principle Genly Ai usually follows in ordering these chapters in his report is that of juxtaposition: a circular sort of operation in which A is placed next to B because they have some relationship, and in which the reader assumes a relationship just because A is next to B.  This is bad logic of the "after this, therefore because of this" variety; it is also a standard device in literature, theater, and film.  Sometimes the reason for the juxtaposition is difficult to understand, such as in the very first of the interruptions of the narrative, "The Place Inside the Blizzard" (Chapter 2).  Ai and Le Guin insist here that we accept their method on faith: they interrupt the story and ask us to trust them that the interruption was justified.

         The first chapter of The Left Hand of Darkness ends with a discussion of patriotism and a reference back to the blood used in the mortar of Karhidish keystones.  The interpolated Chapter 2 deals with the suicide of one brother and the exile of another for breaking the Gethenian taboo against brothers vowing kemmering for life (monogamous marriage).  As we will later learn, this situation of suicide and exile is similar to that of Estraven.  More important, the suicide story's juxtaposition with the end of Chapter 1 is the first step in preparing us to see Estraven's later action of skiing into the guns of Tibe's men as a necessary sacrifice as well as suicide.  Estraven provides the blood needed to secure the keystone in the arch—in other words, to bring together Karhide and Orgoreyn, as the two enter the Ekumen.  Symbolically, if not in terms of the plot, Estraven's death is a great patriotic gesture, since it helps seal the peace.  "The Place Inside the Blizzard" also introduces in its simplest form the question of individual loyalty versus loyalty to the group.  This interpolated hearth-tale, then, both looks back to the discussions and thoughts at the end of Chapter 1 and looks ahead to . . . the general theme of individual loyalty versus patriotism and to the specific events of Ai and Estraven on the Ice in the white weather and Estraven's apparent suicide.

         The placement of "The Nineteenth Day" [ch. 4] is much easier to explain.  It is about foretelling. 

         The problem with the placement of "The Question of Sex" (Chapter 7) is that its basic points could go anywhere in the novel; the ambisexuality of the Gethenians has little to do with anything particular in the plot, but is crucial for the cultural world of the whole story.  "The Question of Sex" is appropriately placed because of its rhetorical emphasis upon the relationship of sexuality to violence and warfare, a relationship also dealt with in "One Way into Orgoreyn" and "Another Way into Orgoreyn." [chs. 6 & 8]

         In "One Way into Orgoreyn" we learn that Gethenians are quite capable of attempting to kill one another: we see Tibe's agents trying to kill Estraven.  Murder, then, is a human sort of thing, neither exclusively male nor female; it must be a human sort of thing or the merely human Gethenians would be incapable of it.  And "One Way into Orgoreyn" ends in a discussion of something for which the Gethenians have no word, but which we (Genly Ai's "criminal ancestors") easily recognize as warfare between two developed nations.  One way into Orgoreyn, then, is the way the Orgota have actually taken: the establishment of their rational, efficient New Epoch regime with sufficient central control to allow them to wage war.

         "Another Way into Orgoreyn" is that of Tibe, the new Karhidish prime minister and a kind of androgynous Dr. Goebbels.  Technological development on Gethen has progressed enough so that the Gethenians are not wholly a marginal ppeople with no energy to waste on mass aggression.  Orgoreyn is already a centralized state; using the potential threat of Orgoreyn and the immediate occasion of a border dispute in the Sinoth Valley, Tibe tries to unify Karhide, using what Genly Ai explicitly calls "war" for that purpose.  Tibe's way—his method and his approach to the world—is the opposite and complement of that Orgoreyn.  Even as the Orgota reach their efficient and potentially militant state through the light of the human intellect, the demagogic Tibe wants to convert Karhide into a efficient and militant police state by appealing to the darkness of the human Shadow: the primitive nature that Tibe says is the reality under the "veneer" of civilization.

         Chapter 7, then, explicitly develops "The Question of Sex" and sex's relationship to warfare: two major interrelated themes of the chapters that immediately precede and follow it.

         "Estraven the Traitor" (Chapter 9) reintroduces the theme of patriotism and stresses the necessity of trust and sacrifice in bringing together people and peoples.  The most important justification for the theme's placement in Chapter 9 is that the narrative on both sides of this chapter shows us the low point of Ai's trust of Estraven, a trust that is absolutely necessary (as things turn out) for the success of Ai's mission.  The sort of displaced Romeo and Juliet motif in "Estraven the Traitor" helps to establish a world in which the sacrifice of a loved one is somehow a necessary cost for the establishment of peace and unity: a variation on the theme of the blood-bond holding together an arch.  Also introduced in this chapter is the image of two hands meeting and matching as the hands of one man: a matching which requires that the hands both be alike (four fingers and a thumb, and so on) and yet different (a left hand must touch a right hand).  This image underlies the meeting and union—"touching" is Le Guin's word—of Ai and Estraven during their journey on the Ice.  It is both their essential sameness as human beings and their differences that allow Ai and Estraven to touch.

         Two interpolated chapters remain: Chapter 7, "On Time and Darkness," and Chapter 17, "An Orgota Creation Myth."  These two chapters receive great

stress in the economy of the novel precisely because they interrupt the narrative at such crucial points.  They deserve that stress because they help set up the philosophical system by which the action of the novel is to be judged.

         The Orgota Creation myth is very old and establishes a cosmology that underlies all Gethenian philosophy.  In general, however, the Handdarata [generally of Karhide] interpret the myth correctly and even improve upon it; the Yomeshta [mostly in Orgoreyn] get the myth, and most other things, quite wrong.

         According to the myth, the world started out with the Ice and the Sun and will eventually move to a time of Ice and Darkness.  The Handdarata accept this idea, but add that the Darkness preceded even the Ice and Sun.  The Ice and Sun are images for stasis and for Being.  The Handdarata add to this idea the Taoist concept that deeper even than Being (Tao) is Unbeing (here, the Darkness).  In any event, out of Being comes Becoming: the world of action, the world of flux, uncertainty, and shadows in which humans live and die.  The offspring of Edondurath and his unnamed kemmering (in other words, all of Gethen's people) are followed by shadows "Because they were born in the house of flesh, therefore death follows at their heels.  They are in the middle of time."  To be in the center of time is to be in the world in which the only certainty is death, as Faxe had shown Genly Ai at the Otherhord Fastness—it is this fact that the Yomeshta deny.  Implicit also in the myth is the idea of the uniqueness of human beings and human consciousness and our connection with all other living things.

         The ideas of flux ("Creation unfinished") and of the interconnectedness of life are developed in Chapter 16, with Estraven making clear how the Handdarata view things versus the Yomeshta.  Given the cosmology of the myth, the Handdarata are correct in praising Creation unfinished and in trying to fit into the scheme of life.  The "way" followed by the Yomeshta and by Orgoreyn (where Meshe's cult is officially promulgated) is incorrect, leading them to be one of the familiar "dynamic, aggressive, ecology-breaking cultures . . . bent on pushing things around."

         More importantly, this cosmology is the basis of the epistemology of uncertainty accepted in the Handdara and denied in the Yomesh creed, as we see in "On Time and Darkness."  The Yomeshta believe that ultimate Truth, including the "meaning of life," was seen by Meshe and can be perceived by us through Meshe.  Meshe's idea of the center of time is a world without sequence, darkness, or death: the world of Being, of simultaneity and stasis.  In such a world, certainty is possible. 

         There is something to be said for this view: Le Guin believes in simultaneity and Being and in the necessity for occasional contacts with Being.  Indeed, in Le Guin's essentially godless universe, contact with Being is absolutely necessary for touch, for establishing the I-Thou relationship between people.  Also, such contacts with Being are necessary for the foretelling perfected by the Handdarata.

         The danger of the Yomesh view of constant contact with Being is made clear by the placement of "On Time and Darkness" [ch. 12] just before Ai's arrest and imprisonment in "Down on the Farm" [ch. 13].  Accept the epistemology of the Yomeshta, Le Guin implies, and such certainty will lead you to the New Epoch of the Orgota, with its prison camps and their "excess of light."

         "On Time and Darkness" and "An Orgota Creation Myth," then, function to help establish a world of Being and Becoming, occasional certainty and usual ignorance, a world of death and pain in which humankind are often and ultimately individual and alone.  From such a view follows ethics stressing humility and a willingness to attempt contact with the almost always alien Other.  From such a view follows a politics very like that of the Ekumen.  And from such a view follows the aesthetic theory incorporated into the novel. 

         In such a world, " . . . Truth is a matter of the imagination" and "Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are."  In such a world, it is appropriate that we see the story of Ai and Estraven from both of their points of view, and that we see the truth of Gethen from the many points of view made possible by the interpolated chapters.

         The structure, then, of The Left Hand of Darkness is not only justified but a brilliant stroke of the artistic decorum that goes well with the excellent handling of plot, character, and themes that make this work both an outstanding science fiction novel and one of the best literary works to come out of America in the late 1960's.



Sources for Further Study




Bickman, Martin.  "Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness: Form and Content," in Science-Fiction Studies.  IV (1977), pp. 42-47.  Bickman outlines thethemes of the work, the dream, the tree, and the root.


Ketterer, David.  "The Left Hand of Darkness: Ursula K. Le Guin's Archetypal'Winter-Journal,'" in Riverside Quarterly.  V (April, 1973), pp. 288-297.Ketterer presents the work as one of Le Guin's best.


Slusser, George E.  The Farthest Shores of Ursula K. Le Guin.  San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo, 1976, pp. 17-31.  Slusser feels the theme of roots and rootlessness is central to this novel.




Library Journal. XCV, June 15, 1970, p. 2228.

Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  XXXVII, November, 1969, p. 50.

Publisher's Weekly.  CXCV, January 27, 1969, p. 99.

Times Literary Supplement.  January 8, 1970, p. 39.

Top of the News.  XXVI, January, 1970, p.210.