Places: The Left Hand of Darkness

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Science fiction

Time of work: Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical year 1490-1497

Places DiscussedGethen/Winter

Gethen/Winter. Left Hand of Darkness, ThePlanet similar to earth in size and having an atmosphere capable of supporting a humanoid but not human population. It exists in an unspecified galaxy and in a distant future. It is called Gethen by the people of Hain, an advanced and distant planet from which the protagonist comes, and is sometimes called Winter for reasons that quickly become obvious. The central figure is Genly Ai, a diplomat who represents an intergalactic political organization called the Ekumen; it is Ai’s task to live on Winter for as long as it takes to slowly and gently convince the Gethenians that they want, of their own free will, to join the Ekumen. This organization, a noncoercive political confederation of loosely linked planets, is often alluded to in the novel but is never directly encountered. It is Ursula K. Le Guin’s ideal political organization, and its purpose is to represent a potential alternative to the modern organization of competing nation-states.

Modern nationalism/patriotism is the subject against which the novel cleverly and entertainingly argues. Genly Ai’s mission is impeded by the two conditions that are the most significant features of the planet. First, Gethen is in the midst of an ice age: This means that every feature of the planet, from its flora and fauna to its various cultural rituals and religions to its machines and technology, is shaped by the fact that Gethen is at all times extremely cold. The second factor that shapes the planet and the most interesting feature of the novel is that the people of Gethen are completely hermaphroditic. These preoccupations clearly mark the novel as a product of the 1960’s American fascination with “alternative lifestyles.”


Karhide. Nation on the planet Gethen. While for the sake of symmetry Le Guin mentions several places on Gethen, none is ever seen or visited except the two central nations. The first and most significant is Karhide, which, with its dedication to a sort of quasi capitalism and to individual liberty of various kinds, seems to be intended as a simplified representation of early, even primitive, democracy. For all the talk about total equality between people, the novel clearly prefers this to the form of government represented by its chief rival, Orgoreyn.


Orgoreyn. The second of the two main places on Gethen/Winter. With its highly organized and regimented social system, it is presented as a simplified image of communism. Much less time is spent there, however, than in Karhide, and it is clear that Le Guin’s purpose in creating it is to have a balance between competing social systems which will allow her to make comments about the governments of Gethen that apply equally well to modern political situations on earth.

BibliographyBarrow, Craig, and Diana Barrow. “The Left Hand of Darkness: Feminism for Men.” Mosaic 20, no. 1 (Winter, 1987): 83-96. This insightful essay suggests that Le Guin’s feminist novel was specifically intended for male readers.Bloom, Harold, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of chronologically ordered and previously published essays tracing the general critical reception of Le Guin’s work.Bloom, Harold. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This useful collection contains nine previously published essays, arranged in chronological order, which examine the novel in various contexts: archetypal narrative patterns, social criticism, feminism, and speech-act theory. Martin Bickman’s essay on the novel’s unity persuasively counters earlier charges that the Gethenians’ ambisexuality is irrelevant to the plot.Cummins, Elizabeth. Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. The third chapter of this book compares The Left Hand of Darkness to Le Guin’s other novels about the results of Hainish experiments. Good annotated bibliography.Frazer, Patricia. “Again, The Left Hand of Darkness: Androgyny or Homophobia?” In The Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature, edited by Donald Palumbo. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Frazer’s essay discusses issues of sexuality–rather than gender–in the novel. The collection features an excellent annotated bibliography on sexuality in science fiction.Ketterer, David. “The Left Hand of Darkness: Ursula Le Guin’s Archetypal Winter Journey.” In New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1974. Looks at Le Guin’s use of myth in the novel, especially as it concerns her depictions of duality and mystical unity. Ketterer was the first to expose the mythology of winter as contained in the book.Le Guin, Ursula K. “Is Gender Necessary?” In The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Susan Wood. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979. In this important essay, Le Guin critiques her own novel as a feminist experiment–not wholly successful–in which she tried to discover the essence of humanity by eliminating gender.Rhodes, Jewell Parker. “Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness: Androgyny and the Feminist Utopia.” In Women and Utopia: Critical Interpretations, edited by Marleen Barr and Nicholas D. Smith. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983. This essay cogently argues that the novel’s exploration of androgyny is undermined by Le Guin’s own patriarchal bias.Sargent, Pamela. “Introduction: Women and Science Fiction.” In Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent. New York: Vintage Books, 1975. Places Le Guin’s work in the context of feminist trends in science fiction. Textual notes recount discussion by writer Stanisław Lem and Le Guin of Le Guin’s success in portraying Gethenian sexuality.Slusser, George Edgar. The Farthest Shores of Ursula K. Le Guin. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1976. This pamphlet discusses most of Le Guin’s earlier writings, and sees in The Left Hand of Darkness the workings of paradoxes that defy simple moral interpretation.Spivack, Charlotte. “The Left Hand of Darkness.” In Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A thorough discussion of all of Le Guin’s works. Includes sections on narrative structure, use of mythology, political and religious themes, and critical reception.Spivack, Charlotte. Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A good overall introduction to Le Guin’s work in fiction and other genres.
Categories: Places