Authors: Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer


Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (leh GWIHN) has been a major figure in the elevation of science fiction and fantasy from minor literature to the mainstream of American letters. She is the daughter of the respected anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber and Theodora Kroeber, author of Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (1961). Her childhood was marked by the intellectual and imaginative stimulation of her home life, alternating between the university atmosphere of Berkeley, California, and summers in the Napa Valley, where she came to know and love the country landscape.{$I[AN]9810001015}{$I[A]Le Guin, Ursula K.[LeGuin, Ursula K]}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Le Guin, Ursula K.[LeGuin, Ursula K]}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Le Guin, Ursula K.[LeGuin, Ursula K]}{$I[tim]1929;Le Guin, Ursula K.[LeGuin, Ursula K]}

Ursula K. Le Guin

(Margaret Chodos)

Though she began writing as a child, she did not publish until after she ended her formal education, married, and became a parent. Le Guin completed her B.A. at Radcliffe College in 1951, earned her M.A. at Columbia University in 1952, and then began work toward a Ph.D. in French. While on a Fulbright Fellowship in France, she met and married Charles A. Le Guin. After the couple settled in Portland, Oregon, she began publishing fiction, raising her three children by day and writing at night. Her first story, “An die Musik,” appeared in 1961.

In 1966 Le Guin published her first science-fiction novel, Rocannon’s World. This was followed by the increasingly powerful novels in the Hainish series that were to contribute to her considerable reputation. While Planet of Exile and City of Illusions were well received, The Left Hand of Darkness established Le Guin’s reputation in science fiction when it won the prestigious Nebula and Hugo awards. The last major novel in this series, The Dispossessed, won the Nebula, Hugo, and Jupiter awards for 1974.

At the same time that she was gaining a reputation among science-fiction enthusiasts, Le Guin was establishing herself as a formidable writer of fantasy fiction for young readers. The first Earthsea book, A Wizard of Earthsea, won the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for 1968. The next volume in the series, The Tombs of Atuan, was awarded a Newbery Honor Book Citation, and the third, The Farthest Shore, won a National Book Award. In 1990 Le Guin completed the series, up to then considered a trilogy, with Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, a novel much influenced by her increasingly feminist outlook.

Indeed, beginning in the mid-1970’s, Le Guin’s writings turned from the male-oriented adventure quest of traditional science fiction and fantasy to a more complete exploration of female characters, particularly to the relationship of women to the natural world. Influenced by feminist literary and political theories, she also became more experimental. In 1985 she published Always Coming Home, a highly ambitious work that combines science fiction with anthropology. The book presents “stories and life-stories, plays, poems, and songs,” the artifacts of an imaginary culture, exactly as they might be collected and recorded by an anthropologist studying an existing culture. While such a book is a radical departure from the adventure/quest narrative so often at the core of Le Guin’s previous novels, its center remains the same as in all Le Guin’s best works, the unity in opposition found in Taoism.

Nearly all Le Guin’s mature work shows the influence of Jungian psychoanalysis and Taoism, though there are many other important influences on her work. One of the more pervasive oppositions in her fiction is between an aggressive, technological, authoritarian, masculine consciousness and a more peaceful feminine consciousness that depends on nature-based “magic” and ritual for social control. Behind this opposition, Le Guin reveals a fundamental unity, visualized in Taoism’s yin-yang symbol. All oppositions in human experience impel the cosmos through time and change, working together though they seem to be opposites. Le Guin’s works emphasize that human happiness is possible when the individual and society succeed in balancing these oppositions, giving each its due while affirming life. Though death, nonbeing, and the unconscious are essential components of human existence, they are to be dominated by life, being, and consciousness.

Le Guin’s best fiction, notably The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and the Earthsea books, compares favorably with the best of modern fiction. These novels remain popular with general readers and have made their ways into high school and college courses. Her nonfiction essays, particularly those on feminism, science fiction and fantasy, and the craft of writing, are frequently reprinted and have led to her popularity as a public speaker. Although her short stories have generally taken second place to her novels, the collection Unlocking the Air, and Other Stories was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1997. With her recognition by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Le Guin has taken her place among the best of American writers.

BibliographyBittner, James W. Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984. This author discusses both Le Guin’s short stories and novels, making connections among her works to show how certain themes are apparent in all of them.Bucknall, Barbara J. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. The main emphasis in this book is a discussion of Le Guin’s novels, mainly in chronological order. It does include one chapter devoted to her short fiction.Collins, Jerre. “Leaving Omelas: Questions of Faith and Understanding.” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Fall, 1990): 525-535. Argues that “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” can be read either as a religious allegory of the “suffering servant” or as an allegory of Western capitalism; however, rejection of the capitalist exploitation story undermines the redemption story. Thus, Le Guin indirectly supports the scapegoat theodicy she tries to undermine.Cummins, Elizabeth. Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. An analysis of Le Guin’s work emphasizing the different worlds she has created (Earthsea, the Hannish World, Orsinia, and the West Coast) and how they provide the structure for all of her fiction.De Bolt, Joe, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1979. This volume is a collection of critical essays that discusses Le Guin’s work from a variety of perspectives, including anthropology, sociology, science, and Daoist philosophy.Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 2000. Le Guin is one of five science-fiction writers whose works are analyzed using contemporary literary theory.Kaler, Anne K. “‘Carving in Water’: Journey/Journals and the Images of Women’s Writings in Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Sur.’” Literature, Interpretation, Theory 7 (1997): 51-62. Claims that Le Guin’s story “Sur” provides a cleverly coded map for women striving to be professional writers; to illustrate the paths that women writers must take into the tundras ruled by male writers, she uses the devices of disorder, dislocation, and reversal in the journey/journal.Keulen, Margarete. Radical Imagination: Feminist Conceptions of the Future in Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, and Sally Miller Gearhart. New York: Peter Lang, 1991. Explores science fiction from a feminist viewpoint in the three authors. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Reid, Suzanne Elizabeth. Presenting Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Twayne, 1997. This critical biography helps young readers to understand how her childhood, family, and life have helped to shape Le Guin’s work.Rochelle, Warren. Communities of the Heart: The Rhetoric of Myth in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 2001. Analyzes Le Guin’s construction of myth and use of mythological themes in her work.Spivack, Charlotte. Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Begins with a brief chronology of important personal and professional milestones in Le Guin’s life up to 1981, and then examines her background and her literary contributions. Includes annotated references, primary and secondary bibliographies, and an index.Walsh, William. “I Am a Woman Writer; I Am a Western Writer: An Interview with Ursula Le Guin.” The Kenyon Review, n.s. 17 (Summer/Fall, 1995): 192-205. Le Guin discusses such topics as the genre of science fiction, her readership, the feminist movement, women writers, and the Nobel Prize.Wayne, Katherine Ross. Redefining Moral Education: Life, Le Guin, and Language. San Francisco: Austin and Winfield, 1996. Focuses on ecological concerns and the depiction of the environment and environmentalism in Le Guin’s work.White, Donna R. Dancing with Dragons: Ursula K. Le Guin and the Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1999. Part of the Studies in English and American Literature, Linguistics, and Culture series, this volume examines Le Guin’s works and critical reaction to them.
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