Duality of Love
The principle motif that drives the narration and the varying themes that author Ursula LeGuin explores within her seminal science fiction narrative, the Left Hand of Darkness, is the pervasiveness, and inherent influence, of the duality that is integral to human existence. Such a duality invariably takes on many different forms in the novel, and is evinced within conceptions and connotations of light and darkness, male and female characteristics and their accordant gender roles, as well as, most significantly, the duality between faith and betrayal, love and hate. The vast majority of literary criticism focused on this novel has examined the effect of the duality of gender that is conspicuously absent from most of the novel (LeFanu) (Mahoney) (since all but one character detailed within it are androgynous), yet exceedingly eminent because of the novelty of a situation such as this for the novel’s protagonist, Genly Ai. However, a closer examination of the text of this novel and pertinent literary criticism regarding it reveals that in all actuality, (as the author herself has noted), the duality that the novel is most concerned with is not that found within gender, but that found within betrayal and fidelity.
The most convincing piece of evidence that repeatedly demonstrates this fact is the relationship between Ai and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who begins the story employed as the prime minister of Karhide. What is most significant about this relationship is despite the innate distrust that Ai views Estraven with, the latter maintains an unassailable fidelity and trust of the former for the duration of the novel in both the best and the worst of times. This relationship is the focal point of Le Guin’s novel, and though there are certain aspects of gender that influence it, it is most eminent in this work of literature for the simple fact that it displays the duality and influence of betrayal and trust. In fact, Estraven is the only person who believes in Ai and his mission, as well as in his tales of expedient travel via the means of spaceships and a host of other things that are decidedly foreign — and therefore causes of suspicion — to the majority of the inhabitants of the planet Gethen, as the following quotation, in which the King of Karhide addresses Ai, makes abundantly clear. “But I do fear you, Envoy. I fear those who sent you. I fear liars, and I fear tricksters, and worst I fear the bitter truth. And so I rule my country well. Because only fear rules men. Nothing else works. Nothing else lasts long enough” (Le Guin 40). This quotation emphasizes the degree of suspicion which inhabitants of Gethen inevitably view Ai with, since he comes from planets with more technological advances and also because he is not androgynous, as all the inhabitants of Gethen are. Shortly after this quotation, Estraven is labeled a traitor and exiled from his native country for bringing Ai to the king, and Ai’s attempts to include Karhide in his federation are rejected. What is most significant about this quotation, however, is that Estraven is the only inhabitant of this planet who believes in Ai’s mission and the technology that fuels it — which demonstrates the height of his fidelity to the latter even when it labels him a traitor to his own people.
The two principle reasons for distrust of Ai and his mission to include Gethen in the Ekumen are the fact that he is not androgynous and that he boasts of a confederation ruled by a technology and celerity (Jordison) that are as foreign to the inhabitants of Gethen as his unwavering masculine gender. Therefore, it is interesting to note that in this respect, even the very employment of the issue of gender as a theme is subservient to the larger point that it is the cause of suspicion, infidelity, and ultimately, of betrayal. Yet what is most profound about this suspicion is that it (in keeping in alignment with the motif of duality) is not one-sided, which the following quotation from a review of the Left Side of Darkness reveals.
…a Gethenian can assume either the female or male gender at complete random (i.e. someone who was a female one month can be a male in the next monthly kemmering). Genly Ai, with his single, permanent male sexuality is branded as a “pervert,” or an anomaly. On the most basic, fundamental level, neither the people of Gethen nor Ai can understand each other (Thea).
This quotation underscores the fact that the question of gender and the duality of both male and female characteristics that all inhabitants of Gethen are able to equally take on is also a reason for Ai to distrust those inhabitants. This fact is alluded to in the passage when the author states that Ai and the inhabitants of the planet he visits cannot “understand” one another. It is due to this lack of understanding, which is largely engendered by the differences in gender between Ai and the others he encounters in this story, that suspicion and betrayal arises. This suspicion and betrayal is merely used to reinforce the fidelity of Estraven, for the most part, although eventually it plays a role in enabling Ai to eventually understand Estraven by overcoming his distrust. But the most important aspect of this passage is the fact that the duality and questions of gender in this novel are used merely to reinforce the fact that primarily, this is a tale of betrayal and fidelity.
Ai’s lack of trust for Estraven which only allows the latter greater opportunities to demonstrate his fidelity towards him, reaches its apex when the pair meet during the beginning of Ai’s stay in Orgota. Ai believes he has even less reason to treat Estravan civilly or to believe anything he says, now that he is a traitorous exile from his own country. In that respect, Ai is repeatedly betraying the fidelity that Estraven is displaying towards him as the sole person on the planet to actually believe in Ai and his mission. Yet Estraven proves his loyalty to Ai and his cause a number of times while the pair is in Orgota, as the following quotation, in which Estraven yields crucial advice to Ai in their initial meeting in this country, readily demonstrates.
You are, in Mishnory, what you were not, in Erhenrang. There they said you were; here they’ll say you’re not. You are the tool of a faction. I advise you to be careful how you let them use you. I advise you to find out what the enemy faction is, and who they are, and never to let them use you, for they will not use you well (Le Guin).
This quotation adequately characterizes the relationship between Estraven and Ai that is manifest for nearly the duration of the novel. Estraven is forthright and up front about demonstrating his loyalty to Ai, which he evinces in the preceding passage by attempting to warn him about the duplicitous nature of the inhabitants of Orgota. Ai, however, is unable to believe in this degree of honesty from people he has encountered on this planet, and receives this critical advice with a sort of skepticism that will eventually aid in his betrayal in Orgota. In many ways, Orgota practically personifies betrayal since it is a state run by secret police and a political instability ever willing to vilify someone. However, it is essential to note that Estraven attempted to warn Ai of his impending betrayal, and that Estraven would prove his loyalty once again in this country by freeing Ai from an icy imprisonment. It is within this country that Estraven demonstrates the depths of his loyalty which eventually enable Ai to overcome his own distrust.
When attempting to analyze the validity of the statement that the Left Hand of Darkness is actually not about the duality of gendered as it is the duality of fidelity and betrayal, it is important to note that even when Ai is, at long last, able to reciprocate the trust that Estraven has consistently demonstrated towards him, gender plays a significant part in this mutual loyalty — yet is only significant for the fact that it is able to facilitate a shared sense of fidelity between the two characters. One of the most important events in helping Ai to overcome his instinctive distrust of Estraven is when the pair assent to go into kemmer together. Kemmer is the state of reproduction on Gethen, and allows its inhabitants to become male or female. While in kemmer, Estraven becomes a beautiful woman who has a profound effect upon the thinking and attitude of Ai towards his companion, as the following quotation indicates.
“…it was from that sexual tension between us…that the great and sudden assurance of friendship between us rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile…that it might as well be called, now as later, love. But it was from the difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us” (Le Guin).
The “love” referred to in this quotation that arose between the female Estraven and Ai stemmed from distinctions of gender, since it originated due to the attractive nature of Estraven as a woman and of Ai as a man. However, this love actually transcends mere gender, which is evinced by the fact that the love is not sexually consummated in a physical form, but is rather consummated in an unconditional form of love that is the basis of the “friendship” that arose between Ai and Estraven. This love is perhaps the ultimate expression of the loyalty and fidelity that Estraven always demonstrated towards Ai, and which now is finally reciprocated by the latter. So although gender is influential in this passage and throughout the Left Hand of Darkness, it is only noteworthy for the fact that it reinforces the novel’s primary theme, that of the duality between betrayal and fidelity that the relationship between Ai and Estraven characterizes.
Further evidence for the fact that the central premise of Le Guin’s novel is the duality between betrayal and loyalty and not that of male and female gender is found in an examination of other aspects of Ai’s learning to trust Estraven. Aside from their experience together in the kemmer, one of the most salient of these aspects is Ai’s teaching of telepathy to Estraven. There is a certain intimacy in this form of communication, in which one simply psychically “hears” a voice inside one’s mind, that is fairly integral to the forming of mutual trust between the pair. Furthermore, the source of Estraven’s unyielding loyalty and fidelity towards Ai is alluded to during their telepathic communication, which the following quotation strongly suggests.
…Estraven’s own character…heard my voice bespeaking him as a dead man’s, his brother’s voice. I did not know what, besides love and death lay between him and that brother, but… whenever I bespoke… something in him winced… as if I touched a wound. So that intimacy of mind established between us was a bond, indeed, but an obscure and austere one, not so much admitting further light (Le Guin)
This quotation demonstrates that the beginning of the reciprocity of fidelity that Ai is able to summon towards Estraven actually springs from their telepathic communication. Furthermore, it underscores how intimate this communication between them is, since Estraven perceives it as his “brother’s voice.” This connection between Estraven’s brother and Ai is highly significant, since it implies that it is because of this connection that, even on an unconscious level, that there are similarities between Ai and Estraven’s dead brother. These similarities may have actually aided the latter in believing the former about his technology-spanning stories and in overlooking his immutable gender while allowing for Estraven to remain faithful to both Ai and his cause for the duration of the story. It is also noteworthy to mention that this aspect of the reinforcement of the fidelity between these two characters is not dependent upon gender at all. In that respect, it becomes all the more clearer that this tale is not actually about gender, but more about the duality between betrayal and fidelity.
In summary, the relationship between Ai and Estraven, which is integral to the plot of the Left Side of Darkness, underscores the notion that this novel is actually about the dichotomy between faithfulness and betrayal. Because Estraven believes in Ai’s cause, he is labeled a traitor and exiled from his country. Estraven’s faith is able to overlook the disdain that Ai has for him after his fall from grace and is responsible for attempting to warn him about his own betrayal at the hands of the inhabitants of Orgota. Through the worst of circumstances, such as Ai’s imprisonment, the fidelity which the relationship between these two is based upon never falters on Estraven’s part, and eventually is responsible for engendering a sense of reciprocity in Ai. Questions, conceptions, and roles of gender are used throughout this novel merely as a means of emphasizing the fact that this novel is primarily about the relationship between betrayal and love. Furthermore, a number of passages in this document and in Le Guin’s novel indicate that the ultimate expression of fidelity is an unconditional love like that initially experienced by this pair in the kemmer.
Jordison, Sam. “Back to the Hugos: The Left Hand of Darkness by Usula K. Le Guin.” The Guardian. 2010. Web. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/mar/25/left-hand-darkness-ursula-guin
LeFanu, Sarah. “The King is Pregnant.” The Guardian. 2004. Web. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/jan/03/sciencefictionfantasyandhorror.ursulakleguin
Mahoney, Simon. “Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness.” The Future Fire. http://reviews.futurefire.net/2009/07/le-guin-left-hand-of-darkness-1969.html
Thea. “Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness.” The Book Smugglers. 2010. Web. http://thebooksmugglers.com/2010/01/book-review-the-left-hand-of-darkness-by-ursula-k-leguin.html
Ursula, Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books. 1987. Print.
Thea. “Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness.” The Book Smugglers. 2010. Web. http://thebooksmugglers.com/2010/01/book-review-the-left-hand-of-darkness-by-ursula-k-leguin.html
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