Beyond Gender: Exploring Ursula K. Le Guin’s Thought Experiment in The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness has been used to progress the discourse on gender and sexuality since its publication over fifty years ago. Many critical responses to the novel center on these topics despite their function as a veil to Le Guin’s original intention. Gender and sexuality are barriers the reader must push beyond to fully understand the novel’s triumph. There is no doubt that this book raises questions and makes us rethink our preconceptions about gender and sexuality, and this confirms one success of Le Guin’s thought experiment, but the primary intention was to go beyond gender and sexuality to reveal a human characteristic.

In her article “Is Gender Necessary?” published in 1976, Le Guin confirms her intention was to question what lies beyond gender; “I eliminated gender, to find out what was left. Whatever was left would be, presumably, simply human. It would define the area that is shared by both men and women alike” (160). Le Guin assists readers in glimpsing beyond their own views of gender by easing them into the fictional world of Gethen, the wintery planet that is the setting of The Left Hand of Darkness, which differs in many ways from our own society. The androgynous culture is the first barrier readers face when reading the novel. They are placed, through the character Genly Ai, into a foreign land where civilization is similar enough to be recognizable but different enough to keep the reader unbalanced. They learn how to navigate the world of Gethen, a world devoid of gender, alongside Genly Ai.

The first step toward reaching Le Guin’s original intention is to overcome the barrier that is gender and sexuality within the text as it pertains to the reader. Much has changed regarding feminism and sexuality since the original publication of this novel in 1969, which justifies the work itself to be read within a certain context. However, like all great literature, the novel stands outside of time and can be read within present-day context as well, but certain, smaller aspects of the novel are certainly tied to the time it was written. “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” includes Le Guin’s response in 1976 to the criticism of the novel with the “Redux” consisting of revisions Le Guin made to the article in 1988. This article was published in a collection of nonfiction titled The Language of the Night in 1989. In her introduction to the collection, Le Guin states that she believes revisions of published works are taboo, but she breaks her taboo in providing updated thoughts on this particular novel and the way it has been received (Le Guin 1). She leaves the original article intact and includes revisionary notes so the reader is aware of what she desires to have changed and can compare the changes to the original article. Many of the revisions are small but powerful. Her decision to break her own taboo adds additional weight to these corrections and shows that even authors can come to view their own work in different ways as they grow older.

One of the most important changes Le Guin makes is the removal of any gender specific pronouns in the original article. Her original response to the criticism directly addresses her choice for using the pronoun he within the novel despite the androgynous nature of the Gethenians. That response showed her frustration at the time as she stated, ““He” is the generic pronoun, damn it, in English.” (Le Guin 169). She refused at the time to invent non-binary pronouns and such pronouns were not common in the 1960s. The use of the non-binary pronoun they has been around since the late 1300’s, but the use of the pronoun in context to gender is relatively new. For example, the Merriam-Webster dictionary added the gender pronoun in September of 2019 and the American Psychological Association (APA) added the term for use in scholarly writing one month later (North par 2, 5). The singular they as a pronoun fell out of use in the late 18th century and the binary use of he and she took precedence (North par 8). Therefore, Le Guin would not have used they within her work as it was not a commonly used term at the time she was writing the novel. Choosing to use it would have created an additional barrier for the reader though it would have been a more accurate representation of the fictional society she created.

Le Guin adjusts her stance on pronouns to consider them extremely important in her revision “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” where she originally stated “The pronouns wouldn’t have mattered at all if I had been cleverer at showing the “female” components of Gethenian characters in action” with her intended revision/comment on this passage stating “If I had realized how the pronouns I used shaped, directed, controlled my own thinking, I might have been ‘cleverer’” (170). She goes on to criticize her refusal to invent a pronoun to better suit her description of the androgynous Gethens:

“This ‘utter refusal’ of 1968 restated in 1976 collapsed, utterly, within a couple of years more. I still dislike invented pronouns, but now dislike them less than the so-called generic pronoun he/him/his, which does in fact exclude women from discourse; and which was an invention of male grammarians, for until the sixteenth century the English generic singular pronoun was they/them/their, as it still is in English and American colloquial speech. It should be restored to the written language, and let the pedants and pundits squeak and gibber in the streets.” (169-170)

She was restricted by the common language use of her time, or rather “she [was] controlled by language and the gender conventions of the reader’s world” (Pennington 352). She did create new terms such as “kemmer” for this novel, as she needed a way to describe the sexual and reproductive practices of any androgynous culture, but she uses the common pronoun he to establish characters for two reasons. The first is because Genly Ai is incapable of using a non-binary pronoun because his own culture does not use it regularly. The second is because the reader, like Genly, does not use it regularly either and “male and female readers cannot escape their own gendered perspectives conditioned by society” (Pennington 352). Both the reader and the character of Genly go through the story without sufficient knowledge of Gethenian culture to correctly communicate with the citizens of that world. Genly is aware of, and points out to the reader, his inaccuracy in the beginning of the novel when he uses the male pronoun for the Gethenians he first interacts with. However, “Genly and many readers quickly succumb to the misleading perceptions and misconceptions created by our language” (Cornell 323). This is intentional on Le Guin’s part because she wants the reader to challenge their own way of thinking when it comes to gender. “There is no doubt that the pronouns are an additional burden on the reader, but they are a valuable part of our education” (Cornell 323). Even today, after the recent officially accepted use of the non-binary they, it is still common to use he or she when speaking of others. Using new pronouns requires a slight rewiring of certain thought patterns. The singular use of they has not been commonly used in over two centuries whereas the plural form has remained in common use. It is growing more acceptable to use non-binary pronouns today, but it will still be some time before they become commonplace again.

Despite the limitations of pronoun use, Le Guin does much to solidify her conceptual society as androgynous. She admits in one of her revisions in “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” that “there are other aspects to the book, which are involved with its sex/gender aspects quite inextricably” (Le Guin 157). She states that sexuality and gender are woven into the core of her novel and cannot be viewed as entirely separate from the other subjects of the book. This explains why many critics of the novel focus solely on what the text has to say about gender and sexuality. Another reason the major response focused on these topics is that they were most prevalent to a changing culture at the time. Much has happened in the past fifty years and even more is happening in relation to sexuality and gender today, but the changes occurring are leading toward Le Guin’s true intention with her thought experiment. She stated “the real subject of the book is not feminism or sex or gender or anything of the sort; as far as I can see, it is a book about betrayal and fidelity” (Le Guin 157). The book is about what lies beyond the veil of societal preconceptions and fundamentally what humanity shares when stripped of these conventions.

Le Guin admits her experiment was messy and resulted in only ambiguous results, but she claims there were three results that interested her. The first was the absence of war. “At the inception of the whole book, I was interested in writing a novel about a people in a society that had never had a war. That came first. The androgyny came second. (Cause and effect? Effect and cause?)” (Le Guin 164). The main reason for Gethen not having known war is twofold. There is a higher level of communication and a stabilized population. These are the result of their economic structure. The basic structure across the planet is called the “hearth” and consists of between two hundred and eight hundred people. Le Guin states this is based on sexual necessity more so than economic convenience as there must be those in kemmer at the same time (161).

The other two components Le Guin found interesting were the lack of exploitation and the absence of sexuality as a continuous social factor.

“For four-fifths of the month, sexuality plays no part at all in a Gethenian’s social behavior; for the other one-fifth, it controls behavior absolutely. In kemmer, one must have a partner, it is imperative… Gethenian society fully accepts this imperative. When Gethenians have to make love, they do make love, and everybody else expects it and approves of it.” (Le Guin 166-167)

Sexuality is still a major component of the Gethenian culture, but it does not play a significant role within civil matters. “The people seem to be as quarrelsome, competitive and aggressive as we are” (Le Guin 161), but there is no discrimination based on gender. There is no rape. There is no exploitation based on sex because it is expected and accepted that everyone on Gethen enters kemmer and subsequently removes themselves from societal interaction until their kemmer cycle is complete.

This not to say that sex is not an issue on Gethen. They still need social constructs around sex alongside an ethical code. These include the kemmerhouse, which allows someone without a prospective partner to complete their kemmering. However, though the kemmerhouse is meant to complete kemmering with another, both members must be willing to engage in kemmering together. The physiological change that occurs during kemmering will not take place if the person is not willing to pair with the other thus eliminating any chance of one person to take advantage of another. The Gethenian “internal ethical code, while allowing great freedom, does not permit the treatment of another person as an object” (Le Guin 166-67).

Vowing kemmering is much like marriage but has no legal sanctions. It is a strong moral and social bond. There are no regulations on vowing kemmering and there are no social or legal constructs that prohibits vowing kemmering. There are, however, two forbidden acts regarding kemmer which Le Guin refers to as the “old incest prohibitions” (168). The first is vowing kemmering with a sibling. Mating with a sibling is okay, but vowing kemmering is forbidden. The second is the pairing or mating with a relative of a different generation such as a child pairing with a parent.

Le Guin does not recommend Gethenian sexuality as a goal for humanity. In fact, she regretted a few of her decisions regarding the sexual composition of Gethen culture. She admits she “quite unnecessarily locked Gethenians into heterosexuality” which was “a naively pragmatic view of sex that insists that sexual partners must be of the opposite sex!” (169). She regretted not exploring the option, and omission, of homosexuality within the kemmerhouse. Homosexuality would have been fairly common within the androgynous physiology Le Guin created as a person entering kemmer is subject to a temporary change in physiology based on their increased hormonal production. During the change, the androgynous being takes on the characteristics of either male or female reproduction. For a couple who has vowed kemmering, they would enter the phase of kemmer together and as the hormones begin the physiological change for one person, the partner would automatically take on the form of the opposite sex. Therefore, should one person take on the male sexual characteristics, the other would respond by developing female sexual characteristics. However, it would be irregular if one partner always assumed the same sexual role throughout their lifetimes, so it would be common for one person to be the father of several children and the mother of several more.

Within the kemmerhouse, it would not be uncommon for someone to enter kemmer to the degree they take on the physical attributes of one sex before finding a suitable partner. Therefore, they could then find a partner who may have also taken on physical attributes of the same sex, thus resulting in a homosexual encounter. After they complete their kemmer cycle, they would then revert back to their androgynous nature and no child would have been conceived.

Outside of the physiological aspects of Gethenian sexuality, the main protagonist Genly Ai uses his preconceptions about societal roles to assign gender to the characters he meets while on Gethen. He does this because he, like the reader, comes from a society that engrains gender roles and expectations within certain behaviors and even their language.

“Unfortunately, the plot and structure that arose as I worked the book out cast the Gethenian protagonist, Estraven, almost exclusively into roles that we culturally conditioned to perceive as “male”…I think I did this because I was privately delighted at watching, not a man, but a manwoman, do all these things, and do them with a considerable skill and flair. But, for the reader, I left out too much. One does not see Estraven as a mother, with children, in any role that we automatically perceive as “female”: and therefore, we tend to see “him” as a man. This is a real flaw in the book, and I can only be very grateful for those readers, men and women, whose willingness to participate in the experiment led them to fill in that omission with the work of their own imagination, and to see Estraven as I did, as a man and woman, familiar and different, alien and utterly human.” (170-171).

Le Guin admits she unintentionally placed the readers in a position to perceive Estraven as primarily male. One of the only times the reader is forced to perceive Estraven as female, and thus remind them of “his” androgynous nature, is when Estraven and Genly are crossing the Gobrin Ice in the final chapters of the book. It is while on the ice that Genly is finally able to see Estraven as “he” is. It is only after Genly is able to see Estraven as a person, beyond his innate need to see Estraven through a gendered lens, that he is able to communicate without those previous barriers. Though these two characters are placed in an extreme situation that pits them together against the forces of nature to survive, it is during this final trial that they are able to change and find a way to communicate effectively. The ability to communicate without restraint or false assumptions leads to the best understanding they have of each other.

This was the goal of Le Guin’s thought experiment with this novel. She wanted to see what was beyond gender and sexuality, and the culmination of that experiment is the relationship formed between Estraven and Genly once they are able to find a way to truly understand each other. This only occurs when Genly re-evaluates the assumptions he placed on Estraven from the beginning. However, Genly was not the only one who had to re-evaluate his behavior and perception of the foreign world he is on. Estraven must also re-evaluate his, or their, own nature to effectively communicate with an alien who is the only gendered species on the planet.

“Once the breakthrough in communication occurs, Genly is finally capable of recognizing how his reading of Estraven (and by extension all Gethenians) has been marred by his rejection of their nature” (Cornell 321). As Genly comes to understand Gethenians, he recognizes why he alone was sent as the Envoy of the Ekumen. “Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak” (Left Hand of Darkness 259). Genly realizes his job as Envoy is not to simply convince the Gethenian people to join the Ekumen, but to come to an understanding where communication can take place without preconceptions that hinder negotiation. He is a vessel for the Gethenians to observe and learn from to better understand the Ekumen as much as he is a vessel for the Ekumen to understand the Gethenian people.

This is why Genly makes his report to the Ekumen as a story. It is so anyone from the Ekumen would learn about the Gethenians as he had so they would be able to enter the Gethenian society equipped with a proper understanding to best navigate their culture. Genly reproduces his story to show how he entered this particular world with certain preconceptions that hindered his ability to understand the foreign culture and how he learned to discard those preconceptions to see the Gethenians as they were. “Reducing his experiences to a simple report would have been antithetical to what he had learned” (Cornell 323).

Genly’s report is the novel itself, which means Genly’s decision to frame his report in such a way was, of course, Le Guin’s decision on how to structure her thought experiment. “Genly’s narrative puts us through our paces; by turns, we are confused by shifting narrative, annoyed (or even misled) by the masculine pronouns, and frustrated by Genly’s limited perspective” (Cornell 324). Le Guin did not intend to make the novel particularly easy for the reader. In fact, the novel itself is a challenge to evaluate our own perception of the world we live in.

This is one reason many readers struggle with reading it as the “novel is neither simple nor comfortable and can be a frustrating experience for the first-time reader” (Cornell 322). Le Guin was not simply writing a story to entertain. She was exploring her own thoughts regarding what a society without war and without gender would look like, and her exploration resulted in Genly’s journey. “One of the essential functions of science fiction, I think, is precisely this kind of question-asking: reversals of a habitual way of thinking, metaphors for what our language has no words for yet, experiments in imagination” (Le Guin 159). Le Guin was writing primarily for herself but also for a reader who was willing to explore the same line of questioning she was when writing the novel. The reader must be open to the premise of the thought experiment if they are going to gain much of anything from the text. Many first-time readers are unaware that the novel is a thought experiment and believe it is simply another story or is a book about an androgynous race. This is why many readers become frustrated because “this novel tempts us to misread it through our gendered eyes, correcting us and reminding us of our limited perspectives” (Pennington 354). Most readers are often not prepared to have their very way of thinking questioned this way especially in terms of something they see as an identifier of who they are as a person. Le Guin’s androgynous society is not a direct commentary on our own in terms of what is good/bad or right/wrong when it comes to gender inequalities, it is rather a means to show that such inequalities are structures instead of an inherent human characteristic. The novel itself shows that gender and sexuality are barriers to communication and understanding.

Le Guin has responded to criticism openly and thoughtfully. Her return to make corrections to “Is Gender Necessary?” twelve years after the original publication shows she was continually developing her own thoughts on her original experiment and wished to continue the narrative with those who wished to discuss the original work. Communication is key to understanding each other which is the result of Le Guin’s experiment.

Of course, there are many barriers to communication outside of gender and sexuality. Le Guin even admits there would be still be problems should those two particular barriers someday be overcome. “If we were socially ambisexual, if men and women were completely equal in their social roles, equal legally and economically, equal in freedom, in responsibility, and in self-esteem, then society would be a very different thing” (Le Guin 172). Many critics would agree that in order to truly discuss gender and sexuality, they must first be removed as barriers to communication. Progress and mutual understanding is achievable once all preconceptions are removed and communication can begin. Though The Left Hand of Darkness makes us question our preconceptions on gender, it does so in the hopes to prove that communication is possible once implicit biases about gender can be removed as barriers to understanding each other as human beings.

Works Cited

Cornell, Christine. “The Interpretative Journey in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.” Extrapolation (Kent State University Press), vol. 42, no. 4, Winter 2001, pp. 317–327. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3828/extr.2001.42.4.317.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Is Gender Necessary? (1976) Redux (1988).” The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood and Ursula K. Le Guin. Rev. ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1989. 155-172.

—. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace, 1969.

North, Anna. “The past, present, and future of the singular “they”” Vox. 13 Dec. 2019. Accessed 27 Dec. 2019.

Pennington, John. “Exorcising Gender: Resisting Readers in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.” Extrapolation (Kent State University Press), vol. 41, no. 4, Winter 2000, pp. 351–358. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3828/extr.2000.41.4.351.

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