After World War I, the writing of utopian fiction gradually declined, until the genre almost disappeared in mid-century, to be replaced by dystopias (descriptions of ultimately evil places) like George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1948). However, in the mid-seventies there was a spate of new utopias written by Americans inspired by the upsurge of social reform begun in the late sixties and continuing into the new decade. The most famous examples are Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, Samuel R. Delany’s Triton, and this novel, though there are many other examples.
What differentiated these new utopias was their attempt to evade the traditional criticisms of the old utopias like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: that they were static, boring, and unattainable. After all, utopias are not required, by definition, to be perfect. There seemed no reason to believe that all of humanity’s problems could be solved through improved social organization; but it seemed possible that some of them might be.
It is important to understand that one of the main functions of utopias, since Plato and Thomas More, has been to function as a critique of existing society, providing a kind of benchmark against which the flaws of real cultures can be more clearly revealed. Their proposals for reform have not always been seriously meant.
The original paperback edition of The Dispossessedbore on its cover this description: “The magnificent epic of an ambiguous utopia!” This description struck so many readers as apt that An Ambiguous Utopia became thought of as a subtitle for the work, and in recent printings it has even been adopted as the official subtitle. LeGuin has said she was attempting to work out how an anarchist society would function in reality. She was particularly inspired by the work of American pacifist/anarchist/reformer Paul Goodman.
Anarchism, which grew out of French social philosophy of the eighteenth century, posits that many of humanity’s problems come from living under governments. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had begun The Social Contract by writing “Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains.” One solution to this paradoxical situation was to inaugurate representative democracies; but the anarchists found even this solution too confining, for they argued that all governments, whatever their official form, quickly become plutocracies (societies governed by the rich). Many socialists and communists argued that the path to reform lay through collective ownership of the means of production to ensure that there would be no rich. The transition to full economic democracy would be managed by a centralized, all-powerful government. Anarchists argued that such centralization could never lead to the hoped-for decentralized egalitarian society: centralization leads only to more centralization, they claimed. If people want freedom, they must claim it directly.
Anarchists differ a good deal among themselves, but they tend to share a high regard for voluntary cooperation, local control, and mutual tolerance. Sharing is promoted as a social ideal, but only on a voluntary basis. All of these are values much promoted in the counterculture of the “Sixties” (which lasted from approximately 1967 to 1974); and the novel is clearly a product of its time. In many ways, Annares is an idealized hippie commune.
But LeGuin deliberately chose to depict Annares as flawed, for two main reasons: 1) it made her novel more credible: everyone objected to the perfectionism of the old-time utopias and 2) by focusing on Anarres’ flaws, its ideals were made all the more apparent. When Shevek goes to Urras he learns how deeply he has absorbed the values of the society he has rebelled against. How one reacts to Annares will depend powerfully upon one’s own social background and values. To many of its earliest readers Anarres, however flawed, clearly presented a preferable ideal to contemporary American society. Its stress on sharing, on volunteerism, and on tolerance was highly attractive. To some contemporary readers, Anarres seems rather like a nightmare. While it is crucial to understand that LeGuin did not expect or want this reaction from readers, it is interesting to explore why it developed. What values in current American society run counter to the ideals of Anarres? Keep trying to answer this question as you explore the novel.
LeGuin often presents an Anarran value by showing its limits. She is not saying these values are undesirable or cannot be attained, but that there are human tendencies which may frustrate their full realization. Sometimes the “flaws” she presents are so minor as to constitute merely a clever way of avoiding the criticism of perfectionism. It is as if someone were to describe a world in which AIDS had been conquered by complaining that other, less threatening diseases had become more frequent as the result of people abandoning “safe sex” practices: one would have to be very naive not to realize that the real point of such a description is to praise the conquest of AIDS, though in a back-handed way.
The philosophy of Anarres was provided by the philosopher Laia Odo, the founder of Odonianism. LeGuin later wrote a remarkable story about her entitled “The Day Before the Revolution.” She was an anarchist philosopher and rebel in the dictatorial state of A-IO on the planet of Urras. Her most influential book is called The Analogy. Beginning the day after her death, her followers led a revolution against that state which eventuated in their settlement of a neighboring planet, poor in agricultural resources, but rich in ore, named Anarres. The two worlds are of approximately equal size, but each regards the other as its “moon.” The symbol of Odonianism is the circle, which encloses all individuals within the group and which also emphasizes a holistic approach to life. Avoiding pyramidal hierarchy, the circle promotes the view that “true departure is return.” How is this slogan illustrated by Shevek’s story as told in this novel? But the circle can also be limiting. What circle at the very beginning of the novel indicates the limits of Odonianism?
The form of the novel is also circular. It ends where it began. Starting at mid-point in the plot with Shevek’s departure for Urras, the next chapter describes his childhood. The chapters alternate from that point on in describing events before and after his departure, each strand of chapters progressing in its own chronological order.
LeGuin has sometimes been severely taken to task for choosing a male protagonist. Her initial rather flip defense was to say that as a science fiction writer she enjoyed trying to enter alien minds, so she was naturally drawn to portraying men. In fact, most of the protagonists of her early novels are male. But her critics overlooked the fact that her novel incorporates many feminist values, even if it is not a radical feminist utopia. In some ways, it is especially revealing to have these values reflected through a masculine consciousness.
Unfortunately, many contemporary readers have only vague or distorted notions of what the feminism of the 70s was all about, so here is a checklist of views commonly asserted by at least some feminists during that period, and which LeGuin is being influenced by or reacting to in her novel:
- Men and women should not be stereotyped by their gender roles.
- One branch of feminism argued that there are no innate pyschological or social traits associated with being a man or woman; another argued that there are, but that the ones associated with women have been devalued and distorted by patriarchal culture.
- Men think in a linear fashion, women tend to think more holistically (the circle is a female symbol suggesting this idea).
- Men define themselves by what they own and control; women by their relationships to other people.
- Jobs should be done by whoever can do them, and gender is largely irrelevant to this.
- Women should have equal access to jobs with men.
- Marriage and motherhood should not prevent women from having careers any more than it prevents men from doing so.
- Women should be able to pursue their careers without having where they live determined entirely by their husbands’ jobs.
- The social emphasis on physical beauty depersonalizes and dehumanizes women.
- Language oppresses women: terms associated with them often create a presumption of passivity and weakness. New ways of using language to make men and women more equal are needed.
- Capitalism is a patriarchal institution which oppresses women.
- Women should not have to reshape and decorate themselves (removing body hair, for instance) to be accepted and loved.
- Homosexuality and bisexuality should be just as socially acceptable as heterosexuality–as should celibacy.
- Sex should be a matter of intimate sharing, not of conquest or trophy-hunting.
- Rape is a crime of violence which should be punished much more severely than it usually is.
- Women should not be defined by their childbearing abilities. Men can and should raise children as well as women.
- Men strive to compete, but women prefer communal decision-making in which all aspects of a problem are discussed until a consensus is arrived at so that the group is not divided into winners and losers.
- Modern childbirth techniques common in hospitals are dehumanizing and dangerous. Women should be able to give birth at home, without drugs, using such traditions as giving birth in a squatting position.
- Childbirth is a natural phenomenon, not a disease. Women should be able to return to work shortly after giving birth.
- The medical establishment is generally male-dominated; women need to reject the authority of doctors and insist on treatments appropriate to their needs.
- A marriage in which a woman is prized only for her sexual attractiveness and availability is a sort of prostitution.
- Children should be able to make many decisions about how they are raised.
- A few feminists even argued that children should be able to “divorce” their parents.
- Children should be raised to accept their bodies and their sexuality without shame.
- Children can be raised by all kinds of configurations of loving adults: the traditional nuclear family is not necessarily the best model for childrearing.
- Great women from the past can provide inspiration for us today; their influence and importance need to be more widely recognized.
Note that this is not a definition of feminism–just a list of common attitudes among some feminists in the period that LeGuin was writing. See whether you can identify where she is agreeing with these positions, illustrating them, or disagreeing with them.
It is also possible to argue that Shevek is to some extent an idealized male from a feminist point of view: a model of what a male should be like. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
It could also be argued that making Shevek a man provides a more impressive case for anarchist values than if he had been a woman. Argue for or against his position.
The title of the novel may be a reference to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s much less sympathetic work about Russian anarchists, The Possessed, also known in English as The Devils.
The wall described in the opening symbolizes several of the themes of the novel. Look for other references to walls in the text. What is the meaning of this sentence: “It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free?” Can you see any irony in it? A “syndic” would be a representative of a “syndicate.” Although now the term is used almost exclusively in the popular press in the expression “crime syndicate,” syndicalism was at one time an important movement for social reform, urging the formation of voluntary groups to own and democratically control factories and other means of production. Syndicalists are anarchists in that they oppose any form of formal, centralized government, preferring society to be organized through voluntary labor unions. The most successful syndicalist organization in American history was the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), which peaked in the years before World War I. Syndicalists highly value power exercised from the bottom up (the IWW even organized hoboes) and reject authority imposed from the top down. They tend to be equally hostile to capitalists and communists. In the paragraph beginning “People often came out,” what evidence can you find of feminist values? Of a lack of radical feminist values?
What does it imply about the foreman’s culture that she cannot understand the term “bastard” in either its literal or figurative senses? What does her reaction to the pistol tell you about her culture? What qualities make the Odonians poor at mob action? What does their awkwardness in this situation tell you about their society’s values? What kind of values make knives preferable to firearms as weapons? Do these different values suggest that “human nature” has changed? Explain. Why do you suppose LeGuin begins her novel by depicting the Anarrans at their worst?
Shevek is a brilliant scientist, but his world does not give titles like “doctor” to indicate ranking. “Doctor” is merely a descriptive term for a physician. What is “the one law he had ever acknowledged?” What impression does this opening scene give you of Shevek’s character? What do you think this means: “I will go to Abbenay and unbuild walls”? What effect does being vaccinated have on Shevek? How does this incident illustrate the limits of pure freedom?
LeGuin acknowledges the reluctance of English-speakers to speak frankly about excretion by inventing her very own term for “toilet” (a word which originally means a table at which a woman applies make-up). There has never been such a word in English. “Outhouse,” “water closet,” “WC,” “lavatory” (meaning “place where one bathes), “bathroom” (as in “going to the . . .”): all are euphemisms. The use of “shit-stool” suggests that the Annarans are not ashamed of their bodily functions and see no need for euphemisms. As becomes clear in a moment, it is also a society which has no use for pajamas. What does the water valve in the washstand tell Shevek about the society that produced it? What passage a page or so later reflects the same ecological concern? This is a good example of utopian fiction’s (and SF’s) ability to comment from the outside on aspects of our society that we take for granted. Remember that at the time this novel was written, long hair was a symbol of freedom, short hair or shaven heads a symbol of conformism and repression. Why is Shevek so upset about the door being locked? What does the doctor mean when he says that Shevek is not “an alien in the same sense”? Why didn’t Shevek bring any money on this trip? What quality in the captain did Odo call “the creation of pseudo-species”?
What is Shevek’s attitude toward religion? Look for the wall metaphor in the paragraph beginning “All their conversations were like this. . . .” What is Shevek’s reaction to Kimoe’s arguments for a sexual division of labor? Evaluate his arguments. What does it mean to say that it feels as if there is “a woman in every table top?”Why are the Iotis so excited about Shevek’s arrival? What values do Ioti women’s fashions reflect?
We now shift back in time to Shevek’s childhood. What does “Divlab” probably stand for? What does the struggle for the spot of sunlight tell us about Shevek? About his society? In the episode from Sheveks’ eighth year, we see him having independently reinvented one of the paradoxes of the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno. What does this incident tell us about Shevek? About his society? The teacher appeals to the feelings of the group to exclude Shevek. What is really going on? What does Shevek like about numbers? Follow the term “decad” and see whether you can figure out about how long a decad is. What is implied by the fact that Shevek knows his father is going to “copulate with a woman named Pipar?” How many facts about Anarran society can you tease out from this one passage? What does the wall imagery in Shevek’s dream suggest?
The third passage, from Shevek’s eleventh or twelfth year, begins with a reference to the Fort in Drio, where Odo was imprisoned for years. Look for it later in the novel. The game of “prison” that the children play seems exciting at first, then terrifying . What is this episode meant to convey? There is much more to it than a simple statement about “human nature.” Some critics have objected to LeGuin portraying the young boys as eliminating girls from their company. What do you think of this criticism? What can you deduce about the nature of adolescent male/female relations from the following passage, from Shevek’s mid-teens? In the preceding chapter it was mentioned in passing that Ioti women shave off their fine body hair: here, when the hairy corpses of children are mentioned, it is made clear that this hair, fine though it may be, is more prominent among Shevek’s race than among humans. What is Tirin’s reaction to the anti-Urrasti propaganda they are given in school? Why is Shevek’s reaction interesting, given the previous chapter? Summarize and evaluate Sheveks’ explanation to Tirin of why the Anarresti are not “forbidden” to help the Urrasti?
The afforestation project is meant to be a heroic undertaking, an inspiring example of cooperative effort that, for all its grueling aspects, shows the Anararresti at their best. Is this forced labor? Explain. What does the footnote to “Tadde” tell us about the nature of Odonian families? Gimar is not described as a conventional beauty. What do we know about her looks? Does monogamy conflict with the other values of Odonianism? See the later passage discussing the language of sex. What do you think of the argument over whether women are natural propertarians or anarchists? Why is it insulting to call someone a profiteer? Why don’t passersby intervene to stop the fight between Shevek and Shevet? What does the next passage convey about the normal course of sexual development in Odonian society? What hard lesson does Mitis teach Shevek when she sends him off to work with Sabul? What does Tirin’s beggarman skit tell us about the Anarresti? At the party Shevek meets his wife-to-be, the tall girl with the short hair. How else is she described? The argument she makes is a criticism frequently made by anarchists of Marxists. Communist society was supposed to build a paradise on earth through self-sacrifice; but many Marxists came to view the rejection of worldly comforts as good in itself. The problem in Russia was an extremely low level of industrial development which meant that the Communists had to coerce the population into industrializing whereas Marx always assumed that industrialization would have taken place under bourgeois domination in the period preceding any Communist revolution. The Odonians do not lack technology. What factor makes their society one of scarcity rather than abundance, encouraging the ascetic views which the girl rejects? Is it the fault of their social organization that they enjoy few luxuries?
Shevek thought of “airships” earlier; now it becomes clear that these are dirigibles. What advantages do dirigibles have over airplanes in a society such as his? What appeals to Shevek about Urras? Is Chifoilisk correct in saying “Human nature is human nature?” What about the context suggests he is wrong, though his insight about Sabul is essentially correct?
“Ainsetain of Terra” is of course Einstein of Earth. Humans are “aliens,” as are the Hainish. Le Guin has written several novels set among the Hainish, who are ultimately the ancestors of all these races. Though it is not necessary to know those novels to understand The Dispossessed, it is important to understand that Urras is not a clone of Earth. As we shall see, it is neither so scrupulously maintained as Anarres nor so exploited as Earth.
How do Shevek’s memories about Mitis and his education contrast with the following conversation about the women Shevek had met at the party the previous night? Pae is a “moderate” on the issue of education for women. What is his position? What else is being said about gender in this passage? What is Shevek’s reaction to Oiie’s comment that he comes as an emissary of his society? How does the PDC function on Anarres? What pleasant surprises does Shevek experience?
As is revealed in Chapter 11, the Earth people call Anarresti and Urrasti “Cetians” because their planets orbit the prominent star Tau Ceti, eleven light-years from Earth.
What does Shevek’s comment “Perhaps our woes are inescapable” imply about the society he comes from? Thu is a sort of Stalinist, communist state as described by Pae. Benbili corresponds more or less to the underdeveloped world of Earth. Study the paragraph beginning “Traveling by car or train.” What messages is LeGuin conveying here? Is desire for profit the only natural human motive for work? How do the newspapers manage to censor Shevek despite their favorable reporting on his speech?
To understand the issues involved in Shevek’s research, one must know some basic physics. Relativity theory tells us that no object can travel faster than the speed of light, and in fact the amount of energy needed to accelerate a spaceship to even a large percentage of the speed of light is quite impractical. These facts make distant interstellar travel, trade, and warfare seemingly quite impractical and virtually pointless: a depressing conclusion that is usually dealt with in science fiction mentioned about either by ignoring it or coming up with various pseudo-scientific concepts such as “space warps” and magic “faster than light” (FTL) drives. LeGuin suggests that our inability to conceive of faster-than-light travel is a limitation of human science which might be overcome by a combination of elements from the Hainish, Earth humans, and the Anarresti and the Urrasti. “Sequency” refers to what physicists sometimes call “time’s arrow:” the fact that time moves in only one direction, one event after another. “Simultaneity” implies that time can be viewed differently, as is explained by Shevek at the party scene in Chapter 7. LeGuin’s proposal is no more scientific than the magic dilithium crystals which power the Enterprise; but it makes a striking metaphor for the synergy which can result from cooperation among different peoples.
What message does the Fort in Drio convey to Shevek? Note that the chapter ends with the Odonian symbol of empty hands.
In what way is Anarres a colony? What motivates Anarresti to take on defense duty? Why did Odo advocate decentralization? What fact made it difficult for her to implement her anarchist philosophy? The clustering of similar businesses together in neighborhoods is very characteristic of pre-industrial cities, as are other features of Abbenay. What energy sources are used in Abbenay? What is implied by the open-fronted shops, the unlocked doors? Electric trolleys like those described in this chapter used to provide inexpensive and relatively unpolluting transportation in almost every town until the automobile took over. Many environmentalists still consider light rail a superior form of transportation. One perhaps paranoid theory (illustrated in Who Killed Roger Rabbit?) has it that the automobile manufacturers and petroleum companies conspired to destroy the old trolleys. What does the scene in which Shevek encounters the statue of Odo convey? How does Sabul exploit Shevek? What does the discussion of living/sleeping arrangements tell us about Odonian society? How much freedom is available? How much privacy? What do Shevek’s problems with Sabul tell us about the limits/problems of Odonian scientific research? What does Shevek’s meeting with Rulag tell us about Odonian family life and gender roles?
What are the good and bad points of Shevek’s students? How do they react to his decision not to give grades? What does Shevek’s reply to their complaints mean? It may seem bizarre that students are not allowed to marry, but this was a common rule in colleges on our planet not so long ago. In fact, by allowing professors to marry, Urras is being more liberal than nineteenth-century England or America. Shevek is shocked by the price of the fur coat in the window. Why? But the high price of this coat is also a sign of what good aspect of Ioti society? One of the classic criticisms that socialists make of capitalist society is the “alienation” that it causes in the workers, the product of whose labor is separated from them, unlike the old guild system in which the craftsman was also the dealer. Judging by Shevek’s reaction to Ioti stores, how would the Odonians seem to have overcome this problem? When the communist Chifoilisk from Thu tries to get Shevek to think of him as an ally, what is Shevek’s reaction? Why does he claim that the Odonians are not idealists? Is this an altogether negative observation? Explain. What are his criticisms of Thuvian socialism? Odo’s saying that where there’s property there’s theft strongly resembles the classic saying by the socialist Proudhon, “Property is theft.” Can you distinguish between the two? What is the significance of the fact that Oiie’s children are the first to ask Shevek to describe Anarres? Explain and evaluate the Anarresti system for getting dangerous, hard jobs done and their method of controlling uncooperative behavior. The wall symbol returns at the end of this chapter, in Shevek’s dream. How is it used here?
Why is Desar’s hoarding of goods irrational? What attitudes characterize the Odononian approach to the arts? How are they different from the dominant attitudes in our culture? When Bedap mentions the conversation about suicide and suffering, he lets us know that the tall woman was Takver, Shevek’s wife-to-be. What function does the symbol of the wall perform in Bedap’s talk with Shevek? What is Bedap’s theory of how ideas are crushed in Odonian society? What does he think the basic problems are? What is Shevek’s answer? (Hint: it is the same answer that used to be given to justify the repressive government of the U.S.S.R.) Note that throughout his childhood and youth Shevek is mostly a very traditional Odonian, shocked when others attack the system. Although he will become a rebel, he does so reluctantly. What effect does this pattern have on the novel? Does it make more credible his renewed appreciation of Odonianism when he is on Urras? Why is it blasphemy that kids are memorizing Odo’s words? How does Tirin’s punishment (which is strongly reminiscent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution) illustrate what has gone wrong on Anarres? Are these flaws inevitable, do you think? What does it tell us about Anarresti culture that Shevek can pair with Bedap for a while even though he is “pretty definitely heterosexual?” How do Salas’ difficulties in music parallel the problems Tirin talked about earlier? Describe Shevek’s second encounter with Takver: how is it different from the typical encounter of lovers in fiction? The relationship between Takver and Shevek has come under heavy criticism from some quarters. Can you see why? Note that there is no wedding. Anarchists generally reject the idea that the state should play any role in formalizing relationships. How does Shevek view Takver’s relationship with nature? In the scene of the couple lying out under the moon we are reminded of the fine fur that covers the skin of these people.
Note the recurrence of the wall symbol at the top of the second page of this chapter. What does it stand for here? To what sort of familiar Earth event does the uprising in Benbili and A-Io’s response to it correspond? What does Shevek hear the birds singing on campus? What does Shevek learn about sex and gender on Urras in his relationship with Vea? Why does she think the Odonians have no morality? Why does she prefer a fixed morality? What does Shevek say is the characteristic that allows the strongest to survive? Can you make arguments for or against this proposition? Explain the meaning of Shevek’s statement “To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future.” What does Shevek’s long answer to Vea’s question about what Anarres is really like tell us about his current feelings concerning the two planets? Note the recurrence of the wall image at the end of this speech. Why does the sexual encounter between Shevek and Vea go so badly? At the end of the chapter Pae discusses the danger of an uprising, and mentions the possibility of a general strike. This was the chief revolutionary weapon advocated by syndicalists. Although most were not pacifists, they thought an armed revolution unlikely to succeed. The idea was to organize the majority of the population into labor unions which would then simultaneously agree to go on strike, essentially bringing the country to a halt, until the government was forced to step down. There have been a few notable general strikes in history, some of them fairly successful.
Why does Takver have such trouble understanding the concept of hell? Shevek’s difficulties in getting his work published are a reminder of the old saying that the press is free for anyone who owns one. The perpetual excuse of the Soviet government for not printing unorthodox ideas a shortage of paper is alluded to as well. One of the major agenda items of the women’s movement in the seventies was childbirth reform: including less use of drugs (indeed an end to treating childbirth as a medical emergency rather than as a natural event), labor in the more efficient sitting posture, an end to the practice of whisking the newborn off to a nursery instead of letting it bond with its mother first, and the use of midwives instead of doctors for normal childbirths. All of these points and some others are illustrated in this childbirth scene, which was utopian at the time it was written but fairly commonplace now. What are the advantages and disadvantages of seeing monogamy as a purely voluntary, private institution without any institutionalization? Does LeGuin imply that monogamy is superior to other forms of relationships? What are the normal penalties for rape? Divlab’s willingness to separate couples for reasons of work will remind some of Chinese government policies; but couples in our own culture are often separated for work reasons. Is the Anarresti system more like the Chinese or like ours? In a capitalist depression, many people are without work at all while those still working must labor extremely hard to survive. What is the Odonian alternative to this pattern? Why are most telephone calls on Anarres long distance? The episode of the drought is meant to convey how this society deals with such a crisis. Be careful that your concern over Takver’s and Shevek’s separation does not obscure everything else that is going on here. How are they motivated in making the decisions they do? What works well during this crisis? Badly? Why is Pravic not a good swearing language? What weakness in the student-centered education system is revealed by Shipeg’s career?
Why does Shevek say the bread he has eaten on Urras has betrayed him? The ansible, which allows instantaneous communication (in some mysterious way evading the Einsteinian light-speed limit), is a feature of many of LeGuin’s stories. It is characteristic of her socially-oriented SF that interstellar communication should be more important than transportation. Note that Terrans are thought of by Shevek as “jealous wall builders.” The search for a unified field theory discussed here has still been unsuccessful, though advances have been made since Einstein’s time. The wall metaphor recurs in the paragraph beginning “He had been groping and grabbing after certainty” and again on the next page in the paragraph beginning “After a while he got up shakily. . . .” What does Efor tell Shevek that helps motivate him to break out of the university grounds and contact the rebels? What is the essence of the argument between Tuio Maedda and “the girl” over the use of force? What does Shevek mean by telling the crowd “You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution”? Describe the two views of proper military organization argued by Atro and Shevek.
In what way are the remarks about men and women made by the driver to Shevek in the paragraph beginning “By damn, I agree with that!” rather traditional? When Shevek sees Sadik again he notes her furry face. When Sadik says “You can share the handkerchief I use,” she is uttering for the first time a line which Shevek remembered in an earlier chapter. How are the attractiveness of youth and sexual desire linked in the Shevek/Takver relationship? How long is an emergency long work shift? How does Tirin’s play answer the common objection that a communist/anarchist society would inevitably fail because the rich will always be able to buy property and power? Explain Shevek’s diagnosis of what went wrong with Tirin in the paragraph beginning, “Well, this.” What do you think of Takver’s arguments about the relationship between pregnancy and ethics? They recall distinctly a similar argument made by one of Shevek’s childhood friends in Chapter 2. Explain this statement: “That the Odonian society on Anarres had fallen short of the ideal did not, in his eyes, lessen his responsibility to it; just the contrary” (hint: the explanation is in the following lines).
Note that Shevek notices that Ambassador Keng has a hairless face and that he feels hairy next to her. His reaction to her features as being childlike and rounded suggests that the Urrasti and Anarresti have more angular features. What does the Earth ambassador’s reaction to Urras tell us about conditions on Earth? What does it mean that she thinks Urras is Paradise while Shevek thinks it is Hell? Note how carefully LeGuin has avoided a bipolar value system in throughout this novel, creating a spectrum of social arrangements with none perfectly good or perfectly evil.
This chapter is set just before the events of Chapter 1, bringing us full circle. Analyze the argument against parliamentary procedures given in the third paragraph. This preference for process over results stems directly from anti-hierarchical strains in sixties political movements. Note how Rulag is reintroduced into the story with no reference to the fact that she was Shevek’s mother. Why? What role does she play here? “No vote was taken, as usual.” What grounds might anarchists have for arguing against voting? What do you think of Odo’s message on deserving as quoted by the middle-aged man next to Trepil? The essence of the anarchist ideal lies in the speech of Bedap in the paragraph “Of course not.” What does it tell us about how an anarchist society can exist? It is revealed in the final lines that Shevek had not intended at first to go to Urras. Throughout the novel he has been backed by circumstances and experiences from one position to another, often in directions he had not intended to go. This makes him strikingly different from the classic enterprising SF hero who always knows exactly what he wants and goes right after it.
Note the recurrence of the wall image in this chapter. Why do you think LeGuin chose to end the novel in the fashion she does? What advantages are there in not resolving everything?
Samuel R. Delany: ” To Read the Dispossessed,” in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. N.Y.: Dragon Press, 1977, pp. 239-308.
I disagree with much Delany says in this long criticism of LeGuin’s novel, but it’s still one of the most thought-provoking and interesting responses to her work, followed by his own fictional “hetereotopia” Triton (aka Trouble on Triton).
Moylan, Tom: “The Dispossessed,” Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. New York & London: Methuen, 1986, pp. 91-120.
Emphasizes its flaws as a utopia, but situates it usefully among analyses of related works. Moylan’s book is a must for anyone studying modern utopias.
More Science Fiction Study Guides
- H. G. Wells: War of the Worlds
- Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles
- Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the Dystopian Tradition
- Walter M. Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz
- Stanislaw Lem: Solaris
- Philip K. Dick: Blade Runner
- Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
- William Gibson: Neuromancer
- Selected Stories from The Norton Book of Science Fiction
Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman
First published 1994.
Revised March 5, 2017