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The Definition of Androgyny...By Zainab Sayed

Updated: Jul 21, 2019





The Definition of Androgyny: A Literary Analysis of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness


“‘He’ is the generic pronoun, damn it, in English” (Le Guin, “Gender” 15). When Ursula K. Le Guin made this proclamation seven years after the publication of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, androgyny was not a commonly accepted concept; in modern society, while still predominantly gendered, agender and nonbinary voices are now heard. The Left Hand of Darkness chronicles the efforts of Genly Ai, a representative of an intergalactic diplomatic organization who has been sent to engage the planet Winter. On this planet, the people—known as Gethenians—have no gender. Reproduction is instead carried out through periodical times of estrus in which a gendered form is briefly maintained. The novel follows Genly as he, the only naturally gendered individual in the world, faces betrayal, imprisonment, and other struggles while trying to engage the Gethenians. The novel remains relevant and worthy of consideration as time passes, as it speaks a message that exists beyond context. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin creates a word devoid of gender entirely; in doing so, she defines androgyny, establishes it as its own entity, and reduces its alienation. Additionally, the androgynous nature of the majority of the characters enhances the primary theme of loyalty.


In an interview, Ursula K. Le Guin stated that she “eliminated gender to find out what would be left” (White). Le Guin does this mainly by avoiding standardly gendered descriptions for the Gethenian characters and abstaining from the use of adjectives and portrayal of physical activities that imply gender. She also maintains the use of masculine pronouns and titles despite insistently gendered circumstances, in such circumstances as when “the King was pregnant”(Le Guin, The Left Hand 106) and when Estraven enters into kemmer, the Gethenian state of reproductive ability, while on the ice with Genly, and Genly described what he “had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man” (266). While one may argue that Le Guin maintains masculine pronouns merely to safely describe the foreign, her choice to use Genly as the primary narrative suggests otherwise. Genly is the only naturally gendered individual on the planet Winter; as he is familiar with a completely gendered society, he consistently makes attempts to assign gendered descriptions and behaviors to the Gethenians, only to become confused by the contradictions obstructing his gendered assumptions. Genly himself comments that he “self-consciously [saw] a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing [that Gethenian] into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own” (Le Guin, The Left Hand 12). On Winter, gender only serves as a reproductive mechanism, and as such has no significant social implications; yet, Genly continues to search for gender because that is what he understands. It is not until Estraven enters kemmer as a female that Genly grasps that Estraven is more than a man; yet, upon the passing of this incident, Genly does not see Estraven as a woman. Here exists a prime representation of androgyny through the perspective of Genly; he becomes capable of acknowledging the ambisexuality of the Gethenians without restricting the individuals to gender roles, viewing standard traits of masculinity or femininity as simply widely applicable human traits.


One cannot view androgyny in The Left Hand of Darkness as simply the absence of gender. Rather, androgyny is its own entity. According to Karhidian tradition, “Light is the left hand of darkness/and darkness the right hand of light” (Le Guin, The Left Hand 252). This statement refers to the fact that light and darkness are complementary existences, each separate despite their relationship to one another. Darkness cannot simply be viewed as an absence of light; it must be accepted as its own entity. Similarly, androgyny is an existence of its own—a clearly defined entity, not a vagueness in gender or presence—rather than a simple absence of gender and must be accepted as complementary and equally legitimate. When individuals are more familiar or comfortable with one state of being, they mentally prioritize it and allow themselves to fall under the impression that they understand it more. Since we carry out most of our lives in daytime, light is more familiar and comfortable than darkness and seems more understandable. Likewise, in a predominantly gendered world, gender seems more understandable than androgyny. In The Left Hand of Darkness the reader is immersed in an entire world of androgyny as seen through the eyes of a gendered outsider, thus giving the reader room to struggle with grasping the concept while also learning to understand it along with Genly.


In this way, The Left Hand of Darkness makes androgyny more comfortable and familiar and therefore more understandable. In response to critique, John Pennington supports Le Guin’s accomplishment by arguing that “the androgynous narrative makes men and women readers resist from their own gendered perspective,” in that the readers must acknowledge the fact that they, too, are only beginning to understand androgyny (355). Le Guin appears to be too harsh on herself, expressing dissatisfaction with the manner in which she developed The Left Hand of Darkness in her essay “Is Gender Necessary?” In the essay, she expresses discontentment with the novel, not recognizing the unintentional success of her perceived shortcomings. She struggles with, for example, the use of the masculine pronoun, wishing she had used a neutral pronoun of some sort. Yet it is the use of the masculine pronoun, however, that aids the reader’s mind in the integration of androgyny in the mind of the reader.


Le Guin takes the concept of androgyny past the level of legitimacy to the level of acceptance in The Left Hand of Darkness. She uses subtlety in the general observations of Gethenian behavior but has Genly seek out gender in his interactions with significant characters such as Estraven and the King. Furthermore, the manner in which Le Guin places Genly among the Gethenians also reduces the alienation of androgyny. Le Guin uses masculine pronouns because they were the standard neutral pronoun in English at the time; she makes Genly male to avoid the “man among Amazons” science fiction trope, or a reversal of the trope, in which an individual of one gender is placed among a society of the opposite gender, creating a specific biological rift between the individual and new culture. Christine Cornell comments on the fact that “for Genly to have imagined himself in a world of women might intrigue some feminist critics, but for science fiction readers the results would have resonated with generations of the hero-among-the-Amazons stories” (318). With androgyny as a legitimate alternative to gender, the use of a neutral pronoun—whether invented or borrowed from existing options like “ze”—would make the Gethenians seem more “other” than necessary, furthering the distance between Genly’s, and our own, definition of normalcy and the reality of the Gethenian people. This rift would also have been furthered in the use of an alternate reproductive biology, another issue Le Guin struggles with in Is Gender Necessary.


In fact, in using “he,” Le Guin makes gender stand starkly out of place to the Gethenians. Their reactions to Genly’s constantly gendered state are much stronger than his discomfort with their androgyny, such as when the King addressed Genly and says, “I don’t know what the devil you are, Mr. Ai, a sexual freak or an artificial monster or a visitor from the Domains of the Void…” (Le Guin, The Left Hand, 34). The Gethenians view his gendered state as a form of perversion and express repulsion; Genly simply has difficulty in grasping the concept of androgyny. Le Guin’s use of he/him pronouns makes the reader think about androgyny in the abstract, looking not only at physical difference but also social and cultural implications; although the pronoun is familiar, the reader is constantly aware of the fact that the effect is not. The use of the common pronoun “he” manages to further establish the identity of androgyny, forcing the reader to learn the definition of androgyny through the experience of an androgynous world rather than comfortably stopping short at the use of a neutral pronoun. Androgyny, readers will find, is not all that different from gender; the androgynes presented to us by Le Guin are just as human, the opposite side of the same coin.


The loudest voice of dissatisfaction with The Left Hand of Darkness belongs to the feminist movement, but they have unwittingly fallen into the trap of gender. Feminists viewed The Left Hand of Darkness as Le Guin turning down the chance to attack the patriarchy. The fact that Genly’s narrative utilizes exclusively male pronouns raises their hackles, seen as an acceptance of masculine dominance in literature, such as when Mona Fayad comments on Genly’s difficulties among the Gethenians being a symptom of the male’s “struggle for dominance” (63). This defensiveness is understandable, as females experience the ill effects of differences in societal gender norms most often, and thus seek to challenge them. What these critics fail to understand, however, is that The Left Hand of Darkness does not remove gender norms, but gender entirely. The feminist critique that Le Guin fails to adequately challenge gender norms is invalid because Le Guin is not attempting to challenge gender norms. The Left Hand of Darkness is not an examination of a world where gender does not impact social standing, but of a world where gender does not exist at all. The very aim of feminism is parity; the two bars of gender must be levelled, with male and female standing even. Yet Le Guin has only one bar: that of androgyny. Thus, the reader must differentiate between the matter of gender and the matter of gender norms; social implications and cultural standards are all encompassed in the extremely broad concept of gender. What Le Guin has done in the androgynization of her characters, then, is to have removed this entire concept, including gender norms and the varying other subpoints of gender. After this consideration, androgyny is reaffirmed as more than simply an absence of gender. No matter how easy it may be to simply view it as such, the vast scale of the definition Le Guin has provided us demands that we process androgyny as more than the simplest perception.


The removal of gender from The Left Hand of Darkness allows the author to ignore gender-related complications.

The fact that Genly struggles when attempting to assign gendered qualities to Gethenians reflects that none of these qualities exist as defining characteristics, and there are no roles expected from them. By avoiding these unnecessary qualities, Gethenians represent individuals in their purest forms, separate from not only gender norms but physical divides and hormonal affects. The genetic differences are nonexistent, and the only way to describe the state of an individual is through their thoughts without gendered connotations. A good example of this can be found in the concept of shifgrethor, which describes a form of loyalty and civic duty held paramount in Gethenian society, described first by Genly as “prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority…” (Le Guin, The Left Hand 14). By removing gender from the equation, shifgrethor can be examined as a pure human devotion without allowing the reader to interpret it as otherwise in accordance with gendered expectations. In the case of Estraven, for example, the fact that he is androgynous removes the distracting complications that accompany either gender. If Estraven were male, some manner of defensiveness or chivalry would become a facet of his actions. If Estraven were female, an emotional or maternal protectiveness would become a potential motivator.

With no gender present, the sense of duty and the individual respect for and need to contribute to the overall cause of one’s kind demands the most note.

Ursula K. Le Guin notes, in the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, that the novel is a metaphor, and that “if [she] could have said it non-metaphorically, [she] would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at [her] desk…informing [her], and you…that that the truth is a matter of the imagination” (xix). What Le Guin has done, through the metaphor of fiction, is create the best definition possible for an abstract concept—that is, androgyny—by immersing the reader in a world of it. One cannot overlook the importance of what she has done, nor the outstanding relevance it maintains. In the modern day, the immediate relation to the novel is the growing voice of nonbinary and agender individuals, and the importance of accepting these individuals as they are. Le Guin does something unique in The Left Hand of Darkness: rather than illustrating the importance of a concept, such as freedom of speech or human connection, she illustrates the unimportance of a concept—the concept, in this case, being gender. The embrace of androgyny is not the only notable accomplishment Le Guin attained in The Left Hand of Darkness; she also reached past a major facet of international social implication to the bare individuality of humanity, examining the multitudes of an individual aside from a matter as simple as gender. She masterfully demonstrates the true human state through multitudes of character priorities and complex decision making within the novel. In doing so, she ensures that no matter how much society changes, no matter how far into the future time travels, The Left Hand of Darkness will continue to maintain relevance.


Works Cited

Cornell, Christine. “The Interpretative Journey of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.” Extrapolation, vol. 42, no. 4, 2001, pp. 317-327.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness, Penguin Group, 2010.

---. Introduction. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Le Guin, Penguin Group, 2010, pp. xiii-xix.

---. “Is Gender Necessary? Redux.” Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words,

Women, Places, Grove Press, 2006, pp. 7–16.

Pennington, John. “Exorcising Gender: Resisting Readers in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.” Extrapolation, vol. 41, no. 4, 2000, pp. 351-358.

White, Jonathan. “Coming Back from Silence: An Interview with Ursula Le Guin.” 1994, Swarthmore.edu. https://www.swarthmore.edu/Humanities/pschmid1/engl5H/leguin.inte rv.html. Accessed November 2018.

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