[This essay was submitted as my Experimental Writing term paper, MA Creative and Critical Writing, University of Sussex, May 2015. Mark: 71. A piece of experimental fiction, Lutra Wodr, was submitted along with this paper.]
An Exploration into Androgyny in the Form and Structure of
Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, experiments with form and structure in ways that directly reflect the ideas embodied within the novel’s content. In form, structure and content, The Left Hand of Darkness experiments with the harmonious union of opposites, including perceived gender differences and the relationships between fact and fiction, truth and myth, reality and story. ‘I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.’ [p1] This is Genly Ai’s first sentence directly addressing the reader of the novel, the novel’s opening statement of its relationship to ‘Truth’ and ‘imagination’, suggesting that its verity will lie somewhere between these two ostensible polar opposites. From the very outset, dichotomous relationships are called into question and brought into relationship, and the novel seeks to find its place somewhere in the dialectical spaces in between.
‘The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. […] But it is all one […] it is all one story.’ [p1] Genly Ai makes clear from the beginning that the story will be told by multiple narrators, contain multiple perspectives, and hold potential contradictions within itself (‘and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story.’ [p1]), whilst asserting that despite its contradictions and multiplicities, it is undoubtedly ‘one story’. Immediately we are plunged into the very fabric of the narrative itself: in seeking to explore the harmonious union between contradictory opposites, Le Guin structures the narrative around multiple voices and perspectives, including a variety of forms and text types that typically engender varying responses to their perceived authenticity and veracity – the polarisation between fact and fiction. These narrative forms include official reports and recordings (ostensible ‘facts’), a variety of mythologies and stories (ostensible ‘fictions’), and a selection of texts more difficult to place, such as journal entries and religious teachings; yet ‘all’ are ‘one’ to Genly Ai in compiling this narrative, and all must be seen to possess a certain ‘Truth’ and legitimacy in the telling of this tale.
Martin Bickman, in his study of The Left Hand of Darkness  says that these opening statements are suggestive of the novel’s narrative patterning: ‘apparent dualities are placed in harmonious, complementary relationship without collapsing important distinctions between them’ [p42]. This is one key aspect of what could be called an ‘androgynous economy’. The energetic drive between two polarised forces can only be brought into harmony through the maintenance of each as an individual drive and the creation of an interstitial, liminal, dialectical or dilatory space in between them. The alternative is two forces equally and eternally opposed, which have the effect of collapsing into each other, or cancelling one another out.
Freud explores the economic relationship between two distinct and dichotomous libidinous drives in Beyond the Pleasure Principle [ 2006] in which he asserts that ‘the goal of all life is death’ [p166], postulating the existence of the ‘death drive’ in relationship to the ‘pleasure principle’. Economically, these drives are conservative, seeking to restore a prior harmonious state of equilibrium which is the ‘inanimate’ state that ‘existed before the animate’ [p166]. However, whereas the death drive seeks to restore that state by the most efficient route possible, the pleasure principle seeks to delay the return to the inanimate in order to arrive by the ‘organism’s own particular path to death’ [p167]. Thus, Freud proposes the economic opposition between dual drives negotiating a series of ‘ever more complex detours’ as the ‘origin and goal of life’ [p167].
Peter Brooks, in his reading of Beyond the Pleasure Principle as a model for narrative theory [‘Freud’s Masterplot’, 1984], suggests that
the desire of the text (the desire of reading) is hence desire for the end, but desire for the end reached only through the at least minimally complicated detour, the intentional deviance, in tension, which is the plot of narrative. […]
Deviance, detour […] these are the characteristics of the narratable […] Plot is a kind of arabesque or squiggle toward the end […] that suggests the arbitrary, transgressive, gratuitous line of narrative, its deviance from the straight line, the shortest distance between beginning and end – which would be the collapse of one into the other, of life into immediate death. [P104]
Le Guin, in the narrative structure of The Left Hand of Darkness, achieves not only ‘deviance’ and ‘detour’ through the use of a variety of forms, perspectives and voices, but also serves to explore and maintain the ‘important distinctions’ between the dualities of beginning and end, truth and imagination, fact and fiction, light and darkness in the novel without each collapsing into its opposite, into ‘immediate death’ through coterminous interrelationship. It is the economics of this interplay ‘as arabesque in the dilatory space of the text’ that ‘maintains the plot in its movement through the vacillating play of the middle, where repetition as binding works toward the generation of significance, toward recognition and the retrospective illumination that will allow us to grasp the text as total metaphor, but not therefore to discount the metonymies that have led to it.’ [Brooks, p108].
The ‘vacillating play’ of Le Guin’s narrative structure includes a variety of stories and perspectives which inform, illuminate, repeat and contradict one another ‘towards the generation of significance’. For example, the early ‘hearth-tale’, ‘The Place Inside the Blizzard’, finds its echoes in the narrative of Genly and Therem as they cross the Gobrin Ice; names, places and character traits from the ‘East Karhidish tale’, ‘Estraven the Traitor’ are equally reflected in the narrative of Therem and his characteristic desire for unity among peoples at the cost of his own life. Furthermore, Bickman notes ‘the alternation and interpenetration of fact and myth, the literal and the figurative’, and traces the movement from fact to myth and vice versa of several of the novel’s key motifs. The vacillation of narrative forms within the structure of The Left Hand of Darkness enables this penetration and interplay between the literal and the figurative to enter into a mutually illuminating dialogue, in which both are given equal authority in the determining of ‘Truth’ in the unfolding narrative.
Freud draws upon Plato’s Symposium and the Androgyne Myth of Aristophanes to explore and explain the economic and erotic desire to return to a prior state of being. He quotes,
“Long ago, our nature was not the same as it is now but quite different. For one thing, there were three human genders, not just the present two, male and female. There was also a third one, a combination of these two … [the] “androgynous”. [These were “cut into two” by Zeus, like “sorb-apples”] … Since their original nature had been cut in two, each one longed for its own other half and stayed with it. They threw their arms round each other, weaving themselves together, wanting to form a single living thing”. [Freud, p186-187]
In a lengthy footnote to this quotation, Freud points out that a similar androgyne creation mythology can be found in both the Hindu Upanishads and in Babylonian stories, both ‘prior’ to Plato. What he does not mention, however, is that Aristophanes’ story suggests – as Freud himself does elsewhere – that originary sexuality may be fluid in nature, encompassing both homo- and heterosexual tendencies. [Plato, [Jowett, e-book, 1999]: pp100-101] However, in linking the androgyne myth to the economic theory of origins and endings, Freud provides a further model for the androgynous economy of narrative form and structure. Namely, that the desire for the end is ultimately a return to the beginning, and the desire of the beginning is the desire for the end. Brooks quotes Georg Lukács in calling the novel form the “literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea” [p110], recalling Freud’s theory of the economic desire to return to a prior state of (inanimate) (androgynous?) being. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Therem writes in his first journal entry, ‘I was born to live in exile, and my one way home was by way of dying.’ [p59]
Both Freud and Brooks explore the economics of drives in the relationship between beginnings and endings – Freud in terms of life and death drives, Brooks in terms of narrative structure – Freud asserting that ‘the goal of all life is death’ [p166], and Brooks that ‘the desire of the text is ultimately the desire for the end’ [p108]. However, in the relationship between the economics of contradictory drives, it becomes clear to both that ‘the idea of the beginning presupposes the end, that the end is a time before the beginning’ [Brooks: p109]. Therefore, according to Brooks, ‘any final authority claimed by narrative plots, whether of origin or end, is illusory’ [p109]. Ursula Le Guin explores the contradictions and presuppositions between beginnings and ends in the narrative structure of The Left Hand of Darkness. The story begins before it begins – there is a paragraph of documentary exposition prior to the start of Genly Ai’s narrative. However, we are given to assume that Genly Ai, as the curator and organiser of this story that is ‘all one’, has placed this exposition prior to the beginning of the text for authenticity and veracity. This leads us to ask, where does the story begin? Does it start with Genly’s first ‘I’, or has it already started in the italicised information that what we are about to read is ‘From the Archives of Hain’, and so on. Either answer, however, would lead us back to the end of the story, the place from which narratability is assumed for each of the preceding events. On reaching the end, we are, of course, led back to the beginning, with the promise that Genly will tell ‘the tale’ of his crossing the Gobrin Ice with Therem, and ‘tell us about the other worlds out among the stars – the other kinds of men, the other kinds of lives’ [p245]. The beginning and the end are one: they both illuminate and necessitate one another. The story is told in response to the events that have happened, to the demands of eager listeners, to the need to narrate the ‘other lives’ – this is the story presented from the beginning of the novel, predicated on the desire at the end to hear the tale, and the desire of the beginning to reach the end. In this way, as in many others, the text moves beyond itself, its structure is not linear, but is cyclical, multiplicitous and expansive.
It is within this kind of androgynous economy that the creation of dialectical spaces is most potent. A text that can place ‘apparent dualities in a harmonious, complementary relationship without collapsing important distinctions between them’ [Bickman], is in the process of creating what Peter Brooks describes as the ‘dilatory space’ of the middle, (the temporal ‘middle’ of the novel between the beginning and the end). Brooks sees the creation of narrative structure as essentially and intrinsically relational and dynamic. The relationship of the beginning to the end is mediated by the dilatory space of the middle; but it is also relational in its construction of the dynamic between text and reader, which is, ‘essentially dynamic, an interaction with a system of energy which the reader activates.’ [p112] Thus, the text – the novel in particular – becomes its own dilatory space in the relationship between writer and reader, which is dynamically energised in the relational economy of reading: a continual interplay between constructivity and receptivity in relationship to the text.
The dialectical space of relationality is reflected in the novel’s repeated motif that, ‘The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.’ [p57] This is later distilled into the Handdara maxim, ‘Praise then darkness and Creation unfinished’. [p201] It is in this way that the text gives consciousness to its own dialectical spaces, and reaches beyond itself into the as-yet-uncreated future. It is, therefore, only in the oppositional interplay between ‘darkness’ and ‘Creation’ that the ‘uncertainty’ of ‘what comes next’ can be assured. That life continues, that there is meaning not only within but, importantly, beyond the borders of the text, can only be hinted at in the three-way relationship between the two oppositional forces and their dialectical centre. Bickman calls this the ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure’, which is woven throughout the form and content of Le Guin’s novel. It is this structure, I believe, that gives the androgynous economy its most powerful and lasting creative potential.
The androgynous body, as described by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, ‘was a distinct kind, with a bodily shape and a name of its own, constituted by the union of the male and the female: but now only the word ‘androgynous’ is preserved, and that as a term of reproach.’ [Plato [Jowett, Oxford, 1953]: p520] It is this kind of ‘bodily shape’ and ‘union of the male and female’ that Le Guin explores most completely in both the form and content of The Left Hand of Darkness.
Chapter seven, a set of ‘Ekumenical’ ‘field notes’, explores the physiology and psychology of the Gethenian body at length and in detail, and is thus a condensed and concentrated reflection of the explorations that develop interpersonally between Genly and Therem throughout the unfolding narrative. This chapter describes the transition from ‘somer’ – the state of being ‘sexually inactive, latent’, the dominant mode of every monthly cycle lasting ‘21 or 22 days’ during which a Gethenian displays no sexual predisposition – into and through the period of ‘kemmer’ – the state of increasing ‘sexual impulse’ in which gender becomes determined in the relationship between partners. [p73]
When the individual finds a partner in kemmer, hormonal secretion is further stimulated […] until in one partner either a male or female hormonal dominance is established. […] Normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role in kemmer; they do not know whether they will be the male or the female, and have no choice in the matter. [p73]
This is reflected in Therem’s increasing femininity around Genly when in the phases of kemmer during their journey across the Gobrin Ice. It is this difference that Genly has feared, and what he must finally learn to accept: ‘I saw then, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. […] Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality.’ [p202] Later, Genly begins to understand the personal and ‘mystical’ ‘I and Thou’ relationship that he has been sent there to create [p211], and draws a yin-yang sign for Therem, saying, ‘It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness […] Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.’ [p217] This is partly in response to Therem’s statement that, ‘it’s queer that daylight’s not enough. We need the shadows, in order to walk.’ [p217] It is this interplay between light and shadow, male and female, I and Thou in relationship to one another that the book explores through its narrative and embodies in its structure. As Genly must learn to understand, accept and assimilate the differences between himself and Therem, so the novel’s structure encodes an assimilation between differently opposed yet equally weighted narrative forms within an interwoven, contradictory yet complementary structure. Genly’s (masculine?) official reports and documents are juxtaposed with Therem’s (feminine?) journal entries and the (androgynous?/ambiguous?) native myths, legends and scriptures of Gethen. Yet, as we are reminded repeatedly, ‘it is all one’. The novel’s structure holds within itself the harmonious unity of different forms in a ‘complementary relationship’ [Bickman, p42] with one another, just as the Gethenian anatomy contains within itself both genders in a complementary relationship, which furthermore can only become determined (or, ‘true’) in proper complementary relationship to an ‘other’.
Le Guin says, of gender in the structure of the novel:
To me the “female principle” is, or at least historically has been, basically anarchic. It vales order without constraint, rule by custom not by force. It has been the male who enforces the order, who constructs the power-structures, who makes, enforces, and breaks laws. On Gethen, these two principles are in balance: the decentralising [Karhide] against the centralising [Orgoreyn], the flexible against the rigid, the circular against the linear. But balance is a precarious state, and at the moment of the novel the balance, which had leaned towards the “feminine”, is tipping the other way. [Le Guin,  quoted in Bickman: p44]
The balance between what Le Guin sees as the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ is reflected in the political landscape of Gethen, as well as in the physiology of the Gethenians and the structural unity between different narrative forms within the novel as a whole. This again lends itself to the exploration of androgyny as a libidinal economy of energetic exchange. On Gethen, as in the novel, the balance of power can only be maintained harmoniously when both the masculine and the feminine principles are in equal exchange – dominance of one over the other leads to instability and imbalance. It is the importance of the ‘I and Thou’. Genly realises that the Ekumen is ‘not a body politic, but a body mystic. It considers beginnings to be very important. Beginnings and means. Its doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the ends justify the means.’ [p211] In this way, and others, the Ekumen ‘comes perhaps as close as any political system can to a viable reconciliation of unity and diversity, as suggested by the juxtaposition of the words “harmony” and “complexity” [in its goals]’ [Bickman, p45]. In the novels’ return to beginnings as endings and endings as beginnings, it also mirrors structurally Le Guin’s balance between the circular and the linear. As Peter Brooks says, ‘Any final authority claimed by narrative plots, whether of origin or end, is illusory.’ [p109]
It is the novel’s politically economic structure that Martin Bickman suggests enables the ‘“I-Thou” relationship to move beyond its original two members, to encompass and expand, rather than exclude.’ [p45] Expansiveness and multiplicity (such as the expansion and multiplicity of voices, perspectives and narrative forms encompassed within the novel’s structure) are regarded by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young as a necessary aspect of ‘feminine’ writing. They postulate the figure of the ‘& and’ (from Sianne Ngai’s reading of Dianne Ward’s ‘Imaginary Movie’) as the ‘unnamed component’ required for the ‘conjunctive, combinatorial, corporeal accretions craved by a cadre of women artists and writers.’ [‘& And’, Noulipo, 2007: p1]
Similarly, Hélène Cixous describes a ‘feminine libidinal economy’ as one which
has a more supple relation to property […] It is an economy that tolerates the movements of the other, that tolerates the comings and goings.
[Writing the Feminine, 1984; cited by Sarah Cornell in ‘Hélène Cixous and les Etudes Feminines’, in The Body and the Text, 1990: p38]
Judith Still elaborates on this, saying: ‘Whereas a masculine economy requires strict delineation of property […], a feminine economy is one (of proximity) of taking the other into oneself and being taken into the other also’ [‘A Feminine Economy’, The Body and the Text, 1990: p57]. It is this kind of fluid relationship to the other that is demonstrated throughout the economy of The Left Hand of Darkness.
However, in describing a ‘feminine’ economy, Cixous perhaps suggests equally the potential of an ‘androgynous’ economy, when she says that:
It is not simple, it’s not men against women, it’s one economy versus the other. I don’t believe in rigid positions or categories, or oppositions. I don’t think that women are sheerly women and men, men. [Hélène Cixous, ‘Difficult Joys’, in The Body and The Text, 1990: p23]
For Cixous, the conceptualisation of ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ is not purely physical or anatomical, it is libidinous and energetic. She refers to ‘“men writers”, such as Kleist, Genet or Shakespeare, whose texts show a great deal “of femininity, of being capable of the other. And they give rise to forms of economies that are open, expansive, generous, daring”’ [Hélène Cixous, ‘Tancredi Continues’, 1988; cited by Sarah Cornell, 1990: p39]. These are the forms and economies demonstrated by Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness, where the Gethenian characters are neither ‘sheerly women [or] men’ and the narrative economies are ‘open, expansive, generous [and] daring’. It is in the whole created by the ‘accretion’ of contradictory parts that Le Guin’s tale can begin to explore the expansiveness of ‘Truth’, demonstrating that, ‘truth is not a totalising concept’ [Cixous, ‘Difficult Joys’, 1990: p28].
Virginia Woolf refers to an ‘androgynous’ economy of mind, rather than a ‘feminine’ economy, when she explores Coleridge’s suggestion that ‘a great mind is androgynous’, in A Room of One’s Own. Woolf elaborates on the concept of the ‘androgynous mind’ thus:
It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine […] the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; […] it transmits emotion without impediment, […] it is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided. […] Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the man and the woman [the masculine and feminine aspects of the mind] before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated. [A Room of One’s Own,  2004: ch.6]
Like Cixous, Woolf cites Shakespeare as an example of a man who is capable of writing with both the ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ aspects of his mind, and reflects that her contemporary writers – both male and female – have become too masculine: ‘virility has now become self-conscious’ [p117], estranged from the feminine thinking that is ‘the woman part of the brain’ [p113]. Woolf considers that, ‘The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually cooperating.’ [p113] This androgynous economy of the mind shapes and structures both the form and content of Le Guin’s novel as she explores the whole that contains opposing and contradictory parts, reflected in the words of ‘Tormer’s Lay’:
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.
Bickman suggests that ‘The reason the hands match, both in Tormer’s Lay and in the repeated motif of the tale “Estraven the Traitor”, is not because they are identical but because they are different: left hand matches with right, right with left.’ [p45] He cites this as part of the reason why Genly and Therem do not consummate their love for one another: because of their difference. However, I believe that their abstention can be read, at least in part, as structural. In the libidinal economy applied to narrative theory by Peter Brooks in ‘Freud’s Masterplot’, ‘incest (of the fraternal-sororal variety) […] hovers as the sign of a passion interdicted because its fulfilment would be too perfect, a discharge indistinguishable from death, the very cessation of narrative movement.’ [p109] It is in such a way, perhaps, that the relationship formed between Genly and Therem by this point in the novel could be conceived: as a passionate, almost fraternal-sororal relationship between two opposite and contradictory beings who must learn to accept and understand one another in all their similarities and differences. The hardships they have endured and the misunderstandings they have encountered have helped to strengthen this passionate-sibling-like bond between them. Indeed, it is the role of brother-lover that is adopted by Genly in the spontaneity of the first moment of ‘mind-speech’ that passes between the two: ‘You called me – It was my brother. It was his voice I heard. […] My full brother,’ [pp206-207]. From this point forward, the bond is tied by the using of each other’s personal names, and the ability to speak inside one another’s mind. Incest is not strictly forbidden under the Gethenian social structures, but (as the field notes of Ong Tott Oppong confirm), ‘Siblings are not however allowed to vow kemmering, nor keep kemmering after the birth of a child to one of the pair.’ [p74] The seriousness of this transgression is a repeated motif throughout the novel, finding echoes and reverberations in the story of ‘The Place Inside the Blizzard’, and Therem’s own narrative – each with tragic consequences. Brooks says that, ‘Incest is only the exemplary version of a temptation of short-circuit from which the protagonist and the text must be led away, into detour, into the cure that prolongs narrative.’ [p109] In relation to the Gethenian androgynous biology, this temptation towards incest could perhaps lead to a stagnation in regard to sexuality and gender roles. In terms of an androgynous economy, repeated and sustained incest could be its unravelling – similar to Woolf’s lament that the genders had become polarised, and tended towards a masculine dominance. It is the necessary interplay and exchange between equal but different energetic drives that sustains the androgynous economies of Woolf, (Cixous), Freud and Brooks, and is demonstrated in the form, content and structure of Le Guin’s novel.
Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness explores ideas of androgyny not only in its characters’ biology and political economy, but also in the economic drives of the narrative forms and interwoven structure demonstrated here. The novel favours neither the ‘masculine’ nor the ‘feminine’ economy, but seeks to contain and embody both in a mutually illuminating, fluid interplay of exchange and reflection that is played out not only within the two positions themselves, but in the ever-expanding dialectical spaces within and between the pages of the novel: ‘Praise then darkness and Creation unfinished.’
Le Guin, Ursula, K. (1969) The Left Hand of Darkness. Reprinted London: Orbit (1992).
Bickman, Martin. (1977) ‘The Left Hand of Darkness: Form and Content’. Science Fiction Studies, 4 (1): pp 42-47. Accessed via: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4239066 on 4 February 2015
Brooks, Peter. (1984) ‘Freud’s Masterplot: A Model for Narrative’. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative
Cixous, Hélène. (1984) Writing the Feminine. Cited by Cornell, Sarah. ‘Hélène Cixous and les Etudes Feminines’. The Body and The Text (1990) Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf
Cixous, Hélène. (1988) ‘Tancredi Continues’. Cited by Cornell, Sarah. ‘Hélène Cixous and les Etudes Feminines’. The Body and The Text (1990) Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf
Cixous, Hélène. (1990) ‘Difficult Joys’. The Body and The Text. Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf
Freud, Sigmund. (1920) Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Reprinted in Phillips, Adam (ed.), The Penguin Freud Reader. (2006) London: Penguin
Jowett, Benjamin (trans.). ‘Aristophanes’s Speech from Plato’s Symposium’. Collected Works of Plato. Oxford University Press, (1953): pp520-525. Accessed via www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/sym.html on 26 April 2015
Jowett, Benjamin (trans.). (1999) Symposium (Plato). Project Gutenberg Edition.
Mascaró, Juan. (1965) Upanishads, The. London: Penguin
Spahr, Juliana, and Young, Stephanie. (2007) ‘& And’. Noulipo. Los Angeles: Les Figues Press
Still, Judith. (1990) ‘A Feminine Economy: Some preliminary thoughts’. The Body and The Text. Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf
Woolf, Virginia. (1928) A Room of One’s Own. Reprinted (2004) London: Penguin