The Left Hand of Darkness – Final Discussion

This is the third and final discussion for The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. We’re covering Chapters 11-20, plus the book as a whole.

Plot questions (courtesy of Edmund Fitzgerald):

  • How does the portrayal of Orgoreyn compare and contrast with that of Karhide? What do you make of the juxtaposition between courtly and rural life in Karhide? Or the juxtaposition of Mishnory with the labor camp?
  • The relationship between Karhide and Orgoreyn is often interpreted as a cold war, in which Orgota is widely seen as a stand-in for Soviet collectivism. But Karhide is more similar to a feudal or tribal system than American capitalism. Given the time period in which this novel was written, what do you think that Le Guin was providing commentary on?
  • When Le Guin explores the Yomesh cult, which is the dominant Orgoreyn religion, she describes the triumph of light over darkness symbolizing collectivism. By contrast, the society of Karhide is pluralist. What is your interpretation of this commentary, particularly as it applies to Le Guin’s interest in duality?
  • What was your personal response to Genly’s reaction when Estraven rescued him from the labor camp? To Estraven’s first experience with mind-speak? And finally, how did you respond to the final revelations about Estraven’s romantic life? How did Genly and Estraven’s bond change over time, and what do you think that reveals about both Genly and Estraven as characters?
  • What does Genly’s ignorance towards Estraven and his motivations say about the effect of growing up in a gendered society? As Genly comes to understand Estraven better, how does this affect his concept of gender? What does this bode for the Ekumen’s eventual exposure to Gethenian culture? With the Ekumen learn from Gethen in the same way as Genly has?
  • Why do you think that the Ekumen always sends a single person as it’s initial envoy? How does this reflect Ursula Le Guin’s conception of gender?
  • When Estraven chose to help Genly, do you believe that it was for personal or political reasons? Did the scenes on the ice change your interpretation of his motivations?
  • How do Orgota and Karhidian myths compare and contrast? What does this say about the dichotomy between collectivism and dualism? How does Le Guin reconcile the dualism of Karhidian mythology with the pluralism of their culture? Of the societies portrayed, which do you think Le Guin exercises the most sympathy towards? Which do you think she would consider herself as?
  • How does Genly’s narrative on the ice compare and contrast to that in earlier chapters?
  • Do you agree with Le Guin’s decision not to portray a physical act of love between Genly and Estraven on the ice?
  • What was your interpretation of Estraven’s distinction between the I-and-You relationship and the I-and-Thou relationship? In what ways does this reflect the lens of Karhidian culture? How would you reinterpret Karhidian foretelling, as portrayed in earlier chapters, under this framework? What about Karhidian collectivism?
  • How does Estraven’s relationship with Genry compare and contrast with Estraven’s relationship with his brother?
  • What was your response to Estraven’s death? Do you think that it was necessary? Why do you think Le Guin chose to portray it as she did, or even include it in the first place?
  • How does Genly’s attitude towards the female emissaries of the Ekumen compare and contrast with his response to perceived femininity among the Gethenians?
  • Are you comfortable with how the novel ended, and the revelations about Estraven’s family? Or would you have prefered for the novel to have ended with the starship landing and Gethen joining the Ekumen?

Other guide questions/talking points:

  1. Adaptations. There aren’t very many, though it looks like there’s a TV show in the works. Have you heard the radio drama or watched the plays? Why do you think a book so influential/iconic has so few adaptations?
  2. Are there any works you think take particular inspiration from the novel?
  3. Broad question, but how do you think the science fiction genre has changed in response to the critical acclaim of The Left Hand of Darkness?
  4. For readers who have read the other books in the Hainish Cycle series, which of them would you recommend to follow this one?

(Note: This is a scheduled post. Tag me or a mod if you want any plot- or theme-related questions added to the post. I can add them when I log on, or a mod can do it for you. Apologies, but I haven’t completed the book. There seems to be a flaw in having someone who sucks at following deadlines run the book club…)