First off, I want to say that this book is outstanding. If you have not read it, then you must add it to your list. It works on so many levels. I am only going to be able to scratch the surface of this book’s depth. There is a lot of deep symbolism woven into this beautifully vivid and well-written piece of literature.
The basic premise of the book is that an envoy named Genly Ai visits an inhabited planet to inquire whether they are open to joining an interplanetary alliance whose goal is to share culture and ideas, thereby advancing the various civilizations. The planet Gethen, which Ai is visiting, is populated by beings who are bi-gender and take on a dominant gender when time comes to mate.
Le Guin uses the ambisexual Gethenians as a Jungian symbol for unified persons. They symbolize a balance between the anima and the animus. And while they recognize the existence of duality, they have an innate sense of oneness.
Ai brooded, and after some time he said, “You’re isolated, and undivided. Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.”
“We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”
Le Guin expands on the concept of opposites combined into a balanced whole, employing symbols of light and darkness, of fire and ice, of life and death, to represent the importance of a balanced duality to maintain a spiritual whole.
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are on, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.
Throughout the book, the symbol that kept coming to mind for me was the yin and yang. As I was to discover later on in the book, this was intentional on the part of the writer.
“Fear’s very useful. Like darkness; like shadows.” Estraven’s smile was an ugly split in a peeling, cracked brown mask, thatched with black fur and set with two flecks of black rock. “It’s queer that daylight’s not enough. We need the shadows, in order to walk.”
“Give me your notebook a moment.”
He had just noted down our day’s journey and done some calculation of mileage and rations. He pushed the little tablet and carbon-pencil around the Chabe stove to me. On the blank leaf glued to the inner back cover I drew the double curve within the circle, and blackened the yin half of the symbol, then pushed it back to my companion. “Do you know that sign?”
He looked at it a long time with a strange look, but he said, “No.”
“It’s found on Earth, and on Hain-Davenant, and on Chiffewar. It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness . . . how did that go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.”
(pp. 286 – 287)
As I said at the beginning of the post, there is no way I can cover everything in this book. In addition to what I mentioned, the book also explores social and political structures, how myths evolve from actual events, concepts of patriotism, and spiritual and psychological exploration. While this book falls into the “science fiction” category, to me it is much more and transcends the genre. I highly recommend this book to everyone. If’ you’ve read it, feel free to share your thoughts below.