Study Guide for Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed (1974)

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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:

  1. Men and women should not be stereotyped by their gender roles.
  2. 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.
  3. Men think in a linear fashion, women tend to think more holistically (the circle is a female symbol suggesting this idea).
  4. Men define themselves by what they own and control; women by their relationships to other people.
  5. Jobs should be done by whoever can do them, and gender is largely irrelevant to this.
  6. Women should have equal access to jobs with men.
  7. Marriage and motherhood should not prevent women from having careers any more than it prevents men from doing so.
  8. Women should be able to pursue their careers without having where they live determined entirely by their husbands' jobs.
  9. The social emphasis on physical beauty depersonalizes and dehumanizes women.
  10. 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.
  11. Capitalism is a patriarchal institution which oppresses women.
  12. Women should not have to reshape and decorate themselves (removing body hair, for instance) to be accepted and loved.
  13. Homosexuality and bisexuality should be just as socially acceptable as heterosexuality--as should celibacy.
  14. Sex should be a matter of intimate sharing, not of conquest or trophy-hunting.
  15. Rape is a crime of violence which should be punished much more severely than it usually is.
  16. Women should not be defined by their childbearing abilities. Men can and should raise children as well as women.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. Childbirth is a natural phenomenon, not a disease. Women should be able to return to work shortly after giving birth.
  20. The medical establishment is generally male-dominated; women need to reject the authority of doctors and insist on treatments appropriate to their needs.
  21. A marriage in which a woman is prized only for her sexual attractiveness and availability is a sort of prostitution.
  22. Children should be able to make many decisions about how they are raised.
  23. A few feminists even argued that children should be able to "divorce" their parents.
  24. Children should be raised to accept their bodies and their sexuality without shame.
  25. Children can be raised by all kinds of configurations of loving adults: the traditional nuclear family is not necessarily the best model for childrearing.
  26. 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.

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