My Essay on “The Left Hand of Darkness”: Rationed Life

Momo and tsampa, by vendroitThe Week 9 reading assignment for my online class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World was Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

This is the book I would love to love.  I feel it reflects poorly on me that it leaves me… cold (ha-ha.) As in most travelogues, the narrator is supposed to stand in for the reader. But it’s hard to read this 1969 book in 2013 and relate to the mentality that is expected to be shared by the reader about differences between genders; I felt more at home with Gilman in  this respect.

I wanted to love this book, I really did.  I sympathize with the theme, I sympathize with the people of all genders who were so relieved to finally see themselves in a book.  But unfortunately, I was never very interested in any of the characters on an emotional level.

More than anything, I failed to identify at all with the mentality that was assigned to the oh-so-advanced Ekumen, where gender issues should really have been no big thing at all.  I get that the narrator is supposed to stand in for an American reader in 1969, but thankfully, this mentality now seems incredibly old-fashioned, like watching Ensign Janice Rand in her short skirt bring memos for Captain Kirk to sign.

Here is my 300-word essay. 


Rationed Life

Regardless of all of the different uses of a symbol in different instances in a story, a parametric centre is the one thing they all have in common [1, 2].  In The Left Hand of Darkness [3], food can be considered one of the parametric centres, standing for the physical aspect of life.

Food marks turning points in narrator Genly Ai’s life on Gethen.  At supper with Estraven, he learns of the Gethenian’s reversal [Chapter 1].  Banquets in Orgoreyn punctuate his efforts to obtain an alliance for the Ekumen [Chapter 8] and his betrayal [Chapter 10].

It is Estraven’s cook who is kind enough to discreetly provide him with the food that will let him survive long enough to make it out of Karhide when he is banished [Chapter 6].

Karhide food tastes better than the blander Orgota cookery, reflecting the national characters that have been described, the very lives of the two countries’ people: flavourful, fiery, yet sober in Karhide, plentiful but bland and passive in Orgoreyn [Chapters 10, 13, 15, 18, 19].

Deliberate food rationing at the Pulefen Farm keeps the prisoners weak, with too little life force to rebel or escape [Chapters 13, 14].  Food is used as an explicit measure of how long one can survive during the crossing of the glaciers, and Estraven’s precise calculation of food rations is the clock by which we watch he and Ai race against death [Chapters 15, 16, 18].

Estraven and Ai are welcomed unstintingly with food when they reach Kurkurast Domain in Karhide, marking the end of their desperate crossing [Chapter 19]. There, it’s the hot-shop cook there who receives Estraven’s confidence about their identity [ibid.].  There is always food in their packs once they are back in Karhide [ibid.].

If duality versus unity form the prominent parametric centre to symbolize emotional life in this book, food corresponds to life of the body.

Works Cited

[1] Eric S. Rabkin, 2012. “Romantic Centers.” Lecture 8.4, Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. Coursera.

[2] Eric S. Rabkin, 2012. “Metaphor in Science Fiction and Fantasy.” The SFFaudio Podcast #149 with Eric Rabkin, Jesse Willis and Luke Burrage. http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=37493

[3] Ursula K. Le Guin, 1969. The Left Hand of Darkness.

Photo: Momo and tsampa by vendroit — Creative Commons license, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

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