The Protagonist in the Left Hand of Darkness

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Genly Ai says, “Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes”. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, the protagonist Genly Ai is an anthropologist from Earth in the Ekumen, an interplanetary trade coalition of 3000 nations and 83 planets to develop communication and harmony through trade. Ai is sent to the planet Gethen as an Envoy on a mission to bring about an alliance with the planet, which he greatly struggles with due to cultural differences. Gethen, also known as Winter because of its Ice Age-like climate, is an androgynous society where inhabitants are neither men nor women, but simply classified as human. Although Genly Ai struggles to fulfill his mission as an “alien” among the Gethenians, he eventually accomplishes his goal in the end with the help of an unlikely ally, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. Le Guin illustrates the recurring themes of dualism, growth from alienation to connectedness, and loyalty through the relationship between Ai and Estraven that develops through Gethen in hopes of uniting their nations.

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Just like the duality concept of light and darkness in the Gethenian Handdara religion, the friendship and collaboration between Ai and Estraven embody the central principle as they come together as opposites to achieve balance and harmony. Estraven shares a Handdara proverb with Ai that says, “Light is the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light. Two are one, life and death. Lying together… as hands joined together, like the end and the way” as Estraven emphasizes that “duality is an essential… So long as there is me and the other” (252). This presents how light and darkness correspond to each other as opposites while they also both need to interact with one another to create a balance, similar to how Ai, a human, works with Estraven, an “alien”, to make harmony across the universe between Gethen and the Ekumen. During their desperate journey, the darker and tougher the situations seemed to be, the brighter the gleam of hope in their friendship becomes, as they learned to overcome their differences and work together. When Estraven says, “Fear’s very useful. Like darkness; like shadows… It’s queer that daylight’s not enough. We need the shadow, to walk…”(286), Ai agrees and responds: “It is yin and yang… Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow” (287). In dualism, a one-sided effort is not sufficient to make things work since the effort of both sides is needed for a successful balance. Ai needs Estraven’s companionship and efforts to accomplish his mission just as how Estraven would not survive without Ai’s strength and courage. Dualism does not strictly pertain to light and darkness but also to man and woman, oneself and the other, human and alien, for opposites coexist to create a balance and proportion.

Although Ai feels alienated while on Gethen at first, the kinship he develops with Estraven allows Ai to surpass the differences that separate him from Gethenians to achieve the union of Gethen and the Ekumen. From the beginning of his stay on Gethen, Ai felt estranged and alone: “That’s him, look, there’s the Envoy. Of course, that was part of my job, but it was a part that got harder not easier as time went on; more and more often I longed for anonymity, for sameness. I craved to be like everybody else.” (8). Not only was he biologically different in appearance, but he was culturally different as well, for Ai was a man. Ai’s otherness made it difficult to communicate or connect with Gethenians to further his mission and gained only Estraven’s full trust and aid. “A friendship so much needed by us both in our exile… But it was from the difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us.” (267). As both sides put their differences aside and come together as outsiders, Ai and Estraven can form a friendship by empathizing with one another, the first step and the key in completing the mission and in uniting Gethen and the Ekumen. Through the harsh experiences of their journey, Ai and Estraven learn to collaborate and communicate with each other as they unite their own differences to create a bridge between their two worlds. By connecting with an individual on Gethen, Ai gained an insight into the planet as a whole, making this single relationship the source of a universal alliance and union.

Throughout the novel, Ai and Estraven’s goals and duties remain unchanged even as their loyalties shift while they put away the duty of serving the nation and turn their focus onto the duty of serving the people as a whole for the benefit of mankind. After his exile, Estraven makes clear his intentions: “I was after what you’re after: the alliance of my world with your worlds… What does it matter which country awakens first, so long as we waken?” (213). Estraven was the prime minister of Karhide until exiled for attempting to resolve the Sinoth Valley land control dispute with Orgoreyn for the wellbeing of Gethen and its people as a whole. Estraven’s loyalty to the Gethenians and not the king of Karhide support Ai’s mission to further unite his people with the rest of the universe. Even after Estraven’s death, Ai clarifies and makes sure of their intentions and reconfirms their loyalties: “[Estraven] loved his country very dearly, sir, but he did not serve it, or you. He served the master I serve… Mankind… My own survival doesn’t matter all that much, but I have and had then a duty towards Gethen and the Ekumen, a task to fulfill” (315). Although they come from completely different backgrounds, Ai and Estraven come to share the same duty of unifying the humanity of the universe through peaceful alliances. They are willing to sacrifice their own lives and well-being for the greater good, for they need to finish the duty no matter what means. Although Ai came to Gethen with the sole purpose of bringing Gethen in the Ekumen, his loyalties extended to Estraven through their experiences together as they were able to fulfill their duties through their loyal friendship.

The three themes of dualism, connectedness, and loyalty are woven together within the novel all to present how Ai accomplished his mission with the help of Estraven. As two opposites come together, both aliens to each other, Ai and Estraven develop a connection through their differences, overcame the mutual otherness, and fulfilled their universal duty. Even though Ai struggles to connect his own culture with one that is completely alien and foreign to him at first, he is changed by the cultural diversity he is exposed to on Gethen and expands his new understanding and perspective of the universe.  

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