“Light is the Left Hand of Darkness”: Deconstructing Gender Binarisms

Grace Lapointe
11 min readJan 24, 2018

Grace Lapointe

(Note: as a tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, I wanted to post the paper that I wrote about The Left Hand of Darkness at Stonehill as a junior in 2009 and presented at Stonehill and Bridgewater State’s Undergrad Literary Conference in 2010. Although I might use slightly different language to describe gender binaries today, I have not edited the original text and think it holds up well. Le Guin, however, was clearly decades ahead of her time.)

Grace Lapointe

“Light is the Left Hand of Darkness”: Deconstructing Gender Binarisms

Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 science-fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness depicts a planet called Gethen, meaning “winter” in the book’s fictitious language of Karhide, which is in a permanent ice age (Le Guin 1). Although the inhabitants of Gethen are not strictly intersex in the sense of simultaneously having both male and female genitalia, each person can become either male or female at various times in their lives. Gethenians exhibit physiologically male or female characteristics only during the last phase of their reproductive cycle, called “kemmer” (63). The kemmer process demonstrates Judith Butler’s idea that normative heterosexuality produces gender distinctions (Butler 231). Because each person has the potential to become either male or female, Gethenien society has not developed the concept of gender roles. The novel takes place in an alternate universe, but its protagonist, Genly Ai, is an envoy from an unnamed Earth-like planet. In contrast to the Gethenians, whose sexual characteristics can fluctuate, Ai is permanently biologically male. The Gethenians ostracize Ai because they consider anyone who is permanently male or female to be a sexual deviant. Their treatment of Ai mirrors Butler’s description of heterosexual society’s marginalization of “queer” individuals, who do not fit within the binary categories of masculinity and femininity (Butler 226). Through its depiction of an imaginary world where people’s physiological sex is changeable, The Left Hand of Darkness suggests that gender is an unstable social construct which functions independently of sexual activity.

The Left Hand of Darkness uses the science-fiction premise to metaphorically explore the discrepancy between biological sex and the social construct of gender. In an essay published in 1976 in the journal Novel, Donna Gerstenberger compares Le Guin’s novel with novels by other feminist writers from the 1960’s and ‘70’s, which examine the status of women in a male-dominated society. The Left Hand of Darkness is the only science-fiction novel that Gerstenberger mentions in her essay, while the others are strictly realist. Gerstenberger argues that the science-fiction genre’s extensive use of metaphor makes it uniquely suited to exploring social issues. She writes that science-fiction facilitates “the exploration of conceptual limits and modes, an activity in which contemporary women writers have a great stake, yet one in which feminist writers, particularly American, have participated very little” (Gertsenberger 143). The essay views science-fiction as a vehicle for metaphorically exploring challenging concepts.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, the Gethenians’ unique reproductive cycle metaphorically represents Judith Butler’s idea that heterosexual norms produce gendered bodies. The inhabitants of the imaginary planet Gethen only exhibit sexual characteristics during the act of sexual intercourse. Gethenians have a reproductive cycle called kemmer, similar to estrus in certain mammals (Le Guin 64). Sexual characteristics remain latent until the end of the kemmer cycle, when intercourse occurs (63). A person can exhibit sexual characteristics only in response to hormonal signals from one’s partner: “the partner, triggered by the change, takes on the other sexual role” (63). If a Gethenian is in isolation, physiological sex cannot develop, suggesting that gender is created by external factors. In her book Gender Trouble, which helped to develop the field of queer theory, Judith Butler argues that gender is not a stable identity but is “instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts” (Leitch 2500–01). For Butler, gender is performative, or acted out, rather than an inherent part of a person’s identity (2497). Butler writes, “That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (2497). For Butler, gender is not inherent, but is formed through a person’s actions and determined by external factors. On Gethen, physiological sexual distinctions are literally performed because they result from the repetition of heterosexual acts. The fact that Getheniens’ sexual characteristics must be recreated during each cycle suggests that the binary categories of male and female are tenuous.

Although a Gethenian’s sexual characteristics are not permanent, people cannot choose their genders, suggesting that gender is compulsory. A Gethenian may become female during one cycle and male the next (Le Guin 64). Individuals cannot choose which gender they will become during kemmer (63). In Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler writes that gender is constructed through a series of “compulsory performances” (Butler 238). While sexual roles are not permanent on Gethen, they are involuntary and therefore still compulsory. However, while Getheniens’ sexuality separates the idea of sex and gender, it also creates its own restrictions. A visitor from another planet observes in her field notes that on Gethen, homosexual pairs are “so rare as to be ignored” (65). Even though Gethenian sexuality is not accompanied by the social concept of gender, certain sexual actions are still prohibited.

Paradoxically, by saying that Getheniens’ mutable sexuality eliminates gender binaries, the novel reinforces the idea that biological sex validates gender differences between men and women on other planets. Because Getheniens’ sexual characteristics are latent for four-fifths of each month, Gethenian society has not developed a concept of gender (65). In one chapter, an unnamed explorer from another planet observes in her field notes that on Gethen “there is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive” (Le Guin 65). However, by mentioning these binaries, she reinforces their validity in a society where everyone is either permanently male or female. The explorer warns future visitors to Gethen that they may be unnerved by Gethenians’ inability to acknowledge gender: “A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated [ . . .] On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience” (66). By juxtaposing male “virility” with “femininity,” the narrator suggests that these qualities are opposed to one another and are also integral to each person’s identity. If people construe gender as essential to their identity, it becomes “appalling” to be regarded only as a human being. In contrast, Butler writes that gender is produced through social norms, and each person “never quite inhabits the ideals s/he is compelled to approximate” (Butler 231). Butler views gender not as integral part of a person’s identity but as a role which can never fully be performed. The Getheniens’ lack of fixed gender makes them fear and misunderstand Ai, the permanently male envoy from an Earth-like planet.

On Gethen, people who have a permanent gender are marginalized as deviant, which corresponds to the marginalization of queer individuals in a heterosexual society. The novel’s protagonist, Genly Ai, is an envoy from an unspecified Earth-like planet where people have fixed genders. Because Ai is permanently male, and Gethenians only exhibit sexual characteristics when they are aroused, the Gethenian leaders label him as a “pervert” (Le Guin 24). In Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler uses the word “queer” to refer to “overlapping divisions” of people who cannot be categorized into heterosexual norms (Butler 228). She writes that “the term ‘queer’ has operated as one linguistic practice whose purpose has been [ . . .] the producing of a subject through that shaming interpellation” (226). Butler uses the term “interpellation” in the Althusserian sense, meaning that an ideology creates subjects by addressing particular individuals (225). Although Ai is not considered sexually deviant on his home planet, on Gethen he is interpellated as a “pervert” because the Gethenian authorities consider him abnormal. This demonstrates that subjects do not precede interpellation but are created through interpellation.

Because Ai is only considered abnormal in relation to the Gethenians, this suggests that the marginalization of queer individuals is arbitrary and determined by the heterosexual majority. Butler writes that the term “‘queer’ derives its force precisely through the repeated invocation by which it has become linked to accusation, pathologization, insult” (Butler 226). For Gethenians, being permanently male or female carries a social stigma. By calling Ai a “pervert,” the Getheniens tacitly accuse him of a deviant behavior: being permanently aroused. When Ai attempts to explain his people’s biological makeup to the king of Gethen, the king concludes that because they have permanent genders, they must be “a society of perverts” (Le Guin 25). However, Ai is only considered a “pervert” in contrast to the Gethenians. Ai’s masculinity is not considered shameful on his own planet, but on Gethen it is “pathologized,” or characterized as abnormal, because it deviates from the Gethenian norm. Because an individual can only be considered a “pervert” in relation to the societal norm, this would make an entire “society of perverts” impossible. Ai’s biological differences alienate him from the Gethenians and make it difficult for him to form relationships with them.

Through Genly Ai’s relationship with the former Gethenien prime minister, Estraven, The Left Hand of Darkness shows that all human beings possess characteristics that can be polarized as either masculine or feminine. Because sex is not a permanent part of Getheniens’ identity, they cannot see any human qualities as related to sexual characteristics. Ai struggles to define the Gethenian concept of shifgrethor: “prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship” (Le Guin 10). Ai later compares shifgrethor with his own “masculine self-respect” because he cannot imagine human qualities that are not gendered (153). When Ai first meets Estraven, he distrusts him because he finds Estraven’s behavior “womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit” (8). Although Estraven is biologically neither male nor female, Ai characterizes him as feminine because he has attributes which are considered feminine in Ai’s culture. This suggests that gender is largely socially constructed rather than biologically inherent. When Butler describes the performative nature of drag, she writes that drag calls attention to the “hyperbolic,” or overstated, nature of heterosexual roles (Butler 237). Ai’s perception of Estraven as “womanly” demonstrates that gender distinctions can be created socially even when they are not supported by a person’s biology.

Although Estraven and Ai never have a sexual relationship, their close friendship troubles Ai because it challenges his culture’s prohibition on same-sex intimacy. As prime minister, Estraven cedes a disputed territory to a neighboring country and is exiled as a traitor. If he returns to his native country, he will be killed. Estraven and Ai spend the rest of the novel journeying together across the frozen deserts of Gethen. Their friendship gains a new level of emotional intimacy when Ai teaches Estraven “mindspeak,” a form of telepathy (Le Guin 174). Estraven observes that mindspeak is uniquely intimate because it makes lying to the other person impossible (177). When Estraven enters kemmer and Ai sees him in his female form, Ai admits, “And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man” (173). Butler writes that in a heterosexual society, homosexuality is “constituted by a set of disavowed attachments or identifications that constitute a different domain of the ‘unperformable’” (Butler 236). People deny or disavow their identification with homosexual desires because they are considered impossible within the norm of heterosexual reproduction. However, Ai fears his attachment to Estraven for the opposite reason: Estraven becomes female during kemmer, which would enable them to have heterosexual intercourse. Although Estraven and Ai’s friendship cannot technically be considered homosexual, Ai fears being attracted to a person who is even partially male.

Near the end of the novel, Ai’s repressed emotions over Estraven’s death illustrate Butler’s idea that heterosexuals must disavow the possibility of homosexual attachments. After Estraven and Ai have spent months journeying across the frozen tundra together, Estraven skis directly into the path of two armed border guards, who are waiting for him. Estraven’s death can be interpreted as a suicide, which is taboo on Gethen. Ai holds Estraven as he dies, although the guards try to stop him: “They shot to kill him. He was dying when I got to him, sprawled and twisted away from his skis that stuck up out of the snow, his chest half shot away. I took his head in my arms and spoke to him, but he never answered me [ . . .] I held him, crouching there in the snow, while he died. They let me do that” (Le Guin 198). When Estraven is dying, Ai tries to tell him that he loves him, but finds that he is unable to do so. By saying, “They let me do that,” Ai indicates that the guards have attempted to prevent him from grieving. Similarly, Butler writes that the heterosexual majority attempts to repress homosexuals from expressing loss. In Bodies That Matter, Butler writes, “Insofar as grief remains unspeakable, the rage over the loss can redouble by virtue of remaining unavowed” (Butler 236). According to Butler, by failing to acknowledge the validity of homosexual relationships, heterosexual authorities also deny homosexuals the right to grieve openly. However, the guards do not repress Ai’s grief because of sexual orientation, but because Estraven is considered a traitor. This passage demonstrates that authorities deny individuals’ grief in an attempt to repress taboo relationships. It also shows that Ai has repressed his love for Estraven because his feelings are not strictly heterosexual.

In her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin invents an alternate universe where people’s sexual characteristics exist only during the act of sexual intercourse. A person may develop female sexual characteristics during one monthly cycle and male attributes the next (Le Guin 64). As a result, people do not identify themselves as male or female, only as human beings (65). The Gethenians’ lack of a fixed sexual identity illustrates Judith Butler’s idea that gender is predicated by socially determined roles (Butler 231). On Gethen, human qualities cannot be considered “masculine” or “feminine,” which emphasizes the artificial, socially constructed nature of gender. This supports Butler’s idea that gender is created through repeated “compulsory performances” (Butler 238). On Gethen, sexual characteristics are temporary and can change throughout a person’s lifetime, suggesting that the categories of masculinity and femininity are unstable.

Although Gethenians do not identify themselves as either male or female, their sexual activity still reinforces heterosexual norms. Because sex only exists for the purpose of reproduction, homosexual actions are “so rare as to be ignored” (Le Guin 65). During sexual intercourse, one partner almost always becomes temporarily physiologically male, while the other becomes physiologically female. Although the Gethenians partly deconstruct the male/female gender binary, certain same-sex actions are still forbidden.

The Gethenians’ lack of a permanent gender creates its own sexual norms because it causes them to marginalize individuals who are permanently male or female. Because Gethenians only exhibit sexual characteristics when they are sexually aroused, the Gethenians marginalize Genly Ai as a “pervert” for being permanently male. Their condemnation of Ai parallels Butler’s idea that the heterosexual majority marginalizes queer individuals because they do not fit into the normative heterosexual categories (Butler 226). In comparison to the Gethenians’ biology, Ai’s permanent maleness is considered deviant, but on his own planet, he is considered normal. This suggests that sexual norms are arbitrary and determined by the majority. The Left Hand of Darkness re-imagines sexual normality and depicts a world where sexual characteristics are not a fixed part of a person’s identity, suggesting that gender is not an integral part of human identity but an artificial distinction.

Works cited

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Gerstenberger, Donna. “Conceptions Literary and Otherwise: Women Writers and the Modern Imagination.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. Vol. 9, №2, (Winter, 1976): 141–150.

Leitch, Vincent B. (ed.) The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2001.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.