Christine Cornell’s “The Interpretative Journey in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness” positions itself against two acknowledged factions which have reservations toward the gender issues as depicted in the book: scholarly critics of Le Guin’s masculine world, and college readers wary of the exclusive use of the masculine pronoun.
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As an apologetic for Le Guin’s choices concerning the sexual landscape of the novel, Cornell’s essay attempts to rout critics on two major problems readers encounter with the book; first, that the world of Winter, and the novel as a whole, has been inexplicably stripped of women, and feminine influences have been largely demonized, and second, that the The Left Hand of Darkness is likewise inexplicably blanketed exclusively with the male pronoun.
Cornell approaches these problems with a sympathetic understanding of the novel’s protagonist, Genly Ai. Genly is himself male, and finding himself a lone sex-certain being on a planet of androgens, appears to resolve his own incomprehension through the application of the familiar he.
Beyond linguistic difficulties, his own biases run toward applauding the masculine and suspecting the feminine: Genly embraces the bureaucratic strictures of Orgoreyn on the one hand while “damning [the] effeminate deviousness” of Estraven’s shifgrethor-influenced, oblique communication, for example.
Yet Cornell rationalizes even the most obvious blights on Genly’s diplomatic report as reflective of his naivete, which is subsequently transformed through his travels and particularly through his relationship with Estraven.
Cornell postulates that the reader’s journey from naivete to holistic understanding mirrors that of Genly, whose masculine bias is transformed through a series of trials in communication with Estraven.
Much as the reader will likely find aversion to Genly’s masculinized narration, Genly is at first exasperated by Estraven’s circuitous and indirect speech. This impasse, which has great bearing on Genly’s comprehension of Winter as a whole, is finally crossed during their trek across the ice.
In recognizing the totality of Estraven’s nature – male and female – Genly, at last, sees Estraven as the person s/he is, and finds himself loving Estraven as he was not able to before. In Cornell’s adaptation of Wolfgang Iser’s theory of reader indeterminacy, Genly and the reader arrive at the end of a process of understanding the three steps of which are rejection, perception, and acceptance.
Cornell takes additional measures to justify the universal application of the male pronoun in order to reconcile readers to the novel. To use the female pronoun, she reasons, would have conjured images of Amazons all too familiar to Le Guin’s audience; the neuter, on the other hand, would have drastically affected the reader’s experience and imposed Genly’s final, integrative understanding even on his earliest narrative.
Given the manifest problems readers encounter, Cornell takes a markedly hagiographic tack, going so far as to argue for the exclusive use of the male pronoun where Le Guin herself later recanted on this approach. The objections to The Left Hand of Darkness, moreover, are ameliorated by a process of rejection to acceptance which mirrors Genly’s own.
The analogy is an imprecise one for two reasons. First, Genly’s initial appraisal of Winter sexuality isn’t so much conditioned by rejection as it is by ignorance of the female gender in favor of the male; second, the reader’s journey to acceptance is predicated on a retrospective sympathy for the male whitewashing, when no good reasons for such sympathy are in evidence.
The weaknesses in Cornell’s arguments lie in her selective dependence on Genly Ai as the source of masculinization. Were Genly a 19th-century male, his misogynistic or patriarchal biases would be normative, but we know Genly to be a citizen of a world of not only highly advanced technology but decidedly enlightened philosophy.
The Ekumen is voluntary, not coercive; communicative, not confrontational; mutually supportive rather than fragmentary or martial. It is in no uncertain terms a feminine society, a mystical more so than a political body, and the occlusion of Genly’s background is not only disingenuous; properly speaking, his background obviates the journey he is meant to take.
The dubious basis for this ubiquitous masculinity is far wider than Cornell would see it. While Cornell would tie Le Guin’s choice to Genly despite his antithetical background, it is plain to the reader than the whitewashing is systemic.
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One of Estraven’s narratives, for example, has him avoiding seduction by a spy in female kemmer; as this is one of the few outright episodes of a Winter inhabitant as woman, it is a less than favorable assessment of the sex.
Again, when Genly observes a Foretelling, two of the participants are a Pervert and a person in presumably hormone-induced female kemmer, without any commentary as to how the Pervert’s apparent harassment of the woman augments the Weaver’s vision.
Even more blatant masculine whitewashing is on display in the society of Winter itself. In defiance of Cornell’s assessment of Genly as responsible for projecting masculinity over the culture, Winter is in word of fact a society of trappers, prison guards, indentured laborers, factory workers, truck drivers, spies, bureaucrats, and politicians.
Given this list of labor-intensive and power-based trades, anyone might reasonably assume Winter is a society exclusively composed of men, and this throws into doubt Cornell’s belief that the use of the masculine pronoun merely reflects Genly’s masculinity.
Considering Genly’s feminine societal origins and the fact that the masculinization is not isolated to the narrator, but systemic, Cornell’s apologetics are insufficient to account for the problems readers and critics have voiced.
The problem seems to rest with Le Guin herself, who in Cornell’s own excerpts of her response to criticism is defensive and appears to interpret their comments as a misreading of the intent and content of the novel.
It may be that Cornell has transferred the real problem from Le Guin to Genly, and that in fact Le Guin has projected her own experience and contemporary gender landscape, both certainly fraught with sexism and patriarchy, onto the faraway world of Winter. In accounting for reader difficulties by this approach, Le Guin’s audience can appreciate the merits of the novel as well as its Earthly downfalls.
Cornell’s extraneous scaffolding, which acquits Le Guin by shifting culpability and asking the reader to come to accept the sexism of the book, discredits the simplicity and elegance of the original narrative, in which Estraven and Genly Ai arrived at an understanding between worlds through genuine communication.