Readers' Guide: Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Left Hand of Darkness

by: Ursula Le Guin

Category: FICTION
Guide Created By: PatH and Marcie
Discussion Leader(s): PatH & Marcie
Read our discussion of this book

Book Description Book cover for Left Hand of Darkness A classic, groundbreaking science fiction novel, which explores issues of gender role, honor, trust and suspicion, against a background of survival in a cruelly harsh wintry climate.

Relevant Links

Ursula Le Guin's website

Excerpts from the 40th Anniversary edition of The Left Hand of Darkness

1994 Afterword to Left Hand of Darkness

Article about Wholeness and Balance in the Hainish Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin by Douglas Barbour

Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis of The Left Hand of Darkness

Wikipedia article on The Left Hand of Darkness

Review in the Guardian of The Left Hand of Darkness

2001 interview with Ursula Le Guin on the SF Site

2009 interview with Ursula Le Guin in The New Yorker

Discussion Questions

Chapters 1-6
1. "The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.....All fiction is metaphor." What do you think about this statement?
2. Who is Genly Ai, and what is his mission?
3. Gethenian behavior is ruled by shifgrethor, a complex code that Ai only slowly comes to understand. What does it seem to be so far?
4. Le Guin interrupts her narrative with many bits of Gethenian myth, religion and history. What does this do? Does it work for you?
5. Faxe tells Ai that they perfected Foretelling "To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question." What do you think of this? Do you think Ai asked the right question?
6. What do you think Estraven's motives are?
7. Why does Estraven say we'd all better take up astronomy?

Chapters 7-12
1. What is an Investigator?
2. From an investigator's field notes concerning the lack of gender-specific characteristics: "On Winter...One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience." What do you think that means? Would you feel that way?
3. Why does Ai go to Orgoreyn?
4. How does the old tale in chapter 9-Estraven the Traitor-relate to the current Estraven?
5. What is the thirty three? the Sarf? A commensal?
6. What are the child-raising systems in Karhide and Orgoreyn?
7. What are the Ekumen?
8. What are the different factions in Orgoreyn trying to do with Ai?
9. What are the two religious philosophies on Gethen?

Chapters 13-17
1. In this section, Estraven and Ai finally get to know each other well. How does the attitude of each toward the other change?
2. What is the Great Wheel?
3. Does Estraven's plan to get back to Karhide look like it has any chance of success?
4. Why would a man like Ai be willing to abandon forever everyone and everything he has known? Do you sympathize?
5. Have you ever done any winter camping? What do you think of Estraven's method and equipment?
6. Now that we know more, what do Estraven's motives seem to be?
7. Chapter 17 is an Orgota myth. We have had several myths and tales dealing with contrasts, the center of things, beginnings and endings. From these, what deductions do you make about Gethenian religion and thought?

Chapters 18-20; afterword and appendices
1. Traveling on the ice and coping with the weather is described in great detail here. How did this affect you?
2. In this section, Ai feels that he finally truly sees Estraven. What does he see?
3. Why does Ai want to teach Estraven mindspeak? When Estraven learns to mindspeak, why does he hear Ai speak with the voice of his dead brother?
4. Why do you think that the Ekumen sends an envoy alone to an alien planet?
5. Why does Estraven ski into range of the border guards?
6. What is Ai's reaction on seeing his fellow envoys again?
7. What did Ai want to accomplish by going to Estre?
8. Was the ending satisfactory?
9. What are your thoughts about the controversy regarding the use of masculine pronouns for the Gethens and the discussion/examples in the afterword and appendices?