The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin belongs to the number of the most popular science fiction novels by writers from the United States. Thanks to her skillful writing and attention to tiny details, Le Guin creates a unique world with its own conflicting cultures and the various social norms. However, upon a closer view, it turns out that the features of this imaginary world are reflective of the actual cultural shifts and power struggles, influencing human society during the creation of this novel. This essay discusses the novel to better understand the ways of how the author responds to the cultural characteristics of her time and the key historical events.
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First published in 1974, the novel responds to and comments on the cultural circumstances of that and the previous decades. Written at the times of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, The Dispossessed contrasts anarchist Anarres with the two warring nations of Urras – A-lo and Thu. These nations closely resemble the two superpowers of the time period (the United States and the Soviet Union) in terms of the values at the core of their political regimes. Basically, Le Guin’s novel is her response to the continuous battle of the superpowers’ regimes, such as the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism under the disguise of socialism and the United States’ capitalism. As an opposer of totalitarian regimes, Le Guin actively explores the topics of religion and politics and even manages to incorporate the principles of Daoism in her imaginary progressive society of Anarres (Anderson 183). Le Guin does her best to create Anarres – an alternative economy in which there is no infrastructure “to enable the power-hungry to exercise that power” (Habib 334). It enables her to offer her opinion concerning more desirable forms of social organization without idealizing them.
The way of how Le Guin depicts the civilization of Anarres represents her attempt to incorporate and depict the new counter-cultural values of the 1960s. The 1960s are still remembered as a specifically important period in the history of anarchism and countercultural movements in the United States (Palano 6). The gradual popularization of anarchist and the so-called “hippie” values in the United States, including free sexuality, pacifism, anti-materialism, and community, can be cited among the cultural contexts that find reflection in the novel (Blackford 90). The state of Anarres is based on the principles of anarchism – “the product of a very high civilization, a complex diversified culture, and a stable economy” (Le Guin 98). The values of non-possession and anti-consumerism are also evident in Anarresti culture. For instance, Shevek’s native language, Pravic, does not encourage the use of words to demonstrate possession, and Shevek gets “accustomed to the constant use of the possessive pronoun” only after coming to Urras (Le Guin 133). Instead of enjoying consumption just like the nation of A-lo, the Anarresti acknowledge that nothing belongs to them, and they only temporarily use some objects.
At the time of the novel’s creation, the movement for the wider acceptance of human sexuality, known as the sexual revolution, was still prominent in the United States. Many science fiction novels of the 1960s and the 1970s, including Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, exploit the free love trend and depict hypothetical progressive societies in which open and diverse sexual relationships are not taboo (Blackford 90). Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is another novel that responds to this trend. It pictures a civilization that has departed from seeing traditional heterosexual relationships between two adults as the only appropriate way of expressing one’s sexuality.
In Anarresti society, the freedom to enjoy one’s sexuality is quite pronounced, and there are no specific social norms to discourage teenagers from exploring their sexuality or making sex and love inseparable. As an example, it is explicit that “like all children of Anarres,” Shevek “had had sexual experience freely with both boys and girls” (Le Guin 57). The desacralization of sex as an act of pure love was one of the leading themes during the sexual revolution, and Le Guin’s novel also depicts this shift in people’s mindsets (Allyn 78). For instance, despite his strong preference for women, Shevek agrees to have sex with Bedap just to “reconfirm the old friendship” and “reassert trust” (Le Guin 170). Therefore, the changing values and perspectives on sex and romantic feelings as the key prerequisite to sexual contact find reflection in the novel.
Le Guin’s work also responds to the culture of the sexual revolution in terms of the depictions of marriage. During the sexual revolution in the United States, there were attempts to redefine marriage and make it less legally binding, but the recognition of polyamorous unions was still regarded as “a radical proposition” (Allyn 83). In Le Guin’s book, despite the acceptability of the various forms of sexual involvement, “the sympathy is on monogamous, heterosexual relationships” (Blackford 96). However, Anarresti society does not “consider the interests of closely bonded couples” to the full extent, and there is no formal institution of marriage (Blackford 96). Shevek, the first native Anarresti to visit other planets, acknowledges that “a wife is something that exists only on Urras” despite the fact that he has a female partner and children (Le Guin 197). In contrast, on Urras, “partnerships authorized and enforced by legal and economic sanctions” are considered acceptable (Le Guin 24). To some extent, the representations of marriage in the novel seem to be an attempt to find a compromise between traditional and new approaches to romantic relationships.
The novel is also indicative of the author’s reactions to the Vietnam War and the two superpowers’ involvement in it. Written “in response to the Vietnam War,” the novel criticizes colonialism, violence, and exploitation by looking at this war from the perspective of a progressive society that manages to suppress and control violence (Haran 8). In the book, the relationships between A-lo and Thu are similar to the power struggles of the real world’s superpowers of the 1960s and the 1970s. Benbili, “a nation in the western hemisphere” of Urras, becomes a bone of contention for the free-market capitalist A-lo and totalitarian pseudo-socialist Thu (Le Guin 199). Both states want Benbili to share their ideology and act accordingly by providing the warring parties with resources. Based on the depictions of the proxy war in Benbili, Le Guin’s perspectives on the necessity of the Vietnam War and the attempts of the USSR and the United States to affect its outcomes become clear. As Shevek learns from one conversation, “it did not matter who governed the Benbilis” since it was about “the power struggle between A-Io and Thu” (Le Guin 200).
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Another interesting way of how the author responds to the social and historical circumstances of her time is by reflecting on the most recent research on specific institutions’ contributions to violence. In 1971, three years before the novel was published, Philip Zimbardo conducted his famous and controversial prison experiment at Stanford (Bartels 780). The experiment demonstrated that asymmetrical power could encourage violent and abusive behaviors even in those who were not aggressive (Bartels 780). In spite of its methodological flaws and limitations discovered later, the study was received as the critique of the violent treatment of prisoners and inequality promoted by jails. One scene from Le Guin’s novel is reflective of these criticisms of the law enforcement system.
In the mentioned scene, after learning about the existence of jails and punishments, Shevek and other children on Anarres invent a game that resembles the mentioned experiment and leads to similarly devastating outcomes. Everything starts as a funny game; Kadagv, one of the boys, experiences imprisonment and concludes that there is nothing really bad about it (Le Guin 43). However, his “guards” gradually warm to their new role – they start pushing Kadagv in the back and eventually find it hilarious that the boy will “piss in his bed” during his imprisonment (Le Guin 44). This scene demonstrates the author’s perspectives on power and its ability to make people violent even if they have been taught to treat others with respect.
To sum it up, The Dispossessed is an interesting literary work since multiple parallels can be drawn between the plot and the historical and cultural characteristics of the period when it was written. By creating Thu and A-lo and describing their unending conflict and the war in Benbilis, the author reflects on the drawbacks of the leading participants of the Cold War and their approaches to social organization. Additionally, some important things for the Anarresti, including sexual freedom, the desacralization of sex, non-violence, and a departure from the traditional marriage, are properly aligned with the values promoted by the counter-culture of the 1960s.
Allyn, David. Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History. Routledge, 2016.
Anderson, Elizabeth. “Ursula Le Guin and Theological Alterity.” Literature & Theology, vol. 30, no. 2, 2016, pp. 182-197.
Bartels, Jared. “Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment, Again: Examining Demand Characteristics in the Guard Orientation.” The Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 159, no. 6, 2019, pp. 780-790.
Blackford, Russell. Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics. Springer International Publishing, 2017.
Habib, Samar. “Revisiting Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: Anarcho-Taoism and World Resource Management.” Nebula, vol. 4, no. 2, 2007, pp. 334-348.
Haran, Joan. “Instantiating Imaginactivism: Le Guin’s The Dispossessed as Inspiration.” ADA: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, no. 12, 2017, pp. 1-12.
Le Guin, Ursula. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. HarperCollins e-Books, 2006.
Palano, Lori. “Reading the Dispossessed.” Canadian Dimension, vol. 33, no. 3, 1999, p. 6.