Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Idea of Gender Divides in LeGuin's "The Dispossesed"

The Dispossesed (1st Ed. Hardcover)
1974, Harper & Row Cover
Source: Wikimedia

Somewhere in a similar galaxy is a planet much like Earth, called Urras. On Urras, a group of settlers were sent to colonize the moon, Anaress. Cut-off from their home planet, the Anarresti built a different society than the one they came from, one in which there is no central government, no real form of currency, and gender equality isn’t even a thought, it just is.
Shevek, a theoretician from the colonized moon, is invited by a university on the home planet to come and study. When he does, his entire worldview is shaken, as he is exposed to alien concepts, like class divides, crime, money, and ego. Once Shevek understands that the home planet society is driven by profits (i.e. capitalism), he chews on his assumption “that if you removed a human being’s natural incentive to work--his initiative, his spontaneous creative energy--and replaced it with external motivation and coercion, he would become a lazy and careless worker […] The lure and compulsion of profit was evidently a much more effective replacement of the natural initiative than he had been led to believe.” (82). LeGuin is answering  a central question here about the details of a utopian society quite simply: if a citizen is given all they need by the State, they will not become lazy, because their own creativity will be their drive. She also answers the question about innovation in an utopian society, a concept assumed to stagnate in any imagined utopia, because only suffering can foster innovation (the need to make something bad into something better), but if creativity is its own reward, then even in a utopian society citizens will know of and promote innovation.
There are many gender divides Shevek encounters on the home planet. He argues with many of the Urrasti about how they treat their women and why they feel the need to treat women differently at all. Several times, he asks the Urrasti men “Where are the women?” They are amused at the question, and they tell him that women make great wives, but terrible scientists: “[Women] can’t do the math; no head for abstract thought; don’t belong. You know how it is, what women call thinking is done with the uterus! Of course, they’re always a few exceptions, God-awful brainy women with vaginal atrophy.” (73).
When Shevek reveals that 50% of the scientists (and workers in all fields) on his world are women, the Urrasti men become very uncomfortable. They cannot imagine a world in which a man is not made to feel “manly” and a woman is not kept as a feminine object and an object alone.
At the end of one of these gender arguments, Shevek concludes “that he had touched in these men an impersonal animosity that went very deep. Apparently they, like the tables on the ship, contained a woman, a suppressed, silenced, bestialized woman, a fury in a cage. He had no right to tease them. They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed.” (74).
Soon, Shevek comes to realize that the very design of the planet Urras, and the syntax of the Urrasti speech, all help to maintain the binary gender divide, however unintentional (or intentional) the design might be. Aboard his first starship, Shevek notes that the curves and lines on the ship are soft, supple. Even his bunk bed on the star ship is soft and inviting, and he cannot help but have erotic thoughts of yielding women. The language of the Urrasti is as possessive as their nature, as they refer to things as “my hankerchief” or “my wife”, when an Anarresti would say “the hankerchief that I use” or “the woman I share life with”. Shevek does not know of a translation in his language for the possessive pro-nouns Urrasti people are so fond of using.
Overall, LeGuin uses the analogy of a visitor to an Earth-like world to illustrate the cognitive estrangement of Earth-like customs. Through Shevek’s eyes, the reader sees everything backwards, gender included. Everything that is “normal” is odd to Shevek, and the simple nature in which he explains his world makes it seem as real as the Earth-like planet of Urras.

LeGuin, Kroeber, Ursula. The Dispossessed. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Print.

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