Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Questionable ideologies of unreliable narrators

In another life, I might have been an academic. I love picking things apart and hashing out "implications" and "context."

That's why I was pumped about a WorldCon panel in which Liz Argall, Jo Walton, Laurie Mann, and Lee Martindale discussed Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, how it spoke to readers in 1969, and how it speaks to us today.

The panelists' reactions were fascinating and varied. I'd recently read it for the first time (and loved it) for the story, the writing, and the way Le Guin develops the "stranger in a strange land" theme.

So when one panelist described it as heartbreakingly sexist, I was intrigued.

One of the great things about great books is how they often evoke different responses from different people. And with a book as rich and idea-laden as The Left Hand of Darkness, there's plenty to talk about.

What the panelist objected to (in my understanding) was the way the narrator associated feminine qualities with negative character traits. The "landlady," who has fathered several children, is portrayed as feminine for his "prying, spying, ignoble, kindly nature." Harth, who is usually described in masculine terms, is decried for his "effeminate deviousness" when the narrator is upset with him.

Additionally, Le Guin uses masculine pronouns and titles to describe the nongendered Gethenians.

Regarding the pronouns, Le Guin herself has stated that she intended for them to be neutral rather than masculine, and she's revisited the issue in later works. Would it have been better to stick with feminine terms? To mix them at random? To invent new pronouns? I don't know.

The narrator's interpretations (and our reactions to the same) are even more interesting. The holes in the narrator's perspective are revealed in chapter 1 when he, an envoy who has studied Gethenian politics and culture for years, grossly misinterprets signals from an ally. It's a reminder that his outlook is still colored by his biases, and it's a red flag (to me) that his observations, particularly those about gender, are suspect.

I thought it was a subtle (and clever) way of calling into question our own culture's assumptions about gender, which typically mirror the envoy's. On the other hand, Le Guin makes bolder statements with Gethenian concepts of kemmer and lineage:
  1. Gethenians experience "kemmer," a monthly period in which they temporarily assume male or female physiologies and become sexually active. Female- and male-phase Gethenians experience kemmer equally, and there are no stigmas or double-standards associated with either gender.
  2. Gethenians assume both male and female phases throughout their lives, and they may become parents in both roles. However, the child that a ruler personally bears (as opposed to the one s/he sires) is that ruler's heir.
Progressive, regressive, or something else? In any case, it's a fascinating and enjoyable read.

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