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“Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand’s touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were no flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us” (229). Genly Ai doesn’t think that he will ever be friends with the alien named Estraven because Genly Ai has firm personal prejudices acquired from Earth. On his journey to Gethen, an unfamiliar planet, Genly Ai discovers that the Gethenians challenge his ways of thinking. In Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin describes Genly Ai’s journey to overcome the barriers of gender, fear, trust and communication that prevent him from forming a loving friendship with Estraven, a genuine Gethenian. Ultimately, Genly Ai finds that although interpersonal differences can be a barrier to a loving relationship, they are essential to it.
Genly Ai’s shock of the gender and sexuality differences prevents him from developing any relationships upon arriving on Gethen with a mission to form an alliance between Gethen and Ekumen, an organization of eighty-three worlds including Earth. All Gethenians are referred to as “he” and are mostly male until they enter a kemmer period when a feminine side emerges. During this time, a Gethenian can find a partner, and in order to reproduce, one of the partners randomly serves as the female and gives birth. The lack of clear gender lines disturbs Ai as he describes his thinking process of “seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own” (12). Genly Ai notices within himself the conflict between his personal gender categories and the Gethenian society’s notions of sexuality. This conflict torments him because he constantly focuses on gender differences. Similarly, Genly Ai explains later to Estraven that gender on Earth is, “‘the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life”’ (252-253). Stereotypes and prejudices accompany Genly Ai’s strong views of gender as well. Ai is “galled” by Estraven’s “patronizing” because he is “built more like a woman than a man” (235). Genly Ai’s annoyance derives from the challenge of his fundamental beliefs about gender when Estraven’s feminine gender contrasts with his masculine power over Genly Ai.
Genly Ai’s dependence on gender difference generates fear in him, which unknowingly hinders his relationship with Estraven. Genly Ai notices that he is “obsessed” by fear after speaking with Estraven, yet he cannot identify the source of the fear (22). During their conversation, Genly Ai observes a feminine side in Estraven and then suddenly notices that he is alone with this alien and feels suddenly fearful. In contrast, towards the end of Genly Ai’s and Estraven’s journey through the land of ice Genly Ai reacts to Estraven’s feminine appearance, “And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was” (266). Once Genly Ai accepts both sides of Estraven and stops trying to fit him into his own rigid gender categories, he appreciates the duality in Estraven and is not afraid of his homosexuality.
Genly Ai’s initial fear of Estraven leads to distrust that further hinders their relationship even though Estraven never fails to trust Genly Ai. In the first chapter, Genly Ai alleges, “I don’t trust Estraven” (7). Genly Ai’s unfounded distrust mirrors his fear of the Gethenian society as a whole. Furthermore, Genly Ai is not moved by Estraven’s comment, “‘I believe you’”, the first time any Gethenian trusted Genly Ai, an alien in Gethen. The gender difference doesn’t prevent Estraven from trusting Genly Ai, yet his trust is not reciprocated because Genly Ai too quickly and fearfully built a barrier. He reflects on his fear and trust after finally accepting Estraven, “I had been afraid to give it [personal loyalty]. I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man” (267). Genly Ai can reflect back and notice his unwillingness to trust a hermaphroditic person whom he was afraid of. Perhaps Ursula Le Guin portrays Genly Ai’s realization because she doesn’t want people in the 1970s to feel afraid of homosexuals and prejudge them because of their gender.
After Genly Ai eliminates his personal prejudices, communication becomes the missing link between Estraven and Genly Ai’s intimate relationship. Since they are from completely different planets, their languages are very different. Even though Genly Ai can communicate fairly well, he and Estraven cannot speak on the more intimate level required for love and friendship. In addition, they both have unique and subtle communicating practices. Shiftgrethor, from the Gethenian word of darkness, is a profound way of communicating that involves manipulating the other speaker, yet with honor. Ursula Le Guin purposely makes this concept confusing to the reader and therefore demonstrates Genly Ai’s difficulty in learning the communication technique. He feels frustrated when he tells Estraven, “I’ve made some mistake in shifgrethor. I’m sorry; I can’t learn. I’ve never even really understood the meaning of the word” (266). Genly Ai gives up trying to learn shiftgrethor and instead teaches Estraven mindspeech, or telepathy. Estraven is enthusiastic and says, “‘There’s so much I want to know’” (21). Estraven’s positive attitude changes however after he learns mindspeech because Genly Ai’s voice sounds very similar to Estraven’s dead brother whom he was very close with. The relationship between Genly Ai and Estraven become so intimate that they are like brothers.
Through Genly Ai’s relationship with Estraven, he discovers the necessities of forming a loving friendship. He realizes that his own prejudices were hindering his acceptance and were not just derived from the unfamiliar Gethenian society. Ursula Le Guin’s complex and invented planet symbolizes the different peoples existing on Earth. The differences between people should not hinder love, but encourage it. Genly Ai notices, “But it was from the difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that the love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us” (267). Forming a love bridge with someone very different creates an even more trusting relationship. If people love only people like themselves, then the relationship is based on self-love instead of fidelity, trust and acceptance.
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