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The full title of Le Guin’s 1974 novel reads “The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia” and proves to be just what the title suggests. This science fiction novel is also a utopia, but not one which serves as “a hopeful prescription for a near perfect future” but one which serves as a “critique of the inadequacies of all ideals and forms of life” (Sabia 1). As Sabia stresses, “the most thoughtful utopias in recent decades have shifted from recommending to interrogating the good, and from projecting to rejecting an end of history” (Sabia 1). In his work “Demand the Impossible”, Tom Moylan names this type of utopianism “critical utopia” and elaborates:
“A central concern in the critical utopia is the awareness of the limitations of the utopian tradition, so that these texts reject utopia as a blueprint while preserving it as a dream. Furthermore, the novels dwell on the conflict between the originary world and the utopian society opposed to it so that the process of social change is more directly articulated. Finally, the novels focus on the continuing presence of difference and imperfection within the utopian society itself and thus render more recognizable and dynamic alternatives.” (qtd. in science.jrank.org)
This proves to be perfectly applicable to “The Dispossessed”, in which the utopian society of Anarres is examined in opposition to the originary planet of Urras. The author herself said that her goal in writing the novel was the examination of what she considers the most idealistic and interesting theory of government, namely anarchy (qtd. in Benfield 1). Le Guin does this by contrasting two fictional worlds, Urras and Anarres. The main character, Shevek, a citizen of Anarres, travels to the so called “old world” of Urras, and through his experiences the reader is given not only an in-depth understanding of the two planets but also an exploration of two very different political regimes. Without being biased, Le Guin vividly describes two contrasted worlds: Urras, a planet resembling present day Earth with several ranges of government and Anarres, an experimental breakaway society which is the embodiment of communist anarchism. Both of these worlds are described realistically and in great detail, which is, as Le Guin herself says, what makes them plausible (ursulaleguin.com). On her official website, Le Guin writes: “The touchstone to plausibility in imaginative fiction is probably coherence.
Realistic fiction can be, perhaps must be, incoherent in imitation of our perceptions of reality. Fantasy, which creates a world, must be strictly coherent to its own terms, or it loses all plausibility. The rules that govern how things work in the imagined world cannot be changed during the story” (ursulaleguin.com). Le Guin has truly kept the worlds in her novel coherent and faithful to their own laws of existence and functioning. A presentation of fictional worlds as intricate as the one she offers in her novel allows both the readers and the critics to analyze the content of the novel with the seriousness of interpreting the real world. Plausibility of the novel furthermore allows for serious consideration of the ideas and philosophies presented in the book, turning this piece of fiction from entertainment to a more philosophical work. In this short essay, I will attempt to give a basic overview of both Urras and Anarres, simultaneously shedding light on the utopian critique which lies in the core of the novel.
The most obvious difference between Urras and Anarres is the political and subsequently social organization on the two planets. As early as chapter one, we find out that the Anarresti, as the inhabitants of Anarres are called, originally come from Urras and that they have moved to the moon, now their home planet, approximately 200 years before the action of the novel takes place. Urras is a planet which both geographically and politically resembles the Earth we live on. The planet has many different countries, the people have a developed sense of nationality, each country has their own language and their own laws and they often have open conflicts. What all the countries have in common is what the Anarresti call “propertarianism”, meaning that they have developed the concept of money which in turn prescribes value to all worldly goods. Society functions with the idea of owning property, which resulted in the existence of classes and thus social stratification of the population.
In the past, a great female revolutionary by the name of Odo preached anarchy as the only way of reaching true freedom. Her philosophy was based on the idea that all men and women were equals; she professed solidarity, decentralization of power and claimed that the perfect society is one without laws, based on mutual respect, guided by people’s inner idea of what is moral. As Sabia puts it, the proper social morality Odo spoke about might surmise a small number of crucial principles:
“Always value the particularity and autonomy, and respect the freedom, of others. Understand that all persons are moral equals. Help those in need. Never intentionally harm or take advantage of others. And contribute to society by doing “the work you can do best”, and by cooperating, fairly, when it is mutually beneficial to do so” (3).
Odo’s basic theory was founded on the humanist principle that “once freed from the oppression of the state, of religion, and of capitalism, human nature would show its essential goodness in the forms of cooperation and mutual aid” (Jaeckle 17). The second main point she makes is the renouncement of the concept of ownership – everybody should work voluntarily and therefore everyone should be free to take as much as they need of any produced goods because they have contributed equally and are thus equally deserving of them.
The Council of World Governments gave the moon, previously used for mining, to the International Society of Odonisans “to buy them off” after they had become too powerful to control or subdue (Le Guin 77). The revolutionaries were subsequently evacuated and transported to the moon which would later take the name of the aforementioned town and become a free world. The settlers started creating the society Odo envisioned, however without her – as she, held in prison for her ideas and later deceased, never got to witness her vision coming to life (Le Guin 77). Le Guin writes, “Decentralization had been an essential element in Odo’s plans for the society she did not live to see founded” (Le Guin 77). Although communication and exchange of both material and intellectual goods was crucial in Odo’s idea, “there was to be no controlling center, no capital, no establishment for the self-perpetuating machinery of bureaucracy and the dominance drive of individuals seeking to become captains, bosses, chiefs of state” (Le Guin 78).
“Rotating positions of authority within organizations, for instance, guards against the abuse and corruption of power. The absence of a state does the same” (Sabia 3). Two centuries later, we see that Anarres has truly followed through with Odo’s vision, maintaining order and peace by following her logic: “To make a thief, make an owner; to create crime, create laws” (Le Guin 113). As Shevek explains to his Urrasti acquaintance, nobody robs anyone because there is no one to rob and if one needs anything, one takes it from the depository; no one murders anyone because no one is given a reason to murder and people are kept in order by “private conscience” and “the social conscience; the opinion of one’s neighbors” (Le Guin 121). “There is no other reward on Anarres”, Shevek explains, “no other law. One’s own pleasure, and the respect of one’s fellows” (Le Guin 121).
As has been previously mentioned, the Urrasti are a consumerist culture. This is a concept that someone like Shevek struggles to grasp:
“He tried to read an elementary economic text; it bored him past endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream. He could not force himself to understand how banks functioned and so forth, because all the operations of capitalism were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary.” (Le Guin 106)
This passage, complemented with his comment that “in the rites of the moneychangers, where greed, laziness, and envy were assumed to move all men’s acts, even the terrible became banal”, provides a unique critique of consumerist society, as the reader is offered a view of consumerism from a radical point of view – the point of view of someone who was never before exposed to the idea of buying and selling in the first place (Le Guin 106). The anecdote during which Shevek is taken shopping is particularly amusing as he goes on to refer to the shopping mall as “nightmare street” and the experience of shopping “bewildering” (Le Guin 106).
It is important to note that he states that the strangest thing about nightmare street was that “none of the million things that were sold there were made there” and that all the people in the shopping mall were either buyers or sellers and had “no relations to things but that of possession” (Le Guin 106). In contrast to this, on Anarres “nothing was hidden”, which didn’t only imply people kept their doors unlocked and had private rooms only when they had a sexual partner, but that all of the production was done out in the open as well (Le Guin79). “Workshops and factories fronted on squares or on open yards, and their doors were open” (Le Guin 80). “No doors were locked, few shut. There were no disguises or advertisements. It was all there, all the work, all the life of the city, open to the eye and to the hand” (Le Guin 81).
However, as idyllic as it may sound, Anarres has a great flaw in its economy, and that is the fact that the land is not perfectly suitable for human life. “The Eden of Anarres proved to be dry, cold and windy, and the rest of the planet worse. Life there had not evolved higher than fish and flowerless plants. The air was thin, like the air of Urras at a very high altitude. The sun burned, the wind froze, the dust chocked” (Le Guin 76). This made life on Anarres full of hardships and the work that must be done in order to provide the essentials very difficult. The best summation of the living conditions is the fact that when there is a drought they don’t drink water. The people of Anarres spend a great deal of their lives fighting for survival and accepting posts at rough jobs. The general difficulty of life on Anarres obliges each citizen to have manifold obligations within and to society.
Shevek becomes fully aware of this only when he compares himself to the scientists of A-Io, whose lives are dedicated only to science and when they don’t work, they rest, while Shevek was “not only a physicist but also a partner, a father, an Odonian, and finally a social reformer” (Le Guin 103). But while the Urrasti see themselves as privileged because of the life at the University during which their only work is mental work at a specific chosen field, Shevek does not share their opinion. He complains that there, at the University, he has nothing at all to do except his intellectual work, literally nothing as even the beds are made for them, while on Anarres he feels more free as “he had not been freed from anything; but freed to do anything” (Le Guin 105).
This is a fine example of the difference between the Urrasti and Anarresti view of work. This topic is further developed through Shevek’s conversations with Oiie, during which they both reveal culturally conditioned views on work: Oiie makes a distinction between “dirty work” and other more agreeable professions, while Shevek is accustomed to everyone doing an equal bit of “the dirty work”. Shevek explains that they all participate, because no one wants to do it for too long and so everyone volunteers for a shorter period of time. Oiie can’t grasp volunteer work and the absence of notions such as orders and obligations, while for Shevek it’s self-explanatory: people do the jobs willingly because they are aware they must be done. “After all, work is done for work’s sake”, Shevek explains. “It is the lasting pleasure of life.” In contrast, for Oiie, work is directly linked to profit with money being the only motivation behind work.
However, because of the poor conditions on Arranes, the moon has never become completely self-sufficient. The only communication between Anarres and Urras which remained in the past 200 years is that of Urrasti freighters coming to Anarres eight times a year in order to bring fossil oils, petroleum products and certain delicate machine parts that Anarresti manufacture is unable to provide, in return taking uranium, copper, mercury, tin, gold and copper supplies. The Anarresti, however, considers this “a perpetually renewed humiliation” (Le Guin 75). The Urrasti and the Anarresti never reconciled, both harboring prejudice about each other’s cultures and maintaining a negative image of the opposing culture, even going so far as considering each other aliens although they are the same species.
Another important referent in culture is language. “Modern sociolinguists hold to the idea that a true understanding of language usage cannot be achieved when abstracted from its social context” (Bruhn 1). The same can be said vice versa: no society can be truly understood when viewed separately from its language. Guided by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Anarres is a settlement that got a new language as soon as it sprung its first walls. Pravic, the invented language, “intentionally embodies the principles of the new society” (qtd. in Bruhn 1). One of the most telling features of the language is the aversion to possessive pronouns (Bruhn 1). Because there is no property, possessive pronouns are substituted with the phrase “that I use” (i.e. Sadik offers her father “the handkerchief I use” (Le Guin 251)) At the same time, the possessive pronouns do exist and can be used but are used to signify something offensive as their entire meaning is against Odonianism.
For instance, Rulag denotes Shevek’s and Bedap’s group as “your sindicate” to express her disgust with what she views as Urrasti propertarianism. Furthermore, Pravic lacks address forms: there are no words such as “sir” or “ma’am”; if one is inclined to employ a title other than a person’s name, they use the solidarity enhancing word ammar – signifying both brother or a sister (Bruhn 4). As for people’s names, they are generated by a computer: the computer holds a database of all existing names and it chooses the name for a newborn, and the name is unique. The database includes all names that the Pravic language supports and takes into consideration only those names that no one else has at the moment of the birth of the child, putting a deceased person’s name back as an option only after the bearer of the name has died. This way, each person has only one name but is completely identifiable by it. Pravic lacks other titles or last names.
Generally, the absence of words for concepts which Odonianism doesn’t condone is another indicator of the purposeful nature of the language’s contruction. “To the Anarresti, the Iotic words “prison”, “slave”, “bet”, “moral” and “business” are as foreign as the ideas themselves” (Bruhn 5). Furthermore, Pravic is designed in such a way that the same word is used to signify both “work” and “play”. “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis applies here in full force: Without a linguistic distinction, the Anarresti will conceivably fail to form a conceptual distinction between “work” and “play”, a convenient and perhaps necessary arrangement for a communal economy whose existence depends on the compliant diligence of its constituents” (Bruhn 6).
Moreover, Pravic lacks all taboo forms and borrows Iotic expletives, as “it is hard to swear when sex is not dirty and blasphemy does not exist” (Le Guin 206). This directly reflects the attitude Odonians have towards sex: it’s a natural occurrence, an act practiced by all consenting adults with no restraints or rules when it comes to gender or age. In comparison, “the natural language of Iotic exhibits styles, sociolects, regional dialects, gender language issues and taboo words” (Bruhn 7). Iotic includes titles which show various levels of respect, it uses possessive pronouns extensively and has a lower dialect called Niotic. Niotic is spoken by the lower class and is phonologically and syntactically different from the higher class, standard Iotic.
Efor is an example of a lower class character who code switches, depending on with whom and about what he is speaking. “Through the inclusion of these forms, Le Guin illustrates the power structure coherent in the society of A-Io, as demonstrated by their need to show deference for certain people. Shevek even notes that “you cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is ‘superior’ to the other, or trying to prove it (p. 364)” (Bruhn 8).
The dystopian element of the novel is brought out by the fact that both cultures are essentially flawed and that neither version of society manages to be perfectly just. This leads us to the conclusion that corruption is in fact a part of human nature. The alternating chapters which are a sort of implemented short buildungsroman about Shevek reveal the shortcomings of Odonianism. The critique starts with the questionable education system which strives to indoctrinate changes rather than encourage students to think for themselves – ironically, independent thought is scolded as the worst of all crimes an Odonian can be accused of: egotism. As Bedap later pointed out: “We don’t educate for freedom. Education, the most important activity of the social organism, has become rigid, moralistic, authoritarian. Kids learn to parrot Odo’s words as if they were laws – the ultimate blasphemy!” (Le Guin 135).
The flaw of the system is further explored when Shevek meets Sabul, a senior scientist who manages to sabotage Shevek’s career. Bedap makes a claim that the fact they have no government or laws doesn’t make them free because it wasn’t laws that controlled ideas in the first place. It isn’t any sort of formal, centralized power which enables Sabul to be oppressive. “Public opinion! That’s the power structure he’s part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible power that rules Odonian society by stifling the individual mind” (Le Guin 133). Therefore, although corruption on Anarres isn’t as overt as its manifestations in a propertarian society, it still exists. In order to continue the work he wants to be doing, Shevek must enter into a mutually exploitative relationship with Sabul, which violates the most basic Odonian beliefs about morality (Benfield 5).
Cooperation on Anarres is conditional: “This happens partly because interests are not always compatible, and partly because Anarresti are not always ethical” (Sabia 3). Sabia claims that Anarres was flawed from the very beginning, being threatened by centralization and finally becoming “basically an anarchistic bureaucracy” (qtd. in Sabia 5). To secure economic efficiency, solidarity was exaggerated and the demands for community and fairness became demands for compliance and conformity (Sabia 5). “The social conscience, the opinion of others, [became] the most powerful moral force” (qtd. in Sabia 5). Even in a society which is theoretically ideal, people are still human, thus imperfect, which will go on to resonate on the entirety of society and cause it to be imperfect as well.
The character of Vea is introduced to further question the whole concept of freedom. Vea is the representation of the modern Urrasti woman: with her exaggerated sexuality and sharp wits, she is a character who reveals a lot about the male-female dynamics of the Urrasti. However, she reveals much more as she goes on to discuss her ideas of freedom. She considers all forms of morality false as they are imposed on people and defines freedom as the absence of any sort of outer or inner constraint. Therefore, she accuses the Anarresti of being slaves to morality who just “stick it inside” (Benfield 3). Despite having an extreme point of view, Vea “raises the important issue of internal versus external restraints on freedom” (Benfield 3). This issue is linked to the idea that public opinion can be easily manipulated and that the Anarresti are indirectly controlled and oppressed: they have the ultimate freedom of choice, but those who choose opinions or lifestyle which differ from the opinion of the masses are excluded from society and judged by others. Much of the drama of the novel centers precisely around the fact that Shevek and his family get aggressively excluded from society because of Shevek’s pursuit of his own beliefs when they don’t coincide with the beliefs of the majority (Sabia 6).
On the other hand, as stated above, the corruption of Urrasti society is visible on a more surface level. The great flaws of their society lie in the fact that it is money-driven with values being external and materialized rather than internal and spiritual or intellectual. Furthermore, everything is viewed from the aspect of profit, even science, which is something that Shevek realizes gradually – they want scientific development not for the sake of understanding the universe or making a radical and mutually beneficial change in communication with the other worlds, but because of profit and potential supremacy. Media manipulation of reality, misogyny, violence as the answer to rebellion and ongoing wars between the countries are very open and straightforward examples of the dysfunctional nature of the Urrasti world view.
It is important to note that the novel was written in 1974 – during the Cold War. If we try to draw parallels between the political state of the world in which Le Guin was writing and the world she was writing about, it is easy to spot the similarities of the conflict: in the novel, A-Io can be treated as an analogy to the United States while Thu can be viewed as The Soviet Union. However, it is also possible to broaden the analogy and view the entirety of Urras as The Western Bloc with Thu in this case representing the emerging oppositional parties while Anarres would be viewed as the communist Soviet Union. The novel draws on one more real life event: the student protests against the Vietnam War. In chapter 9, the Odonians of A-Io start a protest which ends in violence but reaches its climax with Shevek’s speech about freedom and revolution. “Revolution is our obligation: our hope of evolution. The revolution is in the individual spirit, or it is nowhere” (Le Guin 359). Shevek further asserts, “You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution” (301). As did the protests against the Vietnam War, the protest on Urras points at several issues, such as human rights and free speech.
The Wall on Anarres can also be considered reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. At the very opening of the novel, Le Guin presents the reader with a great wall which can be viewed from two different sides: from one side, it “enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free” but “looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from the other worlds and other men, in quarantine” (Le Guin 3). The wall proves to be a recurring motif during the novel, representing both boundaries between societies and Shevek’s own boundaries when it is present in his dreams (Benfield 2). The entirety of Shevek’s journey proves to have the breaking down of walls for its goal. “Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I’m going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I’m going to unbuild walls” (Le Guin 331).
Thus, Shevek acts as a missionary who wants to bring the people from both sides of the wall together. The idea of connection and creating a full circle is emphasized with the novel’s ending – Shevek returns to Anarres, bringing back his experience. The sunrise which greets him creates and image of hope for the future. However, the reader is left without a proper conclusion. Although we last see Shevek feeling optimistic, we don’t know what awaits him. Shevek will dismount on yet another foreign world, as the Anarres he left behind no longer exists: “Shevek and the syndicate have succeeded in their aim of stirring things up. Shevek’s journey and return have obviously caught the imagination of many people” (Benfield 7). Benfield warns that although bringing an outsider, Ketho, “suggests the possibility of further change and more contact with other societies” it is very likely that the opposition of change has hardened and become more organized (Benfield 7).
Considering the chaos and violence which met the revolutionaries on Urras, one can expect a similar reaction on Anarres. Shevek was seen off to the freighter as a traitor with a violent uproar – it’s expected that he will be greeted in a similar fashion upon his return. Le Guin leaves her readers with many speculations about the future of the two worlds and of Shevek himself, but she leaves us on an altogether optimistic note, with Shevek feeling that he has, in fact, succeeded in breaking down the wall. However, the aftermath is yet to be seen. It is up to the readers themselves to ponder about the possible consequences of such radical changes and great revolutions. Drawing analogies to the problems of the real world, as science fiction tends to do, Le Guin prompts the readers to consider the political and ideological issues in the world which surrounds them.
This short overview was written with the intention to grant the reader a basic understanding of the concepts of Urras and Anarres. Le Guin chooses a brilliant way to present these worlds to her readers – by forcing them to view them from eyes different from their own. Shevek, an idealist and true Odonian, and his experiences of a society completely different than his own, is the channel through which we as the readers experience Le Guin’s invented universe and all the conflicts that arise within it. The novel is subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia” because that is what the moon of Anarres truly is. Granted to idealists and revolutionaries as a free world to do with as they please, Anarres is a symbol for the ultimate heaven. Le Guin primarily uses the account of Urras to “point beyond itself” (Benfield 2).
“On Urras we are shown the reasons why people would want something better, and these are the possibilities that Anarres represents: a society that would offer more human connection, more equality, and, above all, more freedom (Benfield 2). However, it has “flaws too serious for it to be considered a utopia” but it contains “enough that is good and enough hope for a better future that it cannot fairly be described as a dystopia” (Benfield 7). Although Shevek does not change his mind throughout the novel and, regardless of all the flaws of Anarresti society which have been illuminated, still considers Anarres a society of the liberated and remains faithful to Odo’s teaching, it is my personal impression that the novel illuminated the deep flaws of each system. It is my conclusion that corruption and “egotising” are embedded deep in human nature and are inevitably projected onto any sort of political or social system established, thus making an actual utopia impossible.
Although generally presented in a better light throughout the novel, the society on Anarres proves fragile in the end by being so easily shaken when faced with views and actions which break the almost dogmatic attitudes that have developed over time. This leads me to question the value of Odo’s philosophy – it is made clear that theory and practice are two different things. In the failures of both Urras and Anarres, I see the failures of the human race in general. I would like to finish this essay by quoting a passage from Benfield’s “The Interplanetary Dialectic”: “Thus, Le Guin suggests that, although there are no utopian endpoints, the attempt to create social structures that allow for greater human freedom and fulfillment is difficult and dangerous but worthwhile. Any society, however well conceived, that perceives itself as that perfect endpoint will become disruptive of freedom, a dystopia instead of a utopia. […] Le Guin agrees with one of her more cynical characters that human beings are not infinitely malleable: “Human nature is human nature” (69). As Shevek learns by experience, people on Urras and Anarres are not fundamentally different” (7).
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