Ethnographic Fiction: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

Ethnographic Fiction


In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin has written twenty chapters in a woven epic account of Genry Ai’s experience as an Envoy to the planet Gethen. The book works because of the way Le Guin braids the accounts of Ai and Estraven together. Both characters have unique voices with specific language choices to differentiate themselves and their societies.

Left Hand of Darkness

By showcasing status and cultural differences, I have a deeper understanding of both cultures and the theme of the book. But how does Le Guin do it so well? She mimics the format of ethnography to tell the story from an emic and etic perspective worthy of her father, eminent anthropologist Alfred L. Krober, who studied at Columbia under Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, before he started the anthropology department at the University of California, Berkley. Krober took Le Guin with him when he did fieldwork. Le Guin grew up steeped in anthropology and weaves the tales together to make a fictional ethnography.

The novel wants to get to the truth of the contact between two species and does it well. It is told from a first-person, close perspective. I’ll let Genry Ai sum up his experience: “I was alone, with a stranger, inside the walls of a dark palace, in a strange snow-changed city, in the heart of the Ice Age of an alien world” (18). I went back and reread the beginning. Each page is exquisitely detailed like ethnographic accounts. I thought it was ethnography when I read: “Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes” (12). Anthropologists want to get to know people from their own perspective. This also hinted that Ai would not have been able to see the world through their eyes without the interaction between himself and Estraven—without jail and the journey across the ice, the relationship between the peoples of Gethen and the Ekumen may not have happened.

My favorite section from Ai actually discusses Estraven:

He spoke as if ashamed of me, not of himself. Clearly there was significance in his invitation and my acceptance of it which I had missed. But my blunder was in manners, his in morals. All I thought at first was that I had been right all along not to trust Estraven. He was not merely adroit and not merely powerful, he was faithless. All these months in Ehrenrang it had been he who listened to me, who answered my questions, sent physicians and engineers to verify the alienness of my physique and my ship, introduced me to people I needed to know, and gradually elevated me from my first year’s status as a highly imaginative monster to my present recognition as the mysterious Envoy, about to be received by the king. Now, having gotten me up on that dangerous eminence, he suddenly and coolly announced he was withdrawing his support. (13)

This paragraph sets the story up nicely. Le Guin establishes Ai’s two-year experience and brings me in right when things change. Ai’s language is similar to language found in ethnographies.

An example of the anthropological language used is “shiftgrethor—prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority” (14). All societies have social codes which must be adhered to—when the codes are broken, awkward moments or worse occur. Saving face occurs in societies the world over and in good literature—it is a human universal.

Estraven’s account takes over later in the book. The shift in perspective was jarring because it was unexpected. Through the shift, I understand the society not only from the external alien’s viewpoint, but from an inside view as well and was a great move. Estraven talks about Karhide and the differences between his nation and Ororeyn, the neighboring and enemy nation (149-161).  Le Guin also has Estraven talking about Ai: “He is ignorant of us: we of him. He is infinitely a stranger, me and I a fool, to let my shadow cross the light of hope he brings us” (151). By shifting perspective, Le Guin not only shows me how the insiders see themselves, but also how they see the aliens. Estraven notes later that “[t]he Orgota evidently do not often come into their Fire-Hills” (224) because their hand-drawn map is missing “Mount Dremegole” (224). This statement not only shows how the people of Karhide are—they go into the mountains with no other reason than to go climbing, but also how they feel about their neighbors.

The tone in Estraven’s diary entries when they are on their way read like some of the ethnographic accounts I have read. Throughout the journal entries, the days and months are in the Gethen calendar; Le Guin includes a copy of the calendar at the end of the book (302-304). My favorite account of Estraven’s is when he asks Ai: “’How would it ever occur to a sane man that he could fly’” (260). The difference between Ai’s people and Estraven’s are exposed in their discussions.

In ethnographic writing, legends and oral stories are often recounted. Throughout this novel, Le Guin also includes oral stories because the people of the planet have not invented writing.

The differences between the societies are more than cultural—they are biological too. “Culture shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphroditic neuters” (48). By introducing two societies which are so vastly different, Le Guin shows me how the societies are also similar. But I had to laugh outright when I came across this: “The King was pregnant” (100). The idea is so foreign, as is the idea of peoples that shift genders—and that was what Le Guin wants. By using the language of anthropology, based in her travels with her father, Krober, Le Guin shows us that writing can both be ethnographic and literature—this is the first book I’ve read like this, but will be on the lookout for more.

The unique ideas explored in this book, the depth of detail, and the idea of having oral stories woven into the story are magnificent gems. I appreciate that Le Guin uses anthropological terms and the ethnographic account to explore the interactions. I am integrating oral stories into my book and this is a great example of how to do it.

5 Stars. Ms. Le Guin is a fantastic writer and this book is wonderful.



Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 1969.


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About Darlene Reilley

Hey, I'm Darlene, a nomadic writer and teacher. If you're looking for writing prompts, inspiration, and a fellow writer to commiserate with, you've come to the right place. If you're a reader looking for a fun mix of poetry, romance, science and fiction, you've found a buddy!
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1 Response to Ethnographic Fiction: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

  1. Pingback: June Roundup | Dar Writes

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