The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Tuesday July 26, 2022

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

January 3, 2017

“Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.”

We begin with the political alien.

In The Dispossessed Ursula K. Le Guin describes two planet-states, Anarres and Urras (as well as the trope of hard-to-spell science fictional names). People of Anarres and Urras are biologically the same—that is, they aren’t alien species to one another. But their politics, at least in theory, are vastly different.

Anarres, home planet of our protagonist Shevek, is nominally a society without government. People of Anarres describe themselves as “anarchists”. In Anarres, there are no police; no prisons; no courts; no laws. There is no property (those who show possessive tendencies are called “propertarians”). Even the language of Anarres, Pravic, discourages the possessive case (my, mine, ours, etc.). Pravic has been constructed to minimize the self and emphasize the community—focusing on one’s self is considered “egoizing”, and largely policed.

In writing The Dispossessed, Le Guin drew upon anarchist literature from the 19th and 20th centuries. According to traditional anarchist theory, the three greatest enemies of freedom are the state, organized religion, and private property. On Anarres, none of these exists.

By contrast, on Urras we are introduced to two warring nation states, A-Io and Thu. A-Io is a free-market, capitalist, patriarchal society that resembles the United States, while Thu is an authoritarian system closely resembling the Soviet Union (Le Guin wrote The Dispossessed during the Cold War and critics have made much of the novel as an allegory for tensions between capitalist democracy and authoritarian socialism). Governmental institutions, prisons, religions, private property, courts, police, etc. all exist on Urras. Though people of Urras and Anarres were only recently separated (200 years or so), the structural/political divides between the two planets make them seem totally alien to one another.

For our first writing assignment, write about what seems most politically alien—unfamiliar, or (dangerously) different—about Anarres. Focus your analysis through the alien Shevek, our main character. You could write about the anarchic restructuring of certain institutions—child-care, parenting, sex, schooling, labor distribution, the academy, Shevek’s attitudes about grading and so on. Do these restructured institutions feel irrevocably alien to you?

The novel begins with the image of a low wall, and, “[l]ike all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.” With this image, the novel is setting up an extended metaphor about the literal and metaphorical barriers we construct out of fear, hostility, misunderstanding, prejudice, power-shoring, etc. Through the course of the book we’ll be pressed to answer what side of the wall Shevek stands on. How does Shevek view himself in relation to the capitalist/free-market A-Io? How does he see himself in relation to anarchic Anarres? What side of the wall does the alien Shevek “belong” on?

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Category: English and Literature

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