Fiction, Literature
Comments 6

Crossing the Wall: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

My honeymoon with The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia was an intense and extended one. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Nebula and Hugo-winning novel proved immensely alluring to me – its rendition of post-capitalistic civilization; its probing into the nature of revolution and power; its look at the possibility for change. The novelty and power of its ideas captivated me so much that I devoured an essay collection dedicated to them, and The Dispossessed quickly became one of my favourite novels of all time.

When I recently returned to the story through the audiobook narrated by Don Leslie, I found the infatuation that had so arrested me had faded. The ideas, once so vivid and vital in my mind, had lost their lustre, becoming old-hat and common sense. At the same time, I began to notice the novel’s shortcomings, despite my best efforts not to: There was an awful lot of exposition, its real world parallels were obvious and dated, and Le Guin’s prose, while still beautiful, contained neither the mythic flourish of The Left Hand of Darkness nor the practiced grace of later works like Lavinia. I had to face the painful possibility that I was perhaps outgrowing one of my most treasured tales.

But as I re-immersed myself in the book, I discovered that my love for it had not diminished, but had simply grown more complex.  For the first time, I came to see the story without idolizing its strengths or justifying its worth, and so discovered it as it was, flaws and all.  The appreciation that stems from this acceptance of the whole is less absolute than before, but I think more durable. And underneath the constructed societies of Anarres and Urras, past the complex philosophies and ideologies, beyond from the book’s dual-narrative structure, I finally discovered the thing I was and had always been drawn to –  the thoughtful, ethical, naïve, wonderful human being and protagonist at the center of it all: Shevek. My Shevek.

By Le Guin’s own judgement, The Dispossessed was not a complete success. She believed that she did not entirely succeed in creating a work that transcended moralistic condemnation. “The sound of axes being ground is occasionally audible,” she wrote in her essay Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown (Language of the Night, p.102). But at the same time, she also noted that writing the novel helped her get to know Shevek. “If I had to invent two entire worlds to get to him, two worlds and all their woes, it was worth it.” (p. 102) I am eternally grateful for the introduction.

Four decades after its publication, many people value The Dispossessed primarily as a political manifesto for anarchism. I don’t. For me, it is first and foremost a tale about one man’s lifelong struggle to find meaning and joy. It is Shevek’s journey I identify with. It is his story that resonates. It is his narrative that I wish to explore. Come cross the wall with me, if you like.

Part 2: Urras and Hope Betrayed 
Part 3: Anarres the Promise Kept
Part 4: Reconciling Time, Creating Meaning


Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the night: Essays on fantasy and science fiction – Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown. New York: Berkley edition, 1982.

Featured Image from wikimedia commons.


  1. I don’t know why I haven’t read this. But I love LeGuin and her essays, so I need to read this.

  2. When I first read The Dispossessed (nearly three decades ago) it was one of the most important transformative reading experiences of my life. And that quote from Language of the Night about the audibility of axes being ground is one of my favorites, also (though I thought she said that about “The Word for World is Forest” – my copy of Language of the Night is on the other side of the Pacific from me at the moment).
    Thanks for making me think about this book again. It assuredly has its weaknesses, but it is still so important and lovely.

    • Hi Michelle, she’s definitely hard on the Word for World is Forest, too. (I believe the phrase the road to hell is paved with good intentions is used somewhere in that essay). One of the things I love about Le Guin is that she’s also a harsh but fair critic of her own work.

  3. Late to the party, but I always especially enjoy your posts about Le Guin’s works, and this is no exception. I read Left Hand Of Darkness first and then The Dispossessed, and for me the former is the one that captivated me more. But, like you, the appeal of the Dispossessed for me was Shevek and his journey. Although I have a great appreciation for Le Guin’s worldbuilding, it’s really her characters in those worlds, and how they interact with those worlds, that I love best.

    But it’s always refreshing to come across a successful author who can admit the flaws in her own work. It makes it easier as a reader to accept the flaws too but still love the work for what it is (which is how I feel about LHoD).

    • Yes, I do enjoy that an author can honestly and realistically engage with his/her own past work without idealizing it or being too critical. I think it’s a good skill to have for an author, and one I’m trying to develop myself 🙂

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.