“We have nothing but our freedom. We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful. If it is Anarres you want, if it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it with empty hands.”
-The Dispossessed, pp.300-301
Welcome to my continuing series exploring Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. You can check out my history with the novel and part 2 of the analysis. This piece details the protagonist Shevek growing up in the anarchic world of Anarres, the nature of his unique society, and the journey he undertakes to find meaning and purpose in life.
The story begins with Shevek’s adolescent years. He learns early on that he is different from the others in his egalitarian society – most of his peers cannot understand and are not interested in what he has to offer. A senior physicist at the local Regional Institute recognizes the teenage Shevek’s mathematical talents and recommends that he go work with a famous physicist named Sabul. She warns Shevek about the dangers of becoming “Sabul’s man”, but Shevek does not understand, having been raised in an egalitarian society supposedly free of power relations or hierarchy.
Sabul has Shevek read physics papers from the sister world of Urras. They come as a revelation, and Shevek begins regular correspondence with a society Anarres has had no contact with for many generations. His groundbreaking work is sent to Urras, but Sabul’s name appears on the work as a co-author – a condition for publication. Shevek realizes that there are key holders in a society supposedly with no locks.
The intense and solitary work consumes Shevek. Overtaxed, he is hospitalized and awakens to see Rulag, his mother who wishes to reconnect after nearly two decades. Shevek recoils from the woman who left him as an infant, feeling that to let her back into his life would be to sully the memory of Palat, his loyal and similarly abandoned father, now dead. They part ways.
Shaken by the encounter and his illness and at a standstill with his work, Shevek feels sterility creeping into his life but is unsure why. He reconnects with Bedap, a childhood friend. A natural contrarian and social critic, Bedap notes that Shevek’s problems with Sabul is reflective of worrying trends in Anarresti life: Power is becoming centralized, bureaucracy is creeping in, old anarchic ideas on freedom are calcifying into dogma, with difference of thought and personal initiative being suppressed by public pressure and social norms. Shevek initially rejects Bedap’s comments, but knows them to be true in his heart.
On a hike, Bedap introduces Shevek to Takver. Shevek is shaken to his core, finally realizing the path away from his self-imposed sterility and exile lies the form of a promise, a direction taken. Shevek and Takver become partners, a rare arrangement in a society with no concept of marriage or repercussions from infidelity. Yet the commitment transforms Shevek’s life.
Years pass. Shevek’s and Takver’s daughter Sadik is born in a time of global drought. With infrastructure and labour stretched to fend off impending famine, the bonds of Annarresti society are put to the ultimate test. Upon return from an emergency work posting, Shevek discovers that Sabul has been cut him off from the Physics Institute and that Takver had been posted away indefinitely to a remote lab. He finds himself stripped of his work, his love, and his child. It is four years before Shevek sees Takver and Sadik again.
After the crisis passes, Shevek resolves to become a social reformer. Bedap, Takver and him found the Syndicate of Initiative, publishing ideas contrary to mainstream thought in order to break down the walls built up over the years in hopes of returning Anarres to its revolutionary principles. This gets the group socially ostracized in public life, with a major opponent being an embittered Rulag. Finding his work unwanted and his family threatened, Shevek decides to travel to Urras to complete his theory on time and reconnect with a world his society has shunned for seven generations. Tempered by his life experience, he uses his freedom to forge his own future, certain that he will return home one day to Anarres and to Takver, to keep his promise to his society and his partner.
A Masterful and Ambiguous Utopia
The anarchic society of Anarres is an astonishing creation. Utopias are notoriously difficult to depict, yet in a few scant chapters Le Guin manages to sketch out a plausible rendition of a high-tech, post-capitalistic society, one where the lack of natural resources and neighbouring powers heighten the need for solidarity and mutual aid. She even has room to test the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, inventing a constructed language to explore how words can shape thought and influence culture.
What I appreciate is that like Urras, Anarres is a complex world, no dreamer’s paradise. Reading about Shevek’s struggles with his fellow Anarresti, I understand how even the most free and well-intentioned of societies can grow rigid and static. As Bedap points out astutely, “the will to dominance is as central in human beings as the impulse to mutual aid” (p.168) Le Guin shows that even in an egalitarian society, there will always be those like Sabul who abuse their position for personal gain, and how the tyranny of public opinion can stifle free thought. Shevek recognizes Anarres’ subtle but dangerous slide from idealism into dogma, and sees that it is up to the individual to act and make society a better place:
Anarres’s flaws highlight the fact that revolution is an ongoing process, demanding constant vigilance. In the real world, the struggle against bigotry, ignorance, and social inertia is slow and hard-fought, sometimes even bloody and brutal. Universal suffrage, human and civil rights, environmental protection and beyond – Real change often demands that we confront ourselves, question our behaviours and beliefs. Sometimes it requires that we break down the safe and certain walls we ourselves erect, to be open to new ideas and stories. There is no safety, no certainty. To grow and change and live, Shevek notes that “we must go on. We must take the risks.” (p. 359)
Twice Exiled – Solitude and FreedomAs I wrote in Crossing the Wall, the ideas in The Dispossessed resonate with me because they are channelled through a captivating protagonist. As an introvert, a first-generation immigrant ill at ease with either of my cultures, and one with a lifelong love for the sciences, Shevek naturally came across as a revelation:
“He welcomed isolation with all his heart. It never occurred to him that the reserve he met in Bedap and Tirin might be a response; that his gentle but already formidably hermetic character might form its own ambience, which only great strength, or great devotion, could withstand.”
– The Dispossessed, p. 56
More than any fictional character, I identify with the nature of his solitude, both ingrained and self-imposed, a quality that offers both loneliness and joy through distance and difference – the ultimate wall. I sympathize with Shevek’s journey to find his own purpose and function. He does so through physics. I am in the early stages of working that out through writing. Both of us are trying to get at some larger truth, whether it be scientific, historical, or personal.
Do I adore Shevek a little too much? Maybe. Probably. But I resist the urge to wholly idolize Le Guin’s fictional creation. Instead, I think I regard him as a kindred spirit, a brother across real and imaginary gulfs. I want to follow in his footsteps and use my own freedom and personal agency not to escape from obligation, but as precious gifts to forge meaning personal and universal. One way to do this is to make and keep promises.
“For the Partner”
The ultimate expression of Shevek’s commitment to others comes in his partnership with Takver, a marvellous character in her own right. Through her, Shevek becomes exposed to the world beyond the self.
For me, much of the beauty of The Dispossessed comes from their romance. Having read a lot of Le Guin, I find that she fumbles with anything involving infatuation or pursuit; how Shevek and Takver get together is rushed and rather unconvincing. But what she excels at is writing about relationships: Shevek’s and Takver’s partnership moves me like no other. Le Guin writes commitment as I know it, as a risky process rich with surprise, as something that is paradoxically both mundane and magical, as an ongoing act that inevitably brings intense joy and suffering.
It is this suffering that Shevek and Takver come to experience throughout their relationship. But because they sought not mere pleasure or happiness, but rather a “completeness of being”, hardship and adversity strengthen their bond instead of diminishing it. Reuniting after long years of separation, Takver muses over a sleeping Shevek in one of the most moving passages of the book:
“We came, Takver thought, from a great distance to each other. We have always done so. Over great distances, over years, over abysses of chance. It is because he comes from so far away that nothing can separate us. Nothing, no distances, no years, can be greater than the distance that’s already between us, the distance of our sex, the difference of our being, our minds; that gap, that abyss which we bridge with a look, with a touch, with a word, the easiest thing in the world. Look how far away he is, asleep. Look how far away he is, he always is. But he comes back, he comes back, he comes back…”
-The Dispossessed, p. 322
What I find remarkable is that they are not portrayed as idealized and co-dependent halves of a whole, but as self-aware beings who seek interdependence in a larger whole. Both are committed to the process of co-creation, to build with their lives something greater than themselves.
In many respects, this joint endeavour is an even riskier proposition than the personal search for meaning. Deep loss and pain are inevitable outcomes in a mortal world. But to shy away and retreat into the pursuits of hollow pleasures is, as psychologist and author Jordan Peterson notes, to “shrink in cowardice from the demands real human existence places on people.” (CBC Ideas: Say No to Happiness)
Shevek and Takver choose to take the risk. They prove that promises, understood not as mere words or social niceties, but as conscious, ethical acts undertaken and followed through, offer coherence in an otherwise chaotic and transient existence. “The enduring, the reliable,” Shevek realizes, “is a promise made by the human mind.” (p. 314)
As I mentioned earlier, one of the things I discovered about writing is that it really is a search for clarity and truth. Working on this piece and thinking about the book in detail seemed to help me realize why I return again and again to its pages.
- Crossing the Wall: The Dispossessed
- On Love, Change, and Possibility
- My Favourite Superhuman Protagonists
Le Guin, Ursula K. (1974) The Dispossessed. New York: HarperCollins, Eos Paperback Edition, 2001.
Featured Image by JalaV.