Comments 7

20 Quotes from The Dispossessed

I thought I was done. I thought four parts and 7,500 words would be enough. But as I completed the last piece, I realize there was still so much more within The Dispossessed that spoke to me, and so much more than I wanted to share.

So I took the easy way out and created a list post.

I’ve come back to the following twenty passages time and again, discovering new nuances and insight within them. I chose them because they work both in text and on their own. I’ve inserted my brief thoughts with each, but I would love to hear what you think as well.

On Education and Learning:

“They were superbly trained, these students…Their society maintained them in complete freedom from want, distractions, and cares.
What they were free to do, however, was another question. It appeared to Shevek that their freedom from obligation was in exact proportion to their lack of freedom of initiative.” (p.127)

I can see how my parents and my grandparents would think that way about my generation, born into a world of abundance and possibility. Steinbeck mentions this weakening of initiative a bit in the Log of the Sea of Cortez – “The new dominant entrenches himself and then softens.” (p. 79)

“He asked his students to write a paper on any problem in physics that interested them, and told them that he would give them all the highest mark, so that the bureaucrats would have something to write on their forms and lists. To his surprise a good many students came to him to complain. They wanted him to set the problems, to ask the right questions; they did not want to think about questions, but to write down the answers they had learned. And some of them objected strongly to his giving everyone the same mark. How could the diligent students be distinguished from the dull ones? What was the good in working hard? If no competitive distinctions were to be made, one might as well do nothing.
“Well, of course,” Shevek said, troubled. “If you do not want to do the work, you should not do it.” (p. 128)

It took me many years to understand that last statement. As a product of a system where getting the right answer was equated to learning, I still find myself more comfortable at crafting responses than coming up with original thoughts.

“He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand.” (p. 127)

As someone who recalls nothing from undergrad exams, I get a kick out of this indictment of the academic testing system. And the sad thing is –  I’m a very good crammer and test-taker.

On the Creative Process:

“It was a revelation, a liberation. Physicists, mathematicians, astronomers, logicians, biologists, all were here at the University, and they came to him or he went to them, and they talked, and new worlds were born of their talking. It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.” (p. 72)

This is one of my favourite similes, and one I used in my About Ekostories page. To expose my thoughts to the light of public judgment was one of my objectives for starting this blog, and throughout the years I’ve found that the act of sharing has helped mature my thinking on many subjects. New worlds indeed.

“He saw all that was to come in this first, seemingly casual glimpse of the method, given him by his understanding of a failure in the distant past. The wall was down. The vision was both clear and whole. What he saw was simple, simpler than anything else. It was simplicity: and contained in it all complexity, all promise. It was revelation. It was the way clear, the way home, the light.” (p.280)

I think this is what we really live for as writers. I’ve had glimpses here and there of this when things are really flowing, but never in its entirety. My heart would be content if I could experience this one day.

“There was process: process was all. You could go in a promising direction or you could go wrong, but you did not set out with the expectation of ever stopping anywhere. All responsibilities, all commitments thus understood took on substance and duration.” (p. 334)

A longer way to say “the journey is the destination, so make it count.” Because it does, and because life goes on.

“The usage the creator spirit gives its vessels is rough, it wears them out, discards them, gets a new model.” (p.188)

Here I am, sitting at one in the morning type-type typing about flying penguins because my brain suddenly tunes into something out in the ether. Here I sit, leaving blood on the page for people who are no longer in my life. The muse works in mysterious ways, but it’s hard on the body and soul sometimes.

On Solitude:

“His father had indeed been utterly reliable and affectionate. Whatever Shevek was and whatever he did, Palat approved and was loyal. But Palat had not had this curse of difference. He was like the others, like all the others to whom community came so easy. He loved Shevek, but he could not show him what freedom is, that recognition of each person’s solitude which alone transcends it.” (p.106)

It’s hard being the odd duck sometimes: No one can help you figure things out, no matter how loving or supportive or understanding they may be.

“There’s a point, around age twenty,” Bedap said, “when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.” (p.249)

This was written in the 70’s – That age of recognition’s probably closer to thirty for most nowadays. But true nonetheless.

On Brotherhood and Connection:

“Gvarab was old enough that she often wandered and maundered. Attendance at her lectures was small and uneven. She soon picked out the thin boy with big ears as her one constant auditor. She began to lecture for him. The light, steady, intelligent eyes met hers, steadied her, woke her, she flashed to brilliance, regained the vision lost. She soared, and the other students in the room looked up confused or startled, even scared if they had the wits to be scared. Gvarab saw a much larger universe than most people were capable of seeing, and it made them blink. The light-eyed boy watched her steadily. In his face she saw her joy. What she offered, what she had offered for a whole lifetime, what no one had ever shared with her, he took, he shared. He was her brother, across the gulf of fifty years, and her redemption.” (p. 108)

I love this passage. We often speak of the value of a good teacher, but what of a receptive student? What about the reciprocality of the relationship, the connection that endures beyond knowledge conveyed?  Teaching can itself be an act of joyous legacy.

“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.” (p. 300)

This is the quote that I recall most often due to its potency. Pain – the quintessential truth that lurks in the depths of humanity but is also the source of all empathy. This passage also reminds me that we can only help to those who are willing to accept help. All we can do is extend our hand – we cannot do anything for anybody beyond that. It is hard for those with giving natures to accept. 

On Partnership and Love:

“There is exhilaration in finding that the bond is stronger, after all, than all that tries the bond.” (p. 247)

A simple statement, but I have found it to be a profound one. Exhilaration is the perfect word to describe the feeling.

“But when a direction is chosen freely and followed wholeheartedly, it may seem that all things further the going. So the possibility and actuality of separation often served to strengthen the loyalty of partners. To maintain genuine spontaneous fidelity in a society that had no legal or moral sanctions against infidelity, and to maintain it during voluntarily accepted separations that could come at any time and might last years, was something of a challenge. But the human being likes to be challenged, seeks freedom in adversity.” (p.246)

I don’t have anything to add.

“She had aged more than four years. She had never had very good teeth, and now had lost two, just back of the upper eyeteeth, so that the gaps showed when she smiled. Her skin no longer had the fine taut surface of youth, and her hair, pulled back neatly was dull.

Shevek saw clearly that Takver had lost her young grace, and looked a plain, tired woman near the middle of her life. He saw this more clearly than anyone else could have seen it. He  saw everything about Takver in a way that no one else could have seen it, from the standpoint of years of intimacy and years of longing. He saw her as she was.” (P. 316)

This is probably the most romantic thing I’ve ever read.

“To be whole is to be part; true voyage is return.” (p. 84)

Eleven words and the space around them, encompassing truth in life and love. I think they call this poetry.

On Human Nature:

“The lure and compulsion of profit was evidently a much more effective replacement of the natural initiative than he had been led to believe.” (p. 82)

In case anyone dismisses The Dispossessed as a one-sided, pie-in-the-sky leftist manifesto. I’m sorry, but if you came to this conclusion, you are reading it wrong. (As much as anyone can read anything wrong)

“It was easy to share when there was enough, even barely enough, to go round. But when there was not enough? Then force entered in; might making right; power, and its tool, violence, and its most devoted ally, the averted eye.” (p. 256)

It takes courage and strength to face injustice. I recently failed in such a test. I’m sorry, woman on the train with the psycho boyfriend. While none of my business, I should have at least alerted the police to keep an eye out for you. But you sped away so quickly, with him in and out of your face. I’m sorry I did not do more, and I hope you are OK.

“They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?” (p. 385)

The perfect antidote for one coming down with a case of fatalism.

Other Quotes:

“When they came, marching in their neat black coats up the steps among the dead and dying men and women, they found the high, grey, polished wall of the great foyer a word written at the height of a man’s eyes, in broad smears of blood: DOWN

They shot the dead man who lay nearest the word, and later on when the Directorate was restored to order the word was washed off the wall with water, soap, and rags, but it remained; it had been spoken; it had meaning.” (P. 302)

Chilling and evocative. Perhaps more relevant in today’s world than it has ever been.

“…What men deserve,” he was saying. “For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” (P. 358)

Probably the most controversial quote of the lot. Recently, I’ve been trying to reconcile the need for personal and political accountability with the sense of entitlement one can grow accustomed to. This notion of deserving seems to clash with the idea of appreciation, seems to tie back  to the greater struggle between change vs acceptance, action versus stillness. I cannot fully say what I mean. What do you think?


  • Which passage speaks to you?
  • Which do you disagree with?
  • For those who have read the novel, what is your favourite passage?

I’ll be taking a break to work on a few writing projects, but rest assured I already have the next Ekostory in mind. I’ve done on a lot of obscure stories before, but this one probably takes the cake – most of you will have NEVER heard of it. A hint: The creator of this unusual Ekostory is a copywriter, essayist, lyricist, and game designer, has co-authored a short story collection with novelist Haruki Murakami, has written famous catchphrases for movies, and has maintained a popular blog/website for over fifteen years.

I hope you can come to learn about this “strange, funny, and heartrending” story.

Related Ekostories


Le Guin, Ursula K. (1974) The Dispossessed. New York: HarperCollins, Eos Paperback Edition, 2001.

Featured image by Luca Galuzzi at www.galuzzi.it


  1. I’d say a favorite is the one you labeled “On Brotherhood and Connection.” Only I think of myself as a writer looking to reach a receptive audience.
    Great choice of quotes though. As for the earlier quotes, I can’t help thinking of how each generation is critical of the generation that follows. We think we had it worse than “these kids today.”
    I agree that age 30 is the age where one decides who one wants to be.

    • I think a writer would be blessed to have the type of relationship as described in the quote with a reader.

      Thanks for reading, as always 🙂

  2. Well several resonated….the passivity of pumping out the right answer vs. original thinking/drive/initiative and ultimately creative thinking and action. I think that’s why I’m frustrated with a manager…she is purely responsive and has not engaged in big original visioning/thinking. Just an example from the workplace.

    Another is on the bond of love and partnership. Spontaneous and ongoing fidelity can be real and in the right spirit, joyous and a form of nurturing from afar, like the sun..for a while.

    • With regards to being responsive/creative, I think one can become very good at one without knowing how to be at the other. Two different modes of thinking entirely.

      As for the bond, I like your last phrase. Nothing lasts forever, nor would one perhaps want it to? I end that with a question mark just because I’m not sure haha.

  3. Absolutely true for your lst paragraph in comment above..

    Well as for bond..it’s nice to last forever while on Earth, but 1 person will no longer be around first. It’s unusual that both partners would be gone at the same time and their love for one another disappears. I only meant if the 2 people are living temporarily apart. Obviously you interpreted my phrasing differently. 🙂

Leave a Reply to Isaac Yuen Cancel reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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.