The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1974

7 min read Filed under: book club

I read The Dispossessed over several weeks this autumn. It was an incredible book, by the end. At first, however, I must admit that it was difficult to figure out what was happening and who was who. The book successfully drops you into a world without stepping back to do much explaining; it rewards the patient reader. It took me several chapters before I realized that the storyline alternated between present and past, Anarres and Urras.

Despite the above difficulty, I feel that Ursula Le Guin does an excellent job of returning to identify common threads or missed connections that slip past the reader (ie, me). The book touches on so many fascinating things. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to cover half of what I thought of it, and it warrants a re-read.

The anthropologist-observer approach (ie. an outsider gains insight into a new world—which, if I recall correctly, occurs in The Left Hand Of Darkness[1]) makes for a compelling connection between the reader and the protagonist, Shevek. If anything, I felt a similar disgust for the world of Urras, and its all-too-familiar traits. Le Guin, admirably, aims so many broken parts of our societies: homophobia, meaningless work, education, state violence, abuse of power, warmongering, capitalism, and so on.

Please note: quotes do not have page numbers (the curse of reading an e-book). Assume all quotations are from The Dispossessed unless noted afterward in parentheses.

An encounter with The Mother

Le Guin brings the reader into a world of unique customs, dialogue, and ideas; it makes for an immersive read. I found the twists in language to be intriguing. For example, The Anarresti refer to their parents as "The Mother" or "The Father" (rather than my mother/father). [^2] This encounter with The Mother visiting Shevek in the hospital was particularly heartbreaking for me, and I feel it deserves some re-reading:

He did not speak. She said, "Goodbye, Shevek," and turned from him as she spoke. He had either a glimpse or a nightmare imagination of her face changing drastically as she spoke, breaking down, going all to pieces. It must have been imagination. She walked out of the ward with the graceful measured gait of a handsome woman, and he saw her stop and speak, smiling, to the aide out in the hall. He gave way to the fear that had come with her, the sense of the breaking of promises, the incoherence of time. He broke. He began to cry, trying to hide his face in the shelter of his arms, for he could not find the strength to turn over. One of the old men, the sick old men, came and sat on the side of the cot and patted his shoulder. "It’s all right, brother. It’ll be all right, little brother," he muttered. Shevek heard him and felt his touch, but took no comfort in it. Even from the brother there is no comfort in the bad hour, in the dark at the foot of the wall.

Something about this passage was very striking; perhaps it was a certain incongruence between the values of an anarchist society and the emotional attachments we wish to be met by our parents; Rulag effectively abandoned Shevek (his Father did not) both as a child, and does again in the hospital.

I would rather not be a propertarian

Propertarian is never defined outright in the book. It is, arguably, quite well-defined through Shevek’s explorations of the world of Urras, Urras’ subsequent sociological impact on his psyche, and his dialogue with/behaviour of others.

Slowly, Shevek’s mind is shaped to be like the propertarians of Urras; if solely for survival:

Like it or not, he must learn distrust. He must be silent; he must keep his property to himself; he must keep his bargaining power.

I’m thinking like an Urrasti, he said to himself. Like a damned propertarian. As if deserving meant anything. As if one could earn beauty, or life!

Shevek’s bargaining power here is his intellectual capacities, specifically a theory he is working on that is highly valued by those on Urras. The first several chapters detail the citizens of A-Io (a country on Urras) wining and dining Shevek to try to get what they want from him. It is not until he is so literally wined (perhaps Shevek’s first exposure to alcohol, which leads to a disturbing scene discussed later) that we hear the people of A-Io who drop his drunk ass complain:

“What has the bastard been doing, Demaere? Still nothing here, absolutely nothing. Is he a complete fraud? Have we been taken in by a damned naive peasant from Utopia? Where’s his theory? Where’s our instantaneous spaceflight? Where’s our advantage over the Hainish? Nine, ten months we’ve been feeding the bastard, for nothing!” Nevertheless, he pocketed one of the papers before he followed Oiie to the door. (end of ch. 7)

Criticisms of Education

Shevek’s bewilderment of education in Urras made me laugh. I think it lands well, at least in comparison to the education system I was put through:

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. […] 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.

Palpable absurdity, but again, through the observer’s lens, not heavy-handed. This trope of the uninformed observer is powerful. To be honest, until reading the above, I had never really thought about education at this depth. Sure, I’ve been annoyed at having to cram for tests (what’s the point?) but none had really framed it as absurd.

In response to the students who complain, Shevek says: "Well, of course. […] If you do not want to do the work, you should not do it." I can hardly imagine a world with such an education, but I would have gladly traded Math and Physics (sorry, Shevek), for starters.

Sexual Assault

In chapter 7, Shevek unwittingly gets drunk and forces himself on Vea. This is a rather horrific scene. Until now, the reader may feel an affinity for the noble anarchist, particularly after delivering a drunken speech to Urrasti:

Our men and women are free—possessing nothing, they are free! And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison! It is all I can see in your eyes—the wall, the wall! (173)

Shortly after this, the reader bears witness to a struggle as Shevek tries to force Vea into a sexual act. I found a paper that addresses this crucial moment and the expanding themes of gender and sexuality surrounding it. I’m not sure what to make of the scene, or the paper I linked. Where does patriarchy go in this anarchist system? It hasn't quite gone anywhere: Shevek, drunk and acting on carnal instinct and assumptions, treats Vea as an object he owns. Is he so different from a propertarian, at this moment?

This scene offers more questions than answers. Le Guin never tries to persuade us that an anarchist society is without crime, but I think is more trying to show Anarres as a society that "was a revolution, a permanent one, an ongoing process" (134).

The Limits of Anarchism

I feel that The Dispossessed fairly describes points of failure of anarchism (and as per above, the utopia-via-anarchism is ongoing and not without problems). The power struggle with Sabul (preventing Shevek from getting published) and the forming of power systems through the use of shaming and othering were particularly notable. Toward the end of the book, the dialogues between Shevek and Takver are also illuminating in their criticisms of the seemingly self-forming systems of control that people could come up with despite living in a state-less society. Le Guin’s characters hold dialogue on topics of utilitarianism and suffering regarding a long-running drought and food shortages. Answers are not in abundance.

Halfway through the book, we watch the beginnings of a miniature revolution on Anarres unfold, in which Takver, Shevek, Bedap, and others create their own syndicate (I’m still not sure what a syndicate is) to publish their works. The beginnings of this liberation happen in dialogue between Bedap and Shevek:

You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that’s precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you when he can, and where he can’t, he prevents you from publishing […] in other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn’t any. Not from intellectual excellent, he hasn’t any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion! That’s the power structure he’s part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind."

An important distinction comes up, here, I think—that a stateless, anarchist society is in no way immune to power struggles and finding its means of establishing dominance. In this example, the court of public opinion is the insidious government. For Shevek et al., what is their recourse? To start their faction. And what of the growing ire to their faction? When considering leaving for Urras and what to do on his return, Takver says:

The syndicate can protect you when you land. And then, if people are still so hostile and hateful, we’ll say the hell with them. what’s the good of an anarchist society that’s afraid of anarchists? We’ll go live in Lonesome, in Upper Sedep, in Uttermost, we’ll go live alone in the mountains if we have to. There’s room. There’d be people who’d come with us. We’ll make a new community. If our society is settling down into politics and power seeking, then we’ll get out, we’ll go make an Anarres beyond Anarres, a new beginning. (279)

This is the ongoing revolution of the Anarresti society, and we are left to imagine, each in our own way, these futures.

The Dispossessed was an excellent read. I was challenged by it in several ways. Even the vocabulary used was impressive by the standards of what I'm reading today. Beyond that, there is a tone to this book that I can't describe any other way than a certain colour it has, almost a Pthalo blue. I look forward to coming back to the other books in this series (The Hainish Cycle).

  1. I Also need to re-read this The Left Hand of Darkness ↩︎