This past year, my brother gave me a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness for my birthday. Upon finishing the book, I did something I haven’t done in a long time: I did a second reading back to back with the first. I needed to experience it all again from a position of knowledge to really understand why events had unraveled the way they did. Reading the stark prose and trying to unravel the alien motivations of the Gethenians had put me in a mood and a frame of mind that couldn’t be satisfied by just any other book.
The Left Hand of Darkness is most well known for being revolutionary about gender: for envisioning a world in which a person’s gender did not matter because sex was not fixed biologically. After my re-read, however, the aspect of the book that stuck with me the most was the concept of shifgrethor and the motif of shadows.
In the book, people of Karhide on the planet Gethen refer to their concept of reputation and social order or integrity using a term derived from their word for “shadow.” It is compared at one point to the concept of “manliness” present in some societies (including in the United States.) The unwritten codes of manliness may lead a man to deny weakness or emotions which he associates with weakness; he may strive to lift the heaviest weights while at the gym to ensure that he is seen as manly, and he may refuse to accept help for a task which he believes should fall under the domain of men. Even men who do not see themselves as this sort of “macho man” often follow along with varying degrees to the concepts of manly strength versus feminine weakness. The rules of shifgrethor are different from a code of manliness, however. Like someone trying to preserve manliness in many corners of Earth, to preserve shifgrethor in Karhide there are certain things that are done or not done; the most notable example in the book is that the receiving of direct advice is considered shameful. One major difference between shifgrethor and the unwritten “man code” is that there is an official loophole: a person can waive shifgrethor to accept advice without losing face.
The chapters of the story are interspersed with chapters on Gethenian folk tales or philosophy. The first of these folk tales is about a man who is banished from his home and lays his name on that town like a curse – it is not until he “takes back his shadow” that the town prospers again and he dies. Later, a reference is made in a different tale about how the umbrageous lords of Kerm Land cast “black shadows.” It is a story about feuds and murder; if a person’s reputation is in their shadow, a black shadow could certainly be said to belong to someone who murders out of pride and envy.
The significance of shadows really becomes striking while Genly Ai and Estraven are traveling on the glacial ice sheets together and must go for several days in weather which does not leave any shadows on the ice. Imagine, due to reflections on the snow: no texture, no shades of gray to tell you where you are in on space or to grant you depth perception. Genly has difficulty distinguishing an object which appears to be several feet from his face, until he realizes that it is in fact crags in the far distance. Genly even has trouble keeping balance without visual input from shadows, seeing only white on white. Although symbolism often dictates that we perceive shadows as sinister – hiding things which may be threatening – in this case, that shadows are necessary to find one’s way.
Compare this to Karhide’s neighbor nation Orgoreyn: Orgoreyn does not follow strict concepts of shifgrethor. However, Genly finds when he is there that everything feels “soft around the edges.”
“There were vivid personalities among them – Obsle, Slose, the handsome and detestable Gaum – and yet each of them lacked some quality, some dimension of being; and they failed to convince. They were not quite solid. It was, I thought, as if they did not case shadows.”
Although on the surface, the people of Orgoreyn are more straight forward, their policies and culture support much more subterfuge, double-crossing, and double-talk. Genly later says the true face of Orgoreyn he didn’t recognize until he had been in the underground and prisons of that country.
All of this is tied together with the poem which grants the book its title:
“Light is the left hand of darkness/ and darkness the right hand of light./ Two are one, life and death, lying/ together like lovers in kemmer,/ like hands joined together,/ like the end and the way.”
To really drive this home, Genly draws a yin and yang for Estraven. Light and dark cannot really exist in the mind independently of one another, but only in relation to one another. Likewise, they are effectively useless without one another; we cannot see in the dark without some light, but – as Genly found on the ice – it is equally impossible to navigate in light without shadow. Considering this, it also seems relevant that the poem refers specifically to lovers in “kemmer” or the phase of Gethenians’ monthly cycle during which they are sexually viable and have a sex – male or female – unlike the rest of the time (somner) during which they are neuter. It is the only time they are dimorphic and complementary – the light and dark.
For most of the book, Genly has difficulty trusting Estraven because he feels that Estraven is a man who is “too womanly” and somewhat deceitful. It is not until they share a life-changing experience that Genly finally understands that Estraven is not a manly woman or a womanly man, but a complete person whose sex does not limit their interactions. That is not to say Estraven has no sex (he goes into kemmer as a female on the ice and we know by the presence of his children that he has also entered kemmer as a male in the past,) but that he – like all other Gethenians – goes through life as an individual whose sex and sexuality are only sub-characteristics of a larger whole.
Estraven wonders how humans like us are able to go through life constantly as sexed and sexual beings. To be fair, many of us on Earth have wondered that, too. I think it might be nice to live in a world in which I knew I was never being treated in a way that was due only to my sex; that all my interactions were based on who I was as a person and not on which reproductive organs I happened to have. We don’t live in that world. We must somehow navigate the morasses of desire, friendship, and professionalism without that advantage.
Some people say that, like the yin and yang, we all have opposing and complementary attributes within ourselves – some male and some female within each of us. I prefer to think of myself, not as someone composed of various masculine and feminine traits, but as a person with many diverse characteristics – genderless in themselves – but which are ever so slightly colored by my female biology and my experiences as a woman, among other things.
We can ponder the complexities of sex and gender long and hard, but ultimately I’m reminded of a quote by the mystic Faxe in answer to a question from Genly Ai on why the Karhiders practice fortelling: “to exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”