In The Left Hand of Darkness and “Coming of Age in Karhide,” Ursula Le Guin has wildly experimented with gender and sexuality. Her imagined world is extremely innovative and thought-provoking. Gethen is a planet without gender. Humans who inhabit Gethen are born with neither male nor female identity. Their sexual behavior is strictly controlled, as it is eliminated only to “periods.” It is during those “kemmer” periods that partners physiologically develop either male or female genital organs. Magnificent. Creating a world that is devoid of gender is an enthralling idea. But it is a dangerous one as well.
Although La Guin has managed to deprive people of gender (of course in somer), gender-related features can be ostensibly noticed throughout the novel. It is almost inescapable to think of some characters (Estraven, for example) as males. La Guin contemplates in her essay “Is Gender Necessary?” over the linguistic flaw of the way she has approached the concept of gender in The Left Hand of Darkness. The linguistic part is not everything. The novel, I think, maintains the dual characteristic of gender identification still prevailing today. Maybe we should forgive that if we consider the time the novel was published. I don’t think that by 1969, feminism, as an intellectual thought, has been fully established. Though, years later, when Le Guin wrote the short story, she still kept that dual characteristic of gender. The language has changed. True. So has the perspective. But duality is there.
While considering this problem, we might question the sexual mechanism of the world La Guin has created. I think the idea that one of the partners in kemmer was supposed to develop a physiologically feminine predisposition is but enhancing the dual nature of sexuality La Guin herself is trying to investigate. What is the point, one might ask, of limiting sexual activity to only one fifth or so of the month when, in this very time, one should turn to be male and the other female? Destiny has the upper word, as choice is not granted. That is one crucial aspect of the sexual pattern invented in the novel. The one who turns to be the female conceives and, consequently, is supposed to meet the expectations related to the feminine life of our world. This is a pitfall La Guin’s world seems to fall into. Was it the pragmatic necessity for pregnancy and childbirth that affected La Guin’s treatment of her world? I guess so, though I am not sure.