Monday, April 11, 2011

Making sense of something

I'm going to write about something that happens in The Dispossessed by Ursula K. le Guin, and there will be a major spoiler if you read much further.

SPOILER ALERT!!!

In a recent post I expressed extreme confusion when the hero, Shevek, sexually assaults a woman. The situation is as follows:

Shevek has come from a world where women and men are equals in society. He has a partner (their equivalent of marriage) who he respects and loves. The very word "partner" implies equality. If there is no equality, then whatever they have is not really a partnership.

Then he goes to this other world where women are a lower class and are not allowed to do much of anything. Really all they can do is look pretty, socialize, and shop. And when Shevek comments on the lack of women he is told that if he wants a woman then one can be found who suits his tastes.

Shevek is an academic, and after being dragged all over the place for two weeks to be showed the sights of the new world (he's a celebrity so the higher ups make a big fuss over him) he doesn't set foot off campus for quite some time. During his time on campus he never sees a woman. And even while being shown the tourist sites he didn't see many, if any, women. Certainly none of his guides were women.

Being surrounded 100% by men is something of a culture shock to Shevek, so he jumps at an opportunity to interact with a woman: the wife of a colleague who invites him to dinner at his home off campus. Shevek also enjoys playing with their children, because there are also no children on the campus where he has been living. The second woman he meets is this same colleague's sister.

I think that the above details are important to why the sexual encounter happens, and how it happens: Shevek is at a party and becomes drunk. The colleague's sister (darn, I don't remember her name..) takes him to a private room. He kisses her, and she welcomes his kisses. When he starts taking things further she tells him no, that she hasn't taken a contraceptive, but that they can arrange a time to meet for sex. It's obvious that she does want him. But the fact is that she says no, and he ignores her, even as she becomes more and more frantic. He does not actually penetrate her, but he does get her skirt messed up so that she has to change clothes before returning to the party.

I think that the reason for his actions can be summed up in this old cliche:

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do."


But I think that what le Guin is suggesting here is not just that when in Rome that you should choose do as the Romans do, but that when you are around the Romans long enough that you wind up doing as they do, no matter what your own personal beliefs are. After all, Shevek is not the type to sexually assault a woman.

Not that I'm excusing what he did. I'm just trying to make sense of what le Guin did with her character. After all, he's the "hero" and yet he sexually assaulted a woman.

Of course, you could just say that the moral of the story is that you shouldn't get drunk...

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