Wednesday, August 3, 2011

LHoD: Chapter one sets it up nicely!

I started rereading Ursula K. le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness tonight. I don't think I've really properly appreciated before just how much the first chapter sets up the book -- I think it's something you have to have already read the book a few times to really get.

SPOILERS, because even though I'm talking about chapter one I'll also be talking about the rest of the book.

Firstly there's the matter of patriotism. It seems like it's a simple word, but it is used by so many people to mean so many different things that it really isn't. We get our first glimpse of what it means in this book when Genly tells us that "Death walks behind the king" (3). Later Therem discusses patriotism with Genly after they have had dinner, and observes both that his own actions have not been very patriotic (16) and that the king "is, of necessity, the perfect patriot" (19).

 This brings us to Therem's own actions. Why isn't he being very patriotic?

Therem values the lives of his people over his own shifgrethor, and the shifgrethor of his country. Because of this he moves his people out of harms way. But in so doing, he gives in to those who his people have been feuding with. Not particularly patriotic. (15-6)

In explaining the situation at Sinoth Valley to Genly, Therem introduces shifgrethor. He also sets the story up for the parallels between himself and the Therem and Arek in the legend of "Estraven the Traitor" -- an ancestor (I assume) of his who he has much in common with. The fact that Therem might be perceived by some as a traitor is set up when Tibe casually says to Genly "Indeed Lord Estraven is famous for his kindness to foreigners" (9). But as we later find out, it's not that Therem is necessarily being kind of foreigners, it's that he's looking after his own people.

Handdara itself is referenced, vaguely, in chapter one. After looking at Therem, Genly says "Can one read a cat's face, a seal's, an otter's? Some Gethenians, I thought are like such animals, with deep bright eyes that do not change expression when you speak" (15). I take this as a reference to the Handdara because later on Therem explains to Genly that "Maybe they are less aware of the gap between men and beasts, being more occupied with the likenesses, the links, the whole of which living things are a part" (233). That being the case, would it be so surprising for one of the Handdara (as we know Therem to be) to take on the characteristics of a non-human animals at times?

Of course, I could be reading meaning into this that was not intended.

However, something else that I am certain is a clear reference to the Handdara is "It wasn't until later in that year that I discovered the Gethenians have perfected the technique not only of perpetually stuffing, but also of indefinitely starving" (11). I think it's safe to say that Genly is definitely referring to the Handdara practice of fasting here, although he does not say so explicitly.

Also introduced is the concept of shifgrethor, and the fact that Genly does not properly understand the people he lives among. It's all in: "No doubt this was all a matter of shifgrethor -- prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen. And if it was I would not understand it" (14). Shifgrethor is mentioned again when Therem mentions that his own actions hurt his country's shifgrethor (16) and Genly's ignorance is driven home when he does not understand why Therem assumes that he will be leaving Ehrenrang (20).

Finally, there seems to be a theme of death, and that it is through people's deaths that a civilization arises, or that a country is formed. This is a theme that I only picked up on tonight, but we can see it in the red cement used to put a keystone in place (5). As I recall, after Therem's death at the end of the book, Genly writes "[...] I must accomplish the thing he died for. I must set the keystone in the arch" (289). That's a line that has stayed with me.

Oh yes, and the theme of shadows! I'm not entirely sure what the importance of shadows are in the book, but I'm studying the references to them and right towards the end of chapter one Therem says "A man must cast his own shadow. . . ." (20) They seem to have something to do with shifgrethor and Handdara.

To recap, chapter one introduces us to these themes in the book:

Patriotism
Shifgrethor
Therem and Arek
"Estraven the Traitor"
Handdara
Genly's ignorance
One's death for the greater good
Shadows

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