Gender fluidity in Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’

Gender fluidity in Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’

Editor’s Note: As part of a special collaboration between Ballerina Book Club and “American Masters,” we’re streaming the 2019 documentary “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin” while we read our October book pick, “The Left Hand of Darkness.” Directed by Arwen Curry and produced with Le Guin’s participation over a decade, the film is an intimate journey through the writer’s worlds, both real and fantastic. Stream “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin” on the ALL ARTS site and app through Oct. 31.

The clip and discussion questions below explore Ursula K. Le Guin’s use of gender in “The Left Hand of Darkness”

In 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin published a groundbreaking novel called “The Left Hand of Darkness” that questioned binary concepts of gender. Learn about the backlash from fans that found the book too controversial as well as criticism from feminists who felt that she didn’t go far enough in this video from the “American Masters” film “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.” Supporting materials below include discussion questions and vocabulary.

Best known for her science fiction and “Earthsea” fantasy series, celebrated author Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (1929–2018) wrote 21 novels, 11 volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, 12 children’s books, six volumes of poetry and four of translation during her life. “American Masters” presents the first documentary film exploring the remarkable life and legacy of the prolific and versatile author. “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin” tells the intimate coming-of-age story of the Portland, Ore., housewife and mother of three who forever transformed American literature by bringing science fiction into the literary mainstream. Through her influential work, Le Guin opened doors for generations of younger writers like Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon and David Mitchell — all of whom appear in the film — to explore fantastic elements in their writing.


Discussion Questions

  • What questions did Le Guin ask herself before writing “The Left Hand of Darkness”? How did she build that question into the premise of the book?
  • How does gender shift for the people in “The Left Hand of Darkness”?
  • Why was “The Left Hand of Darkness” controversial? Why do some consider it a feminist text and others believe Le Guin didn’t go far enough?
  • Why is it significant that the default pronoun of characters in the book is “he”? Do you think “The Left Hand of Darkness” could be seen as more inclusive today if the default pronoun was changed to “they”?
  • Explain the metaphor Le Guin uses to describe her job as an author to be holding open doors and windows.
  • Why is it important to consider the time period in which a book was written? How does that impact our understanding of the book?
  • Concepts of gender have evolved over time beyond just male and female, making pronouns an increasingly important part of identity. Many people share their chosen pronoun after introducing themselves or on name tags. Do you think our modern ideas around gender will continue to evolve? How could pronoun options — he, she, ze, they — be even more inclusive? Do we even need gender pronouns?


androgynous | (adj.) Identifying and/or presenting as neither distinguishably masculine nor feminine.

default | (n.)  A selection made automatically or without consideration due to lack of a viable alternative.

gender fluidity | (n.) When a person does not identify with a single fixed gender; of or relating to a person having or expressing a fluid or unfixed gender identity.

genderqueer | (n.) People who reject notions of static categories of gender and embrace a fluidity of gender identity and often, though not always, sexual orientation. People who identify as “genderqueer” may see themselves as being both male and female, neither male nor female or as falling completely outside these categories.

The original version of this article first appeared on PBS LearningMedia and has been slightly adapted for ALL ARTS.