Book review: The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin 1974)

Rating: 2/5

I first read The Dispossessed in high school. I wasn’t wild about it. But high schoolers lack knowledge of government and people and how we get along together, major topics of the book, so I figured I owed it a reread.

I wasn’t wild about The Dispossessed the second time either. It may be the talkiest modern book I’ve read. With all the talking, I never felt like I emotionally connected with the countries, the characters, or the conflicts. In contrast, Le Guin’s other Hugo and Nebula award winner, The Left Hand of Darkness, is structurally similar and is one of my favorite books.

The Dispossessed takes place on a world and an inhabitable moon, the Earthlike Urras the harsher Anarres. Politically, Urras has rich and poor and countries of different political persuasions. Anarres is inhabited by descendants of anarchists from Urras. On Anarres, the people are equal and they struggle together against the harsh climate. They don’t own anything and they are free because of it. The main character is Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anarres. The book alternates between Shevek’s childhood on Anarres and Shevek’s visit to Urras. Shevek is the first person from either world to go to the other. The book contrasts to the two societies using Shevek’s eyes, a man who doesn’t quite fit in on either world.

Much of the book describes the society of anarchist Anarres. People work for the good of society. No one is strictly obligated to, but social shame is applied to those who don’t, those who “egoize”.  Everyone, even the physicists, is expected to spend part of their time laboring for society. Men and women are equal, the intelligent and less intelligent are equal too. The book does discuss where these ideals start to break down, but still, I had trouble believing in the Annaresti society. It felt one-dimensional, like its whole purpose was to be a foil to hedonistic, classist Urras, and moreso, hedonistic classist Earth.

Ultimately, I didn’t believe in the book. All the characters orated on social issues, and I often forgot who was who. I didn’t feel for any of the characters. The two different societies never felt real to me, just exaggerations of two extremes. Neither Urras or Anarres was shocking or insightful to me.

I wonder how the book felt in 1974. Roe vs. Wade happened in 1973. Title IX passed in 1972. A book by a female author about equality and respect was probably a breath of fresh air. Today, to me, maybe the story’s equality read a little too like a fairy tale. Too neat and tidy when we see female leaders like Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno pilloried for being ugly. There’s a lot of steps in between 1800’s style ownership of women and the ideal of female equality that the book tidily skips over.

Interestingly, The Dispossessed has a similar structure to The Left Hand of Darkness. A man who exists outside two societies visits and contrasts both of them. But for me, Left Hand has so much more feeling. I felt both cultures, and I loved the main characters. In both Left Hand and in The Dispossessed‘s Anarres, the battle against the elements forces a sort of communal behavior. Both books examine gender in society. But for me, The Left Hand of Darkness works, while The Dispossessed doesn’t.

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