LeGuin’s The Dispossessed: A Story of Freedom?

After putting in the many, many hours to read The Dispossessed start to finish, I’m left wondering what I should carry with me from the book…

Oh: a thought just occured! Given the last line of the book, perhaps I’m not supposed to take anything away. “His hands were empty, as they had always been” (387).

In some ways, I liked this book even more than The Sheep Look Up because of its willingness to openly criticize/thoroughyl explore all positions. It was not blindly idealistic (in the main) as Herland, and as a consequence I was okay with going along with Shevek on his jouney among worlds.

In terms of topias, this book presents us with as many as 4, and at least 3. On Anarres, we see an anarchy in which the only rule is the rule of the idea of anarchy, which is carried within each individual member of the community, who collectively keep the society running. Urras presents itself as a binary system which is seems to be the necessary result of capitalism. On the top, we have the “profiteers” who own, possess, and run things by virtue of the golden rule: ‘he who has the gold makes the rules.’ On the bottom, we have the dispossessed of this economy, who own nothing, who continually scrape to simply survive in a world which does not value them or their skills because they do not have money or education. Finally, we have the semi-opaque world of Terra. This world, which is only really encountered at the end of the book, and is quickly described as a sort of failed society which is only now slowly building itself back up from its own self-created ruin,  seems to be the “3rd place” (if Urras isn’t broken down into 2 sperate worlds and only counts as 1) outside either of the flaws of Anarres or Urras. This world is necessary as it is by virtue of its emissary that Shevek is able to share his idea with the worlds, and not have it co-opted or “bought” by the Urrasti. The 3rd world allows Shevek to transcend the “walls” so obviously built up by the 2 fully-formed societies and articulate his wish that all worlds will “talk together” (344) once his theory is equally diseminated.

Of course, we do not know if this dream ever comes to fruition. We don’t even know what kind of reception Shevek met with upon his return to Anarres. Did his society, during his absence, realize that they were slowly slipping into a rule-bound, centrally governed body? And, in so realizing, did they come to view him as one who wished to return Anarres to its roots, to “real” anarchy, rather than as a traitor to that system? How did Urras react to not being in sole posession of the Temporal Theory?  What, in other words, did Shevek really accomplish?

Perhaps I have these questions because I was a little confused as to how Shevek’s theory was to be a real uniting force. There was that passage, about 3/4 of the way through the tale, where he’d been in his room on Urras for days and days, when suddenly he had this breakthough and saw to the very base of the universe–to how things ‘really are’–and from that he was able to get the temporal formulas down. What did he see or understand? A little later on in the book, he explains that the Urrasti society is flawed because they view the present as “something which can be possessed…But it is not real, you know. It is not stable, solid–nothing is. Things change, change.” He goes on to say that the future and the past’s “reality makes the present real” (349).  Is this the relationship of time to governing ideologies? If Urras is the present, Terra the past, and Anarres the future, is the General Temporal theory that each needs the other in order to for all races to flourish? I can dig this idea, as it resists the binary thinking that exists on Urras alone, and between Urras and Anarres.  To me, the totality of this book does represent a utopian way of thinking about the interrelations among worlds (countries, races, people, etc.). Whether or not it works, of course, is left out of the story…

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