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Interpersonal ethics in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed.

Ursula K. Le Guin has claimed that her novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) is an attempt to embody anarchy (The Wind's Twelve Quarters 1975: 232). This embodiment is to be found on Anarres, a moon/planet populated by anarchists who emigrated from their home planet Urras over a century before the earliest action in the novel. Upon their arrival on Anarres the settlers fashioned a society which at least in theory had no established government and no coercion within the economic sphere. As a result, the creation of Anarresti society within the novel becomes a thought-experiment on the viability of anarchism and the need for permanent revolution to counter such threats as an incipient bureaucracy and a tendency toward dominance games. Although previous studies have investigated various facets of this anarchist society, more might be said specifically about the ethics within it.1 In what follows I do not distinguish ethics from morality, address all the features of a complete ethical system, or consider whether oppressive power and its attendant evils would eventually creep into any anarchist society. I am instead interested in the limited question of what one of the most brilliant minds of our time, coming fresh from extensive reading in anarchism and utopianism, thinks an interpersonal ethics in an anarchist culture would look like. The answer, I suggest, is a layering of ethical values that together comprise a complex system designed to meet the needs of an anarchist society.2 Le Guin borrows the foundational layer of mutual aid, with interesting adaptations, from the work of the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The second layer includes both the recognition that mutual aid cannot always be rendered and the resultant creation of a community based on shared suffering. Although it is tempting to see this layer as the high point of the ethical thought in the novel, Le Guin adds one more by imagining a type of life-long partnering bond in a society in which legalised marriage does not exist. The loyalty and sense of home that such a bond provides are crucial to the idea of the happy life as constructed in this fiction. Taken together, these three layers present a fuller and more satisfactory ethics than those that Kropotkin envisioned. They include not only reliance on mutual aid, but also responses to the inevitability of suffering and the need for commitment in interpersonal relationships. Although the resulting ethic is open to charges of idealism in overemphasising human cooperation, passivity in accepting suffering, and commitment to traditional heterosexual monogamy as essential for the full enjoyment of life, nevertheless Le Guin's thought-experiment makes a strong case for an anarchist ethics that improves upon the views of Kropotkin.


During his time on the planet Urras - simultaneously the moon, sister planet, and feared enemy of Anarres - Shevek has a particularly revealing conversation with Vea, a high society woman and sister of a reputable Urrasti physicist. In the course of this talk the two confront the most important question of evolutionary theory, that of the key factor in the success of a species. Shevek raises the issue:
  'We [the Anarresti] follow one law, only one, the law of human
  evolution.' 'The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!'
  'Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species,
  are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical.
  You see, we have neither prey nor enemy, on Anarres. We have
  only one another. There is no strength to be gained from
  hurting one another. Only weakness' (220).

Shevek's comments are reminiscent of an often repeated idea in Kropotkin that, contrary to a common interpretation of Darwin's survival of the fittest as uniformly competitive, 'under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life' (Mutual Aid 2006: 55). (3) The fact that Shevek and Kropotkin both extend the range of sociability to species beyond the human, those that Shevek here calls the 'social species', is important because it indicates that sociability is not born of a religious impulse or limited to historical consciousness. If humanity is only one of many species to live under the law of sociability, then it is as natural for people to cooperate as it is for bees. As a result, for Shevek a competitive society like that in A-Io at its own peril focuses on the will to domination and ignores the equally biologically-based sociability of the human species. In doing so, it commits an ethical mistake by misunderstanding the relative importance of the forces that drive humanity just as they drive the other social species within nature.

A second similarity between Kropotkin and the ethics of the Anarresti involves the definition of sociability. Both define it specifically in terms of mutual aid. That phrase is not only the title and theme of one of Kropotkin's most famous books but also the term used no fewer than seven times within the novel to describe the first principle of Anarresti society. The idea of mutual aid is simple. A social species survives better when its members cooperate rather than compete against one another because the group provides its members such advantages as support in securing the necessities of life, protection from enemies, and care in case of illness, disability, or old age. Le Guin makes the idea of all helping all the starting point for an ethics of cooperation. In its embodiment in Shevek's version of Anarres, it is meant to challenge the competitive principle that informs life on Urras.

But as long as one remains on the biological level of sociability, mutual aid can serve as no more than a foundation for an anarchist ethics. One has to go beyond the biological to the specifically human to articulate a complete ethics of mutual aid. When elaborated to apply to human society, in this novel mutual aid expands to define the entire economic and political structure that Kropotkin envisions and the Anarresti have created. Specifically, it means that communism structures the economy because it is seen as the system that most perfectly embodies cooperation in the production, distribution, and consumption of the necessities of life. The idea behind the slogan 'From each according to ability, to each according to need' is the logical consequence of organising economic life according to the principle of mutual aid. In addition, extending mutual aid to human society means that anarchism is to be the political system because only anarchism promotes mutuality by freeing people from authoritarianism. No matter what form an established government takes, it under-mines mutual aid because its first principle is its own survival as the political power, not the survival of the group. Only when aid is given voluntarily as well as mutually does it truly work. Thus, as with Kropotkin so too with the Anarresti: a communist anarchism based on mutual aid is the best economic and political system precisely because it develops from the natural sociability of the species. Understood in this elaborated way, mutual aid is the most powerful foundational value within Anarresti anarchism.

The similarities between Shevek's ethics of mutual aid and that of Kropotkin are not limited to those defining what sociability and mutual aid are. They also agree on what they are not, namely, a form of love. In the 'Introduction' to Mutual Aid Kropotkin has a fine passage showing the limitations of love and human sympathy, part of which runs as follows:
  [T]o reduce animal sociability to love and sympathy means to reduce
  its generality and its importance, just as human ethics based
  upon love and personal sympathy only have contributed to narrow the
  comprehension of the moral feeling as a whole. It is not love to my
  neighbor - whom I often do not know at all - which induces me to
  seize a pail of water and to rush towards his house when I see it on
  fire; it is a far wider, even though more vague feeling or instinct
  of human solidarity and sociability which moves me
  (MutualAid 2006: 11).

For her part, Le Guin saves Shevek's comments on love for a most dramatic moment in the novel, his speech to the rally of the Urrasti disenfranchised immediately before the government troops open fire on the crowd: 'It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers ... We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand' (300). The force holding society together in order to ensure its survival and success is not a human passion, not even love. It is beyond choice, to use Shevek's phrase, a vague feeling or instinct, to use Kropotkin's. The survival of the fittest may not depend primarily on individual adaptations, much less physical strength. But it also does not depend on love, even in the most generalised Christian sense of the term. It instead relies most completely on the solidarity that mutual aid requires and fosters.

Although Le Guin has learned a great deal from the ethics of Kropotkin, in the novel she does not embody his views unconditionally. The most important ethical issue upon which Kropotkin and the Anarresti disagree concerns the value of altruism. For both writers mutual aid does not necessarily include self-sacrifice. But for Kropotkin altruism is more than merely compatible with mutual aid; it becomes the highest ethical value erected on the foundation of sociability (Ethics 1947: 30). Self-sacrifice for the sake of others is as valuable within human society as it is within the animal kingdom, and for the same reason: it promotes the chances of group survival. In The Dispossessed, however, altruism is not viewed as an important consequence or corollary of mutual aid, at least as Shevek comes to understand it. On the contrary, he twice denies the value of altruism. When Sabul, the physicist who has been controlling Shevek's career, accuses him of 'nonaltruism' (266) by working on physics problems outside the dominant scientific theory on Anarres, Shevek responds by appealing to the ethical system created by Odo, the philosopher of Anarresti anarchism: 'Since when was altruism an Odonian virtue?' Later in the novel when Keng, the Terran ambassador to the Council of World Governments, asks Shevek if he wants to stay on Urras, he says no because, as he puts it, 'I am no altruist' (350). Shevek clearly does not mean that he has given up on mutual aid as the ethical foundation of the anarchism on Anarres. He means rather that mutual aid, properly understood, does not include altruism.

From the perspective of ethics the distinction between altruism and mutual aid is the most subtle philosophical moment in the novel, and I am not sure that Le Guin completely escapes contradiction in her treatment of it. But there can be no doubt about the ethical basis on which she sees it to rest. The distinction goes back to the anarchist theory of Odo, and specifically to her thoughts on the relationship between the individual and society. Late in the novel, Shevek thinks through this relationship in the terms of Odo's book entitled Analogy. Based on his many experiences he has come to understand his need to be completely himself in his choice of actions. Odo would call this need his 'cellular function',
  the individual's individuality, the work he can do best,
  therefore his best contribution to his society. A healthy
  society would let him exercise that optimum function
  freely, in the coordination of all such functions
  finding its adaptability and strength (333).

The idea is clear enough: by pursuing what one wants to do and does best, one fits into the larger society in the best possible way. Even violating social expectations, for example, by doing physics against the grain of the dominant science, is a way of helping society adapt and grow stronger. Although before the paragraph is over Shevek admits that society might require sacrifice on the part of the individual, that admission is misleading and even inconsistent with the rest of his thought in the passage. For by the next page it becomes clear that he believes he never has to give up his individuality or his work or in any way compromise his values. Sacrifice instead becomes a sign that one has shirked one's primary responsibility to the group, the responsibility to do what one wills. This is certainly the novel's most difficult ethical position to accept. For it seems to presume that the will of the individual and the needs of the group will not ultimately clash and lead to disaster. But whether we believe that this harmonious relationship between individual freedom and social responsibility is tenable or not, Shevek has resolved all doubts. His unwavering commitment to that belief goes a long way toward making him the moral exemplar that he becomes by novel's end.

Sociability and a form of mutual aid distinguished from altruism might provide a firm foundation for the ethical system of Anarres. But by themselves they cannot constitute a complete system of interpersonal ethics. For within the novel there are two obvious limitations of an ethics of mutual aid. First, however successful it might be in alleviating human pain and providing the greatest chance for the interdependence of personal freedom and social responsibility, there is always a residue of suffering that no amount of mutual aid can eliminate. The question therefore arises concerning the way of dealing with that pain. Second, as the Kropotkin quote on love given above makes clear, mutual aid is as operable among strangers as it is among family and friends. So what then are the special ethics of living in intimacy with others? These two questions lead Le Guin to layer Shevek's ethics in the novel and take her beyond Kropotkin in under-standing the complexities of ethics in an anarchist society.


As an unidentified young person explains in one of the most important ethical discus-sions in the novel, 'the whole principle of mutual aid is designed to prevent suffering' (61). No doubt Shevek agrees. But he has also thought through and beyond this view. Although mutual aid has value as a means of reducing suffering, he knows that nothing, not all the sociability in the world, can completely eliminate it. Mutual aid therefore needs to be supplemented by a more complex view of suffering. The view that Shevek develops and that the novel explores is called the brotherhood of shared pain.4

On at least four different occasions in the novel Le Guin exemplifies the limits of mutual aid by placing Shevek in a situation in which he could not help another person in his immediate environment or another person could not help him. The first of these cases occurs when he stayed with a man who lived for two hours before succumbing to burns from an aircar crash. No doctors or anesthetics were available to ease the man's pain. Shevek and the girls with him could not even touch the man to comfort him for fear that his skin would fall off. Shevek's conclusion from the incident exaggerates the uselessness of mutual aid in order to drive home the point that in extreme cases it becomes irrelevant. 'You couldn't do anything for him. Then I saw ... you see ... I saw that you can't do anything for anybody. We can't save each other. Or ourselves' (62; the ellipses are Le Guin's). The second example comes in the description of the aftermath of the workers' rally on Urras. When the oppressive authorities of A-Io opened fire on the workers, Shevek ended up fleeing with a man who was shot in the hand. They hid in the basement of a warehouse for three days until the man died of his wounds. While they were in hiding Shevek asked the man not to moan, not because he was afraid that the sounds would give away their location but because 'he could not bear to hear the man's pain and not be able to do anything for him' (306). The third example is the most difficult to bear. When Shevek and his friend Bedap walked Shevek's daughter Sadik back to her dorm after dinner one evening, Sadik asked if she could stay with Takver and Shevek for the night. She explained that her dorm mates hated her because they saw her father as a traitor for communicating with the enemy on Urras. When Shevek grabbed her to hold her and she broke down in tears, tears filled Shevek's own eyes and he sent Bedap on without him. There was no escaping the pain of the moment for either father or daughter. Finally, when a convalescent Shevek refused his mother's offer of a renewed relationship and began crying when she left, an older man in the hospital came over to console him. But Shevek was not comforted: 'Even from the brother there is no comfort in the bad hour, in the dark at the foot of the wall' (125).

Le Guin does not provide these examples of situations in which mutual aid is irrelevant because she thinks it is meaningless for the creation of an anarchist ethics. On the contrary, she believes that mutual aid is indispensible to the anarchist society she is trying to embody. But in her characteristic way she also wants to test the limits of the idea. In the course of this test not only does she exemplify the kinds of situations in which it becomes irrelevant but she also has a precocious teenaged Shevek explain those limits to his friends:
  Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it
  comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it's
  right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the
  social organism does. But no society can change the nature of
  existence. We can't prevent suffering. This pain and that pain,
  yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering,
  unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality.
  All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we'll
  have known pain for fifty years. And in the end we'll die (60).

The choice of words here is interesting. Social suffering I suppose means the inequities and injustices that governments and private property cause. We have seen that mutual aid can, in theory at least, eliminate that type of suffering by underpinning a communist and anarchist society. Unnecessary suffering may refer to any kind of pain that is preventable in theory and manageable when it appears. Such pains can range from headaches to homelessness. But beyond social and unnecessary suffering is the necessary suffering that each person must confront. It is the pain before death, the hunger in a famine, the alienation in an inimical social situation. This kind of pain, Shevek argues, is inevitable and universal. It does no good to ignore it or to pretend it can be avoided or treated. To minimise this type of suffering would be to belie the actual conditions of life with which an anarchist society has to deal. And the ever critical Le Guin refuses to do that. Instead, she insists on the reality of necessary suffering.

Once she has established that reality, however, she is free to show how an anarchist society can try to turn it to its advantage. The key idea in the ethics of shared pain is that the very inevitability and universality of suffering create the possibility for a tighter bond among people than the sociability of the species could ever provide. For if all people are going to live their lives in the knowledge that suffering is ultimately inescapable regard-less of how much aid they render to each other, they recognise too that they are united by the common experience of the human condition. And that recognition ties people together not only because all experience the pain but also because they all endure it until their ends.

The novel speaks about this bond on three occasions. The first occurs right after Shevek describes the death of the burned man and his recognition that humans cannot save others or even themselves. When an unnamed character accuses him of denying brotherhood, a worthy enough inference from what he has just said, he responds that he is not. On the contrary, he is redefining brotherhood in a higher key than that of mutual aid: 'it begins in shared pain' (62). The idea of shared pain is, at least on the surface, paradoxical because, as Shevek rightly says later, each person suffers his or her pain alone (300). But Shevek is not talking about sharing the exact pain that the other person is experiencing. He does not feel the pain of the burned man. He has instead learned that all of us suffer alone in our pain all the time. It is the one thing we can be sure we will all experience. And because we inevitably suffer necessary pain that no one can eliminate we are brothers and sisters. The second passage comes from the speech that Shevek gives to the workers rally in A-Io. The passage is rather tangled as it speeds from the brotherhood of shared suffering to Shevek's frequently used figure of empty hands, to mutual aid, to each person's being the revolution inside himself or herself. But within that stream of thoughts he makes the following helpful remarks: 'We are brothers in what we share. In pain ... in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it' (300). One expects that the bond of shared pain would include hunger and poverty among its particulars. But the introduction of shared hope is some-thing of a surprise. It is characteristic of this novel that the idea of hope appears without specifying an object (see p.348). But in this context it probably includes both the reduction of all but the most necessary suffering and the reinforcing of community. In fact, the creation of a truly anarchistic society, one that believes in permanent revolution, might very well depend on the hope that issues from a common recognition of shared pain. The third example involves the moment when Shevek is holding his daughter Sadik, who feels alienated from her dorm mates. Both may be crying and both may be unable to relieve the suffering of the other. But the scene does not end with them. Instead it is told from Bedap's perspective as he walks away from the father and daughter. What he recognises is that the two are sharing something which he, as one without a partner, can only share in part, 'the intimacy of pain' (370). Both suffer, the girl from abuse, alienation, and shame, and the father from the knowledge of his share of responsibility for her pain and his inability to help. That last type of suffering, the full recognition that in cases of necessary pain one can do nothing to help the other, may be the most characteristic and profound type of pain to be explored in this novel. But on the positive side of this situation Bedap understands that neither suffers alone and that the bond between them can only be strengthened by this intimacy of pain. So, too, in human society at large: community and solidarity are deepened by the common condition of suffering.

The ethics of shared pain then creates a sense of solidarity felt within each individual member of the social unit. That inward feeling is not empathy if by empathy we mean that people must experience the same kind of pain as the other person. But if we take the idea more broadly, the individual's experience of any pain not ameliorable by mutual aid can provide an understanding of the suffering of others sufficient to say that the ethics of shared pain centers on a form of generalised empathy. Unlike most under-standings of empathy, however, this one does not necessarily lead to social action. The recognition of the universality of necessary pain instead acts within the person to tie her to all other humans. The result is akin to that of watching a performance of King Lear. Although Lear dies after experiencing intense suffering, we feel closer to him than to the other characters because Shakespeare has taught us, among other things, that all of us will experience pain and will be more tightly bonded with each other as a result. In this respect, the novel presents a positive spin on a tragic view of life.

Shevek's theory of shared pain as the basis for human solidarity makes Kropotkin seem almost naive by comparison. It is not that Kropotkin had not seen his own share of pain, or felt it personally, for that matter. He endured stays in the Peter and Paul Prison in St Petersburg and a French prison as well. But the pervasiveness and enormity of suffering in Le Guin's novel demands a supplement to the ethics of mutual aid if the anarchism of Anarres is going to handle the worst. That being said, Kropotkin would understand the need for this revision, as he shows in the most memorable of his examples of mutual aid in his contemporary society, the Lifeboat Association that attempts to save those whose ships have foundered or sunk along the British coast. One cannot help but be struck by the comments of one lifeboat crew survivor of an extraordinarily heroic rescue attempt. It occurred during a snowstorm. After hours of listening to the pleas for help from a ship grounded on a sandbar, the crews could not stand it anymore. They manned the lifeboats and went out onto a dangerous sea, knowing full well the risk they were running. Although one boat managed to save those on board the ship, another boat capsized twice and a member of its crew drowned. One of the survivors of the ill-fated boat commented that the worst part of the whole experience was to watch his fellow crewmember drown and not be able to help him (Mutual Aid 2006: 212-13). Kropotkin may have been trying to define the heroism of those in such voluntary and unpaid associations. But along the way he exposes the ultimate limits of mutual aid - that even those risking their lives cannot all be saved. The story could have come straight from Le Guin's novel. She would have known how to capitalise on this opportunity to distinguish between the ethics of mutual aid and the even deeper ethics of shared pain.

Shevek makes one further point on the ethics of shared pain that requires comment. In the highly revealing passage in which the teenaged Shevek first tries to articulate his sense of ethics, right after he defines the idea of necessary pain he provides a most positive view of the results of inevitable suffering:
  And yet, I wonder if it isn't all a misunderstanding - this
  grasping after happiness, this fear of pain ... If instead of
  fearing it and running from it, one could ... get through it, go
  beyond it. There is something beyond it. It's the self that suffers,
  and there's a place where the self - ceases. I don't know how to
  say it. But I believe that the reality - the truth that I recognize
  in suffering as I don't in comfort and happiness - that the reality
  of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure
  it all the way (60-61; ellipses are Le Guin's).

Despite the promise of this passage, in the course of his moral education Shevek never loses his sense of self. Nor does he reach the point where the reality of pain is not pain. But as he foresees, there may be something positive within the experience of pain, although maybe not in the way he anticipates here. What emerges within pain is a certain kind of joy that is most fully experienced in the bond of partnership. To that bond we now turn.


In an interview conducted in 1980, six years after the publication of The Dispossessed, Le Guin was asked about gender relations in the anarchist society within the novel. Her response was interesting. She said that she grew up in 'a very closely pair-bonded family' and went on to comment: 'this is, to some extent, still an ideal to me. Two people who are really happy together is a lovely thing, and I guess I was interested in showing that. And because I was trying to write a utopia, a happy place, a good place, I wanted a happy couple in it' (Mellor in Freedman 2008: 9).

It may be something of a surprise that a writer as concerned with feminism and anarchism as Le Guin should present a rather traditional happy couple. But two things need to be borne in mind. First, she does not mean to say that such coupling is the only road to happiness. And second, the 'happy' couple of the novel, Takver and Shevek, are only happy despite all kinds of suffering, including long separations and at times opposition from their community. It is an enormously difficult happiness and one worth examining in some detail in order to understand an important dimension of Le Guin's thought on the ethics of interpersonal relationships. (5)

The core of the relationship between Takver and Shevek is partly defined by Takver when the first time they are alone together Shevek asks her what she needs. She calls it simply 'the bond': '"I need the bond", she said, "The real one. Body and mind and all the years of life. Nothing else. Nothing less"' (180). However inadequate this statement may be as a definition Shevek immediately understands what she means, and for the rest of their lives neither of them ever questions the notion of the bond or its power over them. It is as if both of them had been waiting all their lives for the moment in which the bond was created, and nothing could break it once it was formed. On one level, the bond means that the couple has committed to sexual fidelity, even though their society places no value on it. On a second level, though, it means that they are partners - the word used for this type of relationship - again despite the fact that their society is not set up for partnering. Partnering includes lifelong loving each other, living together when possible, having children for whom both partners take responsibility, and creating the Anarresti equivalent of a home. It is the most complete and intense relationship that either of the two partners could imagine.

Given the experiences of Takver and Shevek in the novel, two features of their partnership emerge as the most important. The first is loyalty. The kind of loyalty that Shevek values includes sexual fidelity but is not limited to it. On the contrary, it depends on his whole view of time as both sequential and simultaneous, the General Temporal Theory that he has created. One promises to another and then stays faithful to the promise. Shevek recognises the full power of that idea only after the severe drought has kept him from Takver and their daughter Sadik for four years. As he processes their experience, he concludes as follows: 'It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it' (335).

Loyalty achieves the miracle of simultaneity within sequence. It means that, although time may drive ever forward, nevertheless the bond endures and thus provides a form of significant sameness within the difference. The past is maintained within the bond, just as the future is assured. All moments of the bond, in that sense, are the same. This endurance of the relationship is what gives it its value. At the same time it provides human existence with its highest level of meaning.

For Shevek, it should be noted, loyalty is not limited to one's partner. It becomes instead his standard for all interpersonal relationships. Throughout the novel, he has difficulties with his mother but pure admiration for his father. The reason is that when he was a child his mother left them to pursue her engineering career while his father stuck with Shevek throughout. Although in the anarchist society of Anarres the action of his mother was common and perhaps even to be expected, Shevek always thought of her departure as a betrayal. Conversely, he saw his father's decision to stay with him as praiseworthy, even if he did not think that all parents should do the same. Takver explains Shevek's position to Bedap in these terms:
  She [Shevek's mother Rulag] left when he was two. The father
  stayed with him. Nothing unusual, of course. Except Shev's
  feelings. He feels that he lost something essential - he and the
  father both. He doesn't make a general principle out of it, that
  parents should always keep the children, or anything. But the
  importance loyalty has for him, it goes back to that, I think (364).

It is as if Shevek wants it both ways with respect to family relationships. In an anarchist society, in which sexual relations are completely free, the relationships of parent-child and husband-wife have no intrinsic power and certainly cannot be legislated. But the two types of ties still have value for the most ethical person in the novel and so make a powerful addition to the bonds of mutual aid and shared pain.

The other feature of the partnership between Takver and Shevek involves the idea of home. In fact, though, it may not be another feature but rather the same feature as loyalty between partners looked at in a different way. For the home that Takver and Shevek share has nothing to do with owning a house together. Nor does it include an extended family, since traditional families do not hold a high place in Anarresti society. (We learn nothing, for example, of Takver's parents.) But Takver and Shevek, and eventually their children, form a home of an emotional kind. I say that this idea of home may be similar to the loyalty between partners because loyalty is best seen as the cause that creates the effect of home. It is their mutual commitment to each other that allows the idea of home to exist at all for them. As Shevek concludes soon after being reunited with Takver after their four-year separation, without the bond between them one cannot know what it is to come home (334).

Much has been made of another passage in the novel about home, the one that presents the paradox of Shevek's theory of physics applied to personal life: 'You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been' (55). Without meaning to reduce the mystery of this passage or what it reveals about time as both sequential and simultaneous, I would like to add that home is only partly a matter of place in this novel, and place is not the most important part. More often and more completely, home is an interpersonal relationship, or a set of them. In fact, with the possible exception of Shevek's return to Anarres at the end of the novel, the most important instance of going home in the novel is Shevek's return to Takver and Sadik after their four-year separation during the drought. In that instance, he literally goes to a place he has never been before, because Takver had moved to a remote corner of Anarres during their separation. But it is no less a return home than if Shevek had gone to his place of birth - more so, in fact. After a long period of intense suffering, made all the worse by his longing for Takver and their daughter, he re-unites with his partner and thereby re-affirms the bond that has given so much meaning and direction to his life. His relationship with Takver forms an ethical ground that allows the attainment of the highest joy in life. As Shevek lies in bed shortly after his return to his family, he contemplates the meaning of their mutual commitment even during the separation:
  For after all, he thought now, lying in the warmth of Takver's
  sleep, it was joy they were both after - the completeness of being.
  If you evade suffering you also evade the chance of joy. Pleasure
  you may get, or pleasures, but you will not be fulfilled. You will
  not know what it is to come home (334).

This passage indicates the close connection between the ethics of suffering and the ethics of the bond. In this case, enduring absence and eventually going home are the signs that one can go to a place where pain is overshadowed by joy. But it takes the bond with another to create the home that gives full meaning to inevitable suffering. Only with one's partner can one know the completeness of being that includes suffering without privileging it. This is the ultimate statement of the meaning of life in the novel, well beyond the creation of a theory of time or an opening of worlds. Those are important parts of life, perhaps, but they could not on their own bring the joy within suffering that completes being.


Le Guin would never claim to be a moral philosopher, nor would she want to suggest that the three layers of ethics reviewed in this paper present a coherent ethical system. On the contrary, writing an engaging novel like The Dispossessed places demands on an author that defy the tidiness of philosophical system-building. That being said, it is also true that Le Guin is recognised for her moral messages, especially when they are not reducible to a single sentence that one can circulate as the thematic coin of the realm. In the case of The Dispossessed, a one-sentence moral message would clearly be inappropriate because the interpersonal ethics of the novel are too sophisticated for easy reductionism. But at the same time the multi-layered ethics that emerges in the novel is worth consideration because it provides viable answers to the questions of suffering and partnership that supplement the ethical foundation of mutual aid.

Although mutual aid functions well as the guiding ethical principle of Kropotkin's anarchism, it was never intended to eliminate suffering completely. As a result, even in the most perfected anarchist society there would be an important element of suffering in each human life. Le Guin is smart enough to know that to ignore suffering would be to belie anarchism by painting too rosy a picture of the world it would create. Moreover, she does not shrug and say that the pain is inevitable and therefore simply to be borne. She instead incorporates it into a larger framework of solidarity and even joy. It may be that Shevek's youthful theory of going through pain to the point that it is no longer pain is not achievable. Anarres, after all, is not a naive utopia in which all achieve happiness. However, at the very least suffering can bind human beings together in a community of pain. At best one can attain the state that Shevek apparently reaches by novel's end, in which suffering has become a necessary step on the way to the completeness of life.

If Le Guin addresses the issue of suffering, she also attends to the dyadic dimension of ethics. By writing a novel in which the partnership between Takver and Shevek is an integral part of the radically better world she is trying to achieve, Le Guin allows a space for sexuality, love, loyalty, and home within the anarchist world of Anarres. There are risks with this strategy, two of them very obvious. The first is that it might appear as if Le Guin does not believe a life can be complete without a lifelong bond with a partner. Clearly, she values such bonds extremely highly, but she would never say that they are essential for all people. The other risk is the possibility that the mandates of mutual aid and those of the bond could come into opposition. What does one do when the partner and society are both in a critical moment and need one's complete efforts? Le Guin does not provide an answer, and rightly so. Life is complex, the two ethical values were never intended to be completely compatible, and one can only do in the moment what one thinks is best. But when compared to the possibility of joy and a complete life, these risks are hardly worth mentioning. For most human beings do not live between the social and the individual without also feeling the need for intimate interpersonal relationships. Le Guin's layering of ethics wisely addresses that third factor.

Before we conclude, it is important to address three principal objections to the interpersonal ethics of The Dispossessed. The first concerns the elevation of cooperation above competition in the presentation of mutual aid. For mutual aid to work effectively on Anarres, individuals are not supposed to compete for scarce resources or goods. But as the ever critical Le Guin reveals, both in practice and in theory competition has its own claims to make. The novel shows not only how characters like Sabul accumulate power if not possessions by competing with and co-opting others, but also how Shevek himself competes with Sabul when he is forced to negotiate with him (Curtis 2005: 274-75). The implication is that any society that tries to indoctrinate youth in such a way as to eradicate competition altogether is bound to suffer from the return of the repressed in a myriad of masked forms of competition. In theory too competition demands its due attention, as both Kropotkin and Le Guin themselves would admit. It is more realistic therefore to show that some competition would survive in the most cooperative society. But for Le Guin, as for Kropotkin, cooperation must be stronger than competition if anarchism is to have a chance. And as long as the competition does not overwhelm cooperation, its inclusion allows Le Guin to increase the level of credibility of the novel and still answer social Darwinism by insisting on the priority of cooperation.

The second question concerns the brotherhood of shared pain. Leaving aside the gender issues raised by the term 'brotherhood', some may see the community of shared pain as being too passive. One is reminded of Bowring's comments on Le Guin's 'The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas' (Bowring 1998: 35-36). In this famous story of a utopian society made possible by the suffering of one child, the people who cannot stand to live there after learning of the child's pain simply leave. But why, Bowring asks, don't those same people instead try to help the suffering child? If Shevek were to assume that the child's pain falls into his category of necessary suffering, he might respond that some suffering is simply inescapable and so we had better make the most of it by converting it into the foundation of a powerful social bond. Even though it is hard to know what suffering cannot be helped in advance and in fact the motivating goal of a successful anarchist society might be to try to reduce even that suffering which has traditionally been considered necessary, nevertheless Le Guin's realism includes the inevitability of pain. It simply is not going to go away, no matter how optimistic one might be about the future. And as long as it continues to exist, it makes perfect sense to use it as the basis of a shared social bond.

The third question, that of the prominence given to the bond of partnership, has long been a sore spot among critics of the novel (for example, Moylan 1986: 90-120, and Lefanu 1989: 130-46). The relationship between Shevek and Takver appears to be too much like traditional marriage to appeal to those for whom conventional heterosexuality and monogamy are powerful forms of oppression. Although no response is likely to dispel all concerns about the partnership bond in the novel, still a case can be made that it successfully operates on multiple levels. First, it strengthens the novel's premise that all genuine ethics rely on a theory of time. Le Guin cannot completely show the power of the complementarity between sequence and succession without revealing one version of that complementarity in the loyalty and promise of the partnership between Takver and Shevek. Their continuity over changing circumstances is a potent image of the unified theory of time that Shevek develops. Second, the bond creates the possibility of home. Characters like Bedap appear to drift except to the extent that they attach themselves to the solidity of the bond between Takver and Shevek (188-89). Perhaps Le Guin's point is that without some bonding mechanism freedom can easily lapse into loneliness and alienation. Third, for some characters at least, the bond allows sexuality to retain its meaning. Although the eventual loss of pleasure in promiscuous sex does not affect everyone on Anarres (245), it certainly affects Takver and Shevek (179). They want more than pleasure, and even more than children. They want the sex to confirm their loyalty to each other. Thus, while those for whom traditional marriage seems to be the very symbol of oppression may not be persuaded by the salutary effects of the partner-ship bond that the novel features, it is hard to deny that the bond is integral to the embodied anarchist ethics that Le Guin presents.

In closing, let me add one further point about the ideological underpinnings of the ethics in the novel. In the wake of poststructural, postmodern, and indeed postanarchist definitions of new ethical positions, the fact that the interpersonal ethics of The Dispossessed relies on a notion of the integrated subject may make the novel seem anti-quated. But it is not yet time to dismiss the novel as no longer relevant. I would defend its presupposition of the integrated subject on the grounds recently sketched by David Graeber. According to Graeber, in order to counter the alienation that seems inevitable in capitalist society, one should theorise not only an integrated subject but an imagination that creates and maintains reality. The fear that one person's imagined reality is another's worst form of oppression can be countered by the paradox that Graeber articu-lates so skilfully: 'One must be able to imagine oneself and others as integrated subjects in order to be able to produce beings that are in fact endlessly multiple; imagine some sort of coherent, bounded "society" in order to produce that chaotic, open-ended network of social relations that actually exists' (Graeber 2009: 526). The approach to the subject to be found in Graeber's musings, I would argue, is precisely the kind that under-lies Le Guin's novel and allows her to create Shevek's ethical stance. If The Dispossessed continues to attract readers, it is no doubt in part because its ethics answers their alienation. Of course, that this ethical layering is not the final answer to contemporary alienation will surprise no one, least of all Le Guin herself. Nevertheless, the novel continues to exemplify a most creative ethical imagination and to stimulate renewed consideration of what would constitute an optimal anarchist ethics.


(1.) For a sense of the range of readings of the anarchism in the novel, see V. Urbanowicz, 'Personal and Political in The Dispossessed', Science-Fiction Studies, 5 (1978), pp.110-17; P. E. Smith, II, 'Unbuilding Walls: Human Nature and the Nature of Evolutionary and Political Theory in The Dispossessed', in J. D. Olander, and M. H. Greenberg, (eds) Ursula K. Le Guin (New York, 1979), pp.77-96; J. Moore, 'An Archaeology of the Future: Ursula Le Guin and Anarcho-Primitivism', Foundation, 63 (1995), pp.32-39; the three essays in the anarchist section of L. Davis and P. Stillman, (eds), The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (Lanham, MD, 2005): D. Sabia, 'Individual and Community in Le Guin's The Dispossessed', pp.111-28; M. Tunick, 'The Need for Walls: Privacy, Community, and Freedom in The Dispossessed', pp.129-47; and W. Elliott, 'Breaching Invisible Walls: Individual Anarchy in The Dispossessed', pp.149-64; L. Call, 'Postmodern Anarchism in the Works of Ursula K. LeGuin', SubStance 36 (2007), pp.87-105; and D. Jaeckle, 'Embodying Anarchy in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed', Utopian Studies, 20 (2009), pp.75-95.

(2.) Among the many general discussions of ethics in the novel, see E. Cummins Cogell, 'Taoist Configurations: ''The Dispossessed"', in J. De Bolt, (ed.) Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and Outer Space (Port Washington, NY, 1979), pp.153-79; M. T. Tavormina, 'Physics as Metaphor: The General Temporal Theory in The Dispossessed', Mosaic: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature, 13 (1980), pp.51-62; J. Bland, 'Up against the Wall: The Ethical Limits of Rational Objectivity', Science Fiction, 5 (1983), pp.96-101; J. W. Bittner, 'Chronosophy, Aesthetics, and Ethics in Le Guin's The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia', in E. S. Rabkin, M. H. Greenberg, and J. D. Olander, (eds) No Place Else: Explorations of Utopian and Dystopian Fiction (Carbondale, 1983), pp.244-70; and T. Burns, Political Theory, Science Fiction, and Utopian Literature: Ursula K. Le Guin and The Dispossessed (Lanham, MD, 2008), pp.181-215.

(3.) On at least four different occasions Le Guin talks about having read Kropotkin in preparing to write the novel. See The Wind's Twelve Quarters (New York, 1975), p.232; The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. S. Wood, ed. (New York, 1979), p.111; 'An Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin', in L. McCaffery, Across the Wounded Galaxies (Chicago, 1990), p.166; and C. Bigelow and J. McMahon, 'Science Fiction and the Future of Anarchy: Conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin', Oregon Times (December 1974), pp.24-29.

(4.) For other discussions of suffering in the novel, see B. J. Bucknall, Ursula K. Le Guin. (New York, 1981), pp.114-15; S. Finch, 'Paradise Lost: The Prison at the Heart of Le Guin's Utopia', Extrapolation, 26 (1985), pp.240-48; and V. Urbanowicz, 'Personal and Political in The Dispossessed', Science-Fiction Studies, 5 (1978), p.115.

(5.) Of the many discussions of the bond between Takver and Shevek, the following have most informed this discussion: D. M. Hassler, 'The Touching of Love and Death in Ursula Le Guin with Comparisons to Jane Austen', University of Mississippi Studies in English, 4 (1983), pp.168-77; M. Tunick, 'The Need for Walls: Privacy, Community, and Freedom in The Dispossessed', in L. Davis and P. Stillman, (eds) The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (Lanham, MD, 2005), pp.140-43; and T. J. Remington, 'The Other Side of Suffering: Touch as Theme and Metaphor in Le Guin's Science Fiction Novels', in J. D. Olander, and M. H. Greenberg, (eds) Ursula K. Le Guin (New York, 1979), pp.171-77.


Bigelow, Charles, and J. McMahon December 1974. 'Science fiction and the future of anarchy: conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin'. Oregon Times 24-29.

Bittner, James W. 1983. 'Chronosophy, aesthetics, and ethics in Le Guin's The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia'. In Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, (eds) No Place Else: Explorations of Utopian and Dystopian Fiction pp.244-70. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press.

Bland, Jay 1983. 'Up against the wall: the ethical limits of rational objectivity'. Science Fiction 5(3): 96-101.

Bowring, Finn 1998. 'An unencumbered freedom: Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed', Anarchist Studies 6(1): 21-37.

Bucknall, Barbara J. 1981. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York, Frederick Unger.

Burns, Tony 2008. Political Theory, Science Fiction, and Utopian Literature: Ursula K. Le Guin and The Dispossessed. Lanham, MD, Lexington Books.

Call, Lewis 2007. 'Postmodern anarchism in the works of Ursula K. LeGuin', SubStance 36(2): 87-105.

Cogell, Elizabeth Cummins 1979. 'Taoist configurations: 'The Dispossessed"'. In Joe De Bolt, (ed.) Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and Outer Space pp.153-79. Port Washington, NY, Kennikat.

Curtis, Claire P. 2005. 'Ambiguous choices: skepticism as a grounding for utopia'. In Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman, (eds) The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed pp.265-82. Lanham, MD, Lexington Books.

Elliott, Winter 2005. 'Breaching invisible walls: individual anarchy in The Dispossessed'. In Laurence Davis, and Peter Stillman, (eds) The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed pp.149-64. Lanham, MD, Lexington Books.

Finch, Sheila 1985. 'Paradise lost: the prison at the heart of Le Guin's utopia'. Extrapolation 26(3): 240-48.

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Hassler, Donald M. 1983. 'The touching of love and death in Ursula Le Guin with comparisons to Jane Austen'. University of Mississippi Studies in English 4: 168-77.

Jaeckle, Daniel 2009. 'Embodying anarchy in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed'. Utopian Studies 20(1): 75-95.

Kropotkin, Peter 1924; rpt. 1947. Ethics: Origin and Development. Tr. Louis S. Friedland and Joseph R. Piroshikoff. New York, Tudor.

--1902; rpt. 2006. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. N.p., Bibliobazaar.

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--1975. The Wind's Twelve Quarters. New York, Harper & Row.

--1979. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Susan Wood, (ed.) New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons.

--1990. An interview with Ursula K. Le Guin, In Larry McCaffery, Across the Wounded Galaxies pp.151-75. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

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Moylan, Tom 1986. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. New York and London, Methuen.

Remington, Thomas J. 1979. 'The other side of suffering: touch as theme and metaphor in Le Guin's science fiction novels'. In Joseph D. Olander, and Martin Harry Greenberg', (eds) Ursula K. Le Guin pp.153-77. New York, Taplinger.

Sabia, Dan 2005. 'Individual and community in Le Guin's The Dispossessed'. In Laurence Davis, and Peter Stillman, (eds) The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed pp.111-28. Lanham, MD, Lexington Books.

Smith, Philip E., II 1979. 'Unbuilding walls: human nature and the nature of evolutionary and political theory in The Dispossessed'. In Joseph D. Olander, and Martin Harry Greenberg, (eds) Ursula K. Le Guin pp.77-96. New York, Taplinger.

Tavormina, M. Teresa 1980. 'Physics as metaphor: the general temporal theory in The Dispossessed'. In Mosaic: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature 13(3-4): 51-62.

Tunick, Mark 2005. 'The need for walls: privacy, community, and freedom in The Dispossessed'. In Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman, (eds) The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed pp.129-47. Lanham, MD, Lexington Books.

Urbanowicz, Victor 1978. 'Personal and political in The Dispossessed'. Science-Fiction Studies 5: 110-17.

I wish to thank Laurence Davis for his careful suggestions on how to improve this essay.

Daniel P. Jaeckle is Professor of English at the University of Houston-Victoria. Recent publications include an article on embodied anarchism in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed and a study of the Ranter Jacob Bauthumley's pamphlet The Light and Dark Sides of God. He is currently writing an essay on Peter Kropotkin's 'Anarchist Morality'.

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Author:Jaeckle, Daniel P.
Publication:Anarchist Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
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Date:Mar 22, 2012
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