My general thoughts on this work are here.
Because of its thoughtful and detailed look at so many aspects of humanity, an enormous amount of commentary has been written about this book. In an attempt to say something different, I choose to write a few words about just one of several important themes. Furthermore, I am going to focus on a subtheme of this theme.
One very prominent area of exploration in this book is gender and the role of women in society. There is so much on this subject covered within this novel that it would be difficult to focus even on this one area in a single blog post. Thus, I will concentrate on one subtheme within the broader theme of gender. That is, the effects that women’s roles have upon men.
Le Guin depicts the society on Anarres as having achieved full gender equality. Furthermore, no one on Anarres is sexually objectified in any way. But it goes beyond that. Interests in beauty and fashion standards are nonexistent. Much of what we would describe as “feminine” in our modern society is eschewed. There is no debate or controversy about this among men or women. It is simply how Anarres is.
This is contrasted with the various societies on Urras, the other planet examined in this work, where women are extremely oppressed. Even in the more advanced nations that seem to be on the level of those of twentieth century Earth in terms of technology, women hold absolutely no economic or political power and very few rights. In addition, they are universally objectified.
Vea is an upper class woman that Shevek, the main character of this book, befriends during his stay on Urras.
At one point, he describes her,
"Shoes, clothes, cosmetics, jewels, gestures, everything about her asserted provocation. She was so elaborately and ostentatiously a female body that she seemed scarcely to be a human being. She incarnated all the sexuality…repressed into their dreams, their novels and poetry, their endless paintings of female nudes, their music, their architecture with its curves and domes, their candies, their baths, their mattresses.”
I think that that the comment “she seemed scarcely to be a human being” is significant as it illustrates what Le Guin’s views are pertaining on what she believes are the dehumanizing effects of the sexual objectification.
Yet this novel is not simplistic and does highlight other views. Vea’s comments about the society on egalitarian Anarres, as she is talking to Shevek, provides an interesting counterpoint,
"I’ll tell you something, though. If you took one of your ‘sisters’ up there…and gave her a chance to take off her boots, and have an oil bath and a depilation, and put on a pair of pretty sandals, and a belly jewel, and perfume, she’d love it. And you’d love it too! Oh, you would! But you won’t, you poor things with your theories. All brothers and sisters and no fun!”
Based in the text, it seems that Le Guin is depicting the Odonian (Odonians are what the inhabitants of Anarres call themselves. See my first post on this book. ) attitudes concerning gender to be superior to those of our modern Western society. With that, this novel is full of nuanced ideas, and it is illustrated that these are complex issues.
Things get interesting when the men of Anarres encounter the women of Urras. The males of Anarres are depicted as completely progressive when it comes to attitudes on gender. This view seems to be universal even with young men.
Yet when boys on Anarres view videos of slave women on Urras, they become very sexually stimulated. Furthermore, when Shevek, an otherwise sympathetic protagonist, begins to interact with Vea, he is intoxicated by her sensuality and losses control. He commits what can only be described as a sexual assault.
So what is Le Guin saying here? I think that it is safe to assume that the society on Anarres, where the vast majority women do not participate in activities to enhance their attractiveness, is meant to be viewed positively. In the world depicted in this book, both men and women seem to function in balanced and healthy ways when it comes to sexuality and gender relations. Yet, exposure to women who do place value and effort upon physical attractiveness leads to some awful behavior on the part of men who are not otherwise sexist or misogynist in any way.
Le Guin seems not to be condemning men here. However, I think that she is saying that there is an innate tendency for men to objectify women. She is tying to illustrate that this tendency is harmful to both men and women.
Le Guin seems to be saying that a society where people, particularly women, do not bother at all to be sexually attractive is a preferable society to our own. Or, perhaps the author is just throwing the idea out as food for thought.
My opinion is that the issue of some people wanting to be attractive to the opposite sex is an extremely complex one. Likewise, the issue of some people being attracted to certain traits in other people, and how this attraction affects them, is similarly complex. Some aspects of human society clearly objectify people, usually women. Where healthy sensuality ends and objectification begins is a major source of the complexity. I think that a society where women, and men for that matter, take virtually zero care in their physical appearance in regards to attracting others sexually runs counter to our biology and is not desirable. With that, there still is objectification of women in society that is demeaning and that is not conducive to a healthy society.
Thus, while I do not agree with Le Guin entirely here, these are really important concepts that delve deeply into the core of humanity. These concepts are examined in a thoughtful and enlightening way within the pages of this work.
I have only scratched the surface above. This book has a lot more going on in terms of gender. Furthermore, gender is only one of the many aspects of society examined in this work. As I mentioned in the first part of my commentary, this novel takes an intriguing look at economics, violence, war, poverty and a host of other things. It is a treasure trove of ruminations about so many aspects of the human condition.