The Dispossessed: what resonates on re-reading

The Dispossessed cover art

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin is book of the month. We will be discussing this book at our next Utopian Book Collective meeting on Monday 6th May.

I re-read The Dispossessed this month in anticipation of our upcoming book group meeting. I can’t wait to discuss it. In this post I simply want to highlight a few quotations that stood out for me on re-reading. I’m sure other people will have their own moments in the novel that carry meaning for them. It’s such a rich text. Please let me know in the comments or at book group if you happen to be able to make it.

On ideas

The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”

p.62

This reminds me of why it’s so great to get together at book group to discuss texts like The Dispossessed. Reading, writing and thinking are not, in fact, solo activities!

On mothering

is it well with the child?”

p.82

This is the concluding line of a poem written by one of the anarchist settlors of Anarres within the novel. The child of the poem is ‘child Anarchia’. However, it succinctly expresses that ever present background mind hum you have as a parent.

Le Guin was a mother of three, and the founder of the anarchic society in The Dispossessed, Odo, was a woman. This makes me think of the creation and maintenance of the anarchist society on Anarres as a kind of mothering. If nothing else, it goes towards rebalancing the masculinist energy that dominates in capitalist culture, of aspiring to achieve certain images of greatness, wealth and success. Instead, it suggests an ongoing process of checking in and nuturing potential to see what might develop.

On capitalists

You put your petty miserable ‘laws’ to protect wealth, your ‘forces’ of guns and bombs in the same sentence with the law of entropy and the force of gravity? I had thought better of your mind.”

p.169

These lines are spoken by the anarchist physicist, and protagonist of the novel, Shevek. These are great words to remember when dealing with anyone who seems to think the (capitalist, unequal, militaristic) status quo is the only possible way.

On the ‘real’ world

It was not ‘the real Urras’. The dignity and beauty of the room he [Shevek] and Efor were in was as real as the squalor to which Efor was native. To him a thinking man’s job was not to deny one reality at the expense of the other, but to include and connect. It was not an easy job.”

p.235

On the capitalist planet Urras, Shevek is hosted by the wealthy elite. He is given rooms in the grand and ancient university and a servant, Efor. It’s tempting (and frequently done) to accuse rich people and politicians of being clueless about the ‘real’ world. However, these thoughts, which Le Guin gives Shevek, remind us that, whichever side of the rich/poor divide we are on, we live in one society in which these positions are interdependent. The coexistence of these experiences of life is ‘real’.

On anarchists

We don’t co-operate – we obey. We fear being outcast, being called lazy, dysfunctional, egoising. We fear our neighbour’s opinion more than we respect our own freedom of choice. […] We’ve made laws, laws of conventional behaviour, built walls all around ourselves, and we can’t see them, because they’re part of our thinking.”

p.272

This is Shevek speaking again, this time critiquing his own anarchist society on Anarres. Dismantling the walls that contain us, figurative and literal, is a key theme in The Dispossessed and is crucial to anarchism as Le Guin presents it in the novel. However, identifying and testing the walls that are so naturalised we can’t see them is also a utopian practice. So this is also part of what makes the novel a utopia, albeit an ‘ambiguous’ one (as per its subtitle, ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’).

This passage suggests that we need to act according to what we think is right, rather than what we think others will perceive as right. This is a challenging thought as it feels like it permits dangerous, potentially destructive action and behaviour. But, as Shevek says, “would you murder me, ordinarily? And if you felt like it, would a law against it stop you?” (p.124).

On status

There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart, on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter in, and fear of loss, and the wish for power […]. You cannot act like a brother to other people, you must manipulate them, or command them, or obey them, or trick them.”

p.285

More wisdom that Le Guin places in the mouth of Shevek. A comment on the difficulty of communicating directly in a society that prizes rhetoric and marketing as the cleverest forms of communication.

On climate

we Terrans made a desert… We survive there, as you do. People are tough! There are nearly half a billion of us now. There were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do – they never adapt either. We failed as a species, as a social species.”

p.286

This is the Terran ambassador Keng telling Shevek about Terra, or Earth. While the capitalist Urras might seem analogous to our planet, here is the real story from Earth. The Dispossessed was published in 1974, making this one of the moments where Le Guin wrote climate fiction decades before cli-fi was a thing.

So those are my favourite quotes, but before you go…

…Another take on The Dispossessed

The Utopian Book Collective’s resident anarchist, The Peaceful Revolutionary, has written a handy visitor guide to Anarres. Find it here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *