This is in response to an ongoing (every other week) livestream in which a friend and I are discussing Ursula LeGuin’s classic novel, The Dispossessed. It’s a work of science fiction set in a distant star system, on the planet Urras and its moon, Anarres. Generations ago, a group of political dissidents on Urras were offered the opportunity to become settlers on Annares and to run their society as they saw fit, in exchange for mining a valuable ore that had limited availability on the planet but was apparently plentiful on the otherwise nearly-barren moon.
The protagonist is Shevek, an Anarresti physicist who travels to Urras. He is simultaneously curious and also bewildered at the vast differences between the society in which he was raised and the one he is visiting. His own society aims to be stateless, classless, and egalitarian, while Urras is comprised of nation-states with rigid class and gender structure. Things escalate to full-out sexual assault in chapter 7, which was part of the discussion in the livestream. However, I woke up at two in the morning with further thoughts, which you can find behind the cut.
I figured out what the difficulty is with the assault at the party. Structurally, we’re talking about a moral event horizon. Shevek must confront it (for him) but not cross it (for us).
But what we forgot to realize, during the discussion, was that this isn’t going to be the same thing. For us, it’s the assault, and for ME, I want to be clear, he DOES cross a line. However, I also want to point out that I don’t accept the concept of the “moral event horizon.” There is always the possibility of both redemption and forgiveness. And I want to emphasize that those are two completely separate things; although there are connections, either can happen without the other.
Anyway, my point is that while sexual assault is definitely a ‘crossing the line’ moment for Shevek as well as for the reader, there are additional issues that come into play for him that LeGuin doesn’t make use of, and more significantly, could have used, even without the assault – and thus, without relying on a misogynistic trope that was overused even in the 1970s.
For Shevek, and for us, it’s wrong to objectify a person. We see his concern with this earlier, when he has willing sexual partners, but for him it’s merely physical release. He feels guilt over this as he equates it with masturbation that involves another person as a receptacle, kind of like a sex toy or something.
What doesn’t work in this scene is his line “I am—sorry—I thought you wanted—” Because let’s be honest, her responses throughout the scene indicate that she’s used to being treated like this, grabbed and groped by arrogant, handsy men, but that she’s also used to being able to ‘manage’ her assaulters, so that she is able to frame it as being on her terms. The use of the word ‘fear’ comes somewhat through Shevek’s perspective; her repetition of “let me go!” is in the “same high whisper.” This makes it clear that she is absolutely not calling out for help. To me, this makes it sound like what she’s REALLY worried about is her reputation – her status. Because while she is pampered and privileged, everything she has access to is the result of her relationships with men. She is not wealthy; she is connected.
Moreover, it’s clear that Vea does not actually want Shevek to behave as an Urrasti; this is what drew her to him and intrigued her about him in the first place. When she first meets him, she thinks to herself that here is a “real man,” and we talked about what that might mean in the livestream – about him being hairier than people in Urras, taller as well, and that since on Annares, everyone pitches in for physical labor at least occasionally, he’s likely more muscular than most of the men with whom she is acquainted.
But it’s also possible that there’s more to it than that. Shevek has no interest in building up stores of wealth. All of the greed, the grasping, the chasing, the paranoia of loss, the sense that no matter how much you have, it’s never enough, there must be more money, there MUST be more money… he has none of that. Because he owns nothing, his identity is based on who he is, not on what he has.
Additionally, later, in the garden, when he challenges her about her role in society and says that she is “a thing owned,” she absolutely shuts him down. She is gentle and alluring about it, to be certain. But she is more direct in that than she has been in any other case up to that point.
So it is unreasonable and even inconsistent for Shevek to say that he thought she wanted him to treat her like this. Sure, he’s drunk, but that simply removes inhibitions and reduces reaction time and dexterity. It means you might say what you’re actually thinking, even if it results in unpleasant consequences – like his remark about not actually having the completed theorem. But it doesn’t give you new, different ideas.
The scene could have been accomplished an an even more effective manner without violence. Shevek could reference the box of candy that he’d brought Vea, and as he’s kissing and fondling her, asked if she liked it, and what he was going to get in return. It would be consistent with her character to find his clumsy attempts at flirting amusing and even endearing. It would have made sense for her to be a willing participant, and even to encourage him further. And while it’s her party, so she DOES need to get back to her guests, that could be accomplished by just having him pass out, as he does.
In fact, for Shevek, that would arguably be even worse than what actually happens. Earlier on, we see his guilt over objectifying another person, even if it’s only in his own mind. But propertarianism is clearly worse in their society than objectification; it is the extension of that, and it is anathema to them. And worst, most profane of all, is profiteering. So to have a scene in which he treats Vea as though she is not only property, but the profit to which he is entitled in exchange for the box of sweets – nothing could be more repugnant to him.
This is with the guess that we’re structurally at Shevek’s low point, and he’s going to wake up feeling horrible about himself, and question his values and identity and such. I do think that my version of the scene actually works better for that. However, it’s also important to consider the intended effect on the audience. A transactional-ish flirtation would definitely play softer to the audience than sexual assault. It’s not out of the question that LeGuin also wants the reader to think less of Shevek. That’s what we’ve seen the whole way through this “ambiguous utopia,” that she doesn’t want Shevek or his world to seem so perfect as to become a caricature.
And maybe that might have been true for audiences in the ‘70s. But it’s certainly not the case now, and I’m not even sure it was true then. Sexual assault isn’t necessary. There are enough imperfections in Shevek already. He isolates himself and has become socially awkward as a result. Or is it that he is socially awkward and has isolated himself as a result? Hm. Interesting little parallel to his unification theory there. He is overconfident in his abilities and in the development of his theory; his hubris, while not likely to topple empires, is also a problem.
These flaws humanize Shevek and make him sympathetic and relatable. These are enough. He shouldn’t have to commit sexual assault to show that he’s just like any other man. What, in the name of all we hold sacred, does that show about what we think about the nature of men?
Literature as an art form, and especially speculative fiction, is about more than just what’s going on in the story. It’s about US. It’s about the nature of society and of humanity. And LeGuin was well established as an icon in the field by this point. So even if there was some pressure from early readers, or editors, which there probably was, it’s hard to see it as anything other than her choice to write the scene this way.
I really, really wish I could talk to her about that choice. Maybe she would agree with me, that it should have gone differently. Or maybe there’s something I’m not seeing.
At any rate, she now joins the growing list of people I will always regret never getting to talk to, which thus far includes Agatha Christie, John Wesley, Corrie Ten Boom, and will probably include Tom Lehrer before too much longer, unfortunately.
And that is a really grim note to end on, so let me add that I still love this book, and I still love LeGuin, and I am super excited to move into the next chapter.