30 pages 1 hour read

Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1974

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The Dispossessed tells the story of its protagonist Shevek’s journey from his home on a desolate, isolated moon to the abundant planet around which his society revolves. Shevek is an Odinian physicist from the planet of Urras, a socialist planet without a central government that follows the teachings of the revolutionary Odo. Upon settling Urras, Odinians refused contact with their former home, the planet Anarres: the only exchange between the planets occurs as mined goods are sent from Anarres to Urras; electronics, petroleum, and other engineered supplies are sent to Anarres in return. Shevek, an independent thinker who founds the Syndicate of Initiative, travels to the state of A-Io, a country on Urras, despite his countrymen’s disapproval and even protest, in the hopes of creating more exchange between the two societies. In addition, his act asserts that individual will must be allowed to reign in a truly revolutionary society; he hopes that his actions will spur dialogue and change on Anarres.

The chapters in The Dispossessed alternate between the events after Shevek’s arrival on Urras, on the one hand, and his life on Anarres from his youth up until his departure, on the other. In contrasting these two societies and experiences, the novel also contrasts capitalism and socialism, as well as different concepts of racial and gender hierarchy. As the plot unfolds, it also reveals that the Urrasti civilization exists after the destruction of the Earth’s environment, and some of the alien characters with whom Shevek interacts are, in fact, humans—or “Terrans”— and are from Earth. The critique of Urrasti capitalism, inequality, and power is an implicit critique of the U.S., and life on Anarres serves as a fictional alternative, although its version of socialism is by no means utopian, and has a number of problems that Shevek contemplates and attempts to address.

In Shevek’s time on Anarres, his unique interpretation of Odo’s teachings puts him out-of-step with public opinion. As a boy, he is raised in a dormitory, as is his mother, Rulag, is posted elsewhere. He develops close friendshipsbut is sometimes scolded for “egoizing.” With his friends, he explores foreign concepts, including imprisonment; debates Odinian contempt for Urras; and learns to follow his own passions. He is invited to work with Anarres’ premier physicist, Sabul, as the Central Institute of the Sciences. Under Sabul’s instructions, he learns Urrasti so that he can read foreign physics texts.

As he realizes that Sabul holds power over him, he becomes more skeptical of Odinian society. Reconnecting with his childhood friend, Bedap, and meeting his life partner Takver, he realizes he is a rebel, but he does not rebel against Odo’s teachings; rather, he believes rebellion and the pursuit of individual will are necessary to maintain her vision, which was for a society in a state of perpetual revolution. After founding his new syndicate, he butts heads with the PDC, Anarres’ administrative unit, where his mother, Rulag, happens to work. To defend his ideas and explore further, he journeys to Urras.

The chapters that take place on Urras, in the state of A-Io, contrast Iotian society with Odinian society, often unfavorably. While Urras is a resource-rich planet, and much of it is opulent, the underbelly of poverty is hidden from Shevek until he seeks it out. The importance of “superiority” and “inferiority” as concepts in the lives of Iotians is, however, evident from the beginning: their society places men above women, rich above the poor, and Cetians (the race from Urras, thus also the race on Anarres) above alien races.

As a teacher in a university in the city of Nio, Shevek enjoys intellectual exchanges with peers and students; however, he also comes to see the university as a prison. Near despair, he has a breakthrough that enables him to finish his Theory of Simultaneityand see its application. He breaks free from the university with the help of his servant, Efor, and seeks out Iotian rebels who are inspired by a revolution in another nation, Benbili, and disgusted by their government’s assistance of that nation’s dictatorial regime in a proxy war with the state of Thu. He becomes a symbol and leader for protestors, but this role is short-lived: the government kills civilians at the first protest. Shevek escapes the armyand finds refuge with the Terran embassy. 

After having contrasted life on the two planets, Shevek decides the best way to improve life on Anarres—and in the universe—is to share his scientific discoveries with all races and planets, so that none may dominate the others. He learns that he is now welcome to return to his home, and he does, along with a curious Hanishman, an alien who wishes to learn about the Odinian way of life.