Gender Contested

“…Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else. // Consider: A child has no psychosexual relationship to his mother and father. There is no myth of Oedipus on Winter. // Consider: There is no unconsenting sex, no rape. As with most mammals other than man, coitus can be performed only by mutual invitation and consent; otherwise it is not possible. Seduction certainly is possible, but it must have to be awfully well-timed. // Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.” – Le Guin, 94

By asking the reader to consider these perspective-shifts about life on Winter, I believe Le Guin’s novel draws its strongest reserve of good storytelling through questioning gender norms. What would happen if human civilization stopped “oppressing” the “other” half in a futile sense of competition? Yet, Le Guin’s insistence in Is Gender Necessary? that her novel is “NOT about gender, but betrayal and fidelity,” seems like it neglects this element of exploration in favor of more familiar themes in Gethenian government and society. Le Guin herself says she regrets the criticism leveled at her for using the male “he” pronouns for the Gethenians, and viewed writing the novel as a sort of “self-discovery” about her opinions on gender. This leaves me undecided on whether she gives too much or too little credit to the power of passages like the ones cited above. Knocking such imaginative holes in establishment thinking –only to say later that they were a means to exploring loyalty rather than a focus of their own– seems like it puts too little emphasis on the perspectives Gethenians could share. We have Shiftgrethor as a face-saving alternative to war, but no lengthy passages on raising children, domesticity, etc. Le Guin says, “I eliminated gender, to find out what was left.”  Then why dangle the thread of true(?) gender egalitarianism in front of the reader only to trivialize that thread later?

D-503’s Animal Instincts

No! After everything that had happened, after I had unequivocally shown my feelings toward her!

Besides, she did not even know whether I had gone to the Office of the Guardians. After all, she had no way of knowing that I had been sick — well, that I generally could not…And despite all this…

A dynamo whirled, hummed in my head. Buddha, yellow silk, lillies of the valley, a rosy crescent… Oh yes, and this too: O was to visit me today. Ought I to show her the notice concerning I-330? I didn’t know. She would not believe (indeed, how could she?) that I’ve had nothing to do with it, that I was entirely…I was sure there was going to be a difficult, senseless, absolutely illogical conversation […]

I hurriedly stuffed the notice into my pocket — and suddenly saw this dreadful, apelike hand of mine. I recalled how I-330 had taken my hand that time, during the walk […]

And then it was a quarter to twenty-one.

[…]and all the shades dropped suddenly, in all the houses, and behind the shades…

A strange sensation: I felt as though my ribs were iron rods, constricting, definitely constricting my heart — there was not room enough for it.” (Record 9, page 40).

D-503’s attitude toward sex prior to meeting I-330 is the same attitude he holds toward any other biological function. As all things are in Zamayatin’s dystopian future, sex, what One State calls “lowering the shades,” is a highly regulated process in which one must seek permission and follow the proper protocol. D-503, ever loyal to One State, even rejects O in Record One when she makes her spontaneous desire known to him: “How funny she is. What could I say to her? She had been with me only the day before, and she knew — as I did — that our next sex day was the day after tomorrow.” To D-503, sexuality is just another primitive impulse the ancestors could not control. D-503 never takes notice of other Numbers lowering their blinds, but suddenly, as he heads to see I-330, he addresses the routine and even seems to be excited by it. As D-503 increasingly begins to address the sexuality of the other Numbers, he finds himself confronted by his own feelings of desire, which he quickly succumbs to in his encounter with I-330.

The sultry, iconoclastic I-330, is, for all intents and purposes, is what we “ancients” call a tease. The (deliberate) result of her seduction is a very “ill” D-503, who is deeply perturbed by the possibility that his forebears had perhaps not conquered the elemental force of love and reduced it to mathematical order by the Lex Sexualis. Under One State’s strictly systematized order, love and sex are not mere biological requirements, but tools of rebellion that can never be stamped out completely.