The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed

Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Author Ursula K. Le Guin
Cover artist Fred Winkowski
Country United States
Language English
Series The Hainish Cycle
Genre Science fiction
Published 1974 (Harper & Row)
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 341 (first edition)
Awards Locus Award for Best Novel (1975)
ISBN 0-06-012563-2 (first edition, hardcover)
OCLC 800587
Preceded by The Left Hand of Darkness
Followed by The Word for World is Forest

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia is a 1974 utopian science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, set in the same fictional universe as that of The Left Hand of Darkness (the Hainish Cycle). The book won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1974,[1] won both the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1975,[2] and received a nomination for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1975.[2] It achieved a degree of literary recognition unusual for science fiction works due to its exploration of many ideas and themes, including anarchism and revolutionary societies, capitalism, individualism and collectivism, and freedom versus imprisonment.

It features the development of the mathematical theory underlying the fictional ansible, an instantaneous communications device that plays a critical role in Le Guin's Hainish Cycle. The invention of the ansible places the novel first in the internal chronology of the Hainish Cycle, although it was the fifth Hainish novel published.[3]


The Dispossessed is set on Anarres and Urras, the twin inhabited worlds of Tau Ceti. Cetians are mentioned in other Ekumen novels and short stories. An Anarresti appears in the short story The Shobies' Story. Urras before the settlement of Anarres is the setting for the short story "The Day Before the Revolution".

In The Dispossessed, Urras is divided into several states and dominated by the two largest ones, which are rivals. In a clear allusion to the United States (represented by A-Io) and the Soviet Union (represented by Thu), one has a capitalist economy and patriarchal system and the other is an authoritarian system that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat. Further developing the analogy, there are oppositional left-wing parties in A-Io, one of which is closely linked to the rival society Thu, as were communist parties in the US and other Western countries at the time the story was written. Other parties represent various dissident visions of socialism. Where the situation differs from that of 20th century Earth is the existence of the anarcho-syndicalist world Anarres, representing a third ideological alternative - however, its influence is weakened by most Odonians having agreed generations ago to go into exile on a different world and cut themselves off. There are still some Odonians in A-Io, who eventually contact the Anarresti protagonist Shevek with a note chiding him for betraying his beliefs by working at the university and accepting the government's hospitality. Beyond that, there is a third major, though underdeveloped, area called Benbili—when a revolution supported by Thu breaks out there, A-Io invades, generating a proxy war. Thus, Benbili comes to represent Southeast Asia, an allusion to the Vietnam War. Although there are a wide variety of parties in A-Io, there are no political parties on Anarres. An Odonian orthodoxy prevails without any overt enforcement or oppression, although free thinkers who go too far can end up in psychiatric institutions, as happens with Shevek's childhood friend, Tirin.

In the last chapter of The Dispossessed, we learn that the Hainish people arrived at Tau Ceti 60 years previously, which is more than 150 years after the secession of the Odonians from Urras and their exodus to Anarres. Terrans are also there, and the novel occurs some time in the future. A date of 2300 has been suggested, while the complexities of Urrasti history hint otherwise.

The plot


The chapters alternate between the worlds, and time—even-numbered chapters are set on Anarres and earlier in time, odd-numbered chapters are set on Urras and later in time. The only exceptions are the first and the last chapters which include both worlds and are, thematically, chapters of transition. In chapter one, we are basically in the middle of the story, with Shevek leaving Anarres, while the last chapter is set in space as he returns from Urras to Anarres. The penultimate chapter (chapter twelve) is the last one set in Anarres, and ends at a point before the first chapter begins.

Chapter numbers in chronological order
2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13


The story takes place on the fictional planet Urras and its habitable twin Anarres. In order to forestall an anarcho-syndicalist rebellion, the major Urrasti states gave the revolutionaries (inspired by a visionary named Odo) the right to live on Anarres, along with a guarantee of non-interference, approximately two hundred years before the events of The Dispossessed.[4] Before this, Anarres had had no permanent settlements apart from some mining facilities. The economic and political situation of Anarres and its relation to Urras is ambiguous. The people of Anarres consider themselves as being free and independent, having broken off from the political and social influence of the old world; but the powers of Urras consider Anarres as being essentially their mining colony, the annual consignment of precious metals mined on Anarres and its division among the major powers of Urras being a major economic event of the old world. The ambiguity of Anarres' situation is symbolically manifested in the low wall surrounding Anarres' single spaceport, the only place on the anarchist planet where "No Trespassing!" signs may be seen - where the book begins and ends. Whether the wall divides a free world from the corrupting influence of an oppressor's ships - as the people of Anarres think, or is in fact a prison wall, keeping the rest of the planet imprisoned and cut off, is a question posed by the writer at the very outset - with Shevek's life essentially an effort to answer it.

The protagonist Shevek is a physicist attempting to develop a General Temporal Theory. The physics of the book describes time as having a much deeper, more complex structure than we understand it. It incorporates not only mathematics and physics, but also philosophy and ethics. The meaning of the theories in the book weaves into the plot, not only describing abstract physical concepts, but the ups and downs of the characters' lives, and the transformation of the Anarresti society. An oft-quoted saying in the book is "true journey is return."[5] The meaning of Shevek's theories—which deal with the nature of time and simultaneity—have been subject to interpretation. For example, there have been interpretations that the non-linear nature of the novel is a reproduction of Shevek's theory.[6]

Anarres is in theory a society without government or coercive authoritarian institutions, and the people of Anarres are explicitly anarchist. Yet in pursuing research that deviates from his society's current consensus understanding, Shevek begins to come up against very real obstacles. Shevek gradually develops an understanding that the revolution which brought his world into being is stagnating, and power structures are beginning to exist where there were none before. He therefore embarks on the risky and highly controversial journey to the home planet, Urras, seeking to open communications between the worlds and to finish his General Temporal Theory with the help of academics on Urras. The novel details his struggles on both Urras and his homeworld of Anarres. Shevek experiences hatred from some of the people on Anarres due to his journey to Urras to advance his research, and due to his idea about increasing contact with the home planet. So the story touches on the themes of how people suffer for pursuing their purpose in life (suffering for one's art), and how they suffer for speaking out for change.

Many conflicts occur between the freedom of anarchism and the constraints imposed by authority and society, both on Anarres and Urras. These constraints are both physical - Odo was imprisoned in the Fort in Drio for nine years, and the children construct their own prison in chapter two - and social: 'time after time the question of who is being locked out or in, which side of the wall one is on, is the focus of the narrative.' [7] Mark Tunik emphasises that the wall is the dominant metaphor for these social constraints: Shevek hits ‘the wall of “charm, courtesy, indifference.” He later notes that he let a “wall be built around him” that kept him from seeing the poor people on Urras – he had been co-opted, with walls of smiles of the rich, and he didn’t know how to break them down. . . Shevek at one point speculates that the people on Urras are not truly free precisely because they have so many walls built between people and are so possessive. “You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes – the wall, the wall!” ‘ [8] It is not just the state of mind of those inside the prisons that concerns Shevek, he also notes the effect on those outside the walls; here is Steve Grossi: ‘By building a physical wall to keep the bad in, we construct a mental wall keeping ourselves, our thoughts, and our empathy out, to the collective detriment of all. Shevek puts this more elegantly later on in the book when he says, “those who build walls are their own prisoners.” ’ [9] Le Guin makes this explicit in chapter 2 when the schoolchildren construct their own prison, putting one of their number inside; the deleterious effect on the children outside parallels the effect on the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 (three years before The Dispossessed was published). [10] [11]

The language spoken on the anarchist planet Anarres, Pravic, is a constructed language in the tradition of Newspeak from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four,[12] the intent being to restrict thought as suggested in the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis.[13] Pravic reflects many aspects of the philosophical foundations of utopian anarchism,[14] for instance, the use of the possessive case is strongly discouraged (a feature that also is reflected by the novel's title).[15] Children are trained to speak only about matters that interest others; anything else is "egoizing" (pp. 28–31). There is no property ownership of any kind. Shevek's daughter, upon meeting him for the first time, tells him, "You can share the handkerchief I use"[16] rather than "You may borrow my handkerchief", thus conveying the idea that the handkerchief is not owned by the girl, merely used by her.[17]

The Dispossessed looks into the mechanisms that may be developed by an anarchist society, but also the dangers of centralization and bureaucracy that might easily take over such society without the continuation of revolutionary ideology. Part of its power is that it establishes a spectrum of well-developed characters, who illustrate many types of personalities, all educated in an environment that measures people not by what they own, but by what they can do, and how they relate to other human beings. Possibly the best example of this is the character of Takver, the hero's partner, who exemplifies many virtues: loyalty, love of life and living things, perseverance, and desire for a true partnership with another person.

However, in order to ensure survival in a harsh environment, the people of Anarres are taught from childhood to put the needs of their society ahead of their own personal desires. Shevek and Takver, as good Odonians, take work postings away from each other, and Shevek does hard agricultural labor in a dusty desert instead of working on his research, because he is needed there due to a famine. The work is sometimes said to represent one of the few modern revivals of the utopian genre,[18] and there are many characteristics of a utopian novel found in this book. Most obviously, Shevek is an outsider when he arrives on Urras, following the "traveler" convention common in utopian literature. All of the characters portrayed in the novel have a certain spirituality or intelligence, there are no nondescript characters. It is also true that there are aspects of Anarres that are utopian: it is presented as a pure society that adheres to its own theories and ideals, which are starkly juxtaposed with Urras society. When first published, the book included the tagline: "The magnificent epic of an ambiguous utopia!" which was shortened by fans to "An ambiguous utopia" and adopted as a subtitle in certain editions. The major theme of the work is the ambiguity between different notions of utopia. Anarres is not presented as a perfect society, even within the constraints of what might define an anarchist utopia. Bureaucracy, stagnation, and power structures have problematized the revolution, as Shevek comes to realize throughout the course of the novel. Moreover, Le Guin has painted a very stark picture of the natural and environmental constraints on society. Anarres citizens are forced to contend with a relatively sparse and unfruitful world.

Le Guin's foreword to the novel notes that her anarchism is closely akin to that of Peter Kropotkin's, whose Mutual Aid closely assessed the influence of the natural world on competition and cooperation.[19] Le Guin's use of realism in this aspect of the work further complicates a simple utopian interpretation of the work. Anarres is not a perfect society, and Le Guin's The Dispossessed seems to argue that no such thing is possible. However, life in Anarres, in her view, is far more free, just, meaningful, and satisfying than life in the main countries of Urras (or in their Earth counterparts when the book was written: the capitalist West and the communist East).

The Title

It has been suggested that Le Guin's title is a reference to Dostoyevsky's novel The Possessed,[10] although Dostoevsky's title means possessed by demons. Other commenters point to hardship caused by lack of resources as a plausible reference. The people of Anarres are "dispossessed" in the sense that they have no personal material possessions, since all goods are held in common. In contrast, the working class majority of Urras are "dispossessed" in the sense that they do not have access to the wealth which has been created with their labor. Much of the philosophical underpinnings and ecological concepts came from Murray Bookchin's Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971), according to a letter Le Guin sent to Bookchin.[20] Anarres citizens are dispossessed not just by political choice, but by the very lack of actual resources to possess. Here, again, Le Guin draws a contrast with the natural wealth of Urras, and the competitive behaviors this fosters.[21]


The novel received generally positive reviews. Baird Searles characterized the novel as an "extraordinary work", saying Le Guin had "created a working society in exquisite detail" and "a fully realized hypothetical culture [as well as] living breathing characters who are inevitable products of that culture".[22] Gerald Jonas, writing in The New York Times, said that "Le Guin's book, written in her solid, no-nonsense prose, is so persuasive that it ought to put a stop to the writing of prescriptive Utopias for at least 10 years".[23] Theodore Sturgeon praised The Dispossessed as "a beautifully written, beautifully composed book", saying "it performs one of [science fiction's] prime functions, which is to create another kind of social system to see how it would work. Or if it would work."[24] Lester del Rey, however, gave the novel a mixed review, citing the quality of Le Guin's writing but claiming that the ending "slips badly", a deus ex machina that "destroy[s] much of the strength of the novel".[25]


Other versions

In 1987, the CBC Radio anthology program Vanishing Point adapted The Dispossessed into a series of six 30 minute episodes.[26]

See also

Hainish cycle novels
Other works


  1. "1974 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-29.
  2. 1 2 "1975 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-29.
  3. In The Word for World is Forest, the newly created ansible is brought to Athshe, a planet being settled by Earth-humans. In other tales in the Hainish Cycle, the ansible already exists. The word "ansible" was coined in Rocannon's World (first in order of publication but third in internal chronology), where it is central to the plot.
  4. The story is told in Le Guin's "The Day Before the Revolution".
  5. Said by Shevek near the end of Chapter 13
  6. Rigsby, Ellen M. (2005), p. 169
  7. Barbour, Douglas. "Wholeness and Balance". Science Fiction Studies (1975). Retrieved 2016-10-27.
  8. Tunik, Mark. "The Need for Walls: Privacy, Community, and Freedom in The Dispossessed". Lexington Books (2005). Retrieved 2016-10-27.
  9. Grossi, Steve. "The Dispossessed". Steve Grossi (2013). Retrieved 2016-10-27.
  10. 1 2 "Study Guide for Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed (1974)" - Paul Brians
  11. "The Dispossessed". Samizdat (2015). Retrieved 2016-10-28.
  12. Bruhn, Daniel W. "Walls of the Tongue: A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed" (PDF). UC Berkeley. Retrieved 2016-10-25.
  13. "Elvish, Hobbit language, perhaps most detailed of fictional languages", Public Radio International, December 14, 2012.
  14. Laurence, Davis and Peter G. Stillman. The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Lexington Books (2005). Pp. 287-298.
  15. Conley, Tim and Stephen Cain. Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages. Greenwood Press, Westport (2006). Pp. 46-47.
  16. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, p.69.
  17. Burton (1985).
  18. Davis and Stillman (2005).
  19. Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid (1902).
  20. Janet Biehl, Bookchin biographer; letter in UKL archive
  21. Mathiesen.
  22. "The Dispossessed: Visit from A Small Planet", Village Voice, November 21, 1974, pp.56, 58
  23. "Of Things to Come", The New York Times Book Review, October 26, 1975
  24. "Galaxy Bookshelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1974, pp.97-98
  25. "Reading Room", If, August 1974, pp.144-45
  26. Times Past Old Time Radio Archives.
Anarchism and The Dispossessed
  • John P. Brennan, "Anarchism and Utopian Tradition in The Dispossessed", pp. 116–152, in Olander & Greenberg, editors, Ursula K. Le Guin, New York: Taplinger (1979).
  • Samuel R. Delany, "To Read The Dispossessed," in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. N.Y.: Dragon Press, 1977, pp. 239–308 (anarchism in The Dispossessed). (pdf available online through Project Muse)
  • Neil Easterbrook, "State, Heterotopia: The Political Imagination in Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delany", pp. 43–75, in Hassler & Wilcox, editors, Political Science Fiction, Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina Press (1997).
  • Leonard M. Fleck, "Science Fiction as a Tool of Speculative Philosophy: A Philosophic Analysis of Selected Anarchistic and Utopian Themes in Le Guin's The Dispossessed", pp. 133–45, in Remington, editor, Selected Proceedings of the 1978 Science Fiction Research Association National Conference, Cedar Falls: Univ. of Northern Iowa (1979).
  • John Moore, "An Archaeology of the Future: Ursula Le Guin and Anarcho-Primitivism", Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, v.63, pp. 32–39 (Spring 1995).
  • Larry L. Tifft, "Possessed Sociology and Le Guin's Dispossessed: From Exile to Anarchism", pp. 180–197, in De Bolt & Malzberg, editors, Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat (1979).
  • Kingsley Widmer, "The Dialectics of Utopianism: Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Liberal and Fine Arts Review, v.3, nos.1–2, pp. 1–11 (Jan.–July 1983).
Gender and The Dispossessed
  • Lillian M. Heldreth, "Speculations on Heterosexual Equality: Morris, McCaffrey, Le Guin", pp. 209–220 in Palumbo, ed., Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature, Westport, CT: Greenwood (1986).
  • Neil Easterbrook, "State, Heterotopia: The Political Imagination in Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delany", pp. 43–75, in Hassler & Wilcox, editors, Political Science Fiction, Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina Press (1997).
  • Mario Klarer, "Gender and the 'Simultaneity Principle': Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, v.25, n.2, pp. 107–21 (Spring 1992).
  • Jim Villani, "The Woman Science Fiction Writer and the Non-Heroic Male Protagonist", pp. 21–30 in Hassler, ed., Patterns of the Fantastic, Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House (1983).
Language and The Dispossessed
  • Deirdre Burton, "Linguistic Innovation in Feminist Science Fiction", Ilha do Desterro: Journal of Language and Literature, v.14, n.2, pp. 82–106 (1985).
Property and possessions
  • Werner Christie Mathiesen, "The Underestimation of Politics in Green Utopias: The Description of Politics in Huxley's Island, Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and Callenbach's Ecotopia", Utopian Studies: Journal of the Society for Utopian Studies, v.12, n.1, pp. 56–78 (2001).
Science and The Dispossessed
  • Ellen M. Rigsby, "Time and the Measure of the Political Animal." The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Ed., Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman. Lanham: Lexington books., 2005.
Taoism and The Dispossessed
  • Elizabeth Cummins Cogell, "Taoist Configurations: The Dispossessed", pp. 153–179 in De Bolt & Malzberg, editors, Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat (1979).
Utopian literature and The Dispossessed
  • James W. Bittner, "Chronosophy, Ethics, and Aesthetics in Le Guin's The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, pp. 244–270 in Rabkin, Greenberg, and Olander, editors, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press (1983).
  • John P. Brennan, "Anarchism and Utopian Tradition in The Dispossessed", pp. 116–152, in Olander & Greenberg, editors, Ursula K. Le Guin, New York: Taplinger (1979).
  • Bülent Somay, "Towards an Open-Ended Utopia", Science-Fiction Studies, v.11, n.1 (#32), pp. 25–38 (March 1984).
  • Peter Fitting, "Positioning and Closure: On the 'Reading Effect' of Contemporary Utopian Fiction", Utopian Studies, v.1, pp. 23–36 (1987).
  • Kingsley Widmer, "The Dialectics of Utopianism: Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Liberal and Fine Arts Review, v.3, nos.1–2, pp. 1–11 (Jan.–July 1983).
  • L. Davis and P. Stillman, editors, "The new utopian politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Lexington Books, (2005).
Additional references
  • Judah Bierman, "Ambiguity in Utopia: The Dispossessed", Science-Fiction Studies, v.2, pp. 249–255 (1975).
  • James F. Collins, "The High Points So Far: An Annotated Bibliography of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed", Bulletin of Bibliography, v.58, no.2, pp. 89–100 (June 2001).
  • James P. Farrelly, "The Promised Land: Moses, Nearing, Skinner, and Le Guin", JGE: The Journal of General Education, v.33, n.1, pp. 15–23 (Spring 1981).
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