Notes on Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed”


Stepping off a train onto a crowded platform. Anxious glances of the passers-by. Shevek wonders at this anxiety: is it a function of the capitalist economy here? The fact that each of these people must make enough money to live? And the fact that, no matter how much money they make, they will always be expected to make more? Worry and guilt on these faces. He’s seeing these people in work mode: on their way to work, at work, on the clock. But he’s seen it elsewhere too: it seems to invade every aspect of the lives of these people. They measure themselves in terms of money and their ability to make it.

He’s alone here now, at the centre of the city, having escaped those who guarded him and kept him isolated at the University. He feels a little afraid: he is surrounded by people who are mutually distrustful, who cannot rely on others for aid, and who cannot be relied upon to provide it. The glances of the commuters are hostile and fearful.

“In escaping his guides and guards he had not considered what it might be like to be on one’s own in a society where men did not trust one another, where the basic moral assumption was not mutual aid, but mutual aggression. He was a little frightened.”

Not just Shevek: everyone on this planet is alone and afraid. If you can’t trust anyone, you are alone. That’s how life appears amidst the busyness of the city streets: he is far away from any sign of the familial warmth and comradeship that exists in the private lives of these people. Just the anxious faces rushing past each other, wary.

He is himself caught up in their anxiety. A paradox: in feeling isolated and afraid in a crowd he is truly of a mind with them, sharing with them the experience of what it is to live and work in a city on this planet. Solidarity in the lack of solidarity: in the mutual hostility and fear.

The hurrying he sees all about him is infectious too: he feels like he should be going somewhere, doing something. Someone brushes past him, another jostles him and offers a brisk apology. He’s moving at the wrong speed, he’s blocking the flow. He corrects himself and speeds up. He looks purposeful as he walks the streets, though he has no clear idea where he is going.

He finds himself in an art gallery, and hopes it will offer him some respite. But he notices all he art-works here have price tags on them. This one is selling for the same amount as would feed a family for two years. “Yes, well, you see, sir, that happens to be a work of art,” says the man in the shop. This makes no sense to Shevek. To him a work of art is something made out of necessity. “Why was that made?” he asks. He already knows the answer. It was made to make money.

A necessity in this society: to make money. In the anxiety of the passers-by, in the irritability of the shop assistant, in the work of art with a price tag, Shevek sees the same thing: a people with needs disconnected from life. Money was supposed to be something to help things along: an incentive to motivate people to get the important work done. But money itself has become the all-important thing, at the expense of the peace of mind, mutual assistance, and creativity that truly ground and constitute the life of a human being.

(The Dispossessed is a novel by Ursula Le Guin. Shevek goes on his journey into the alien city in chapter 7 of the book.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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