Review: The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed was recommended to me by Mark Seidl and Rebecca Edwards, with whom I traveled last summer on a Vassar History tour through Yellowstone and the surrounding area.

I confess it took me a while to adjust to the pace of the book, which I want to describe as lyrical and reflective. But once I settled in to that rhythm, I adored this book. It felt like a long meditation on  the dehumanizing affects of capitalism.

To give you a taste of what I mean, here’s a line or two that I underlined for later pondering:

(I read the Harper Perennial Classics edition): dispossessed

(PHILOSOPHY SPOILER ALERT! If you want to read it and haven’t, stop now!)

“They think if people can possess enough things they will be content to live in prison” (138).

“…his anxieties as a property owner made him cling to rigid notions of law and order” (202).

“‘The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!’
‘Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical'” (220).

“The trouble with Odonianism (communal anarchy), you know, my dear fellow, is that it’s womanish. It simply doesn’t include the virile side of life. ‘Blood and steel, battle’s brightness,’ as the old poet says. It doesn’t understand courage–love of the flag” (286).

“We know that there is no help for us but from one another…You have nothing. you possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give…We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals” (300).

“I think that’s why the old archisms used women as property. Why did the women let them?  Because they were pregnant all the time–because they were already possessed, enslaved!” (332).

“There is nothing, nothing on Urras (capitalist/nationalist planet) that we Anarresti need! We left with empty hands, a hundred and seventy years ago, and we were right. We took nothing. Because there is nothing here but States and their weapons, the rich and their lies, and the poor and their misery. There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into, and fear of loss, and the wish for power. You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is ‘superior’ to the other, or trying to prove it. You cannot act like a brother t0o other people, you must manipulate them, or command them, or obey them, or trick them. You cannot touch another person, yet they will not leave you alone. There is no freedom. It is a box–Urras is a  box, a package, with all the beautiful wrapping of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open the box, and what’s inside it?  A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man. A man whose hand was shot off because he held it out to others” (346-7).

And of course this gorgeous simile:

“In a pen by himself the herd sire, ram or bull or stallion, heavy-necked, stood potent as a thundercloud, charged with generation” (206).

So many times I saw images of present day American capitalism reflected in these lines. Though written in 1974, it seems not much has changed, or if it has, it’s become more relevant, not less.

This is one I’ll put on the “keeper” shelf.