Fallacious Freedom in ‘The Dispossessed’

Words: Faith Thurnwald
Photography: Faith Thurnwald
I seem to find myself repeating the same debate with friends. It usually occurs after a few wines, and most of the people at the dinner party loose interest – here we fucking go again! We never come to a cohesive conclusion, perhaps because of the wine, or simply because there isn’t one. We critique our current climate of consumer capitalism, but reject the notion of life under communism and the loss of the individual.
I discuss theses ideas in reviewing Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. The Dispossessed is Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World meets Thomas More’s Utopia. Ursula K. Le Guin plays with these ideas of capitalism vs. communism and dystopia vs. utopia, inevitably highlighting my wine fueled conclusion, or lack thereof.
In this essay I use Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed as a means to discuss freedom as I see it, through the political options we are presented with today.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed reveals that fallacious freedom is inevitable, when living within the social organism. One’s definition of freedom is dependent upon their society: the social conscience determines one’s freedom through norms of what it is to be truly ‘free’. The concept of freedom however controversial, means, firstly; the ability to live unrestrained within the social organism, and secondly: the chance to feel complete fulfillment. The Dispossessed tells a story across two planets: Urras and Anarres. Urras is a future reflection of the Earth we live on today; capitalism on steroids – the wealthy, are rich with material possessions. Ones worth is derived from the latest body modifications and women are another shiny thing to be bought and sold. The poor are starving, broken and dying. The Dispossessed juxtaposes this capitalism on steroids (our future?) with the creation of another planet: Anarres. Anarres is an anarchical society, but in its blatant rejection of everything capitalist, it reflects communism; where choice is limited and the individual ceases to exist…somehow, I am not overwhelmed by our options.

There is a large wall built on Anarres, it sits on a shipping area between the two planets. This wall is an allegory for the division between Anarres and Urras: an ambiguous dichotomy of freedom. The wall offers no physical separation; it is functionally insignificant as a physical barrier, however the division it creates is real. Prison exists on both Anarres and Urras, however on each planet it manifests itself differently. Anarres rejects prison as a means of punishment, while adhering to a lifestyle that mirrors that of an Urassi prison, enforced through the authoritative influence of public opinion. In juxtaposition with the people of Anarres, the people of Urras are prisoners within their social organism through possessive individualism. Material wealth distracts the people of Urras from their shallow existence: their possessions offer little fulfillment and therefore fallacious freedom, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? – say as I close my multiple tabs of online shopping.

The wall that divides the port of Anarres from the space ships of Urras is an ambiguous one. One’s definition of freedom is dependent upon which side of the wall they stand. The wall is simple, built from rocks and standing no higher than an adult, as it does not need any security, the wall is a symbol. No one would consider crossing it, their social conditioning would not permit them to do so, nor would they have the desire to do so. The people of Anaress stand from their side and believe they are free, however so too do the people of Urras, viewing Anarres as “a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine” (5). The allegorical symbolism of the wall, highlights it does not contain any aspects of a functioning wall; there are gaps where gates should be and one can easily climb over it.

“There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real” (5). The wall acts as an allegory, a symbol (Klarer 1992) for everything it represents, but physically does not uphold. However the wall does not need to be functional, (Benfield 2006) like national borders, it is the construct and the idea that enables such dichotomy. Shevek, the protagonist, later comes to the realization that the wall is ambiguous, promoting division; “Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I’m going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I’m going to go unbuild walls” (332). The wall creates division through its dichotomous nature, constructing a sense of fallacious freedom due to the walls ambiguity.

The Anarresi reject prison as a system of punishment, while maintaining social order through public opinion as a source of authority. A young Shevek cannot fathom the concept of prisons, and has to have the function of prisons explained, from the idea of locked doors to the relationship between prisoner and guard. The people of Anarres find the very idea of a prison repulsive (Tuniek 2005). However the Anarresi society functions similarly to that of a Urassi prison model. The basic characteristics of a prison are parallel to the ones under which Shevek lives. Shevek’s basic human needs are supplied for him, food and shelter; ““They fed prisoners,” Shevek said. “That’s what’s so weird about the whole thing.””(34). Shevek’s days are scheduled in a manor he does not dictate; his days evolve around planned meal times and unpaid labour, which he did not chose to do. These characteristics mirror that of a prison system, although Shevek still believes he is free. However Shevek lives in a fixed system that evidently offers limited freedom, these systems mislead one into believing that they are truly free (Kragset 2009). A life void of this degree of personal choice and agency would be considered one without freedom. Shevek’s friend Bedap later comes to this realization; “Nobody’s born an Odonian any more than he’s born civilised! …We don’t educate for freedom” (140). Bedap highlights that the Odonian definition of freedom has to be trained in each individual, however this limits freedom to a learned experience to be socialized. Although Anarres does not physically lock people up against their will, the ability to be imprisoned remains. Social pressure and public opinion manifest themselves as the prisons on Anarres, and the only authority. If an Anarresi does not cooperate with the social conscience, they are punished through social exclusion; one must conform or become a social outcast. Shevek could not work as an individual within the social confines of Anarres, and had to move planets to complete his life’s work. This ‘social law’ operates similar to governmental laws on Urras, highlighting the fallacious freedom under both social structures.

The people of Urras, through possessive individualism and material wealth are fallaciously free. The planet of Urras adheres to laws and government regulation, just as Anarres adheres to the social conscience. Urras embodies everything Anarres sought to reject, a capitalist consumer society operating on possessive individualism. Urras’s massive walls of stone and glass (Tuniek 2005) parallel to the one wall on Anarres displays the two planets dichotomies and their opposing values of collectivism and extreme individualism. Shevek describes a retail street in the capitol city A-Io of Urras; “acres of luxuries, acres of excrement” (110) this metaphor describes the excessive mass consumerism seen in Urras, and its superfluous decadence. The use of metaphor accentuates Shevek’s disgust at the opulent nature of Urras. The people of Urras enjoy more freedom in the liberal sense; they behave as they please within their social organism, providing they do not break any laws. The people of Urras spend their time doing as they please, whether that is working for profit, shopping with profit or attending parties to display their profit. These pursuits of pleasure are inevitability frivolous however and do not provide long lasting fulfillment. This definition of freedom for pleasure disrupts the Anaressi pursuit of freedom for collective fulfillment. The process of possession of personal material and intellectual wealth provides the people of Urras the freedom to choose how they pursue pleasure, however the pursuit of possessions, possesses their ability to be truly free. Shevek comes to this realization when protesting on Urras; “You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give” (247). The very premise, in which their freedom stands, the ability to own, is actually what possesses the Urassi. The landscape of Urras is full of plenty; trees with excessive amounts of foliage, animals as pets, and birds in the sky. It is due to this abundance that the Urrasi can afford to be individualistic; they do not need to work as a collective to obtain basic human needs on a desert planet (Bierman 1975). The lifestyle that the environment of Urras provides, allows the privilege of possessive individualism. The people of Urras believe they are free due to their ability to participate in a consumer society, however cannot realize their socialization and inability to live fulfilled without the need to possess.

The juxtaposition between individual freedom and social order of Urras and Anarres reveals that freedom is ambiguous and dependent upon the society in which one lives. However freedom is fallacious within the social organism, as ones definition of freedom cannot exist in a void. Through the symbolism, which the wall provides, the division of Urras and Anarres is ambiguous and dependent upon which side of the wall one stands. The allegory of the wall is an idea of boundary, between worlds and between two opposing social structures. The people of Anarres reject prison and are disgusted by its very conception. However they live by similar characteristics on which the prison system functions and the public conscience acts as an authoritative force. The people of Urras are also imprisoned, within their need for material wealth and ownership. The Urrasi believe they are free through their individual choice and ability to consume, however the need for possession offers pleasure but little lasting fulfillment, in this their freedom is fallacious. The wall highlights the ambiguous dichotomy between Anarres and Urras, with both planets believing they are free, however freedom is inevitably fallacious living within either social organism.


Benfield, S.S 2006, ‘The Interplanetary Dialectic: Freedom and Equality in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed’, Perspectives on Political Science, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 128-134, DOI: 10.3200/PPSC.35.3.128-134

Bierman, J 1975,  ‘Ambiguity in Utopia:” The Dispossessed”’, Science Fiction Studies, vol. 2, no. 3, pp.249-255, viewed 28th October 2020.

Klarer, M, 1992, ‘Gender and the” Simultaneity Principle”: Ursula Le Guin’s” The Dispossessed”’, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 107-122, viewed 28th October 2020.

Kragset, A.O 2009, Utopian freedom: individual freedom and social order in Thomas Mores Utopia, Marge Piercys Woman on the edge of time and Ursula Le Guins The Dispossessed, Master’s thesis, University of Agder.

Tuniek, M 2005, ‘Privacy, Community, and Freedom in The Dispossessed’, in L Davis & P Stillman (eds), The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, p. 129-149.

Le Guin, K. U 1974, The Dispossessed, Gollancz, Great Britain