Of all Genly’s traits and habits, the most striking is not his inability to withstand the planet’s harsh cold, or his befuddled curiosity concerning Gethenian life, but his constant compulsion to apply gendered ideas to Gethenian behavior, an act which invariably leaves him increasingly frustrated in understanding the lack of gender. One instance of this phenomenon appears very early in the novel after Genly and Estraven have shared a meal. Genly consciously recognizes that, struggling to perceive Estraven as solely male or female, he instead sorts the politician “into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own” (Le Guin 12). The emissary’s confusion grows further as he is unable to reconcile Estraven’s “dark, ironic, powerful presence” as womanly, but when he thinks of him as male, he claims to feel “a sense of falseness, of imposture; in him, or in my own attitude towards him?” (Le Guin 12). Gen...
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... is an alien among aliens, isolated and forced to apply his previous knowledge of gender to interpret the actions of the Gethenians. This practice does not reflect kindly on Gethenian behaviors, deeming anything under a feminine label unfavorable, but it provides a base from which Genly could (and eventually does not) leap to understanding from. At each chance offered to the emissary to adjust and recognize the cultural differences between himself and the Gethenian people, he repeatedly uses his gender binary as a crutch in making his way to understanding; relying so heavily on this crutch prevents him from fully opening up to the idea of an absence of gender, an affliction that dogs him to the end. Genly tries to understand, believes he understands, but undoes himself at every narrative turn, ruled by gender each time. Absence of gender ultimately escapes his grasp.
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