“Shevek submitted to this and other injections in silence. He had no right to suspicion or protest. He had yielded himself up to these people; he had given up his birthright of decision. It was gone, fallen away from him along with his world, the world of the Promise, the barren stone.
The doctor spoke again, but he did not listen.
For hours or days he existed in a vacancy, a dry and wretched void without past or future. The walls stood tight about him. Outside them was the silence. His arms and buttocks ached from injections; he ran a fever that never quite heightened to delirium but left him in a limbo between reason and unreason, no man’s land. Time did not pass. There was no time. He was time: he only. He was the river, the arrow, the stone. But he did not move. The thrown rock hung still at midpoint. There was no day or night. Sometimes the doctor switched the light off, or on. There was a clock set in the wall by the bed; its pointer moved from one to another of the twenty figures of the dial, meaningless.”
(K. Le Guin, 1974, p.7-8)
For this assignment I will be doing a close reading and interpretation of an extract from The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, a utopian science fiction novel published in 1974. I haven’t read this particular book by Le Guin but I am familiar with her writing style and choice of themes. Most of her novels are science fiction and/or fantasy but touch on real social and moral themes. I will analyse the extract’s plot, character, mood, structure, and use of poetic devices, point of view and language in order to reflect on the writing and its themes, particularly those of time and place.
My first impression to this passage is that Shevek is going through an important change, namely one where he has given up his free will and is now in some kind of journey. Despite the fact that it doesn’t seem like he is in grave danger, Le Guin’s use of language, imagery and choice of words lets the reader know that he is not comfortable or happy about his condition. The passage has a mood of dejection, uncertainty, and listlessness. I feel the need to know what will happen to Shevek but I also already feel hopeless about his journey; locking someone up and leaving them alone is not a sign of a warm welcome.
The story is told from a third person limited point of view, focusing on just one character. One important effect of this type of narration is that the chosen character immediately feels like the protagonist and the reader can follow their struggles and realisations as they happen; more objectively than with a first person narrator and more personal than with an omniscient point of view. Even from this one passage, I can tell that the story will mainly deal with what happens to him, what he does, and how he feels about it.
He has left his world behind and is now alone in a small, windowless room that is surrounded only by silence. If he is leaving his world behind then he must be going to another, one that is not his own, and the only way to do this is by travelling through space. The presence of more than one habitable world and the possibility of space travel indicate that the story is set in the future. Shevek’s name, too, does not seem contemporary. ‘These people’ might be referring to the people that live in this other world, but we can’t be sure from just this passage the reasons why he’s going there and giving himself up to them.
One of the underlying themes is that he has given up his freedom of choice. He is in an unfamiliar environment that feels like a prison and he is being loaded up with injections. It is hard to say if these injections are really for his well-being, seeing as he is running a fever because of them while being locked up inside a small room. He does address his ‘captor’ as a doctor and so it might be that the injections are vaccines meant as protection for when he arrives at the new world.
It is interesting to note how a past decision he made in another time and place has left him now without ‘his birthright of decision’, ‘without past or future’, without time or place. There are several lines (‘he had yielded himself’, ‘he had given up’), however, that show that he was the one to give himself over, that nobody took his will from him or forced him to leave his world. Then, ‘The doctor spoke again, but he did not listen’, by choosing not to listen he is exercising power over himself despite him thinking that it is all lost. He has chosen to be vulnerable.
The main reason why I chose this passage wasn’t because of its presence of time and place but rather because of its lack of time and place. The main character finds himself in a void, both internally and physically. He finds himself in ‘a limbo between reason and unreason, no man’s land’ because of his feverish state but also because of his lack of power. ‘No man’s land’ is used to describe the unoccupied land between two fighting armies, while ‘limbo’ has religious connotations but might also refer to a state of uncertainty and lack of resolution. He is fighting an internal battle but is currently in an undefined and ambiguous place, a state of oblivion.
There is no way to track time inside this room and he is uncertain whether it is ‘hours or days’ that are passing. Even the clock has lost its meaning as there is no day or night to serve as reference, and the only light present is an artificial one controlled by the doctor. He states that he is time, ‘he only’. What could he mean by this? How can someone be time? Perhaps he is the only thing ruled by time in the little room, the only living thing, the only one moving forward. It might be that time passes differently here than from his own world and he is the only thing remaining with that specific notion of time.
Poetic devices such as metaphors, repetition, and personification are used to reinforce the character’s change in time and place. For example, Shevek refers to his world as ‘the world of Promise, the barren stone’. His world is a land of ‘Promise’ (capitalised to give it special importance) and alludes to the religious reference of the Promised Land, the homeland, the salvation, Paradise. Yet it is also a land that is barren and stone-like. This contradiction between the two descriptions might be offering a clue as to why he is going to this other world, because even though it is not his home or the more perfect and utopian world, it might be a more fruitful and fertile one.
Another important metaphor is when he identifies himself as ‘the river, the arrow, the stone’. These are things that move straight, that move forward, and that have a beginning and an end. He is like these things because he is in a state of transition, he is travelling from point A to point B. But unlike them, he is in a state of suspension, both internally and externally, in the middle of the two points.
There are several instances of repetition, including ‘He had yielded himself up…he had given up…It was gone’, ‘his world, the world of the Promise’, ‘Time did not pass…no time…he was time’, ‘the barren stone / the stone / the thrown rock’. The reinforcement of these specific words and phrases demand the reader’s attention and the need to understand why they are important to the story. Le Guin’s use of repetition not only strengthens the character’s opinions but creates a rhythm within the passage. The sentences are either short and simple or long and interrupted by punctuation marks (commas, semicolons, colons), resulting in a choppy rhythm.
There is one important instance of personification that is essential in contributing to the claustrophobic feeling of imprisonment; ‘The walls stood tight about him’. The walls are not only serving their function as psychical enclosures, but are representing a psychological prison for him, ‘a dry and wretched void’. He does not feel safe or comfortable within them, he feels miserable.
This passage from The Dispossessed is a brief look into the start of Shevek’s journey. By subjecting himself to unknown circumstances and strangers, he learns important things about himself, such as being powerless and vulnerable, and how his past affects his present. He notices how time and place can both exist and cease to exist. Finally, the passage shows how someone can change internally when subjected to external changes; a journey is a physical change of time and place that changes and transforms the one undergoing it.