There is a fascinating interplay between light and dark, and the role of shadows in "The Left Hand of Darkness." Perhaps most interesting is the concept of shifgrethor, a code of honor amongst the Karhidians, which "comes from an old word for shadow" (247). There is also, among the Handdarata, a focus on the "un"--that which seems to be the opposite of what is. In many respects, the Karhidians seem to be defined more by what they are not, by what is unseen, and by what traditionally is thought to obscure. It is a society that thrives through the unknown, through the unspoken ("Secrecy in Karhide is to an extraordinary extent a matter of discretion, of an agreed, understood silence--an omission of questions, yet not an omission of answers" (287.).
Perhaps this is just human nature, perhaps it is a result of the weather, perhaps it is a result of a society of kemmering, not static sex assignments. Whatever the underlying reasons are, though, this shadow life is something that the primary narrator, Genly Ai, does not understand for the bulk of the story, and which separates him from the others around him. Likewise, this keeps others from truly understanding or questioning him. It is not until Genly and Estraven have been a long while on the Ice that this cold wall between them begins to break down.
Throughout the text, the reader is presented with Genly's arguably problematic gendered perceptions of the world around him, ascribing his own frame of reference to a people that defies and in many ways destroys that frame of reference.
Yet there is also something deeply unsettling about Genly for the inhabitants of Winter. There is King Argaven's political fear and distrust of Genly's differences (34-40), and likewise his physical differences are noted by other characters over the course of his story. It is not until Estraven and Genly have escaped to the Ice, though, and a friendship based on sheer mutual survival begins to develop, that we get any insight into how Genly is perceived, not as The Alien Envoy, but as an individual who is different. Estraven's comments on gender at this juncture are perhaps the most interesting in the entire novel.
Estraven's comments on Genly fall into two categories: the physical and the spirit, as it pertains to the body. When Estraven himself is in kemmer, he reflects on Genly, musing "A strange lowgrade sort of desire it must be, to be spread out over every day of the year, and never to know the choice of sex" (232). This sentiment seems to get to the heart of the conflict between the two depictions of sex and gender. Estraven, when speaking of "the choice of sex," means choosing male or female, not being arbitrarily assigned to one for all of life. This flux between physical states of being seems to hearken back to the predominance of shadows in the Karhidian culture. The flux between being sexed and androgynous also bears with it a very strong cycle of emotion, with the intensity of sexuality while in kemmer, and the utter lack of a sex drive when not.
Yet reading the phrase "the choice of sex," as one Genly's breed of humanity, I first read it as "the choice to have sex, or not have sex." Were the phrase uttered by Genly instead of Estraven, this would be a valid interpretation, as the Gethenians are as captive to their expression of sexuality by time as we are by sex assignment.
Estraven also ties Genly's sex to his physical and spiritual (not religious, but of the spirit) abilities. He says "There is a frailty about him. He is all unprotected, exposed, vulnerable, even to his sexual organ which he must carry always outside himself; but he is strong, unbelievably strong. I am not sure he can keep hauling any longer than I, but he can haul harder and faster than Iâ€¦To match his frailty and strength, he has a spirit easy to despair and quick to defiance; a fierce impatient courage" (227-8). Given Genly Ai's fairly constant comment on the slowness of life, evolution, and time on Winter, Estraven's understanding of Genly is particularly profound. He has seen in an example of one what that one could not understand in an entire world. Yet even this understanding of Genly's spirit is seen through the filter of the Gethenians. Where Estraven sees frailty and physical vulnerability, our society has placed virility and strength. Even when there is a deep personal connection between individuals, they are both still coming to one another from such different perspectives as to never be able to truly understand one another. Though Genly spends much of the end of the book speaking of the universal human spirit, of "serving Mankind" (293), not just one nation or race, there are still deep differences between the races.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of the split between the Gethenians and Genly is that Estraven, in his times of deep emotion, of mind-connection, and in death, returns Genly's love for him by displacing his brother, Arek, onto Genry Ai, particularly in the mind-connection, where it is impossible to tell lies.
While this might paint an initially bleak picture of the hope for understanding between Peoples at first glance, in between the arguments, running as a thread throughout, is the desire and hope for understanding. Though this understanding might be doomed to be imperfect, on both sides, there is the effort, and the emotions created are very real. We may never be able to walk in the Other's shoes, but there is the hope of walking along side him, and recognizing that he too must wear shoes, different though they may seem.