Instead of “Sense and Sensibility,” Jane Austen could have named one of her books Sex and Society. Her books explore the way people are defined by their sex and social status. Breaking out of these expected patterns are often insurmountable in her world.
And that’s why Karen Joy Fowler writes in her book “The Jane Austen Book Club” about another book, “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula LeGuin.
The only male member in the book club is a science fiction fan and has never read a Jane Austen novel. The other members of the book club have a low opinion of science fiction even though they don’t read it. He maintains that it can be good literature and suggests the reading of this science fiction book by LeGuin.
And it makes sense. Austen’s books linger over sexual inequalities. LeGuin’s book explores a world where people are not limited by sex or social status because most of her characters are both male and female.
The planet Gethen, or Winter as it is called by an interplanetary group of explorers, is visited by a single envoy from earth. This envoy comes on a mission for the interplanetary group to bring new planets into the fold of 83 planets that are already members.
Winter is in an intense ice age and even the summer is cold and snowy. But what really differentiates Winter from the rest of the planets is the role of sexual relationships in society.
Each person on Winter has the potential to be both male and female. On an average day, they look sexually ambiguous. Sexual desire appears in a monthly cycle which can lead to a sexual encounter. Depending on the chemistry between people during sex on Winter, one will morph into a male, the other a female. The same person can bear a child and be a father to other children. There is no telling what sex role you’ll play during sex.
The people of Winter see the envoy from earth as a pervert since he is always one sex and always capable of sexual activity.
Next time, pay attention when reading a book and the author mentions the title of another book within its pages. You may be surprised at what an interesting tangent the author may be taking you. Austen’s novels create a world in stark contrast to “The Left Hand of Darkness.” The parlor games and dances of Jane Austen are not in this world. And as far as sexual equality, you can’t be kept down by The Man when you are the man and a woman at the same time.