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Character Analysis Of Genly Ai English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1436 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Ai is the main character of the story, often called “Genry” by the Karhiders, who have trouble pronouncing the letter “L” in their language. At the start of the book, he has been on Gethen for two years, trying to become accustomed to the ways of the planet’s inhabitants and to get them accustomed to the idea of him. He arrived with basic information about the language and culture because a team of investigators from the Ekumen had come before him and lived among the Gethenians without revealing their identities or their mission. Still, Ai’s obstacles are many. For one thing, he knows that it will not be easy to explain to people who have never even thought of air flight that men can arrive from space. In Karhide, the king is reluctant to acknowledge him or discuss his diplomatic mission because admitting the existence of beings who have mastered travel and communications would diminish the king’s importance. The new Prime Minister is bound to oppose Ai because the old Prime Minister, who is being forced out of power, supported him. Moving to another country, Orgoreyn, Ai is accepted more easily by the political leaders and believes that they will help him to accomplish his mission; it turns out, though, that their political system is more complex and subtle than Karhide’s, and, while he is trying to sort out which factions are sincere about offering help and which have a hidden agenda, Ai is arrested, stripped of his clothes, drugged and sent to a work camp to die of exhaustion. He is rescued by Estraven, the deposed Prime Minister of Karhide, and he realizes that cultural differences had kept him from understanding their relationship previously: he had not understood advice when it was given because Estraven had not stated it directly, thinking that doing so would offend him. During their eighty-one day journey across the frozen land to return to Karhide, where people would cooperate with him now (if only to embarrass Orgoreyn), Ai gets to know and love Estraven and he sees how he has looked to the people of this planet. One day while Estraven is in his sexual cycle, and is being distant so that they will not become involved, Ai realizes how he had misread the situation. “And I saw then, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man.” He realizes that this fact has made him unable to give his trust and friendship to Estraven because of this dual personality, and that this has been his fatal flaw.

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In the beginning of the book, Genly Ai is indebted to Estraven for having arranged an audience with the king, but he is also frustrated because he sees Estraven as being cold and aloof, and he is angry because he feels that, as Prime Minister, he should have done more to make the audience go more smoothly. What Ai does not realize at the time is that Estraven is out of favor with the government, and in fact will be sent into exile the next morning. Several of the book’s chapters are written as excerpts from Estraven’s diaries, so readers are able to develop a sense of what he is trying to accomplish and what he feels his limitations are, which is an understanding that Ai is incapable of. Estraven accepts his exile almost passively: he takes a menial job in Orgoreyn, and when the Commensal rescues him and he is taken to be a dependent of Commensal Yegey, he does not use the opportunity to sell out the government that banished him. Throughout the story, Estraven works diplomatically to help Ai achieve his goal, but his maneuvering is so diplomatic that Ai does not recognize its implications, and counts him as untrustworthy, if not actually a foe. When he risks his life to save Ai from the prison farm in Pulefen, there can be no doubt that his loyalty is to Ai’s cause. On the trip across the ice to safety, Ai learns that Estraven, far from being a self-serving politician, is actually a spiritual man whose actions were hard to understand, in part, because he was not acting for the good of his country (as a politician should) but for the good of the whole world. It is Estraven’s planning that makes it possible for them to cross back into Karhide, and even though Ai promises to have his exile called off when the treaty between planets is put into place, he still charges into armed guards, knowing that they would have orders from Tibe to kill him, after an old friend has betrayed his trust.

[edit]Argavan XV

In the first chapter, Estraven, trying to imply that Orgoreyn might be a better place for Ai to look for acceptance, tells him, “the Commensals of Orgoreyn are mostly sane men, if unintelligent, while the king of Karhide is not only insane but rather stupid.” Chapter 3, in which Ai finally is granted an audience with Argavan after half a year’s wait, is titled “The Mad King.” The book is never clear, however, whether the king is mad or stupid, or if he is just working from a different set of assumptions than everyone else. In being protective of his people, he appears to Ai to be small-minded and frightened: while Ai can see no reason for him to turn down an alliance with the Ekumen, the king sees great reason to be suspicious of the strange alien who makes promises, especially with hostilities against the neighboring country of Orgoreyn increasing and the great chance that Ai’s story is just a trick to humiliate him. Added to his natural suspicions is the advice of his Prime Minister, Tibe, who recently ascended to his position precisely because he encouraged the king’s fears. At the end of the story, when Argavan agrees to host a landing party of Ai’s comrades, he is disappointed that Ai called them before asking permission, but other than that he seems to believe that all that has happened was according to his plan: “You’ve served me well,” he tells Ai. Again, it is not clear whether he is delusional or cunning.


Faxe is the leader of the Handdarata, a religious sect living in the area known as Ariskostor Fastness. A Fastness is a religious place like a monastery, where people can retreat from the world, spending “the night or a lifetime.” Faxe is the Weaver of the Foretellers of the Handdarata, which means that he is at the center of the spiritual ceremony they use to foretell what will happen in the future. He is the one to weave the power of the other participants—the Zanies, the Pervert, the Celibates, etc.—into an answer for the question asked. He is also the one to explain, later, that knowing the future is generally useless: the reason the Handdarata developed Foretelling, he says, was “to exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.” In the end, when Ai has called his ship to come to Gethen, Faxe shows up as a council member from the Indwellers of Handdarata Fastness, a sign that he was worried about what Tibe had been doing to the government.


One of the thirty-three Commensals in Orgoreyn, he is cheerful, amused at seeing Estraven in his exile. He recalls the old times that they had together when Estraven was Prime Minister, but the pattern to his seemingly innocent questions implies that he is most interested in finding out information about the situation in Karhide.


At the very end of their journey back into Karhide, when they are out of supplies, Ai and Estraven run into Thessicher. When he was Prime Minister, Estraven helped Thessicher buy his farm, so Thessicher repays him by allowing them to stay the night, even though he could be in serious trouble for harboring an exile. His kindness turns out to be treachery, though, when Estraven overhears him on the radio alerting Tibe’s troops that Estraven is there.

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The cousin of King Argavan, who is made Prime Minister by having Estraven exiled. Although there has never been a war on the planet Winter, it seems that one could erupt at any moment: Tibe works to incite hostilities and border disputes between his country and Orgoreyn. At one point, Estraven points out that Tibe’s political style is like that of the Orgota in its “new-style” deception and efficiency. In the end, when the king wants to take credit for the aliens landing and bringing new wonders to the world, Tibe is exiled for having opposed the idea.


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