Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Review of Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula Le Guin

The 1990s are a somewhat intriguing period in the career of Ursula Le Guin.  Publishing only one at the outset (Tehanu in 1990), the decade would end without another novel hitting the shelves.  She was far from idle, however.  Publishing almost fifty short stories and a handful of collections, Le Guin remained hard at work through her seventh decade.  (She is currently in her ninth and still writing.)  With Tehanu as the opening salvo, the vanguard of her efforts in this time was to revise and consolidate her worldview regarding gender, family, society, and sexuality, amongst other common themes.  Putting all these ideas in one pot is her collection Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995). 

Four Ways to Forgiveness contains “Betrayals,” “Forgiveness Day,” “A Man of the People,” and “A Woman's Liberation”—all novellas published separately between 1994 and 1995.  Three told from the perspective of women and one a man, all four involve the neighboring planets of Yeowe and Werel, and are set in Le Guin’s ongoing Hainish series—marginally, as with all the other related stories.  Bound together by a handful of strong threads, slavery, rural life, culture, social revolution, race, gender, and the meaning of sexuality form the ideological foundation upon which the four stories are built.

The cultures of the Yeowe and Werel are more deprived than the average society’s, but at the same time possess aspects that make them realistically human.  On Werel, the populace is divided between owners and slaves, the former great landowners and businessmen while the latter provide the labor supporting the business operations.  Little social order amongst the slaves, the familial hierarchy we are familiar with is fuzzier in scope as women are kept segregated from men and parentage is communal.  On Yeowe, a mixed society exists where equality superficially exists, but it is men who are in control.  Women having only an informal vote in elections, their education, training, and experience are generally pushed aside in favor of men as the situation requires, an unequal balance of gender working itself out in the process. And of course, standing on the outside but slowly working their way in are the Ekumen.  One of the novellas featuring scenes on Hain, the reader comes to better undertand the interstellar society as its aims of passive social revolution focus on Yeowe and Werel.

“Betrayals” is the story of an elderly woman living by herself in the countryside.  Her children having left to train in the Ekumen, her lonliness is tempered by two pets.  But when her closest neighbor, a former political leader now fallen from grace, develops a serious illness, she breaks the monotony of her days by helping the delirious man, and in their time together discovers something unexpected.  “Forgiveness Day” is the story of the strong-minded Ekumen ambassador Solly and her first assignment on Yeowe. Caught in an ongoing civil war between the aristocracy and their assets, she flaunts the repression of women by wearing men’s clothes and speaking her mind—much to the shagrin of the two men who have been assigned to her: one as cultural attach√©, and the other as bodyguard.  But as another slave revolution breaks out, Solly is forced to come to terms with the reality of her situation beyond outward appearances.

“A Man of the People” is the story of a Hainish boy who grows up in the countryside but, after higher education, moves off-planet to work for the Ekumen.  His assignment: Yeowe, working with locals he helps to incite diplomatic changes that directly affect the culture.  But he finds people that affect him directly, as well.  Diametrically tied to his story is the fourth and final novella in the collection, “A Woman’s Liberation.”  The life story of Rakam, it tells of her development from not only slave to free woman, but from existentially dependent to independent woman.  A slave on a plantation where she is not even afforded human status, she is one of the ucky ones, and in surviving the trials and tribulations of a slave life eventually comes to a better life on Werel.  Her conditions there still less than ideal, it’s the platform of life she ultimately arrives at that makes all the difference.

It’s possible that a person will read Four Ways to Forgiveness and think of it as nothing but fairy tales.  Every character experiencing oppression in some form yet coming to what seems a ‘happily ever after’ relationship at the end, the impression is understandable.  But it’s in the journey to the relationship and the terms of the relationship that are of utmost importance.  Le Guin stressing the idea of mutual respect in each, none of the focal characters settles for a partner in which one or the other is not beholden to the delicate balance of responsibility and freedom which makes a successful relationship.  Moreover, these successful relationships—these pairings of mutual respect—form what Le Guin would consider the building blocks of a properly functioning society—a key as it were.  Le Guin writes, “…a key is a little thing, next to the door it opens. If you lose the key, the door may never be unlocked.”   Echoing the sentiments of the latter books in her Earthsea series, namely Tehanu and The Other Wind, as well as several other stories and novels, the collection is an important confirmation of the focus of Le Guin’s late oeuvre.

In the end, Four Ways to Forgiveness is a multi-faceted collection of interlinked novellas that defines the importance of equal footing in all forms of relationships. Thus while it technically is a collection, due to the strong interlinkage—ideologically and character-wise—among the stories, it feels more like a synthesized effort.  A novel with four facets, its underlying meaning transcends the simplicity of the suface plots, and is important literature for the fantasy field.

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