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The Eye of the Heron, Ursula K Le Guin

July 5, 2011

The Eye of the Heron, Ursula K Le Guin (1978)
Review by Shannon Turlington

The Eye of the Heron is a short novel that was originally published in the collection Millennial Women, edited by Virginia Kidd. A straightforward story that reads like a fable, The Eye of the Heron is set on the alien planet of Victoria, where there are two groups of settlers: the farmers of the village of Shantih and the wealthier City inhabitants. The rest of the planet is uninhabited except by strange animals, including the long-legged, elegant, gray creatures called “herons” because of their resemblance to the bird, who gaze on the humans’ activities impassively; and the small, funny shape shifters called “wotsits,” who die in captivity but will sometimes alight on a person’s hand.

The book opens and closes with a person watching a wotsit change shape and color in his palm before flying away. These two framing incidents are both hopeful, representing a brief communion between the human and his new world. In fact, The Eye of the Heron could be classified as fantasy, if we did not know that both groups of settlers came to the planet on spaceships, exiles from a future Earth. The City dwellers were descended from prisoners, while the people of Shantih were leaders of a movement called the People of the Peace, a nonviolence movement that had gained too many adherents back on Earth. The brief glimpses of Earth’s future history, as related in the tales of the exiles’ descendants, add some layers of complexity to this otherwise straightforward tale.

Lev, the young leader of the Villagers, is returning home with a scouting party when the story opens. The Villagers have found a location for a new settlement, but the City Council won’t let them go, not wanting to lose their supply of low-paid workers and farmers. The People of the Peace respond with nonviolent civil disobedience, and several of them are arrested. One of the older leaders, Vera, is imprisoned in a Councilor’s house, where she begins to influence the Councilor’s daughter, Luz.

Luz, learning that her father has recruited an army of brutish young men to enslave the Villagers, flees her home to warn Lev and the others. Once there, she chooses to stay, a decision that drives her father and her suitor back in the City to irrational action. Luz tries to talk Lev into simply leaving Shantih, but he insists on following his people’s nonviolent ideals, which leads to tragedy. After things return to normal, though, Luz’s arguments eventually win over some of the Villagers, and she takes a group on an expedition to found a new home as the story ends.

Though unambiguous and very short, The Eye of the Heron explores many interesting ideas. The People of the Peace believe strongly that each individual makes his or her own choices, and the choices that the settlers make after being stranded on an alien planet — after being given a clean slate, in effect — are of interest to Le Guin. Do they wall themselves off in the City and attempt to control the uncontrollable? Do they hold on to the ways of Earth and refuse to adapt, even when it might mean their deaths? Or do they embrace their circumstances and make this planet their new home, adapting to it? Le Guin explores all of these choices, but clearly, it is the last one that holds the most promise at the end. I wouldn’t say that this is Le Guin’s best work, but it is certainly enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Le Guin herself credits this short novel with causing a breakthrough in her development as a feminist writer. In a 1995 interview, Le Guin said this about the novel and the character of Luz:

“I gradually realized that my own fiction was telling me that I could no longer ignore the feminine. While I was writing The Eye of the Heron in 1977, the hero insisted on destroying himself before the middle of the book. “Hey,” I said, “you can’t do that, you’re the hero. Where’s my book?” I stopped writing. The book had a woman in it, but I didn’t know how to write about women. I blundered around a while and then found some guidance in feminist theory. I got excited when I discovered feminist literary criticism was something I could read and actually enjoy. I read The Norton Book of Literature by Women from cover to cover. It was a bible for me. It taught me that I didn’t have to write like an honorary man anymore, that I could write like a woman and feel liberated in doing so.”

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