The Dispossessed is the story of the inhabited worlds of Tau Ceti and their invention of the instant interstellar communication device known as the Ansible. The Ansible reconfigures relations between two inhabited worlds, rough analogues for the United States and the Soviet Union at the time of the Cold War. The two begin a proxy war triggered by these changes and soon events spiral out of control in a parable for the fragility for Statehood.
The chapters alternate between the worlds, and time—even-numbered chapters are set on Anarres and earlier in time, odd-numbered chapters are set on Urras and later in time. The only exceptions are the first and the last chapters which include both worlds and are, thematically, chapters of transition. In chapter one, we are basically in the middleof the story, with Shevek leaving Anarres, while the last chapter is set in space as he returns from Urras to Anarres. The penultimate chapter (chapter twelve) is the last one set in Anarres, and ends at a point before the first chapter begins.
The story takes place on the fictional planet Urras and its habitable twin Anarres. In order to forestall an anarcho-syndicalist rebellion, the major Urrasti states gave the revolutionaries (inspired by a visionary named Odo) the right to live on Anarres, along with a guarantee of non-interference, approximately two hundred years before the events of The Dispossessed . Before this, Anarres had had no permanent settlements apart from some mining facilities. The economic and political situation of Anarres and its relation to Urras is ambiguous. The people of Anarres consider themselves as being free and independent, having broken off from the political and social influence of the old world; but the powers of Urras consider Anarres as being essentially their mining colony, the annual consignment of precious metals mined on Anarres and its division among the major powers of Urras being a major economic event of the old world. The ambiguity of Anarres' situation is symbolically manifested in the low wall surrounding Anarres' single spaceport, the only place on the anarchist planet where "No Trespassing!" signs may be seen - where the book begins and ends. Whether the wall divides a free world from the corrupting influence of an oppressor's ships - as the people of Anarres think, or is in fact a prison wall, keeping the rest of the planet imprisoned and cut off, is a question posed by the writer at the very outset - with Shevek's life essentially an effort to answer it.
The protagonist Shevek is a physicist attempting to develop a General Temporal Theory. The physics of the book describes time as having a much deeper, more complex structure than we understand it. It incorporates not only mathematics and physics, but also philosophy and ethics. The meaning of the theories in the book weaves into the plot, not only describing abstract physical concepts, but the ups and downs of the characters' lives, and the transformation of the Anarresti society. An oft-quoted saying in the book is "true journey is return." The meaning of Shevek's theories—which deal with the nature of time and simultaneity—have been subject to interpretation. For example, there have been interpretations that the non-linear nature of the novel is a reproduction of Shevek's theory.
Anarres is in theory a society without government or coercive authoritarian institutions, and the people of Anarres are explicitly anarchist. Yet in pursuing research that deviates from his society's current consensus understanding, Shevek begins to come up against very real obstacles. Shevek gradually develops an understanding that the revolution which brought his world into being is stagnating, and power structures are beginning to exist where there were none before. He therefore embarks on the risky and highly controversial journey to the home planet, Urras, seeking to open communications between the worlds and to finish his General Temporal Theory with the help of academics on Urras. The novel details his struggles on both Urras and his homeworld of Anarres. Shevek experiences hatred from some of the people on Anarres due to his journey to Urras to advance his research, and due to his idea about increasing contact with the home planet. So the story touches on the themes of how people suffer for pursuing their purpose in life (suffering for one's art), and how they suffer for speaking out for change.
Many conflicts occur between the freedom of anarchism and the constraints imposed by authority and society, both on Anarres and Urras. These constraints are both physical - Odo was imprisoned in the Fort in Drio for nine years, and the children construct their own prison in chapter two - and social: 'time after time the question of who is being locked out or in, which side of the wall one is on, is the focus of the narrative.' Mark Tunik emphasises that the wall is the dominant metaphor for these social constraints: Shevek hits‘the wall of “charm, courtesy, indifference.” He later notes that he let a “wall be built around him” that kept him from seeing the poor people on Urras – he had been co-opted, with walls of smiles of the rich, and he didn’t know how to break them down. . . Shevek at one point speculates that the people on Urras are not truly free precisely because they have so many walls built between people and are so possessive. “You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes – the wall, the wall!”‘ It is not just the state of mind of those inside the prisons that concerns Shevek, he also notes the effect on those outside the walls; here is Steve Grossi: ‘By building a physical wall to keep the bad in, we construct a mental wall keeping ourselves, our thoughts, and our empathy out, tothe collective detriment of all. Shevek puts this more elegantly later on in the book when he says, “those who build walls are their own prisoners.” ’ Le Guin makes this explicit in chapter 2 when the schoolchildren construct their own prison, putting one of their number inside; the deleterious effect on the children outside parallels the effect on the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 (three years before The Dispossessed was published).
The language spoken on the anarchist planet Anarres, Pravic, is a constructed language in the tradition of Newspeak from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the intent being to restrict thought as suggested in the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis. Pravic reflects many aspects of the philosophical foundations of utopian anarchism, for instance, the use of the possessive case is strongly discouraged (a feature that also is reflected by the novel's title). Children are trained to speak only about matters that interest others; anything else is "egoizing" (pp. 28–31). There is no property ownership of any kind. Shevek's daughter, upon meeting him for the first time, tells him, "You can share the handkerchief I use" rather than "You may borrow my handkerchief", thus conveying the idea that the handkerchief is not owned by the girl, merely used by her.
The Dispossessed looks into the mechanisms that may be developed by an anarchist society, but also the dangers of centralization and bureaucracy that might easily take over such society without the continuation of revolutionary ideology. Part of its power is that it establishes a spectrum of well-developed characters, who illustrate many types of personalities, all educated in an environment that measures people not by what they own, but by what they can do, and how they relate to other human beings. Possibly the best example of this is the character of Takver, the hero's partner, who exemplifies many virtues: loyalty, love of life and living things, perseverance, and desire for a true partnership with another person.
However, in order to ensure survival in a harsh environment, the people of Anarres are taught from childhood to put the needs of their society ahead of their own personal desires. Shevek and Takver, as good Odonians, take work postings away from each other, and Shevek does hard agricultural labor in a dusty desert instead of working on his research, because he is needed there due to a famine. The work is sometimes said to represent one of the few modern revivals of the utopian genre, and there are many characteristics of a utopian novel found in this book. Most obviously, Shevek is an outsider when he arrives on Urras, following the "traveler" convention common in utopian literature. All of the characters portrayed in the novel have a certain spirituality or intelligence, there are no nondescript characters. It is also true that there are aspects of Anarres that are utopian: it is presented as a pure society that adheres to its own theories and ideals, which are starkly juxtaposed with Urras society. When first published, the book included the tagline: "The magnificent epic of an ambiguous utopia!" which was shortened by fans to "An ambiguous utopia" and adopted as a subtitle in certain editions. The major theme of the work is the ambiguity between different notions of utopia. Anarres is not presented as a perfect society, even within the constraints of what might define an anarchist utopia. Bureaucracy, stagnation, and power structures have problematized the revolution, as Shevek comes to realize throughout the course of the novel. Moreover, Le Guin has painted a very stark picture of the natural and environmental constraints on society. Anarres citizens are forced to contend with a relatively sparse and unfruitful world.
Le Guin's foreword to the novel notes that her anarchism is closely akin to that of Peter Kropotkin's, whose Mutual Aid closely assessed the influence of the natural world on competition and cooperation. Le Guin's use of realism in this aspect of the work further complicates a simple utopian interpretation of the work. Anarres is not a perfect society, and Le Guin's The Dispossessed seems to argue that no such thing is possible. However, life in Anarres, in her view, is far more free, just, meaningful, and satisfying than life in the main countries of Urras (or in their Earth counterparts when the book was written: the capitalist West and the communist East).