By: Marlee Jacocks

Image via Google Images

The existence of a prison within a utopian society seems entirely contradictory, yet prisons become a source of fascination for Anarres’ children in Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed. The utopian society is portrayed through the eyes of Shevek, a physicist who lives onthe planet Anarres. In a flashback scene, Shevek reveals the details of “the prison scene” found in Le Guin’s ambiguous utopia. While learning about the history of their neighboring planet, Urras, Shevek and his fellow classmates hear about prisons for the first time, and they quickly become engrossed with the concept. This interest prompts Shevek and others to create their own prison and act as guards and prisoners to better understand this system that does not exist on their planet. Adding to the shocking inclusion of this prison in a utopia, is the scene’s stark similarity to Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo’s psychological experiment with young adult men was intended to simulate the prison experience from the perspective of both guardsand prisoners. The fictional scene from The Dispossessed strongly reflects the Zimbardo psychological experiment in its critique of the treatment of prisoners, specifically the violation of their basic human rights.

​On the planet Anarres in The Dispossessed, there are no physical prisons nor are there any laws to break or rights to violate. So, when the protagonist, Shevek, and his friend, Tirin, first learn about the concept of a prison in school, they are naturally curious, as most 11-12-year-old boys would be. Their situation is quite different from boys on the neighboring planet, Urras, where prisons do exist. In order for Shevek and Tirin to fully grasp this concept of a prison they must immerse themselves in the actual scenario. Thus, Shevek and Tirin, with a few of their friends, make their own homemade prison below their Learning Center by closing off a small cement alcove with a large rock. There is just one entrance to this cave, and it can only be opened from the outside of what the boys determine to be the prisoner’s cell. One boy volunteers as the first prisoner, subjecting himself to four hours of imprisonment. After these four hours, the power begins to grip Shevek and Tirin as they pressure their prisoner and challenge him to re-enter the cell for an undisclosed time period, which he agrees to do. When they decide to release their captive after a total of 30 hours, Shevek and Tirin find him “laying on the ground, curled up on his side” and when he stepped out, “the smell that came out with him was unbelievable” (Le Guin 40). The boy suffered from diarrhea and was forced to defecate in his own prison cell. This physical response to imprisonment reflects the much larger psychological ramifications of imprisonment, even in what, to most readers, might seem like a relatively short confinement. 

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​While this account from Le Guin is fictional, the details ring true from the report of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. From a pool of volunteers, nine prisoners and nine guards were chosen at random. Prisoners were treated to the entire process of being arrested on mock charges. They were handcuffed by a police officer, taken to the police station, and finally brought to the makeshift jail put together in the basement of a Stanford academic building. Guards were given little to no directions or training on how to be guards, rather they were just told to keep law and order within the prison. The experiment then unfolded as the guards and prisoners fell into their roles – a little too well. Rebellions soon broke out among the prisoners as they attempted to exercise any little control and freedom they had left; however, the guards quickly turned abusive and sadistic as they tried to instill law and order. 

​What was intended to be a 2-week long study ended after six intense and tumultuous days due to the unnecessary amounts of emotional and physical trauma the prisoners underwent. Not only did the experiment volunteers take their roles too far, but the researchers did as well. They were unable to recognize the ethical and moral violations until outside researchers were brought in and began asking questions. While the Stanford Prison Experiment and its results have received widespread attention, it becomes even more illuminating when considering the context in parallel to Le Guin’s prison scene. As Tirin falls into his role, much like the guards of Zimbardo’s experiment fell into theirs, Tirin tells their prisoner before the second round of confinement, “You can’t ask why. Because if you do we can beat you, and you just have to take it, and nobody will help you. Because we can kick you in the balls and you can’t kick back. Because you are not free” (Le Guin 38). 

​The Stanford Prison Experiment made waves that rippled through the field of psychology and the results elicited a loud call for prison reform. But this call has fallen on deaf ears as incarceration rates throughout the United States have doubled since the 1971 experiment (Zimbardo). Le Guin further chastises the traditional prison system in the United States by including the prison scene in the context of a utopian world. The violation of basic human rights, the lack of control and freedom over one’s own body, and the arbitrary law and order enforced by guards seems utterly ridiculous to Shevek after he experiences the prison simulation himself. Even at his young age, Shevek recognizes how wrongly they have treated their prisoner (Le Guin 40). By including this scene in The Dispossessed, Le Guin positions the audience to distance themselves from a system that has become a foundational reality of systematic human degradation and pushes readers to further evaluate that while prisoners may not have the same rights as law abiding citizens, they should not have to sacrifice their humanity. 


Le Guin, Ursula. The Dispossessed. Harper Voyager, 1974. 

Zimbardo, Phillip. Stanford Prison Experiment. School Psychology Network, 1999, Accessed 28 January 2019.