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Egoism v. Altruism

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ENWR 110-20: Paper #3

The struggle between altruism and egoism has always daunted the human race.  As defined, altruism is the unselfish concern for the welfare of others and egoism is the tendency to consider only oneself and ones own interests (Websters New World Dictionary).  Altruism is valued higher than egoism because it shows compassion and caring towards others.  However, literature often depicts characters who display egoism instead of altruism, often producing strong willing, successful individuals.  Ayn Rand, in describing Howard Roark, a prime example of an egoist character, said, [he is] self-sufficient, self-confident, the end of ends, the reason unto himself, the joy of living personified A man who is what he should be.  (Rand).  This shows that though self-interest was present in Roark, it was not necessarily a bad thing.  These people generally do not help others and only seek pleasure for themselves.  These characters often jump through many more hurdles due to their independent outlooks, but in the end get what they want through a more difficult and thusly gratifying series of events.  Such ego-based characters undermine the traditionally high merited altruistic traits by succeeding in a similar task with a more self-rewarding outcome.  In Ursula K. Le Guins Semleys Necklace, Semley displays how egoism alters her approach to people when they endanger her desires.

     In Semleys Necklace, Semley leaves her family; showing greed and disregard for her family, seeking only self-gain.  Abandoning ones family to seek what one wishes shows selfishness. In the beginning of the story, Semley is shown to be in a very pleasant setting, yet she is discontent due to a lack of visible wealth.  She has the visible attributes of nobles: her hair shone with the pure, steadfast gold of her inheritance. (Le Guin, 323).  She is married to a noble named Durhal and they live in a castle.  This alone is enough to make most content.  However, Semley looked at others with envy: [her] face hardened when she looked down the hall and saw, in seats far below hers, even down among the half-breeds and the midmen the gleam of precious stones. (324). She wanted wealth.  She complained to her husbands sister that My family had a great treasure once a necklace all of gold, with a blue jewel set in the centre and pondered the wealth and admiration that would come with having it (325).  Her desire to acquire wealth was seen as owning such riches and being held in such awe began to distract her.  It was what she always wanted: to be respected and to have the wealth that she thought she should.  She had the natural wealth with her beautiful golden hair and darkened skin, but the material wealth she lacked.  That, of course, was what she wanted most.  Immediately she left on a quest for the necklace, telling Durhals sister My return will be a happy one--that much let him know. (326).

     Semley ignores protests from Duressa and the knowledge that Durhal would not agree with her leaving and leaves anyway to seek her own interests.  By ignoring her friends and family to pursue her own wishes, Semley shows that she values her desires above all else.  Semley complains to Duressa instead of her husband because she knows Durhal had only contempt for envy, for vain wishing, and she dreaded his contempt. (324-5). She wanted only approval from her husband and others, and saw the necklace as an easy way to achieve this.  Because she could not talk to Durhal about such a venture, she went to Duressa.  Duressa reemphasized Durhals ideology by saying Is Durhals pride in his wife, or what she wears? (326). Semley, however, did not care about this enough to dissuade her from going.  

By acting through egoism, she was trying to better herself. 

     Through her journey to find the necklace, she met other peoples and made others bend to her will to get what she wanted.  By manipulating others, Semley showed little concern for others and greater concern for herself.  First, she traveled to the Fiia, a cheery light-hearted species three days travel from her home.  She was greeted with fanciful titles like Semley the Fair, to which she beamed because she liked to hear them, (328).  She spoke to them, and was told that the Clayfolk would know more of the whereabouts of her necklace.  She said she would go to them, which the Fiia strongly and vigorously recommended against.  She ignored them, however, and continued on her quest.  Upon meeting the Clayfolk, or Gdemiar, she got into an argument over whether her air-beast, which she used for transportation, could come in.  Upon her insistence, the Gdemiar gave in to her requests.  She spoke to them forcefully, offering only her thanks in repayment for the great favor you ask of us [the Gdemiar] (332).  Her insistence, once again, is consented to.  She is taken on a difficult journey during which she meets the Starlords, who gave into her request as well, presenting her with the valuable necklace without strife.  Her insistence and pressure force others into giving her what she wants, regardless of their original intentions:  They had bowed to her, and given her gladly the treasure from amongst their own. (335).

     Semleys return was decades later, and her immediate concern for her family showed her altruistic intentions.  Through Semleys concern and upset at losing valuable time with her family and friends, Semley showed that she truly did care about them.  Upon her return, Semley shows altruism and compassion for her family as she learned that time had passed.  She met Duressa, now graying and old, who informed her that her husband had died.  Semley stood unmoving at the shocking statement, because she was very effected by the statement (338).  She then met her daughter, now of an equal age to herself as Semley had been unaltered by the time passage.  Taken by grief, she took the necklace and presented it to her daughter Haldre, saying Take it, take it.   It was for Durhal and Haldre that I brought it from the end of the long night! (339). This statement alone proves Semleys true desires and altruistic intent.  She wanted her family to receive recognition, not just herself.  She then wept openly and then fled in misery.

     Semleys return was yet another show of her egoism, as she never said anything that showed her sadness.  When losing such an integral and important part in ones life because of pursuing a whim, not showing any sorrow confirms that egoism was the true motivation for leaving.  Her sadness reflected the fact that other aspects of her life, the class reached by having a high ranking husband and family, had been wasted away, leaving her with little status.  As her husband died, so did much of her class rank.  She never asked about her daughter, and in fact did not recognize that her daughter existed until Duressa said, Wait, Semley!  Durhals daughter, your daughter, see her now! (339). After insisting that her daughter take the necklace she turned and ran from Halian darting off eastward into the forest of the mountainside like some wild thing escaping, showing her disrespect and grief over what had changed, and an unwillingness to face the suffering that had occurred (339). 

     Semley showed her egoism in her interactions with others and disregard for their feelings and ideas.  She forced her way through obstacles to achieve what she wanted.  This egoism was shown throughout the story, and her selfishness was demonstrated in her outlook and desires.  In Semleys Necklace, egoism is shown to destroy relations and make one value themselves above all else. 



Works Cited


Le Guin, Ursula K.  Semleys Necklace. The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories. Ed. Tom Shippey.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.


Rand, Ayn.  The Fountainhead.  Signet, New York: 1949.


Websters New World Dictionary: Third College Edition.  1991 Edition.