Brace yourself. Psycho-talk inbound in 3…2…1…. Go.
Le Guin is a huge fan of this guy named Carl Jung (pronounced "young" since he's German and all). Jung is a famous psychologist who followed Sigmund Freud around for a while but then decided to go and do his own thing. He branded his very own psychotherapy called analytic psychology. And we have to admit that's a spiffy name.
Here's a quick and dirty rundown of analytic psychology, and we do mean quick:
Everybody's unconscious minds can be separated into two halves: your personal unconscious (your memories) and the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is social memory, meaning everybody shares and adds to this memory pool, usually in the form of archetypes.
Okay, well what in the world is an archetype? An archetype is a symbol people use to represent the world with in their minds. They're usually simple, user-friendly images. For example, the hero's quest, the wise old man, the caring mother, and so on. If you've ever wondered why even the most belligerent, idiotic old man is still treated with respect for being an "elder," yeah, that's the fault of the wise old man archetype.
And finally, we come to anima and animus. The anima is the female archetype; the animus is the male archetype. Every man has a little bit of anima in him, and every woman has some animus in her. Jung believed the balance of anima and animus was necessary for primo mental health.
See where this is going? The Gethenians are a living, breathing, walking, talking version of Jung's anima and animus. In their personal and collective unconsciousness, the male and female is balanced.
Every Gethenian can work any job regardless of gender. The mother/father responsibilities result in a 50/50 split since any Gethenian can be either. In the novel, people think this balance might be responsible for the lack of war on Gethen. On a day-to-day level, all Gethenians are "respected and judged only as a human being" and not as being a manly-man or a dainty-dame (7.18).
Of course, some critics argue that Le Guin's Gethenians are just men with a slightly different sex-engine under the hood. We've included some of these articles in our "Best of the Web" section so feel free to check them out. We won't say here one way or another; that's for you to decide.
(Stanislaw Lem's "Lost Opportunities" is perhaps the most famous essay critiquing Le Guin's use of androgyny. Meanwhile, Le Guin defended her use of androgyny in an essay titled "Is Gender Necessary?" We'd love to link to them for you, but they are under copywriter protection and are not available online. If you're interested, pay your local library a visit. Those librarians get so lonely sometimes.)
Carl Jung may not have had the scientific method on his side, but he sure has literature on his side.
See, the other thing about Le Guin sprinkling her book with so many archetypes is that it gives the story a nice, hefty feel. People love quest stories. You've got your hero, your goal, your dangerous journey, your team of brave companions—it really tugs at the ol' heart strings. That's not surprising, since quest narratives have been around in Western literature since, you know, The Odyssey itself.
If you're curious, you can learn more about Carl Jung here. Also, when we say Le Guin was a huge fan, we mean it. Reading Le Guin's work can sometime feel like reading a Where's Waldo? of archetypes. See if you can't spy any more of Jung's archetypes in the novel.