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Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Herland

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This is a difficult book to write about!

Publisher: Various
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1915
Date Reviewed: 12th February 2017
Rating: N/A (Historical value is significant but it’s not the best book out there)

Van and his friends are exploring new regions and during their travels they are told of a land bereft of men. Highly intrigued, they make for that country for different reasons. Terry thinks he’ll conquer the ladies, Jeff thinks it all sounds marvellous, and Van is simply interested. It might not turn out as they expect, particularly for Terry.

Herland is a science fiction utopia novella – a sociological text – that looks at what might happen if men were not around. Understandably based around early 20th century American society – and a lot of academia – there is much to recommend it today both in terms of the history of feminism and eternally relevant concepts. There is also a lot to be said for reading it in our modern day where, in our further cultural and scientific progress, some of the concepts are more poignant and relevant than they were in Gilman’s day.

Herland asks many questions under the umbrella subject of womanhood. What is a woman? What is femininity and how much is nature versus nurture? How much should motherhood (back then almost an inevitability) impact upon a woman’s life?

Gilman’s narrator is a man, Van, and he is joined by two others. In the trio, the author makes use of different personalities in order to be able to fully explore her ideas in the context of her fictional world as well as to pull it apart both in favour of it and not so. Van is somewhere on the middle of a scale; he’s critical of both his friends who in turn represent viewpoints at the extremes, one of them loving Herland a lot. Jeff doesn’t take long to align himself with the country, indeed he is presented, once the trio get there, as a major ally of it. Gilman, through narrator Van, questions the wisdom of falling completely for the female-only society, always leaning towards equality for both genders. Jeff takes Herland in his stride and as the novel continues you can see Gilman’s questions – is Jeff’s a complete submission, his almost ‘mummy’s boy’ approach a good one?

Then there’s Terry. Granted, Terry goes through a cycle of changes that’s in favour of Gilman’s ideas – which I’ll get to in a moment – but on the whole in Terry you have a ‘man’s man’ who thinks all the women will love him and submit to him. Gilman wants you to see that both Terry and Jeff’s views are problematic, Van, too, to various extents.

Terry’s change, from ‘man’s world’ to a bit more ‘woman’s and man’s world’ is never completed – Gilman does make him more amenable for a time but it’s in her continued decision to not change him completely (she shatters his good progression to major effect) that you can see her thought that equality is best – and in fact Gilman uses him to show the increasing realisation that women can do just as good a job in traditionally male work. It’s a slow development but there is a distinctive span of time between Terry’s reckoning that the female-only country will be ‘savage’ and his statement in which he terms the people ‘highly civilised ladies’.

On the question of what femininity is, there is much. Gilman builds it up, as she does her exploration of ‘people’, speaking of Terry’s description of ‘real women’ (those in his society) and using character development to say the following through Van:

This led me very promptly to the conviction that those ‘feminine charms’ we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity – developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfilment of their great process.

Gilman looks at the differences between Herland women and American women, the way Herland’s are the equivalent of American men. She doesn’t go too far into the idea that Terry, Jeff, and Van should do the housework, too, but the point is made: a woman doesn’t have to conform to society expectations to be a woman.

Where Gilman looks most critically at her creation is on the subject of motherhood. She uses the real world expectation in her fictional one, taking it to the extreme so that becoming a mother is the absolute be all and end all of life, it’s just that they happen to live full lives otherwise. (She has by this stage built up your imagination of the world enough that you can see the patriarchy and western concept of manhood aligning perfectly with this taken-to-the-extreme concept of motherhood.)

The country revolves around motherhood. It’s the highest, best thing, a woman – a person – can live for; it’s a religion. It’s both a clever criticism of the west and a criticism of itself:

“The only thing they can think of about a man is Fatherhood!” said Terry in high scorn. “Fatherhood! As if a man was always wanting to be a father!”

Motherhood is where the novella meets its biggest present day opposition. The basic history of the land is science fiction – it might even disappoint you because Gilman takes a giant definite leap towards fantasy, away from real world concepts. Herland women started experiencing immaculate conceptions and this reproduction produces only females. The contention today is in the continual effect of that propagation (because it’s now natural) – in order to not become overwhelmed by overpopulation, the highest people in Herland decreed that some women must ‘suppress the urge’ to reproduce and leave it to a select number of chosen women. Some women are so favoured they have more than one child.

The criticism itself comes in where Gilman places what we would now call a cheeky child outside of the circle of those chosen to later be mothers. If you combine this concept with Herland’s success at eradicating disease, illness, harm, it’s not the happiest picture, despite that this eradication of suffering is for the benefit of everyone in the land.

(The interesting thing about the views of children, in general, displayed here is Gilman’s view of how the west treats them: ‘no Herland children ever met the overbearing rudeness we so commonly show to children’.)

So disability and mental illness become suspect, too. Gilman does not speak of it outright – the illnesses she mentions read as cold and flu – but it creates unease, particularly in the context of today. It’s much like the situation surrounding Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre – you have to consider where prejudice as we view it meets what were average societal thoughts back then and come to your own conclusion.

Gilman says little directly about race. Terry calls the people who reside next to Herland ‘savages’ but given his character in general, in the context of the book it’s hard to say that this is Gilman’s view. Gilman’s Herland could be ethnically mixed; again it’s down to the reader. (I will note here that the question of the author’s views on race are answered in the next book. Since I wouldn’t recommend reading the next book I’d propose you read essays about her instead.)

Herland is an enjoyable read on an entertainment level, at least in terms of being entertained by history and barriers being broken, but it’s not something to read to escape daily life. It demands you think – that is it’s very purpose – and it’s a book you’d be hard pressed not to take a thousand notes on. It has its faults, it has its dated aspects, but it is a triumph in terms of progressive thinking. The only thing really amiss is the ending – the book finishes almost mid movement, but there’s a sequel that continues where the flying machine takes off.

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