#Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (a #review)

To prepare for #theFutureIsFemale, I thought I’d read the 1915 utopian novel Herland. As seems fitting, it offers both more and less what, I guess, Gilman details in the story. A land of women without the influence of men is a fun concept that fits in the fecund genre of that time concerning the discovery of lost worlds. In short, three men find the hidden land and, with some trials, learn their ways. The men leave with some companions who want to learn about our world in Gilman’s sequel novels.

UTOPIA, HOW BORING

Is there an earnest, non-humorous, non-satiric utopian story anywhere that succeeds? Yes, most people want to live in a beautiful place. But that’s only part of utopia. Who wants to live in a place that purports to have solved all problems? Without problems, is the human experience reduced to that of a beautiful machine?

The women of Herland treat the captive men well, and with patience. They are physical, aesthetic, intellectual superiors, though not god-like. They agree with each other. Herland once had men, but lost them all through war and the natural disaster that sealed the land from the rest of the world. Herland has replanted all of its forests with fruit and nut trees, a gesture toward permaculture at the expense of wilderness. Herland has many cats bred to lose their meow and ability to hunt birds. Yes, like a late 1990s Internet email, Herland takes time to discuss the idea that women prefer cats, men prefer dogs. Herland educates its young through play, the USA does not—well, a man remembers, there is the Montessori method. Herland raises its children apart from the biological mother.

Is this engaging reading? Meanwhile, there are references to drama, dance, music, religion, and education. I don’t want to shock you, but all of these are superlative accomplishments. They also don’t have disease: apparently, all it took was 2,000 years without unsanitary men, and there you go, cured. I don’t recall seeing any reference to politics, industry, economic classes, money, energy sources. The Herland guards pick up the men and drive them in electric motors (cars), which, unless I missed it, they never mention again. Herland references communications system that are different but equivalent to USA’s, but does not explain.

MORE THAN INTENDED

The female utopia Gilman envision is a realm of mutants. These women reproduce by parthenogenesis. Individuals have some control over self-pregnancy through will and diet. A reader could question, then, to what extent they are human. If they are not human, is this even a utopian novel, or a novel about a visit to female elf-land? I believe most human women would say their reproductive system is important to their experience in life. However, a most generous gesture as a reader I think would be to accept the parthenogenesis as an ultimate form of birth control. It’s also a way of avoiding social censure of a disreputable concept.

My guess is that Gilman did not intend the following interpretation, but she does anticipate the future. We already are see trans-human intersections of our birthed selves with technological implants and genetic medicine. I assume without particular knowledge that in my lifetime, real human women will be able to reproduce without any kind of male contribution. Then what happens? Does this novel lend insight?

LESS THAN INTENDED

Unfortunately, by literary standards, the only real characters in the book are the men. Characterization of the three men show them as three individuals, with different values, different personalities. They even disagree with each other. In their relations with women, one is a chauvinist cad, one puts women on a pedestal, and one is moderate.

There are pale hints of differences between the women of Herland, their size, age, intellect. In one part of the book, the women differentiate themselves in reaction to the three male types. Herland fails the Bechdal test.

For the most part, the women are not even mutant humans. They are cardboard cutouts of Gilman’s ideology. They are smart, beautiful, poetic, unconvincing, polemic machines. Once in a while they rise from one dimension to two. Sometimes their combination of strength and kindness hints of a richness to them that the text never fully realizes.

I think the novel might have been stronger (and less predictable) if three women of USA 1915 visited Herland and brought different opinions in argument with each other and the women of Herland.

CONTRADICTIONS

Herland over and over asserts ways, specific and general, the way woman is a social construct. Herland smashes restrictive roles for women that the men describe. When Herland is not making those strong arguments, it is asserting Motherhood as essential to womanhood. It often does so with quasi-religious feeling.

PLATO’S CAVE

As I was reading this, I felt an urge to stop reading it and instead meta-read it. Instead of taking the words as Gilman wrote them, I sometimes wanted to find the shadow of Gilman’s personal life and world, its restrictions, prejudices, and privileges. I heard some hints about her life that I wondered about as I read. I don’t know if this is fair, but it might be a more generous way for a modern reader to plow through the preachy passages of the text. I don’t think Gilman would have liked this anthropological attitude, though. Of course, readers will bring their own non-literary motivation to the reading, and that might suffice.

CONFLICT AND CARNALITY

As a reader, I don’t understand why the three Herland women marry the three men. It happens in the context of their curiosity of the outside world, and urge to explore. I have the impression that it happens for no reason other than narrative necessity, to bring the utopians into 1915 USA for their critique in the next novel, which I haven’t read. If this was an opportunity to draw lines of, perhaps, females struggling with conflicted human complexity, the novel avoided such messiness. Was it just too much to imagine independent women carrying their ideas across international borders of propriety?

Surprise! Men bring mess and conflict to the utopia. It’s sometimes difficult to pin down the evasive language, but I think the utopian women of Herland have no sexual desire. The male narrator patiently and ethereally accepts his bride’s request to wait before intercourse, and it never happens in the book.

The only sexual intercourse that may or may not happen is the chauvinist cad’s attempt of marital rape. This upset is the part of the book that feels the most real. The women who fight him off even kick him in his private parts, the book makes clear. So urgent is the narrative feeling against this male violence that the sanitized curtain rents apart. Aside from that, Gilman’s female utopia conceives no sexual happiness, only relations as cloud-tripping with Oos and Ahhs.

The other two times the men bring conflict is their attempt to escape, which never had a chance to succeed, and introducing harsh ideas from human history. It turns out that all of Herland is like a North American university of 2017, one big safe space. When the narrator vaguely explains concepts of Damnation and Hell, she runs “blinded and screaming” to a temple to have the idea removed:

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 1.25.03 PM

Although #theFutureIsFemale excludes me, still, I am not comfortable with this novel’s connection between an uber-female’s sanity and the sanitization of ideas. How does Gilman intend the reader to interpret this utopian female weakness? Is it a hint that the utopia harbors a stagnancy? Or is the book merely trying to offer the isolated mutant woman’s reaction as an objective assessment of dark human history? That’s probably too generous, because the utopia has such a ready way to remove unpleasant ideas. This may be an unintended hint of the cost to our human natures to establish and hold on to a state of perfection (even if only brain-suffocating, mutant perfection). The idea that the unsanitary is “male” continues, however. Some of my female friends who attend the Michigan Womyn’s Festival tell me that the only men allowed in are the ones who clean the portable toilets. A google search today offers 2,460,000 results to the term “toxic masculinity,” part of the ready vocabulary of the current androphobic sex panic.

Listen to Herland for free here.

Read Herland for free here.

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Published in: on December 4, 2017 at 2:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

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