May 2, 2011

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

First of all, I have to say I’ve really missed this whole blogging about books thing. Technically I shouldn’t be posting before the 9th of May, the day when the last of my grad school assignments is due (dissertation aside, of course). Actually, make that the 11th, because the first thing I’ll do is try my best to sleep for 48 hours straight. Anyway, I’m too attached to The Year of Feminist Classics project to skip a month, even if I’m two days late. Plus I did manage to read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and have a lot I want to say about it.

Published in 1915, Herland is a utopian novella based on the following premise: deep in the Amazonian forest, on an isolated plateau, a group of women developed the ability to reproduce asexually. For over two thousand years, a civilisation made entirely of women has been flourishing. The story opens when a group of three friends hears rumours about Herland’s existence and decides to go on an expedition to find it. They each have their area of expertise: Terry is “strong on facts”, Jeff is a biologist, and the narrator, Van, is a sociologist interested in a little bit of everything, “so long as it connected with human life, somehow”.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses the points of view of these three young men in ingenious, ironic, and often very funny ways. Their expectations about how women are supposed to behave and what a female-only culture is supposed to be like are allowed to speak for themselves before being mercilessly debunked. Shortly after arriving in Herland, for example, Van says: “But they look--why, this is a CIVILIZED country!” I protested. “There must be men.”

What is also interesting about these three protagonists is that they each embody a different way of dehumanising women which was current in the early twentieth century. As Van himself puts it,
Jeff, with his gentle romantic old-fashioned notions of women as clinging vines. Terry, with his clear decided practical theories that there were two kinds of women—those he wanted and those he didn’t; Desirable and Undesirable was his demarcation. The latter as a large class, but negligible—he had never thought about them at all.
And a few pages later, about himself:
I held a middle ground, highly scientific, of course, and used to argue learnedly about the physiological limitations of the sex.
Needless to say, the “highly scientific” consensus of the time was every bit as sexist and dehumanising.

Gilman is an excellent writer, but the reasons why I couldn’t fully connect with this book were similar to the issues I had with her nonfiction book The Man-Made World. For all their differences, the two works are ideologically very consistent. They share the same points of interest and the same highly problematic aspects – namely a tendency to slip into gender essentialism even while questioning it, an emphasis on motherhood as the defining feature of femininity, and constant nods to heterosexism, racism and eugenics.

The vision behind Herland is a far cry away from my own feminist vision. There’s a lot to appreciate about it – most of all, it provides a fascinating glimpse into early twentieth-century notions of what it meant to be a woman and of science, and also into the ideological muddle that surrounded early feminism, which I find important to be aware of. But ultimately Gilman’s utopia relies on an idea that, to me, is more a part of the problem than a part of the solution. I do not believe in female utopias. I do not believe in essential gender natures. I do not think a society ruled by women would necessarily be any better than the one we have now. What I do believe in is freeing people from gender straitjackets, for everyone’s sake.

Having said that, I have to admit that the more I read on, and the more Gilman elaborated on her premise, the more I noticed that, slips and contradictions aside, this is also what she believes in most of all. If we put aside her cult of motherhood for a moment (which I find quite problematic in its own right), what emerges is a novella that is far less essentialist than it could have been. What’s interesting about Herland is not the fact that it portrays a world where everything is close to perfection because there are no men. What’s truly interesting is the fact that this is a society in which the male-female opposition disappears. The women of Herland are not defined against anything, so they’re allowed to simply be human beings. Likewise, this is how they perceive the three protagonists, much to their surprise:
Jeff continued thoughtful. “All the same, there’s something funny about it,” he urged. “It isn’t just that we don’t see any men—but we don’t see any signs of them. The—the—reaction of these women is different from any that I’ve ever met.”
“There is something in what you say, Jeff,” I agreed. “There is a different—atmosphere.”
“They don’t seem to notice our being men,” he went on. “They treat us—well—just as they do one another. It’s as if our being men was a minor incident.”
I nodded. I’d noticed it myself.
In a way, Herland is more of a philosophical treatise than a novella, and yes, there’s some excessive driving the point home at times. But don’t let that put you off by any means: like I said, Gilman can be quite funny, and for all its theoretical weight Herland reads extremely well. It’s (very consciously, I’m sure) written in a style reminiscent of adventure stories of the period, such as The Lost World or H.G. Wells’ “The Country of the Blind”. Herland is certainly not a narrative we can swallow whole, but it’s worth reading all the same. You can find it for free on Project Gutenberg.

After I finished the book, I got Gilman’s biography, To Herland and Beyond, from the library, but soon afterwards I had to admit defeat and return it unread. Has anyone read it by any chance? It looks very promising, but I haven’t been doing much reading beyond one Naomi Novik book after another. Dragons and chocolate are what’s currently keeping me sane.

As always, visit the Year of Feminist Classics blog for more takes on Herland. I’m afraid that I wasn’t able to read any of them myself this time, which makes me feel very sad and isolated and distant from the communal reading experience this project is meant to be all about. But in another week or so I’ll be able to catch up (not just with Herland reviews, but with everything).

I’ll see you then for an introduction to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (apologies in advance for being a few days late). And also for some serious catching up: I know I keep saying this, but I
ve missed you all.


  1. Loved reading your thoughts on this one Ana, you say it really well. There was so much that bothered me in the book but yet there were still some real gems in there too. All the best and looking forward to having you back full time :)

  2. Very interesting Ana, I would have never thought of reading this but you make it sound interesting. I like the concept a lot, but I'm sure loads of things will bother me since I'm not good at just accepting stuff because of when a book was written!

  3. Oh my gosh, how wonderful it was to see a post by you pop up in the reader this morning!!!! :D

    It was only a couple weeks ago, when I was watching a lecture on utopian literature for Annie's lit class, that I really heard anything about what this book was about. I have to say, I was quite intrigued. And your review has left me even more so. (Like that comes as any surprise. :P )

  4. I have had this book on my shelves for such a long time, and can't remember why or how I picked it up. I also wouldn't want to live in a world with only one gender, and think that Gilman has some strange notions about why a society of women would be so civilized and preferable. I do still want to read this book, but I am not sure how I will feel after reading some of the viewpoints that you write about. I really liked this review though, and think you brought up a lot of pertinent and interesting questions about the book.

  5. Just keep reminding yourself it HAS to end soon. No matter what.

  6. Great thoughts on what sounds like a great book! So stoked that you can get it on the Gute, so I'm off to download a copy and begin reading immediately!

  7. Great thoughts on what sounds like a great book! So stoked that you can get it on the Gute, so I'm off to download a copy and begin reading immediately!

  8. My feelings on this one were mixed too - noticing those elements I disagree with but appreciating the overall point she was trying to make (or rather the issue she was trying to highlight).

  9. Miss you, lady! We all miss you blogging about books too! My mother was saying so just the other day, and I felt all sadly that you were not yet back to the blogosphere from all this "grad school" business. :p

    (I'm so kidding! Yay for you in grad school!)

  10. I also thought an all-female utopia would be much like ours is today.

    As for the cult of motherhood, I read *somewhere* that Gilman had an awful time after her baby was born -- kind of like Yellow Wallpaper where they took her away from her baby to "recover" -- and she had a very bad relationship with her husband. So the idea that she could be a mother without a husband, without others taking her child away from her, was an ideal to her. I guess, given that kind of background, I could understand why the whole motherhood thing was what would make life worthwhile for was very personal.

    Not necessarily, as you say, a feminist idea, but certainly her ideal. This is GILMAN'S ideal, not everyone else's.

  11. I'm reading this one at the moment, better late than never I guess, but I only skimmed your post because of that. Still, glad to see grad school isn't killing you and good luck with your assignments and dissertation! :)

  12. +JMJ+

    The format reminds me very much of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. Do you think Gilman was trying to send it up?

    Haggard's Adventure Lit classic also carries many of the stereotypes and prejudices of its day--but racial rather than sexual ones. While its three British explorers are clearly decent men, they can't help being sons of their own era and relating to the African characters accordingly. And while Haggard doesn't set any of them up for criticism, I daresay he drops a couple of hints that he himself doesn't approve of certain prejudices.

  13. I've just read this one for my online sci-fi course, and agree with pretty much all you have said. I liked the book, and I really wanted to love it more, because I can *intellectually* appreciate where Gilman was coming from.

    But emotionally, no, I just can't empathise with a utopia all about motherhood :)

    I do wonder if a lot of my problems with the book aren't down to how caricatured the men were. I know, that was part of the point, but at the same time I didn't really want to belive (although I know it is true) that men like Terry exist. And to a lesser extent the other two.

    I do not believe in female utopias. I do not believe in essential gender natures. I do not think a society ruled by women would necessarily be any better than the one we have now. What I do believe in is freeing people from gender straitjackets, for everyone’s sake
    Me neither :) Or, me too.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.