Saturday, April 16, 2011
Book Review: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is April's reading for the 2011 Classic Feminist Literature Challenge. This was one of the few books in the challenge that I'd never heard of before; the majority of them I've seen discussed elsewhere or have read in whole (The Subjection of Women, Ain't I a Woman?) or in excerpt (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, The Beauty Myth). I was interested in getting a chance to read something by an author I'd never heard of previously as well as some early twentieth century American literature, a genre in which I haven't read much.
Herland is a utopian novella that depicts the journey of three wealthy-ish, well-educated men who stumble across a remote country that is exclusively populated by women while on an expedition in South America. Not wanting to share their discovery with the rest of the team, they return to the United States and begin planning their own expedition. Terry, the adventure-obsessed playboy, is enamored of the idea of a country full of silly, helpless, squabbling women who will undoubtedly fall all over themselves in order to claim the prize that is him, agrees to finance the expedition. Jeff and Van (the narrator) tag along because they, too, are intensely curious about what a country of all women would be like, though neither harbors the sexist notions that Terry does.
Upon arriving, they are immediately taken captive by the women and are imprisoned in a fortress where they are taught the language and history of Herland. While Jeff and Van aren't exactly enthused by this state of affairs, they soon befriend their captors and make strides in their new education. Terry, on the other hand, is positively incensed at his captivity by lowly (also, unattractive and middle-aged) women, and convinces the others to escape. Their escape is, of course, unsuccessful; when they finally make it back to their biplane, they find it sewn up in thick fabric. Unable to leave, they are recaptured and returned to the fortress. The women inform them that they will be allowed to leave and explore the countryside once they have learned the language and customs of Herland and have demonstrated themselves trustworthy. At this, Terry reluctantly agrees to play along, though he is never fully convinced that their society is viable or that their captors are "real" women.
The three men come to learn the history of Herland: it was originally a mixed-sex colony that allowed slavery. However, one day some two thousand years prior to the arrival of the men, a volcanic eruption cut it off from the rest of the countryside. Soon after, the slaves revolted and killed all the men. The women retaliated and killed the slaves. After that, there were no men left and there was no way for any more to arrive. Faced with the destruction of their people, the women were delighted a few years later to discover that one of their own was capable of parthenogenesis. The whole community became invested in raising her five children, and her children's five children, and so on and so forth until the community was populated exclusively by the one woman's descendants. Eventually, though, the land started to run out of space and resources despite its careful tending by the women, so they instituted a policy that regulated the number of children a woman was allowed to have, in order to ensure that nobody would go hungry or want for anything.
Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of utopian novels. They all possess qualities I find naive, unrealistic, and grating. It's pretty evident that Gilman is selling both feminism and socialism here, and while I'm not opposed to either of those things, the way in which she constructed her utopia of Herland was a little silly and a lot unrealistic. I get what she was driving at, though: much like John Stuart Mill, Gilman clearly believes that differences between the sexes are socially constructed, not innate, which is why women in Herland are able to fulfill roles assigned to men in other societies. That they are able to live together amicably without squabbling (despite Terry's repeated insistence that women aren't capable of running a cohesive, viable society) also demonstrates Gilman's belief that so-called negative characteristics of women (flightiness, impulsiveness, willing to scrap with other women for male attention) are also socialized.
Beyond that, Gilman uses the male characters in a deft manner, demonstrating that Terry's traditional vision of femininity and how women should behave is not only completely prejudicial and off-base, but lends itself to foul behavior and violence (he eventually tries to rape one of the women). Meanwhile, Jeff and Van, who are more open-minded, are able to not only see the good of society, but adapt to it and become better people themselves. This is a pretty clear commentary of what Gilman believes the future will hold, and I think she's largely been proven right.
As for the socialist aspect of Herland, Gilman's vision of an orderly society is pretty clear. Throughout the narrative, the women of Herland demonstrate an intensely utilitarian ethos, subsuming their own individual desires for the good of the community. It's why all of the women agree to limit themselves to one, maybe two children apiece, and are willing to surrender their rearing and education to the experts. Their desire for their children to become full, productive members of their community always outweighs their individual preferences. The children, for their part, are educated communally and are allowed to develop their own interests, and pursue whichever career path suits them the best. No job is valued over any other, and it appears that Herland does not have a moneyed economy; goods are simply distributed to whoever requires them. It appears that the system was born of the necessity that collaboration was the only way that the society would survive, and that it evolved naturally over time. Again, the juxtaposition of characters from "regular" society enable Gilman to highlight all that was (and continues to be) wrong in America: child poverty, extreme gaps between the wealthy and the poor, and a system which regards children as property and commodities, not human beings with their own rights.
I liked it, but I'll continue to prefer dystopias. 3.5 out of 5 stars.