Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland

October 28, 2019

912W443LLKL._AC_UY218_ML3_   Here’s a book I haven’t read for nearly forty years, since I worked on my thesis. Written in 1915, Gilman’s novel presents a socialist, feminist and (involuntarily) separatist utopia, a product of the early twentieth century wave of feminism, and rediscovered by the second, in the 1970s. It’s set up as a three-man expedition who have heard rumours of a dangerous women’s world, so they have to go there, of course. It turns out to be somewhere in an Amazon-type region, on a lofty basalt plateau cut off from the surrounding jungle, so suspiciously like the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

It develops along the usual utopian lines: the visitors from outside discover a well-ordered land of peace and plenty (though a good number of fairly traditional feminine traits still remain there), and they (the men) are initially imprisoned by the women, cannot believe there can be no men, quickly reveal themselves to be rather silly in their attitudes, and have to learn to understand this new world in which they find themselves.

They learn the language and then there is the usual exposition, complicated by the naturally assumed superiority of men from our world and that particular time period. There have been no males of the human species in Herland for two thousand years; parthenogenesis spontaneously developed; there is a cult of maternity which has become their religion, and, the men are told, because there was no outlet for it, sex and sexuality were sublimated, suppressed and quickly vanished from the human experience. The feminists of the 1970s who produced rather different separatist utopias will have found this last development unsatisfactory; the concept of lesbian sexuality is not even hinted at here.

As the men learn – or not – we do come to feel, though it’s by comparison with our own society, that there’s a bit of a feel of the ant-hill or beehive to the world of Herland, happy and healthy though its citizens are, and the exposition ultimately becomes rather tiresome and tedious, just as in many other utopian novels.

I found myself wondering how convincing Gilman’s male characters were; they are types rather than personalities, and perhaps do represent attitudes from a century ago. The women of Herland are aware of the problem of stasis, which must be present in any utopian world, and are debating whether they want to re-establish a two-gender society, now that they have been presented with the potential and opportunity. Romances are developed (rather woodenly) between the three men and three women, marriages contrived (1915, remember!) and the awkward problem of sex and sexual desire rears its head, for the women are basically both uncomprehending and shocked when they encounter it…

As utopias go, it’s an interesting one, asking more questions than it answers, really, and casting a shadow on the world as we know it, which must necessarily seem dark and defective by comparison. Gilman raised the broader question of the differences between male and female attitudes and approaches to many aspects of life, living and society, and foreshadowed much more complex and challenging novels of the 1970s and 1980s where such issues are brought into play much more forcefully – thinking of the novels of Suzy McKee Charnas, for instance.

Worth a read if you happen to come across a copy… didactic rather than entertaining, and Gilman sets herself up for a sequel, which I have not taken the trouble to track down.

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