Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Moving the Mountain by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Not a bad world, if it’ll have you
Moving the Mountain, published in 1911, is a utopian novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story opens in the remote reaches of Tibet, where American Ellen Robertson is miraculously reunited with her long-lost brother John, who ventured into Tibet 30 years ago and was never heard from again. Once rediscovered, John suffers some ill-defined sort of amnesia in regards to his Tibetan years, and returns to Western Civilization as a sort of awakened Rip Van Winkle. During the last three decades, the world has changed dramatically, and his sister gradually introduces John to the revolutionary progress that has taken place in American society.
Moving the Mountain is the first book in a utopian trilogy, followed by Herland and With Her in Ourland. It is often described as a feminist utopia, but feminism is really only a small part of this book, which addresses many different aspects of society. It’s true that the first thing John notices about this changed world are its “new women,” who have careers and are no longer dependent on men to survive. The economy is socialistic. Everyone works, but only four hours or less per day. Food preparation and child care are communal, both conducted scientifically for optimum health. Religion has been supplanted by a humanistic worship of life and love. Few stones are left unturned in Gilman’s depiction of her ideal society, and many of her prescient visions have already reached fruition in the century since the book’s publication. Overall this is one of the more practical and realistic utopias I’ve ever read—not too far-fetched in its wish list—yet like almost every literary utopia it requires a populace utterly devoid of laziness, greed, or stupidity.
As far as utopias go, Gilman’s world seems like a pretty great place to live, but it does have its dark side too. Some aspects of the new society sound awfully fascistic, particularly in the areas of sex and family issues. Eugenics is brought up more than a few times in a positive light. In order to achieve their social paradise and cleanse the human race of its impurities, these brave new worlders eliminated or sterilized many of their criminals, perverts, idiots, and “degenerates” (no specificity in regards to the latter term, but one can guess). Anyone who contracts a venereal disease is prohibited from reproducing. Hundreds of thousands of prostitutes are allowed to reform and take up respectable jobs, but are likewise denied reproduction. It’s apparent that civil liberties weren’t a big concern back in Gilman’s time. The result is a sexual revolution that’s remarkably sexless.
The fact that the book is well written goes a long way to making such content palatable. Gilman’s clear and animated prose is a joy to read. The book is mostly just a series of conversations with little additional plot, but the fact that Gilman has made the narrator a skeptic and a curmudgeon makes for some lively dialogue and keeps the talkiness from getting tedious. The reader follows John Robertson’s gradual transition from knee-jerk resistance to reluctant conversion. This approach elevates the book above equally preachy but more boring utopian treatises like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.
I enjoy reading utopian novels of every stripe, whether I agree with their ideas or not. A few of the ideas expressed in Moving the Mountain, however, actually made me feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless, Gilman impressed me enough as a writer that I’ll probably give Herland a try.
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