Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Didactic Ladyland
Herland, a utopian novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was originally serialized in The Forerunner, a magazine she wrote and published from 1909 to 1916. The novel was not published in book form until it was rediscovered in 1979. Herland is considered the middle volume in a utopian trilogy by Gilman. However, I have read the first novel in the trilogy, Moving the Mountain, and it’s about an entirely different society than the one depicted in Herland, so the designation of trilogy is based on a mere topical connection at best. I didn’t care much for Moving the Mountain, as I thought the utopia depicted in that novel displayed fascistic tendencies. Herland, thankfully, is a far different kettle of fish, and far superior to its predecessor.

Three gentleman friends take part in a scientific expedition into the wilds of an unnamed continent. When the expedition comes to a conclusion, the three pals decide to launch their own side expedition to investigate legends of a remote and mysterious land rumored to be inhabited entirely by women. A short plane ride later, they find themselves in unknown territory, captured by a band of strong, athletic, independent women, with nary a man in sight. This may sound like the makings of a macho lost-world adventure novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard, but Gilman turns the genre on its head. Far from having touched down amid a harem of odalisques, the men learn that Herland is hardly tailor-made for the realization of lustful male fantasies. The female populace graciously invites the outsiders to join their society, but the men feel like proverbial fish out of water as they learn the workings of this world founded on and governed by feminine principles.

Herland was born 2,000 years earlier when all the men in this isolated civilization were killed by war and a natural disaster. Of the women who survived, one was a mutant capable of virgin birth, or parthenogenesis. Her descendants, likewise, were born with this gift, and they only gave birth to females. Hence, the society continued to replenish itself for two millennia despite the nonexistence of males. Over time, the women of Herland acquired the ability to control their parthenogenesis and consciously choose whether or not they wish to reproduce. Because the inhabitants of Herland are all cousins, descended from the first mother, issues of romantic love or physical lust conveniently aren’t an issue. This all makes for a clever science-fictional justification of Herland’s existence, but the contrivance of this foundation tends to undermine the utopian house of cards that Gilman builds upon it, as the farther Herland becomes divorced from reality the less applicable Gilman’s utopian ideas become to the real world in which we live.

Nevertheless, it’s a well-written, important, and even entertaining book. It is a stroke of genius on Gilman’s part to show us Herland through the eyes of men. Of the three explorers, Terry is the macho womanizer who sees women as objects to be conquered, Jeff is the sensitive milquetoast who puts all women on a pedestal, and the narrator, Vandyck Jennings, is the everyman who falls somewhere in between. As these three dumbfounded and confused dudes gradually come to a realization of feminism, Herland is revealed as a world founded on motherly love and free of competition, where all women take a cooperative “it-takes-a-village” attitude towards building a just and nurturing society. Herland may not be the most realistic of utopias, but it’s one of the more inspiring. Like Jennings and his buddies, we can all learn a lot from what these women, and Gilman, have to teach us.
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