March 6, 2012

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Review

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I fear one hundred years have not been kind to Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. At that time it might have been considered ground breaking but in the opinion of this 21st century woman I thought it was both gimmicky and a bit silly.

In Herland, three American explorers learn of a mythical country of women in the jungle (I'm not sure where in the world they are supposed to be) and set out to conquer it. Right from the beginning, we see where these fellows thoughts lie: Terry, the big ass, figures he'll become their god and be worshipped since he's such hot stuff, Jeff is hoping for a land of nuns and peace, where the ladies sew and sing Kumbaya, and Van (the narrator) is the more moderate in ideas of the two, and more open minded. They all consider that what they'll find is either an uncivilized land where the women are living in dirt because they needs the mens to have cities or the males are hiding somewhere ready to attack. What they actually find is a well cared for country without any men. The women are practical and capable and don't need men to run things. This blows their little bitty minds. 

They stay in Herland for about a year, more or less prisoners. They learn about this land and how it came to be. The women don't need men because they reproduce asexually. Throw out all you know about biology, children, you won't need it here. Population control seems to have evolved by the power of the mind. The guys try to explain their world to the women but "comparisons are odious," since the world looks dirty and broken compared to Herland. It's an Eden and you know how that ended.

I know Gilman was trying to show that women are capable of being productive and successful members of society beyond being wives but Herland is a bit over the top. First of all, since the woman do not compete with each other for men, they have no jealousy, and therefore create a perfect society. Oh, really. It's human nature to be jealous, it's not just because of men. I can't believe that there would be no jealousy, to that not one woman would want to dominate the others. Even their songs and plays lack any passion. Is there only passion because of men? Herland is a utopia and I suppose we're only to see the good in a utopia but wouldn't a place like this, devoid of any excitement be a bit bland?  

Gilman implies that women are just better than men, at everything. Even the forests are neat and tidy. I'm not totally behind her that getting rid of one sex makes the world a perfect place and maybe she wasn't saying that either. More than likely, at this time, she was trying to point out the ridiculous ideas of gender: women are delicate and meant for the home (the wealthy ones anyway) while men run the world. She points out that feminine traits are a product of society and not biology. Van has an epiphany:

This led me very promptly to the conviction that those "feminine charms" we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity—developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process

Another odd thing was the role of Motherhood in Herland. It's a religion, not a vocation. Every woman hopes to produce, not necessarily raise, a baby. Would every woman be down with this? And there are women who they don't want having kids because they don't want certain traits to continue so they use that mind power to keep from getting preggers. (Again, my high school biology education shouts, "What?!!")

The characters themselves are one-dimensional. The women are wide-eyed in wonder when told about the outside world. They are logical, or often described as angelic. They lack any distinct personality. The men, well, Van is the scientist, Jeff the convert, and Terry the knuckle dragger- he even puffs his chest up like an ape at one point. They fill their roles. They never entirely let go of their old ideas though.

Herland is an interesting relic of another time, much like these Women of the Future cards from 1902. It's a peek at the ideas of gender then. Obviously, we know that women are capable of all that the women of Herland are without doing away with men.

PS- I much prefer The Yellow Wallpaper.

Herland is available free on Project Gutenberg.

Ratings:

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20 comments :

  1. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. Definitely an interesting look at a different type of society but... yeah. Heh. Takes that women are perfect to the extreme. And I remember a few reviewers last year remarking on how ableist it is. Ickers.

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    1. It was so extreme. I didn't make for a compelling story.

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  2. I also much prefer The Yellow Wallpaper. It was an interesting read for sure, but so full of gender essentialism. A world dominated by women would not be any better than a world dominated by men, I don't think.

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    1. Equality should be the goal. I wondered if maybe she was just being tongue in cheek though.

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  3. One part that stood out for me was when a woman asked one of the men, who was so proud of his religion which was unchanged since its beginning two thousand years ago, "But haven't you learned anything in two thousand years?" (I'm paraphrasing, obviously, and don't remember now which woman and which man.)

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    1. That stood out for me too. Those ladies had all the right questions.

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  4. Pretty much everything I've read about this book says the same thing, that it's an interesting study in history, but gimmicky as well.

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    1. Probably not the best book about gender issues.

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  5. I'm sure to see this one didn't hold up to the test of time.

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  6. Most people I know who have read Herland have the same reaction as you- saying that Gilman went too far and idealized women too much in creating the society. It's interesting that she does so because I feel like in The Yellow Wallpaper, the main character has flaws that are fairly obvious (and then the whole story takes on such a chilling turn).

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    1. That character is so realistic. They weren't any realistic characters in Herland, not even the narrator.

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  7. I am kind of curious about this book basically because I want to see for myself what you mean.

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    1. If you do, let me know what you think.

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  8. I thought the story was pretty ridiculous, but I actually enjoyed it in all of its cheesy goodness. Probably because I read it right after The Awakening, which I loathed.

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    1. Lol, now I liked The Awakening but I usually like downer books.

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  9. Well, Herland is an awful, gimmicky title, so I'm not surprised the inside is the similar. This sounds like one of those crazy 1960s movies that are so bad they're weirdly entertaining.

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    1. They just needed to battle a giant dinosaur and it would have been a fun read.

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  10. Yeah, I started reading it and then abandoned. There is such a thing as making a fictionalized society too perfect and sacrificing complexity is not the way to pain women in a better light.

    Great review, Chris!

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    1. Yes, I wish the characters had more complexity. I'll have to find out what else she's written.

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