2012 Book 134: Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman 9/14/2012
Reason for Reading: Fantasy and science fiction Coursera
On an exploratory trip in “savage” lands, three young American men find a country composed entirely of women. As these men learn about the history and culture of Herland, they are at first dismayed but later impressed at the asexuality and absolute social perfection of these women. For the first time, they notice the flaws in their own society and feel ashamed.
I’m having a really hard time deciding what to think about Herland. I tend to prefer plot-driven novels, or at the very least character-driven novels. Herland was neither plot- nor character-driven…it was concept driven. Gilman was trying to convey a set of principles using an allegorical dialog. Gilman felt that women are subjugated by their sexuality. Because their economic happiness depends on their ability to attract men, they resort to jealousies and obsessions with fripperies. In Herland, there are no men…therefore they do not depend upon their sexuality to land them a desirable place in life–they depend only upon hard work and virtue. Since there are no men, they have no reason to be jealous, catty, gossipy, or hysterical. Thus, they are perfect.
My major shock was that I’d previously had the impression that Gilman believed in the healthiness of sexuality. I believed this partly because of a comment in the introduction to the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, ed. Ann J. Lane, which suggested that Gilman was deeply sexually attracted to her first husband, but that he had felt overwhelmed by her expressions of desire in their Victorian-valued home. However, the women in Herland are completely asexual. They have no sexual desires at all (not surprising, since they have no men). I find it disturbing that Gilman might have been suggesting that sexual desires (outside procreation) may be a male phenomenon? It’s also possible that Gilman felt the men had something to teach the Herlanders after all…they could teach them about healthy sexuality. At first, I interpreted the story this way. But after further thought, I decided that useful men are completely out of character in this book. I think she actually intended to convey the idea that sexuality-only-for-procreation was the most sensible and healthy alternative. But I could be wrong. The jury’s still out on that one. 🙂
In her comments on Herland, Fence objected to the focus of the women on maternity. This issue (like the sex-only-for-procreation issue) is in stark contrast with the views of today’s feminists. There’s nothing wrong with maternal feelings, but most feminists feel that women should have a choice about maternity…and they may not WANT to be mothers. I think there’s a little irony with Gilman’s focus on maternity in Herland. She, herself, suffered from the censure of society after she left her daughter under the care of her first husband. Of course, the fact that she divorced her husband for “no good reason” exacerbated the censure (for more on that, read my comments on “The Yellow Wallpaper”). Perhaps the focus on maternity in Herland was expressions of guilt for her inability to care for her daughter due her own illness. I know depressed people DO tend to be wracked by misplaced guilt.
At some level, I approved of the socialist views displayed by Gilman’s allegory. I thought it was wonderful how everything was shared among the whole…there was no poverty and there were no insanely rich. This made the socialist education system work perfectly. Educating the children was considered fun by both the children AND the adults. Education was not a burden, but a joy which all members of society shared. However, I think the only way a socialist society like that would work is if everyone is equal in skill, and devoid of individuality and self-serving jealousies. These women WERE devoid of such horrific traits, but they were also really boring and annoyingly perfect.
For the most part, I did not enjoy reading Herland. I found the dialog grating due to the sickening perfection of the women and the irksome sexism of the men. The men’s characters were very flat–their purpose was simply to present a contrast to the perfection of Herland. The three men came in three stereotypical varieties: gentlemanly to the point of sexism, brutishly sexist, and imperfect-but-somewhat-objective observer. Other than these characteristics, the men had no personality at all. The women also lacked character partly due to their obnoxious perfection, but also due to their nature as a social “we” instead of being unique individuals. In other words, the perfection and socialism merged them into one character with many names (with the slight exception of Alima who brought Terry’s brutish behavior on herself by having a “far-descended atavistic trace of the more marked femaleness, never apparent till Terry called it out.”) In other words, the presence of men brought out the bad characteristics of women? Of COURSE they did. 😉
See? Herland needed these men so that they could catalyze atavistic femaleness. This trait could then be bred out of the next generation. Men ARE useful after all!
Seriously, though, the eugenics of Herland was a little disturbing. The officials of Herland apparently got to decide who was worthy of giving birth to none, one, or *gasp at the honor* TWO children. The officials also got to choose how much influence the mother had over the child’s rearing. I didn’t view this process as racist since I assumed they were all of the same race (at least, they were all white by the time the men arrived), but according to Wikipedia, “Gilman also believed old stock Americans of British colonial descent were giving up their country to immigrants who, she said, were diluting the nation’s reproductive purity.” So I can’t discount the possibility that she DID mean that the women of Herland bred out the “less desirable” races.
I think Herland was an interesting thought experiment, but I personally didn’t enjoy reading it. If your’e interested in concept-driven allegories, especially feminist and socialist allegories, then this is the book for you. 😀
8 thoughts on “Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman”
Hi. Visiting via The Complete booker.
I also recently read Herland and have enjoyed your comments on it. Gilman Perkins is an interesting mixture of attitudes that were prevalent at the time and the whole book reads very much of it's time. As you say not a very good novel but an interesting idea.
thanks for sharing
Hi Martine! Thanks for stopping by. I just took a look at your review. It's nice seeing other people's thoughts on books I've just read.
Given when it was written I'm inclined to be a lot easier on the book. If it had been written even thirty years later I don't know how I would have felt about it.
I'll admit that the eugenics part didn't really occur to me until I read some discussion about it, it seemed initially that the population control was a purely numbers thing, but after reading the possibility that Gilman was in favour of, as you say, breeding out less desirable races.
Actually, the eugenics thing didn't occur to me, either, until someone else I know who's taking the course pointed it out. That's why I started researching her ideas on the subject. But, like you said, the times were different when this book was written. That was a time when eugenics was the “in” thing among Western intellectuals. I imagine the horrors of the Holocaust successfully obliterated the rosy-naivete of this particular intellectual movement. We have a VERY different idea of what eugenics entails than Gilman did.
Hmm… very interesting. I think this may be worth the read for the thought provoking concept as you suggest. Also, thank you for teaching me more about Gilman Perkins. -Sarah
Hi Sarah! From what I've seen, everyone who enjoys this book was interested in it as a thought experiment. They said that it made them seriously ponder some of the issues brought up. So if you like that sort of thing, you should try Herland out. 🙂
Hi. Speaking genetically, there could only be one race here. The whole race descended from one woman, since only her descendants could produce children via parthenogenesis.
They *did** breed out less desirable characteristics, rather like we do with dogs!
Well, that's true. You'd have to define “race” differently in a situation like this one. I only brought up the eugenics because a friend of mine was so horrified by it – so I thought it was an important issue. 🙂