Sunday, August 30, 2009

Herland by Charlotte Gilman Perkins

I honestly read this book on a lark - I saw it mentioned somewhere recently (don't remember where, even), and realized it was by Charlotte Gilman Perkins, who wrote the Yellow Wallpaper, which is, by the way, a beautiful, horrifying short story. It seems like I'd heard of it before, but I'd never read it. It was on Librivox. So I listened to it.
The basic premise of Herland is simple: a remote land ringed by mountains has all of it's men killed in a civil war. Reduced to a small handful of women, and cut off from the rest of the world, they prepare to dwindle away and die, but then a miracle happens: one of the women, years after the men die, realizes she is pregnant. She has several children, and each of these children have children, and so on - but all the children are female, and can only produce more female children. Many years later, a group of three male explorers accidentally happen upon this land.

Now let's just say, theoretically, that this book was simply meant to be a rousing adventure story. It'd be okay. It was interesting enough. The characters were a bit flat (understandably, as I'll discuss later), there was a lot more talk than action, etc. But it was enjoyable, interesting, the shell story did it's job of keeping you going through what is, essentially, a Utopian philosophy book.

And as a philosophy book? This. Book. Was. Great. Fascinating! The ideas in it are occaisionally a little dated now (Ms Gilman, for instance, feels the need to point out that the women are from Aryan stock, but her racism feels at last less extreme than most other authors of the period, and some of their science is a little bit more like magic that might be science someday if the rules we've learned since Ms Gilman are wrong), but that's not the point - the point was (and is) the society. The Utopia, like all Utopias, had a bit of idealism in it (I mean, I hope men don't cause ALL the misery in the world singlehandedly), but nonetheless presented some ideas that were at once mind-bending and insightful.

The best part, though, was Ms Gilman's careful juxtaposition of ideas of male and female. The three males in the story, for instance, are not entirely human - because they're not supposed to be. One of the men is the living embodiement of male chauvinism, and one is an ardent follower of the old 'cult of femininity', where women were worshipped as morally superior beings to men (which, sadly, was just another excuse to lock them up and keep them 'safe'. Big, sarcastic quote marks there.). What's fascinating about this book is, while the chauvinist jerk definitely ends up looking the stupidest, the author makes a point of showing us that the worshipper is wrong too. Women, in Herland, don't make this complex, successful society because they are little ivory idols, any more than they rip each other to shreds because they're bitchy sexpots. 'Women' are not any particular type of object. They're just people. That's the biggest underlying message of the book. But, it's scope in telling this message is vast: from religion, to child-rearing, to psychology, to science, to population control, this book takes the entire world, compresses it into a small space, and then shows the ruling patriarchy what they are missing out on by so jealously guarding their control of half of the world's population (particularly at the time period the novel was written).

But, the novel does this while managing to avoid long diatribes, and without ever really just devolving into man-bashing. In fact, at the end of the book, they purposely marry three of their women to the men, and they are deeply excited about learning what a father really is in a society (their society is deeply centered on the idea of motherhood). The message is simply that motherhood and fatherhood are both beautiful, and that when one or the other is suppressed, it is as damaging to the suppresser as it is to the suppressed.


Amanda said...

You didn't discuss the third man - was he one embodiment or another, or was he the one "real" man (so to speak)? This sounds fascinating. I need to read the Yellow Wallpaper again, too. I didn't read it under the best conditions the first time.

Anonymous said...

I read through this one earlier in the year and really loved it. I found that her racism put me off a little but the moral of the story really stuck with me.

It feels like people are forgetting about Gilman and her writing so I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Unknown said...

Amanda - Yes, I'm sorry, the third man was the narrator, and he was more balanced between the two poles. He was a social scientist, and examines things using the scientific method, which allows him to accept the things he finds simply because they're true, without making them jive with his belief systems.

Ms SaveOphelia - Yeah, there was a couple racism moments, but I suppose you can't expect people to be heroes at everything :/. I agree, I'm going to have to see what else Ms Perkins wrote in her life.

Rebecca Reid said...

What a beautiful review! I have this book (bought a Dover thrift copy for $1 back in my college days) and I know I want to reread it. I remember liking it but don't remember the details. I like your ultimate conclusion so I hope I can handle the philosophy. (I really don't remember the philosophy at all. In fact, I don't think I got this book at all when I read it 10 years ago.)

Unknown said...

Ms Reid - Well, the philosophy is not dry - it's more like reading, say, Gulliver's travels, but less snarky :). (Not that snarky is bad...).

Rebecca Reid said...

funny you mention that since I seriously just finished reading Gulliver's Travels the other day. Definitely pretty snarky.