A Female Utopia: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland

Three male explorers set off to find a land they have only heard about that is populated solely by women. Will they find a society in upheaval? One that welcomes them as their natural leaders? Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, explores the idea of an all-female society in Herland.

 

Herland

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Originally published: 1915 (serialized) and 1979 (book), USA

124 pages

 

The cover of Charlotte Perkins Gilmore's Herland

Click on the cover for the link to Amazon.

 

Rating: 4 = Recommended Reading

 

Summary:

After hearing about a mysterious, isolated community of women, three male explorers go in search of it. They find a society that is populated only by women, which they name Herland. Through linguistic and cultural exchanges, the men learn about the society of Herland and have differing reactions: frustration and anger, reverence and assimilation, and beginning to question the society they came from.

 

What Worked:

  • Believable world

Gilman wrote Herland from the men’s points of view as an adventure narrative. Because of this, the reader learns about Herland as the men do, particularly from Van the “author” of this book. The effect of this narrative method is that Herland is portrayed in vivid detail so that the reader can picture it. Gilman creates a well thought out society so that the reader believes in the possibility of its existence (the story would lose its effectiveness otherwise). Van and the other men have only their knowledge of their society and culture to fall back on when describing Herland and its inhabitants, so their background knowledge matches the reader’s knowledge. Gilman has done an excellent job imagining an all-female utopian society and how it would grow over thousands of years.

  • Effective societal criticism

This novel is set in the time it was written, the early 20th century, so as the men meet the women of Herland and learn their language, it is the American turn of the century culture that they teach the women about in exchange for information about Herland. The Herland women, being an all-women society, are very interested in how a “bi-sexual” society (a society with two sexes) functions. As the men explain how their society works, they begin to see it in a new way: through the eyes of the Herland women. Gilman uses this perspective to shine her feminist light on the position of women in the early 20th century. The men are surprised, for example, that the women of Herland both labor and raise children, and realize that in the maternal-focused society of Herland perhaps they shouldn’t explain abortion to them. It is not just feminist issues that are criticized in Herland, Gilman also addresses her modern society’s dealings with food, poverty, and other social justice issues. Many of the issues Gilman describes in Herland are still societal issues today.

 

What Didn’t Work:

  • Unanswered questions

While the picture of Herland is vivid and fleshed out, Gilman doesn’t explain everything and leaves the reader wondering about some issues in Herland society. While the history of Herland reveals that it was once a bi-sexual society, there is little discussion of sexuality in present-day Herland. Do the women claim a sexuality? Are they asexual? There is also a point in the novel where three women enter into relationships with the men in order that those three couples will enable Herland to become a bi-sexual society once again. However, it is unclear if all of the Herland women are on board with this idea. Perhaps that would be revealed later, depending on how the “experiment” went. Gilman also leaves the fate of Terry, one of the male explorers, open-ended so the reader is left to wonder what becomes of him. Actually, the book does have quite an abrupt end, which I found to be a problem until I read that this is actually the second book in a trilogy and With Her in Our Land, the third book, begins where Herland leaves off. [link to second text?]

 

Overall:

This is an interesting book for those who like utopian adventure style stories with some social commentary thrown in (bonus points for those interested in feminism, though that is not a requirement).

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