Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Book review: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This one is tagged as “Gilman’s version of a feminist utopia.” I was intrigued. There’s not much of a plot, but here are the basics: a trio of male adventurers are stranded in Herland, a country in our world that has evolved to be reproductively viable despite being only inhabited by women. Yes — it’s women-only. The story is told by one of the male protagonists, and it’s his impressions of the country and the women. Gilman uses his voice to contrast his societal expectations of women with the starkly different women of Herland, who exist in a non-patriarchal society.

This is all very promising, and Gilman does make some poignant statements, all without entirely berating her male protagonist(s). I don’t personally agree with her vision of what a world of women would look like. Essentially, Herland is perfect. The country is clean, organized impeccably, and beautiful; there is no crime, and the women function as a loving collective. The supreme unified calling of all of these women is motherhood. As each of them can become pregnant individually, the women don’t feel individual possession over their children and raise Herland youth as a community. Motherhood is their purpose, their religion, and their strength.

The men posit that their (male-dominated) world is as fractured and adversarial as it is because of the “sex imperative” and without that, these women have no need to fight. It’s hard to say whether or not Gilman actually believed that this is how a world of only women would be, or if she was just presenting an alternative viewpoint for human living in general. I found it unrealistic and oversimplified. It’s also a bit judgmental, particularly where the narrator mentions that not all women in his society want to have children, and that some of them choose to abort (though he doesn’t use that word) — the woman that he is speaking to becomes physically ill and is repulsed. It seemed to me that in Herland, Gilman simply trades in one doctrine for another: in one society, women are subjugated, while in the other, women are an ultra-maternal hive mind who love babies. The latter society is described as the utopia here, but is it really, for everyone? That’s why I wonder what Gilman’s motivation was in selecting this as her vision. It’s forward-thinking in a lot of ways, and as I mentioned, there are a lot of truths and insightful revelations scattered throughout the narrator’s memoirs. As a whole, though, I found the conceit difficult to stomach.

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