The History Of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

HerlandCharlotte Perkins Gilman was best known for as a lecturer, feminist and sociologist, but she also wrote novels, in particular the utopian trilogy of which Herland (1915)  is the middle and probably best known book. The first, Moving the Mountain (1911), is set in the future (the year 2000). Herland, however, is set in contemporary times, and of course, explores the ideas of a feminist utopia from the perspective of 3 American male archetypes.

Herland – as with many pivotal novels of the time – was originally published in serial form. In this case, it was in a magazine she edited herself, called The Forerunner. The chapters were published from 1909 to 1916 but not collected in a book until 1979. I read the free University of Oxford Text Archive addition, available freely on e-readers.

We meet our protagonists including the narrator – Van Jennings, who is a student of sociology – and his friends Terry and Jeff. The opening chapter is called ‘A Not Unnatural Enterprise’ which is subtly different to a natural one, I suppose. They know of a rumour. There is an unchartered, unexplored land where only women live – is this the race of Amazons? As privileged explorer-types with a declared interested in science, they decide to find out if it this land is even possible, without males to assist with the reproduction process. Each of the friends has a different perspective on how women should be – Jeff with a romantic notion, seeing them as fragile and Terry as items to conquer and own (women like to be run after, he thinks); Van is perhaps the balanced midpoint.

They fly to the mysterious nation and hide their plane. However, they are unknowingly observed. Before long, they believe they are chasing the women but end up in a town where the women out-smart them. They are surrounded by women and eventually captured. They are made comfortable, and the women they first encountered – Ellador, Cellis and Alima – become tutors, friends and eventually wives of the explorers. They are educated in the ways of the female nation – that men died 2,000 years ago and motherhood is their main religion. Reproduction is via parthenogenesis, in a particularly ordered fashion. It all seems to be going well until the antagonistic Terry commits what he thinks is a husband’s right, but is in fact a heinous crime.

Herland is another utopian treatise, rather than a narrative novel. Not a whole lot happens in terms of plot, other that relationships grow while our men learn about the history and society of the women they now live in. Van narrates but it is mostly Terry’s interpersonal relationships, viewpoints and actions which move any semblance of story forward. Unlike most previous utopian fiction (from More, Wells, Morris, etc.) there is some character growth and story development, even if contained in a relative static plot – chapters of exposition rather than story development. The main points are the attempted escape of the men early on and the events that bring about the conclusion.

Gilman is of course examining male perceptions of women and gender politics at the turn of the twentieth century. Previous utopias satirised governments and political systems; she satirises the patriarchy. Gilman’s Van expresses the view that these ‘men’ are mere intellectual boys at best. They can’t believe women can have a civilised society without MEN (my capitals). Women are ‘very limited beings’. The men of the time, and by reflected extension, (the patriarchal) society have a range of views and experiences, all of which are derogatory at best. Jeff complains about a lack of femininity because the women of Herland don’t have long hair, although he defends them when Terry questions their seemingly masculine physicality and pursuits. Personality traits are called into question – they are jealous, can’t organise, catfight, and such like. But they have no wars, no religious leaders or kings (or queens) and are united as a nation.

This is the first and only utopian novel I know to explicitly mention the physical intimacy of sex and address reproduction, but the over-ridding view point of the time (as described by Gilman) appears to be that women can be powerful in society, if only they are more like men.

Back to the plot. As the story comes to a finale, the three couples are in love and plan to marry. I struggle to believe that Terry could genuinely love any of these women that he seems so disgusted by, and even harder to believe any of them could fall in love with such a misogynistic oaf. Aside from that, Gilman’s expressions of love are terrifically written – heartfelt and honest. The women have made a better fist of society than men ever had, and yet three of them fall in love with the first men they meet. Gilman shows that gender is socially constructed, but perhaps that emotions are much deeper than 2,000 years of social conditioning.

There is a lot to take from Herland and the feminism was probably radical for its time. It’s a shame that not a lot has changed 100 years since Gilman wrote it. It’s well written and enjoyable, despite the lack of plot and the fact the couples fell for each other, which I just didn’t buy. I liked the philosophy that education is the ‘highest art’! However, there’s nothing at all that would count as science fiction. The parthenogenesis might well be a biological process, or just as well be magic. Indeed, if everyone is descended from a single mother, supernatural or religious analogies seem more appropriate. If you remove the need for men in the reproductive cycle by whatever means, there’s nothing women can’t do; and kinder, smarter and better!

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