Read 24/12/2015-26/12/2015

Rating: 2 stars

Read for The Reader’s Room Winter Scavenger Hunt Challenge

Herland was a curious read. Perhaps if you’re making a study of feminist literature over the past 100 years it might be something worth reading. As something fun to read, I’d say don’t bother.

Part treatise for Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s vision for a feminist utopia, where for various reasons men no longer exist and women have evolved to reproduce by parthenogenesis, and part Boy’s Own Adventure with a bizarre fixation on the usefulness of garments with many pockets, I was bored by most of it.

I didn’t share Gilman’s ideal, particularly not one where there exists a form of eugenics that prevents those deemed ‘unfit’ from bearing children or, if they are permitted to reproduce, from raising their offspring in order to prevent their ‘unfit’ traits being normalised.

In some ways the writing was quite clumsy and I had to remind myself of when it was written, how different women’s lives were 100 years ago, and the broader point Gilman was trying to hammer home. In other ways, it was clever – the switch in perspective so that the three adventuring men who try to enter the matriarchal society have a similar experience to that of the women trying to break down the gender barriers of American patriarchal society at the time Gilman was writing, and the way they become increasingly fixed on their appearance as a way of asserting their masculinity, having been robbed, as they see it, of their natural male authority.

Gilman did a reasonable job of inhabiting the minds of the male characters, even if they were a little broadly sketched. Terry is utterly unlikeable, a misogynist pig of the highest order. Van, the narrator, is a social scientist and therefore tries to approach everything rationally. Jeff is the eager to please, optimistic one, always looking for the good in everything, always trying to give people what he thinks they want. The men are like something out of a Ripping Yarn, though, and I wonder whether Gilman tried to create male characters that men would want to read, in the hope that her allegorical tale would then open their eyes to the lot of women.

Some things left a bad taste – the eugenics I’ve mentioned, but also the attitude to people of different racial heritage, all described as savages, all portrayed as simple and child-like. I read up on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Yeah. Bit of a white supremacist. It both horrifies and confuses me that people who see themselves as a minority in terms of gender or sexuality can still view the colour of their skin as a symbol of superiority. Even setting those misgivings aside, the book was preachy, blinkered and not to my taste. I am a feminist. I believe that all humans are equal and therefore women should have equal rights and equal access to the same opportunities in life as men, and should be judged on ability and not on looks or some twisted idea of what is or isn’t feminine behaviour. I think Gilman believed that, too. Where she loses me in this book is in advocating for a world where equality is achieved by eliminating everyone who doesn’t fit a central idea of perfection.

7 thoughts on “Herland

  1. Well, this is an enlightening review, Jan, thank you. The premise sounded like those myths where a Greek hero lands on an island of women (Odysseus, for example, on Calypso’s Island, or Jason on Hypsipyle’s Lemnos); and the obsession with women’s clothes having pockets — a very sensible one, I think — actually reappears in her short story ‘If I Were a Man’. Her eugenicist and racist views don’t emerge at all in the collection of short stories I read, but then they treated mostly if not exclusively of white middle class women; if she held them (as this novel seems to suggest, unless the whole is more satirical than appears) it definitely tells against her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I, too, am a fan of pockets, Chris, and will always choose a ‘female’ item of clothing that has them over one that doesn’t, but I found it overdone in this novel. I reached a point where I wanted her to shut up about them. 😊

      There’s plenty of evidence out there, both in her own essays and in scholarly analysis of her writing, of her championing of ‘feminist eugenics’ and of her racist views on African Americans. From the articles I read, I didn’t get the impression she was coy about her views, and I didn’t detect any hint of satire in Herland. But I appreciate that you would like to give her the benefit of the doubt, having not read the book or a biography of CPG.

      I also want to say that I’m not trying to put you off her. Humans are complex creatures, none of us are perfect, and I don’t like the current appetite for erasing people entirely. Given that two of her other novels form a trilogy with Herland and her short stories seem less egregious, the short stories are where my future reading of her will lie. On the basis of The Yellow Wallpaper, I think she had interesting things to say, which your review of her short story collection supports.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Very welcome advice! I’m currently reading George S Schuyler’s 1931 dystopian satire Black No More in which a process that can turn ‘Aframericans’ white has unintended consequences and where no-one, black or white, escapes the author’s biting observations (he was himself a black journalist). Much of his social commentary is strangely relevant to our own times, 90 years on, and a kind of antidote to Gilman’s less likeable views.

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