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.