Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915)

How ironic that a story making a statement affecting all men and women should almost miss half its target audience. Airplanes? Young, brave men? An undiscovered land? A jungle? A society full of women? Within a few pages one should be under the assumption that this is going to be the greatest novel for men ever written, a cross between Indiana Jones, Deep Throat, and Star Trek. Alas, it’s far from such a novel, and the men who this might have been written for would have certainly closed the pages before they got the point. The women, on the other hand, they’d probably make it straight through quickly and dream about it nightly for the next decade. Published in 1915 serially in her own magazine, Charlotte Perkins Gilman composed this piece of literature and this Herland utopia to attempt to express the actual value of women, a value that was ignored until years later. It’s more than that though: the book separates a group of people out and tries to show what an ideal world would be like for all.

The three characters whose adventures we follow through Herland are Van, Jeff, and Terry. Almost immediately the three take on a different personality, each representing a male view of society and women. Terry is the classic macho womanizer. He loves women, but sees them as little more than objects of external beauty and sexual slaves, who must be submissive to the rule of man. In a world without men, he’s the least able to conform and after failing to change his opinions or views is eventually is banished from the country because of this. Jeff is the exact opposite of Terry, placing women on a pedestal and seeing them as gifts, as treasures, as delicate and fragile flowers. Because of his views he learns to accept the philosophies, rules, and ideas of the women in Herland and treats them respectfully and as more than equals. Instead of leaving the land, he ends up marrying a woman there and staying behind. Van lies in the center of the scale; he neither looks down on all women or worships them. Instead, he looks at things from a very impartial point of view, accepting things for how they are in reality and making careful judgments based on the knowledge he gains through his learning. The woman he eventually marries is the one who had become his best friend. Clearly, these three men represent all the men in the world and leave little room for exception even in the modern world where the only addition may be a fourth man, named Mary. Otherwise, these three characters cover all bases very well.

Herland is a wonderful and beautiful place, but it’s a Utopia and can’t exist. While other Utopia’s could seemingly work under the right circumstances, such as Huxley’s Pala, based on religion and drugs and a spiritually healthy life, and Delany’s Heavenly Breakfast, based on all the skewed hippie philosophy of the 1960’s. Herland’s existence rests solely upon a miracle of virgin birth, and without it the place would cease to exist. We therefore cannot strive to be more like these people because they lack the diversity and history of which we have so much. The world of Herland is comprised of rational decisions, a thinking through of everything and the assurance that there will not be negative effects from a decision. The women there make decisions based on the knowledge that their children will have to live in the world next, and because of their awesome love for the children, they make decisions which benefit everyone, now, and in the long run. It’s a way of life we strive to have now, but such ideas are foiled by an overpowering worldwide selfishness.

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