Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Herland, and With Her in Ourland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, probably best known in a literary sense for her short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, wrote a quite startling two-part novel about a feminist utopia, heavily critiquing society along the way.  While some of her ideas are a product of her time (it's a little bit eugenics, and she's not up with intersectionality in her examination of oppressions), Herland, and the second part, With Her in Ourland, is a riveting read that has much to offer a [post?]modern feminist.  I found this one on the fab Year of Feminist Classics blog, their post on Herland is here.

Herland was published in parts in Gilman's self-edited periodical in 1915.  The book's pretext is the discovery, by three male explorers, of a cut-off and isolated land populated only by women, that has existed for over 2000 years.  Their subsequent behaviour and adaptation (or lack thereof) within this society during their stay allows Gilman to explore this utopia, which in turn is the vehicle for her to provide some stark and powerful critique of her [our] own society.  The story is narrated by one of the explorers, Van Jennings, a sociologist (see, what's not to love!).  Van takes an enlightened road of reluctant acceptance, while the other two men either capitulate totally (which seems to be taken as weakness), or react violently against the female utopia (which is condemned).

The focus of the utopia is a central idea of motherhood, backed up by a community-based semi-tribal social system.  Critique is often levelled at Gilman's idealisation of motherhood in Herland, but if taking motherhood as an organising social force, I pretty much agreed with her.  The birth, education and value of children in our society seems tragically poorly valued to me.  If the concept of "motherhood" here is less about the "inate" desire of every individual woman to have a child [problematic], and more about the role, value, and all round key importance of motherhood [/parenthood] in general as a social institution, then yeah, I'm pretty much there with her.  A society built around the treasuring of the next generation can't help but be better than this one.  Right? 

With Her in Ourland is published as the sequel to Herland, though arguably it is simply the second part of that work.  Published serially in 1916, it tells of the return of two of the explorers to "Ourland" society, accompanied by one of the Herlanders.  This volume moves from utopia to dystopia, and is mostly conversations and observations between Van [explorer sociologist] and Ellador [the Herlander].  They tour the globe, from war-torn Europe, to disaffected America, providing a powerful and insightful commentary on the world of the time. The bulk of the book is focussed on America, as both a hope and a disappoinment.

Herland is the stronger of the two books, with what is more recognisably a narrative.  Ourland becomes pretty much a series of sometimes dry essays in conversational form, and though I thorougly enjoyed them, I freely confess that I am a sociologist by trade and this might have been a telling factor.

Both works have lapsed into obscurity, though Herland was republished in the 1970s, and is more widely available today.  Both books have been critiqued in recent years, largely for Gilman's treatment of other social issues, including race, religion, and the "natives" referred to throughout.  As a product of her time, though, Gilman's take on racism remains liberal. The other main sticking point for me was the complete lack of womens sexuality in the book, the women were asexual.  Bit of a flaw, there [!!].  It was part and parcel of her idealisation of Woman. 

While written in 1915/16, many of Gilman's insights remain uncomforably current.  Here are some interesting quotes:
A neat description of the sociological imagination: "...I didn't care what it was they talked about, so long as it connected with human life, somehow.  There are few things that don't." Herland: 147 of 8636.

"[Herlanders]...were strikingly deficient in what we call "femininity."  This led me very promptly to the conviction that those "feminine charms" we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere, reflected masculinity - developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfullment of their great process."  Herland: 1538 of 8636.

It remained true that the Church, any church, in any period, had set its face against the people's learning anything new; and as we commonly know, had promptly punished the most progressive.  With Her in Ourland, location 1368 of 2550.

"Here you are, a democracy - free - the power in the hands of the people.  You let that group of conservatives saddle you with a constitutions which has so interfered with free action that you've forgotten you had it.  In this ridiculous helplessness - like poor old Gulliver - bound by the Lilliputians - you have sat open-eyed, not moving a finger, and allowed individuals - mere private persons - to help themselves to the biggest, richest, best things in the country."  With Her in Ourland, location 1716 of 2550.

On the home/family structure: "What do you want done?" I asked, after a while.
"Definite training in democratic thought, feeling and action, from infancy.  An economic administration of common resources under which the home would cease to be a burden and become an unconscious source of happiness and comfort.  And, of course, the socialization of home industry."  With Her in Ourland, location 1728 of 2550.
Interesting stuff!  I'd recommend both works as powerful critiques of the society of the time (and, let's face it, most of this stuff remains awfully current), and as important works in the feminist canon.  Herland in particular is the more accessible work, and available free in various formats.  Pick up a copy!


Herland is available at Project Gutenberg.  It was a Kindle for iPad read.

With Her in Ourland is available in a special edition, which was relatively pricey on Amazon (but I'd already commited to read it, so had to pay up!).  It was a Kindle read for iPad.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your review. You're very cool and smart. We should hook up!

Selene said...

bwhahahaha! Thanks, husband!

overbyte said...

Herland is also available as a free eBook at Feedbooks: http://www.feedbooks.com/book/3610/herland . Watch for the sequel (With Her in Ourland) coming soon to that site as a free public-domain eBook.

overbyte said...

With Her in Ourland is now available on Feedbooks at http://www.feedbooks.com/book/6497/with-her-in-ourland . It's free to download. If you read Herland, you should finish the story in the sequel.

Selene said...

Very belated thanks, overbyte! I'm warming up this blog again and discovered your helpful links :D