Herland – Book Review

It makes me laugh, knowing all I do now, to think of us three boys – nothing else; three audacious impertinent boys – butting into an unknown country without any sort of a guard or defense. We seemed to think that if there were men we could fight them, and if there were only women – why, they would be no obstacles at all. – from Herland, page 23 –

Terry O. Nicholson, Jeff Margrave, and Vandyck Jennings are confident, self-assured men on an adventure. Having heard about a strange country where no men exist, they are intrigued and determined to uncover the mysteries of a female dominated society. They are certain that not only will they be welcomed, but that there will be no obstacles to their curiosity. So, when finally the three men manage to infiltrate Herland, they are astonished to discover themselves prisoners and completely at the mercy of a bunch of women who are not only highly intelligent, but capable of taking care of themselves.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman serialized the novel Herland in The Forerunner, a magazine which she wrote and edited on her own between 1909 and 1916. Considered a feminist classic, the utopian novel explores such themes as female independence, environmental responsibility, motherhood, and societal values such as freedom from war and overpopulation. In Herland, females are able to reproduce through parthenogenesis and all share in the raising of children. Faced with a restricted environment, women in Herland regulate their reproduction so as not to be faced with the negative consequences of overpopulation. All members of the society work toward the betterment of their community without hatred, jealousy, or selfishness. With the introduction of men, there are challenges to maintain the status quo. The three male characters represent the paternalistic values of modern society – possession of women being one.

One of the interesting aspects of Herland is the absence of traditional female attributes, including overly emotional personalities, long hair, feminine dress, or weakness. Gilman portrays these stereotypical female endowments as something which is only necessary to please men.

These women, whose essential distinction of motherhood was the dominant note of their whole culture, 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 fulfillment of their great process.” – from Herland, page 60 –

Gilman also emphasizes the importance of education. The women of Herland are depicted as highly intelligent and curious, willing to spend long hours learning all they can to improve their society.

But very early they recognized the need of improvement as well as of mere repetition, and devoted their combined intelligence to that problem – how to make the best kind of people. First this was merely the hope of bearing better ones, and then they recognized that however the children differed at birth, the real growth lay later through education. – from Herland, page 61 –

Another major theme of the novel is that of faith and religion. Gilman addresses traditional Christian beliefs where God is imagined as a man, and introduces the idea of a more universal, loving Power embodied in the framework of a Mother Spirit.

Their great Mother Spirit was to them what their own motherhood was – only magnified beyond human limits. That meant that they felt beneath and behind them an upholding, unfailing, serviceable love – perhaps it was really the accumulated mother-love of the race they felt – but it was a Power. – from Herland, page 111-

In her idealized society, Gilman negates the necessity of worship, reverence and obedience to a higher being, and instead spins a religion which is centered on selflessness and the power of goodness.

“We do things from our mothers – not for them. We don’t have to do things for them – they don’t need it, you know. But we have to live on – splendidly – because of them; and that’s the way we feel about God.” – from Herland, page 111 –

Here was a religion which gave to the searching mind a rational basis in life, the concept of an immense Loving Power working steadily out through them, toward good. It gave to the “soul” that sense of contact with the inmost force, of perception of the uttermost purpose, which we always crave. It gave to the “heart” the blessed feeling of being loved, loved and understood. It gave clear, simple, rational directions as to how we should live – and why. – from Herland, page 115 –

Herland is a philosophical novel which questions the basic “rules” of behavior and a woman’s place in society. Gilman imagines what a community might look like without male influence and paints a picture of a society where there is no war, no negative impact on the environment, no overpopulation, no judgment of a punishing God, no hatred, no sadness, no jealousy, no poverty, no wants or needs left unfulfilled. In Gilman’s society all is good, all are educated, and even sex is seen as unneeded. Herland is a sanitized society which is only threatened when men arrive on its soil. Within the pages of her utopian novel, it is easy to see Gilman’s belief that women had a large role to play in the the betterment of society, and that only when women take it upon themselves to be independent can society be improved.

Herland reads more like a feminist primer than a novel at times. I enjoyed watching Gilman construct her perfect society, but I never really felt engaged or connected to the women characters who are almost void of emotion. Similarly, I found the men to be stereotypical and predictable.

I do think this novel is an important piece of literature which would be a great stepping off point for discussion of the larger issues impacting society. Despite it being written in the early part of the twentieth century, many of its themes are still relevant to today’s world. I believe it would be interesting to compare Gilman’s work with that of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (my review), which is a distopian view of the future in a world dominated by men.

Readers interested in expanding their ideas of society, and those wanting to learn more about feminist literature, would be well-served by reading Herland.

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I read this book as part of A Year of Feminist Classics – a project which is dedicated to reading books about the feminist movement and its history. Readers interested in participating in a discussion about Herland, may do so by visiting the project website in the month of April 2011.

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1 comment

  1. I read this one in college, which was lovely because I remember hating the book but loving the lively discussion. I was somewhat curious to re-read it for the Year of Feminist Classics, but I decided not to re-visit it, and your review makes me glad I didn’t. I do love the idea of it.

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