Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Herland Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Edition: Herland and Selected Stories (Signet classics)
Herland published in 1915 in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's own Forerunner Magazine (written, edited, and published all by Gilman herself--at its height of circulation, it had a readership of about 1,500), was the second of her three "Utopian" novels espousing her feminist and socialist commitments. Herland was preceded by Moving the Mountain (1911) and followed by With Her in Ourland (1916).

Gilman's commitments to feminist and socialist causes began around the time that she moved to California with her friend Grace Channing, in order to escape an unhappy first marriage. There, Gilman came into contact with the likes of Edward Bellamy, Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her subequent travels also put her into contact with the Fabians, in particular, George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Gilman herself became a popular essayist and lecturer on her social and political beliefs.

The account is written from memory by one of three male explorers, Vandyck Jennings. Jennings tells the reader that he will not divulge any specifics about the location of their adventures, "for fear some self-appointed missionaries, or traders, or land-greedy expansionists, will take it upon themselves to push in." Jennings begins by introducing himself and his fellow explorers: Terry O. Nicholson is a well-off individual who enjoyed exploration and was good at mechanics and electricity, Jeff Margrave was a poet and a botanist, though he had taken the profession of a doctor. The narrator perceives himself to be the most "scientific" of the bunch; majoring in sociology with a wide interest in all sciences. Terry presents the most problems during their discovery of Herland, a civilization of only women, because of his man's man sexist attitudes towards women.

The idea to find Herland came to them during another expedition the men had been a part of. They had heard from the "savages" that there was such a place and decided to see for themselves. They indeed fly in on their biplane to a civilization of all women. The first women they encounter are three younger women in trees, who outrun the men when Terry has the idea of trapping them by using a necklace to lure them. The narrator describes these women as more like mischievous little boys than shy girls. More breaking of gender stereotypes occur when the men are easily captured by a bunch of older women, made comfortable, and enjoined to learn the women's language and to teach them their own. As comfortable as the women make the men, they decide to escape, through tying together bedclothes and other linen to lower out of the window. The men imagine having made their escape successfully, but it turns out that the women have been surveying their movement and they are brought back and made to understand that they will be treated as guests as long as they promise non-violence and cooperation. The men then apply themselves in greater earnest to their studies. During the course of their studies, they find out that Herland has not had men for two-thousand years: their civilization began with a group of captured women who rose up against male tormentors (who in turn had been enslaved by men who died out from wars and natural disasters). These women created a cooperative society based on united action and sisterhood, and soon a miracle happened: one of their women became pregnant with a girl child. This original mother brought forth four more girlchildren, who in turn brought forth more girlchildren when they reached adulthood. Apparently, parthenogenesis was spontaneously evolved, and this is how Herland came about without men.

As the exchange of information continues between the women and the explorers, it becomes more and more awkward for the men to explain some of their own practices, which clearly shock the women (though they are not judgmental or arrogant). The notions of taking milk away from cattle, killing them for meat, chaining up dogs, women confined to domestic duties, class distinctions, Darwinian economics, and competitive work are completely alien to this utopian, cooperative civilization. Instead, these women are what the narrator terms "Conscious Makers of People" - for them, motherhood and the growth and progress of their civilization make up the raison d'etre of their lives. Of course, not everyone can be mothers in the sense of bearing children; this problem of population is solved by women directing their mothering instincts towards raising children rather than bearing them. As the narrator learns more and more about their society, the more appreciation he has for their ingenuity. As far as education goes, they cultivated two kinds of minds, critics and inventors. The task of educating children is a privileged task reserved for only a chosen elite as education was seen as an essential part of motherhood and people making. As far as innovations in food supply, the women have found a way to enrich soil with waste products, thus preventing depletion.  When the narrator asks about criminality, he is told that criminality has been eradicated by a negative eugenics, in which women with flawed tendencies are asked not to bear children.

When the men invited to lecture to young girls so that they might learn about other civilizations, it doesn't go too well for Terry; his narrow conceptions of gender leads him to think them all too boy like. Terry's rigid notions of gender presents significant problems later on when the women allow the possibility of restoring a bi-sexual civilization. The men end up naturally developing attractions for the three women which they encountered in the trees the day they "landed" in Herland. Jennings starts to develop a friendship with Ellador, Jeff with Celis, and Terry with Alima. Terry, seeing girls as a sexual conquest, ends up in many quarrels with the strong-willed Alima. Jeff is another kind of extreme as far as how he views women--he likes to play the role of gallant male, and hence deems women as a sex to be idolized and worshipped. Jennings strongly suggests that his and Ellador's relationship is the most healthful one; the two of them develop a natural friendship consolidated by mutual respect.

Through Ellador, Jennings continues to gain more and more intimacy with Herland. Education is not forced or compulsory, and there are no schools. Everyone learns a set of common knowledge, and then a separate set of specialized knowledge. To check the mind-narrowing aspects of specialization, everyone also takes on a few other branches of knowledge on the side. Because everything is geared towards growth, Jennings finds it odd that there is no real reverence for the past. Hence, their religion is very different, because like everything else, it has thrown of what it has deemed to be "backwards" ideas. Ellador is shocked, for example, to think of a belief in God as polluting infants with original sin as a lasting one. Additionally, the concept of eternal life sounds odious to her because of how natural it is to think of growth and progress through generations. The primary difficulty for the narrator after marrying Ellador is that she has no sense of male-female love. There is only love as mothers, and consequently they assign to fatherhood a similar importance. Try as he might to explain the mutual love between lovers to Ellador, she doesn't feel it. This problem manifests itself much more problematically for Terry, who tries one night to rape Alima because of his belief in having the right to "master" his wife in bed. He is successfully repulsed by Alima and a cadre of strong women, who subsequently decide that he must be sent home. In the end, it is decided that Terry, the narrator, and Ellador will all go to America, while Jeff will stay with his now pregnant wife Celis. The women of Herland also decide that there will be no bridge between the worlds established until Ellador brings back report; after all, they decide that though there are many wonders about the world from which the men came, there seems to be a lot of problems as well which they would best keep themselves apart from until there is more information.

It is clear that for Gilman in these novels, fiction is more of a vehicle for social and political commentary; the story barely matters--the plot isn't particularly riveting or novel, the characters are rather flat caricatures, and formally, the first-person retrospective account of an adventurer is hardly a new format. This is something which Gilman's novels share with the utopian tradition more generally though, in which the conveyance of ideals of that utopian society reigns supreme. Gilman's most famous American antecedent is Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwards (1888) which featured a socialist utopia and which was second only to Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur in popularity.

Gilman's utopia distinguishes itself in two major ways: first, she envisions a true socialist utopia as led by women, and second, for Gilman, the bringing about of a cooperative society requires first an intellectual awakening. Whereas novels like Bellamy's envision utopian social institutions that will carry out the necessary reform, Gilman's Herland advocates changes in thinking within each individual. The major change which she advocates is can be fairly straightforwardly gleaned from Herland: The basis of an ideal society must be cooperative rather than competitive, a shift in thinking which requires a revaluing of women's innate leadership as far as cooperation goes. In other words, the realization of a socialist utopia requires both men and women to re-orient themselves away from notions of marriage and female education that designate women to the domestic sphere and a support to men who accomplish the building of society outside of the home. Though Gilman clearly thinks of women as better at cooperation than men, she claims to have a greater commitment to humanity than a narrow "feminism"--she means to deconstruct false gendered binaries in order that both men and women can come together as people to recognize the constructive properties of cooperative society. When the women recognize Jennings as more like themselves than the other men, they clarify that they mean he is more like a person rather than a male (after all, Jeff and Terry are less whole people because of their stereotypical male behavior as the gallant and the cad, respectively).  

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