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Another Flavor of Utopia–Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935)Recently, I shared my take on What Diantha Did, one of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novels. Just before that, I had read another of her offerings, Herland. Neither of these works rises to the level of the short story for which she is so famous, but both reveal a capable writer eager to present her considerable thoughts about how the world ought to be. Published in 1915, Herland evokes to some degree the genre of King Solomon’s Mines and The Lost World, more or less perfect and perfectly isolated places on the earth penetrated, and not to their benefit, by outsiders. A trio of explorers find themselves in a land peopled only by women. By some bizarre combination of circumstance and genetic good fortune, the women of Herland have been cut off from a hostile outside world, including all men, and, at just the right moment to preserve their long-term existence, one of their number becomes inexplicably pregnant. This woman and her daughters–and they are all daughters–continue to reproduce by parthenogenesis for centuries. The resulting society put on its head the established understanding of the world according to our narrator.

When we say men,manmanlymanhood, and all the other masculine-derivatives, we have in the background of our minds a huge vague crowded picture of the world and all its activities. . . . And when we say women, we think female—the sex.
But to these women . . . the word woman called up all that big background, so far as they had gone in social development; and the word man meant to them only male—the sex.

If that is not sufficiently amazing, the women of this isolated place manage to construct a civilization that puts all others to shame. During the time the trio spend in the land, there’s scarcely a whisper of any discord or division. Instead, all of the women are uniformly dedicated to the greater good. They have outsiders–read Americans and Europeans–absolutely bested in areas of harmony, education, health, environment, and most anything else that matters. Granted the women of Herland do not possess military might but neither do they possess enemies. As in the case of Diantha’s story, Gilman suggests that if only women were allowed to run the show everything would be not only better but almost perfect.

In the present book, Gilman does seem to suggest that her political views are not as rigid as her gender views. Where Diantha moved in a somewhat Distributivist direction, taking the means of production out of the hands of wealthy families and empowering servants–most of them women–with independence and agency. In Herland, the utopia is considerably more socialist in nature.

In the final analysis, this book suffers the fate of many polemical narratives. When you suggest that everything would be perfect if only the right people were running the show and then you place those people in charge, the possibilities for drama and conflict evaporate quickly. Unlike King Solomon’s Mines, with good and bad Kukuana factions, Herland features ridiculously angst-free characters, devoid of all pride, greed, or any other failing. For all of her cleverness, Gilman betrays herself as a fairly limited student of human nature.

 

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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