Monday, May 23, 2011

Review: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Reviewed by Connie as part of the Year of Feminist Classics (though a couple months late...)

Published: 1915

It's about: This book is a Utopian, feminist novel, in which three male explorers stumble upon a society in South America that consists only of women. Not surprisingly, these women have created the perfect society -- there's no war, poverty, hunger, jealousy, or contention; everyone and everything is just perfect.

I thought: In case you didn't pick up on the tongue-in-cheekiness of my description, I wasn't totally buying this book. I enjoyed Gilmans' "The Yellow Wallpaper," but I had a harder time swallowing Herland.

Let me start first with the stuff I did enjoy: Gilman successfully addresses the issue of gender as a social construct. In Herland, women are both workers and mothers; they are limited by neither physical weakness nor preoccupation with "femininity." Also, though her three male explorers are pretty flat characters, they accurately symbolize three common male attitudes toward women: Terry, the macho man who believes he will woo, win over, and conquer Herland; Jeff, who embodies the courtly love ideal, setting all women on a pedestal; and Van, the narrator, who takes a more middle ground, intellectual, open-minded approach to women (but still has something to learn about them).

Now, for the stuff I was wary of: I think it's kind of a stretch to call this book a novel, as it is about neither character development nor plot. It would be more accurate to call it a feminist/socialist tract, which isn't really my cup of tea. I grew weary of the lengthy, detailed descriptions about how their education system was perfect, then how their mothering was perfect, then how their society was perfect, and so on and so on. It grew tedious, and the descriptions of Herland's society were so impossible and unattainable, they were hardly interesting or enlightening.

Plus, Gilmans' feminist and socialist agenda were obviously so present in her mind during the writing process, everything and everyone in the book was merely a cog in the wheel of her agenda. I wasn't buying any of the male characters especially, even though they were supposed to be "of our world," and her male narrator was very obviously written by a woman.

One thing I was confused about was Gilmans' attitude toward sex. For the entire book, every woman's point of view is obviously correct in Gilmans' mind, and every man's opinion is incorrect. However, it wasn't as clear to me in her discussion of sex. The women see it as only a means to become parents, while the narrator, Van, describes it as an intimate union of people in love, and the book ends with the question unsettled. Anybody else read this and want to weigh in?

Verdict: In-Between

Reading Recommendations: All in all, this book wasn't my favorite, but I am of the opinion that feminist thinking can be better portrayed in means other than a Utopian tract. The only reason I give it in-between as opposed to rubbish bin is that if you are seriously interested in feminism, you probably need to read this book if for no other reason than to have read a prominent feminist work.

Warnings: None

Favorite excerpts:
"'But they look -- why, this is a CIVILIZED country!' I protested. 'There must be men.'"

"Jeff, with his gentle romantic old-fashioned notions of women as clinging vines. Terry, with his clear decided practical theories that there were two kinds of women -- those he wanted and those he didn't... And now here they were, in great numbers, evidently indifferent to what he might think...
'They don't seem to notice our being men,' he went on. 'They treat us -- well -- just as they do one another. It's as if our being men was a minor incident.'"

"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."

What I'm reading next: The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter