Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Hannah Marcus

Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

Art by Figgy Guyver http://www.instagram.com/themineralfact/

The Barbican’s 2017 summer exhibition Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction, was a little disappointing. Firstly, unless you already had previous knowledge of the shows, films and novels the exhibit was about, the opportunity for learning was limited. Rachel Cooke summed this up well in The Guardian: “this ambitious sci-fi exhibition is big on content, but where is the context?” This dovetails neatly into my second criticism; this exhibition was essentially aimed at men. Not only in the content, which was overwhelming produced by men and about men, but also in the specific kind of childhood it invoked. As a woman interested in science fiction both academically and personally, I was unsurprised, and frustrated, by how little effort was made to include and inform a wider audience.

Perhaps this is why, when browsing the bookshop afterwards, I was drawn to Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The tonal quality of the blurb of the Vintage Classics edition was both soothing and intriguing, clearly intended to resonate with the modern feminist:

When three American men discover a community of women, living in perfect isolation in the Amazon, they decide there simply must be men somewhere. How could these women survive without man’s knowledge, experience and strength, not to mention reproductive power? In fact, what they have found is a civilisation free from disease, poverty and the weight of tradition. All alone, the women have created a society of calm and prosperity, a feminist utopia that dares to threaten the very concept of male superiority.

This blurb is fascinating in and of itself because it puts a clear spin on the content of the novel, complicating a feminist reading with actual details of the plot. Herland is undoubtedly a proto-feminist text, but it is also a scientific romance, a blueprint of how to write utopias and an opportunity to discuss the politics of public and private spaces. It is also not without its flaws, which are worth unpicking and interrogating. In fact, since reading Herland, I have found it a relevant point of comparison time and again in a variety of academic spaces. These have included English literature and Cultural Studies, but it could easily stretch to Gender Studies, Postcolonial Studies, or even as a foil to Anthropology.

Herland then, is indeed a tale of three men who stumble across an all-female utopia in the middle of the Amazon. They attempt to integrate, learn its ways (and teach their own in return), and end up forming relationships with three of the women. Eventually two of them leave, one with his bride by choice, and the other expelled as punishment.

Herland sits clearly in the genre of scientific romance, both due to the ‘fantastic’ nature of the plotline and the attempt to situate the isolation and form of the land in science: a natural disaster led this group to be cut off from the world, and scientific mysticism is what explains their ability to procreate without men. It is also in the structure, which has a loose, semi-chronological narrative framed by explanations of how the land works to the reader. Written in 1915, the space-travel of Herland serves as a useful comparison to the works of H.G. Wells, considered a progenitor of the time-travel genre. Wells had been a central figure in my module on ‘Reading Time’, but I found myself often bringing up Herland, which was not on the reading list, as a way of pushing Wells’ ideas further, and questioning some of the Victorian assumptions about gender and status.

For Herland is both a point of comparison and an admirable counterfoil. In The Time Machine, Wells’ narrator confronts a degenerate and inarticulate past, and is forced to speculate about how it came about; upon his return to the present, his explanations of the past are actually just his interpretation . Gilman’s narrator, Van, serves as a parody to this and the utopian norm, which Elana Gomel describes as “the stripped-down plot of a visitor to the utopian city who has to be shown and lectured upon, the miracles of the perfectly organised society” . Van receives these traditional utopian lectures, and can regurgitate their teachings – but he also attempts to lecture in return. Much narrative time is spent on him attempting to share the ‘miracles’ of his own society, thus inadvertently highlighting its shortcomings. It is utopia as satire, playing the role that dystopia usually plays. Considering the barrage of dystopian imagery we are currently seeing in popular culture, where even Bladerunner 2045 portrays a misogynistic future which is too common a trope to be subversive, Gilman’s Herland provides an alternative model to break this loop.

This of course, puts us back in the territory of feminist readings, in which there is much to be done. Gilman’s choice of a male narrator allows her to skewer three masculine types which are worryingly familiar today: the sensitive Jeff, who puts women on a pedestal, the chauvinistic Terry, who is convinced women want to be mastered, and the narrator, Van, who is convinced that he is the perfectly measured ‘good guy’ but cannot help continuously reframing the world through his own perceptions. Van’s inability to see his own flaws also opens up further critique of characters like Wells’ Time Traveller, who is too busy focusing on socialist explanations to spot his own colonialist eye, or his dodgy relationship with the childlike Weena.

Of course, as Lindy West says “being a product of its time, Herland is also tremendously, excruciatingly antiquated – rife with gender essentialism, white supremacy and anti-abortion rhetoric”, and any nuanced study of the text needs to take this into account. However, a critique of Herland’s shortcomings can be used to highlight related areas of study, from comparison with Heart of Darkness to a reading in light of Haraway’s anti-natal cry: “make kin not babies”. As a student of culture and criticism, I have found Herland a fascinating and relevant way of expanding on the ideas I am encountering in my course readings. Herland is not only worthy of a place in a variety of academic spaces, its absence is a loss.

Postscript: The edition I have also contains Gilman’s short-story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, a beautifully written satire of the female trauma of ‘rest-cures’ which has transcended its original context to become either a terrifying tale of male control, or even a gothic horror story. It’s almost as if the problem of ‘rest-cures’ was actually a manifestation of these wider issues in gender relations…

Works Cited:

“Into The Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction | Barbican”. Barbican.Org.Uk, 2018, https://www.barbican.org.uk/into-the-unknown-a-journey-through-science-fiction. Accessed 30 Apr 2018.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart Of Darkness. ICON Group International, 2005.

Cooke, Rachel. “Into The Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction Review – Almost All Non-Human Life Is Here”. The Guardian, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jun/18/into-unknown-journey-through-science-fiction-barbican-review. Accessed 30 Apr 2018.

Gomel, Elana. Postmodern Science Fiction And Temporal Imagination (Continuum Literary Studies). 2nd ed., Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 2010, p. 149.

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin”. Environmental Humanities, vol 6, 2015, pp. 159-165., http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol6/6.7.pdf. Accessed 30 Apr 2018.

Herland. Vintage Classics, 2015.

Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. Penguin, 2007.

About the author:

Hannah Marcus is studying for an MA in Cultural and Critical Studies at Birkbeck. She is currently writing about free will in repetitive time loops, which has genuinely led to men asking if she’s seen Groundhog Day. She can be found lecturing people in Ubers about how Channing Tatum’s upcoming role in Splash represents metaphorical castration.

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