Recent paperback edition by Signet Books
|Author||Charlotte Perkins Gilman|
|Genre||Utopian novel, Feminist science fiction|
|Publisher||The Forerunner (serial) & Pantheon Books (in book form)|
|Publication date||April 1979|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover & Paperback), E-book, MP3|
|Preceded by||Moving the Mountain|
|Followed by||With Her in Ourland|
Herland is a utopian novel from 1915, written by feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The book describes an isolated society composed entirely of women, who reproduce via parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). The result is an ideal social order: free of war, conflict, and domination. It first appeared as a serial in Forerunner, a magazine edited and written by Gilman between 1909 and 1916. The book is the middle volume in her utopian trilogy; it was preceded by Moving the Mountain (1911), and followed with a sequel, With Her in Ourland (1916). It was not published in book form until 1979.
The story is told from the perspective of Vandyk "Van" Jennings, a student of sociology who, along with two friends (Terry O. Nicholson and Jeff Margrave), forms an expedition party to explore an area of uncharted land where it is rumored lives a society consisting entirely of women. The three friends do not entirely believe the rumors because they are unable to conceive how human reproduction could occur without males. The men speculate about what a society of women would be like, each guessing differently based on the stereotype of women which he holds most dear: Jeff regarding women as things to be served and protected; Terry viewing them as things to be conquered and won.
When the explorers reach their destination, they proceed with caution, hiding the biplane they arrive in, and trying to keep themselves hidden in the forests that border the land. They are quickly found by three young women who they realize are observing them from the treetops. After attempting to catch the girls with trickery, the men end up chasing the young women towards a town or village. The women outrun them easily and disappear among the houses, which, Van notes are exceptionally well made and attractive. After meeting the first inhabitants of this new land (which Van names Herland) the men proceed more cautiously, noting that the girls they met were strong, agile, and completely unafraid. Their caution is warranted because as the men enter the town where the girls disappeared, they become surrounded by a large group of women who march them towards an official looking building. The three men attempt an escape but are swiftly and easily overpowered by the large group of women and eventually anesthetized.
The men awake to find themselves held captive in a fortress-like building. They are given comfortable living accommodations, clean clothes, and food. The women assign each man a tutor who teaches the men their language. Van makes many notes about the new country and people, commenting that everything from their clothing to their furniture seems to be made with the twin ideals of pragmatism and aesthetics given equal consideration. The women themselves appear intelligent and astute, unafraid and patient, with a notable lack of temper and seemingly limitless understanding for their captives. The women are keen to learn about the world outside and question the men eagerly about all manner of things. Often Van finds himself having difficulty justifying the practices of his own society such as the milking of cows, the keeping of dogs as pets, and abortion, when faced with the apparent utopia the women have managed to build.
After being held captive for a number of months, the men break out of the fortress and escape cross-country to where they left their biplane. Finding the biplane sewn inside a large fabric covering, the men are unable to get away and are resignedly recaptured by the women. They are treated well nonetheless and soon learn that they will be given a freer rein when they have mastered the women's language and proved they can be trusted. Van remarks upon Terry's personal difficulty in dealing with the women who steadfastly refuse to conform to his expectations of how women should act, though Jeff seems perfectly enamored of the women and their kindness.
Van gradually finds out more information about the women's society, discovering that most of the men were killed 2,000 years ago when a volcanic eruption sealed off the only pass out of Herland. The remaining men were mostly slaves who killed the sons of their dead masters and the old women, intending to take over the land and the young women with it. The women fought back, however, killing the slaves. After a period of hopelessness at the impending end of their race, cut-off from the rest of the world and without any men, one woman among the survivors became pregnant and bore a female child, and four more female children after. The five daughters of this woman also grew up to bear five daughters each. This process rapidly expanded their population and led to the exaltation of motherhood. Ever since that time the women had devoted themselves to improving their minds, working together and raising their children; the position of teacher being one of the most revered and respected positions in the land.
As the men are allowed more freedom, each strikes up a relationship with one of the women they had first seen upon their arrival, Van with the one called Ellador, Jeff with Celis, and Terry with Alima. Having had no men for 2,000 years the women apparently have no experience or cultural memory of romantic love or sexual intercourse. As such, the couples' budding relationships progress with some difficulty and much explanation. Terry in particular finds it hard to adjust to being in a relationship with a woman who is not a 'woman' in his terms. Eventually all three couples get 'married', although the women largely fail to see the point of such a thing and as they have no particular religion the ceremony is more pagan than Christian.
Their marriages cause the men much reflection; the women they married have no conception of what being a wife or being feminine entails (according to the outside world's views). Van admits finding it frustrating and hard sometimes, though he is in the end grateful for his wonderful friendship with Ellador and the intense love he feels for her. Terry is not so wise and out of frustration attempts to rape Alima. After being forcefully restrained and once again anesthetized, Terry stands trial before the women and is ordered to return to his homeland.
Van realizes that he must accompany Terry home in the biplane and Ellador will not let him leave without her. In the end, both Terry and Van leave Herland with promises not to reveal the utopia until Ellador has returned and such a plan has been fully discussed. Jeff however chooses to stay behind and live in Herland with his now pregnant wife, Celis. Van tries to prepare Ellador for returning to his world but feels much trepidation about what she will find there.
The central theme of Herland is defining gender—the roles, how it is socially constructed, and how it is viewed as unchangeable by both genders. The idea of defining genders begins when the men first meet the women of Herland. In comparison to the women of their world, the men view the women of Herland to have masculine physical features: having short, functional hair and lacking curves. The women are physically strong and demonstrate this by building huge buildings in their country. Along with the women having masculine traits—as the outside world perceives—Jeff is in some ways feminine despite being a male. Jeff’s gender has a conflict of interest with the men he travels with to Herland. Jeff's feelings mirror the women’s feelings of Herland rather than the men. At one point, Van feels betrayed by Jeff’s emotional responses and agreements paralleled with the women.
Jeff is one example of how Gilman represents a feminist voice. As a feminist writer, Gilman provides an additional outlook on women and their roles during her time. She demonstrates her praise of women being independent of men. Gilman creates a means of equality to the men and at times conveys a theme of being superior to the men. In contrast to the world where the men came from, they feel weak compared to the women of Herland. The women are conveyed as kinder and smarter than the men, as determined by the narrator. The women are smart by means of surviving when they are cut off from the rest of the world. They live in a country where they "breed-out" (kill off) parts of nature if it is a strain on their society, i.e., cattle, dogs, and certain types of butterflies. In addition to breeding-out parts of nature, the women of Herland will breed-out girls in their society who are defiant and not virtuous; they will not let girls of Herland reproduce.
Education is the "highest art" in Herland and has been the reason why the country has thrived. Education is not force fed as it is in the men's world. The theme of education is of utmost importance and highly valued.
When the three male characters are imprisoned by the Herlanders, their hair grows long, which Gilman does to symbolically link them to womenkind. Throughout the novel, Gilman reverses the stereotypical gender roles: the women have short hair, the men have long hair; the women teach while the men learn; the women are physically stronger than the men, etc.
There is also a severe undercurrent of racism and praise for eugenics as Gilman consistently refers to the people living to in the valleys below Herland as “savages” and presents no evidence to substantiate this claim, as for eugenics Gilman seems to believe that character “flaws” can be bred out of humanity as she repeatedly states that only the most virtuous women are allowed to enjoy the gift of maternity.
Literary significance and reception
- December 1915, The Forerunner (magazine)
- April 1979, United States, Pantheon Books, ISBN 0-394-73665-6 (trade paperback)
- March 1986, Great Britain, The Women's Press, ISBN 0-7043-3840-8 (paperback)
- May 1992, Great Britain, The Women's Press, ISBN 0-7043-3840-8 (trade paperback)
- July 1992, United States, Signet Books, ISBN 0-451-52562-0 (paperback) collection: Herland and Selected Stories
- September 1998, United States, Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-40429-3 (trade paperback)
- November 2001, Great Britain, The Women's Press, ISBN 0-7043-4700-8 (trade paperback)
- June 2008, Canada, LibriVox, audio (MP3)
- June 2008, United States, Project Gutenberg, #32, (ebook)
- November 2012, Canada, Broadview Press, ISBN 9781551119878
- Clute and Nicholls 1995, p. 496.
- Pringle 1990, p. 149.
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