Certain losses in the “lost feminist utopian novel,” Herland


I have never read a utopian novel and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland was my first exploration of the genre. I had sort of high hopes when I bought this one because of Gilman, whose The Yellow Wallpaper, I have read, and sort of liked before. Her feminism is prominent and in The Yellow Wallpaper, at least in my initial reading, this feminism is pictured as something that is yet to envision a better alternative for women and is just confined to depicting the far-reaching impacts of their difficult situation. More than the political statements made in the story, I somewhat joined in raving about the story primarily because of its literary characteristics which totally extirpated impressions of blandness and bluntness that might be found in work obviously carrying a politic. The rich symbolisms in the story seem to multiply the layers by which one can feel, sense, comprehend the plight depicted in the story. In purchasing Herland, these were some of my motivations: Gilman’s feminism and her literary strength. On the first chapters of the novel (it has twelve), I was still drawn to it, finishing the first eight in a jiffy, marked by flipping the page with anticipation to see the unfolding of the next events, the next sharp-witted exchanges. However, this slowed down on the last four chapters, until all zeal has seemed to vanish and to finish the novel looked like a chore. Still, it merits something like this.

What happened?

“Three American male explorers stumble onto an all-female society somewhere in the distant reaches of the earth. Unable to believe their eyes, they promptly set out to find some men, convinced that, since ‘this is a civilized country…there must be men.’” So the synopsis goes, but needing extension: Herland also shows the change in consciousness and worldview of the male explorers: Jeff, poet and botanist; Terry was more of the explorer and into engineering; and Van, our “guide” as we followed through their rare voyage, a sociologist.

As they accidentally found themselves in Herland, they saw a unique civilization where an all-population of women thrive and has devised arguably efficient and effective means to sustain their living. In Herland, the highest call is to become a mother, but one that is unique to them. Here, every child is a daughter to all the mothers, and every mother is the same for every child. What used to be a bisexual race ceased to be in the coming of war and a volcanic eruption. In a key moment in their history, all the males and the old women died or were killed, and in the face of such lowliness, the young virgins carried on and thus begun the formation of Herland. This was only punctuated by a “miracle” happening one day – one of the women bore a child, which is surprising because of the absence of any man in the land. This was not the last and the same woman bore four other children and with exultation, the women thought that this miracle was a gift from their Goddess of Motherhood, Maaia. Soon, while they keep close guidance and rearing of the five newborns, all the other women deeply yearned to be mothers too. But the trick was made by the five newborns. When they reached the age of 25, they begun bearing daughters as well and this exponential growth continued to the delight of everyone in Herland. In sum, the people of Herland originated from one woman and she likewise inspired a “national hoping” for motherhood, pushing it beyond the realm of a “personal joy.” Tacitly working under the framework of collective mothering (as an action, not just an occupation), these women has worked together towards the improvement of their civilization, one that stirred the envy of the three men (which I think is most glaring point of a utopia: the uncovering of the flaks of an existing presence by showing better possibilities, perhaps more aptly, alternatives, which by playing through connotations, could mean that they can be proactively forged.)

Their kind of feminism: seemingly commonsensical offered in abstractions today

Regarding the feminist stance found in this novel, what I made sense of are nothing novel.  But that should not be taken against Gilman’s statements here; in fact it was meant to be on the upside; that is, Gilman’s implications in the novel predate some of the more dominant, “new” conceptions and claims about the female and the overall gender issue nowadays. For instance, while chatting among themselves, Terry, the most macho among the three, asserted, perhaps with disgust, that “these women aren’t womanly.” Coming from the kind of woman from their world he is familiar with, the woman whose image and presentation is already influenced, if not shaped by male-centered norms and lenses, Terry sees no duplication in the women of Herland. As if furthering Terry’s initial reaction, Van thought to himself: “…to the conviction that those ‘feminine charms’ we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity (emphasis mine) – developed to please us because us they had to please us” (59). Here, Van is not only speaking for himself as a man, not just for all the other men, but for the entire system whose value judgments are, to repeat, male-centric, male-made. Notable also is the consciousness Gilman imbued to the women of Herland: while talking about marriage and the wife’s taking of the husband’s surname to show everyone that she is his wife, as if a possession, Alima, supposedly Terry’s partner, retorted: “What is a ‘wife’ exactly?” (118).

At the heart of all of this is their religious regard of motherhood and their utmost treatment of their children: their religion is focused not on doing things for their gods but from their gods. This is because “god” to them is not a person, but a “Pervading Power, an Indwelling Spirit” (112-13). This is where all (good) actions springs forth and not done for. Interestingly, the idea of eternal life Van passionately shared to Ellador confounded her, perhaps, made her laugh had she been less courteous, less innocent. As much as it is possibly ridiculous, an eternal life is out of the mind of the women of Herland because they want their children to go on with living, to continue nurturing the civilization they have started and developed. We can see this as closely linked to their earnest efforts in raising and educating their children. Asked by Van why would they not want it, why would they want to die like a candle, and why would not they want to experience “Heaven,” Ellador again evinced a surprising wit and sensibility: “That’s what we all want, of course –Peace and Beauty, and Comfort and Love –with God! And Progress too, remember… but that is here” (117). At this point, the distinctions not just between the world where Van came from and Herland but also the consciousnesses it ingrained on its people is becoming more marked, supporting the idea that the way we think and act is largely influenced by the world we live in.

However, aside from, and more important than this brand of feminism are undertones of a proposition that clearly is not limited to one’s gender: collective action, collective life.

 

In her introduction of this novel, Ann Lane claimed Gilman’s “integrated body of thought that combined feminism and socialism, (ix)” albeit “opposed as she was, temperamentally and ideologically, to violence or force…from Marx’s revolutionary ideology. (x-xi)” Also, for Gilman “the peaceful collective action of women replaced Marx’s class struggle. (xi)” Here, we can see that Gilman puts the highest premium on gender and the need to resolve the problems posed by such meaningful differentiation. Coupled with social Darwinism that puts emphasis on the adaptive potentials and more importantly, the human potential to utilize her environment to her advantage, Gilman set forth in her utopia.

We can see all throughout her novel, particularly in the statements of the women of Herland, how Gilman envisions the harmonious joining of collectivism and complete eradication of violence. After natural and man-made cataclysms that nearly wiped out their race, the women found themselves with one another and then by some miracle was inspired to forge ahead together. They treated and nurtured knowledge collectively, “that what one knew, all knew…” (64), child-rearing, “we each have a million children to love and serve –our children” (71). Also, with the collectivization and active community life, the idea of “home” has been expanded to the entire community and the distinction between the public and the private is likewise put off. Strangely also, this remark about the budding romance between the male visitors and some of the girls seems to resemble, albeit vaguely, the policies of the Communist Party of the Philippines on the relationship of sexes: “this new wonderful love between you. The whole country is interested, you know, how can we help it! (104)”

However, this emphasis on gender and how the “rule of the woman” emerged with the emergence of Herland is undermined by the fact that it was primarily caused by natural forces, i.e. the volcanic eruptions, if not by man-made disasters, i.e. wars whose aims are not really to extinguish the male population and the kind of society they bring. Hence, however Herland depicts a utopia for the female, it does not show how concretely this can be achieved in the present, actual circumstances. Definitely, contemporary feminists do not expect that some catastrophe would just eradicate all the males in the world so they could just begin a life of their own. And perhaps more pointedly, there is no certitude that getting rid of the men will result to a better life for ALL of the women.

 

Gilman in circles

In sum, what Gilman is showing us in Herland is her beautiful vision of a peaceful and prosperous community composed of and run by women, with collective action defining their general routine and motherhood, the specific call they most desirously respond to. With this, they seek to collectively build together for the future, for the sustenance of a civilization that is nearly unblemished. With the eyes of a male outsider who accidentally landed on Herland with two companions, we saw how putrid our present civilization is compared to theirs, and perhaps silently longing for that kind of society, without us admitting this. Making us see these narrations through the eyes of a male person, Gilman implicitly proved she’s still in control by using this to make the sense of transformation more pointed and self-evincing. The novel ended, with an awaiting sequel, with Van and Ellador, together with Terry, heading back to Van’s origin, with her excitement over what she would see. Jeff chose to stay in Herland, with Celis, his own apple of the eye. Thus was the completion of Gilman’s rounding about on the beauty of her vision: peace and prosperity in a land of women, working together, mothering the future generation together, all in the goal of perpetuating, more aptly, improving their civilization.

So for the verdict, I hate to say that my initial expectations were drastically not met by this feminist utopia by Gilman. I think the utopian genre caused her literary style to be a bit distended and flavorless. For most of the latter parts of the novel, I felt like I’m reading a scripture than literature. Then aside from these comments on the literary value is my own questions of what Gilman is trying to say, where she is coming from. Although I recognize the plight of the women, I am still unconvinced that the primary root of this and the primary motivation to struggle for change is not gender. They hate not the entire male people, I believe, but the society that privileges male over female, big corporations that privilege male over female employees for certain qualities they feel more desirable. And restricting the potentials of change on a strict gender bias will ignore the other oppressed people in this social set-up, i.e. the farmers in the country, the workers in factories, the young professionals who mainly contribute in the perpetuation of the capital-profit cycle. These are not all female people, obviously. And in the last note, by falling into this kind of feminism that ends in the domain of the gender, Gilman’s ideology and her literary output brandishing this did not leave any particularly good taste.

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