Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Herland: A Lost Feminist Utopian Novel

Sometimes I go fairly often to the Mission Galleria antique store in Riverside, California. I don't quite know how it happens, except that Riverside is on the way out of the L.A. area, so sometimes we stop there on the way back to Arizona. It's a huge store, four floors, and I already know which booths I like to linger at and which floors I pass through quickly. The basement I usually go through fairly quickly but there are sometimes some good things there, all the same: it's there that I found my 1976 edition of Star Wars (the book, that is). And given that it was a little expensive, I looked extra hard at the $1 books on the ground floor to try and imagine that I was evening out the price somewhat.

I saw Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the spine and thought, well, I've never heard of Herland (tagline "A Lost Feminist Utopia Novel") but it looks like it might be interesting, so why not? Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a pretty standard text in literature classes; I wrote one of my papers on it in college. Herland sounds like it comes from the same author: it's the story of three men (explorers) who find and enter an isolated land that is inhabited only by women and has been this way for two thousand years. (The book, by the way, was written in 1915 and my copy was published in 1979.) So basically it sounds like it'll be proving that women are capable of holding their own place in society and contributing in a significant way and aren't necessarily "feminine" in the way that they are considered feminine in contrast to masculine.

But when you read it, it's a little different, in part because it is a hundred years old. Certain facts that Gilman needs to establish in 1915 are mostly given facts in 2016. Women can be physically strong, women can build houses, women can be philosophers, even simply women can work. So certain things that may have been a big deal for her to establish at the time passed by very quickly as I was reading them and my focus fell elsewhere.

Especially in the beginning, this is basically just an adventure story. It's just fun to read, seeing these three men of different characters setting about on their quest to find this strange land they've heard of--and seeing how they all react to what they see. The women of this land are kind of a novelty, as entertaining to meet as giants or elves or any other type of fiction group. I was curious to learn more about them just as the three men were.

And then you see that this isn't just a land of women: it's designed to be like a utopia--a "feminist utopia." Not only is the book trying to prove what women can do, it is also trying to show how a society can be better arranged than ours is. Here is where more of the philosophizing begins; it's still entertaining to read, though, even when you're not quite sure what to make of what the characters suggest. I always have issues with utopias: I usually find them very false with no real bearing on the reality of the world (I basically wrote on my reading reaction in college that Plato's Republic was stupid--not in so many words, but basically). I like real solutions to real problems--otherwise imagining situations that could never happen in the real world doesn't seem at all progressive to me. So I had some of that . . . frustration, if you will, with Herland. But maybe it was less. I think perhaps it was less because the society that Gilman sets up includes so much of art alongside intellect and order. It's nice to see how efficient their agriculture is because their fruitful forests are also so beautiful, and it's nice to know that their houses also look nice in addition to being well-made.

Basically this whole book is just a novelty. It was entertaining to read (I know the aims were more intellectual, but time changes things) and quite a good read for a dollar. I didn't realize that there is a sequel--in the introduction, Ann J. Lane essentially tells people not to bother reading the sequel unless you want to study Gilman/her views. So the sequel must really be terrible. If I found it in another $1 pile, I would definitely get it just out of curiosity, but I would also definitely not seek it out and would be content never to read it. That's kind of how this book was: I would never have missed it and I don't exactly suggest that you go out and look for it (unless you're a literary person who's interested in Gilman, the era, utopia, or feminism). But if you happen across it, you might consider getting it as a quick and casual read.

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