Utopian fiction is a tricky business. It's generally a misnomer at best. Utopian fiction often falls into one of three categories: Utopia that turns out to be the utter opposite of paradise for some, if not all, of the inhabitants (dystopia); Utopia that turns out to be flawed in one way or another; or, a utopia that actually is heaven on Earth. The first two types of stories are generally more interesting. The third, unfortunately, is where Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland falls.
That's not to say there's not some very interesting ideas here. Herland was written near the beginning of the 20th Century, and many of Gilman's thoughts are ahead of her time. The main problem, however, lies in Gilman's choice of outlet. What may have been better suited for an essay is instead formulated as a sort of adventure novel that never quite gives us an adventure.
Herland revolves around a simple premise. Somewhere in the unexplored jungle lies a pristine, modern paradise populated solely by women. A group of intrepid (not really) explorers stumble upon what they call Herland, and the inhabitants teach them their history, their culture and their way of life. That's it. There are relatively few twists (the men try to escape at one point, fail, and are brought back). The ending isn't too unexpected. It's really more of a what-if essay than a fleshed out story.
In a somewhat interesting choice for feminist literature, Gilman uses male protagonists to filter the reader's view of the issues at hand. Our viewpoint character is Van Jennings, a sort of middle-of-the-road kind of guy who can see both sides of any argument. This makes for a kind of boring and timid "hero" (if you can call him that, which, now that I think about it, no, no you can't), but I can see why Gilman chose him. The reader is not really asked to follow along for any sweeping judgments. Instead, we identify with Van as he observes the other two male characters: Terry Nicholson and Jeff Margrave.
Terry is, to put it bluntly, an ass. He holds the traditional turn-of-the-century views of women, but escalated to sometimes comical levels. To Terry, women are silly little things with no real intelligence or capability, obviously the inferior sex, and only really necessary as a motivation for men. One of the best examples of his character: to him, the existence of Herland is less of a scientific impossibility than a social one. He argues against the concept of female-only reproduction (which, in one of the most speculative aspects of the story, is identified as parthenogenesis). But to him, the craziest part of this country is the idea of women living amongst themselves with no men to run the town, grow the crops, maintain and invent the technology and stop all that silly female bickering.
If Terry is the resident misogynist, Jeff resides squarely in the opposite side of crazy. He represents the pro-feminist camp, which is generally cool, but sometimes creepily approaches putting women on a pedastal (something, it should be mentioned, Terry does as well, but in more of a "women are so frail, they shouldn't do work" kind of way). I'm not sure if this is intentional on Gilman's part, or if Jeff is supposed to be a positive character and our modern ideas of feminism have just changed in the past 100 years. However, given the fact that Jeff is not our central character, I'd like to believe the former.
Jeff and Terry frequently spar over the roles of women in society, while Van watches on, giving us the novel's only real conflict. Unfortunately, this conflict becomes repetitive almost immediately. The woman claim they have accomplished some spectacular achievement, Terry says no, that's impossible because woman are stupid and silly, Jeff says nuh-uh cause women are awesome! All while Van nods his head and jots it all down in his mental notebook.
My other criticism, beyond the lack of a real plot, is that Gilman's female characters all sort of run together. A strange thought, isn't it? In a book about the exceptionalism of women, the women become exceptionally stale and boring. There's really no difference in any of them. They're all incredibly smart, capable, confident in themselves and their culture. The three women who end up getting paired off with the males (Ellador, Celis and Alima) seem different in temperament, but that's only because they are given different situations to react to (Alima, who gets to deal with Terry, is obviously going to behave differently than Celis, who gets Jeff).
So what's to like about Herland? Gilman's subtle references to feminist thinking of the time. In one of my favorite passages of the book, one of the women brings up the concept of being trapped in one's own home and life:
"It's not the same thing at all," [Terry] insisted. "A man wants a home of his own, with his wife and family in it."
"Staying in it? All the time?" asked Ellador. "Not imprisoned, surely!"
"Of course not! Living there--nautrally," he answered.The point being how silly it is to consider a woman's confinement in her home "natural." This is very likely a reference to Gilman's own The Yellow Wallpaper (a speculative-ish feminist story surrounding a woman's depression and confinement. It's absolutely fantastic). It is also oddly similar to Virginia Woolf's then-unwritten A Room of One's Own, though exploring the idea of living quarters in opposite directions.
It is moments like these that made me sit up and evaluate Gilman's work in the greater pantheon of feminist literature. To my disappointment, there were exceedingly few moments that made me sit up and consider her work in the realm of adventure or speculative fiction. Maybe this isn't so bad. I'm sure Gilman was more concerned about her feminist themes than whether or not her work could be adapted into a Syfy Original Movie. But if one were to read, say, a feminist western, one would hope that the work had something to add to both of those genres.
The most relevant passage in the book seems to be the one I quoted at the beginning of this post. Terry asserts that life must be filled with struggles to be worthwhile, and the women inform him that, no, living in a perfect world is perfectly satisfactory. In my interpretation, Gilman is speaking directly to the reader at this point. It seems evident that she knew that her story was more about the themes and ideas than any sort of character development. And she seems okay with that. I guess, in the end, that's all we can hope from an author -- that everything they do is done with full knowledge and purpose.
For fans of feminist literature, Herland is sort of a must-read. In fact, I'd assume most fans of feminist literature have already read it. That's like saying "If you're a fan of fantasy, you simply must read this Tolkien fellow!" But, as it is a very early example of utopian/futurist fiction, it may be of interest to specfic fans. And if that's your sole interest, you may want to skip Herland. It doesn't go much further than its synopsis. Instead, for feminist science fiction, go for any of Margaret Atwood's books (ignore her unfortunate views on science fiction), or the aforementioned work, Gilman's seminal The Yellow Wallpaper.
Herland can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.