Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Herland

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This classic feminist novel, written and published originally as a serial back in 1915, is the story of an isolated all-woman country that is 'discovered' by three blokes in a plane. Hearing a rumour of such a society they set out to find it, basically assuming that when they get there they will be treated like gods and have the pick of the nubile and deprived young women. The reality is however far different and the book, written from the perspective of one of the men, is the story of their experience. 

It is very much a period piece, the language and the attitudes are very much of the early 20th century and the society that Gilman dreams up for the women is utopian in the extreme. Her aim is obviously to argue the potential strengths of women, how they might choose to organise their society if it were outside the influence of men, and to show up the men's arrogance and the flaws in what they consider to be their own superior society.

So, just quotes really. Demonstrating partly the attitudes of the men, towards women in general, but also towards this new society as they begin to understand it. It is interesting because Gilman has a subtle understanding of the nature of sexism, how some of it is blatant, some of it outrageously patronising, but some of it more understated and couched in nice language to make you think that you are in the wrong for being offended by it. Of course the three are all middle class Edwardian 'gentlemen' and have attitudes and opinions to match.

First encounter:
" 'Woman' in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother." (p.20)

Later, after much acquaintance, they reflect on their expectations:
"And we had been cocksure as to the inevitable limitations, the faults and vices, of a lot of women. We had expected them to be given over to what we called 'feminine vanity' - 'frills and furbelows,' and we found that they had evolved a costume more perfect than the Chinese dress, richly beautiful when so desired, always useful, of unfailing dignity and good taste.
We had expected a dull submissive monotony, and found a daring social inventiveness far beyond our own, and a mechanical and scientific development fully equal to ours.
We had expected pettiness, and found a social consciousness besides which our nations looked like quarrelling children - feebleminded ones at that.
We had expected jealousy, and found a broad sisterly affection, a fair-minded intelligence, to which we could produce no parallel.
We had expected hysteria, and found a standard of health and vigour, a calmness of temper, to which the habit of profanity, for instance, was impossible to explain - we tried it." (p.81)

Van, the narrator, talking to their guardians:
" 'We like you the best,' Somel told me, 'because you seem more like us.'
'More like a lot of women!' I thought to myself disgustedly, and then remembered how little like 'women,' in our derogatory sense, they were. She was smiling at me, reading my thought.
'We can quite see that we do not seem like - women - to you. Of course, in a bi-sexual race the distinctive features of each sex must be intensified. But surely there are characteristics enough which belong to People, aren't there? That's what I mean about you being more like us - more like People. We feel at ease with you.' " (p.89)

Terry, the obnoxious one, continues to rail against them throughout the book, learning nothing:
"Terry persisted. 'They've neither the vices of men, nor the virtues of women - they're neuters!'
'You know better than that. Don't talk nonsense,' said I, severely.
I was thinking of Ellador's eyes when they gave me a certain look, a look she did not at all realise.
Jeff was equally incensed. 'I don't know what 'virtues of women' you miss. Seems to me they have them all.'
'They've no modesty,' snapped Terry. 'No patience, no submissiveness, none of the natural yielding which is a woman's greatest charm.' " (p.98)

Education thoughts:
" 'We try most earnestly for two powers,' Somel continued. 'The two that seem to us basically necessary for a noble life: a clear, far-reaching judgement, and a strong well-used will. We spend our best efforts, all through childhood and youth, in developing these faculties, individual judgement and will.'
'As part of your system of education, you mean?'
'Exactly. As the most valuable part. With the babies, as you may have noticed, we first provide an environment which feeds the mind without tiring it; all manner of simple and interesting things to do, as soon as they are old enough to do them; physical properties, of course, come first. But as early as possible, going very carefully, not to tax the mind, we provide choices, simple choices, with very obvious causes and consequences. You've noticed the games?'
I had. The children seemed always to be playing something; or else, sometimes, engaged in peaceful researches of their own. I had wondered at first when they went to school, but soon found that they never did -  to their knowledge. It was all education but no schooling." (p.106)

It's only right at the very end that they seem to come to some understanding of the gulf between their societies:
"In missing men we three visitors had naturally missed the larger part of life, and had unconsciously assumed that they must miss it too. It took me a long time to realise - Terry never did realise - how little it meant to them. When we say men, man, manly, manhood, and all other masculine derivatives, we have in the background of our minds a huge vast crowded picture of the world and all its activities. To grow up and 'be a man', to 'act like a man' - the meaning and connotation is wide indeed. The vast background is full of marching columns of men, of changing lines of men, of long processions of men; of men steering their ships into new seas, exploring unknown mountains, breaking horses, herding cattle, ploughing and sowing and reaping, toiling in the forge and furnace, digging in the mine, building road and bridges and high cathedrals, preaching in all the churches; of men everywhere, doing everything - 'the world.'
And when we say women, we think female - the sex.
But to these women, in the unbroken sweep of this two-thousand-year-old feminine civilisation, the word woman called up all that big background, so far as they had gone in social development; and the word man meant to them only male - the sex." (p.137)

In a way I ended up thinking of the author as one of the women in Herland. She mocks the men quite gently, making them struggle to deny or hide the failings of their own masculine society, when the women around them see through their evasions and avoidance of certain subjects. Where the three men are constantly harping on about the way these women ought to be behaving and what is wrong with their way of doing things she coaxes them quite slowly into an understanding of a different way of thinking about women, never criticising them directly, just nudging them to acknowledge the alternative. While the perfection of the society irritated me somewhat, it was illogical to think that illness and crime would disappear completely, her picture of cooperation was inspiring. What was also interesting was her level of ecological consciousness, the care the women took of their environment and the understanding for a need for balance and respect. At a time when the thoughtless plunder of the world's natural resources was not really questioned this was also quite radical. While dystopian novels are all very interesting I do enjoy a nice utopia sometimes, it is a bit more encouraging.

1 comment:

  1. I see you, too, recently read Herland. It's nice to see another point of view on the book. I wonder how powerful this book was to its original (intended) readers?

    ReplyDelete

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