Dixie Diamond's Reviews > Herland

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
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Jun 22, 2009

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bookshelves: women, fiction, 1910s, my_books
Read in June, 2009

Three stars: Five stars as a period piece, one as a work of literature.

Mine is the 1979 edition whose preface claims it is still relevant. Perhaps that, too, is an indication of a past phase of feminism, because the story has really not aged very well.

The writing is awful. Sorry. I know that it was originally serialized in Gilman's magazine, which might account for the shallow, unpolished quality of it, but it makes for tiresome reading in novella form.

I hesitate to criticize Herland too much because Gilman was so obviously a product of her time and social class that it's almost impossible to evaluate her in modern terms. The work is clearly a reaction against extreme male domination of society and is absurd if it is divorced from its original context. It seems as if the best testament to just how limited women were in 1915 is the painfully-restricted scope of what even an ardent feminist could envision for her gender. I was struck in particular by the apparent inability to develop much technology, and the narrator's statement that Herland had been unable to generate much of a science of geology; I'm sure my mother, who did graduate work in crystal physics, would find that darkly amusing. It seems that even radical women saw the talents of their sex as primarily organic and not scientific or mathematical.

What strikes me most in this novel is that Gilman managed to depict women in a way that was revolutionary and yet still to stereotype them. The robotic, heterogeneous inhabitants of Herland--all of them beautiful, athletic, rational, and wise--seem nearly as objectified as the shrinking-violet heroines produced by contemporary male authors.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Kanika Hadn't much thought about the stereotype yet
Interesting point


Melody I'm so glad someone else felt the same way, I kept feeling that there was something that I missed or did not understand.


Dixie Diamond Well, as I said, I don't really want to come down too hard on the author because it's not really fair to criticize from a modern standpoint. One of the many, many, things, though, about which I wish I had time to find out more is why Gilman omitted hard science from her utopia. Was it so foreign to her that she either didn't think to or didn't know how to include it? Was it part of her rebellion against male domination, since the hard sciences have traditionally been a male domain? Did she consider hard science "cold"? But then why reject it in favor of the more stereotypically feminine tack she took?


Melody I feel that her intent was simply to show how different the world could be. I could see that if she did hold extreme feminist views, which I do not think she did, it would be driven with the intent to reject any of the traditionally male-dominated sciences. But that would also mean that in her version of a female utopia, the women were unable to make the discoveries that were made in the rest of the world. It may also be as simple as different people, different ideas.


Dixie Diamond She was pretty radical for her time, in thought if not so much in action.


Dixie Diamond Ah, this is interesting: "Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Feminization of Education" (Deborah DeSimone, in the Women in Literature and Life Assembly, Fall 1995, posted by the University of Virginia):

"Perceiving the roots of education as maternal, Gilman thought women were best fitted for child care. Herein lay a fundamental paradox between her recognition of the symbiotic relations between women and children--that any changes in the status of women affected children--and her struggle to open the parameters of professional opportunities to women. By arguing that feminizing education would make it "motherly" and that the nature of education was "maternal," Gilman offered a theory that failed to break with the Victorian emphasis on the unique qualities of womanhood. Ironically, her call for infant education was, in many ways, a call for the professionalization of motherhood that channeled women into areas, albeit professionalized, traditionally within women 's sphere of influence. Further, in addressing her comments and concerns mostly to problems of the middling and upper classes, Gilman excluded large numbers of women and men of various economic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds from her social vision, never suggesting their role in this new, gender-balanced society."


message 7: by Sam (new) - rated it 2 stars

Sam Hickey I agree completely with your assessment of 'Herland'. If taken as a product of its period it is endlessly interesting in an academic sense, but out of context, on its own merits as a novel it has aged horribly. The eugenic thought which was so popular in America at the time unfortunately rears its ugly head quite overtly in it as well.


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