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2014 Group Reads - Archives > Herland - Ch. 1-7

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message 1: by Silver (new)

Silver Here you may discuss the first seven chapters of Herland, please be aware if you have not finished these chapters spoilers may be posted here.


message 2: by Emma (new)

Emma (emmalaybourn) | 298 comments I've been enjoying this book considerably more than "Moving the Mountain". The more conventional novelistic framework, with its varying plot and cliffhangers at the end of chapters, makes this an easier read (for me at least.) I wonder if the author deliberately adopted a less didactic tone in order to reach a wider readership for her views.

The society portrayed here obviously has much in common with that of "Moving the Mountain," with its emphasis on careful land management, the importance of education and child care, and the pleasant and courteous nature of its people. However, one or two things did concern me.

Firstly, the insistence that these people were of Aryan stock (i.e. white). At first this struck me as a surprisingly racist view for a forward-thinking feminist. It is possible that the author felt that a progressive non-white society might be a step too far for her audience. Her aunt was Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, so you'd expect her to be racially aware.

Secondly, as in Moving the Mountain, the society is rather undifferentiated: the women all seem very alike. Of course, this is to be expected as they would have been clones, but none of the female characters has come alive for me, in contrast to the male protagonists, who each represent a different personality type and point of view. The women are "wise, sweet and strong," as the narrator puts it, but I don't find them very interesting, because of the lack of any individuality. The characters are subservient to the author's intentions. (This is the case in all novels, I suppose, but it's not usually as obvious.)

Additionally, as Wendel perceptively pointed out about "Moving the Mountain," this country is a puritan Utopia where wild nature is banned, the forests are replanted with crop-bearing trees and wildness is banished - as are animals for the most part. Nature seems to exist only to serve humanity.

So, while I think her illustrations of the benefits of a feminist-led society are very well-made, certain aspects of it make me uneasy.


message 3: by Deborah, Moderator (new)

Deborah (deborahkliegl) | 4467 comments Mod
This work was written several years after Moving the Mountain - in 1915. I read this for the first time many years ago, and I am thoroughly enjoying the rereading of it.

Gilman's life was not typical for the time period. She was married, divorced, and remarried. She went through postpartum depression in 1885 and the "cure" was no writing and very limited reading which nearly drove her mad. She fled her husband and her child after this experience moving to California. She was later attacked by the press for being an unnatural women for fleeing her family, and lived a nomadic existence between 1895-1900. With all of these life experiences, perhaps Herland is the world as she wishes it would be.

We know, at the outset, that the three men will be returning to the U.S. They are intrigued by a world without men, and endeavor to imagine it. Each man, as Emma mentioned, represents a belief system. Terry - women are infantile and need to be controlled. Jeff - women are madonna like and should be on a pedestal, and Van - the sociologist who is somewhere in the middle. Yet, not of these men believe that women can get along, let alone function in a society.

For me, the decisions the women have made are completely due to their limited land and isolation. Yet, they push themselves to continue to develop better ways. Emma mentioned the Aryan reference. One thing to keep in mind is that this belief system and eugenics was very popular in this time period. While it doesn't make it right, we need to keep in mind our modern viewpoints.

The entire society is build around strength, functionality, and beauty. They seemed to have made the best of their limited world. Instead of being complacent and closed minded because of their isolation, they continue to strive and want to learn. They are actually excited to be able to learn from the men about the outside world.

Personally, I'm rather irritated by Terry and while I know he represents the common beliefs of men at that time (and still exists to a certain point), I really can't stand him. He is such a closed minded twit that he is even unwilling to see what's before him.

I had to smile at the references to all the pockets in the clothing. In one of her short stories she finds herself in her husband's body and mentions the freedom of movement and pockets. Considering the modern dress of the day, I can see why she wanted pockets. The limited movement and lack of pockets is not something modern women even think about.

This novel does make me think about our apparent comfort with things like war, poverty, hunger, and the like. I heard yesterday on NPR that 1 in 5 children in the U.S. are going hungry. How is it that we feed the world and not ourselves?


message 4: by Sandy (new)

Sandy  | 16 comments I am also enjoying this book much more than Moving the Mountain. The story is quite captivating, and I find myself looking forward to returning to it to find out what happens next.

I find it noteworthy that the geographical space occupied by the society in Herland appears to be much smaller than in Moving the Mountain (which, if I am not mistaken, encompassed the entire United States). This would appear to reflect a major shift in Perkins' ideas and expectations regarding the potential evolution of a peaceful and just society. It also seems to me to be significant that, whereas Moving the Mountain) depicts a society in which women and men were equal, in Herland men are completely absent. It would be interesting to know what transpired in her personal life to precipitate this shift.

I also find Terry to be an obnoxious character. Not only does he underestimate the abilities of women, believing that their preoccupation with jealousy renders them incapable of team-work and organizational skills, but he states bluntly that the women of Herland are not "womanly". While the narrator challenges this judgement ("Then you don't call a breed of women whose one concern is mother -- womanly?"), this statement reveals the narrator's own prejudices. It seems simplistic to assume that the women in Herland could have developed such a utopian society by focusing solely on motherhood. The narrator does redeem himself by suggesting that the "feminine charms" defined by his own society are merely "reflected masculinity -- developed to please us [men] because they had to please us", but this statement seems to me to be rather out-of-character. It seems unlikely that this concept would have occurred to men in 1915.


message 5: by Deborah, Moderator (new)

Deborah (deborahkliegl) | 4467 comments Mod
Sandy wrote: "I am also enjoying this book much more than Moving the Mountain. The story is quite captivating, and I find myself looking forward to returning to it to find out what happens next.

I find it note..."


At one point Terry also says that the women are not human, they are just female.


message 6: by Robin P, Moderator (new)

Robin P | 2115 comments Mod
I haven't been doing the other Gilman reads but recently someone told me how much this book influenced her when she was in college so I downloaded it. I think the frame story is kind of charming, the author writing from the point of view of "the fellows".

I think Terry is a great villain for the story, and I'm looking forward to him getting his comeuppance. I would say he represents plenty of men even today, just look at the commentator who told women they should be sure not to make men angry (referring to the football player who got a 2-game suspension for knocking his girlfriend unconscious, apparently this commentator saw it as her fault. )

It's interesting to see that 100 years ago the idea of taming nature was considered positive. The woman don't eat meat, not because of concern for animals, but because of space limitations.

There are several 18th century books where the hero either travels to foreign parts (Gulliver's Travels) or foreigners come to "civilized" countries (Zadig by Voltaire). This theme gives the author a way to criticize our societies. The same thing is going on here, as the guys have more and more trouble explaining and justifying their home traditions. Science fiction does that too - Someone could write this story today and set it on another planet, where reproduction works differently. That is the setting inA Door Into Ocean, a very powerful depiction of a female society.


message 7: by Emma (new)

Emma (emmalaybourn) | 298 comments Robin wrote: "Someone could write this story today and set it on another planet, where reproduction works differently..."

Yes, that hadn't occurred to me, but the scenario would work very well as an SF story. Perhaps I'm being too picky about the lack of individuality amongst the women characters, as the main point (as so often with SF) is really the unusual nature of the society they have set up.

And I agree with you all about Terry - he is exasperating, but immediately recognisable as a type of man that is still around. Old habits of thought die hard.


message 8: by Sandy (new)

Sandy  | 16 comments Not to discount the fact that the women were clones and probably very similar (if not identical), I have been thinking that perhaps the apparent lack of individuality in them could be because the story is told from the point of view of the narrator, who probably would have been unable to perceive the masses of women as individuals. To him, they were a unity, foreign to his experience, and he may have been unable to discern subtle differences among them which would be obvious in the women's interactions with each other.


message 9: by Deborah, Moderator (new)

Deborah (deborahkliegl) | 4467 comments Mod
Sandy wrote: "Not to discount the fact that the women were clones and probably very similar (if not identical), I have been thinking that perhaps the apparent lack of individuality in them could be because the s..."

Nice point Sandy. It's something I hadn't thought about.


message 10: by Sandy (last edited Aug 03, 2014 12:01PM) (new)

Sandy  | 16 comments Deborah wrote: "Sandy wrote: "Not to discount the fact that the women were clones and probably very similar (if not identical), I have been thinking that perhaps the apparent lack of individuality in them could be..."

I found it very interesting while listening today to chapter 7 that the narrator, after having spent several months in Herland, has in fact begun to discern the subtle differences among the women, at least physical differences "in a wide range of feature, colouring, and expression." He has managed to redeem himself in my estimation! :)

While Terry insists that the visible differences are proof of the involvement of men in the process of procreation, that parthenogenesis would produce identical offspring, the women attribute the slight differences to mutation and education. In addition to slight physical differences, it seems that there are also slight differences in personality among the women.

The women have actively sought to improve their race through instilling the "higher qualities" which were "latent in the original mother" through "careful education" (their self-proclaimed "highest art") and breeding out the "lowest types". The result is a distinction between maternity (child-bearing) and motherhood (child-rearing). So while every woman is deemed to have the right to bear a child, only those skilled in child-rearing have this responsibility. It seems to me, though, that the separation of these two roles would raise some prickly issues. A few questions come to mind. Would it be necessary for the women deemed unfit for child-rearing to have living quarters apart from the children in order to avoid influencing them? Would such segregation result in a de facto "inferior" class of women? How would that be justified in a society which purports to be egalitarian?

Just a few questions! :D


message 11: by Deborah, Moderator (new)

Deborah (deborahkliegl) | 4467 comments Mod
Also in that chapter it indicated that early on some women with less desirable traits wereadk not to bear children so is having a child in this society really a right?


message 12: by Helen_in_the_uk (new)

Helen_in_the_uk Tempted by the comments of several of you about this book being so much better than Moving the Mountain, I have read the first 6 chapters of Herland. I agree it has a much better format, although the last couple of chapters have become a bit more like a lecture in style again.

In their discussions about the differences in the way Herland and the outside world work, the women have been very clever in their questions. They have straight away seen the flaws in the outside systems and their world does seem to be more logically run. We haven't yet found out how these systems have been decided. Is Herland a democracy or a dictatorship?

One area in particular bothers me: "By motherhood they were born and by motherhood they lived - life was, to them, just the long cycle of motherhood." It seems in Herland that motherhood is EVERYTHING. At least in the society described in Moving the Mountain it was acknowledged that not all women wanted to be mothers and some that did were not the right sort of temperament to bring up children. Women had the right to have children if they wanted, but the right to have a full and happy life if they didn't. In Herland it seems that having children and providing for children is the ONLY purpose of everyone's lives. Quite a narrow view I thought.


message 13: by Sandy (new)

Sandy  | 16 comments Good point, Deborah. I missed that.

I agree, Helen. And I find chapter 7 even more like a lecture. A bit disappointing. The story was such an adventure when it was beginning!


message 14: by Deborah, Moderator (new)

Deborah (deborahkliegl) | 4467 comments Mod
Helen_in_the_uk wrote: "Tempted by the comments of several of you about this book being so much better than Moving the Mountain, I have read the first 6 chapters of Herland. I agree it has a much better format, although ..."

I think I missed something. My understanding of motherhood for this society was that it was more than simply giving birth. To me it seemed to mean they were the creators and responsible for the future of society, therefore everyone was a mother - even those that had not had children.

The children are viewed as their future and are invested in as such. Why our society doesn't see that is beyond my understanding. I guess I need to reread chapter 7.


message 15: by Sandy (last edited Aug 04, 2014 01:56PM) (new)

Sandy  | 16 comments Deborah wrote: "My understanding of motherhood for this society was that it was more than simply giving birth. To me it seemed to mean they were the creators and responsible for the future of society, therefore everyone was a mother - even those that had not had children."

Having re-read chapters 6 and 7, I think that you have stated it "in a nutshell", Deborah. I certainly didn't "get it" the first time around. There are several sections in these two chapters which deal with the topic of motherhood. Independent of each other, they seem to me to be a bit ambiguous, but when I pull all the various comments together, I draw the same conclusion.

The narrator very clearly states that motherhood in Herland seems to be more than "mere instinct" but a religion, indeed a sacrament. While the term sacrament in modern usage is normally associated with Christian rituals, which obviously is not relevant to Herland, the Encyclopedia Brittanica defines sacrament, in its broadest sense, as "a sign or symbol conveying something hidden, mysterious, and efficacious", the interpretation of everyday events in relation to divine or sacred powers (I paraphrase). In spite of the socialist principles on which the society is based, I think it is safe to say that the original Mother of Herland has taken on divine status, and henceforth motherhood (whether child-bearing and/or child-rearing) is viewed as a sacramental act, a participation in the on-going co-creation of their society.

I do find it curious, though, that the women of Herland seem willing to accept the division of motherhood into child-bearing and child-rearing functions which can be mutually exclusive, depending upon one's personality and skills. Would the forfeiture of child-rearing responsibilities really be so "cut-and-dried"? Is it not likely that at least some of the biological mothers would object to entrusting their daughters to the care of other women? But of course, Perkins is describing a utopian society based on socialist principles, so communal responsibility for all of the children would be a given. Objection would not be tolerated.


message 16: by Deborah, Moderator (new)

Deborah (deborahkliegl) | 4467 comments Mod
Sandy wrote: "Deborah wrote: "My understanding of motherhood for this society was that it was more than simply giving birth. To me it seemed to mean they were the creators and responsible for the future of socie..."

Sandy, I agree objection wouldn't be tolerated especially when faced with the original limitations of access and procreation which would have led to extinction. The objectors would have been some of those they weeded out.


message 17: by Emma (new)

Emma (emmalaybourn) | 298 comments Sandy wrote: "Would the forfeiture of child-rearing responsibilities really be so "cut-and-dried"? Is it not likely that at least some of the biological mothers would object to entrusting their daughters to the care of other women?..."

I suppose that acceptance of this would be made easier by the fact that all the woman are related: many societies share child care amongst the extended family, and the whole country of Herland could be regarded as a huge extended family.

Presumably this would probably also make objectors less likely, since the entire population are variations on one genetic model and might tend to think alike.

I wonder if this homogeneous society is something that the author got stuck with because parthenogenesis was the only way she could think of to devise an all-female society: or whether she actually thought such a closely related population was desirable - for instance, because it might make cooperation easier and reduce conflict?


message 18: by Sandy (new)

Sandy  | 16 comments Emma wrote: "I suppose that acceptance of this would be made easier by the fact that all the woman are related: many societies share child care amongst the extended family, and the whole country of Herland could be regarded as a huge extended family.

Presumably this would probably also make objectors less likely, since the entire population are variations on one genetic model and might tend to think alike."


Good point, Emma. I hadn't thought of it that way.


message 19: by Renee (new)

Renee M | 747 comments I have finally been able to "catch up" and read Herland. And, then, of course, all you interesting and thought-provoking comments. I wish I could have been part if the conversation, but am glad to be able to, at least, read your thoughts now.


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