Classics Club: Herland

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)

Herland is a thought experiment: what if there were a society on earth composed entirely of women? How would it develop? What would it achieve? And what would happen if and when it encountered the world of men again?

This is the premise put forth by Gilman, a prominent sociologist of her time, with three male explorers in an unidentified savage wilderness coming upon such a land of women, which thousands of years ago was cut off from the outside world. Similarly to the Houyhnhnm section from Gulliver’s Travels, in which a society of horses is found to be infinitely superior to that of human beings, Herland is portrayed as a paradise of peace, plenty, and wisdom. The three men, who represent three different attitudes toward this feminine utopia — complete acceptance, complete rejection, and, in our narrator, something between the two — are captured by and slowly integrated into this new world.

Plausibility is not the point here. The first problem of an all-female society — how to reproduce — is cavalierly solved by the convenient miracle of parthenogenesis. The development of electric cars, printed books, and other technology in such a limited, confined area strains credulity. And one would expect that even without men, there would be at least some jealousy, backbiting, and other unpleasant emotions, rather than the perfect harmony that reigns in Herland.

But again, that’s not the point. The point is to imagine that the traditional image of women — that they are unintelligent and weak, only fit to serve men — is false, and that feminine intelligence and strength are only being held back by a regressive, oppressive masculinity. By now, this is hardly a new idea, and while it’s interesting to see it played out in fictional, dramatic form, it’s lacking in subtlety. The women of Herland are not rounded enough as characters for a satisfying work of fiction, but this also weakens the novel as a polemical tool. They’re more like clones than real people — they did all come from a single common ancestor — with a hive-mind mentality that makes the perfect society a little too perfect, and that fails to recognize the real consequences of a one-sided development. The feminine principle has negative aspects as well as positive ones, and if we ignore the former we cannot truly comprehend it, nor its place in our full, two-sided humanity.

The disturbing side of Herland is only challenged by the “bad boy” of the trio of explorers, and while one can hardly condone his obsession with subduing and mastering the women, by making him so unpalatable Gilman disguises some legitimate objections. A society that leaves no room for imperfection, change, or creative conflict will lead to stasis and ultimately death. The women want to re-introduce men into their land, but it’s not clear why or how, since they still want to keep everything else exactly the same. While the portrayal of women as brave, strong, and inventive is stirring, there’s no sense of what therefore men can contribute to Herland — other than serving as stud in order to widen the gene pool. And that’s a rather oppressive thought right there.

Herland ends abruptly with the narrator and his bride leaving for the outside world. I hadn’t realized that there was a continuation, With Her in Outland, and that might bring some more balance and nuance to this initially one-sided presentation, so I’d like to seek it out. Even with its shortcomings, I did find that Herland raised some fascinating and important questions, which in our time are more important than ever to wrestle with. We all need to use our imaginations to try to create a better world, and such exercises can help us to find our way forward, even if they can’t provide a blueprint that works in reality.

Classics Club List #77