Herland, Book Review Example

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Book Review

In this paper I will address several specific questions about this utopian-gothic story, first published in 1915, by the feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The questions necessarily are based on the assumption that the story has historical relevance and interest, and so is worthwhile asking questions about. It my opinion, Herland no longer has relevance except as a  historical literary document. It is no longer literature in and of itself, if it ever really was. Its readership was initially limited to Gilman’s own self-published magazine, called The Forerunner, and wasn’t published in book form until over sixty years later (Van Wienen 195).

Since this is a book in which the differences in men and women and their separation is the defining theme, it is natural to ask whether there had to be a conventional love story in the plot. I think we can assume that there had to be one because the readers were expecting a story, and a story demands some kind of plot or psychological motivation. In a setting like that in Herland, love and sex are definitely going to be standard elements, and so they turn out to be. Probably for most readers the romantic angle did not undercut the story’s utopian setting and vision. Instead, it gave the story the only reality it could have. But at the same time, it weakens the story’s structure of plausibility because the romance between the three men and their girlfriends is an example of what I’ll call impossible isolation. How could it be that only one woman wanted to see the wider world enough to actually do so when given the chance? In reality, if one wanted to, it’s a certainty that many of the others would have wanted to as well. Indeed it is unlikely the younger women could have been so easily kept from the men sexually and socially in the way they were. The trio’s presence would have been radically destabilizing.

The question of the Herland people’s clothing also dates the story. The men are given versions of what were then called union suits (because they were all in one piece). Terms like tunics and kneebreeches are used to describe them. But the three men like them, both on themselves and the women. They see that such outfits, worn by enough people, are revealed as superior to the confining and ostentatious clothing of their own world, and they are surprised by the discovery, one of their first of many surprises to come. But the implied lesson is that Herland is a place without fashion, and so is a place without sexual attraction between its denizens, and a place without a fluid social structure, both of which are what fashion is for and about.

There are some gothic tropes in this story, but they are the reverse of what is expected. Instead of women in peril, the men think they are in peril. Instead of a tyrannical male threatening a woman, there are ruling women controlling the men. There is a sort of castle-keep atmosphere in that the men are held prisoner behind a barrier of dark rocks and walls, but the atmosphere is not dark and threatening. Quite the contrary, throughout the story a light element of humor is present, as when the women can’t stop being amused by the antics and words of their three male captives. But the story is totally lacking in horror for the reader, although there is plenty of horror for the women when they learn of certain aspects of life in the outer world, again turning a standard gothic theme inside out. The only conventional gothic element is the mysterious location of Herland. It is never specified except being vaguely Amazonian.

Herland was a part of the feminist-socialist-reformist movement that swept through America in the decades leading up to the First World War, an event that helped put an end to utopian fantasies in America and Europe. Thereafter, attempts at utopias would be all too real.

References 

Van Wienen, Mark. American Socialist Triptych. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 2011. 195.

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