Monday, 21 September 2015

Review: Herland

Herland Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first thing to understand about Herland is that it's what's sometimes called a "milieu story". In other words, exploration of the setting takes priority over plot or characterisation. This isn't to say that there is no plot and no characterisation, or that they're badly done, just that the plot is basic and stretched over a lot of material, and the characterisation is also basic and doesn't involve a lot of character development. This is normal for a utopian novel, and as utopian novels go, this one has more plot and characterisation than most.

With that caveat out of the way, this is not only a classic feminist utopia, but a competently written one. It's told almost as if it's a pulp adventure of the "lost world" type, by a male narrator. The narrator is one of three men who find an all-woman society on an isolated plateau which is implied to be somewhere near the headwaters of the Amazon (partly, I'm sure, for symbolic reasons, the Amazons being a classical, legendary all-female society). At least two of the three are types, and risk being straw men, but in my opinion are accurate and recognisable enough types to escape that pitfall.

Terry is a "man's man," the classic two-fisted pulp adventurer, who recognises two types of women: attractive and to be used for his sexual satisfaction, and unattractive and therefore to be ignored. When he meets with the independent, intelligent women of Herland, who have no time for his crap, he reacts with anger, and ultimately violence.

Jeff is the kind of man who puts women on a pedestal. He fits happily into Herland, and adapts himself to it.

Van, the narrator, claims to be somewhere between the two, though he's a lot closer to Jeff. His main fault is that, like the other men, he can't bring himself to be completely honest about the defects of their society in the face of the well-ordered society of Herland, which the women have been consciously improving for a thousand years.

The women are not arrogant about their society, but are open to learn, and even to re-adopt "bisexual reproduction" (by a miracle which they attribute to their Mother Goddess, they give birth by parthenogenesis, all of their men having been killed in a series of unfortunate events many centuries before). It's pretty clear, though, that they have a lot less to learn from the rest of the world's cultures than vice versa.

This kind of book easily becomes preachy and filled with infodumps. In my view, the author manages to avoid both of these traps (perhaps narrowly on occasion); exposition is mostly in dialogue, and the superiority of the women's society emerges as a reluctant conclusion reached by the narrator, rather than in speeches from the women themselves.

There are some excellent observations about society, culture, the nature of humanity, and, of course, gender scattered throughout, and I recommend it for anyone who doesn't automatically run from the words "feminist utopia".

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