14 April 2011

Book Review: Herland

Title: Herland
Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilmna
Publisher/Year: Project Gutenberg / 1915
Date Finished: 8 April 2011
Source/Format: Proj Guten / ebook

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

Challenges:Year of Feminist Classic,

The Short and Sweet of It
Three men come upon an entire civilization cut off from the rest of the world: Herland. Thousands of years ago the men of this civilization died off, leaving only women. As a testament to human adaptability, these women spontaneously become able to perpetuate the species without the aid of men, and so began a culture of mothers, a civilization of women.

A Bit of a Ramble
First, I must get this off my chest: HOLY CRAP WAS THAT REALLY THE END? Okay, I feel a little bit better now. Now don't worry, no spoilers here. I just want to warn anyone going in to this book that if you like fully developed endings, this isn't the book for you. Jason of Moored at Sea let me know there's a sequel, but he also suggested the sequel is a bit frustrating thematically, so I am not sure I am going to read it.

Now back to reviewing the book. My overall opinion may seem condescending or trite, but I assure you it is not meant as such. To get to the point, I found the book cute. The story was cute, the narrator was cute, the characters were cute. Yep, that mixed-meaning, often used, rather vague term is what comes to mind. While the issues being presented are relevant, complex, and deep, most of that is due to the brain of the reader, not the writing of the author. The story itself felt relatively superficial. When I think about it, this is an interesting combination - superficial writing with thought-provoking issues. This superficiality combined with the rather charming and overly perfect characters equates to an opinion of "cute".

The utopian society Gilman created is too perfect. Apparently a world of women knows no strife, is dedicated to improvement, obsessed with motherhood, and in general an intelligent, progressive, polite, subtle, critical thinking, open-minded civilization. This sort of perfection bothers me as it suggests a superiority of females over males which makes as much sense as vice versa. I must admit, however, that this idealization of the feminine did not frustrate me as much as I would expect. While a bit nagging, it still offered a platform for an interesting discussion of the role gender expectations play.

I read this for the Year of Feminist Classics, and there's still time if you want to get in on the action.

This Book Around the Web
If I've missed your review, let me know!

Care's Online Book Club, Rebecca Reads, Caribous Mom,


  1. I read this back in college after reading The Yellow Wallpaper (which is freakin' brilliant!!)

    I wanted SO MUCH MORE. *sigh* Herland disappointed me in such a way that I still am reminiscent of that empty feeling after closing the book. (Although at this point, over ten years later, it's much more of an aurora of the book as the details escape me).

    I just couldn't give it a chance again.

  2. I have had this one my shelf for many years, and I can't even remember when or why I picked it up. Your review has made me very curios though, and as it is a short book, I will have to see if I can fit it in between some heavier reads.

  3. I know this one is flawed, but I still want to read it solely for the historical significance!

  4. I'm going to disagree with Amanda about Herland being flawed. I think it does just what its author wants it to do.

    But I will agree with you about the book being 'cute.' I loved the superior cats. And I agree about the utopia being 'too perfect' as well.

    I just think that is the case the author is making. She has no interest in looking at what might go awry if women ruled the world. That's not the case she is making.

    If you can ever get your hands on it, there is a wonderful book called The Strike of a Sex that is similar in nature. A male traveler comes upon a strange town of only men. He discovers that the women of the town are on strike. They have removed themselves completely until their demands for equality are met. It came out around the same time as Herland. There were quite a few books like that then.

  5. I'm currently reading The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley- a retelling of the Trojan War from a feminist perspective- and I am having a similar reaction. I feel like the women are really... extreme. It is hard to believe that the book is at all historically accurate, though in general, I think MZB did her research well as an author.

  6. Cute is the last thing I would expect from the author of The Yellow Wallpaper.

  7. I think a lot of books like this one -- more about issues than story -- can come off being sort of cute. I can't think of an example right now, but I know what you mean!

  8. I think it helped me to turn the issue sideways - instead of saying that the whole problem with society was that there was men in it, I read the book as saying, instead, that the whole problem with society is that there was two genders in it, and that those genders had counterproductive power struggles - something that exists anytime that you make socially significant a non-negotiable attribute. To draw a parallel, one can imagine a black slave in 1850 telling stories (though probably he would not have been able to write) about an idyllic alter-south, where there were no white people, and so the black people could do the work in harmony, because suddenly, difference, and with it, inequity, was gone. Of course, such a book might have memoments where the author, angry and probably somewhat blinded by the hideousness of his/her society, might say some bitter, or at least unfair things about white people, that they are naturally domineering and lazy and unfeeling. to him/her it might feel that way. But at heart, what he/she is WRITING about is a world where difference and discrimination dissappear. The said thing about this to me is that the underlying message - and it's not an entirely wrong one - is that discrimination is somewhat intrinsic to difference: that there must be inequity between man and woman because they are two different things, and we as a species need to place different things in hierarchies, so that we can understand them. You see this, again, with race - an anglo saxon New Yorker at the turn of the century may have simply seen all other races in the city is just trash, but within those races there existed a complex hierarchy, where the Irish were better than the Germans, who were better than the Italians, who were better than the Greeks, who were better than the Chinese, who were better than the Blacks. I think this is why the first reaction to get rid of bias is to teach that difference is irrelevant - this is why all those immigrant mothers taught their children to forget their home culture, and homogenize, because one could then simply say that their history was irrelevant -t hey were the 'same' as others. I don't know if it works the same with Gender - I do know that the fact that there ARE two genders, and that they have soem differences seems to naturally cause cultures to try to define one as better than the other. How do oyu fix that? I think that's what, at least subconsciously, perkins was really dealing with - particularly for her, homogenization seemed to be an unhealthily strong solution track: hence her attraction to Eugenics, which is after all just another form of homogenization.

  9. I don't know if I want to read a book that you're describing as being "cute". Your description of Herland reminds me of Y: The Last Man. It's a graphic novel series. It has similar themes as Herland. Have you read it?

  10. Christina - I don't know if I'm disappointed or not; it's just a really strange feeling.

    Heather - It's definitely a quick read, and I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it for sure. Maybe you can help me make sense of my thoughts. :)

    Amanda - That's definitely as good a reason as any to read something. And it's not like it's a horrible story or anything.

    James - I will definitely check out The Strike. And I think you're right that Gilman just was trying to make a specific point and so didn't concern herself too much with all the complexity and depth of gender issues as a big topic.

    Aarti - That sounds like a really interesting book. I think sometimes I want a book to do too much. James made me think that with his comment. Maybe the author's are doing exactly what they mean to - focusing on an exaggeration to make one particular point instead of exploring the whole world of issues...

    Jill - Right!?!? I'm still astonished that the same woman wrote the two stories.

    Kim - I do know what you mean; perhaps it's a pitfall of trying to illustrate one primary point.

    Jason - I think you make a great point about the role homogenization plays in the novel (and in real life). I think some of my dissatisfaction comes about because I am so used to books which deal with GENDER ISSUES instead of ones which are trying to make a narrow claim. Gilman's book is not a story about GENDER ISSUES at its core. It's more a story about gender, a stepping off point rather than a complete treatise on the big issue.

    Vasilly - The term "cute" as I mean it here is not quite so negative or demeaning as its typical usage. I do think Herland warrants reading. And I have not read Y; although for some reason the name seems familiar. Should I read it?

  11. Sounds like this book provides much food for thought. I've had a copy on my shelf for years, but I've never read it. I'm a bit hesitant because of what you say about the ending, but I think I'm curious enough to give it a try at some point.

  12. I agree that the writing and story itself was superficial, but it raised some thought-provoking issues nonetheless. I didn't really like Herland that much myself, the idealisation of the women and their Herland annoyed me and I disagreed with some of what Gilman saw as utopian attributes e.g. the eradication of struggle from life.

  13. I see you linked to my post so I don't have repeat myself. I felt similar but I do like this story. I think it's impressive for when it was written -- and knowing a little bit about Gilman's own awful marriage experiences, I can see why her utopia was like it was. I'm with you though on the superiority of the women bugged me in it too.

  14. Great post and insightful comments. Thank you.


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