Herland: A very fine feminist utopian novel with some real fantasy elements

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsHerland by Charlotte Perkins GilmanHerland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s Herland is a lost-world fantasy in the Haggardian tradition with a decided twist: It functions primarily as a discourse on the supposed but not necessarily actual differences between the two sexes, and as a feminist screed in the utopian genre. Written in 1915, the novel was initially serialized in the pages of Gilman’s own monthly magazine, The Forerunner, a publication whose main agenda was to further Gilman’s ideas of feminism and socialism.

We are introduced to three very different types of men at the beginning of this story: Terry, a chauvinist kind of man’s man with decidedly old-fashioned ideas concerning “women’s place”; Jeff, a Galahad type of dreamy idealist, who’s fond of putting women on top of proverbial pedestals; and our narrator, Vandyck, a level-headed sociologist. The three discover a land of some 12,000 square miles on a plateau in some unnamed part of the world … a plateau that is inhabited by nothing but — you guessed it — females. The 3 million females in what Vandyck refers to as Herland have, for the last 2,000 years, been cut off from civilization and have been reproducing parthenogenetically; virgin births that come when the women turn 25 or so, and that always result in baby girls. These miracle births are perhaps the most fantasy-oriented aspect of Gilman’s tale; an aspect that might have helped secure its pride of place in Cawthorn and Moorcock‘s excellent overview volume Fantasy: The 100 Best Books.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOur three men, after spending many months of learning the language of Herland (an education not easily accomplished, unlike in many other lost-world adventures where explorers, less realistically, seem to pick up a new tongue in a matter of days) and getting acclimatized, are given a tour of the land, and Gilman shows us how well the women work together, how they have raised childbearing and motherhood to a religion of sorts, and how far advanced their methods of agriculture and education have become. It is a true utopia, with all its inhabitants happy and healthy and well cared for. The men perceive this land in conformity with their various temperaments; not too surprisingly, Terry has the roughest time here. But even he is forced to admit that Herland’s accomplishments have outstripped ours in many regards, after initially thinking that no “civilization” could possibly exist without men.

Simply written by its author, with many touches of humor and (at a mere 146 pages) short enough to never wear out its welcome, despite the occasional didactic tone, Herland is a winning read indeed. Even in these more enlightened and more PC times, when American women have the right to vote, can hold any job a man can (even president, perhaps?), and earn almost 75% of what a man earns (OK, guess we still have a way to go!), this book serves as a good reminder that sexism is such an easy trap to fall into. I would like to especially recommend this particular Pantheon edition of Herland because of the wonderful 20-page introduction to the book written by Ann J. Lane, who discusses not only Gilman’s life, but the history of the utopian novel in general, and Herland‘s position therein. Modern-day readers might find this intro very helpful.

And speaking of the modern-day reader, if there was one problem this reader had with Gilman’s novel, it was one dealing with the question of sex. Is it reasonable to expect 3 million women trapped on a plateau NOT to resort to lesbianism after so many centuries? The gals seem completely chaste in Herland, and even after Terry, Jeff and Van take three of the Herland women as wives, their brides still insist that sex is only for procreation purposes (which brings to mind the old saying “There goes paradise!”). But here’s what I had a real problem with: Van, amazingly enough, is just fine with this, claiming that he’d rather have a virtually sexless marriage with his wonderful Herland bride than be married to a fully active partner back home! Forget about those virgin births … THIS is the biggest fantasy aspect of Herland!


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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5 comments

  1. Thanks for reminding me that I need to re-read this, Sandy! It’s one of my favorite classic works of SF. I’ve always wondered if Herland was an inspiration for James Tiptree, Jr.’s novella “Houston, Houston do You Read?” — do you think that could have been the case?

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    Dunno, Jana, as I’ve never read that novella. You tell me….

  3. Sandy Ferber /

    No apologies necessary, Jana. There are myriads of gaps in my fantasy/sci-fi reading, each of them miles long, and this is one of them. So DO tell me…was this novella seemingly influenced by the Gilman novel? I’ve heard the title, but again, have never read it…or anything else by this author….

    • Happily! “Houston, Houston Do You Read?” is strikingly similar, now that I think about it. Three male astronauts are somehow flung forward in time/space and are discovered by a spaceship which has an all-female crew. The women inform the men that Earth is now entirely populated by women who belong to specific social groups with specific roles, such as farming or scientific endeavors. Not much technological advancement, but a peaceful and harmonious society. The men…well, let’s say they do not behave admirably. It’s got a much darker conclusion than Herland, but Tiptree wasn’t a fan of happy endings.

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