Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

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Herland by Bethany Tanguay 

 

Charlotte Parkins Gilman was a woman ahead of her times. She lived in a time in which women were only beginning to come out of the Victorian era and become more a part of the public sphere. She was a prominent woman writer that stood by the fact that women were not seen as active players in the game of life. Indeed, she refused to accept the difference patriarchy made between men and women. Women were stuck at home taking care of the domestic sphere while men were out in the public sphere making important political decisions that would affect the entire country.  Gilman was brought up in a suffragette environment which caused her to become, later in life, a very active member in the community, supporting women’s right to vote in the early 1900s. She was also a famous writer of her day; her popularity  was increased due to the fact that she was both a woman and unconventional. Besides the fact that she made her living from her writing, she was also famous because she divorced her first husband and was not present for a large portion of her daughter’s life.

All of these factors had significant influence on the works she produced in her lifetime, and one of her most famous novellas directly addresses the gender difference that patriarchy upheld. Herland is a utopian story first published in 1915 in the magazine The Forerunner, in which Gilman published monthly. The story is one of three men interested in the progression of science who, during an expedition, stumble upon a local legend of a society of women living high in the mountains. The three friends, Vandyck Jennings,  Jeff Margrave and Terry Nicholson, vow to return with more funding to make an actual expedition into the country of women which they will do later on. The story follows their intellectual development when faced with something they are neither used to nor expecting.

They do not quite know what to expect when they first fly over the valley in the mountains, and are expecting either hostility or acclamation. Terry in particular relishes the idea of being welcomed as heros by women who have wanted and needed men for a long time.  However, the women react in a way that none of them had foreseen. In a country where there are no signs of men anywhere, the three friends are taken “hostage” in a relaxing atmosphere, constantly surrounded by good food, nice clothes, kind mentors, and interesting new possibilities. The men are made to learn the language and once they do they are able to communicate freely with the women who inhabit Herland.

The story is meant to be insulting to patriarchy which made women the rulers of the private sphere while the men were out in public receiving all the attention.  The friends in the story expect to find women that are helpless, weak, jealous and extremely moody; yet what they actually discover is a society that has functioned beautifully without men for two thousand years. The women are cooperative, loving, respectful and extremely intelligent. They have an entire system that focuses on the greater good for all, and consequently that is how they make their decisions. Once they can communicate with the men, they are eager to learn everything about the three men’s culture, assuming it is more advanced and sophisticated than their own. However, as the reader advances in the story, he or she gradually  sees that two of the friends no longer want to compare their society filled with disease, poverty, sadness and uninteresting women to the country of Herland.

The women in Herland are more sophisticated, more intelligent and stronger than any of the men would have believed. Terry, however, cannot comprehend that men are considered women’s equals in Herland, and consequently brings about the end of the story as he gets himself exiled by attempting to rape a woman he thought he owned. He represents patriarchy and indeed probably the majority of the male population at the time when Gilman wrote the story. In a place where women are considered equal to men, Terry is unable to accept that he is no longer the dominant conqueror that is acclaimed as a hero. He constantly places the blame on the women of the place that he cannot comprehend and makes no effort to accept. He refuses to see the women as his equals, and refuses to accept that without men the inhabitants of Herland were quite capable to live and flourish. Even when presented with proof of the women’s strength of character, he says, “There never was a woman yet that did not enjoy being mastered. All your pretty talk doesn't amount to a hill o'beans -- I know,” (Herland, 131) He refuses to be proven wrong and in this patriarchy is particularly prominent. Women had no place in the society of men, and Terry is a perfect personification of the system that put that belief into place.

Jeff on the other hand is an idolizer of women. This attitude also annoys the ladies in Herland as they cannot see why they would deserve to be idealized while men are not. They truly consider themselves as equals to men, which is something the three friends have to come to terms with.  At one point in the story the three men are asked to hold conferences for the women who do not know them in the valley, and then they make themselves available for individual questions. Vandyck, the narrator of the story, ends up with the largest crowd; Jeff has the second largest while Terry has only a few women around him to ask questions. The women are frequently uncomfortable around Jeff, as they cannot comprehend his attitude. Jeff represents the part of patriarchy that idolizes women as muses. While Jeff is in no way disrespectful to the women, they still feel like he is in some way making them inferior. However, it must be said that the women are very patient with the three men and they enjoy their presence immensely all in all, even if there are a few character flaws they find a tad annoying. 

The story finishes with Terry’s expulsion for the attempted rape, and Vandyck decides to accompany him to make sure Terry makes it back safely. Vandyck brings back with him a woman named Ellador that he fell madly in love with and married. Once the three leave the island the story ends, and the reader does not know what happens after that. All we know is that Vandyck writes his experiences in Herland (thus the book) after he makes it back to America. We never find out what happens to Ellador, but we do know that the inhabitants of Herland would only accept that Vandyck and Terry reveal the location of the island if Ellador comes back home and delivers a positive report.  Gilman wanted the reader to realize that, as we never found out where the valley was, our society truly was inferior to what the women had built for themselves in Herland.

 

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Works Cited

Gilman, P. C. (1915) Herland. Full text retrieved from http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/GilHerl.html, last consulted November 22nd.

Additional information on Charlotte Perkins Gilman:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Perkins_Gilman, last consulted November 22nd.

Additional information on patriarchy taken from:

Course notes from R. Rimstead’s course Women Writers.

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©Martine Pelletier