Monday, October 31, 2011

Herland (1915)

     Maybe I just don't have much of an appetite for the utopian novel (or novella).  The idea that all of the tension and dramatic action comes from a critique of the inequalities and injustices of modern – at the time of the writing, at least – society doesn't seem to one I want to see as central to the telling of the tale.  The dystopian tale seems to be a much bigger staple of the Science Fiction genre, and it would appear that it is one that works to greater effect.  Then again, this may just be a function of familiarity.  Titles like Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Brave New World (1932), and 1984 (1949) are not just staple of the American educational system but almost required reading for any Sci-Fi/gamer geek.  Factor in movies like Blade Runner (1982), Brazil (1985), Children of Men (2006), Equilibrium (2002), Logan's Run (1976), The Running Man (1987), Screamers (1995), Soylent Green (1973), They Live (1988), Robocop (1987), The Road Warrior (1981), and Escape from New York (1981), and it is unlikely that one can contemplate a world without many possible dystopian fuutres.  The same emphasis is not placed on utopian stories.  Aside from Plato's Republic (~380 BCE) – and maybe St. Augustine's City of God (413-426) for the religiously minded – there isn't a great tradition of teaching the utopian tales.
     Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) operates as both an imagining of a utopian society (for a little more than half of the world, at least) and a scathing critique on the state of the world.  The odd pacing of the tale – a memoir recounted by one of the three men, the most moderate and least judgmental of women in general – leaves Herland without much of a sense of urgency or tension.  There is a fair amount of building up of the three male characters (Vandyk Jennings, Jeff Margrave, and Terry O. Nicholson) and their place in the real, male-dominated world.  This section of the novel reads like a lighter, less detailed take on the typical adventure tale of the era.  The point, and one certainly not lost on the women of the time (or any readers now) is that the most masculine, domineering character is antithetical to the development of women or their role in society.  The other male characters are somewhat helpless against him while trapped in the confines of their own culture.
     One of the fundamental problems with Herland is Gilman's misunderstanding of human nature and psychology.  Because she posits that it is fundamental to the nature of women to be concerned with the welfare and well-being of children above all else – including a sense of self – Gilman crafts a society of women that has no purpose other than service to the nation and future generations.  There is no sense of individuality as we (members of a contemporary Western culture) would understand it.  There is absolutely no concept of sexual identity; their is knowledge of sexual acts (through observation of animals and an understanding of the before-time, when there were men in Herland), but as these are not needing to produce children, they are deemed unnecessary and not pursued.  I'll leave it to women to decide if sexuality is something that can be cast aside given the ability to simply wish children into existence.  My limited education on human nature (both in the fields of philosophy and psychology) would indicate otherwise – certainly Aristophanes has argued otherwise.
     Still, even with its decidedly anti-male (there was no way to be anti-establishment without being anti-male) tone, Herland is a rather fun and engaging read.  Because Gilman is so concerned with establishing the qualities she deemed to be inherently feminine are superior to the ones favored by men (and perhaps correctly lists the best qualities as neither masculine nor feminine, but human), she doesn't provide a society that is accessible to the male reader.  There are some conceits that truly help her vision – everyone in Herland is part of the same extended family, all are given equal opportunity in terms of education and vocation, and the general clannishness has worked so well that there are no real criminals (so no need for a punitive government or God).
     Herland is forced into ecological conservation by geography and population.  There are no other societies to encounter, people to conquer, or land to seize.  Part of this is a necessity for the all female society to develop and endure.  What it leaves unanswered is whether it is the nature of the women (and their dedication to life) or the isolation that led to the enlightened and utopian state.  I don't think Gilman wanted an easy answer to that question.  She allows for the fact (as she saw it) that even though men and women love differently – men love in a selfish and demanding way in Gilman's eyes (again, I'll leave it to others to judge whether this is true) – they can and do find ways to meaningful share their lives and compliment each other.  Gilman makes it as unbalanced in favor of the women as she saw it for the men in the real world, but did not view it as an inequality because of how women were not hurtful with their love.
     There is much to admire about how education and physical activity are stressed in Herland.  Sure, Gilman believes that women could be every bit as strong as men (not on the individual basis, but across the board, which is just a total misunderstanding of physiology), but her women only use force as a restraint, a means of keeping the foolish from injuring themselves and/or others.  That the denial of most rights to the men trapped in Herland is not seen as any sort of violation by Gilman gives away how much she mistrusts male authority and prerogatives.  As a man reading her nearly a century after she wrote it, I am not especially sympathetic to her desire to put men in their place.  Furthermore, her utopian society seems oddly limiting.  It is unclear who is making the decisions on one's fitness for birthing children, raising children, or the field of vocation one undertakes, but there is a controlling body.
     As for some specific points from the book that struck me:
•     When a man has nothing to give a woman, is dependent wholly on his personal attraction, his courtship is under limitations. (Chapter VIII – The Girls of Herland) 
     I think Gilman is addressing both the inequity amongst men, how those with means could easily position themselves better to woo a mate, as well as how women were indoctrinated to accede to men of such men as a manner to ensure a better chance for her children to grow up.  The idea of a woman choosing a man (and that is always the case, at least in my experience) based upon who he is and not what he can provide would be considered foolish; Gilman makes this point exactly in her short story "If I Were a Man".  In the case of Herland, Gilman is noting how the ladies man has no success among women who measure men (people, really) solely on merit, for all he has to offer are the shiny baubles he thinks women are wont to have.
•     They loved one another with a practically universal affection, rising to exquisite and unbroken friendships, and broadening to a devotion to their country and people for which our word "patriotism" is no definition at all.
       Patriotism, red hot, is compatible with the existence of a neglect of national interests, a dishonesty, a cold indifference to the suffering of millions.  Patriotism is largely pride, and very largely combativeness.  Patriotism generally has a chip on its shoulder. (Chapter VIII – The Girls of Herland)
     Gilman gives a very nice critique of nationalism, and how patriotism is often pledged in an 'us against them' manner.  She does see a sense of filial bond as a feminine quality and conquest (and self-aggrandizement) as male.  But what I like about this is how it strips down the conceit of patriotism as only applying to interests one chooses to choose as his own, ignoring the plight of his fellow citizens as though they were somehow unfit for the benefits of the society and nation which he calls his own.
•     They loved their country because it was their nursery, playground, and workshop—theirs and their children's. ...That, of course, is the keynote of the whole distinction—their children.
     Maybe their is something to the male ego that screams out for possession and domination of the land.  It is certainly true that fathers do tend to be less concerned about the lives and futures of their children then the respective mothers are (this varies with each person, but men do tend to be much less sacrificing then women when it comes to children).  The larger point being made is that Western culture tends to focus more on the present than what is being done to ensure the best situation for future generations, and it is a point that never (to date) stops being true.
•     " 'Why, you blessed child,' she said, 'you've got the wrong idea altogether.  You do not have to think that there ever was such a God—for there wasn't.  Or such a happening—for there wasn't.  Not even that this hideous false idea was believed by anybody.  But only this—that people who are utterly ignorant will believe anything—which you certainly knew before.' " (Chapter X – Their Religions and Our Marriages)
    Well, it is more than clear how Gilman felt about Christianity (and religion in general).  Here she is making the case against following the strictures of ancestors and believing in a God who exists to levy punishment and judgment against His children.  The women of Herland had no need for retribution or vengeance, and thus the concept of a deity who claims those as prime attributes is reprehensible.  I think that is a pretty good place to start in the examination of a divine being, though.  Does He/She/It have a need to judge and punish others, or can the Divine instead serve to give guidance and inspiration alone?  I don't have an answer to that, but I must imagine that such a criticism being directed at religion was just as outrageous as suggesting that all of the great accomplishments wrought by men  and competition may have simply been seen much earlier (and without individual fanfare) were societies such that they were concerned with working in concert for the general well-being of the citizenry.

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