I don’t mean to overtly, unabashedly slander the work of Gilman, though my thoughts may occasionally reflect that sentimentality. The pessimism, negativity, and somewhat passively caustic insults that Gilman tries to pass as logical arguments against American society have, I guess you could say, rubbed me a bit the wrong way. In subtle, perhaps even accidental retort, I may come off as ignorant, and unjustified in my attempt to discuss what we can learn from Herland. But let me clarify. Please.
It isn’t that I resent the idea of positing a female utopia to exploit and divulge the faults of our male-dominated society. Indeed, much can and should be learned about where we have gone wrong and a fictive “Herland” is an appropriate avenue to pursue such a persuasive argument. I think what bothers me is in part the seemingly automatic acquiescence of the narrator (a man) to their ways of thinking. Gilman organizes the story such that repeatedly ideological comparisons are made between the two societies (often through exchanges between Van and Ellandor or his tutors); the women present a “better” ideal; and the men concede that they were wrong and the women are right. Of course, Gilman uses Terry to provide the counterargument, but Van or Jeff are always there to offer a submissive rebuttal that the reader is expected to accept. This wouldn’t be entirely problematic if there appeared to be an equal exchange of acceptance and rejection between the men and the women. But as the book continues, it becomes clear that Gilman views about 98% of American society as problematic—the way we control population, the clothes we wear, the emotions we express, our educational system, even the trees we “allow” to grow—and somewhat humorously is narcissistic enough to reduce the root of the problem to men. Gilman says (through her narrator Van):
As I learned more and more to appreciate what the women had accomplished, the
less proud I was of what we, with all our manhood, had done. You see, they had
had no wars. They had no kings, and no priests, and no aristocracies. They were
sisters, and as they grew, they grew together—not by competition, but by united
The sentimentality of women being perfect without men to “taint” their inner potential is the theme throughout the book. And while I realize Gilman probably didn’t actually envisage a perfect world where no men exist, it’s hard to read this book without thinking she does and constantly approaching her reductionist arguments with a “yeah right.” Her contradictions (such as the fact that the women never cry or never fear but have temples where they can be given comfort—pgs 104, 111) are also annoying.
What this book does do for me, though, is make me consider how to logically construct a utopian society. Arnold’s article on cognitive mapping makes an important claim in regards to creating a utopia: “Not only must the current world be mapped, the social landscape surveyed, but also the desired land must be explored and presented” (300). What she fails to mention here, though, is that while both worlds are being explored and presented, the utopia must build off of the current world, not simply dismantle and destroy it. Gilman does this very thing, dismantling our current world and destroying the very essences of what make us human—fear, anger, jealousy, pride, loyalty, obedience, courage, determination. In my mind, a truly ecofeminist utopian construction (as explained in Goldsmith’s article) must go beyond simply eradicating patriarchy to employ a matriarchic “unity of ideas and action in a democratic and cooperative community” (22) and implement a convergence of the two cultures where trust and understanding exist based on these human qualities. Eradicating human qualities such as fear and sorrow simultaneously eradicate joy and triumph, thus ultimately reducing the society, as Terry exclaims, to insects. No matter the arguments she made to try and justify it, I just couldn’t get past that idea. Emotionless societies cannot be utopias but I think that’s where Herland leaves the reader believing.