Saturday, July 29, 2017

Book Review - Herland

Herland is an early 20th century piece of adventure fiction showcasing feminism and gender roles in an interesting way. The book tells the story of three male explorers who hear rumors of a hidden city populated entirely by women. Intrigued by the idea they set off on an expedition to discover this hidden society and learn the truth of how such a thing is possible.

The writing style is simple and easy to follow. This is especially nice when it includes extensive exposition and detailed description. The story is told in first person which gives it a conversational narrative style and keeps it approachable. By making the narrator a sociologist we are given thoughtful contemplation into the interactions between the characters in the newly discovered culture.

The book starts out simply enough by introducing us to the characters and the plot. Our three male characters each have different views/stereotypes towards women and they span the spectrum from end to end. Jeff is at the end that views women as treasures that should be served, protected and idolized. Terry is at the end that sees them as things to be conquered and made to submit and fit into their 'appropriate place' in the world. Our narrator, Van, sits in the middle of the spectrum trying to piece together his viewpoint. He acknowledges a disagreement with Terry's perspective of women as objects to be conquered but he also somewhat pities Jeff's perspective of women as beings to be worshiped. The banter between the three characters as they begin their expedition illustrates the nature of each character and also brings up the big question of "how can a society with only women survive for does the population continue?"

When our "heroes" first arrive in Herland, they admit that they do not see any men but they are still skeptical that such a thing is possible. After some misadventures and some struggle to learn the language the men eventually learn the history of the land. Gilman ads a bit of fantasy/religion and explains how the females are miraculously impregnated without any interaction with males. This is presented as a sort of religious miracle but not in the sense of the Biblical Virgin birth but as a different sort of miracle that evolved a physiological/biological change on the women to allow them to survive in a situation that came upon them when their men were all lost to them. The skepticism of our male explorers continues for a bit but eventually they relent and acknowledge that the women have indeed changed in a way to allow birth without being impregnated by men.

Once the men have learned the language of the people they have daily discussions with the women to learn about their society and to answer questions about the outside dual-gender world. In addition to discussions and studies the men also gradually explore the country and see the physical and social and cultural distinctions of Herland.

In terms of a story, the plot is somewhat generic and not terribly gripping. In terms of literature, the writing is fairly simple and not especially noteworthy. The merit and interest of the book comes in the commentary that Gilman presents on feminism, gender relations and the place of women in the world.

Early in the book, Terry vehemently protests that a society with only women would not be able to survive or that if it did survive it would be backwards and barbaric with constant jealousy and infighting. The culture of Herland is so far from Terry's prediction that it drives him to outrage that gets him in trouble numerous times. The women of Herland have the strong feminine characteristics of compassion and empathy but they also excel in the characteristics that are stereotypically considered masculine such as confidence, ambition, intelligent and physical strength and prowess. The commentary goes on to show that because they lack the competitive 'one-upmanship' that comes in a male society, the culture of Herland has excelled because every member of the society is focused on the overall betterment of their civilization. Generally speaking they do not praise one woman over another because of some given achievement or skill nor do they have any concept of elitism or poverty. They do have added respect for mothers and for some of the most wise members of their society but they do not do so at the expense of any other citizens.

The book turns gender roles on their head by having our three male adventurers thrust into a land in which they are essentially neutered (or perhaps effeminized) while the women of the land take on roles normally associated with men (teachers, captors, leaders, hunters, etc.). While a lot of the commentary of the book focusses on the very personal relations between men and women it also takes the argument a step higher and seems to suggest that the problems of society are all due to the masculine viewpoint and can be resolved by removing it. The land of Herland has no poverty, no crime, no illness. They have achieved amazing advances in education, innovation and technology (of the time).

While I found the commentary to be interesting, much of the book failed to age very well (it's over 100 years old now) and as such I found many of the arguments to be overly simplistic. And yet there is definitely some merit to be found in the concepts. I agree that many of the problems in our modern world are either caused by or exacerbated by traits that are often considered to be masculine (and many of these problematic traits are praised or encouraged). That's not to say that we need to do away with men or masculinity but we need to look at the positive and negative impact of each trait and action. Our culture can be too self-centered and focused on a single individual/family/group getting ahead and this advancement too often comes at the expense of others. As a culture we do need to cultivate a better sense of respect, concern and understanding while we minimize our notions of greed, prejudice and judgment.

Overall this is an interesting book in terms of the gender concepts and social observations it presents. While not every argument is convincing, the commentary provides food for thought and works as a good starting point for social discussions to try and improve society as a whole.

3 out of 5 stars

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