Literary Musings: Herland
Finishing with exams last week meant that I got to go back to reading "for fun" last week. That meant finishing Zadie Smith's Swing Time, starting M. L. Rio's debut If We Were Villains, and going back to reading for my thesis. Right now, thesis reading consists of reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman and is consequently great fun. I've read some of her short stories in the past and this week, I had the pleasure of reading her feminist utopia, Herland.
Gilman doesn't get discussed very frequently – I only really picked up on her existence via my supervisor's chapter on "The Yellow Wallpaper" in a book of feminist criticism. She'd never come up in any of my classes at university or in high school, and I can't even say that's from a lack of female authors on any of the curriculums – I've luckily avoided the whole "my professors worship the great male authors" ordeal. Still, no Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Thankfully, that's changing now.
Herland was a delightful read. It tells the story of three male explorers who go on an expedition to South America and find a lost country inhabited only by women. These women live in a sort of utopia where they peacefully coexist in a society that is clearly so much better off than early 20th century America. The novella does a great job at addressing and dismantling sexist hypotheses of the era, proving that women are perfectly capable of not only existing but thriving without men. It's very much a product of its time in some ways – racist comments and horror re: abortion make their way into the text, but it's also ahead in some. For instance, it separates "femininity" from "womanhood" and begins to hint at the fact that sex and gender are not tied together and that what we know as "femininity" is highly indebted to patriarchal society. It's not Judith Butler, but it's still both nice and surprising to see in something written in 1915.
Feminist issues aside, the book is also wonderfully narrated. At first you may wonder why a book about a feminist utopia is narrated by a male character, but that it is is a gift. The narration reads almost like a parody. The narrator is the most likable of the three men, but you still find yourself commenting on and rolling your eyes at the stupidity of men as you read. It's highly entertaining,
I'm very happy my supervisor recommended I read Herland and I will now be recommending it to anyone interested in the era and will be adding it to my "intro to feminism" reading list.