No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, September 24, 2012

2012/45: Herland -- Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“But they look — why, this is a CIVILIZED country!” I protested. “There must be men.” (p.11)
Read for the Coursera fantasy and SF course.

I'd never read Herland before, though it's a classic of feminist SF, and was pleasantly surprised to find it less fervent than some later novels exploring the 'society of women' theme. The premise is simple, and strangely reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World: but instead of an isolated South American plateau inhabited by dinosaurs, our intrepid explorers discover an isolated South American plateau inhabited by, well, females.

Herland's populace has been exclusively female for the last two thousand years: the women, descendants of an isolated harem, reproduce parthogenetically and have a thriving society. They react to the Explorers Three -- Jeff who idealises women, Terry the 'ladies' man', and Van the sociologist -- with amusement, interest and curiosity. Yet every utopia has a dark side, and the women of Herland are not as delightful as idealistic Jeff, in particular, at first imagines. (It certainly makes sense, in a monosexual parthogenetic society, to discourage those with strong sexual urges from reproduction; but why cripple a cat's nature by preventing it from hunting birds?)

Herland is peppered with wit and satire, though some of the observations are too dark -- and too pertinent, even a century after the novel's publication -- for wholehearted amusement.

I wrote about rape culture in Herland and A Princess of Mars for my Coursera essay: you can read it here.

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