Good-place, No-place, My Place or Yours? : Herland

The first Utopia was written by Sir Thomas More in 1516, the name coined from the Greek eu-topos, meaning ‘a good place’ – or perhaps ou-topos meaning ‘no place’. As this inherently conflicted word moved beyond the original text into common parlance describing any perfect society, we owe a debt to More’s original pun – for can there ever be such a thing? Over at the feminist classics reading project, April’s read is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian novel Herland, first published in 1915.

As with all utopian literature, plot-wise the reader is in no fear of passing out from excitement – lengthy descriptions of societal structures are key to the entire purpose of Herland. In a nutshell, three young male Americans, fresh from a tipoff from a “savage” on a previous exploration, set off in a “flying machine” to discover a fabled country comprised only of women. Terry is bulging of bicep and majestic of mustache and very much a ‘man’s man’, which then as now is a nice way of saying ‘arrogant lout’. Jeff, bless ‘im, is a southern gentleman who places the fairer sex on a pedestal (to his credit, not to look up their skirts), while our narrator, Van, is a sociologist more than a little blinded to how partial his “scientific” thinking can be. Upon arriving in Herland, they soon encounter the ‘natives’, whom they find to be dignified, rational and alarmingly athletic. Our intrepid trio are taken prisoner in the nicest way possible (“…we were borne inside, struggling manfully, but held secure most womanfully in spite of our best endeavours”) and are taught the native language while simultaneously teaching their appointed guides English. It transpires that all the men of Herland were wiped out in a catastrophe some 2000 years ago. Shortly after this, one young woman discovered she could reproduce by parthenogenesis and the current population of some three million women are all descended from her. The Herlanders have no history of or interest in sexual intercourse with the men, yet motherhood is the cornerstone of the Herland culture, and children treasured. Their society is without classes or competitiveness, vanity, illness, war, greed or crime. Continue reading “Good-place, No-place, My Place or Yours? : Herland”

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I know why the caged bird sings – A Doll’s House

In the period before writing A Doll’s House Henrik Ibsen expressed his concern over “these women of the modern age, mistreated as daughters, as sisters, as wives, not educated in accordance with their talents, debarred from following their real mission, deprived of their inheritance, embittered in mind – these are the ones who supply the mothers for the next generation. What will result from this?” The introduction to my version of the play (Oxford World’s Classics) also says that he believed that men and women were different creatures, with completely different consciences, and “he pointed to the inevitable confusion over matters of right and wrong that inescapably follows when a woman is judged by man’s law, and when in consequence her natural instincts are brought into conflict with the notions of authority she has grown up with”. The play which emerged from his musings on the subject provoked heated sociological debates and ascribed didactic qualities to Ibsen as a playwright. A Doll’s House follows Nora and Torvald Helmer as they prepare for Christmas, with the reappearance of an old acquaintance (Mrs Linde) and Nora’s secret debt to Mr. Krogstad due to an illicit loan starting a quick chain of events that see Nora walking out on her family in the final scene. Thoughts about Nora’s departure from her doll’s house became the pivot around which 1890’s conversation revolved – so much so that dinner invitations often requested that the play was not mentioned. Leaving aside that the ‘shocking’ ending of the play is simply not so shocking to the modern audience, reading the play I was struck by how many clues to this ‘shock’ ending were lying around the stage even in Act 1. Granted, Ibsen did use melodramatic form and present what appears to be a perfect couple in Act 1, both of which work to subvert the naturalistic element of his drama; however the road to what is to come is signposted clearly in the marked dichotomy evolved between the couples words and their actions. I first read A Doll’s House as a teenager, and to be honest it made little impression on me, although I remember being shocked at how shocking the play was deemed to be on first performance. What a difference a decade makes – after rereading as part of A Year of Feminist Classics I can see the performative nature of gender roles and a dichotomy between words in actions shining through from the very beginning of the action.

Continue reading “I know why the caged bird sings – A Doll’s House”