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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