I guess most of my reaction to Herland is based on a dislike of utopian fiction, which seems to be more than ordinarily didactic. I like the occasional dystopian novel, but in my experience the dystopian writers are a bit more subtle about their lessons. Or in the case of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, if not subtler, funnier. I chose this novel for my list just because I thought I had never read it and I was trying to make sure I selected quite a few notable works by women.
Vandyck Jennings, Jeff Margrave, and Terry Nicholson are traveling when they hear of a land of only women and female children. They hear that men are not welcomed, so of course, they decide to go there. The land is isolated at the top of an unclimbable mountain, but the three fly up in Terry’s plane. There they are taken prisoner by the women, who educate them in their customs before allowing them to mix freely with the inhabitants. It is this education and subsequent discussions that make up the bulk of the novel.
These women have been isolated for thousands of years and began to reproduce asexually through parthenogenesis. Their world is a garden, perfectly peaceful, with no disease or strife. Although two of the men are sympathetic characters (the third is a first-class chauvinist), the implicit message is somewhat misandrist—that women can get along perfectly well, better really, without men.
The book is funny at times, as these bewildered males take in the lessons of Herland. The funniest scene is after the men marry, and Van is trying to get his wife Ellador to understand the pleasures of having sex more often than when she’s scheduled to reproduce. But most of the charm the novel has is overridden for me by its didacticism, even while I believe Gilman brings up some important issues.
Development of character is not something Gilman is very interested in for this novel. The men all have distinct but pretty much one-dimensional personalities, and the women are virtually indistinguishable except for older versus younger. Science and psychology must have been hot topics at the time (1912), because terms from both are thrown around quite a bit. Unfortunately, there is also an implicit advocacy for some of the theories of eugenics.
What I was most interested in was what happened to Ellador after she and Van escort the exiled Terry out of the country. But Gilman doesn’t say.
In Gilman’s time, many of the ideas that don’t seem so revolutionary now—like the need of all people to have a sense of purpose and the idea that subordination results in stunted humans—were probably revelatory and maybe even shocking. Some of them still are. Gilman certainly deserves to be read, but I prefer some of her other works, notably The Yellow Wallpaper.