Day 549: Classics Club Spin #6! Herland

Cover for HerlandHerland is the novel chosen for me from my Classics List by the Classics Club Spin #6!


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.

13 thoughts on “Day 549: Classics Club Spin #6! Herland

  1. Emily J. July 7, 2014 / 9:02 am

    I’ve been wanting to read this one, but I just can’t bring myself to. It seems dated…

    • whatmeread July 7, 2014 / 9:04 am

      Maybe a bit, although it was surprising how many of the issues she brings up are still matters of contention. I didn’t say much about it, but the hints about eugenics were disturbing. I realize the theories were very popular back then.

  2. Naomi July 7, 2014 / 12:05 pm

    I wonder what the story would be like if someone took this idea and re-wrote it now…

    • whatmeread July 7, 2014 / 12:08 pm

      Hmmm, I don’t know. They’d have to think up another method of reproduction. There is no way that parthenogenesis would begin in less than one generation, and then everyone would be dead.

  3. Alina (literaryvittles) July 7, 2014 / 12:55 pm

    Hmm… I’m a feminist, but I’m not sure that imagining a world without men is the way to go.

  4. Cecilia July 9, 2014 / 4:45 pm

    I had never heard of this one. I’ve never read any utopian fiction either…

    • whatmeread July 10, 2014 / 7:31 am

      Dystopian fiction at least usually has interesting ideas. Most authors’ ideas of utopia are not mine.

  5. Brona July 9, 2014 / 6:14 pm

    I confess to not knowing anything about Gilman. Sounds like The Yellow Wallpaper is where I should start though.
    It certainly sounds like an interesting utopian story though.

    • whatmeread July 10, 2014 / 7:32 am

      I guess it’s fairly interesting for a utopian story. They don’t tend to be very interesting, though.

  6. looloolooweez February 6, 2016 / 4:18 pm

    I just finished The Yellow Wallpaper for my own Classics Club list & went in search of other CCers who’ve read Gilman. Herland sounds like one of those books that was probably profound in its time but has been made less interesting over the ages, maybe? And sometimes it’s hard to see past things that are really weird to modern readers, like the eugenics thing.

    • whatmeread February 8, 2016 / 7:21 am

      Yes, I think I prefer The Yellow Wallpaper.

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