Wednesday, August 4, 2010
In the classic feminist utopian novel Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote about three young men who land an airplane in a country occupied entirely by women. All the men died in war two thousand years ago, and after initial grief and despair, the women evolved, developing an ability to give birth asexually. They can only have girls, and giving birth requires a strong desire to have a child. The three young men learn the language and culture and fall in love with three young women and marry them; two of the men, including the narrator Van, get ready to fly away to America with one of the young women, Ellador, who is curious to know about the male-dominated world. The novel is a highly amusing and mischievous adventure that ridicules patriarchy and machismo.
With Her in Ourland is the sequel to Herland. We travel with Van and Ellador to the male-dominated world, where Ellador takes copious notes about the societies they visit and diagnoses solutions for the patriarchal countries’ problems. They travel to Europe and witness WWI, they travel to Asia, and finally they arrive in America. Ellador tries not to offend her husband but simultaneously is disturbed by what she sees everywhere they go. The book is much more serious than Herland and almost reads like nonfiction.
As a contemporary writer, I would have included much sensory detail about the places that Ellador and Van visit. I would have also made it a darker, more moody and atmospheric book. As Gilman wrote it, With Her in Ourland is analytical and consists primarily of dialogue between Van and Ellador. The average modern reader wants images and plot and isn’t keen on authors standing on a soapbox. That said, I consider it a brilliant book in terms of sociological analysis, and Ellador comes up with great ideas for transforming patriarchal, wasteful societies.
As a Buddhist, I thought of the historic Buddha’s legendary sheltered childhood and how he went out and finally saw, as an adult, a person who was old, a person who was sick, and a person who had just died. The story goes that this is how he first found out about suffering, or discontent. I found Ellador’s adventure very similar, in that she witnesses suffering, oppression, and environmental destruction for the first time. The book also reminded me of Buddhism because, as Ellador points out, people in patriarchal society choose to create hell on Earth and it’s so unnecessary; in contrast, Ellador and the other women of Herland are enlightened beings.
Gilman self-published Herland in her own zine, The Forerunner, back in 1915, and With Her in Ourland came out in the same zine in 1916. The latter was finally republished in 1979, but without the sequel, which wasn’t republished until 1997. They are wonderful, rare finds by the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and should not be forgotten. Gilman was a sociologist and quite an insightful visionary, especially for her time.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Introduction by Ann J. Lane. Pantheon Books, NY: 1979.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. With Her in Ourland. Edited by Mary Jo Deegan and Michael R. Hill, with an introduction by Mary Jo Deegan. Praeger, Westport, Connecticut: 1997.