Herland: A Dystopian Motherland

Recent paperback edition

Recent paperback edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was, for me, one of the more interesting discoveries of the Fantasy & Sci-Fi class in Coursera. I had read Gilman before: her fascinating and highly disturbing short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, to be exact. If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest you do. It’s freely available on Project Gutenberg, as is Herland.

Now, I won’t say that Herland is as accomplished a story as The Yellow Wallpaper. The latter stirs me deeply; it stirs a visceral reaction, which is part horror and part pity. And that’s exactly what its meant to do. It makes us shudder because we see what supposedly ‘benevolent’ subjugation can do to a woman. In Herland, on the other hand, we’re presented with the picture of a world populated only by women. There’s no question of subjugation. Everything runs smoothly and like clockwork and the world is as pretty as a painting. Nevertheless, there are some disturbing aspects to this supposedly ‘perfect’ world, and those are what I chose to write about for my Coursera essay. Read and enjoy!

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s book, Herland is presented as a Utopia which is free from disease, corruption, poverty and other vices that mar the rest of human civilization. But is it really the wonderful place that Gilman makes it out to be? Throughout the novel, one finds references to the practice of Eugenics in this nation where women, who are deemed unfit for the task, are prohibited from becoming mothers.

While the basic idea behind this selective motherhood is sound – that only the most capable should ideally be doing a job that comes with so much responsibility – modern democratic sensibilities rebel against it. There’s no denying that a woman’s role goes beyond the bearing and rearing of children, but it is entirely a woman’s prerogative to have children or not. In this matter, Herland citizens behave in a manner that would seem out of place in the kind of ‘Utopia’ that Gilman seems to be describing. After all, the freedom to procreate that we take for granted,  is something that is protected even in the most tyrannical societies. Whether a person is a ‘suitable’ parent is not for the state to judge, unless the child herself is in grave mental and physical danger.

What makes this even more disturbing is that, early in the story, the Herland citizens tell the three visitors that they have ‘bred out’ nuisances like dogs and cattle. Later, we find out that Herland also ‘breeds out’ girls who are seen as posing a danger to the stability of their society.  Would this be allowed to happen in a truly Utopian society?

Just like other stories before it, Herland points towards the dangers of ‘Utopian’ fantasies – whether they are seemingly harmless like Gilman’s or Hitler’s more brutal vision. This may not have been the conclusion that Gilman wished for readers of Herland to draw, but reading the book today does raise these questions.

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