Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book Review: Herland

By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Herland is a feminist utopian novel about a country which comprises only of women. The story is told from the perspective of Van who among his two friends, all three men, visit this country with the intention of exploring it. But soon they are caught and held under guard where they learn Herland's language while Herland citizens learn English so that they can exchange ideas.

What follows is a fantasy like no other. By fantasy, i mean how Dr. Eric Rabkin defines it -
"Eric S. Rabkin defines literary fantasy as 'the continuing diametric reversal of the ground rules within a narrative world." Gilman tears down one rule after another - be it social inequalities, gender bias, raising children, education, economics, religion, governance and so much so that she even challenges the role of history.

First, in case by case, she blasts the world of men. It must be kept in mind that this novel was written in early 20th century when women didn't enjoy as much rights as they do now. In Herland, women work, they are independent - socially, economically. They are strong, there is no distinction between manly and womanly task; women are scientists, political leaders, security chiefs.  Women do not enjoy jewelry or any fancy shiny objects. They are highly practical and intellectual.  In a case by case basis, she shatters the prejudices of those times. 

Gilman does not restrict herself to gender basis. She goes beyond in other spheres such as child rearing and education. In Herland child raising is a communal job, the best in the community are assigned this job. Children are future, they need to be nourished, bred and they should understand the nature that is around them and in them. 

Perhaps, the most profound thing that struck me was the concept of history. Herland document their history but they do not pay much heed to it. Their rules and laws change every two decades. They look up to history just as a tool to learn. They take pride in the fact the future generation will be smarter than the current generation and will make rules that are better suited. There is no shame in acknowledging that past was inaccurate. 

Gilman also addresses the notion of population - In Herland, not everybody is allowed to bear a child. It may appear that this is a violation of freedom, a fundamental right. But in Herland, community comes before an individual. Free will, fundamental rights, freedom belongs to community first, and then to individual. Herland makes a case that by proper education, a community can be created which understands this ideology as well.

This was my first utopian novel. I had utopian novels would make me happy as "all is well in utopia". But Herland pinches you with every page turn. All is indeed well in utopia but it is the contrast with our world that hurts. The visitors in Herland were from US, not from anywhere in US but that too California. They are ashamed to answer questions posed by Herlanders about practices in their homeland as they think that they realize that they are so sub-par. I just wonder what would have happened had they been from India.

No comments: