By Paula R. Stiles
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Moving the Mountain (1911). Forerunner Magazine.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland (1915). Forerunner Magazine.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. With Her in Ourland (1916). Forerunner Magazine.
Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that many dystopias are really utopias but from the viewpoint of a narrator who hates them. If you look at Brave New World (1932), for example, most of the people in that story are actually happy with their situation. Never mind that they’ve been both natured and nurtured that way, or that they are in a permanent state of shallow indulgence in seeking the next new pleasure. They like it. They aren’t suffering as the characters are in, say, We (1921) or Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
Sure, you’d hate the World State if you were deeper than a puddle or an outsider, but it’s questionable whether John Savage (or any of the other Alphas) is all that deep. This becomes especially true as our society’s tolerance wanes for whiny man-children who feel entitled to a girlfriend who understaaaaannnds them, or for Huxley’s reflexive assumption that all women can only be, at best, Betas. Gee, thanks, Al.
This is important to keep in mind when reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian Herland trilogy. It comprises Moving the Mountain, the narratively unrelated Herland, and Herland‘s direct sequel With Her in Ourland.
Moving the Mountain is not set in the same world as Herland. It’s really Gilman’s version of Looking Backward from 1888 (her male narrator even mentions this early on) and is her vision of the mid-20th century circa 1950. Some stuff she gets so right that it almost elicits a shrug from the reader (Well, yes, of course regulated, cleaner food and water happened, and that was an improvement, but it hardly resulted in a utopian world). Other stuff (no more war in 1950? The Temperance movement was a success? Yeah, sure) she gets pretty wrong.
The male narrator, John Robertson, goes off to Tibet, gets bonked on the head, lives there in a state of amnesia for 30 years (which Gilman dismisses as of no account with an off-hand contempt for Tibetan culture), accidentally meets his sister Ellen, gets his memory back of his previous life while losing all memory of what he did in Tibet, and returns home, only to find that the wimminfolk have changed into emotional aliens and basically taken over society.
No, I’m not kidding. That’s really the plot.
In Herland, in what sounds eerily like a precursor to Lost Horizon (1933) or even At the Mountains of Madness (1931), three male explorers travel up a river and past some kind of old lava flow to discover a country full of millions of women and no men. After the natural disaster of a volcanic eruption, these women somehow evolved two thousand years ago into giving birth parthenogenetically. To their chagrin, the male explorers are quickly captured and “educated” like children in the new culture, with varying success. Part of this education includes falling in love with three of their captors and getting married, which is written as natural, straight male aggression and sex drive, but comes off a little bit like Stockholm Syndrome.
In With Her in Ourland, two of the men go back home with one of the men’s Herlander wives, who is acting as a scout for her people to see if it’s worth opening up communications with the rest of the world. Her husband tries to explain to her how civilized his world really is and then they land right in the middle of WWI. Awkward.
Personally, I liked Herland better than Moving the Mountain, albeit in a lukewarm way. There’s actual conflict and it is written better as a story. While Herland and With Her in Ourland have a lot of the usual extended and wordy exposition about the culture that you find in utopian novels, Moving the Mountain is almost nothing but, save for the beginning and end of the story. Herland has more of a plot than Moving the Mountain and more of a story arc and structure.
The three men in Herland represent a continuum of manhood from Jeff the romantic lover of All Things Woman, through the milquetoast narrator Van, to Terry the creepy date rapist (Van even admits at one point that he and Terry’s other friends never let any of their female relatives be alone with him back in school. Nice). Needless to say, Terry doesn’t take being deprogrammed out of super-macho douchebaggery too well and things end rather badly for him.
(There is an unintentional irony in that in all three books, the POV is male, and the female characters are idealized and one-dimensional. Not only do the women of Herland dress alike, they also act alike for the most part (save for some distancing exposition about off-stage bad behavior here and there) and are blandly amiable. She even has her Herlander heroine bear a male child at the end of With Her in Ourland, signaling a sea change that probably wouldn’t bode well for the Herlanders in real life. Though Gilman writes the men in the story as overgrown children, it cuts into the feminist message just a tad to write her women entirely through the Male Gaze. It also cut down on my enjoyment of the stories.)
The Herland novels also don’t have quite as much “Good Lord, did she just say that?” stuff in them as Moving the Mountain. For example, the future society in Moving the Mountain advocates eugenics on the level of euthanasia for physical handicaps, long-term mental illness, and hardened criminals, but also women who like sex too much or alcoholics/drug addicts who flunk rehab after one try. And yet, when the men mention to the women of Herland that women in their own culture have abortions, the Herland women are utterly horrified. Hmm. Okay.
In all three books, Gilman also shows a general dislike of sex except for procreation and the women of Herland are obsessed with the ideal of motherhood, which also derails any discussion of why women who have spent two thousand years without men would be attracted to them, let alone what those women are getting up to together in the bedroom without any men around (for that, check out Joanna Russ’ unnerving and often wickedly funny “When It Changed” (1972)).
The women talk incessantly about how regretful they are that they can only have one child, due to having to keep the population down to accommodate their environment. They’d happily have the full five kids their unique biology allows them, so having just one kid is awfully hard. Even with Gilman’s enthusiastic endorsement of “It takes a village of women to raise a child” forms of child rearing, that she considered this idea remotely feminist, even in 1915, gets a Spock eyebrow from me. I mean, what if a Herlander doesn’t want to have kids? Does that make her some kind of freak?
Also, they are all white – and by white, I mean Northwestern European. Gilman doesn’t beat away at this fact repeatedly, but she does make it very clear. Women of Color are absent from her two utopias for a reason (in fact, the only Man of Color we meet is near the end of Moving the Mountain and he’s a walking submissive stereotype). Even if she doesn’t rodomontade too much about that reason, her ideas of the genetic superiority of some women over others (who shouldn’t be allowed to breed) make the unpleasant extrapolation pretty easy.
Gilman also shows a distinct antipathy toward the messiness and chaos of nature in both books. In Moving the Mountain, most wildlife except for some birds (Gilman had a thing for song birds), vermin like rats, cats and dogs, and even cattle, have been eliminated. Herland has no dogs and no non-productive trees, just one big orchard. Cattle have been phased out. And cats have been bred to become complacent, never go into heat, and never hunt birds. Ha.
The trilogy hasn’t aged well post-WWII. The Nazis did an excellent job of killing the Eugenics Movement, while Prohibition did a number on the Temperance Movement. Moving the Mountain, in particular, puts forth some ideas that must have appeared entirely sensible to Gilman at the time, but didn’t play out well at all in the reality of the Nazi Fatherland.
What’s especially odd is how these books (which detail what Gilman saw as perfect societies) contrast with some of her other work, particularly the horror classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). That story is told from the point of view of a woman suffering from postpartum depression and subjected to a chilling social isolation treatment by her dim-witted physician of a husband. Motherhood is not idealized in this story and the women on either side of the wallpaper in their violent and psychotic rebellion would not be allowed at all in either of the utopias of the Herland trilogy.
Gilman was perfectly capable of writing unruly women, as “The Yellow Wallpaper” amply demonstrates, so it’s a bit of a shock to see how placid and bovine the women of Herland frequently appear. Even the women in Moving the Mountain are spikier and fiercer than that. I suppose this is a classic example of why utopias are almost always so creepy. What seems normal and desirable to one person can have an unintended dark subtext for others. While I don’t think everything fictional should be grim or sturm und drang, I wonder if an attraction of horror (and of dystopias) is that intentionally and consciously grappling with our dark sides can evoke a certain honesty not present in utopian fiction.