Monday, January 19, 2009

Stooges and Wonder Women

 This is difficult.  I'm a man.  And so much of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland is about not being a man.  It's about unmanning.  Bridgitte Arnold puts it well when she discusses the bold reversal at the heart of the novel: men show up as the explorers, as the colonizers, as the conquerers, but it is the women who conquer, who colonize, and who map them.  The reversal is obvious today (especially with those modern day conquistadors--biceps pumped, eyebrows threaded, everything emitting a strong, expensive scent--a model, in the same instant, of the hyper-man and the hypo-man).  But while I read Gilman, I continually tried to imagine the boldness of this idea in 1915.  Unmanning anything was risky, but feminizing it? Arguing for a communalized society of ecofeminists? Arguing that women might be more productive outside the home?  Absurd! says your author, before changing his son's diaper, dancing with him to folk rock, and putting him to sleep with a butt-patting and a kiss. 

When Gilman's three male protagonists--Van, Jeff, and Terry (oh, Terry)--show up on the shores of Herland, they are soon met by three young women: Ellador, Celis, and Alima.  Here the treatise of the novel overtakes the narrative.  And perhaps it should.  What results is an extended "info dump"--a term which Edward James doesn't invent, but identifies as a stain which most sf writers try to coverup.  In Herland the information comes, but the characters do not change.  Van remains the reasonable observer of the "middle landscape," Jeff the chivalric courtier, and Terry (oh, Terry) frees his closeted rapist; so perhaps there, if measuring by degrees, Terry does descend, although his fate is never in question.  The moment the three young "girls" walk on stage we can hear the genre mold ker-plump in the background: there will be a triple wedding.  To Gilman's credit, she purposefully mucks this up and nicely sets up an anti-pastoral sequel, but something has been lost.  And this isn't loss in the romantic sense; no Wordsworthian nostalgia, here.  The loss is in the telling.

In parsing combinations of ecology, feminism, and pragmatism, Mary Jo Deegan and Christopher Podeschi list a few points of friction between Gilman and the more common ecofeminist line, the most interesting of which is the repression of sexuality in Herland. The Wonder-Women reproduce through recurring immaculate conception, or, in the novel's terms, parthogenesis.  The crux of the novel, then, is a fantasy.  There is no scientific explanation.  There is not even a bit-by-a-radioactive-spider, pseudo-science explanation.  There is only a type of Heideggerian calling into being.  The characters--male or female--don't question it.  Just as quickly, we learn the women will re-accept a bi-sexual society.  

Somewhere in- between, the two most complex characters, Van and Ellador, fall chunkily in love.  Here, the straightforward prose seems unsure of how to develop its characters through something as abstract as romance: "my sense of pleasant friendship became but a broad foundation for such height, such breadth, such interlocked combination of feeling..."  The problem seems that while the males may swell with desire (oh, Terry), Gilman leaves nothing for the women.  This has the benefit of creating a land without strife.  It also saves the land from the destructive history Greg Gerrard ties to the concept of nature as lover.  But the payment is the purging of desire.  The women truly will not want.

Maybe this is too manly of me.  Maybe I want to be wanted.  Still, I hope for the kind of awakening that Le Guin gives her small band of anarchists on a planet of institutionalized anarchy in The Dispossessed.  One will awaken and ask: why do I not want what I do not want?


  1. I am trying to figure out which is which!

  2. Sorry - I posted my "tru" comment when you only had the picture up. My enthusiastic endorsement is not withdrawn, but somewhat tempered, by your lemming-like adherence to the constraints of the system. (I would say adherence to "The Man," but...)

  3. Oh, Randy. Can't the world be more than lemmings and fascists? Isn't there room for people who just like a good glass of wine and a soak in the tub?

  4. the pseudo science is all over the place. and i understand your see this novel as fantasy -- i struggled with that too. but decided on sf based on what you picked up on about vague pseudo-science that opposes everything explicable about reproductive science. the whole business of how motherhood is achieved is folded away into a lace handkerchief -- elided. very tidy. very victorian. but also very victorian is the pseudo-scientific (de)racializing of Herland. this is a form of gilman's pseudo-science that is ascribed to by many today.