(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

By Gilman’s own estimate, her novels failed as literary experiments. As a pedagogical device, however, Herland is an engaging, persuasive, and highly effective effort. The novel’s light, patient, sympathetic voice is a worked example of the tolerant, noncoercive instructional mode employed by Herland’s exemplary tutors: Somel, Moadine, and Zava. Sociological instruction through fiction is one of Gilman’s literary strengths, and it is difficult to find a more straightforward instance of this genre than Gilman’s own First Class in Sociology (1897-1898), a short novel of hypothetical classroom dialogue serialized in the American Fabian. Sociological instruction via fiction is a powerful educational tool utilized by several women sociologists: Examples include Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-1834), Mari Sandoz’s Capital City (1939), and Agnes Riedmann’s The Discovery of Adamsville (1977). Judged pedagogically as a work that entertains and provokes while also teaching complex and sophisticated ideas, Herland is a superb sociological accomplishment.

The socially problematic issues that Gilman outlines in Herland echo the theoretical proposals of Lester F. Ward (1841-1913), a major American sociologist who admired Gilman and vice versa. Ward’s concept of gynecocentric (that is woman-centered) social theory reinforces Gilman’s strong belief in...

(The entire section is 593 words.)