Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593
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 fundamental rationality of women’s values and social contributions. Gilman developed this perspective at length in her nonfiction works. Herland reflects, in greatly simplified form, sociological ideas comprehensively examined in Gilman’s Women and Economics (1898), Concerning Children (1900), The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), Human Work (1904), and the novel The Man-Made World (1911).
The overarching theme in Herland is that from women’s roles and values as mothers springs a fundamentally important social current that society ignores at its collective peril. Mothering, in this view, is a social activity in which all members of society engage together. A social mother, Gilman maintained, is concerned with not only the welfare of her own children but also the support, happiness, and prosperity of all children. If the world were run from the point of view of social mothering, it would, presumably, evidence many of the positive social attributes of Herland: a healthy and well-educated populace, humane prisons, efficient use of resources, and so forth.
The premise that women’s values provide an excellent basis for society was not unique to Gilman. Several prominent women sociologists, including American Nobel laureate Jane Addams (1860-1935), were feminist pragmatists who subscribed to a range of views similar to Gilman’s. A brief and important precursor to Herland is Addams’ witty and biting 1913 essay “If Men Were Seeking the Franchise,” which was published in Jane Addams: A Centennial Reader (1960). Addams, who was a friend and colleague of Gilman, describes a hypothetical, bisexual society (otherwise similar in situation to Herland) in which women dominate the populace and have the political power to deny men the right to vote. Addams whimsically concludes that men, much like the men who venture to Herland, cannot safely be allowed to share in government until they abandon their selfish and destructive ideas.
Gilman’s personal perspective as a mother is revealed in her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935). Gilman’s decision after a much-publicized divorce to give custody of her daughter, Katherine, to her former husband, Charles W. Stetson, is a consequential example of Gilman’s idea that children should be reared by the one who is best at parenting—and that this individual is not necessarily the biological mother. The cooperative, mothering attributes of the society sketched in Herland no doubt comprise the kind of social situation that Gilman wished for her own daughter.