Uncle Tom's Cabin
, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
, The Awakening
, all of these books have a recurring theme
of women separating themselves from the sphere of masculine
influence to gain autonomy
. Charlotte Perkins Gilman
did a remarkable variation on this theme in her short story The Yellow Wallpaper
, but in her novel Herland she takes this literary device beyond the realm of feasibility
. Even the most seasoned reader would find their willful suspension of disbelief sorely taxed.
Herland is riddled with literary speedbumps— resolutions that are far too neat (the women being separated atop the mesa by an act of God), circumstances that are beyond the realm of possibility (parthenogenesis!), stilted character interaction (the abduction and subsequent "reeducation" of the male explorers) and nonexistent character development. A general incompetence in form and style makes a book, that should be easily accessible, painful to read. In addition to Gilman's general lack of graceful storytelling, her work also suffers from purposeful naïveté. Gilman oversimplifies the utopia that her female characters have created, and she draws her main theme, the separation of men and women, into an all-encompassing panacea.
Her work is terribly one-sided and positions her male characters in situations where they have no alternative but to feel regret and inwardly apologize for the treatment of women back in their own country. Regardless of whether their supplications were well-founded on acts of horrible cruelty that their sex had visited upon women, the circumstances of their inner struggles are not well represented by Gilman. When the men do see that "divine light of pure reason" their realizations come across as haphazard and unorchestrated. This is something to which Gilman, as an artist and a woman, should have been keenly attuned.
Insofar as her work recommends the quarantining of men from women, it's akin to ideas brought forth in Sam Keen's Fire In The Belly: On Being A Man. Keen sees a definite difference between men and women on a number of levels. He leads readers through his book using logic and reason, then he jumps into the abyss. Keen basically believes that men and women are opposites. More than mere physical differences, he thinks that the sexes are opposed in their basic wants and desires In essence, that the process of their thinking is different. So great is this difference that women and men cannot hope for true intimacy, and therefore, must be satisfied with a constant feeling of uneasiness in their dealings with the opposite sex. They must realize that relationships are no more than a struggle for control and a means to an end— sex, security, children or love.
The similar views expressed by Keen and Gilman seem misguided and bitter. True understanding between the sexes is born in the idea of partnership. There may be a certain inequality of the sexes in comparisons in the relatively unimportant sphere of biology, or perhaps a subtle difference in reasoning and perception, but there is something artificial in seeing the only resolution in dealing with the opposite sex as keeping a safe distance.
It makes little difference if that distance is aided by Gilman's dense forests and high cliff walls, or by Sam Keen's "Conjunction of the Opposites," where he recommends a hearty lack of altruism á la Ayn Rand. Building intricate and impassable systems of defense may seem to secure liberty, but doesn't serve to free anyone.