Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Jameson’s contribution to Utopian theory prompts us to look at the fictional world presented to us as a rhetorical praxis to neutralize the real. Through Gilman’s constructed world the reader is invited to see the contradictions of existing paradigms. Chief among the social frames examined in Herland have to do with everything from familial relations and gender rules, to the economic exchange system. In fact through Gilman’s narrator, Van, the intersections and contradictions among these frames are shown to emerge from the same will to power. In other words, there is a point at which patriarchy, zero-sum competition, and violence dovetail.

Herland suggests a feminist socialism that, at the time of its 1915 publication, could only ever be the stuff of fiction, not at all in the real world. (It can be argued however that some of the governments of the EU, though not in the least bit Utopic, have begun to institutionalize social feminist values -- as in the cases of the Netherlands and Scandinavia, for instance.) This brings into question certain cultural values that Gilman easily injects with the type of face value expected from a late Victorian.

These cultural values are indeed racial. Evidence of Gilman’s racial sensibilities appears throughout the novel as the author -- through the voice of Van’s “scientifically objective “ narrative, injects an implicit form of white supremacist ideology. Although Gilman takes great pains to appeal to intellectual plausibility by figuring a “highly civilized” country that is insistently white, according to Libby Falk Jones, it is a mark of Gilman’s Utopia to “create meaning within a traditional utopian structure dominated by overtly rhetorical ends” (116). In chapter 5, Gilman explicitly puts it:

"As to the geography -- at about the time of the Christian era this land had a free passage to the sea. I’m not saying where, for good reasons. But there was a fairly easy pass through that wall of mountains behind us, and there is no doubt in my mind that these people were of Aryan stock, and were once in contacts with the best civilizations of the old world. They were 'white,' but somewhat darker than our northern races because of their constant exposure to sun and air" (Gilman 55).

Victoriana not withstanding, the above passage describes racial terms in the most explicit and overt terms possible, which makes Gilman’s elision of female sexuality (and contrasting emphasis on the virtues of motherhood) all the more ironic. In other works the audience is expected to suspend literary belief at the idea of a same-sex race capable of spontaneous generation with the least hint at specific mechanisms, insofar as one unequivocally understands said same-sex race as white – save a healthy tan.


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  2. "White" as "default setting." Interesting comments...

    For Gilman to "inject cultural values," she only had to not NOT paint it white...

  3. But I do wish to add -- as a reader, your suspension of belief is not necessarily required. Herland is, after all, presented as a work of f[r]iction. Of course, we know absolute belief can never actually be acquiesced. It's a novel that assumes a SciFi stance by assertion of a "new science" of cultivation, yet it accepts the tenets of scientific racism. That reader reactions should be based on psuedo-scientific distinctions and conceptualizations of"race is an idea with which I disagree. It is,however, worth acknowledging that what was called "science" in the 19th century transcended literary genres of both fiction and nonfiction and continues to impact popular ideology today.

  4. yeah well. it's the Times New Roman of humanity. we're only beginning to imagine how webdings communicate