I have already read Gilman's famous short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," which was decent, and somewhat comparable to the weird fiction that one might expect from Franz Kafka (a favorite short story writer of mine, so that is a compliment). This story is not really at that level, in my opinion, but is important as a voice for the rights and value of women. I didn't fly through this story. It had its moments, but it was largely a dull piece, like other true Utopian works (as opposed to Utopias formulated into Dystopias). It has a few serious flaws, which I will get to later. For now, these are my impressions as I read through the story.
The story's setting is contemporary to Gilman's era of the early 20th century. Technology is in its infancy. Somewhere in the world there is an island of isolated women. There is little connection between the Amazonian women of Greek legend and the women of Herland. They are warriors, and tough, despite the fact that they do not have any kind of competition.
Three men set out in search of the mythical society which has swallowed a few men who have sought it out. Later, however, it becomes clear that their expedition is the first to actually reach these women, and that whatever men there were before simply did not make it to the culture.
They are isolated by geography. They are surrounded by insurmountable mountains, on a plateau high above a jungle where a primitive culture thrives. They have lived excluded from the rest of the world for about 2,000 years. While Amazonian women would kidnap their men to have babies, and treated them like slaves, there are no men in this society at all. They are able to reproduce asexually, and when they give birth they have baby girls, and no baby boys.
When the three men get to the plateau via an airplane, they cannot believe that the area is populated exclusively by women. Women cannot build heavy or complicated things, goes the sentiment. However, when they walk into the village, thinking that they will have no problem dominating the women whom they preconceived would be as submissive as the women of their own societies, are easily overpowered by powerful women and imprisoned.
One might expect terrible treatment in the prison that they are put in. However, they are treated more like naughty children, and guests. They are well fed and treated very well at every turn. The narrator writes, "...we were free of the garden, but not wholly alone in it. There was always a string of those uncomfortably strong women sitting about..."
There are three male characters, each a representative of a degree of common males: there's the one who loves and worships women, the centrist, and the ego-macho-male. It is Terry who cannot seem to understand that women can or should be powerful. The prison in which they are held, he says, "This thing is a regular fortress--and no women built it, I can tell you that."
One of the chief objections I have to the story is the racism which appears in a few sections of the novel. This race of women is referred to as Aryan, and that is an explanation as to why there is little or no criminality within this female race. This is the reason why it is a strong and intelligent race.
The contrasts between the two societies are not as important as the points that Gilman makes about how women are viewed and treated then, and much of the criticism remains valid a century later. Women who work are viewed in a negative light. Those who do work, earn a fraction of what men do. About a third of women are working poor according to the narrator. Jeff, the most sympathetic and supportive of women mentions that poorer women tend to have more children, and that they live harder lives. This also remains true today.
Sexuality here is also brought up. In the old days (and in some cultures today), husbands have the right to 'master' their wives. That is a roundabout way of saying that they may rape their wives. The three men end up marrying their three women, but none of them are able to engage in sex. Terry attempts to rape his wife, and consequently, gets banned from the country.
But this brings up the other major point that I take issue with of this novel: the asexuality of this race. These women do not have sex. It is not just about not having sex with men, they also do not seem to masturbate or have sex with the other women. There is no sex at all. Perhaps the hymen itself is broken when they give birth, I wonder. This virginity of all sexuality is a serious point that is missed or avoided by Gilman and is a deep flaw in the book. Did she believe that she would tarnish the reputation of her fictitious race? Perhaps this is the case, and it would have tarnished in those closed minds of her own day (and our day). Certainly, in women's prisons, women engage in sexual activity with each other. There is a clitoris which gives women pleasure.
There are some other minor issues with the culture or race: there is no real opposition. There is nothing to fight for or to survive which is not overcome. There is no power struggle. Everything is appointed and accepted. But, these things are not as important as the statements about how women deserve better in the cultures in which they exist with men. That is the main message of this story, and makes the book worth reading. Come on Gutenberg, et al! Please publish the next story, With Her in Ourland.