Feminist Short Stories: Horror & Sci-Fi (Part 1)

Spotlight on Five Feminist-Minded Short Stories with Elements of Horror  

Joyce Carol Oates once so perfectly wrote, “One criterion for horror fiction is that we are compelled to read it swiftly, with a rising sense of dread, and so total a suspension of ordinary skepticism, we inhabit the material without question and virtually as its protagonist: we can see no way out except to go forward.”  It is this very reason that I so love the horror genre; it transports its reader to another world where one can observe, and be an entirely new entity, whether person, monster, witch, or troll.  When you combine horror with the feminist short story, you enter a whole new realm that’s even more terrifying than any Pinhead from Hellraiser or Damien from the Omen.  The horror delves into reality, where much can be hidden beneath the façade of such vanities as a life of wealth, the perfect marriage, or an idyllic community.

The tales below are a sampling of five feminist short stories that do indeed leave us with a “rising sense of dread” because sometimes, the horror is too personal.

The Giant WistariaCPG
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It’s shocking once you’ve finished The Giant Wistaria to realize that it was published in 1891, when it seems as if it were written not so long ago.  The story takes place during two time periods, the 1700s and the 1800s.  The former century begins with an English family and we’re dropped into the middle of the most scandalous of family dramas–their daughter has just given birth out of wedlock, and the parents are fleeing to England to escape any disgrace to their family name.

Fast toward to the late 1800s; the house from whence they fled is now decrepit and has been virtually swallowed by a gigantic Wistaria vine.  A wealthy young couple and their friends happen by, completely enchanted by what they interpret as rustic charm, they assume that it must be haunted and rent it immediately.  As the three couples drink, eat and laugh, they describe the prospect of an eventful summer chock-full of ghosts that hopefully inhabit the house.  After the first evening, their fantasies come to fruition as half of the group awakens to find that they’ve had the same dream of a young woman with a mysterious bundle in her arms and a red cross around her neck.  They soon find that their collective dreams were more than a mere case of indigestion (to quote A Christmas Carol).

The Giant Wistaria is chilling for several reasons.  First off, the punch that is delivered is done so in only a few pages; not only is CPG a feminist, but she’s also a powerful storyteller and is able to intertwine the two seamlessly.  Another sobering facet of the story is the juxtaposition of the two time periods, the people who exist in each one, and finally, the full-circle of tragic events.  CPG was a master of collective human emotions and is able to make you feel guilty and sickened by indirectly referencing class and gender inequality.

A Good Man is Hard to Find
Flannery O’Connor

Good Man is Hard to FindI knew very little about Flannery O’Connor when this collection of short stories was recommended to me.  I knew that O’Connor was Irish Catholic, and that the stories were written in the mid-20th century.  Needless to say, as I finished the first story, which is also the namesake for my particular edition, I was completely taken aback.  “The person who suggested that I read this should have warned me!” I thought.  Like so many of the other stories in this article, it’s thrilling to read a gem so subversive that it still shocks nearly 70 years later.

As the story begins, we meet a family comprised of three young children, their mother and father, and the paternal grandmother.  Like many of O’Connor’s other writings, A Good Man is Hard to Find is set in the South, and as the family embarks on a road trip to Florida we learn that a murderer is on the loose by the nickname, “The Misfit.”   From start to finish, the grandmother is a pill.  She believes the past was best, children should be quiet, women should always be ladies, and her opinion is always right.  Basically, she’s the southern queen of unsolicited advice.  O’Connor is a master at tapping in on a personality type that annoys most people because they are in everyone’s lives in some form.  Because of that, we as readers are extended participants in this very long road trip.  In addition to being an expert character study, O’Connor takes us on a trip through 1940s/50s Georgia in the summer.  It’s hot and dusty with a killer on the loose.  They are alone on the road in a deserted part of the state where gas stations come only intermittently, setting a tone that leaves us unsure of our surroundings and insecure about the future.  As the trip goes on, the grandmother sends the family on a wild goose chase, seeking out physical proof of a misplaced memory.  This dirt detour sends the family into a downward spiral that puts them face to face with what the grandmother hoped to avoid from the outset–the Misfit.

At first read, A Good Man… could seem like nothing more than a story about an incredibly annoying grandmother and a gang of psychos.  However, this is one of those great stories that unfolds a multitude of onion-like layers that encompasses race, religion, class and poverty, region, crime, place in history, Civil Rights, and gender roles, amongst others.  However you choose to read this story, as one of good old-fashioned murder, or a story of murder inextricably bound with issues of class, race and religion, you are left with comparable sense of dread, and maybe just a hint of schadenfreude as the grandmother finally gets her lips zipped.

The Joy of FuneralsAlix Strauss
Alix Strauss

The Joy of Funerals differs from the other titles in this round-up because it is a collection of short stories that end up connecting in the end, which also packs a great ah-ha as the tales come into the final braid.  Similar to Strauss’ most current book, Based Upon Availability, each story is unique in its own right, and the culmination of all the interlaced stories is an extra cherry on top.

Each story is about how women, whether individually or in a group, deal with the grief they experience over the loss of a loved one in New York.  Strauss plunks us down smack dab into their lives by crafting mournful imagery and offering variety of well fleshed out characters.  Each character, in only a few pages, is described in such thorough detail that you feel like you not only really know them, but can completely empathize with what they are experiencing through their grief.  In one story, a woman burns a photograph of her husband and eats it on her breakfast cereal, and while reading it, you are eating the ashes with her–you can smell it, taste it and feel the loss as if you’ve been punched in the belly.  In another story, a woman’s behavior is so deceitful that it leaves the reader with a personal sense of betrayal, but also left me to unfortunately identify with the character’s insecurities.  To me, only a true master of art can make you identify with the flawed characters, al la the films Spring Breakers and Happiness.  Full disclosure, I found myself crying throughout the majority of the book because the stories are crafted in such a way that they strike the core of shared human experience with concern to love and loss.

Barbara GowdyWe So Seldom Look on Love
Barbara Gowdy

The short story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love is truly a forgotten treasure.  Reading it nearly seventeen years ago, it has remained implanted in my mind, and the physical book has stayed with me through every move of my life because of it.  The short story that I’d like to hopefully introduce you to, which is also the title for the book, is the reason why banned and challenged books are so important for the youth.  Decades ago, this creepy, gross and arguably offensive story exhilarated this gal as a fifteen-year-old and helped to make her the liberal bitch that she is today.

The story is told from the point-of-view of the main character as she reflects on her childhood as a blossoming necrophiliac and fast forwards to current day when she is publicly disgraced as her sexual proclivity becomes mainstream knowledge.  As a child, she realizes that her infatuation with dead animal corpses: the smell, the blood, their energy, et al, will prevent her from attracting and sustaining any form of friendship.  As she gets older, she accepts her sexual attraction to male corpses, admitting that she is unable to fall in love with any living man, and that plenty of corpses have broken her heart.  Naturally, she enters medical school as a means of gaining access to these potential and cadaverous love interests.  Though the idea of engaging in oral sex with dead tissue may seem unattractive to most of us, I give kudos to Gowdy for her character’s unflinching acceptance of her sexuality at so young of an age.  Teenage girls, and really, most women, have mixed emotions regarding their sexual bodies, and it’s refreshing to read about a young woman who doesn’t deny herself those inclinations.

The White CatJCOates
Joyce Carol Oates

The White Cat is one of those great stories where the plot may not be as it seems, and its interpretation can be fluid depending on its reader.  Ostensibly, we’re reading a tale about a WASP of a man, his younger wife, and their evil Persian cat, Miranda.  As we delve deeper into the mind of Julius Muir and his family life, the storyline thickens as we are fed bits of information that make Julius’ home life seem less than perfect, though he would have you think no other way.

It can be argued that the story is a portrait of the building and collapse, aka psychological break-down of the main character, Julius, and since much of it is from his point of view, it’s not exactly clear where the truth lies.  We are to believe that Miranda the cat is evil because of said evidence: “…as the cat grew older and more spoiled…it became evident that she did not…chose him.”  His subsequent reaction contains a crumb of hilarity as he reconciles that he will handle this situation by killing the cat because her ambivalence of him is an affront to this man who “knows who he is.”  Because Mr. Muir purchased the cat for his wife, he believes himself to be her sole master and therefore has the right to end her life since he brought her into being (at least into this own house).

As we read on, the facts become murky.  We wonder, what has happened for the past ten years?  There is no indication that their contemptuous relationship has built over the decade of co-habitation, and seems to be a relatively recent occurrence.  An occurrence that has also surfaced with the advent of his wife making more decisions independent of Julius, perhaps.  Is the quirky Persian evil, living to cause Mr. Muir a life of anguish?  Is he simply ignoring characteristics are inherent in the sometimes fickle feline species?  Or, is he attributing his wife’s human characteristics to his cat instead of facing up to his own troubled family life; a life that is seemingly so perfect in every way?

 

Part 2 can be viewed here

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2011: Explore My Literary Feminisms!

At the beginning of 2011, I set a goal to read 24 books before the year was through in the attempt to trump my 17 from 2010.  If I didn’t reach it, no biggie, the point is quality, not quantity.  I did feel though, that a good amount of my time was melting into endless nights of watching the uber-dramatic and the really important issues of wives from Beverly Hills and the Mob.  Maybe a portion of my time would be better spent on what I sometimes forget that I really love?

My choices were not preplanned at the beginning of the year and I tried to tackle a range of books resulting in some feminist, most not, and a surprising few dabbled in Library Science, which I saw as more bang for my buck in the end.

My reading plan for this year not only differed from last year in goal (from 17 to 25), but also price.  Besides one or two that were bought for me, I checked all of the books out from the library.  Like many library types, a good amount of us buy our books.  Shocking, I know.  A lot of us are collectors of books and pride ourselves on showing off our giant libraries.  Think of it as battle scars.  However, being on a fairly strict budget for much of 2011, I decided to put my money, or rather, no money, where my mouth is (I think this also had a direct impact on my increased number of books).  Once I remembered that I had free access to an endless amount of books, I found it difficult not to fill my arms with mass amounts of fiction and non-fiction with the  voracious appetite of a brain eating zombie who had just encountered fresh prey!

Top 10

The Night Eternal
by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2011)

The third and final book in the Strain Trilogy about vampires taking over the earth.  The trilogy was amazing and each book led me on an emotional roller coaster.  Needless to say, I cried when I closed the last book.

With GDT himself and yes, I am holding the first book of the Strain Trilogy

Neverwhere
by Neil Gaiman (1996)

This year I discovered Gaiman, as you will see as you read further.  I read most of his adult fiction this year, and Neverwhere was my favorite Gaiman novel, and second favorite overall this year.  It had a happy ending, a very likable protagonist, and it sucked me in within the first few pages.  I also recommend this on audiobook because Gaiman himself reads the text and because of this, the audiobook expresses exactly what the writer was thinking when he was writing it.

Gunn’s Golden Rules
by Tim Gunn (2007)

This book is my Bible, or the closest thing I’ve ever read to a guide on how I want to live my life.  Gunn gives practical advice on how to act like a normal human being, encompassing good manners, the importance of treating yourself with respect and of course, making everything work.  I will definitely be reading this on a yearly basis and I recommend buying this one.

An Object of Beauty
by Steve Martin (2010)

If you like artwork, New York, fashion, Steve Martin, coming of age stories, color pictures in books or any combination thereof, then this book is for you.

Herland
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

Three men crash land into an all-female utopia where the women actually function just fine!  Go figure!  Plus, it’s a classic by a classic woman.  If you haven’t read CPG yet, I recommend starting with her short story the Yellow Wallpaper.

American Gods
by Neil Gaiman (2001)

Gods living on earth in human forms.  What more could you want?  This piece of fiction is epic and like Neverwhere, grabs you right away.  At times, this book tackles some tough life and death issues but not so much that you feel like you’re reading a Russian novel.

Bossypants
by Tina Fey (2011)

Fey is a feminist and Fey is funny.  And I also want her to be my best friend.  Recommended for women and men who aren’t scared of childbirth, rotten breath or pubic hair that resembles vermicelli noodles.

The Fellowship of the Ring
by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)

This year I thought that I’d take on the book since I love the movies so much.  It really reinforced that books and film are two totally different mediums and therefore are difficult to compare.  The book fills in gaps in the movie that I didn’t even know there were.  Plus, I was surprised by what an easy read it ended up being.

Based Upon Availability
by Alix Strauss (2010)

Short stories about women who are interconnected by their association with the Four Seasons Hotel.  Like her last fiction novel, Joy of Funerals, Strauss is really great at writing from varied female points of view.

Men Are Stupid and They Like Big Boobs
by Joan Rivers (2008)

What can I say?  It’s Joan Rivers and she rocks.  She’s a bipartisan powerhouse with a voice and an opinion.

Runners Up

The Anansai Brothers
by Neil Gaiman (2005)

The story of two reunited brothers who are the sons of an African God.  Very Gaimanesque: death; life; Gods; whimsy; a somewhat awkward central character who comes into his own; and as always, he presents us with magic and superstitions and makes it so easy to want to be part of that world.

Oh No She Didn’t: The Top 100 Style Mistakes Women Make and How to Avoid Them
by Clinton Kelly (2010)

Kelly’s guide makes you reflect on  your own wardrobe, laugh out loud on the bus and then look around to judge everyone near you.  However, I think his critique on eyebrows is totally incorrect.

Locke and Key
by Joe Hill (2008)

I am going to say it, Stephen King can’t hold a candle to his son’s writing.  Having never been a real graphic novel fan (besides being made to read Maus and Persepolis in undergrad), Hill’s graphic novel has prompted me to want to read the next three in the series.  A little bloody, a little disturbing and totally enthralling.  (May I also recommend Hill’s fiction: Heart Shaped Box and Horns.)

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman (2008)

The story of a baby who is adopted by ghosts in a graveyard after his parents are murdered.  Though technically a teen novel, I thoroughly enjoyed this coming of age story.

Carrion Comfort
by Dan Simmons (1989)

If you liked the Strain Trilogy, I’d recommend this novel as well.  Vampires living on earth unbeknownst to humans, a group of rag-tags on the hunt and characters that you fall in love with.  The end gets a little murky and I wouldn’t hold it against you if you speed read the last 1/4 of the book.

Tim Gunn’s Guide to Quality, Taste and Style
by Tim Gunn (2007)

Like Joan Rivers, I like everything that Gunn writes so naturally he’d make it to my runners up group.  Though not one that I’d stress that you buy, he does give good, solid advice on fashion and style, though through a somewhat more conservative lens.  Maybe it’s a New York high fashion thing.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
by Seth Graham-Smith (2010)

Sometimes we need something to read where we don’t have to think, right?  Well this is it.  Lincoln was actually a vampire hunter and guess what, slave owners were usually vampires.  It’s real!  Seriously!

Wigfield
by Paul Dinello, Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert (2003)

Yet another book where you can just laugh and not have to think much, though be prepared to accept the utter silliness and absurdity of the whole piece.  I’d recommend this on audiobook because Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris perform the voices for several of the characters.

Mister B. Gone
by Clive Barker (2007)

The concept for this book is really unique–a first person, or rather demon, point of view.  Demon Jakabok Botch is trapped within the pages of the book that you are reading, at that very moment, and he warns and implores you throughout the book to stop reading or else be damned!

The Vegetarian Low-Carb Diet
by Rose Elliot (2006)

Okay, so I am listing this as a runner up because I lost ten pounds in two months.  I was a vegetarian already but the low-carb thing really works.  I wouldn’t take this book as word, but it’s easy to use it as a general guide and make it your own.

Summer of Night
by Dan Simmons (1991)

This book is a prequel to another Simmons book, Winter Haunting and describes a group of boys over the course of one summer.  It entails possession, ghosts, baseball and creepy teachers.  It’s an easy, mindless read and I would recommend it if you have nothing better to read.

The Terror
by Dan Simmons (2007)

I keep reading Simmons because I feel like a lot of the time he almost gets there, but not quite.  This book falls in the typical Simmons style, much like Carrion Comfort.  Most of this book is great–the story of an arctic expedition, Eskimos with special powers, and a large killer spirit who kills off a ship of 19th century English explorers.  The first 3/4 of this book keeps your interest piqued, and then the last 1/4 goes a little off course.  If you can stretch your imagination and suspend belief for a few dozen pages, then you’ll be fine.

Eh.

Holidays on Ice
by David Sedaris (1997)

I realize that by saying this I may be pegged with eggs on the street by strangers, but this book is not great.  The stories are disjointed and the book doesn’t seem to have much focus.  I think it could have been a lot better it if were just stories about his normal [holiday] anecdotes, but it pulls in some strange tales, such as a young Asian girl moving in with an American family and the mother killing her grandchild.  While this story is totally acceptable and somewhat entertaining, it seemed like it would be better in another book.

Salem’s Lot
by Stephen King (1975)

The more I read Stephen King, the more disappointed I am, and the more I read.  Stephen King is known as the king (pun intended) of horror, but I think that his novels are just okay.  I’m not drawn in, scared or excited by his stories and this novel was no exception.  There were a lot of gaps in the story and I was missing the meat of a great vampire tale.  The idea behind it was great, a vampire comes to a small town, but it lacked the follow-through.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
by Steven King (1999)

A little girl gets lost in the woods and is accompanied by a battery operated radio with the voice of commentators reporting on baseball player Tom Gordon.  I did like how King describes being perpetually wet and stung by mosquitoes, because we can all relate to this.  However, I felt myself becoming bored at times because like Salem’s Lot, I felt like the meat of the story was lacking.

Cat People

Sometimes described as a “B-Movie” because of its low budget, I would argue that Jacques Tourner’s Cat People (1942) transcends the genre of the low quality, often ridiculous and hokey films that most times are associated with those on a budget.

Basically, the story is one of a young Serbian woman named Irena who fears that when she becomes immensely jealous, angry, or kisses a man, she becomes a black cat and attacks the offending party, whether male or female.  Any day of the week she can be found at the local zoo’s panther cage, sketching the cats with large swords being stabbed through them.  Irena, hating and rejecting her ability to transform draws the sword in a literal hope that the cat part of her will be slain (why she wouldn’t want to embrace this awesome power is beyond me).  During one her daily sketch sessions, local mapmaker Oliver is intrigued by her beauty and pursues her, later stating that though he did not love her, he was drawn and intrigued by her.

The two quickly get hitched and are married for several months without even the hint of physical activity, including kissing on down.  Irena fears the transformation into her powerful cat self and I’d venture to bet that this is a metaphor for the fear of female sexuality, both from a male’s point of view and also the taboo of women having and recognizing their own sexual urges.

As time rolls on, Oliver becomes increasingly frustrated by Irena’s lack of physical affection–although Irena is upfront with him from the beginning that she needs time and he assures her that she can have all the time in the world.  Unfortunately for Irena, to Oliver “all the time in the world” translates to a few mere months before he finds himself in the embrace of a female co-worker, with whom he quickly leaves Irena for.

But let’s not argue that little Ollie didn’t try to salvage the marriage, he did after all send her to a male shrink to “cure” her irrational fantasies.  Her therapist, Dr. Judd believes that Irena can be cured by kissing her against her will and as a result she becomes a cat, and in this case I’d wager more of a defense mechanism and kills him.  And why shouldn’t she defend herself when forced upon by her doctor?  Though this film was written, directed and produced by men who probably weren’t attending any feminist rallies, this revenge fantasy does resonate with my blood lust for attackers and rapists, which is essentially what this doctor was.

While watching the somewhat incestuous relationship between Irena, Doc Judd and her husband Oliver, I kept thinking that I had seen this scenario before.  And then it hit me–The Yellow Wallpaper, the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman!  It almost seems verbatim–a woman who is deemed by her husband too high strung and emotional and is physically and/or emotionally locked up from society (in the short story’s version in a child’s room).  In both stories, the female lead is patronized by her husband and doctor, who discuss “the patient” amongst each other while skipping over the middleperson–the patient herself.  Both women’s cures are discussed and prescribed, and the medicine is the inhibition of personal expression and/or creativity.  Again, I think it is safe to call both of these scenarios fairly textbook–that women’s bodies and minds need to be analyzed, explored, controlled and cured.

Another point of note that struck me while watching is the idea of the “other,” which Irena inherently is as she is not only a woman, but foreign to New York.  And why wouldn’t a foreigner have a family history of crazed, emotional women who turn into killer cats because of some sort of Turkish curse or something of the like?  Because Irena is “other” to the main characters, she is mysterious, deadly and comes from uncivilized and archaic roots.  Even the American female lead, when juxtaposed to Irena’s outlandish story is portrayed as rational and believable, even when she indulges in fanciful, irrational stories.

Though I probably wouldn’t describe Cat People as a feminist film per se, I would say it can be analyzed with a feminist lens, especially as a cultural artifact of the 1940s.  Through it all though, and even though she was the villain, I sided with Irena and for the first time ever, I sided with the bad guy, or in this case, bad gal.  What can I say?  She’s one tough pussy.

Being Their Own Women: Self Discovery & Independence in Women’s Personal Lives


The Awakening
by Kate Chopin

Set in the late 19th century, The Awakening spans two pivotal seasons in Edna Pontellier’s life as a young wife and mother.  Having never felt truly alive during the entire span of her life, Edna “awakens” during a summer of spiritual liberation, leading her to reflect on her life as someone’s wife and mother.  The story results in a woman who subverts the conventions of her time by defying filial and maternal expectations by focusing on her life as her own woman.

Personal Velocity
 by Rebecca Miller

Miller’s book consists of seven short stories that describe the lives of seven very different women. They are bound by their grit, strength, incredible struggles, and their will to survive amidst their personal tribulations. Despite each of their uphill struggles, each character finds solace the minute details of life uses that to persevere in their own ways, revealing the complexity of women’s reaction to struggle.

A Spy in the House of Love
by Anais Nin

In this semi-autobiographic work, the lead female character, Sabina, struggles to develop her sexual and artistic expression.  This work is known for its erotic language and strong themes of a relationship with the self and passion.

The Story of Avis
by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Avis is an artist who decides to marry who she thinks is a “modern man,” believing (and being led to believe) that once married she can continue to express her creative self.  However, the traditional gender roles that suppress(ed) women and elevate men take their hold over Avis’ artistic expression.

Orlando
by Virginia Woolf

Born as a man, Orlando transforms into a woman as (s)he lives over several centuries, experiencing the gamut of gender norms, restrictions and suppositions that are forced on men and women. Seeing the treatment of Orlando as both a man and a woman by society, though (s)he is the same person, highlights the inequities that both men and women have faced throughout the ages.

The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath


Though sold as fiction, The Bell Jar is an autobiographical account of Esther (some argue Plath), a young woman working for a summer as an employee of a major magazine away from home.  There, Esther suffers a mental breakdown, and the reader is taken down with her into the depths of her insanity, so much though that it is difficult to distinguish insanity from reality.

Nightwood 
by Djuna Barnes


Taking place in Paris, Nightwood tells the story of two women romantically involved and the deterioration of their relationship.  This novel highlights both hetero-sexual and lesbian relationships that are expressed through dark, thick and lyrical language.

Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein
by Gertrude Stein

This collection features non-fiction essays, anecdotes and fictional stories about Stein’s female partner, and artists of the day.  This book is a perfect sampling of Stein’s well-known fragmented and unique writing style.  It also features the well-known short story “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” who we assume to be two romantically linked women who strive for their own fulfillment in life and relationships.

HERmione
by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

Perhaps the most obscure of all her titles, this autobiographical account and coming of age story, written by Hilda Doolittle, commonly known as H.D., details her unsure and tumultuous life during her twenties at Bryn Mawr. H.D., known in the book as Hermione Gart, battles to transition between her old, obedient self that her parents once knew and the new identity that she begins to forge now that she is away at school and exposed to people who help to foster her true self.

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Most known for the short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, a woman is denied creative output by her husband and is treated as psychologically weak and incompetent, which ultimately exacerbates to her mental deterioration. This collection also features Gilman’s non-fiction prose, Women and Economics and an excerpt from her novel Herland which illuminates a peaceful, all female utopia without the presence of men and that of a patriarchal, capitalist system.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Years ago, I bought Herland after reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, craving that same satisfied woman-centered feeling that I was left with as I closed Chopin’s book.  As I read the first few pages of Gilman’s Utopian text about a land of only women, I noticed that it was from a man’s point of view and immediately lost interest.  I had very little interest in a man’s perspective, even if it was written by a woman. Recently, Herland has been on my mind and decided to pick it up again.  This time around, I decided to read the preface, which is what I hear adults do and was delighted to learn that it was satirical in nature and thought I’d give it a go.  Within a first few pages, I was hooked and looking back, maybe at 21 I just wasn’t ready.

Herland begins with three American men exploring through an unknown continent and during their travels, they hear of a land where only women, female children and babies live and additionally, men go and never come back.  While there, the men are discovered and imprisoned so that the two cultures can learn from one another.  The men are in the aptly named, “Herland” for over a year and we go on this journey with them as the narrator describes their interactions with the women, the land, and how each one of the three men navigates and adjusts to their surroundings.  One of them comes to idolize the women, one acclimates but always keeps a critical eye, and the third rejects the customs of a gender-neutral land completely, feeling himself without identity if he cannot exude masculinity.

The writer of Herland is a woman, but the story is told from a man’s and therefore a masculine point of view and through him, CPG (Charlotte Perkins Gilman) relays her own social commentary on America in the early 20th century.  When the narrator describes his own country and what he thinks of women, much of what he relays seems comical.  Here, Gilman takes the liberty of poking fun at how she believes men to view women.  For example, when the three men discuss what lies ahead in this woman-only land, uber-masculine Terry fantasizes that he will be fawned over and doted on by the women, and that he’ll “be elected king”.  In this instance Gilman critiques patriarchy by suggesting that all women need a man to take charge. The narrator and also the more scientific of the group suggests that it will be a savage and undeveloped society.  His point of view is that women need to be studied as objects, and this mirrors Gilman’s, The Yellow Wallpaper, which is semi-autobiographical.  Gilman’s husband sent her to a doctor after she gave birth who subsequently prescribed her a “rest cure” where he eschewed any creative expression.  What’s interesting about the three men’s fantasies is that they reinforce the old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.  When I read this, I immediately thought about the modern-day equivalent of men thinking women only pillow fight in their brassieres when they get together, or otherwise they are inherently meek and helpless.  CPG’s interpretation of the masculine and feminine gender has not changed over the past 95 years and proves that it’s not so far from the gender assumptions that persist today.

A major theme in this text is an indirect analysis of masculine and feminine gender, which is analyzed via the comparison of American society to the women-only society.  This is expressed through the observations of the narrator and in conversations between the three men and the women.  One of the earliest comments that Terry, the most traditionally masculine of the male characters exclaims at the continual absence of men as they walk through the new country is, “this is a civilized country, there must be men!”  As the three walk further through the land and first encounter three young women, they motion for the men to leave forever and instead of doing so, Terry pulls out a piece of jewelry in order to try and entice the women, believing that all women are inherently drawn to material possessions.  After the men are captured by a horde of strong women, they couldn’t believe that the beautiful house they were imprisoned in was built by women, which convinced them that men had to be living on the land because women could not be natural or even learned architects and builders.  In early descriptions of the physical attributes of the Herland women who kept them in captivity, some of them had short hair that was only a few inches long.  This particularly irritated masculine Terry because the women looked “unfeminine”, and were also described as plain looking as opposed to being “femininely beautiful.”   He wanted to be back by the “feminine women…the mothers” and younger and more beautiful women previously seen upon arrival.  He additionally hated that they were being taught things that they (the men), had no choice of whether or not to learn.   This again resonates with Gilman’s real life when she was forced to adhere to a treatment that she didn’t agree with.  Another gendered aspect of modern society present in 1915 America is gender exclusive language.  When the men refer to “men”, or “man” as an all inclusive term, such as “a dog is man’s best friend”, of which I will discuss later, the women ask them about the women outside of Herland, and the men always have to backtrack and explain that they are referring to both men and women.

When the men finally learn the native language, they ask the women about the lack of the male sex, as well as where their animals were (besides cats and birds).  The women explain that there are none and women give birth on a schedule.   Birth is also their own choice through a process similar to what Christians call Immaculate Conception.  With regard to animals, one of the women replies that cows and horses use up too many resources and they need the land to grow food. Here, we can assume that they are a vegetarian culture, though it is not explicitly mentioned in the novel.  The men are shocked to learn that there are no cows used for milk production and the women assure them that they do have milk in plenty-their own.  The men scoff and explain the importance of cows’ milk for mass production to feed people and for profit.  This leaves the women stunned with the concept that a cow gives birth, the baby is taken away, and the milk is distributed for human use when women themselves produce milk.

In addition to CPG’s feminist ideals, you can see the presence of her socialist beliefs as well.  In a conversation between some of the men’s tutors, they exchange information about the society of the “bisexual” men.  The men glorify industrialization and competition, while the women question its usefulness with regard to educating only some while many suffer.  When certain groups of people are favored in a society and others are not, such as the poor, then everyone suffers; all groups of people should be working as a cohesive unit for the benefit of all  people who live within the same society.

The women also inquire a good amount as to the role of the women in their society, and they ask if the women work as well.  The men assure them that women are glorified and protected in their society, to be kept to the home to watch the children.  They then follow-up with the fact that some women, “wage-earning women” do work, but are usually poor.  The women of Herland are confused by the idea that the women who work are poor and alternately, the women who are “praised…protected” and don’t work to earn a wage, also known as the “housewives”, are the ones who are wealthy.  This leaves the women confused, as it is confusing today with the prevalence of unequal pay between men and women.  We can further witness this paradox today through the idolizing celebrities who gain fame and fortune not through work, but from having excessive amounts of children, or from gaining fame via antics similar to “Snooki” Nicole Polizzi.

Another critique on an capitalism that CPG makes through her comparison of Herland to America is that the residents of Herland believe that education should not be withheld from any person; it is taught to all with specialization in specific fields.  The women explain that it is for the good of their community that everyone is educated and further, that they learn new skills in specialized segments of science, for example, as they age so that parts of their minds do not atrophy.

CPG also addresses issues of early composting.  The three men are amazed that instead of a barren plot of land being fenced off to fall into disuse, the women take materials from other parts of the earth, such as fruits and other organic matter and till it back into the soil.  This process makes the land fertile and able to bear fruit.  Obviously, the process of composting is fairly commonplace today, but in 2011 it seems all the more important given the lack of not only land space, but also the lack of nutritious food for children that comes from the earth.

One of the main focuses of Herland is that of motherhood, and the residents respect it above all because it means the continuation of their race.  As stated earlier, a woman has a choice whether or not she wants to give birth, though all work together in raising and educating the children.  However, not all women, like in a “bisexual society”, are fit to be mothers and the women of Herland recognize this.  In this society though, they have worked out a system to remedy this; if a woman is known to go against the principles of Herland, she is persuaded to not give birth and instead become a worker.  If she insists on having children, then they are raised and educated by other women so that the baby doesn’t inherit its mothers bad habits and perpetuate the negative cycle as she grows.

When the three men discuss the many dissimilar aspects of the two societies, the women often point out that there is little functionality to their methods.  The female society is based on reason and pragmatism, which is typically seen a masculine trait.  Here, CPG flips this gender assumption by making the all-female society seem reasonable and the industrialized society seem wasteful and illogical.  For example, when the men discuss animals and praise dogs, referred to as “man’s best friend” and discuss how some dogs are mean, carry disease, and don’t serve a work purpose.  The women question as to why they would keep breeding such animals that have little positive influence in their society, leaving the men unable to think of a justifiable reason.  Here, we also see early animal rights activism when the women discuss how they breed only cats and condition them to be docile and loving towards children.  The men ask them if they drown their kittens at birth because there are so many and the women reply with horror, questioning why people wouldn’t control animal breeding and then make the animals suffer as a result.

Perkins Gilman was way ahead of her time when she wrote this book and her insights were as such that we are still battling all of them today.  One could easily transplant this book into the 2000s and it would not feel antiquated in the least.  The issues that strike me the most are the ones concerning gender assumptions and relationships between masculine and feminine personalities.  When I reflect back to Jill at 21, I think one of the reasons that I could not enjoy this book is that I didn’t have enough life and dating experience, and therefore did not get to experience those large and small battles to figure out who I was as a female in our society.  Unlike in Herland, women and men in our “bisexual” culture grow up with these labels assigned to us.  Given this, when women and men act like People instead of feminine women or masculine men and make the conscious choice to identify as one or the other, they are truly exercising a feminism and to quote the movie Frida, “is truly revolutionary.”