After reading the short story “Herland” by Charlotte Gilman I was intrigued by the idea of “utopias” as a possibility in the “real world,” so I examined why people have desire for these perfect societies and also what the effect of such societies would have on people in reality if they were implemented. When you look back in history, there are several examples of attempts to make the perfect society or the ideal society, often based on purely speculative theories about what traits that society should have, with the results of such an endeavor usually being less than satisfactory. Perhaps the main problems involved with these microcosms of perfection involve both the scale of the undertaking and the inflexibility of the ideology of the participants. I can’t really be sure, in the space of this blog, I just don’t have time to do the research. I do, however, have time to examine a few traits in Gilman’s “Herland” and look for them in “real life,” deciding whether the traits really worked effectively to make for a more harmonious and productive group as a whole. I will explore these based on real life examples of communities as well as the effects of implementing the “utopian” policies was effective or not on the real life societies.
The raising of children as a community projects seems to be a staple of the Herlanders, with the emphasis on exploratory learning for the children and the shared parental responsibilities distributed among many women (but not men) in the group. On a real scale, similar measures have been employed in real societies, usually in some collectivist type of system. While there might be some positive results from such an action, such as the socialization of the child and the sense of worth for the women in terms of having child-rearing and mentoring responsibility, I believe that there is an equally detrimental trait in that there is a real “disconnect” associated with the lack of a traditional family unit when using this method. It is true both the children and adults may feel a real connection but this may be offset in by the lack of the type of bonding which only a nuclear family unit can provide. The idea of a “Herland” in which males exist but really play no significant role as parents strikes me as counterproductive in that it discounts the influence and possible parental bonding of half of humanity. This would probably not work effectively at any scale in real society.
Equally curious to me was the supposed “ideal” upbringing of the children in the story and the effects it had on their well being as well as their individuality. I searched for similar “real life” examples in history and found none which would apply. Soviet Russia, aoist China, the Roman Republic, cultist movements, even collectivist movements centered around micro-communities such as agricultural “villages” in real life would not produce the ideal intellectual effect which Gilman envisions. Why is this so? In practice, I believe that humans, male or female, desire at their deepest level to be individuals, with individual ways of thinking and individual ways of constructing their own version of society. This makes this method of harmonious cooperation and sacrifice always for the greater good an ultimately undesirable way of living for the individual. Perhaps the most striking feature of Herland which I found untenable was the absence of a real standard of the concepts of “good” and “evil”. I believe that, if practiced in the real world, this system of non-beliefs could spiral out of control in ethical dilemmas.