Herland, a utopian novel written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman,

Herland, a utopian novel written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was published in 1915 in the Forerunner, a magazine that reflected Gilman’s wide-ranging interests in feminism, politics, socialist economics, and history. The novel talks of a group of three men discovering an isolated society solely populated by women. As a result, the country possesses an ideal social and political state where it is free of war, conflict, and domination, which contrasted with the actual society at the time. In this essay, we are going to discuss the effect on the reader of the narrative point of view of Herland. Narrators are intermediary device that helps authors speak to his audiences in literary works, thus, narrative point of view is the perspective of the narrator. In Herland, the first-person narrative was used in a pseudo-documentary style by Vandyck Jennings, the novel’s protagonist.  

 

In Herland, one could tell that the novel was told through a first person narrative due to the fact that the narrator addresses himself as “I”. However, besides the use of certain pronouns, in order to establish an increasingly close relationship between the readers and the protagonist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman establishes the point of view by using descriptive details where Van´s psyche is revealed in the form of interior monologue with complete, logically structured sentences. The narrator, Van, participates in the events of the plot, but because he is a character involved in the story, he does not have much access to the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the other characters. This results in a biased and slanted narration as the readers of Herland can only receive information about the country through Van’s eyes, we see what he sees, and what he perceives and understands. Therefore, the readers, just as Van and his friends, Jeff and Terry, stand as an outsider looking into Herland and can only understand it from the outside. As a result, the readers are not able to fully grasp the idea of Herland, and are not able to fully relate to it partly because Van was not able to understand it in the beginning as well. But as the story progresses, and so does Van’s knowledge of Herland, we as readers follow him through the course of events and in turn enhancing our own knowledge of Herland alongside him. Although the narration could be biased, one could also say that Van’s views are committed because of his participation in the plot of the story.

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The information the readers receive from Van is limited and although he is the central consciousness, he is hardly omniscient and is limited in his knowledge to what he can possibly know without violating the rules of probability. One thing we as readers have to remember is that Van’s point of view is unreliable and the readers cannot take his word for it completely. As he had mentioned in his introductory remark ‘This is written from memory, unfortunately. If I could have brought with me the material I so carefully prepared, this would be a very different story. Whole books full of notes, carefully copied records, firsthand descriptions, and the pictures–that’s the worst loss. We had some bird’s-eyes of the cities and parks; a lot of lovely views of streets, of buildings, outside and in, and some of those gorgeous gardens, and, most important of all, of the women themselves. Nobody will ever believe how they looked. Descriptions aren’t any good when it comes to women, and I never was good at descriptions anyhow. But it’s got to be done somehow; the rest of the world needs to know about that country.’ Chapter 1, Paragraph 1 and 2 In here, he clearly states that the story of Herland is purely based on memory, and that he was not very good at describing things. Therefore the description is restricted and limited to what Van understands and thus there is no liability in his account of the experience and the people he have encountered during his stay at Herland. As a character of the novel, he is thus also a subjective narrator. Not only does he interject his own personal views on the citizens and happenings of Herland, he can only speak of his experience in it, and only his. There are other characters involved in the story, yet he is not able to describe the exact details of the feelings, emotions, and events that they are going through, unless he is present in the situation and is thus able to describes what he sees and assumes. Therefore, Van’s own opinion and ideas affect the way the reader sees the world that he is in because we are directly influenced by his perception and opinion through his interior monologues, and therefore unable to make a complete judgment on our own, as we readers have no choice since we would have no other resources to access the world of Herland other than through Van.

 

Bear in mind that, the modern readers are not the implied readers of this novel, therefore, there could be a difference in the way we as modern readers perceive the novel as it was intended for the readers at the time it was published. Charlotte Perkins Gilman writes Herland with the aim toward social change. Van’s character, as a man of science, represents the prevailing wisdom of the Victorian society, which Gilman seeks to change. Furthermore, as a sociologist, his sociological viewpoint is critical to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s central intent, which is to convince the reader of the feasibility of her utopian ideals. But this does not fully imply to modern day readers as the social culture and perception of women has changed over time. A study named Positioning the reader: the effect of narrative point-of-view and familiarity of experience on situation model construction, conducted by Dr. Bethanie Gouldthorp and Melissa Mulcahy suggested that ‘First-person narrative point-of-view, promoted protagonist empathy when participants read about unfamiliar events. The results also provide support for the conclusion that readers were more engaged with the story and constructed more effective situation models when they had prior personal experience of story events’ In the case of Herland, although it could be said that the readers would have a tougher time to engage in the story since they had no prior personal experience of the events that happened in Herland. This is certainly true considering Herland is a fictional utopian novel, and a country where an entire population is compost of solely female is virtually impossible. However, as Herland is satirical in nature, and because of the narrative point of view chosen by the author, readers could actually relate to it even though it is a novel about women, written by a woman in a man’s perspective. This is due to Van’s sociology background as it provides stern evidence that he knows and has studied about people in comparison to the other characters. ‘Terry was strong on facts–geography and meteorology and those; Jeff could beat him any time on biology, and I didn’t care what it was they talked about, so long as it connected with human life, somehow. There are few things that don’t.’ Chapter 1, Paragraph 10 Readers would hence be more confident in him telling the story rather than the other characters because of the reassurance in his knowledge of human life.

 

When Van describes his own country and what he thinks of women, much of what he relays seems comical.  For example ‘Why, this is a CIVILIZED country!’ I protested. ‘There must be men.’ Chapter 1 Here, Charlotte Perkins Gilman takes the liberty of poking fun at how she believes men to view women. Certainly, this is relatable to readers with a similar attitude and mind, as a country with solely women is seemingly impossible. Furthermore, the fact that a male narrator was used to describe all things female, giving different perspective or opinions of Herland and women, enables readers of the female gender to relate, both modern and 1915 readers likewise beca. We have to remember that Herland’s major theme is an indirect analysis of the inequality and attitude of the masculine and feminine gender, which is analyzed through the comparison of the current society to the women-only society. The way Charlotte Perkins Gilman achieved this is to express it through the observations of the narrator and in conversations between the three men and the women.

 

If Herland was told from a different point of view, the story could change in many different ways. Readers could perhaps gain new knowledge or miss out on important information. Furthermore, readers could feel differently about one or more of the characters if the story was told form a different point of view. For example, if Herland was told from Terry’s point of view, Readers would take on a different view of the story as they would with Van’s point of view because Terry is the most traditionally masculine of the male characters, as Van has point out ‘You might say Terry did, too, if you can call his views about women anything so polite as ideals. I always liked Terry. He was a man’s man, very much so, generous and brave and clever; but I don’t think any of us in college days was quite pleased to have him with our sisters. We weren’t very stringent, heavens no! But Terry was “the limit.” Later on–why, of course a man’s life is his own, we held, and asked no questions. But barring a possible exception in favor of a not impossible wife, or of his mother, or, of course, the fair relatives of his friends, Terry’s idea seemed to be that pretty women were just so much game and homely ones not worth considering. ‘ Chapter 1 Terry was also the one who rejects the customs of a gender-neutral land completely, feeling himself without identity if he cannot exude masculinity. His interior monologues, opinion and comments would therefore influence readers in a different direction. Whereas, if the story were told through Jeff’s perspective, readers would perhaps be more sympathetic as he is the one who comes to idolize women most. ‘But I got out of patience with Jeff, too. He had such rose-colored halos on his womenfolks. I held a middle ground, highly scientific, of course, and used to argue learnedly about the physiological limitations of the sex.’ Indeed, Herland would become a pro-male novel instead of a feminist novel as it was intended if the story was told through Terry’s eyes, and it would become too pro-female when told through Jeff’s eyes. Van is therefore the perfect solution as he held the somewhat middle ground in comparison to these two. These are of course assumptions and there is no way to find out, however, it proves that the choice of narrator plays an effect on the readers due to the personality and perception of the characters.