At the turn of the twentieth century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a celebrity—acclaimed as a leader in the feminist movement and castigated for her divorce, her relinquishment of custody of her daughter, and her unconventional second marriage. She was also widely read, with stories in popular magazines and with dozens of books in print. Her most famous short story, the intensely personal “The Yellow Wallpaper,” was read as a horror story when first published in 1892 and then lapsed into obscurity before being rediscovered and reinterpreted by feminist scholars in the 1970s.
Noted anthologist Barbara Solomon has put together a remarkable collection of Gilman’s fiction, which includes twenty short stories and the complete text of Herland, the landmark utopian novel that remained unavailable for more than sixty years. From “The Unexpected,” printed in Kate Field’s Washington in 1890, to such later tales as “Mrs. Elder’s Idea,” published in Gilman’s own periodical, The Forerunner, readers can again encounter this witty, original, and audacious woman who dared to challenge the status quo and who created fiction that continues to be fresh and timeless.
Edited and with an Introduction by Barbara H. Solomon
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935), a major American feminist and prolific writer, published a dozen books of social analysis, almost two hundred poems and close to two hundred short stories and novels. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, a grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design before marrying her first husband, Charles Walter Stetson. Her mental breakdown after the birth of her daughter led to the writing of her now classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” She left her husband in 1888 and supported herself by lecturing, editing, writing, and teaching. After she obtained a divorce, she created a public scandal by allowing her daughter to live with her ex-husband and his new wife. In 1900, she married George Houghton Gilman. Her writings include Women and Economics (1898), hailed as “the Bible” of the women’s movement, Concerning Children (1900), Human Work (1904), Man-Made World (1911), and The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (1935). After being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, she committed suicide in Pasadena, California.
Barbara H. Solomon is professor emeritus of English and Women’s Studies at Iona College. Her major academic interests are twentieth-century American and world literature. Among the anthologies she has edited are The Awakening and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin; Other Voices, Other Vistas; and The Haves and Have-Nots. With Eileen Panetta, she has coedited Once upon a Childhood; Passages: 24 Modern Indian Stories; and Vampires, Zombies, Werewolves, and Ghosts: 25 Classic Stories of the Supernatural.
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I would like to acknowledge the role of the Iona students studying “Images of Women in Modern American Literature” during the fall of 1991. Their enthusiastic reception of Herland helped to make my work on this text very rewarding. To Kenneth Hedman and Charlotte Snyder of the United States Military Academy Library at West Point, I am indebted for considerable help in locating Gilman materials. A great deal of assistance was offered by Mary A. Bruno and the staff of Iona’s Secretarial Services Center: Teresa Alifante, Patti Besen, Nancy Girardi, and Teresa Martin, as well as by Adrienne Franco and Anthony Todman of Ryan Library. At the Department of English, I was cheerfully aided by two student assistants: Susan Pavliscak and Shigeko Yamaguchi.
In the spring of 1887, a depressed and desperate young woman from Providence, Rhode Island, traveled to Philadelphia to consult Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, the famous physician and specialist in nervous disorders. She had been ill for about three years, experiencing symptoms which today might well lead to a medical diagnosis of clinical depression. Moreover, her situation and misery were perfect examples of the condition which would be described so accurately three-quarters of a century later by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique as “The Problem That Has No Name.”
After a month of treatment at S. Weir Mitchell’s sanitarium, the young woman was discharged with the following prescription: “Live as domestic a life as possible. . . . Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.”
Fortunately for posterity, the patient, who was Charlotte Perkins Gilman (though at the time she was Charlotte Perkins Stetson), found it impossible to live according to the doctor’s instructions. She later wrote in her autobiography that those directions caused her to come very close to losing her mind.
Thus, in the fall of 1888, still in poor health and with little money, Charlotte Perkins Stetson did the unthinkable. She left Walter Stetson, her husband of four years, and traveled with her three-year-old daughter, Katharine, to Pasadena, California. There she began a life characterized by the independence, determination, and hard work which were to be her salvation.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman did not become America’s leading feminist writer and lecturer at the turn of the century through a casual or purely intellectual inclination. She had attempted to live her life according to the collective wisdom of her era about women, and she had found the precepts handed down to women by respected authorities to be not merely misguided or wrong, but deadly, leading to unlived lives, to stultification, depression, and desperation. Gilman turned to writing both fiction and nonfiction as she explored her own personal experience as girl and woman, as wife and mother, and as she studied the economic and social facts of the communal experience of American women. Like the majority of women of her generation, Charlotte was reared in a world that considered her being female as the foremost fact about her. Thus, she was raised to take her place in the domestic sphere in which it was assumed all normal women would find happiness and fulfillment. As she attempted to live in the sphere assigned to women, with the goals which were described in her era as “the cult of true womanhood,” she learned firsthand that no matter how fervently the religious, political, and social leaders expounded upon the responsibilities and duties of women to their parents, husbands, and children, a life lived vicariously was not a real life at all.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s experience of the destructiveness of America’s cult of feminine domesticity began in infancy with the relationship of her parents. Soon after Charlotte’s birth, her mother, Mary Perkins, was abandoned by her husband, Frederick Beecher Perkins. He may well have left after being told by a physician that his wife must never again become pregnant. A member of the illustrious Beecher family, which included the preacher Lyman Beecher, the famous authors Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher, as well as the abolitionist minister and writer Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick, in contrast, was an unsuccessful and debt-ridden man who seemed eager to avoid all family responsibilities. Mary was forced to raise her two young children alone, often living in the households and on the charity of relatives. She, Charlotte, and Thomas, who was a year older than his sister, were forced to move some nineteen times during Charlotte’s youth.
Mary Perkins appears to have been a woman with few inner resources and little wisdom. Suffering pathetically from the lack of her husband’s love, she thought that if she denied all signs of affection to Charlotte, her daughter would never need nor long for them. Mary only revealed her love or tenderness for Charlotte when she believed that the child was asleep. Having discovered this pattern, the affection-starved girl tried to remain awake until her mother came to her bed, “even using pins to prevent dropping off. . . . Then,” writes Gilman in her autobiography, “how carefully I pretended to be sound asleep and how rapturously I enjoyed being gathered into her arms, held close and kissed.”
By the time she was a young woman, Charlotte had formed unusual and strong resolutions against marrying. In a journal entry written when she was twenty-one, she recorded a number of reasons for remaining single, which included her desire for “freedom,” for having her own “unaided will” in all matters, and her preference for providing for herself rather than trusting another to provide for her. She added a description of one of her goals: “I love to be able and free to help any and every one, as I never could be if my time and thoughts were taken by that extended self—a family.”
Ironically, only a few days after writing this diary entry, Charlotte met Charles Walter Stetson, an attractive artist. He assiduously courted her, overcame her misgivings and objections, and two years later, they were married. As we have seen from the disastrous effects and psychological distress Charlotte suffered during the years they lived as husband and wife, their marriage brought together two people whose characters, ambitions, values, and needs made them totally unsuited for one another.
One aspect of Walter’s character that would prove destructive to Charlotte was his romanticized ideal of male dominance. Even during their courtship, Walter had noted his desire to have Charlotte “look up to me as if I were superior . . . that my love of her has conquered.” He resented her independent nature and recorded his pleasure in his belief that her “spirit is broken.”
Often well-meaning, and certainly not malicious, Walter was simply a rather conventional specimen of a turn-of-the-century American male, one who resented the idea of his wife’s having ambitions and desiring accomplishments other than those associated with the roles of wife and mother. Vulnerable as a painter who was struggling to win recognition of his own work, he undoubtedly thought of Charlotte’s desire for literary achievements as unnatural and as reflecting unfavorably upon him.
Their inevitable problems were exacerbated by the birth of Katharine less than a year after the marriage and the straitened circumstances of the household. Unable to function as a wife or mother, unable to cope with her deteriorating mental and physical state, and unable to find helpful medical advice, Charlotte left Providence, never to return to Walter.
She settled in Pasadena, choosing to live near the Channing family. Charlotte had become very close to them, particularly to Grace Ellery Channing, during the years when they had lived in Providence. William F. Channing, his wife, and two daughters were an affectionate, lively, and well-educated family. In their congenial household, Charlotte had enjoyed stimulating discussions and literary activities in a cheerful and relaxed atmosphere. They were sympathetic to Charlotte and willing to help her as much as they could, even locating the small wooden house in Pasadena that Charlotte rented for Katharine and herself.
Charlotte and Grace were especial girlhood friends who had a great deal in common. Grace, too, wrote fiction and poetry, and the two women had amused themselves by writing a comic play together during a vacation trip. Interestingly, their friendship was not destroyed by Grace’s subsequent marriage to Walter not long after he and Charlotte had finalized their divorce. On the contrary, because Charlotte knew Grace to be a gentle, affectionate, and dependable woman, and because during that period Charlotte was traveling extensively and preoccupied with earning a living, she arranged for Katharine, then nine years old, to live with Grace and Walter when they married in 1894.
When Charlotte first arrived in Pasadena, she struggled to support herself and her child, but the move to California proved to be curative and revitalizing. Within a surprisingly short time, she began to earn money through writing and lecturing. Her poem “Similar Cases” (published in 1890 in the Nationalist) brought her work to the attention of William Dean Howells, the influential author and the editor of the Atlantic Monthly. She began to establish first a local and later a national reputation as an inspiring speaker on women’s issues and on socialism. The topics of her lectures anticipated those which would be discussed in American women’s consciousness-raising groups of the late 1960s and 1970s. She recognized that women’s economic dependence, relegation to drudgery in the home, exclusion from work in the professions, industry, and commerce, and submission to male authority were preventing women from leading fully human and productive lives. Most important, she understood that women’s problems were not individual or isolated instances, and that only reform on a national, system-wide basis could ameliorate their conditions. Gilman crisscrossed America for more than three decades preaching the need for economic, political, and social reform in the ways that people live together as families and work at their occupations.
Her successful career as a lecturer was inextricably linked to her career as a writer. The themes of her first and best-known work of nonfiction, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898), were those she had been presenting in her provocative lectures.
During the time Charlotte was writing this book, in which she focused in a public way on the most important issues of her life, she was also writing about herself in a private way in an extraordinary series of letters to her cousin, George Houghton Gilman. Charlotte and Houghton had been fond acquaintances as children. An unusually scholarly and cultured individual, he had become a New York attorney. Although he was obviously competent and professional in his work, he was not particularly ambitious or career-oriented. After a brief meeting in 1897, he and Charlotte began to correspond. Her letters became increasingly lengthy and introspective as she found herself describing her fears, self-doubts, needs, hopes, and beliefs to this gentle and understanding relative.
During this courtship by correspondence—for this is, indeed, what it turned out to be—Charlotte revealed all of the character traits and aspirations that she must have imagined had made her unlovable. To her great delight, she found that these self-revelations did not dismay Houghton at all. Instead, he repaid her confidences with an approval and affirmation of her innermost self that made true intimacy possible. In 1900 they were married.
As Charlotte recalled her thirty-four-year marriage to Houghton in her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she judged that they had “lived happily ever after.” Always thinking as a writer, she added, “If this were a novel, now, here’s that happy ending.”
Secure as a beloved wife and increasingly self-confident as a famous author of national stature, Gilman followed Women and Economics with four additional and closely related volumes: Concerning Children (1900), The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), Human Work (1904), and The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture (1911).
Although she had written and published poetry and short stories for more than two decades, with the founding of her own monthly magazine, the Forerunner, in 1909, Charlotte Perkins Gilman entered an astounding creative period of eight years. The magazine, which was entirely written by Gilman, typically contained one fully developed short story, one very brief and didactic story, a chapter of a novel (generally serialized over the twelve issues of a single year), as well as several poems, articles, and book reviews. During Gilman’s lifetime, three of the novels serialized in the Forerunner were subsequently published as separate books: What Diantha Did (1910), The Crux (1911), and Moving the Mountain (1911). The other novels preserved in the issues of the Forerunner are Mag-Marjorie (1912), Won Over (1913), Benigna Machiavelli (1914), Herland (1915), and With Her in Ourland (1916).
A prolific writer and tireless activist for women’s rights, Charlotte Perkins Gilman believed that far-reaching change could be brought about through education and experience. If human beings could abandon their caves, their huts, their tenements to embrace the well-built and technologically sophisticated homes of the best modern architects, they could also abandon their ideas about women’s and men’s lives, which were just as primitive and useless as a cave home would be to a modern family.
Gilman believed in her work of bringing this message to women everywhere, much in the same way that her Beecher ancestors had preached about sin and salvation to their throngs of listeners. In spite of a painful and terminal illness, cancer, she struggled to write and lecture during her last months of life. Knowing that the end must come soon, Gilman returned to Pasadena, the sanctuary to which she had fled so many years earlier and now the home of her married daughter, Katharine. During Charlotte’s final weeks, Grace Channing Stetson—now, like Charlotte, a widow—also returned to help care for her old and dear friend. With Charlotte’s days of work behind her and only the agony of an incurable disease ahead, Charlotte Perkins Gilman ended her life, by chloroform, in the summer of 1935.
During subsequent decades, it appeared that Gilman had been greatly mistaken about the significance of her work, especially her writing. Descriptions of her life and contributions simply disappeared. For example, the 1962 edition of The Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature profiles three Gilmans, Arthur Gilman, Daniel Gilman, and Lawrence Gilman. No Charlotte. Similarly, the 1965 edition of The Oxford Companion to American Literature includes sketches of Caroline Howard Gilman and Daniel Gilman. No Charlotte. But at about this time, a burgeoning interest in feminist issues led historians, social critics, teachers, and students to search for the best sources about the conditions of women. And their search inevitably led to Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Thus, 1966 marked the republication of Women and Economics, the first of her numerous works to be reissued during the following years. Although the readers’ interest appeared to be concentrated on Gilman’s nonfiction, the publication of The Yellow Wallpaper by the Feminist Press in 1973 led to a rediscovery and appreciation of Gilman as a powerful American literary force.
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Ironically, Gilman’s best-known and most artistically successful story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is not typical of her fiction in three important aspects: the point of view, the use of symbolic imagery, and the unhappy ending. The story, originally published in 1892, records the anguish and decline of a young wife and mother who is being treated for mental illness by her physician husband. The wife, the first-person narrator, explains that although she has “nervous troubles [that] are dreadfully depressing,” her husband, John, believes that she must use her “will and self-control” and that “there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency. . . .” John’s treatment, including a tonic, specific foods, isolation, and a great deal of rest with “a schedule prescription for each hour in the day,’’ is obviously exacerbating his wife’s psychological problems, although he is oblivious to all of the signs that this is so. The woman believes “that congenial work, with excitement and change” would be good for her, but of course the views of the sufferer are not to be taken seriously. The wife is subject to her husband’s authority in her two central roles: as a dutiful, subservient turn-of-the-century wife and as a fanciful, emotional female patient.
The powerful imagery of the story revolves around the pattern of the wallpaper in the couple’s bedroom—the room that John has chosen—in the country house he has rented for a three-month stay. Early in the story, the wife examines her reactions to the wallpaper:
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
As the story progresses and the wife becomes more severely ill, her perceptions of the wallpaper become increasingly dramatic and are clearly linked to her own condition. At night, the pattern is revealed to her as a series of bars behind which a woman is imprisoned. The narrator describes her discovery:
The front pattern does move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!
Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.
Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.
And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so: I think that is why it has so many heads.
The behavior of the woman trapped in the wallpaper is a symbolic parallel for the situation of the wife who is trapped by her severe mental illness and by a husband and household in which control of her life has been taken from her. Increasingly, the narrator behaves like a hostage, hiding her writing and her thoughts from her husband/captor. The story concludes with the ultimate breakdown of the narrator, in an unusual—but fitting—ending.
With the exception of one or two very early stories, most of Gilman’s fiction ends very differently from “The Yellow Wallpaper.” An analysis of “Three Thanksgivings” (1909), which was among the first stories Gilman published in the Forerunner, reveals a number of the conflicts, heroines, and important themes that are characteristic of her fiction.
Delia Morrison, a widow with two married children, would prefer to live in her own spacious house, but needs to generate an annual income as well as to raise $2,000 to pay off the mortgage. Her financial problems would be resolved if she were to accept the marriage proposal of Peter Butts, a man she does not love.
Andrew and Jean, Mrs. Morrison’s children, have suggested that their mother sell her house and live with one of them. She visits each on two successive Thanksgiving holidays and discovers the kind of life she would experience in their households.
Andrew, a minister, and his wife, Annie, live in a house that Delia finds overheated and small. The “home” they offer is, in fact, a room that measures twelve by fifteen feet. Annie, who has no children, is a precise and efficient housekeeper who needs no help from her mother-in-law. Delia is invited out with the couple:
Waited upon and watched over and set down among the old ladies and gentlemen—she had never realized so keenly that she was no longer young. Here nothing recalled her youth, every careful provision anticipated age.
During the second Thanksgiving, Mrs. Morrison stays with Jean and her husband, Joseph, for a week. They have four small children including a new baby. The room they provide is about the same size as the one in Andrew’s house, but it has a sloped ceiling and is an additional flight up.
There was no going visiting here. Jeannie could not leave the babies. And few visitors; all the little suburb being full of similarly overburdened mothers. Such as called found Mrs. Morrison charming. What she found them, she did not say.
A final similarity of the offers of both children concerns the funds that would be realized by the sale of Delia’s large house when she moves. Andrew believes he can profitably invest the money on his mother’s behalf and Joseph, her son-in-law, wants to put the money into his own store and pay interest for its use. Both children assume that she will be financially dependent upon them and send Mrs. Morrison the fare for her Thanksgiving visits.
When Delia returns home after the first visit, she evaluates her situation. Her house is quite large and comfortable, but she has accommodated boarders in the past and thoroughly disliked running a boardinghouse. She lives with an energetic black servant, Sally, who has carefully preserved many of the assets of the house: napkins, tablecloths, towels, and china. Mrs. Morrison briefly considers the possibility of opening either a hotel or a girls’ school, but rejects these ideas as unattractive and impractical. Her solution to the problem, founding and running the Haddleton Rest and Improvement Club, is one that enables Delia to continue to live independently, to use her management skills, to enjoy her pleasant home, and to serve other women.
Delia Morrison typifies the women Charlotte Perkins Gil-man depicted in stories written during more than three decades. Sensible and intelligent, she is at an economic disadvantage as a woman in a society with low expectations for women. She is one of a number of older heroines, about fifty years of age, such as Mary Crosley of “Old Mrs. Crosley,” Mrs. Gordins of “Making a Change,” and Grace Elder of “Mrs. Elder’s Idea,” who are dismayed to find that although they feel competent, are energetic, and want to perform satisfying work, they have been written off by family members as old ladies who should confine themselves to porch rocking chairs.
Since the most crucial events of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s life were leaving her husband and reconstructing her life around her work, it is not surprising that one of Gilman’s major lifelong themes was the need of women to do useful and meaningful work. Clearly, the benefits of a congenial occupation go far beyond simply earning a salary. Gilman was one of America’s first writers to understand the ways in which paid labor outside the home helped women to achieve a strong identity and a healthy sense of self-respect.
“Three Thanksgivings,” which is representative of much of Gilman’s fiction, also dramatizes the social good that is accomplished by Delia Morrison in her newly established business. Her organization responds to the pressing needs of the farm wife. When she travels to town for the day, she often feels isolated and weary. She lacks the companionship and support of other women who lead similar lives. The streets of the town are filled with shops where she is welcome as long as she is a customer who is spending money. The usual cafés or restaurants of the town are places she would find too expensive, but also they are places where she would be expected to eat a meal without lingering.
Like Delia Morrison, numerous Gilman heroines find that in addressing their own desire to do meaningful work, they can aid other women, bringing about significant and much-needed social change. The changes or improvements are generally in areas in which American politicians have shown little interest or initiative.
For example, Mrs. Joyce, in “Martha’s Mother,” longs to live in the city and to be surrounded by people, as well as to use her talent and energy in working. The enterprise that provides a solution to her problems also improves the lives of urban working girls. Similarly, the resolution of the crisis of Julia Gordins and her mother-in-law leads to the establishment of a child-care facility which would be the envy of any contemporary community.
In much of Gilman’s fiction, the satisfying work undertaken by women leads to both reasonable profits and community enrichment. Among the realistic details Gilman’s heroines very willingly supply in several stories are an accounting of their costs for supplies, labor, and rent, as well as the resulting income. In “Three Thanksgivings,” for example, we learn that
on Saturday Mrs. Morrison hired two helpers for half a day, for half a dollar each. She stocked the library with many magazines for fifty dollars a year. She covered fuel, light and small miscellanies with another hundred. And she fed her multitude with the plain viands agreed upon, at about four cents apiece.
Even when a woman’s work does not particularly benefit others, the wealth she earns can enrich her own life in admirable ways. In “Her Beauty,” for example, the clothes which Amaryllis Delong designs and sells are well made and flattering, but not inexpensive. There is, however, nothing frivolous in the way Amaryllis uses her profits from the clothing business:
She was able to travel, to study to her heart’s content, to meet people, to hear lectures, to read books, to see pictures, to attend plays, to feed her soul with knowledge and to enjoy, as far as it exists in the modern world, the beauty she desired.
As dramatized by Gilman, independence is usually the essential goal of a woman’s occupational success. The heroine who performs work efficiently, has original ideas, is well organized, and has a successful career is a woman who can make choices based on her preferences. She will not be coerced by economic circumstances. Furthermore, marriage is not the only option for such a woman, not her only way of attaining respect, social status, and financial support.
Delia’s proposal from Peter, in “Three Thanksgivings,” introduces another of Gilman’s recurring motifs, the evaluation of possible or existing marriages from the perspective of whether they are desirable for the woman. Peter Butts is an unpleasant suitor in several respects. In the first place, Delia has known him since girlhood and has never found him attractive. In the second, as a self-made, affluent man, he is pompous and tactless. Finally, he has no qualms about trying to manipulate Delia through his economic power over her and envisions possessing her as his experienced wife-housekeeper. Obviously, if Delia is to triumph, she must reject Butt’s unwanted proposal.
In an era in which so much popular fiction concluded with a proposal signaling a happy ending for the heroine, Gilman often portrayed marriage as an impediment to a woman’s continued growth and happiness, depicting inappropriate suitors who were not admirable or marriageable males. Instead, the wise Gilman heroine knows that a single life in which she finds fulfilling work is a better choice than a marriage based on such elements as the need for economic security or on the flattering attentions of an admiring male. For example, in one of her earliest stories, “My Poor Aunt” (1891), Gilman briefly surveys the marriages of three sisters, Ellen, Lucy, and Kate. The youngest, Kate, had divorced her husband many years before the opening of the story because “she found the shame and injury heaped upon her by the scoundrel she had so trustfully married too much for a woman to bear in honor.” The two conventional sisters who remained married—one wealthy, one impoverished—have led difficult and equally unrewarding lives, filled with “uninterrupted trials and disappointments.” Surprisingly, their experiences as wives have not made them very perceptive or critical of the institution of marriage. Gilman clearly concludes that the divorced sister, who has pursued a career as an editor and publisher, is the happily unmarried heroine of the story.
In one of her last stories, “Mrs. Beazley’s Deeds” (1916), Gilman effectively dramatizes her belief that a marriage to a cruel and destructive husband is not a sacred or irrevocable bond. The woman in this situation, Maria Beazley, must be helped so that she does not sacrifice her life and the lives of her young children to an unworthy man.
On the other hand, in a number of stories by Gilman, intelligent and sympathetic suitors do appear. The happy marriages she dramatizes, however, are never based on superficial romantic attraction. A wise Gilman heroine wants the man who courts her to understand who she is and what she needs in order to be happy. The young widow Mrs. Leland of “Her Housekeeper” (1910) is completely forthright in explaining the reasons she does not want to marry again. She is now a successful actress and would not give up her work for any man. Moreover, she knows herself and is not self-conscious about describing the freedom and comfort that are all-important to her sense of well-being.
In Gilman’s fiction, there are good marriages that are satisfying, nurturing, and pleasant for both wives and husbands. But these marriages occur between articulate and thoughtful individuals who have considerable self-knowledge and insight into each other, and who both engage in interesting work outside of the home.
The happy conclusion of a typical Gilman short story, like that of “Three Thanksgivings,” is generally neither a forced nor a tacked-on ending. It develops from the characters’ traits and the events and has an emotional as well as a logical rightness. Readers might have found tragic endings marked by continued sacrifice or suffering or even death more dramatic and moving, but Gilman clearly intended to create fiction in which women were not to be pitied or mourned, but emulated and celebrated.
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Given the lifetime preoccupations and optimism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, we are not surprised that Herland, a feminist utopian novel, was her quintessential work of fiction. By 1915, the year of its publication, she had written more than one hundred short stories, six novels, and five volumes of nonfiction on topics related to women’s lives. Central to her thought was the need for reform. America, she knew, needed to change its view of women. Men had to relinquish their stereotypical ideas about the differences between males and females and the kinds of lives that, as a result of these supposed differences, were suitable for each. The many women who shared or accepted such stereotypical views of themselves had to rethink their assumptions and reeducate themselves to discover the truth about their potential and about the kind of individuals they could become in a world where they were not limited by society’s narrow expectations.
Utopian fiction was the ideal genre for Gilman’s fervently held beliefs and designs for reform. Utopias are landscapes of the imagination where the inhabitants lead the best possible—or even perfect—lives. In one, a writer can dramatize how a society ought to be organized according to rational principles and for the good of all. Gilman’s objectives were to instruct, to question, to stimulate reevaluation—perhaps by shocking—and to entertain. And she succeeded.
Herland is a country in which there are no males and have not been any for two thousand years. With no experience of courtship and no expectation of romantic love, the women of this nation have become different from other women around the world, but these differences are positive and far-reaching. Without the need to dress or behave in ways that are pleasing to men, these women are free to fulfill their own expectations, to depend on themselves and on other women for a civilized life.
In the central action of Herland, three young American men, Vandyke Jennings, Terry O. Nicholson, and Jeff Margrave, explore this land without males. The three are characterized almost exclusively in terms of one quality: their views of women. Terry, at one extreme, is a womanizer, seeing all females as sex objects who—no matter how much they protest—want to be mastered by a man. Jeff, at the other extreme, is the chivalric romantic who idealizes women and would like them to remain on their pedestals, where they can be beautiful, charming, useless, and protected by men. Vandyke, the novel’s first-person narrator, is the character who is most moderate in his views about women and most open to the new ideas and experiences he encounters.
As the visitors learn about the way the women of Herland live, the novel’s readers make two kinds of discovery. First, we learn about the three explorers’ beliefs and expectations of women—one source of the novel’s gentle comedy. In this regard, many of the most successful scenes of the novel depict the ways in which the women of Herland innocently challenge the “truths” about women that Van, Terry, and Jeff have always accepted and—more important—acted upon when relating to women. Without ever being aware that they are doing so, the inhabitants of Herland demonstrate that many well-known “truths” or “facts” about women are really unfounded stereotypes.
The second type of discovery results from the contrast between the comments, actions, and goals of the admirable women of Herland and some of the typical practices and ideals of conventional American women. Many of Gilman’s female contemporaries had never seriously or critically examined the traditional attitudes about themselves that they had absorbed and always accepted. The author’s method for urging reform was to depict the inspiring women of Herland so as to enable American women to observe their own world from a new vantage point and with an enriched consciousness.
For example, the women of Herland are dressed very differently from the way women in America, and in Europe as well, would dress. In his first encounter with several young girls, Van notes: “We saw short hair, hatless, loose, and shining; a suit of some light firm stuff, the closest of tunics and kneebreeches, met by trim gaiters.” Shortly afterwards, Van records the men’s behavior with a group of older Herland women and Terry’s foolish attempt to impress them with gifts for ornamenting themselves:
He stepped forward, with his brilliant ingratiating smile, and made low obeisance to the women before him. Then he produced another tribute, a broad soft scarf of filmy texture, rich in color and pattern, a lovely thing, even to my eye, and offered it with a deep bow to the tall unsmiling woman who seemed to head the ranks before him. She took it with a gracious nod of acknowledgment, and passed it on to those behind her.
He tried again, this time bringing out a circlet of rhinestones, a glittering crown that should have pleased any woman on earth. He made a brief address, including Jeff and me as partners in his enterprise, and with another bow presented this. Again his gift was accepted and, as before, passed out of sight.
Gilman did not consider matters of women’s clothing and accessories trivial issues. In fact, throughout 1915, she had serialized the twelve chapters of an extensive nonfiction work titled The Dress of Women in the same issues of the Forerunner in which Herland appeared.
The conventional and elaborate clothing worn by women in Gilman’s era had, she understood, significant consequences. It reflected society’s insistence that women wear “the mask of beauty,” and the intense quest of many women for finery to help make them appear more beautiful helped, instead, to make them vain, petty, and inappropriately competitive. Judged and valued on the basis of their appearance, many women exerted their energy in the pursuit of beauty instead of the pursuit of education, strength of character, and meaningful work.
There were compelling reasons beyond those effects of “the mask of beauty” for Gilman’s attack on the fashion of her day. Women’s tightly laced corsets, ill-fitting shoes, and layers of petticoats under long skirts prevented them from engaging in normal physical activities and gave support to those stereotypes of literature, painting, and advertising that portrayed them as delicate creatures, unsuited to strenuous life outside the home.
Moreover, women’s clothing sometimes caused serious illness and even death. We now know that the pressure exerted by steel and whalebone corsets could injure and displace a woman’s internal organs and could prevent the normal circulation of blood. The small and pointed shoes into which women were encouraged to cram their feet could damage their arches and calf muscles, as well as causing bunions and clawed toes. The trailing skirts made them vulnerable to accidents such as falls and fires. Even women’s large and extravagant hats, though not physically dangerous, had the damaging effect of making it difficult for the world to take their wearers seriously.
Thus in one of Herland’stypical scenes of discovery, the men describe their ideas of ladies’ hats to these unadorned women, possibly to inspire emulation. Terry illustrates the kind of hats he knows and approves of, “with plumes and quills and those various tickling things that stick out so far. . . .”
As for them, they said they only wore hats for shade when working in the sun; and those were big light straw hats, something like those used in China and Japan. In cold weather they wore caps or hoods.
“But for decorative purposes—don’t you think they would be becoming?” pursued Terry, making as pretty a picture as he could of a lady with a plumed hat.
They by no means agreed to that, asking quite simply if the men wore the same kind. We hastened to assure her that they did not—drew for them our kind of headgear.
“And do no men wear feathers in their hats?”
“Only Indians,” Jeff explained. “Savages, you know.” And he sketched a war bonnet to show them.
“And soldiers,” I added, drawing a military hat with plumes.
They never expressed horror or disapproval, nor indeed much surprise—just a keen interest. And the notes they made!—miles of them!
In this exchange and, indeed, throughout the novel, Gilman explores America’s double standard for males and females. Similarly, almost all of the ideals and practices in Herland become topics of discovery, often leading to explicit comparisons with life in America as articulated by the surprised male characters.
The function of our homes is one of the most significant of these. As Van, Jeff, and Terry attempt to set up conventional households as couples with their Herland wives, the women and men describe their expectations of a home. For Ellador, Celis, and Alima, home is a place for rest and relaxation after they have finished their strenuous outside work. They assume that the usual housekeeping services will be performed, as they are throughout Herland, by well-paid, well-trained professionals who have an aptitude for this work. For Van, Jeff, and Terry, home is the place where their wives are supposed to serve them, to cook, to clean, to launder clothes. A home, for a husband, is a place where he rests from his labor and is nurtured; a home, for a wife, is often a place where she performs work, usually of the most unrewarding menial type. The issue for Gilman can be simply phrased: why can’t homes nurture women as well as men and children?
Among Gilman’s most serious concerns in the novel is the nurturing of children. The common bond that holds the society of Herland together and provides the impetus for the women’s noblest activities is the rearing of the young. Gilman had long despaired of the practice in middle-class American families of shunting the care of infants and children off to the least-trained female laborers, whose work skills and education were so minimal that they did not qualify for any other type of employment.
Repeatedly, Van, the narrator of Herland, is awed by the way babies and children are treated in the many scenes in which he observes and discusses them. Concluding that the women have created a “perfect system of child rearing,” he explains that because of their desire to raise their young “in an environment calculated to allow the richest, freest growth, they had deliberately remodeled and improved the whole state.” Throughout it, all inhabitants focus their intelligence and talents on the real future of their world, the next generation. Here, each child’s well-being, development, and happiness are of the greatest concern not only of the woman to whom the child was born but to the entire community. The birth mothers are joined by all of Herland’s women in sharing a sacred obligation to the young. An inescapable comparison occurs to Van:
The big difference was that whereas our children grow up in private homes and families, with every effort made to protect and seclude them from a dangerous world, here they grew up in a wide friendly world, and knew it for theirs, from the first.
Gilman recognized that in America the rearing of children was a burdensome and isolating responsibility only of women. While the joys of motherhood were extolled and many expressed concern about the needs of children, the reality was that few resources were forthcoming and the sacrifices expected from mothers had no parallels in sacrifices of fathers.
Throughout the pages of Herland, Gilman dramatizes attractive alternatives. The women in her imagined country emphasize goals that are different from ours. Their daily mode of living and structuring of family life and society demonstrate alternatives for raising our children, running our households, performing our work, and relating to one another in humane and fulfilling terms. Gilman’s Herland, as well as her other fiction, is the vehicle through which she attempted, first, to ameliorate the condition of women, but also to better the lives of men as well. She believed that while one half of the human race lacked the same opportunities, respect, and comfort afforded the other half, neither could find satisfaction or pleasure in their relationships. As a believer in progress, she used her considerable skill to transport her readers to a distant place where, like Gulliver among the Brobdingnagians, they could look at human behavior from a radically different perspective. As we struggle today to improve the quality of our lives in a world that seems increasingly materialistic, violent, stressful, and indifferent to individuals, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s vision of a humane utopia becomes more poignant with each passing year.
—Barbara H. Solomon
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.
I haven’t said where it was for fear some self-appointed missionaries, or traders, or land-greedy expansionists, will take it upon themselves to push in. They will not be wanted, I can tell them that, and will fare worse than we did if they do find it.
It began this way. There were three of us, classmates and friends—Terry O. Nicholson (we used to call him the Old Nick, with good reason), Jeff Margrave, and I, Vandyck Jennings.
We had known each other years and years, and in spite of our differences we had a good deal in common. All of us were interested in science.
Terry was rich enough to do as he pleased. His great aim was exploration. He used to make all kinds of a row because there was nothing left to explore now, only patchwork and filling in, he said. He filled in well enough—he had a lot of talents—great on mechanics and electricity. Had all kinds of boats and motorcars, and was one of the best of our airmen.
We never could have done the thing at all without Terry.
Jeff Margrave was born to be a poet, a botanist—or both— but his folks persuaded him to be a doctor instead. He was a good one, for his age, but his real interest was in what he loved to call “the wonders of science.”
As for me, sociology’s my major. You have to back that up with a lot of other sciences, of course. I’m interested in them all.
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.
We three had a chance to join a big scientific expedition. They needed a doctor, and that gave Jeff an excuse for dropping his just-opening practice; they needed Terry’s experience, his machine, and his money; and as for me, I got in through Terry’s influence.
The expedition was up among the thousand tributaries and enormous hinterland of a great river, up where the maps had to be made, savage dialects studied, and all manner of strange flora and fauna expected.
But this story is not about that expedition. That was only the merest starter for ours.
* * *
My interest was first roused by talk among our guides. I’m quick at languages, know a good many, and pick them up readily. What with that and a really good interpreter we took with us, I made out quite a few legends and folk myths of these scattered tribes.
And as we got farther and farther upstream, in a dark tangle of rivers, lakes, morasses, and dense forests, with here and there an unexpected long spur running out from the big mountains beyond, I noticed that more and more of these savages had a story about a strange and terrible Woman Land in the high distance.
“Up yonder,” “Over there,” “Way up”—was all the direction they could offer, but their legends all agreed on the main point—that there was this strange country where no men lived—only women and girl children.
None of them had ever seen it. It was dangerous, deadly, they said, for any man to go there. But there were tales of long ago, when some brave investigator had seen it—a Big Country, Big Houses, Plenty People—All Women.
Had no one else gone? Yes—a good many—but they never came back. It was no place for me—of that they seemed sure.
I told the boys about these stories, and they laughed at them. Naturally I did myself. I knew the stuff that savage dreams are made of.
But when we had reached our farthest point, just the day before we all had to turn around and start for home again, as the best of expeditions must in time, we three made a discovery.
The main encampment was on a spit of land running out into the main stream, or what we thought was the main stream. It had the same muddy color we had been seeing for weeks past, the same taste.
I happened to speak of that river to our last guide, a rather superior fellow with quick, bright eyes.
He told me that there was another river—“over there, short river, sweet water, red and blue.”
I was interested in this and anxious to see if I had understood, so I showed him a red and blue pencil I carried, and asked again.
Yes, he pointed to the river, and then to the southwestward. “River—good water—red and blue.”
Terry was close by and interested in the fellow’s pointing.
“What does he say, Van?”
I told him.
Terry blazed up at once.
“Ask him how far it is.”
The man indicated a short journey; I judged about two hours, maybe three.
“Let’s go,” urged Terry. “Just us three. Maybe we can really find something. May be cinnabar in it.”
“May be indigo,” Jeff suggested, with his lazy smile.
It was early yet; we had just breakfasted; and leaving word that we’d be back before night, we got away quietly, not wishing to be thought too gullible if we failed, and secretly hoping to have some nice little discovery all to ourselves.
It was a long two hours, nearer three. I fancy the savage could have done it alone much quicker. There was a desperate tangle of wood and water and a swampy patch we never should have found our way across alone. But there was one, and I could see Terry, with compass and notebook, marking directions and trying to place landmarks.
We came after a while to a sort of marshy lake, very big, so that the circling forest looked quite low and dim across it. Our guide told us that boats could go from there to our camp—but “long way—all day.”
This water was somewhat clearer than that we had left, but we could not judge well from the margin. We skirted it for another half hour or so, the ground growing firmer as we advanced, and presently we turned the corner of a wooded promontory and saw a quite different country—a sudden view of mountains, steep and bare.
“One of those long easterly spurs,” Terry said appraisingly. “May be hundreds of miles from the range. They crop out like that.”
Suddenly we left the lake and struck directly toward the cliffs. We heard running water before we reached it, and the guide pointed proudly to his river.
It was short. We could see where it poured down a narrow vertical cataract from an opening in the face of the cliff. It was sweet water. The guide drank eagerly and so did we.
“That’s snow water,” Terry announced. “Must come from way back in the hills.”
But as to being red and blue—it was greenish in tint. The guide seemed not at all surprised. He hunted about a little and showed us a quiet marginal pool where there were smears of red along the border; yes, and of blue.
Terry got out his magnifying glass and squatted down to investigate.
“Chemicals of some sort—I can’t tell on the spot. Look to me like dyestuffs. Let’s get nearer,” he urged, “up there by the fall.”
We scrambled along the steep banks and got close to the pool that foamed and boiled beneath the falling water. Here we searched the border and found traces of color beyond dispute. More—Jeff suddenly held up an unlooked-for trophy.
It was only a rag, a long, raveled fragment of cloth. But it was a well-woven fabric, with a pattern, and of a clear scarlet that the water had not faded. No savage tribe that we had heard of made such fabrics.
The guide stood serenely on the bank, well pleased with our excitement.
“One day blue—one day red—one day green,” he told us, and pulled from his pouch another strip of bright-hued cloth.
“Come down,” he said, pointing to the cataract. “Woman Country—up there.”
Then we were interested. We had our rest and lunch right there and pumped the man for further information. He could tell us only what the others had—a land of women—no men—babies, but all girls. No place for men—dangerous. Some had gone to see—none had come back.
I could see Terry’s jaw set at that. No place for men? Dangerous? He looked as if he might shin up the waterfall on the spot. But the guide would not hear of going up, even if there had been any possible method of scaling that sheer cliff, and we had to get back to our party before night.
“They might stay if we told them,” I suggested.
But Terry stopped in his tracks. “Look here, fellows,” he said. “This is our find. Let’s not tell those cocky old professors. Let’s go on home with ’em, and then come back—just us—have a little expedition of our own.”
We looked at him, much impressed. There was something attractive to a bunch of unattached young men in finding an undiscovered country of strictly Amazonian nature.
Of course we didn’t believe the story—but yet!
“There is no such cloth made by any of these local tribes,” I announced, examining those rags with great care. “Somewhere up yonder they spin and weave and dye—as well as we do.”
“That would mean a considerable civilization, Van. There couldn’t be such a place—and not known about.”
“Oh, well, I don’t know. What’s that old republic up in the Pyrenees somewhere—Andorra? Precious few people know anything about that, and it’s been minding its own business for a thousand years. Then there’s Montenegro—splendid little state—you could lose a dozen Montenegroes up and down these great ranges.”
We discussed it hotly all the way back to camp. We discussed it with care and privacy on the voyage home. We discussed it after that, still only among ourselves, while Terry was making his arrangements.
He was hot about it. Lucky he had so much money—we might have had to beg and advertise for years to start the thing, and then it would have been a matter of public amusement—just sport for the papers.
But T. O. Nicholson could fix up his big steam yacht, load his specially made big motorboat aboard, and tuck in a “dissembled” biplane without any more notice than a snip in the society column.
We had provisions and preventives and all manner of supplies. His previous experience stood him in good stead there. It was a very complete little outfit.
We were to leave the yacht at the nearest safe port and go up that endless river in our motorboat, just the three of us and a pilot; then drop the pilot when we got to that last stopping place of the previous party, and hunt up that clear water stream ourselves.
The motorboat we were going to leave at anchor in that wide shallow lake. It had a special covering of fitted armor, thin but strong, shut up like a clamshell.
“Those natives can’t get into it, or hurt it, or move it,” Terry explained proudly. “We’ll start our flier from the lake and leave the boat as a base to come back to.”
“If we come back,” I suggested cheerfully.
“’Fraid the ladies will eat you?” he scoffed.
“We’re not so sure about those ladies, you know,” drawled Jeff. “There may be a contingent of gentlemen with poisoned arrows or something.”
“You don’t need to go if you don’t want to,” Terry remarked drily.
“Go? You’ll have to get an injunction to stop me!” Both Jeff and I were sure about that.
But we did have differences of opinion, all the long way.
An ocean voyage is an excellent time for discussion. Now we had no eavesdroppers, we could loll and loaf in our deck chairs and talk and talk—there was nothing else to do. Our absolute lack of facts only made the field of discussion wider.
“We’ll leave papers with our consul where the yacht stays,” Terry planned. “If we don’t come back in—say a month—they can send a relief party after us.”
“A punitive expedition,” I urged. “If the ladies do eat us we must make reprisals.”
“They can locate that last stopping place easy enough, and I’ve made a sort of chart of that lake and cliff and waterfall.”
“Yes, but how will they get up?” asked Jeff.
“Same way we do, of course. If three valuable American citizens are lost up there, they will follow somehow—to say nothing of the glittering attractions of that fair land—let’s call it ‘Feminisia,’” he broke off.
“You’re right, Terry. Once the story gets out, the river will crawl with expeditions and the airships rise like a swarm of mosquitoes.” I laughed as I thought of it. “We’ve made a great mistake not to let Mr. Yellow Press in on this. Save us! What headlines!”
“Not much!” said Terry grimly. “This is our party. We’re going to find that place alone.”
“What are you going to do with it when you do find it—if you do?” Jeff asked mildly.
Jeff was a tender soul. I think he thought that country—if there was one—was just blossoming with roses and babies and canaries and tidies, and all that sort of thing.
And Terry, in his secret heart, had visions of a sort of sublimated summer resort—just Girls and Girls and Girls—and that he was going to be—well, Terry was popular among women even when there were other men around, and it’s not to be wondered at that he had pleasant dreams of what might happen. I could see it in his eyes as he lay there, looking at the long blue rollers slipping by, and fingering that impressive mustache of his.
But I thought—then—that I could form a far clearer idea of what was before us than either of them.
“You’re all off, boys,” I insisted. “If there is such a place—and there does seem some foundation for believing it—you’ll find it’s built on a sort of matriarchal principle, that’s all. The men have a separate cult of their own, less socially developed than the women, and make them an annual visit—a sort of wedding call. This is a condition known to have existed—here’s just a survival. They’ve got some peculiarly isolated valley or tableland up there, and their primeval customs have survived. That’s all there is to it.”
“How about the boys?” Jeff asked.
“Oh, the men take them away as soon as they are five or six, you see.”
“And how about this danger theory all our guides were so sure of?”
“Danger enough, Terry, and we’ll have to be mighty careful. Women of that stage of culture are quite able to defend themselves and have no welcome for unseasonable visitors.”
We talked and talked.
And with all my airs of sociological superiority I was no nearer than any of them.
It was funny though, in the light of what we did find, those extremely clear ideas of ours as to what a country of women would be like. It was no use to tell ourselves and one another that all this was idle speculation. We were idle and we did speculate, on the ocean voyage and the river voyage, too.
“Admitting the improbability,” we’d begin solemnly, and then launch out again.
“They would fight among themselves,” Terry insisted. “Women always do. We mustn’t look to find any sort of order and organization.”
“You’re dead wrong,” Jeff told him. “It will be like a nunnery under an abbess—a peaceful, harmonious sisterhood.”
I snorted derision at this idea.
“Nuns, indeed! Your peaceful sisterhoods were all celibate, Jeff, and under vows of obedience. These are just women, and mothers, and where there’s motherhood you don’t find sisterhood—not much.”
“No, sir—they’ll scrap,” agreed Terry. “Also we mustn’t look for inventions and progress; it’ll be awfully primitive.”
“How about that cloth mill?” Jeff suggested.
“Oh, cloth! Women have always been spinsters. But there they stop—you’ll see.”
We joked Terry about his modest impression that he would be warmly received, but he held his ground.
“You’ll see,” he insisted. “I’ll get solid with them all—and play one bunch against another. I’ll get myself elected king in no time—whew! Solomon will have to take a back seat!”
“Where do we come in on that deal?” I demanded. “Aren’t we Viziers or anything?”
“Couldn’t risk it,” he asserted solemnly. “You might start a revolution—probably would. No, you’ll have to be beheaded, or bowstrung—or whatever the popular method of execution is.”
“You’d have to do it yourself, remember,” grinned Jeff. “No husky black slaves and mamelukes! And there’d be two of us and only one of you—eh, Van?”
Jeff’s ideas and Terry’s were so far apart that sometimes it was all I could do to keep the peace between them. Jeff idealized women in the best Southern style. He was full of chivalry and sentiment, and all that. And he was a good boy; he lived up to his ideals.
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.
It was really unpleasant sometimes to see the notions he had.
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.
We were not in the least “advanced” on the woman question, any of us, then.
So we joked and disputed and speculated, and after an interminable journey, we got to our old camping place at last.
It was not hard to find the river, just poking along that side till we came to it, and it was navigable as far as the lake.
When we reached that and slid out on its broad glistening bosom, with that high gray promontory running out toward us, and the straight white fall clearly visible, it began to be really exciting.
There was some talk, even then, of skirting the rock wall and seeking a possible footway up, but the marshy jungle made that method look not only difficult but dangerous.
Terry dismissed the plan sharply.
“Nonsense, fellows! We’ve decided that. It might take months—we haven’t the provisions. No, sir—we’ve got to take our chances. If we get back safe—all right. If we don’t, why, we’re not the first explorers to get lost in the shuffle. There are plenty to come after us.”
So we got the big biplane together and loaded it with our scientifically compressed baggage: the camera, of course; the glasses; a supply of concentrated food. Our pockets were magazines of small necessities, and we had our guns, of course—there was no knowing what might happen.
Up and up and up we sailed, way up at first, to get “the lay of the land” and make note of it.
Out of that dark green sea of crowding forest this high-standing spur rose steeply. It ran back on either side, apparently to the far-off white-crowned peaks in the distance, themselves probably inaccessible.
“Let’s make the first trip geographical,” I suggested. “Spy out the land, and drop back here for more gasoline. With your tremendous speed we can reach that range and back all right. Then we can leave a sort of map on board—for that relief expedition.”
“There’s sense in that,” Terry agreed. “I’ll put off being king of Ladyland for one more day.”
So we made a long skirting voyage, turned the point of the cape, which was close by, ran up one side of the triangle at our best speed, crossed over the base where it left the higher mountains, and so back to our lake by moonlight.
“That’s not a bad little kingdom,” we agreed when it was roughly drawn and measured. We could tell the size fairly by our speed. And from what we could see of the sides—and that icy ridge at the back end—“It’s a pretty enterprising savage who would manage to get into it,” Jeff said.
Of course we had looked at the land itself—eagerly, but we were too high and going too fast to see much. It appeared to be well forested about the edges, but in the interior there were wide plains, and everywhere parklike meadows and open places.
There were cities, too; that I insisted. It looked—well, it looked like any other country—a civilized one, I mean.
We had to sleep after that long sweep through the air, but we turned out early enough next day, and again we rose softly up the height till we could top the crowning trees and see the broad fair land at our pleasure.
“Semitropical. Looks like a first-rate climate. It’s wonderful what a little height will do for temperature.” Terry was studying the forest growth.
“Little height! Is that what you call little?” I asked. Our instruments measured it clearly. We had not realized the long gentle rise from the coast perhaps.
“Mighty lucky piece of land, I call it,” Terry pursued. “Now for the folks—I’ve had enough scenery.”
So we sailed low, crossing back and forth, quartering the country as we went, and studying it. We saw—I can’t remember now how much of this we noted then and how much was supplemented by our later knowledge, but we could not help seeing this much, even on that excited day—a land in a state of perfect cultivation, where even the forests looked as if they were cared for; a land that looked like an enormous park, only it was even more evidently an enormous garden.
“I don’t see any cattle,” I suggested, but Terry was silent. We were approaching a village.
I confess that we paid small attention to the clean, well-built roads, to the attractive architecture, to the ordered beauty of the little town. We had our glasses out; even Terry, setting his machine for a spiral glide, clapped the binoculars to his eyes.
They heard our whirring screw. They ran out of the houses—they gathered in from the fields, swift-running light figures, crowds of them. We stared and stared until it was almost too late to catch the levers, sweep off and rise again; and then we held our peace for a long run upward.
“Gosh!” said Terry, after a while.
“Only women there—and children,” Jeff urged excitedly.
“But they look—why, this is a civilized country!” I protested. “There must be men.”
“Of course there are men,” said Terry. “Come on, let’s find ’em.”
He refused to listen to Jeff’s suggestion that we examine the country further before we risked leaving our machine.
“There’s a fine landing place right there where we came over,” he insisted, and it was an excellent one—a wide, flat-topped rock, overlooking the lake, and quite out of sight from the interior.
“They won’t find this in a hurry,” he asserted, as we scrambled with the utmost difficulty down to safer footing. “Come on, boys—there were some good lookers in that bunch.”
Of course it was unwise of us.
It was quite easy to see afterward that our best plan was to have studied the country more fully before we left our swooping airship and trusted ourselves to mere foot service. But we were three young men. We had been talking about this country for over a year, hardly believing that there was such a place, and now—we were in it.
It looked safe and civilized enough, and among those upturned, crowding faces, though some were terrified enough, there was great beauty—on that we all agreed.
“Come on!” cried Terry, pushing forward. “Oh, come on! Here goes for Herland!”
Not more than ten or fifteen miles we judged it from our landing rock to that last village. For all our eagerness we thought it wise to keep to the woods and go carefully.
Even Terry’s ardor was held in check by his firm conviction that there were men to be met, and we saw to it that each of us had a good stock of cartridges.
“They may be scarce, and they may be hidden away somewhere—some kind of a matriarchate, as Jeff tells us; for that matter, they may live up in the mountains yonder and keep the women in this part of the country—sort of a national harem! But there are men somewhere—didn’t you see the babies?”
We had all seen babies, children big and little, everywhere that we had come near enough to distinguish the people. And though by dress we could not be sure of all the grown persons, still there had not been one man that we were certain of.
“I always liked that Arab saying, ‘First tie your camel and then trust in the Lord,’” Jeff murmured; so we all had our weapons in hand, and stole cautiously through the forest. Terry studied it as we progressed.
“Talk of civilization,” he cried softly in restrained enthusiasm. “I never saw a forest so petted, even in Germany. Look, there’s not a dead bough—the vines are trained—actually! And see here”—he stopped and looked about him, calling Jeff’s attention to the kinds of trees.
They left me for a landmark and made a limited excursion on either side.
“Food-bearing, practically all of them,” they announced returning. “The rest, splendid hardwood. Call this a forest? It’s a truck farm!”
“Good thing to have a botanist on hand,” I agreed. “Sure there are no medicinal ones? Or any for pure ornament?”
As a matter of fact they were quite right. These towering trees were under as careful cultivation as so many cabbages. In other conditions we should have found those woods full of fair foresters and fruit gatherers; but an airship is a conspicuous object, and by no means quiet—and women are cautious.
All we found moving in those woods, as we started through them, were birds, some gorgeous, some musical, all so tame that it seemed almost to contradict our theory of cultivation—at least until we came upon occasional little glades, where carved stone seats and tables stood in the shade beside clear fountains, with shallow bird baths always added.
“They don’t kill birds, and apparently they do kill cats,” Terry declared. “Must be men here. Hark!”
We had heard something: something not in the least like a birdsong, and very much like a suppressed whisper of laughter—a little happy sound, instantly smothered. We stood like so many pointers, and then used our glasses, swiftly, carefully.
“It couldn’t have been far off,” said Terry excitedly. “How about this big tree?”
There was a very large and beautiful tree in the glade we had just entered, with thick wide-spreading branches that sloped out in lapping fans like a beech or pine. It was trimmed underneath some twenty feet up, and stood there like a huge umbrella, with circling seats beneath.
“Look,” he pursued. “There are short stumps of branches left to climb on. There’s someone up that tree, I believe.”
We stole near, cautiously.
“Look out for a poisoned arrow in your eye,” I suggested, but Terry pressed forward, sprang up on the seat-back, and grasped the trunk. “In my heart, more likely,” he answered. “Gee! Look, boys!”
We rushed close in and looked up. There among the boughs overhead was something—more than one something—that clung motionless, close to the great trunk at first, and then, as one and all we started up the tree, separated into three swift-moving figures and fled upward. As we climbed we could catch glimpses of them scattering above us. By the time we had reached about as far as three men together dared push, they had left the main trunk and moved outward, each one balanced on a long branch that dipped and swayed beneath the weight.
We paused uncertain. If we pursued further, the boughs would break under the double burden. We might shake them off, perhaps, but none of us was so inclined. In the soft dappled light of these high regions, breathless with our rapid climb, we rested awhile, eagerly studying our objects of pursuit; while they in turn, with no more terror than a set of frolicsome children in a game of tag, sat as lightly as so many big bright birds on their precarious perches and frankly, curiously, stared at us.
“Girls!” whispered Jeff, under his breath, as if they might fly if he spoke aloud.
“Peaches!” added Terry, scarcely louder. “Peacherinos—apricot-nectarines! Whew!”
They were girls, of course, no boys could ever have shown that sparkling beauty, and yet none of us was certain at first.
We saw short hair, hatless, loose, and shining; a suit of some light firm stuff, the closest of tunics and knee-breeches, met by trim gaiters. As bright and smooth as parrots and as unaware of danger, they swung there before us, wholly at ease, staring as we stared, till first one, and then all of them burst into peals of delighted laughter.
Then there was a torrent of soft talk tossed back and forth; no savage singsong, but clear musical fluent speech.
We met their laughter cordially, and doffed our hats to them, at which they laughed again, delightedly.
Then Terry, wholly in his element, made a polite speech, with explanatory gestures, and proceeded to introduce us, with pointing finger. “Mr. Jeff Margrave,” he said clearly; Jeff bowed as gracefully as a man could in the fork of a great limb. “Mr. Vandyck Jennings”—I also tried to make an effective salute and nearly lost my balance.
Then Terry laid his hand upon his chest—a fine chest he had, too, and introduced himself; he was braced carefully for the occasion and achieved an excellent obeisance.
Again they laughed delightedly, and the one nearest me followed his tactics.
“Celis,” she said distinctly, pointing to the one in blue; “Alima”—the one in rose; then, with a vivid imitation of Terry’s impressive manner, she laid a firm delicate hand on her gold-green jerkin—“Ellador.” This was pleasant, but we got no nearer.
Excerpted from "Herland and Selected Stories"
Copyright © 2014 Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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