July 30, 2013
When young Van Jennings and his friends — Terry and Jeff — invade an isolated society composed entirely of women, they carry with them not only brightly colored scarves and beads but sexist ideological baggage. Jeff is an idealist who regards women as things to be served and protected; Terry is a cynic who views women as conquests. Van, a sociologist, is uniquely able to apprehend the social construction of gender roles… and the fact that a woman-only social order is superior in every way to western civilization. Written by sociologist and author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, best known for “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Herland was first serialized in 1915.
From a slumber as deep as death, as refreshing as that of a healthy child, I slowly awakened.
It was like rising up, up, up through a deep warm ocean, nearer and nearer to full light and stirring air. Or like the return to consciousness after concussion of the brain. I was once thrown from a horse while on a visit to a wild mountainous country quite new to me, and I can clearly remember the mental experience of coming back to life, through lifting veils of dream. When I first dimly heard the voices of those about me, and saw the shining snowpeaks of that mighty range, I assumed that this too would pass, and I should presently find myself in my own home.
That was precisely the experience of this awakening: receding waves of half-caught swirling vision, memories of home, the steamer, the boat, the airship, the forest — at last all sinking away one after another, till my eyes were wide open, my brain clear, and I realized what had happened.
The most prominent sensation was of absolute physical comfort. I was lying in a perfect bed: long, broad, smooth; firmly soft and level; with the finest linen, some warm light quilt of blanket, and a counterpane that was a joy to the eye. The sheet turned down some fifteen inches, yet I could stretch my feet at the foot of the bed free but warmly covered.
I felt as light and clean as a white feather. It took me some time to conscientiously locate my arms and legs, to feel the vivid sense of life radiate from the wakening center to the extremities.
A big room, high and wide, with many lofty windows whose closed blinds let through soft green-lit air; a beautiful room, in proportion, in color, in smooth simplicity; a scent of blossoming gardens outside.
I lay perfectly still, quite happy, quite conscious, and yet not actively realizing what had happened till I heard Terry.
“Gosh!” was what he said.
I turned my head. There were three beds in this chamber, and plenty of room for them.
Terry was sitting up, looking about him, alert as ever. His remark, though not loud, roused Jeff also. We all sat up.
Terry swung his legs out of bed, stood up, stretched himself mightily. He was in a long nightrobe, a sort of seamless garment, undoubtedly comfortable — we all found ourselves so covered. Shoes were beside each bed, also quite comfortable and goodlooking though by no means like our own.
We looked for our clothes — they were not there, nor anything of all the varied contents of our pockets.
A door stood somewhat ajar; it opened into a most attractive bathroom, copiously provided with towels, soap, mirrors, and all such convenient comforts, with indeed our toothbrushes and combs, our notebooks, and thank goodness, our watches — but no clothes.
Then we made a search of the big room again and found a large airy closet, holding plenty of clothing, but not ours.
“A council of war!” demanded Terry. “Come on back to bed — the bed’s all right anyhow. Now then, my scientific friend, let us consider our case dispassionately.”
He meant me, but Jeff seemed most impressed.
“They haven’t hurt us in the least!” he said. “They could have killed us — or — or anything — and I never felt better in my life.”
“That argues that they are all women,” I suggested, “and highly civilized. You know you hit one in the last scrimmage — I heard her sing out — and we kicked awfully.”
Terry was grinning at us. “So you realize what these ladies have done to us?” he pleasantly inquired. “They have taken away all our possessions, all our clothes — every stitch. We have been stripped and washed and put to bed like so many yearling babies — by these highly civilized women.”
Jeff actually blushed. He had a poetic imagination. Terry had imagination enough, of a different kind. So had I, also different. I always flattered myself I had the scientific imagination, which, incidentally, I considered the highest sort. One has a right to a certain amount of egotism if founded on fact — and kept to one’s self — I think.
“No use kicking, boys,” I said. “They’ve got us, and apparently they’re perfectly harmless. It remains for us to cook up some plan of escape like any other bottled heroes. Meanwhile we’ve got to put on these clothes — Hobson’s choice.”
The garments were simple in the extreme, and absolutely comfortable, physically, though of course we all felt like supes in the theater. There was a one-piece cotton undergarment, thin and soft, that reached over the knees and shoulders, something like the one-piece pajamas some fellows wear, and a kind of half-hose, that came up to just under the knee and stayed there — had elastic tops of their own, and covered the edges of the first.
Then there was a thicker variety of union suit, a lot of them in the closet, of varying weights and somewhat sturdier material — evidently they would do at a pinch with nothing further. Then there were tunics, knee-length, and some long robes. Needless to say, we took tunics.
We bathed and dressed quite cheerfully.
“Not half bad,” said Terry, surveying himself in a long mirror. His hair was somewhat longer than when we left the last barber, and the hats provided were much like those seen on the prince in the fairy tale, lacking the plume.
The costume was similar to that which we had seen on all the women, though some of them, those working in the fields, glimpsed by our glasses when we first flew over, wore only the first two.
I settled my shoulders and stretched my arms, remarking: “They have worked out a mighty sensible dress, I’ll say that for them.” With which we all agreed.
“Now then,” Terry proclaimed, “we’ve had a fine long sleep — we’ve had a good bath — we’re clothed and in our right minds, though feeling like a lot of neuters. Do you think these highly civilized ladies are going to give us any breakfast?”
“Of course they will,” Jeff asserted confidently. “If they had meant to kill us, they would have done it before. I believe we are going to be treated as guests.”
“Hailed as deliverers, I think,” said Terry.
“Studied as curiosities,” I told them. “But anyhow, we want food. So now for a sortie!”
A sortie was not so easy.
The bathroom only opened into our chamber, and that had but one outlet, a big heavy door, which was fastened.
“There’s someone outside,” Jeff suggested. “Let’s knock.”
So we knocked, whereupon the door opened.
Outside was another large room, furnished with a great table at one end, long benches or couches against the wall, some smaller tables and chairs. All these were solid, strong, simple in structure, and comfortable in use — also, incidentally, beautiful.
This room was occupied by a number of women, eighteen to be exact, some of whom we distinctly recalled.
Terry heaved a disappointed sigh. “The Colonels!” I heard him whisper to Jeff.
Jeff, however, advanced and bowed in his best manner; so did we all, and we were saluted civilly by the tall-standing women.
We had no need to make pathetic pantomime of hunger; the smaller tables were already laid with food, and we were gravely invited to be seated. The tables were set for two; each of us found ourselves placed vis-a-vis with one of our hosts, and each table had five other stalwarts nearby, unobtrusively watching. We had plenty of time to get tired of those women!
The breakfast was not profuse, but sufficient in amount and excellent in quality. We were all too good travelers to object to novelty, and this repast with its new but delicious fruit, its dish of large rich-flavored nuts, and its highly satisfactory little cakes was most agreeable. There was water to drink, and a hot beverage of a most pleasing quality, some preparation like cocoa.
And then and there, willy-nilly, before we had satisfied our appetites, our education began.
By each of our plates lay a little book, a real printed book, though different from ours both in paper and binding, as well, of course, as in type. We examined them curiously.
“Shades of Sauveur!” muttered Terry. “We’re to learn the language!”
We were indeed to learn the language, and not only that, but to teach our own. There were blank books with parallel columns, neatly ruled, evidently prepared for the occasion, and in these, as fast as we learned and wrote down the name of anything, we were urged to write our own name for it by its side.
The book we had to study was evidently a schoolbook, one in which children learned to read, and we judged from this, and from their frequent consultation as to methods, that they had had no previous experience in the art of teaching foreigners their language, or of learning any other.
On the other hand, what they lacked in experience, they made up for in genius. Such subtle understanding, such instant recognition of our difficulties, and readiness to meet them, were a constant surprise to us.
Of course, we were willing to meet them halfway. It was wholly to our advantage to be able to understand and speak with them, and as to refusing to teach them — why should we? Later on we did try open rebellion, but only once.
That first meal was pleasant enough, each of us quietly studying his companion, Jeff with sincere admiration, Terry with that highly technical look of his, as of a past master — like a lion tamer, a serpent charmer, or some such professional. I myself was intensely interested.
It was evident that those sets of five were there to check any outbreak on our part. We had no weapons, and if we did try to do any damage, with a chair, say, why five to one was too many for us, even if they were women; that we had found out to our sorrow. It was not pleasant, having them always around, but we soon got used to it.
“It’s better than being physically restrained ourselves,” Jeff philosophically suggested when we were alone. “They’ve given us a room — with no great possibility of escape — and personal liberty — heavily chaperoned. It’s better than we’d have been likely to get in a man-country.”
“Man-Country! Do you really believe there are no men here, you innocent? Don’t you know there must be?” demanded Terry.
“Ye—es,” Jeff agreed. “Of course — and yet —”
“And yet — what! Come, you obdurate sentimentalist — what are you thinking about?”
“They may have some peculiar division of labor we’ve never heard of,” I suggested. “The men may live in separate towns, or they may have subdued them — somehow — and keep them shut up. But there must be some.”
“That last suggestion of yours is a nice one, Van,” Terry protested. “Same as they’ve got us subdued and shut up! you make me shiver.”
“Well, figure it out for yourself, anyway you please. We saw plenty of kids, the first day, and we’ve seen those girls—”
“Real girls!” Terry agreed, in immense relief. “Glad you mentioned ’em. I declare, if I thought there was nothing in the country but those grenadiers I’d jump out the window.”
“Speaking of windows,” I suggested, “let’s examine ours.”
We looked out of all the windows. The blinds opened easily enough, and there were no bars, but the prospect was not reassuring.
This was not the pink-walled town we had so rashly entered the day before. Our chamber was high up, in a projecting wing of a sort of castle, built out on a steep spur of rock. Immediately below us were gardens, fruitful and fragrant, but their high walls followed the edge of the cliff which dropped sheer down, we could not see how far. The distant sound of water suggested a river at the foot.
We could look out east, west, and south. To the southeastward stretched the open country, lying bright and fair in the morning light, but on either side, and evidently behind, rose great mountains.
“This thing is a regular fortress — and no women built it, I can tell you that,” said Terry. We nodded agreeingly. “It’s right up among the hills — they must have brought us a long way.”
“We saw some kind of swift-moving vehicles the first day,” Jeff reminded us. “If they’ve got motors, they are civilized.”
“Civilized or not, we’ve got our work cut out for us to get away from here. I don’t propose to make a rope of bedclothes and try those walls till I’m sure there is no better way.”
We all concurred on this point, and returned to our discussion as to the women.
Jeff continued thoughtful. “All the same, there’s something funny about it,” he urged. “It isn’t just that we don’t see any men — but we don’t see any signs of them. The — the — reaction of these women is different from any that I’ve ever met.”
“There is something in what you say, Jeff,” I agreed. “There is a different — atmosphere.”
“They don’t seem to notice our being men,” he went on. “They treat us — well — just as they do one another. It’s as if our being men was a minor incident.”
I nodded. I’d noticed it myself. But Terry broke in rudely.
“Fiddlesticks!” he said. “It’s because of their advanced age. They’re all grandmas, I tell you — or ought to be. Great aunts, anyhow. Those girls were girls all right, weren’t they?”
“Yes—” Jeff agreed, still slowly. “But they weren’t afraid — they flew up that tree and hid, like schoolboys caught out of bounds — not like shy girls.”
“And they ran like marathon winners — you’ll admit that, Terry,” he added.
Terry was moody as the days passed. He seemed to mind our confinement more than Jeff or I did; and he harped on Alima, and how near he’d come to catching her. “If I had—” he would say, rather savagely, “we’d have had a hostage and could have made terms.”
But Jeff was getting on excellent terms with his tutor, and even his guards, and so was I. It interested me profoundly to note and study the subtle difference between these women and other women, and try to account for them. In the matter of personal appearance, there was a great difference. They all wore short hair, some few inches at most; some curly, some not; all light and clean and fresh-looking.
“If their hair was only long,” Jeff would complain, “they would look so much more feminine.”
I rather liked it myself, after I got used to it. Why we should so admire “a woman’s crown of hair” and not admire a Chinaman’s queue is hard to explain, except that we are so convinced that the long hair “belongs” to a woman. Whereas the “mane” in horses is on both, and in lions, buffalos, and such creatures only on the male. But I did miss it — at first.
Our time was quite pleasantly filled. We were free of the garden below our windows, quite long in its irregular rambling shape, bordering the cliff. The walls were perfectly smooth and high, ending in the masonry of the building; and as I studied the great stones I became convinced that the whole structure was extremely old. It was built like the pre-Incan architecture in Peru, of enormous monoliths, fitted as closely as mosaics.
“These folks have a history, that’s sure,” I told the others. “And some time they were fighters — else why a fortress?”
I said we were free of the garden, but not wholly alone in it. There was always a string of those uncomfortably strong women sitting about, always one of them watching us even if the others were reading, playing games, or busy at some kind of handiwork.
“When I see them knit,” Terry said, “I can almost call them feminine.”
“That doesn’t prove anything,” Jeff promptly replied. “Scotch shepherds knit — always knitting.”
“When we get out—” Terry stretched himself and looked at the far peaks, “when we get out of this and get to where the real women are — the mothers, and the girls—”
“Well, what’ll we do then?” I asked, rather gloomily. “How do you know we’ll ever get out?”
This was an unpleasant idea, which we unanimously considered, returning with earnestness to our studies.
“If we are good boys and learn our lessons well,” I suggested. “If we are quiet and respectful and polite and they are not afraid of us — then perhaps they will let us out. And anyway — when we do escape, it is of immense importance that we know the language.”
Personally, I was tremendously interested in that language, and seeing they had books, was eager to get at them, to dig into their history, if they had one.
It was not hard to speak, smooth and pleasant to the ear, and so easy to read and write that I marveled at it. They had an absolutely phonetic system, the whole thing was as scientific as Esparanto yet bore all the marks of an old and rich civilization.
We were free to study as much as we wished, and were not left merely to wander in the garden for recreation but introduced to a great gymnasium, partly on the roof and partly in the story below. Here we learned real respect for our tall guards. No change of costume was needed for this work, save to lay off outer clothing. The first one was as perfect a garment for exercise as need be devised, absolutely free to move in, and, I had to admit, much better-looking than our usual one.
“Forty — over forty — some of ’em fifty, I bet — and look at ’em!” grumbled Terry in reluctant admiration.
There were no spectacular acrobatics, such as only the young can perform, but for all-around development they had a most excellent system. A good deal of music went with it, with posture dancing and, sometimes, gravely beautiful processional performances.
Jeff was much impressed by it. We did not know then how small a part of their physical culture methods this really was, but found it agreeable to watch, and to take part in.
Oh yes, we took part all right! It wasn’t absolutely compulsory, but we thought it better to please.
Terry was the strongest of us, though I was wiry and had good staying power, and Jeff was a great sprinter and hurdler, but I can tell you those old ladies gave us cards and spades. They ran like deer, by which I mean that they ran not as if it was a performance, but as if it was their natural gait. We remembered those fleeting girls of our first bright adventure, and concluded that it was.
They leaped like deer, too, with a quick folding motion of the legs, drawn up and turned to one side with a sidelong twist of the body. I remembered the sprawling spread-eagle way in which some of the fellows used to come over the line — and tried to learn the trick. We did not easily catch up with these experts, however.
“Never thought I’d live to be bossed by a lot of elderly lady acrobats,” Terry protested.
They had games, too, a good many of them, but we found them rather uninteresting at first. It was like two people playing solitaire to see who would get it first; more like a race or a — a competitive examination, than a real game with some fight in it.
I philosophized a bit over this and told Terry it argued against their having any men about. “There isn’t a man-size game in the lot,” I said.
“But they are interesting — I like them,” Jeff objected, “and I’m sure they are educational.”
“I’m sick and tired of being educated,” Terry protested. “Fancy going to a dame school — at our age. I want to Get Out!”
But we could not get out, and we were being educated swiftly. Our special tutors rose rapidly in our esteem. They seemed of rather finer quality than the guards, though all were on terms of easy friendliness. Mine was named Somel, Jeff’s Zava, and Terry’s Moadine. We tried to generalize from the names, those of the guards, and of our three girls, but got nowhere.
“They sound well enough, and they’re mostly short, but there’s no similarity of termination — and no two alike. However, our acquaintance is limited as yet.”
There were many things we meant to ask — as soon as we could talk well enough. Better teaching I never saw. From morning to night there was Somel, always on call except between two and four; always pleasant with a steady friendly kindness that I grew to enjoy very much. Jeff said Miss Zava — he would put on a title, though they apparently had none — was a darling, that she reminded him of his Aunt Esther at home; but Terry refused to be won, and rather jeered at his own companion, when we were alone.
“I’m sick of it!” he protested. “Sick of the whole thing. Here we are cooped up as helpless as a bunch of three-year-old orphans, and being taught what they think is necessary — whether we like it or not. Confound their old-maid impudence!”
Nevertheless we were taught. They brought in a raised map of their country, beautifully made, and increased our knowledge of geographical terms; but when we inquired for information as to the country outside, they smilingly shook their heads.
They brought pictures, not only the engravings in the books but colored studies of plants and trees and flowers and birds. They brought tools and various small objects — we had plenty of “material” in our school.
If it had not been for Terry we would have been much more contented, but as the weeks ran into months he grew more and more irritable.
“Don’t act like a bear with a sore head,” I begged him. “We’re getting on finely. Every day we can understand them better, and pretty soon we can make a reasonable plea to be let out—”
“Let out!” he stormed. “Let out — like children kept after school. I want to Get Out, and I’m going to. I want to find the men of this place and fight! — or the girls—”
“Guess it’s the girls you’re most interested in,” Jeff commented. “What are you going to fight with — your fists?”
“Yes — or sticks and stones — I’d just like to!” And Terry squared off and tapped Jeff softly on the jaw. “Just for instance,” he said.
“Anyhow,” he went on, “we could get back to our machine and clear out.”
“If it’s there,” I cautiously suggested.
“Oh, don’t croak, Van! If it isn’t there, we’ll find our way down somehow — the boat’s there, I guess.”
It was hard on Terry, so hard that he finally persuaded us to consider a plan of escape. It was difficult, it was highly dangerous, but he declared that he’d go alone if we wouldn’t go with him, and of course we couldn’t think of that.
It appeared he had made a pretty careful study of the environment. From our end window that faced the point of the promontory we could get a fair idea of the stretch of wall, and the drop below. Also from the roof we could make out more, and even, in one place, glimpse a sort of path below the wall.
“It’s a question of three things,” he said. “Ropes, agility, and not being seen.”
“That’s the hardest part,” I urged, still hoping to dissuade him. “One or another pair of eyes is on us every minute except at night.”
“Therefore we must do it at night,” he answered. “That’s easy.”
“We’ve got to think that if they catch us we may not be so well treated afterward,” said Jeff.
“That’s the business risk we must take. I’m going — if I break my neck.” There was no changing him.
The rope problem was not easy. Something strong enough to hold a man and long enough to let us down into the garden, and then down over the wall. There were plenty of strong ropes in the gymnasium — they seemed to love to swing and climb on them — but we were never there by ourselves.
We should have to piece it out from our bedding, rugs, and garments, and moreover, we should have to do it after we were shut in for the night, for every day the place was cleaned to perfection by two of our guardians.
We had no shears, no knives, but Terry was resourceful. “These Jennies have glass and china, you see. We’ll break a glass from the bathroom and use that. ‘Love will find out a way,’” he hummed. “When we’re all out of the window, we’ll stand three-man high and cut the rope as far up as we can reach, so as to have more for the wall. I know just where I saw that bit of path below, and there’s a big tree there, too, or a vine or something — I saw the leaves.”
It seemed a crazy risk to take, but this was, in a way, Terry’s expedition, and we were all tired of our imprisonment.
So we waited for full moon, retired early, and spent an anxious hour or two in the unskilled manufacture of man-strong ropes.
To retire into the depths of the closet, muffle a glass in thick cloth, and break it without noise was not difficult, and broken glass will cut, though not as deftly as a pair of scissors.
The broad moonlight streamed in through four of our windows — we had not dared leave our lights on too long — and we worked hard and fast at our task of destruction.
Hangings, rugs, robes, towels, as well as bed-furniture — even the mattress covers — we left not one stitch upon another, as Jeff put it.
Then at an end window, as less liable to observation, we fastened one end of our cable, strongly, to the firm-set hinge of the inner blind, and dropped our coiled bundle of rope softly over.
“This part’s easy enough — I’ll come last, so as to cut the rope,” said Terry.
So I slipped down first, and stood, well braced against the wall; then Jeff on my shoulders, then Terry, who shook us a little as he sawed through the cord above his head. Then I slowly dropped to the ground, Jeff following, and at last we all three stood safe in the garden, with most of our rope with us.
“Good-bye, Grandma!” whispered Terry, under his breath, and we crept softly toward the wall, taking advantage of the shadow of every bush and tree. He had been foresighted enough to mark the very spot, only a scratch of stone on stone, but we could see to read in that light. For anchorage there was a tough, fair-sized shrub close to the wall.
“Now I’ll climb up on you two again and go over first,” said Terry. “That’ll hold the rope firm till you both get up on top. Then I’ll go down to the end. If I can get off safely, you can see me and follow — or, say, I’ll twitch it three times. If I find there’s absolutely no footing — why I’ll climb up again, that’s all. I don’t think they’ll kill us.”
From the top he reconnoitered carefully, waved his hand, and whispered, “OK,” then slipped over. Jeff climbed up and I followed, and we rather shivered to see how far down that swaying, wavering figure dropped, hand under hand, till it disappeared in a mass of foliage far below.
Then there were three quick pulls, and Jeff and I, not without a joyous sense of recovered freedom, successfully followed our leader.
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