Herland: A story without structure

It was an interesting week in Coursera. We read two novels, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The two novels are dramatically different, though both are excellent. While I did not discuss A Princess of Mars in my essay below, it is worth noting that in contrast to Herland, A Princess of Mars reflects the traditional story arc in its entirety.

Herland is an unusual story due to its unique structure. It lacks a traditional story arc of stasis, triggering event, quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal, and resolution (Hale). Herland lacks most of these elements, and many of those present are as minimal as possible.

We are never shown any of the protagonists prior to their quest (in the stasis phase). We join them just as they decide to embark on the journey after learning of the myth (the trigger), and their prior lives are referenced only superficially. We learn their professions, and their general disposition toward women. They do embark on a quest, which constitutes most of the novel.

The suprise, critical choice, climax, reversal, and resolution are virtually non-existent. While the protagonists are certainly surprised by different aspects of Herland, there is virtually no conflict. The sole conflict is between Terry and the society, which comes to a climax of sorts when he assaults his wife and is expelled, very near the end of the novel. Consequently, the reversal and resolution aspects of the story, where a new normal is to be established, are entirely missing.

The minimal structure of the novel is largely a consequence of the near-perfect society depicted. There is little opportunity for conflict or surprise when there is little action or possibility of dispute. In some sense the traditional story arc reflects drama that is eliminated in Herland. The novel refers to this directly when describing the arts of Herland, which do not include conflict, jealously, or negative human emotions as much art and theater does.

This relative lack of structure works to support the novel’s premise. Any conflict introduced would reduce the apparent perfection of the society, undercutting the novel’s main theme. Far from reducing the work’s effectiveness, it enhances it. The main theme of the novel could not be supported any other way.

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