Philomena Polefrone

Gilman's Garden: Herland's Economics of a Good Anthropocene

October 23, 2021 | 1 Minute Read

This article argues that Herland models a divergent proto-environmentalism that paradoxically imagines humanity as nature’s guide and master even while depicting humanity and nature as truly coextensive. In Gilman’s best-known novel can be found the most coherent distillation of her broader attempt, scattered throughout her nonfiction and theoretical writings, to embrace human management theoretically and refuse to idealize wilderness while still valuing nonhuman life and environments. Yet the novel form allows Gilman to do something unavailable in the abstract mode of theory: to truly envision the living of such a world. In the resulting system, she places humanity at the helm of a nature that she paints as destructive and wasteful (when unmanaged), ultimately charging the human species with improving nature away from the very naturalness that makes it so unsatisfactory to her—a process that begins with improving humanity itself. Through a process that I will call backgrounding, Gilman reduces the distinction between the narrative foreground and descriptive background while also imagining an economic system of ambient labor that puts the economy in greater harmony with the social and physical environment upon which it relies.