The Utopian Concept of the Female in East and West. A Critical Comparison of “Sultana's Dream” (1905) and “Herland” (1909)

Scientific Essay, 2016

23 Pages


Table of Contents

1. Abstract

2. Preface

3. Preface: Sultana's Dream (1905) and Herland (1909)

4. Dream in English Literature

5. The Utopian Novel

6. Close Analysis of Sultana's Dream

7. Conclusion: Sultana’s Dream

8. Close Analysis of Herland

9. Outlook

10. Bibliography

1. Abstract

This book is basically a going back to the roots of female writing at the beginning of the 20th century. Although female characters by then had found a fixed place within the English speaking novel most of them represented the classical role of women within class ridden British society where women basically speaking had an inferior role to men, culturally, socially and academically.

The early beginnings of female writing in the sense of a more feminist approach can be set before and after the First World War. This goes for the British, the American and- as in the case here - also for the colonial background. The first female feminist writers were pioneers in the sense that they broke with traditional gender roles and thus challenged the anti-female reality of Western and Islamic societies.

Begum Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain's book Sultana's Dream (1905) and Charlotte Perkin's science fiction concept of a female society must therefore be taken as frontrunners of modern feminist thinking and writing and as a criticism of existing male structures which considered the female to be below the male. It goes without saying that Sultana's Dream is the more radical approach to describe a world without men since the author herself was much more stuck within an anti-female surrounding and the book would never ever have been published without the tolerant husband of the author who supported his wife in her writing.

Thus the choice to use the dream as a basic narrative background enabled the author to move around more freely.

Herland (1909) on the contrary uses classical parts like the utopian mixed with science fiction elements.

Although both novels must be seen against their specific background - here Western, there Islamic - they do have one major element in common. The talk is about the idea of a world where the female reigns and which is more human than its male counterpart. This includes social criticism as well as a cultural and religious one and the hope that in the long run both forces, the female and the male, could live in more harmony than in the past, be it in the West or the East.

2. Preface

The intention of this book is to give some sort of introduction of the early beginnings of female presentation of writers coming from a Muslim and Western background. The attempt of both authors presented here cannot be valued highly enough since both novels - Sultana's Dream and Herland must be seen as frontrunners of feminist female literature which today has gained a strong position in discussions of literary theory. Both books - in their own way ­are revolutionary since they present a female world which is opposed to the male structured reality of both novelists. The present close connection between feminism and 'Postcolonial Studies' cannot be understood without pioneers like Hossain or Gilman.

Interesting to point out right away is the fact that both novelists - although originating from their own cultural context - are rooted in a European and American tradition (Gilman) and an Indian and colonial background (Hossain).

The linking elements which connect both writers are the attempt to critically reflect fixed and anti-female structures and the choice to use utopian and science fiction elements for their literary presentations.

Most attempts to reflect the female have long been incorporated in the English speaking novel with family and generation as central topics of the narration (Erll 2007: 117).

It is especially these two parameters where the female is worked into, openly or as some sort of social and religious criticism which is the case here.

It is also here where the presentation of the (utopian) background both novels present must be seen because the female is not only linked to family and generation (to which society belongs to) but also to something which is called ‘kommunikatives Gedächtnis’ (ibid.: 117) which reflects female and male characters alike as representatives of their specific historical, cultural and religious background.

The roots of feminist writing which can be found in both books must therefore be seen in novels of family and generations which produced a stereotyped and middle-class orientated image of family and class which are so typical for authors like Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, George Eliot or Anthony Trollope. In the past novels reflecting family and tradition took over a key position of many national literatures. The most important ones here to mention are John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga (1906-21), D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow (1915/26) and Virginia Woolf 's The Years (1937).

For colonial writing (and thus for female authors from the former colonies as well) these (and other novels as well) became some sort of basis to start from or some sort of foundation which had to be criticised. The feminist construction of the female, of generation and genealogy disposes of course of a specific role in controversial topics such as postcolonialism, fixed cultural and religious structures, history and feminism as such especially when linked with one another.

It is important to already point out at this very early stage that the (negative and inferior) role of the woman in British colonies like Pakistan and India is often resembled to the conquest and exploitation of the colony as well something which the British e.g. exercised in her 'crown jewel India' (Pelizaeus 2008: 209ff.).

For the USA these matters can be found in Faulkner's Absalom (1936) or Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997).

3. Preface: Sultana's Dream (1905) and Herland (1909)

From the historical point of view both novels analysed here must be placed into a period where the English speaking novel made its way from the pre-modern time to that of the modern. The talk is about the status quo of the novel at the turn to the 20th century where critics often see a sticking to the traditional way of presenting modern themes.

Despite the fact that there were novelists like Joyce or Woolf who favoured the experimental and psychological approach to literature it was this mix of the conventional mode of presentation with themes like sexuality, senselessness or a destroyed communication which prevailed. Although man's isolation, urbanisation or class problems were still of literary concern the English speaking novel had tremendous problems with dealing with developments like French naturalism, symbolism or Ibsen's dramatic concept of existence. The closeness of aestheticism and morality which was typical for the Victorian novel fell apart and the traditional patriarchal structure of society was newly discovered by a new and radical concept of the female. Yet matters of a new concept of the female were still in the hands of male authors like Hardy, Shaw, Wells, Wilde or Lawrence before Woolf or Lessing could bring a radically new female perspective.

Literature of the colonies (to which Sultana's Dream must be attached to) at first was also man dominated. Kipling, Rhodes and Conrad brought in the colonial perspective from an imperialistic and modern point of view but most novels were still stuck in the polarization of mother country and colony which were based on an imperialistic ideology of order, discipline, control and a concept of the world where the European side was a God given privilege.

It therefore took some time before African, Indian, Pakistani and other third world authors started to critically reflect their colonial past. Writers like Achebe, Sly Cheney-Coker or Ngugi wa Thiongo newly discussed African matters. The literature of the subcontinent was first also dominated by male giants like V.S. Naipual or Salman Rushdie and it is where the role of female writers like Sakhawat Hossain cannot valued be highly enough because the background to write and publish was extremely difficult for women.

This background of the 'Postcolonial setting' was traditionally shaped by discrimination of the female. The new and radical discussion of feminism could be seen in the colonies (or former colonies like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA) where authors like Atwood, Munro, Baynton, Garner, Greenville, Brodbers or Rhys openly and radically discussed female matters anew.

It is, however, important to point out here that the author of Herland (Gilman) had a more easier way to discuss the female because matters of the female could be dealt with in a more relaxed situation because of changes within society where the voices of the female were also welcomed by male critics. The more intellectual background of Herland partly can be traced back to the development of the American novel which - at the time of writing of Herland­ moved from realism to romance, a development which was shaped by a large number of female writers such as Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow or Willa Carther.

The presentation of the female in India here basically differs and todays multitude of female authors cannot be explained without pioneers like Sakhawat Hossain. Although there were ways to discuss female portraits on the countryside (like Markandaya's novel Nectar in a Sive, 1954) it was the urban background which most authors favoured (Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day, 1980). This also goes for Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man, 1988) or Arundhati Roy 's The God of Small Things (1997) which also uses the flashback technique of narration. Thus both novels analysed here used the conventional novel as a means to discuss female matters anew and more radical than before pushing aside the traditional concept of women and thus challenging stereotyped matters of male and female.

4. Dream in English Literature

The use of the dream as a narrative element is deeply rooted in English Literature. One if its main functions is to offer an insight into the psychy of a character.

The list of authors using it is long. Among them are Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847). Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), D.H.Lawrence's Fantasia of the Unconsious (1922), H.G. Well's Twelve Stories and a Dream (1903), E.B. White's Stuart Little (1945) or Steven King's Misery (1987).

Other writers who frequently used dreams were Defoe, Richardson, Smollett, Fielding, Burney, Redcliffe and Lewis.

As the novel developed from 1700 - 1900 the symbolic language of the dream offered a valuable means of representing a character's inner life. The use of the dream became esp. important for female writers because they could show the inner life and feelings of a female character who otherwise was described as being stuck in customs and conventions of her time.

Female writers in the 18th and 19th century (like Austen, Brontë sisters or Gaskell) began to write novels within a skill and authority which commanded general respect. The novel as the form of literature helped to internalize the emergence of the middle class in its preoccupation with the problem of how virtue is signified. The dream hereby had the function for signifying this middle class thinking for a presentation of female's inner life, for the development of the plot or for a criticism of an existing morality.

Today the idea of dreaming and representing dreaming mostly consists in using dreams as either medical or psychological phenomena, as a psychological and even precognitive event or as a combination of the two.

Dreams often reflect or tell the truth and they guide the reader to a deeper understanding of the characters in their work. The development of dreams within the English speaking novel helped to add gender issues (along political, cultural and religious ones as well) to the development of the narrative consciousness that became the distinguishing characteristic of the contemporary novel. It also became - as is the case in both novels analysed here - part of an ideological construction of the female as such.

5. The Utopian Novel

The utopian novel as a specific type of the novel has a fixed place in literature. Basically speaking the term utopia stems from the Greek utopos which means no place.

The term was (and is still used) for describing a community or society possessing highly desirable or perfect qualities. The utopian element has become a common literary theme in speculative fiction as well as in science fiction. The list of writers using the utopian is long and it starts within Greek and Roman literature where Plato, The Republic (370 BC), and Plutarch, Life of Lycurgius (100 BC) have to be mentioned. Interestingly speaking the utopian can also be found in many other cultural backgrounds as well (see for the Chinese setting esp. Tao Hua Yuan).

The list of writers and works in English speaking literature is long (and fascinating as well) showing that the utopian novel has never lost its fascination simply because of one of its central functions which consists in a criticism of existing political, cultural or religious conditions. Some of the most important works are:

Utopia (1616) Thomas More, New Atlantis (1627) Sir Francis Bacon, The Isle of Pines (1668) Henry Neville, Robinson Crusoe (1719) Daniel Defoe, Gulliver's Travels (1726) Jonathan Swift, Rasselas (1759) Samuel Johnson, Erewhon (1872) Samuel Johnson, A Modern Utopia (1905) H.G. Well's, Man Like Gods (1923) or Island (1962) by Aldous Huxley.

The dystopia, another genre of the novel, has also found a firm basis in English literature. Basically speaking the dystopia reflects and describes an unpleasant (typically repressive) society which is often propagandized as being utopian itself. Here, as well, the list of works and writers is remarkable.

Some of the most important ones are:

Mundus Alter et Idem (1595) by Joseph Hall, Paris in the Twentieth Century (1963) by Jules Verne, The Time Machine (1895) by H.G. Wells, First Men in the Moon (1901) by H.G.Wells, Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley, It Can't Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis, Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell, Ninety Eighty-Four (1948) by George Orwell, Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding, The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) and Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess, Planet of the Apes (1963) by Pierre Boulli, Farnham's Freehold (1964) by Robert A. Hyallin, The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood, The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry, The Book of Dave (2006) by Will Self, The Hunger Games (2008) and Mocking Jay (2010) by Suzanne Collins, Broken Worlds (2014) by Thomas Brown and Only Ever Yours (2015) by Louise O'Neill.

6. Close Analysis of Sultana's Dream

Sultana's Dream was first published in 1905 in magazines before it came out as a book in 1908. The author Begum Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain is popularly known as Begum Rokeya (1880-1932) and is considered to be the pioneer of female emancipation in India. She is considered to be the first outstanding female Bengali Muslim writer.

Sultana's Dream is close to other books of female writers in those days mostly coming from a Western background. Most critics relate it to Man's Rights (1870) by Annie Denton Cridge, Mizora by Mary E. Bradley (1881), Arqtiq by Anna Adolph (1899) and the novel closely analysed here Herland (1905) by Charlotte Gilman. It is important, however, to point out that all these Western novels must be seen against the Suffrage movement of the early 2oth century.

Sultana's Dream on the contrary has to be looked upon from three aspects, first from Islam, a patriarchal society and British colonial rule because - even today - many critics in Postcolonialism (rightly) see a connection of the exploitation of the female body by men in connection to the exploitation of the colonies.


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The Utopian Concept of the Female in East and West. A Critical Comparison of “Sultana's Dream” (1905) and “Herland” (1909)
Comenius University in Bratislava  (Englische Literatur)
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utopian, concept, female, east, west, critical, comparison, sultana, dream”, herland”
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Dr. Matthias Dickert (Author), 2016, The Utopian Concept of the Female in East and West. A Critical Comparison of “Sultana's Dream” (1905) and “Herland” (1909), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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