A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Archive for the month “April, 2014”

The Problem of “Mizora”: Utopia or Dystopia?

Mizora coverBefore Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland there was Mary E. Bradley Lane’s all-female utopia Mizora; A World of Women (1880). Published in the Cincinnati Commercial (Murat Halstead, editor) as the memoir of Vera Zarovich, an exiled Russian aristocrat, it was a decade later that Lane’s name entered into the story. Lane’s attachment to the novel can only be attributed to the 1890 reissue of Mizora that listed her in the copyright, though nothing biographic is known, and Halstead’s introduction states that the author ‘kept herself in concealment so closely that ever her husband did not know’.[1] It is certainly not a coincidence that Mizora originated in the land of John Cleves Symmes, Jr., where Lane likely encountered the Symmes Theory after the publication of Americus Symmes’s collection of his late father’s work, if not before. Though Symmes’s name is never mentioned, it is his geography being utilised for Mizora’s construction. That it is not overly elaborated upon suggests an expected familiarity of this hypothesised earth structure among readers.

Mizora is a novel told in the first person without a fictive frame save its subtitle and author. There is no secondary author/narrator/editor, as there are in many other hollow earth tales. Perhaps by virtue of being a female narrator in a female world, there is no romance, no action or adventure, no suspense; as Standish puts it, ‘Once Vera gets to Mizora, virtually nothing happens… The only real plot question pulling a reader through the narrative is, What happened to the men?’[2] Such is the fate of many utopian stories, where world building overtakes all other narrative considerations.

This utopia in the centre of the world – like all other utopias – is a stand-in for the perfectibility of American (and by extension global) living conditions. Flaws in the contemporary socio-political-economic system are revealed by the inverse, hyperbolic perfection of the fictional system. For Mizora, it is not simply the elimination of men and brunettes (a somewhat disturbing course of action) that results in their utopia: it is the fundamental application of universal education and science that revolutionises their world and frees women from their traditional domestic roles. What Zarovitch mistakenly believes to be a seminary is actually a ‘College of Experimental Science’ (p. 19), linking in the reader’s mind religious observances with scientific practice. At one point, Zarovitch asks if the Mizorans worship Nature (implying paganism) but is repudiated for her ‘superstitious notions of religion’ (p. 120). When Zarovitch presses the point, emphasising the need for moral guidance, she is called a ‘daughter of the dark ages’ and told to ‘turn to the benevolent and ever-willing Science. She is the goddess who has led us out of ignorance and superstition’ (p. 121). Zarovitch pushes for the power with prayer, and is countered with the almost blasphemous (by 1880 standards) assertion, ‘Prayer never saved one…from premature death’ (p. 121). Though the Mizorans first equate nature and god with each other, they also suggests science as divinity; nature and science must therefore be one in the same to Mizorans, but they have overpowered nature in the elimination of men, animals, and organic cultivation. In retrospect, it appears to be an untenable dichotomy of philosophy.

Though the extinction of men on the surface world is not a genuine suggestion for the improvement of daily life, the narrative offers an opportunity to reflect upon the possibility that men are not the only lords of governance and science. Zarovitch remarks that Mizora ‘would be a paradise for man’, yet begins to wonder why ‘he is not here in lordly possession’:

In my world man was regarded, or had made himself regarded, as a superior being. He had constituted himself the Government, the Law, Judge, Jury and Executioner… He was active and belligerent always in obtaining and keeping every good thing for himself. He was indispensable. Yet here was a nation of fair, exceedingly fair women doing without him, and practicing the arts and sciences far beyond the imagined pale of human knowledge and skill.” (pp. 21-2)

At no point does Zarovitch (and by extension Lane) push for a replication of all Mizoran practices – she had a husband and child that she never repudiates – but reflections such as these illuminate the female (or at least Lane’s) perspective on men in the world, an unflattering perspective. Male readers should at least be made aware of this view women hold, reconsider their dominant circumstance, and amend their ways accordingly.

Modern academics interested in late-nineteenth century utopias, especially feminist ones, often single out Mizora for examination, and at times, condemnation. Karen A. Bruce declares that ‘while Lane and her contemporaries may have considered Mizora utopian, a modern audience would be more likely to consider it dystopian.’[3] Bruce points out that ‘in a post-Holocaust world’ such eugenic sentiments must appear deeply disturbing.[4] But the way in which Mizora is structured – and it should be noted that the Mizorans do not mistreat Zarovich, even though she has black hair (p. 15) – is not being championed as the only way for the surface world to organise itself; universal education and healthy living is the message Lane wants to get across, and there is nothing dystopian about that. Katharine Broad considers Mizora to be a ‘failure of feminism’ for its ‘repressive vision of reproductive and social engineering’.[5] But in the text itself, when Zarovitch asks the Preceptress how she may bring such social harmony to the surface world, the Preceptress answers:

Educate them. Convince the rich that by educating the poor, they are providing for their own safety They will have fewer prisons to build, fewer courts to sustain. Educated Labor will work out its own salvation against Capital. Let he children of toil start life with exactly the same educational advantages that are enjoyed by the rich. Give them the same physical and moral training, and let the rich pay for it by taxes.” (pp. 41-2)

The Preceptress does not command the extermination of men and brunettes to achieve utopia; only universal education funded by those in a position to pay for it. This message appears to be lost in modern examination of Mizora, placing all of the focus on the narrative’s racial construction, which does not carry over into the socio-political moral espoused.

[1] Mary E. Bradley Lane, Mizora; A World of Women (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1999). Introduction by Joan Saberhagen. P. 5. [All other citations from this edition in text.]

[2] Standish, Hollow Earth, p. 194.

[3] Karen A. Bruce, “Aryans in Utopia: Mary Bradley Lane’s Mizora as an Example of the Contemporaneity of the Utopian Form”, in Topic: The Washington & Jefferson College Review (2010), pp. 24-5.

[4] Bruce, “Aryans in Utopia”, p. 28.

[5] Katherine Broad, ‘Race Reproduction, and the Failures of Feminism in Mary Bradley Lane’s Mizora’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Fall 2009), p. 247.

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