Plot Overview Three adventurous friends—Vandyck Jennings (the narrator, also called Van), Terry Nicholson, and Jeff Margrave—join a scientific expedition to one of the few remaining uncharted areas of the world, although Van leaves the exact region ambiguous as he tells the story. As they travel, the friends hear persistent rumors of a strange land, hidden high in the mountains, that is populated only by women.
Intrigued, the men investigate the rumors and do, in fact, find evidence of an advanced, isolated culture in the mountains, cut off from the rest of the world. Doubtful about the existence of an all-female country, the men are nevertheless excited by the chance to explore an unknown land, and they resolve to return on their own to find it. The three are driven by a genuine desire for knowledge, a love of adventure, and, although Van is ashamed to admit it, by fantasies stoked by the tales they have heard of a land full of women without men.
The friends equip an expedition back to the hidden plateau and begin to survey the area using Terry’s airplane. From the air, they see signs of an advanced civilization and decide to land. As they explore the hidden country, the men notice the obvious cultivation of the forests and the great skill with which the roads have been laid. Terry takes these signs of agricultural and technological skill as evidence that there must be men around after all. At first, the men are unable to discover any of the inhabitants, but soon they notice three young women watching them from the trees.
The men make several attempts to entice them to come closer but have little luck, although the women obviously find the men interesting. Terry uses a necklace to draw one of the women closer, then makes a grab for her. The women flee, showing amazing athleticism. The men give chase but are soon left behind. The men follow them into the nearest settlement, where they are greeted by a large gathering of women. The women are unlike any the men have ever encountered: strong, self-confident, clearly intelligent, and obviously unafraid of men.
The women indicate that they want the men to follow them, but the three friends are unwilling to be taken into custody. The men decide to make a break for it, but they are soon overcome by the women, who drug them into unconsciousness. The men awake to find themselves unharmed but captive. The women treat the men well and begin to teach them their language, although the men are still not allowed to roam freely. After a while, the men, especially Terry, become impatient and decide to attempt an escape.
They fashion a crude rope and lower themselves to the ground outside their window. From there, the men sneak back toward their airplane, hiding themselves carefully during the day. When they find the airplane, the men also encounter the three young women they met upon their arrival: Celis, Alima, and Ellador. The men begin talking to the women and become so distracted that they are soon recaptured. Back in custody, the men learn that their escape attempt had been anticipated and that they had, in fact, been observed the whole time.
Now resigned to their gentle captivity, the men begin to question their tutors about the history and organization of what they have come to call “Herland. ” They are told that Herland has been without men for 2,000 years, ever since a sequence of wars, natural disasters, and internal strife combined to leave a small population of women alone atop their hidden plateau. Forced to fend for themselves under extreme circumstances, the women organized their society along the most rational lines possible, realizing that they would never survive without cooperation.
After a time, a young girl miraculously became pregnant, and her descendants (each of whom was female, and each of whom inherited the gift of solo reproduction) are the present inhabitants of Herland. Over time, the women of Herland developed a peaceful, orderly, highly efficient society in which competition, crime, and antisocial behavior are unknown. As befits a society of mothers, childbearing is the greatest honor of the women’s lives, as well as their highest duty. In fact, Herland is essentially a giant family, an organic community pursuing the common good.
As such, property is held in common, there is a loose system of authority based on experience and wisdom, and the wellbeing and education of children are the highest priorities. As the men, especially Van and Jeff, come to learn about and appreciate the social structure of Herland, the women begin to learn, through the men, about the outside world. All three men begin with the assumption that any comparison of Herland and the “civilized” world of Europe and the United States will be to the advantage of the latter.
Van and Jeff, however, soon realize that, in comparison to the society they have left behind, Herland is a veritable paradise. The women of Herland are shocked to hear of the poverty, disease, exploitation, and violence of the modern world, so much so that the men find themselves dissembling out of shame and often hiding the full truth. The women are able to perceive the true nature of the society the men describe, despite their reticence: women are particularly exploited in the competitive, money-driven modern world, as their maternal function is used to keep them in a subordinate position.
The women are horrified to learn of the practice of abortion, for example, seeing it as violence against motherhood itself. The more Van and Jeff see of Herland, the more they are convinced of its goodness and of the fundamental sickness of their own society. Terry, however, refuses to see anything good in Herland apart from the beauty of its inhabitants. Terry is convinced that women are naturally subordinate to men and that women, in fact, desire to be “mastered” by men. The very existence of Herland is an affront to Terry’s sensibilities, and the more he learns of it, the more he resents the “unnatural” state of affairs.
The women of Herland are themselves concerned about their lack of men, feeling that their society would benefit from a masculine perspective and contribution. Accordingly, Celis, Alima, and Ellador are encouraged to continue the courtship the men had so crudely begun upon their first arrival. The primary obstacle the lovers have to overcome is the assumption, by the men, that theirs is the active, dominant role in the relationship. The young women see themselves as equal partners with the men and cannot understand why the men would want it any other way.
Jeff is a romantic, full of chivalry and southern notions of gallantry, and his tendency to put women on a pedestal sometimes becomes condescending and hampers his relationship with Celis. Jeff is, however, the most ardent convert to the ways of Herland. Terry, in contrast, woos Alima in a brusque, aggressive way, convinced that she desires a “masterful” man and that all men should have a submissive mate. Alima is fascinated by Terry, but wary; the two quarrel and make up often. Van and Ellador have the best, most equal relationship, soon becoming best friends and true lovers.
The entire society of Herland watches the three couples with great interest, seeing that the outcome of the experiment could determine the future of Herland and mark their return to a “bi-sexual” state. At the insistence of the men, a marriage ceremony is arranged for the three couples. After the wedding, the women are uncomfortable with the idea of “private life,” preferring to remain part of the larger community. They are also confused by the notion of nonprocreative sexual activity. The men respond to this new challenge in different ways. Jeff is a thorough believer in the superiority of Herland.
Van wants to find some way to combine the best aspects of companionate marriage as he understands it, including romantic and sexual intimacy, with the socially minded attitude of Herland, in which the needs of the larger group always prevail. Ellador shares this desire, feeling romantic love for Van along with her familial desire to procreate for the community. Terry is outraged by Alima’s continued insistence on her own autonomy, feeling that he now “owns” Alima by marriage. Terry’s sexual advances become more aggressive and even brutal, and Alima is forced to defend herself physically.
The leaders of Herland are shocked by Terry’s attempted rape of Alima and decide to exile the men. Celis is now pregnant, much to the joy of the Herlanders, and so Jeff decides to stay behind with her forever. Terry is more than pleased to leave Herland behind. Though he threatens at first to return in force, he eventually promises to keep the location of the plateau a secret. Ellador decides to accompany Van in order to see the outer world in his company and to report back on what she observes to Herland. Taking the airplane on which the men first arrived, Terry, Van, and Ellador return to the troubled world below. ———————————————— Character list Alima – One of the three young women the men meet when they first arrive in Herland. Alima is attracted to Terry and eventually marries him. Terry and Alima have a stormy relationship, which ends badly when Terry tries (unsuccessfully) to force himself on Alima soon after their wedding. Like all the women of Herland, Alima is strong and self-confident and would never consent to an unequal relationship with a man. Celis – One of the three young women the men meet when they first arrive in Herland.
Celis and Jeff are drawn to one another and later marry. Celis is mild-mannered and kind, but she is puzzled by Jeff’s courtly insistence on treating her as if she were weaker than she actually is. In general, however, they are happy, and Celis becomes the mother of the first “fathered” child in Herland’s 2,000-year history. Ellador – One of the three young women the men meet when they first arrive in Herland. Ellador is the most intellectually curious of the group. The relationship between Ellador and Van is the most successful of the three couples, as it is based on a close friendship and mutual respect.
Ellador takes a great interest in the world beyond Herland, convinced that there must be good in the world of men, despite the testimony of Van and Jeff. When Van and Terry are forced to return home, Ellador agrees to accompany them, motivated by love of Van, curiosity about the world, and a desire to act as Herland’s representative. Vandyck Jennings – One of the three explorers who discover Herland, and the novel’s narrator. A sociologist by training, Van is the “philosopher” of the group—the one who understands Herland most fully and critically—and the one who is most convinced that Herland has much to teach the outside world.
Van has some difficulty adjusting to a society in which women are simply “people” and not a protected and constrained “weaker sex,” but once he makes the shift, Van sees the revolutionary implications of such a change more deeply than do his friends. Jeff Margrave – One of the three explorers who discovers Herland. A doctor and a botanist, Jeff is also a southern gentleman, with refined, romantic notions of idealized femininity, notions that are strongly challenged by the athletic, independent women of Herland.
Jeff falls in love with Celis and puzzles her with his insistence that he take care of her, rather than simply treat her as an equal partner. Jeff soon comes to prefer Herland to any country on Earth, though his appreciation of Herlandian culture is tinged with his generally unrealistic, idealized vision of womanhood. Terry Nicholson – One of the three explorers who discovers Herland. Terry is the driving force behind the expedition to Herland and the most forceful of the three friends. A classic male chauvinist, Terry fancies himself quite the ladies’ man and prides himself on his knowledge of and control over the female mind.
Convinced that women like to be “mastered” both emotionally and physically by men, Terry is completely flummoxed by the women of Herland, who don’t need men at all. Terry is unable to relate to women as equals, and this inability dooms his relationship with Alima. Moadine – One of the older women who tutors the three men in the ways of Herland. Moadine is charged with guiding Terry, a difficult task she approaches with a great deal of patience. Terry is convinced that he has Moadine outsmarted, but Van sees that Moadine is humoring Terry as she would a small child, concealing her amusement at his conceited ways.
Somel – One of the older women who tutors the three men in the ways of Herland. Somel is a wise and knowledgeable guide to the history and customs of Herland. As she teaches Van, Somel is also gathering information from him regarding his own society. Though Van often sugarcoats or omits the truth, Somel is able to cut through his obfuscation and build an accurate—and ugly—picture of the modern world. Zava – One of the older women who tutors the three men in the ways of Herland. Zava deals with Jeff in particular, and she reminds him of one of his aunts. ———————————————— Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Themes The Subduing of Women’s Humanity In Herland and other writings, Gilman shows that her society is unjust to women and does not allow them to achieve their full human potential. Women’s lives, she reveals, are too consumed by difficult, unremunerated “women’s work,” such as childbearing, child rearing, and domestic labor. Because women are limited to this domestic world, they are made out to be less “fully human” than men in their potential for development.
Given the chance, Gilman says, women can embrace the whole of life just as much men, and the women of Herland—strong, intelligent, and self-reliant—are the fictional embodiment of this point. All three of the male characters in Herlandstart out with the assumption of female inferiority, and all three must eventually alter their world views in their dealings with the Herlandian women, to varying degrees of success. The men’s relationships with Ellador, Celis, and Alima show the difficulties that arise when women demand to be treated as equals in love as well as in society.
Terry and Alima end in open conflict, while Jeff and Celis simply fail to understand one another at all. Van eventually relates to Ellador as a full human being, not merely a woman, and Gilman portrays their relationship as the most successful. Gilman suggests that once equality between men and women has been established, romantic partners will achieve a sense of privacy and pleasure in sexual difference. As Van and Ellador begin their journey at the end of the novel, part of their mission is to completely re-imagine the sexual and romantic bond between men and women, with the full humanity of women as part of the equation.
The Rationalism of Herland’s Society Herland is organized along socialist lines and represents an idealized form of how society should behave. In a socialist economy, the government manages business, industry, and economic activity on behalf of the people. This is the opposite of a “free enterprise” system, in which the central authority may regulate industrial and commercial activity, but not control or direct it. One of socialism’s attractions is that it proposes to replace a social structure based on competition and individualism with one based on community and cooperation.
Thanks to Herland’s isolated location and the extreme interdependence of its inhabitants, its members must put the community’s needs before their own. Herland is organized more as a family than as a state, and each member is happy to sacrifice for the greater good. From the communal farming of the forests to the common education of the young, Herland is organized around the principle that work and reward are to be shared by all, to the maximum benefit of the greatest number. Herlandian society is therefore highly rationalized.
The entire community deals with internal problems, without favoritism, individual ambition, or family feeling to interfere with reaching the most rational solution. Perhaps the most striking example of Herland’s rational society is the way the women calmly embrace the population controls required to sustain the population on their isolated plateau. Although many of the women would prefer to have multiple children, they are limited to just one, and some are forbidden to reproduce at all so that bad qualities may be “bred out” of the population.
Van is struck by the simplicity of this solution and by the shared sacrifice required of all of the women to make it work. Van comes to see his own society as simply an aggregation of individuals, each in competition with the other, and predicated on the oppression of the female half of the population. Gilman argues that disease, crime, war, pollution, and poverty, all unknown in Herland, would be conquered if they were viewed as issues for the whole society to tackle and if society had the power to remake itself along the most rational lines. The Rejection of Tradition
The extreme rationalization of Herlandian society is possible in part because of Herland’s complete rejection of tradition. For example, when Jeff mentions that the men’s society is based on traditions thousands of years old, Moadine responds that Herland has no laws over one hundred years old and very few over twenty. Having been created essentially from scratch, the laws and customs of Herland are subject to constant scrutiny and revision. The women see their society and culture as human creations, meant to serve human needs in the present, so neither the institutions nor the practices of the past are sacred.
Even the games the children play are new inventions, created for their educational value. Religious tradition is no exception, and the religion of Herland is a rather simple worship of motherhood and nature, in which there is no vested authority or sacred canon and from which all negative or unpleasant aspects have been purged. Though Van initially views the women’s attitude toward the past as irreverent and disrespectful, Ellador explains that, from the Herlandian perspective, it makes no sense to give the same weight to the opinions of ancestors as to those of the present generation.
Knowledge and understanding have increased over the years, and the best way to honor the departed women of Herland is to continue their example of conscious improvement of the land and of themselves. Gilman understands that her project of advancing feminism and moving the United States toward a socialist economy places her in direct opposition to many firmly rooted traditions, especially those regarding the family. Gilman saw traditional Christianity as opposed to many of the changes she was proposing.
By subjecting tradition in general, and Christianity in particular, to the reasonable but quite sharp questions of the women of Herland, Gilman hopes to displace tradition from its privileged seat and thereby prepare the way for serious political changes. The Sanctity of Motherhood The women of Herland have a nearly religious attitude toward motherhood. The rationality and the constant drive for self-improvement that mark Herland’s culture are meant to be in service to the overarching ideal of motherhood.
The miraculous ability of the women of Herland to conceive children on their own leads them to see motherhood as the central aspect of their beings—their greatest duty and their greatest honor. They think of God as a sacred mother, a personification of the love that pervades the whole universe. One of the sharpest contrasts Gilman draws is between the judgmental, patriarchal male God of Western monotheism and the nurturing, mothering, female spirit of Herland’s religion. In addition to being a religious imperative, motherhood in Herland is the dominant principle of social organization.
Each woman in Herland is allowed, with rare exception, to give birth only once, and she does not raise her child herself. Instead, children are raised by specialists, as their education and nurturing are simply too important to society as a whole to be left in private hands. Each child has a whole country of mothers, and each woman has millions of objects for her boundless love. In a society that truly values mothers and children, Gilman suggests, children are not possessions, and motherhood is not merely incidental to a woman’s sexual being.
One of the major problems for Van and Ellador’s marriage is Ellador’s inability to grasp the idea that sex has a romantic, pleasurable aspect as well as a procreative function. Any social arrangement in which children are not the highest priority seems immoral to the women of Herland, and this perspective that makes the men unwilling to admit how often children are neglected in the “civilized” world. The women are horrified when Van mentions abortion. For Gilman, Somel’s extreme, disbelieving reaction to the reality of abortion is one more piece of evidence that our society, not Herland’s, is the truly strange one.
Motifs Embarrassing Contrasts In Herland, Gilman contrasts the way things are done in Herland and the way “we” do things. At first, these contrasts seem neutral, the incidental differences any two cultures would have. As the men become more familiar with Herland, however, a pattern emerges. In any realm in which there is a contrast between the customs of Herland and those of the outer world, the policies of Herland inevitably appear to be more rational and more effective. One example is the contrast drawn in the matter of the domestication of animals.
Herland’s cats are model citizens, intelligent, healthy, and beautiful. They have been systematically bred for good behavior, chasing rodents only and leaving birds alone. Somel and Zava are shocked and disgusted to hear about the dirt, danger, and disease associated with dogs in the outer world and marvel that such a situation is tolerated. Eventually, after increasingly embarrassing comparisons, Van and his friends are forced to wonder why their society does tolerate such things.
At every stage of the novel, Gilman contrasts a society built on reason, equality, and cooperation—all standards we claim to value—with one organized along the lines we have in fact chosen: tradition, inequality, and competition. Female Physical Prowess When Van, Terry, and Jeff first encounter their future brides, the extreme physical prowess of Herland’s women is strikingly clear. This encounter is only the first in a series of scenes in which Gilman shows our conventional notions of male physical superiority to be completely inaccurate, at least in the case of the Herlandians.
Gilman uses the women’s amazing athleticism to illustrate one of her recurring points: that the inferiority and supposed weakness of women is entirely a product of culture. For instance, during their confinement and education into the customs of Herland, the men are allowed to exercise—and are humiliated by the ease with which the older women match and beat them. Later, the men play a stone-tossing game with the three girls, who easily beat them. Van comments on the naturalness of the girls’ physicality—vastly different from the women back home.
Gilman wants to show that women would soon cease to be the “weaker sex” if they were not treated as such. The assumption of female frailty becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which women are sheltered because they are weak and weak because they are sheltered. The unique history of Herland explodes the myth of female weakness. Symbols The Well-Tended Forests One of the first observations the men make about Herland is how carefully the forestland around the city is maintained, and Jeff confirms that every tree in the forest is fruit- or nut-bearing, or in some way useful.
The entire forest is not so much a wilderness as an immense garden. The forests exemplify the Herlandian way, especially with regard to nature. First, the forests are completely under human control. Every aspect of the ecosystem has been rationalized and made to serve the women in the most efficient way possible, but without the waste and ugliness associated with industrial exploitation. The useful, pleasant aspects of nature have been encouraged to flourish, and the aggressive, wasteful elements have been bred out. The women have gently forced nature to cooperate.
Though men such as Terry associate nature with ferocity and physical challenge, the Herlandian forests represent a different kind of relationship between humans and their environment. Natural life is humanized; it cooperates with and supports humanity rather than reduces human behavior to so-called “natural laws” that tend to favor competition and the domination of the strong over the weak. The women are disgusted to learn the barest details of the modern meat industry, which stands in sharp contrast to the Herlandian women’s relationship to their well-tended forests.
Herlandian Clothes Contrary to the men’s expectations, the Herlandian women’s clothes are not frivolous, but rather, practical and stylish: the women wear a one-piece undergarment, hose, and either a tunic or a long robe, which is attractively stitched and has many useful pockets. In our society, women are often assumed to be vain and frivolous because of their clothing, and thus, Gilman uses the Herlandians’ clothing to confound the shortsighted expectations of the men, who are forced to admit that the women are no less attractive for having shorter hair and practical clothes.
In time, Jeff and Van even come to prefer the Herlandian style. The men, too, must adopt Herlandian dress, and they find the clothes comfortable and becoming, which suggests that Herland’s style is fitting for both men and women alike. When Van eventually leaves Herland, he misses the clothing, and, by extension, the eminently reasonable, attractive, and comfortable lifestyle that those clothes represent. ————————————————-
Key Facts title · Herland author · Charlotte Perkins Gilman type of work · Novel genre · Utopian fiction language · English time and place written · 1915, California date of first publication · 1915 publisher · The Forerunner (Gilman’s magazine) narrator · Vandyck Jennings, one of the three men who discover Herland point of view · First person tone · Politically earnest, with elements of humor and satire tense · Past setting (time) · Early twentieth century etting (place) · A hidden plateau, somewhere in the unexplored tropics, where an all-female society has been thriving in isolation protagonist · Vandyck Jennings, a sociologist and amateur explorer major conflict · The struggle of Van and his friends Jeff and Terry to come to terms with the society of Herland, which challenges their sense of identity and their understanding of relations between the sexes rising action · From the entry of the three men into Herland through their education and their deepening relationships with Ellador, Celis, and Alima climax · Terry’s thwarted assault on Alima alling action · The subsequent division of the group, and the departure of Terry, Van, and Ellador themes · The subduing of women’s humanity; the rationalism of Herland’s society; the rejection of tradition; the sanctity of motherhood motifs · Embarrassing contrasts; female physical prowess symbols · The well-tended forests; Herlandian clothes foreshadowing · Van drops several hints about Terry’s final explosion and the ugly end of their stay in Herland throughout the story.