Herland Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is a humorous Utopian novel about an ideal world in which women are free to demonstrate their personal and cultural identities. The three main characters are Terry Nicholson, a misogynist explorer; Jeff Margrave, a doctor who idolizes women; and Vandyck Jennings, a sociologist whose views on women are more empirical, if no more informed, than those of his comrades. The men, clearly, represent different types of male perspectives about women. Jeff idealizes females as Southern belles. Terry is concerned only with their physical appeal. Vandyck has a scientific outlook and regards them as objects of study.

The three discover the women’s Utopia. In their first encounter with the young native women, the explorers describe the inhabitants as tree dwellers who are skittish and defy capture. Lured by curiosity about the creatures, who are described in neuter terms, the men venture into the town. Not long after their arrival, they are surrounded by the elders of the settlement, who treat them hospitably but with much caution and who define for the three men the areas they may see within the new culture. Jeff, Terry, and Vandyck, however, seek more information than that provided by their polite captivity, and they escape their quarters and venture out on their own. During what proves to be an awakening for the three men, they are introduced to an ancient culture of women who have lived successfully for centuries...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Herland Summary (Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is best known for the novella The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), Women and Economics: The Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898), and the novel Herland. Herland is a feminist fantasy about a world without men, a radical utopia in which mothering is socialized. Gilman envisions a society that lacks domination by the masculine traits of aggressiveness and combativeness. Three American men stumble on a community of women and are at first convinced that such a superior society presupposes men, whom they believe to be hiding. The three men are Vandyck Jennings, a rational sociologist; Terry O. Nicholson, a wealthy and arrogant exploiter of women; and Jeff Margrave, who easily accepts Herland. Gilman creates a world valuing privacy and genuine community and eliminating the family. There are no men or families, only individuals. Children are reared by a community of women in a radical, alternative vision of collective motherhood. The women of Herland have no knowledge of sexuality; reproduction is by pathogenesis. Patriarchal culture is contrasted to the innocence and common sense of the Herlanders, who ridicule the way in which men define gender roles.

Herland Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Three American explorers, Terry Nicholson, Jeff Margrave, and Vandyck Jennings, are intrigued when they hear rumors of a land inhabited entirely by women. It is whispered that no man has ever returned from this strange place. Fascinated, the men employ a native guide to lead them to view the isolated “Herland,” as Terry derisively terms it. Upon arriving, the explorers are instantly greeted by young Ellador, Celis, and Alima. When the men attempt to catch them, they are surprised to discover that the women’s quick, easy strides surpass their own. Curious, the explorers make their way to the village, convinced that such a civilization of beauty and efficiency must surely be the result of a male-dominated population. Reaching the town, the invaders are met by a multitude of women. Because they refuse to cooperate with Herland’s citizens, the men are seized, born aloft, anesthetized, and comfortably confined.

While the men are imprisoned, assigned tutors teach them the national language, culture, and history; the prisoners are also instructed about the behavior expected of them as guests of Herland. The Americans learn that Herland was once a slaveholding civilization inhabited by both men and women. Constant warfare with the native populations in the region had killed almost all the men. When the few remaining slaveholders and all the older women were killed by male slaves who intended to control the fortressed country and its young female inhabitants, the women were forced to defend themselves, and they vanquished their conquerors. After that, no man has existed in Herland for two thousand years.

The women maintain their species through a miraculous development of parthenogenesis, an inherited power of a few that had become a characteristic of the entire race of women. This amazing ability to self-fertilize not only enables women to have female children but also becomes the religious focus of the country. Herlanders believe not in a personalized god but in a maternal pantheism. The country collectively recognizes that its life force...

(The entire section is 843 words.)