Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 843
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 and driving salvation are derived from its children. All the inhabitants collaborate and pool their resources to ensure that Herland’s collective citizenry becomes what they call Conscious Makers of People. Selective motherhood, communal nurturing, and equitable education eliminate the destructive behaviors of the former civilization, and collaboration replaces aggression.
Vandyck and Jeff studiously apply themselves to their lessons. With their newly discovered knowledge, they are able to adapt to their surroundings. Terry, however, remains angry and anxious in his captivity, and he struggles to regain control according to his old notions. He never misses an opportunity to deride his captors and never stops referring to the women in derogatory or patronizing terms. He can neither outwit nor charm his guardians.
During the educational process, the tutors innocently engage their students with questions about American societal practices. Herland’s enforced isolation leaves its citizens hungry for knowledge of other cultures. Often the women are surprised by the explorers’ descriptions, which unconsciously depict primitive crudities inherent in American culture, which apparently affect all realms of society including the family, economics, division of labor, education, and religion. The novel’s narrator, Vandyck, reveals a growing awareness that some aspects of American culture are patriarchal and barbaric when contrasted with Herland’s superior and egalitarian system.
Once the men have mastered the rudimentary aspects of Herland’s culture, history, and language, they are freed from bodily restraint but still not allowed to leave the country. Soon after, they fall in love with the young women they had first encountered. Eventually, the three foreigners marry the three Herland women in a triple ceremony sanctioned by the entire community. The men are dismayed, however, to discover that the collective Herlandic ideology resists Western notions of relationships based on physical possession. The marriages are to be based on Herlandic ideals of communal platonic love, not on a patriarchal belief in individual possession. Initially, none of the three women could see any point to sexual intercourse, nor could any of them be persuaded to add her husband’s surname to her given name. The new wives also resist establishing private marital residences with their new husbands, and they continue their beloved work as foresters.
Ellador and Vandyck nevertheless reach great emotional depths in a marriage based on reason and equality. Even Jeff, whose assimilation had occurred too readily and with little thought, is thoroughly content in the life he shares with Celis. Only Terry, the most misogynistic of the three, refuses to give up what he perceives to be his rights as a man and husband. When he unsuccessfully attempts to rape his wife, Alima in self-defense thwarts his assault. Terry is thereupon imprisoned, tried for his crime, and banished from the country. Vandyck and Ellador decide to accompany him, since Ellador wishes to learn more about Western society for Herlandic purposes. Jeff refuses to leave the civilization and chooses to remain with Celis, who is pregnant, the first pregnancy in two thousand years of Herlandic history to be produced by the union of a woman and a man.
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