Herland Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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Though the utopia she creates is, because it is populated by only one gender, free of the complications of romantic love, Gilman clearly realizes that, for it to serve any useful purpose in the real world, her work must give some indication of what equitable love looks like. She takes up as an important theme, therefore, the question of what love based on mutual respect is. She develops this theme only in the latter part of the novella where she depicts the courtship of Van and Ellador. Without any hope of a typical romantic union, Van is able to develop powerful feelings for this girl on a purely asexual level; they become dear friends. When it is announced that the elders of the country have decided to engage in a "Great Experiment" and allow the three visitors to marry and reproduce with three of their citizens, Ellador and Van marry happily. Because their relationship was fostered without sex as an issue, it appears based on respect, personal admiration, and a desire to be productive together. Thus, Van is relatively unaffected by the careful restriction of physical affection to procreative endeavors.

Thus, love, as Gilman suggests it ideally occurs, is more a spirit of cooperation than the result of sexual attractiveness. Cooperation, another principal theme of the work, is key to the success not only of marriages but of the entire social fabric of Herland. Throughout, the narrator and his teachers return to the analogy of the anthill where all individuals move with a common purpose. The beauty of the system of cooperation adapted in Herland lies in its simultaneous obliteration and affirmation of the self. All residents are, literally, members of a single family committed to a single purpose, the improvement of the social order. They need not, however, move, blind as drones, through a life of toil controlled by a powerful and privileged elite. Instead, the system of...

(The entire section is 474 words.)