Herland Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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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 without male influence. The women have built roads, a town, and a system of government; they have borne and reared children and flourished in the arts and sciences. The inhabitants of this Utopia become acquainted with their male captives, and the two groups enter into a dialogue about their separate worlds. Gilman uses conversation between the representatives of the sexes to compare the men’s culture with that of the entirely feminine culture. In this exchange, she illustrates the striking contrasts between the two sexes as they grapple to understand their histories, their beliefs about love, the maternal instinct, and the importance of child rearing, education, and work outside the home. Since courtship, sex, and marriage are unheard of social relations in the women’s culture, the men have difficulties explaining these practices and later trying to initiate them into the new culture. Through the comparison, Charlotte Gilman stresses the humanity that people share rather than the differences between the sexes.

Gilman’s purpose for writing Herland is inescapable. The book has many humorous examples of women’s independence and resourcefulness, but its purpose is serious; she points accusingly at the social flaws of her male-dominated culture. The inadequacies of her culture stand out in sharp relief against the Utopian world of the women.


(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...

(The entire section is 1,487 words.)