Herland | Study Guide

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Herland | Chapter 1 : A Not Unnatural Enterprise | Summary

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Summary

The novel starts with the information that this is written "from memory." The narrator, Van, tells the reader there were records, notes, and pictures but they have all been lost. He goes on to inform the reader that the world "needs to know about that country," but he won't say precisely where it is. From there, Van begins telling his tale of how he and his two friends—Terry and Jeff—embarked on an expedition. While on that expedition, they heard stories of a civilization comprised entirely of women. Intrigued by these stories, they set out to find it. As they proceed, they share their theories about what a society of women must be like.

The three men land in Herland in a biplane and leave their machine to enter this new country.

Analysis

One of the most obvious aspects of the introduction is that all three of the men have different notions of what it would mean to have a society of women. In doing so they are revealing their stereotypical beliefs. Notably, even as the reader is presented with these stereotypes, there is no doubt the three men are wrong. The frame of the narrative is that the story is being told after the men return from the country. Gilman sets the characters up as flawed in their beliefs from the onset of the text.

This first chapter serves largely to introduce the three personalities. Terry is the most sexist of the three. He is a wealthy explorer and used to attention. Jeff is a doctor and is less sexist than Terry. The narrator, Van, is a sociologist and the least sexist of the three. The men are not simply a spectrum, though. Their flawed perceptions of women vary. Terry sees women as objects, bought by trinkets, meant to be chased and possessed. He is accustomed to receiving women's attention and being envied by men. His particular sexism is the most obvious of the three. Jeff's limitation is in the idea that women must be protected, served, and cossetted. His brand of sexism is not in objectification, but in infantilizing women. Van's brand of sexism is more subtle. At this point, it is not yet clear why he thinks women could not have such a society.

The thing all three men share is that, despite the things they've heard, they are certain it is completely impossible that any land could be populated solely by women.

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