Herland | Study Guide

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Herland | Chapter 3 : A Peculiar Imprisonment | Summary

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Summary

Van, the narrator, wakes in a comfortable bed in a "big room, high and wide, with many lofty windows." All three men are imprisoned in the room. They are dressed in "long night-robe[s]" and their clothes are missing. The quarters are nice, and there are different clothes in a closet. The men surmise that the inhabitants are, in fact, all women. They debate their fate. Jeff suggests they'll be treated as guests, and Van says they'll be "studied as curiosities." Terry, however, thinks they'll be "hailed as deliverers."

Upon knocking, they are allowed into a room to eat. Eighteen women are waiting. Three two-person tables are provided. Each man has one dinner companion and five watchers. After eating, the men are given books to learn the women's language.

The three men also discover that their chamber is in a fortress, high up, on a "spur of rock." There is a sound of a river below as well. They are no longer in the town they had entered, and their prison, however comfortable, seems difficult to escape.

In addition to study time, the three men are allowed access to the gymnasium where they discover not only the benefit of the practical clothing they were issued, but also the athletic prowess of the women. Terry notes that the women are over 40—some over 50—but they are agile and fit.

As time progresses, the men are also taught games, geography, and local botany. Despite this, Terry is unhappy to the point of convincing the others to plot an escape. The chapter closes with their successful escape by way of a rope ladder from the window.

Analysis

The sexist attitudes of the men continue to be refined and distinguished in their response to the situations. At this point, Van and Jeff are still deferring to Terry. His desire to escape, despite comfortable circumstances, is reason enough for all three men to risk death. Van and Jeff follow Terry's lead despite the fact that they feel no urgency to escape.

Interestingly, the men are kept in a situation not unlike what women of the time knew. Their movements are limited, and their needs are met—except the need for freedom and control over their own lives. They are less fit and athletic than the women, and they are limited by not having answers or a means to get them. They are taught only what the women think is necessary. In practical ways, the men's situation is akin to a woman's situation in the patriarchal world the men came from, though Van never makes this point explicit.

This chapter also highlights one of Gilman's personal philosophies. It is less central to the novel than her ideas on feminism or eugenics, but Herland contains several such places where secondary theories are woven into the novel. Gilman was a believer in physical activity. The women in this country are fit and athletic. Thus far in the novel, the reader has seen them running, climbing about in the boughs of trees, and now in gymnastic sport. Gilman's stance on both physical and intellectual exercise is directly counter to the "rest cure" she had endured after the birth of her child some 15 years earlier. During the cure, she was required to be inactive mentally and physically, which had the effect of deepening her depression. In the utopian society she creates in the novel, Gilman envisions a world that is the exact opposite of the world she experienced in her youth.
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