Herland | Study Guide

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Herland | Chapter 5 : A Unique History | Summary

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Summary

The men are kept in the fortress for six months. During this time, they exchange information with their tutors. They learn that the women's country had a male population 2,000 years ago. Their civilization was slave-owning and polygamous. A war decimated the male population, and then they were walled in. Following that was a volcanic eruption that filled in the only open pass to their mountain home. Few men were left alive, and then the slaves revolted and started killing. Their intent was to take the young women and girls. However, those women stood up and "slew their brutal conquerors." The survivors—trapped in their country—debated what to do, but ultimately decided to bury the dead and move forward.

The women, understanding their limited land resources, had ceased burying their dead in the 13th century, instead opting for cremation. They were puzzled that the men's society still chose to bury their dead.

The women's history continues with the revelation that a woman bore a child, and so they thought, at first, that there was a man somewhere. However, she was kept "in the Temple of Maaia—their Goddess of Motherhood—under strict watch." The woman gave birth to five children, all girls. These girls each had five daughters, whom they gave birth to when they turned 25. The older people died over time, and eventually, there were "one hundred and fifty-five parthenogenetic women, founding a new race." The first mother lived to be 100 years old.

This presentation of their history notes that "the tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out."

Terry, unsurprisingly, rejects the entire tale. He complains that there is no fun without competition for the women and also that "these women aren't womanly." Van points out that he and Jeff were more amenable to the women, but he allows that Terry is right in that the women were "strikingly deficient in what we call 'femininity.'"

Analysis

The idea of motherhood being compared to a religion is continued in this chapter. As the women reveal their history, the differences between Herland and 19th-century America are highlighted. Terry, an example of the extremes of sexism, criticizes the women as lacking in femininity. Significantly, what this shows is that the two cultures define what it means to be a woman very differently. For Terry, women are objects to be won. Without competition, how does he stand out from other men? If the women are not "feminine," how does he determine which ones are the prizes? The other two men are not as set in their opinions, but they still agree that these women are not feminine.

Notably, the women's history also points out that the idea of men as protectors—Jeff's belief—has died out. As the novel progresses, the reader can see that this idea, which is also sexist, is harder to confront. By the end of the book, Jeff still hasn't shaken this theory completely.

One of the elements difficult for readers to comprehend is Gilman's habit of blending many philosophical, social, economic, and political ideas into the text. This can be seen in the random aside on cremation. While Herland is a novel, it is a novel with purpose. It fits within the author's scope of work, which was primarily about conveying ideas to listeners and readers, not about telling stories for entertainment.
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