Herland | Study Guide

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Herland | Context


Feminist Legal, Social, and Economic Concerns

While Herland is a novel, it must be read in the context of Charlotte Gilman's larger body of work. Like the characters in the utopian society of the novel, Gilman lived a life dedicated to ideals such as feminism and social reform—including those outside societal norms.

Marriage is central to the story—as is the idea of having children. These concerns were a factor in Gilman's society, too. The laws for divorce varied by state. In New York in the 19th century, for example, divorce was granted only in the case of adultery. Divorces increased significantly during the last half of the 1800s, increasing as much as 80 percent. It is useful to remember that at this time, marriage was meant to result in children. That was the primary reason the Herlanders agreed to the idea of a wedding, and it was the reason for the characters' relationships with the three men.

In Gilman's time this concern for forcing motherhood as a part of marriage was also a major factor for feminist thinkers. Physicians openly argued to criminalize abortion as a way to reduce women's inclusion in the workforce and education. By 1890 almost every state had passed laws that made abortion illegal, and it remained this way until the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade in 1973 legalized abortion as part of the Constitutional right to privacy. In the world the men of Herland knew, women were not encouraged toward education or jobs, and the Herlander stance on women as equally capable was foreign to the three main male characters.

In this context the approach to child-raising in Herland makes sense. In the Herlander society, children are raised by the group, and not every woman has children. This approach, controlling reproduction, means that the members of the community can continue to work for the good of the community.

Gilman is also addressing the idea that not all women are suited for motherhood. Gilman had personal experience with the "rest cure" after the birth of her daughter. This treatment was based on the notion that women ought not to exert themselves physically or mentally, and that doing so was "unhealthy." When Gilman was sent to receive this so-called "cure," her depression deepened. She left her husband immediately afterward (and, four years later, wrote her famous short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," about it).

The most significant feminist issues addressed in this novel all tie into the control of sexuality and reproduction. From limiting reproduction by the conscious choice not to have children to demonstrating what a society can look like when mothers don't need to be solely responsible for children, Herland is about the rights of women. Thus it directly addresses a married woman's right to control her sexuality; the event that drives the ending of the book is Terry's attempted rape of his wife, an event that was not a crime at the time.

Eugenics and Social Darwinism

The ideas of British scientist Charles Darwin, whose 1859 book On the Origin of Species explained his theory of evolution, had a profound impact on Gilman's novel. Evolutionary theory is based on the idea of natural selection. It states that species with the combination of traits that make them most fit to reproduce in their environment are the ones that survive and thrive. Social Darwinism is a term for the application of natural selection to humanity, positing that people are subject to the same laws of natural selection as are animals and plants.

The idea of "survival of the fittest" is embraced by Herland characters Terry and Jeff, who believe women must be protected as part of the "natural" order. The theory behind the characters' thinking is that women have evolved to be weaker; therefore, trying to change this state would be harmful to society. Based on this theory, conservative social Darwinists were opposed to women's education and to women behaving outside "traditional" gender lines. Many of the comments made by Terry—and to a lesser degree by Jeff—throughout Herland show this mindset: "We do not allow our women to work. Women are loved—idolized—honored—kept in the home to care for the children."

A different type of social Darwinism matched Gilman's ideals: reform Darwinism. In 1888 Lester Ward's "Our Better Halves" was published. In her autobiography, Gilman claims that this article is "the greatest single contribution to the world's thought since Evolution." Ward's theory is easy to see in the utopian society Gilman creates in Herland. He wrote that "Woman is the race, and the race can only be raised up as she is raised up." Gilman expanded upon this theory to suggest that an emphasis on women's creative traits—as opposed to men's destructive traits—would lead to a better society. She explores this idea of such a society in Herland.

Social Darwinism also led numerous progressive thinkers of Gilman's time to support eugenics, the idea of controlling reproduction for the good of society. Basically, it is akin to thinking as farmers do about livestock: only the strongest individuals should be allowed to breed and pass on their traits. Obviously, this is a far less comfortable topic. However, it is important to remember that Gilman was not alone in her interest. Modern readers most often associate eugenics with the horrific acts of the Nazi regime, but the idea of sterilizing segments of the population was not unique to Nazis. Many intellectuals in the early 20th century supported the idea.

Putting the question of eugenics in the context of feminism, especially with Gilman, is also helpful in understanding Herland. At this point in history, there was a drive toward women's equality, but it occurred at the same time as theories about eugenics abounded. In Herland some women do not have children, and those who do are not solely responsible for raising them. The novel specifically says that certain traits were "bred out" of the people.

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward

Gilman read Bellamy's utopian novel, Looking Backward, not long after it was published (1888). Over a million copies were published in the United States, and the novel received massive international acclaim and readership. Like Lester Ward's essay, Bellamy's utopian novel influenced Gilman's work, as well as her life: she became active in the Nationalist movement of the period, which sought an end to class distinctions caused by capitalism.

The premise of this best-selling novel is that an 1887 man awakes 113 years later, in the year 2000. In the novel, society has evolved into a unified, urban world in which work is done in "service of the nation." In reading Herland, one can see that this same idea is central to the utopian world Gilman imagines.

The entire structure of the society in Herland is based upon this ideal. The citizens of Herland all work together in every aspect of life. They create the goods and laws and raise children as a community. They are not competitive over resources, and in fact, they only have as many citizens as can be supported with the resources they have. To this end, they limit reproduction. They engage in health-based activities, such as athletics in the gymnasium, so they are fit and strong.

The basic ideas between the two novels are the same: rejection of individualism; a sense of loyalty and obligation to the nation; a happier, more prosperous world. Gilman's utopian society, however, also includes a strong focus on gender that was absent in Bellamy's novel. There is no exclusion of women from fitness, work, or education. Instead, there are only the three visiting men, and in comparison they are weaker than the women. They cannot "catch" the women when they first arrive. They are being taught using children's primers, and their answers to philosophical questions are not complex. Ultimately, their main use to the society is as potential fathers. Gilman does not say that there is nothing innately superior in men, but the entire novel demonstrates that conclusion.

Travel Narratives

While Herland is not a travel narrative, it borrows from the genre in that it tells of the characters' experiences and observations on a journey. Today, there are numerous travel blogs online as well. The concept is simple: a writer details his or her trip. The journal includes information on the people, plants, landscape, and the thoughts all of the above prompt. In literature, readers can also find fictional versions of these—travel to foreign or alien lands.

At the time of Herland's creation and publication, two other recently published science fiction and fantasy novels were popular. Edgar Rice Burroughs's At the Earth's Core (1914) and Tarzan of the Apes (1912) both used the idea of explorers in a strange primitive land. At the Earth's Core imagines an underground world of prehistoric animals ruled by female reptiles. Tarzan is the story of a boy raised in a jungle. He is discovered—much as the reptiles at the core of the earth and the woman-only country of Herland—by explorers.

Earlier than these was Heart of Darkness, a novel published in 1902 by Joseph Conrad. Unlike Gilman and Burroughs, Conrad had firsthand experience with the type of adventure travel that was portrayed in the other writers' works.

In Herland the three men are on a trip, an excursion to a primitive land. On the trip they hear about Herland. The expectation of the traveler is often a sense of being superior. This is countered in some texts by realizations that the "primitive" society is equal or superior. In Herland Terry never surrenders his arrogance about the world he knew before arriving there. Jeff completely surrenders to the point of staying in Herland. Van, however, spends a lot of the novel weighing the differences.

It is Van's approach that is most useful to the reader. What starts as an adventure evolves into a journey of thoughtfulness and self-discovery. This, too, is typical of travel narratives historically and currently.

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