Herland | Study Guide

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Herland | Symbols



The clothing is a symbol of the Herlander focus on logic and practicality. It may also be considered a symbol of the lack of competitiveness that the women of this country embody. Much is made of how practical and comfortable Herland clothes are—noting the plentiful pockets. When the men visit the gymnasium, Van realizes the clothing is not only comfortable, but "as perfect a garment for exercise as need be devised, absolutely free to move in, and ... much better-looking than our usual one." Clothing is the clearest symbol of the distinction between the two worlds. Further, clothing highlights the characteristics of the Herlanders: practical, humble, and without artifice.

This is a direct contrast to how the three men expect women to dress in a society of all women: with "frills and furbelows," the trappings of "femininity" that would have been current in the contemporary world. Notably, Terry, the most sexist of the three men, had complained about the women's dress initially: "they weren't 'feminine,' they lacked 'charm,'" To this, Van adds that "Their dress and ornaments had not a touch of the 'come-and-find-me' element." Instead of impractical dresses and undergarments that restrict athleticism and freedom, the clothing of Herland is designed for utility. As with the politics and landscape, the choices made here are logic based.

The Men's Quarters

The men's rooms are symbolic of the need for freedom. No matter how lovely a prison is, it is still a prison. This is manifest in numerous literary texts where the women are kept imprisoned. Beautiful homes, lovely dresses, and doting husbands are still limiting if there is no choice but to accept restrictions. The men experience this in Herland.

The men are given a set of comfortable rooms. They are not imprisoned anywhere unpleasant or remotely uncomfortable. Their every need is met—except freedom. Jeff points out, "They've given us a room—with no great possibility of escape—and personal liberty—heavily chaperoned." The lack of freedom is highlighted by the fact that their quarters are in a fortress at the top of a cliff. With no freedom, their rooms—no matter how lovely—become a prison. Many women of Charlotte Gilman's time experienced this situation in the domestic sphere: a beautiful, comfortable prison where their basic needs are met. This theme occurs in other literature of the time, including a slightly earlier text, Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play that was critical of traditional marriage, A Doll's House, which would likely have been familiar to the readers of Herland.


The forest is a symbol of order. Like everything in Herland, the forest is orderly to the point of seeming clean, even though it is outdoors. At one point, the women are even replanting trees in a precise, ordered way. When the men first see Herland, Van notes that it is a "land in a state of perfect cultivation, where even the forests looked as if they were cared for." When they enter the forest on foot, Jeff adds, "Talk of civilization ... I never saw a forest so petted."

This overwhelming sense in the various references to the forest is that the land is orderly and rational—traits not ascribed to women at the time historically. Van continues to circle back to the women's imposition of order upon the landscape so that "every tree bore fruit—edible fruit, that is." The Herlanders have taken the chaos of nature and shaped it into a useful forest that provides for their needs. The choice to do so spanned generations, and it continues in the current members in the community. They do—as with all aspects of their country—what is logical, taking on arduous tasks to achieve a logical answer to their needs.

Questions for Symbols

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