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Herland | Study Guide

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Herland | Themes


Natural Order

Adherence to natural order is part of every aspect of the country in Herland. In the physical space—gardens and forest—this is a focus. It is also the basis of parenting, education, and community. Everything flows from the natural order of motherhood: "Here was Mother Earth, bearing fruit," Van says. "All that they ate was fruit of motherhood, from seed or egg or their product. By motherhood they were born and by motherhood they lived—life was, to them, just the long cycle of motherhood."

The result of this community-based attitude was a utopia, a perfect society. Van tells the reader, "The untroubled peace, the unmeasured plenty, the steady health, the large good will and smooth management which ordered everything, left nothing to overcome" and compares the society to a "pleasant family in an old established, perfectly run country place." By structuring their society around a common goal, they were able to create a society that was without conflict or difficulty.

Women's Restrictions

The comparison between the two worlds highlights how illogical restrictions on women's education, dress, and activities are. Throughout the entire text of Herland, the comparison between the two worlds emphasizes the ways in which a community thrives without gender-based restrictions.

The most obvious example is in the case of attire. "Terry asked them if they used feathers for their hats, and they seemed amused at the idea. He made a few sketches of our women's hats, with plumes and quills." The Herlanders, in contrast, wore straw hats and winter caps.

Van adds that "This led me very promptly to the conviction that those 'feminine charms' we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity—developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process." In Herland, in a country where women do not have the burden of men's opinions, citizens have evolved into something remarkably different. They have order, education, practical clothes, and shared community. They also have fitness, ample food, sufficient space, and no conflict. The men, especially Van, cannot help but compare this to the world they knew.

Physical and Mental Agility

In Herland physical fitness is as important as mental fitness. Women's physical fitness is illustrated in the gymnasium, in their agility among the trees, and in their physical labor. This is balanced by an interest in learning—which the reader sees in the women's interest in the comparison to the men's world.

The women are consistently described as being fit and strong. In the initial encounter, Van notes, "Never, anywhere before, had I seen women of precisely this quality. Fishwives and market women might show similar strength, but it was coarse and heavy. These were merely athletic—light and powerful." This is in keeping with Charlotte Gilman's own theory that fitness was essential, and it is in direct contrast to the then-popular ideas that led to the medical treatment for women known as the "rest cure." The women of Herland are strong without being unattractive. The still-common term for women as "the weaker sex" is countered repeatedly by examples in the novel.

The ability to handle work is also highlighted. These women are skilled in both the mental and physical tasks of a job. The men, however, are lacking in this new country: "These ... 'alleged or so-called wives' of ours, went right on with their profession as foresters." The men have "qualified as assistants."

Even at the point of the attempted rape, Van points out how strong the women are. "The women of Herland have no fear of men. Why should they have? ... They are not weak." The women not only stop Terry's horrible act but handle his imprisonment and punishment with ease. They show both physical and mental prowess throughout the novel, but it is particularly obvious in this concluding section.

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