Introduction: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
You have heard the popular saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” which is attributed to an African proverb. Herland gives new meaning to that proverb. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is set in a 1915 Utopian feminist society, which is defined by gender roles. The women are fast, very athletic and physically stronger than men. They wear their hair short like a man.
What is Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman About?
In Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the narrator, Vandyck (Van) Jennings and two of his friends, Terry O. Nicholson and Jeff Margrave join a big scientific expedition. Jennings who has an affinity for languages is able to pick-up pieces of conversations from their guides. He learns that there is a land inhabited only by women and girls, and men are not welcome there. The men who brave going there never seem to return.
One day, the three see signs of another civilization, but they decide to return to the US and return later, just the three of them. Terry is extremely wealthy and can make the exploration a reality. It takes the three a year to plan the trip. For the trip, they load a lot of provisions, a motorboat aboard, and tuck in a “dissembled” biplane on Terry’s yacht.
On the journey, they have many discussions about the women. When they reach the point where they had camped on the previous expedition, they assemble the bi-plane and load it with everything they need, including food. They continue to sail to get a lay of the land and perform reconnaissance before they attempt to find “Ladyland.”
The following day, they embark on their mission early in the morning and they enter Herland. The land is very well taken care of, and the first people they spot are three young women – Celis, Alima, and Ellador – playing in a tree. They introduce themselves and so do the girls. Terry tries to bribe them with a necklace, and one of the girls snatches it and they scamper away. The men are not fast enough to keep up with them, but they try to follow them.
As they get closer to where the inhabitants live, they see the most beautiful houses and landscaped gardens. They finally meet the first set of women and they feel as if they have definitely done something wrong. Terry being his charming self, gives the leader a beautiful scarf, which she accepts, but passes it behind her. Next he gives her a circlet of rhinestones, which again she accepts and passes behind her. The women go to the side of the men indicating that they should follow them.
They direct the men to a building and Terry, Jeff and Van refuse to go inside. Terry fire shots to scare them so they can escape, but five women lift each of the men and shuffle them into the building. Shortly after they enter the building, they are given anesthesia. The three awake from their imposed slumber in a large room. All their clothes are gone and they are replaced with some very plain garments. After getting ready, they knock on the door, which is immediately opened into a larger room with about 18 women, the ones who had subdued them. They eat simple but nutritious food and there are notebooks for them. They are supposed to learn the native language and teach theirs.
When they return to their room, they scout the place for an escape route, and where the room is located there is no such opportunity. Where they are imprisoned is like a fortress. The confinement impacts Terry greatly, but Jeff and Van adjust and interact with their tutors. The women are unlike any they have ever met before. The men are “free” to roam about, but they are watched. Van is very much interested in learning the language and learning about the women’s history.
After being confined for months, Terry cannot take it any longer and is ready to escape and they hatch a plan to together. They decide that the best time to escape is during the nights since they are not watched then. They execute the plan, and it isn’t easy, but they persist. They sleep during the days and travel at nights because they have a lot of ground to cover. When they finally get to the bi-plane they cannot access it because a cover is sewn over it and they have nothing to cut it with.
They notice the three girls, Celis, Alima, and Ellador, with whom they first had contact with. And using what they have learned of the language they tell them that they are confined against their will and the girls give them some biscuits. It occurs to them that someone may be watching them.
They are captured and returned to their room. The women knew that they would attempt an escape and they know there is only one way. During the nights when the three think they are being very cautious, women are watching them hidden away in trees. The women also know that they will try to access the only form of transportation they have access to, so they are watching that as well.
The men finally get the courage to ask about men and learn that there haven’t been men in the community for over two thousand years. The women are interested in learning as much as they can from the men and they take copious notes. After six months they are moved to another city where they stay for three months and they are under surveillance for another three months. There are no young women there, only women over 40 – who they call colonels – and children. They learn a lot about the women and the women learn very quickly from them, which helps to accelerate their studies.
Terry, Jeff and Van learn the history of the country and what happened to the men of yore. They lost many men in battle and may more to a volcanic eruption. There country was separated from others. They killed their oppressors and only women were left. They had two choices – to commit suicide or choose to live and they chose life. They work hard and one day one of the women becomes pregnant and they think that a man must be hiding somewhere, but there isn’t any man around, and she has more children, all daughters.
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In evolution, you adapt to your environment, and since there are no men on Herland, the women reproduce via parthenogenesis, asexual reproduction. When the five girls become women, each of them has five daughters and soon the women who remember men have died off. We have the start of Herland and a new race is born. In the privacy of their room, Terry sneers at the women and do not believe their history.
“Reproduction without sex is a simple matter of cloning; you take your own cells, make a copy, and pass that on to your descendant s. It doesn’t sound like much fun to our mammalian ears, but it’s a strategy that has worked very well for billions of years for bacteria. Asexual reproduction is faster and more energy efficient than the sexual variety: you don’t need to go to the trouble of finding a partner in order to create the next generation…. If natural selection rewarded organisms exclusively for sheer reproductive power, sexual reproduction might never have evolved. Asexual organisms reproduce on average twice as quickly as their sexual counterparts, in part because without a male/female distinction, every organism is capable of producing offspring directly. But evolution is not just a game of sheer quantity. Overpopulation, after all, poses its own dangers, and a community of organisms with identical DNA makes a prime target for parasites or predators.” Source: Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson
Over the years and centuries, the women work toward improving their daughters, and they recognize that the real growth lay in education. The women are sisters and they grow and live together in harmony. The women are even tempered and socially conscious. When you compare their history with that of the US, they haven’t had any wars. Community is the most important thing, and children are the main focus. There is no disease or poverty and they have intellect, wealth and beauty.
As the women learn more about the history of the US, they are able to ask more direct questions. And they are very thirsty for knowledge. Terry, Jeff and Van are allowed to travel all over the country and converse with the women who want to learn so much. They learn how the women control overpopulation – when women have a yearning for children they learn to suppress it by doing active work, physical and mental, and focusing on other children. They limit the number of population so that all may flourish.
The country is about the size of Holland with a population of three million. They think in terms of community. They replant an entire forest with different kinds of trees.
As the men are allowed more freedom, each develop a relationship with one of the three women they first encounter upon their arrival, Van with Ellador, Jeff with Celis, and Terry with Alima. Since Herland has flourished for 2,000 years without any men, the women have no experience with relationships with men, and they do not understand romantic love or sexual relationships. This introduces a lot of tension in the relationship. Van and Ellador, as well as Jeff and Celis seem to be able to work things through much better than Terry and Alima.
Terry finds it exceedingly difficult to adapt to the environment, and the key problem is the way that he views women. He is not willing to change his beliefs because they are so ingrained and because he is always able to get what he wants. The three couples get married, and the women still do not understand male-female dynamics and togetherness, and the need to spend and invest the time to build a strong relationship as a couple.
Because of Terry’s bullheadedness, and need to be the master, he is thrown off the island and has to return to the US. Van goes with him and Ellador accompanies her husband – they intend to return to Herland in the future. During all the time the men are sharing information, they often suppress bad information about the US and other countries in the world. They underestimate the women, who are very good at evaluating information. The women decide that they do not want to allow others to visit Herland and disrupt the harmony by introducing sickness and all that ails the world.
Final Thoughts: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I recommend Herland (Dover Thrift Editions) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman because it takes you way out of your comfort zone. I do not believe in Utopia because for me it doesn’t work and have inherent problems as Herland shows.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Complete Novels and NovellasThe Yellow Wallpaper (Illustrator)Collected Works of Charlotte Perkins GilmanThe Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman:The Herland TrilogyThe Charlotte Perkins Gilman ReaderCharlotte Perkins Gilman CollectionMoving the MountainCharlotte Perkins Gilman, best books