Thematic Concerns in Herland

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‘Herland’ is a utopian social criticism novel written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (I860-1935). First published in 1915, the novel may be regarded as a fictitious inquiry of the life in the United States. The plot twist seemingly concentrates on ten principal characters: Vandyke Jennings, a sociologist who is very open-minded, incisive and with a thought-provoking insight, Terry Nicholson; a successful explorer-cum-pilot and happens to be a gross chauvinist, Ellador; a young Herland Lass who gets married to Van, Allima, a very determined soul who marries Terry but later fall apart due to physical assault Celis, Moadine and Zava.

            The plot twist arguably commences focusing on three men, Van, Jeff and Terry. The men discover a small country known as Herland. And as the name suggests, the country is governed and populated by women. This can be attributed to a strange accident of nature. The adventures of these three are inspired by the fact that they cannot entirely believe the rumors, that in Herland, reproduction could occur without males.

            When the three reach Herland, they proceed cautiously and hide their biplane and try to do their activities covertly. However, they are spotted by three young women. After futile attempts to catch the women with deceit, the men are compelled to chase the young lasses towards a village in Herland. The women disappear among the houses easily and the three find themselves surrounded by a ‘horde’ of women. They attempt to escape but are subdued and anesthetized. They wake up later and find themselves held captives in a fortress where despite being held hostage, they are provided with comfortable accommodation. They are assigned each to teach the Herland language. Van puts down everything about this country and tries to juxtapose the life here in these women world and their cradle land.

            The men break out of the fortress after months but cannot get away after they find their biplane entangled in a labyrinth of fabric. They are recaptured but are still treated well. Within no time, they master the way of life and the norms of women here and the women can now trust them. This is where Van finds out what happened to the men in this land. Nearly 2,000 years ago, a volcanic eruption occurred in Herland wiping out all the men in this land. The male remnants were slaves. The women easily subdued them and after a long period of despondency, one woman became pregnant bearing a girl, and four more girls thereafter. The five daughters had five daughters each too. This occurred repeatedly expanding the population in Herland.

            As the three men become more exposed and adapt to the Herland environment, it leads to attractions that result to male-female relationships: Jeff married Celis, Van married Ellador and Terr married Alima. With a very long past without men, the women are naïve, with less experience or memory of love. Terry finds it very difficult to come into terms with being in love with a someone who he deems not  ‘ an ideal companion’ in his reality. After the marriage, the society at large does find the essence of it. This may be attributed to the fact that the society in Herland does not subscribe to any definite religion.

            These marriages of the three men to women who had no idea of what being a wife entailed causes them much reflection and provokes a lot of thoughts on how to live and put up with each other. For example, Terry is frustrated and attempts to rape Alima and his action causes a meltdown. He stood trial and ordered to return to his homeland. Terry has to come home with Van but Ellador is not willing to part with him. Finally, they come to a consensus that both Terry and Van will leave on condition that they will not reveal about Herland until Ellador is back. Meanwhile, Jeff stays behind with his now pregnant wife, Celis.

            As hinted in the beginning, this novel is a fictitious work. It is the feminist utopia that depicts several concerns including the basic organization of society, the patriarchal arguments, chauvinism and majorly the role of women in the wellbeing of the society.

Thematic concerns in the novel.


Feminism is the major theme in the literary work. It resonates from the beginning up to the denunciation. The author depicts a utopia country ruled by women. The success of these women tends to incline on the author’s deliberate idea to evaluate women and the pragmatic application of feminist values and spirit. It can be argued that the title itself, Herland, introduces us to a hypothetical dimension of a social set up that has reaped major successes propelled by the power of a woman.

The author uses this utopian world to juxtapose the social, emotional and economic abilities of a hypothetical woman-centered society to the brutal inequalities and imbalances in patriarchal systems that are male-dominated. Gilman’s point of view is that women are the maven of the roulette- in this case, the unpredictable circus of life if their male counterparts stopped putting ceilings on them. He also promotes with her clear-cut emphasis on reproduction rights of women not based on man’s opinion. In Herland, women reproduce via parthenogenesis, a symbol of independence.


The novel emphasizes the sanctity of motherhood. The women have a deep regard for motherhood in Herland, maybe because of their hypothetical ability to sire kids on their own. They term God as a sacred mother. This personifies the love that spread across the world at large.

Each woman in Herland is allowed to give birth only once, and specialists raise the children.


The author focuses on how gender roles are socially constructed. Using a utopian world, he portrays the conflict in the patriarchal system on ‘who does what’ and how gender roles are perceived as unchangeable by both genders.

In contrast to women of patriarchal systems, the women in Herland are viewed to have exhibit male physical features: short, non-rudimental hair and have no broad and distinct hips. It is intriguing that the women here performed all the roles and had reaped success.

Interestingly, Jeff has feminine traits despite being a male and his feelings ironically reflect the feelings women here in Herland instead of the men he had accompanied. Maybe the author uses Jeff deliberately to voice the need for a consensus between the two genders who have had unparalleled supremacy antagonism. 

            I will remember the book for its incisive and thought-provoking approach to a subject that has been very fragile and contentious in the 21st

century. Despite being published in the early 1900s, the novel addresses the role of women in society in a very witty way. It has blatantly exposed the growing gender friction and the loopholes in socially constructed roles of gender.

            The author presents a conversation that we have all had in the wake of feminism and liberation of women from yokes of male chauvinism, misogyny and objectifying by some male counterparts.

            The novel also induces one to think of what if women ruled the world? Would things be different? Would the unjustifiable and heinous crimes melted to them such as sexual exploitation come to an immediate end?

November 13, 2023



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