In many ways, Ellador is Gilman’s ideal woman. Beautiful and athletic, an unusual combination in the literature of Gilman’s time, Ellador defies the frail, delicate Victorian feminine ideal without seeming in any way masculinized or unwomanly. She is intelligent, courageous, and curious about the larger world. She is also a career woman: her work as a forester is inspired by the praise she received as a child for helping destroy an insect pest that threatened Herland’s trees. All of these aspects combine to make Ellador a walking rebuke to the stereotype of the modern, “liberated” woman as a waspish, unfulfilled man-hater. Gilman means for Ellador to exemplify woman’s human potential—that is, woman’s potential for wholeness, beyond the conventional boundaries of traditional femininity. Given the chance, Gilman is saying, women can be like Ellador: equal to a man spiritually, intellectually, and even physically.
Ellador’s mission to the outside world is part of her quest for an understanding of human nature in its wholeness. Ellador senses that, despite the amazing progress made in Herland, their society remains incomplete as long as there is no contribution from the masculine half of humanity. Ellador is driven to understand the masculine “other” both through her romantic relationship with Van and, at the end of the novel, by exploring the outside world in his company. There is still a tentative, unsettled quality to Ellador’s relationship with Van at the conclusion of the novel, as though both the characters and the author were still trying to figure out what a truly equal sexual relationship would look like. In a typically clever reversal of traditional characterization, Gilman has Ellador in the role of cool rationalist, not seeing the point of nonprocreative sexuality—while Van argues for the emotional, passionate, romantic (and traditionally “feminine”) side of sexuality. If the women of the future are anything like Ellador, Gilman seems to say, many of our traditional expectations will have to be radically revised.
Jeff and Terry are a matched pair—opposite sides of the same sexist coin. Where Terry represents the macho, domineering aspects of patriarchal society, Jeff represents the genteel, idealistic attitudes that often accompany and help to justify a system of sexual inequality. Gilman’s point is that Terry’s brutality and Jeff’s gentility are both predicated on a shared belief in the natural inferiority of women. In Jeff’s case, the assumption is that women are naturally delicate, sweet, placid creatures who need looking after. Jeff fancies himself as part of the tradition of the southern gentleman, which, in turn, was based on the tradition of knightly chivalry and courtly love. Gilman wants her readers to see that the object of a gentleman’s chivalry is just that: an object, an idol created in order to be worshipped, and not a living, feeling woman with independent thoughts and autonomous desires. According to Jeff’s beliefs, women are just as controlled and powerless as under Terry’s beliefs, although Jeff’s way is certainly a much nicer, more sensitive means of control.
The more Jeff learns about Herland, the more enamored of its social system he becomes. As Van points out, Jeff’s natural inclination to “worship” and idealize women leads him to embrace Herland’s ways like a religious convert and to reject the male-dominated outside world entirely. Jeff’s embrace of Herland, however, is based more on emotion than anything else, and he seems to think that a woman-dominated society would be preferable in every way to a male-dominated one, mostly because women are simply better, kinder, more moral people than are men. But here Jeff misses the point. Herland is better not because it is dominated by women but because there is no domination of anyone, by anyone, at all. By the end of the novel, Jeff is still struggling to see women as equals, not angelic superiors. Gilman seems to reward Jeff at the end of the novel, both by allowing him to remain in Herland and by having him be the father of Herland’s first naturally conceived child in 2,000 years.
On the surface, Terry seems to undergo the most drastic transformation of any character in the novel. At first, Terry seems confident, funny, courageous, a natural leader of men, and, we are told, a charmer of ladies. Later, however, he is shown to be a bully, an abuser, and a fool. Terry hasn’t changed; rather, his true character has been revealed, and Van, the narrator, has come to see him in a new light. Terry arrives in Herland with a theory that men are naturally superior to women and that, consequently, every woman naturally enjoys being “mastered” by her man. This notion is part of the bedrock of Terry’s identity and the source of his self-image. In Gilman’s time, men of Terry’s type were referred to as “blackguards” (as opposed to “gentlemen” like Jeff), and Gilman is saying that one sign of the unhealthy state of our male-dominated culture is the way blackguards such as Terry are viewed as lovable rogues and not seen for the domineering, often violent sexists that they are. The task of a decent society, Gilman suggests, is to turn the laudable energy and drive of men such as Terry in a less anti-social, anti-woman direction.
Though Terry imagines himself a rugged individualist, he is actually just as dependent on women as he imagines women are on men. Without a woman to admire him, flirt with him, and be impressed by his bluster, Terry’s sense of himself as a man is challenged, and he becomes deeply insecure. Faced with a woman such as Alima, who is a match for him physically and intellectually and who has no desire to be subservient to a man, Terry doesn’t know what to do. Unlike Jeff, who is thoroughly converted to Herland’s ways, and unlike Van, who, though cautious, hopes to understand and learn from them, Terry’s response is to reject Herland and to insist ever more stridently on his male prerogatives. Once his fantasies are exploded, he cannot even see the beauty of Herland’s inhabitants, whom Terry sees as unwomanly because of their self-confidence, a society not of women, but of “neuters.” The more strident Terry becomes, however, the more foolish he looks, and the more estranged he becomes from his lover and even his friends.
At the beginning of the novel, Van makes clear that he is proud of his training as a sociologist, which requires him to be versed in just about every other science. Sociology concerns the organization of human life in general, and in Herland he finds the perfect test case of a social structure unlike any other on Earth. He is fascinated, but his interest is much more intellectual, and much less personal, than that of Jeff or Terry. Van is more critical in his approach to Herland than either Jeff or Terry, and he makes a genuine effort to understand the principles on which the country is built in order to understand whether or not the place works. Van soon finds that Herland has the “advanced” civilizations of Europe and the United States beat in almost every way. Van’s eventual endorsement of Herland is more impressive than Jeff’s, since he is the most reasonable, objective, and well rounded of the three men.
Whenever Van is confronted by an aspect of Herlandian society that shocks his traditional sensibilities (for example, when he learns that children are raised by specialists, not by their own mothers), his study of different cultures helps him to see the advantages of a new and different social arrangement. Van’s preference is to judge a situation based on the evidence he has before him, not to prejudge it according to a theory. He finds that the sexist assumptions he acquired simply by living in his society are quickly overturned by his experiences and observations in Herland. Thanks to his discussions with Ellador and Somel, Van comes to see that much of what seems “natural” in our society is in fact quite arbitrary, and that things could be, and in many cases ought to be, arranged differently. Van’s rational approach helps him in his relationship with Ellador, since he is able to adjust more quickly than the other men to a romantic relationship that upends his prior notions of romance.