1. They were not young. They were not old. They were not, in the girl sense, beautiful. They were not in the least ferocious. . . . I had the funniest feeling . . . of being hopelessly in the wrong that I had so often felt in early youth when my short legs’ utmost effort failed to overcome the fact that I was late to school.
In Chapter 2, the men have their first encounter with the women of Herland, and things do not at all go as they had planned. In this passage, Van begins to sense that these women are unlike any he has ever encountered, and that perhaps he has misjudged what women could be. These women are not afraid of the three explorers, and they do not seem like “savages” or belligerent “amazons” at all. Van cannot determine how old the women are, but in their presence he begins to feel young and timid. Van’s feeling that he is perpetually in the wrong stays with him throughout his time in Herland.
In Herland, the men do, in effect, become like little boys again. Compared to the full humanity represented by the women of Herland, the kind of masculinity represented by all three men, particularly by Terry, is a kind of childishness, the mark of an incomplete personality. Van’s early sensitivity to his position with regard to the women shows that he is willing to learn from the situation in which he finds himself. Terry, on the other hand, cannot really see the women. Since they are not beautiful “in the girl sense,” he cannot even recognize them as women. If Van feels like a child at first, he soon grows into a new kind of man, while Terry retreats into his childish version of what it means to be a man.
2. [Terry] squared his broad shoulders and lifted his chest. “We do not allow our women to work. Women are loved—idolized—honored—kept in the home to care for the children.”
“What is ‘the home’?” asked Somel a little wistfully.
But Zava begged: “Tell me first, do no women work, really?”
“Why, yes,” Terry admitted. “Some have to, of the poorer sort.”
“About how many—in your country?”
“About seven or eight million,” said Jeff, as mischievous as ever.
This exchange, from the end of Chapter 5, is one of several conversations in which the pretenses and false ideals of modern society are exposed to the gentle, ironic questioning of the women of Herland. Gilman achieves her effect in part by having the men explain their society’s gender relations to a group of women wholly unfamiliar with what is considered to be “normal” behavior between men and women. In this situation, the men find themselves straining to find the logic behind such institutions as marriage and the family, and in the process, they often reveal more than they intend. For example, Terry is thoroughly in character here, flexing his muscles as he flexes his ideas. He is unaware of how strange it must sound to the Herlandians to hear him speak of men “allowing” women to work, or of “honoring” them by “keeping” them in the home.
Jeff, on the other hand, is more than halfway converted to the Herlandian way of thinking, and he is happy to point out that the supposedly normal, preferred domestic situation Terry describes is actually far from typical, thanks to the economic inequalities of modern society. Even more important for Gilman’s purposes, the reader is learning to see traditional arrangements in a new way, just as the men are. For the reader as well, the chain of linked verbs that Terry uses (“women are loved—idolized—honored—kept”) begins to take on new and more ominous levels of meaning.
3. We soon grew to see that mother-love has more than one channel of expression. I think the reason our children are so—so fully loved, by all of us, is that we never—any of us—have enough of our own.
Somel says these words to Van toward the end of Chapter 6, during one of their long discussions about the idea of motherhood in Herland. Gilman wants to show that even though the women have lived without men for so long, they are not less feminine than other women and not unnatural in their feelings. These women experience a desire for motherhood as great as any woman’s, but it is a desire likely bound to go unfulfilled to some extent. The vast majority of the women of Herland are allowed only one child, even though they might personally want to bear more. This great sacrifice is one of the elements that allows Herland to function as well as it does, and it represents the highest expression of their communal, socialist system.
Trapped on their plateau, uncontrolled reproduction by the women would soon lead to overpopulation, which would be fatal to the whole group. Although each woman sacrifices a bit of her personal motherhood, she does so knowing that the larger motherhood of the community can grow thanks to her sacrifice. Every duty, every responsibility undertaken by an individual in Herland, every creative or constructive act, is a contribution to the mothering function of society as a whole. The sacred nature of motherly love is the one unquestioned value of Herland’s women and the foundation of all of their other values. Everything from their religious notions to their agriculture is determined by a desire to place the raising and cherishing of children at the center of life. However, Somel’s admission that none of the women ever have “enough” children is an acknowledgement that life in Herland, as ideal as it seems, is not perfect.
4. I found that much, very much, of what I had honestly supposed to be a physiological necessity was a psychological necessity—or so believed. I found, after my ideas of what was essential had changed, that my feelings changed also.
In Chapter 11, Van reflects on his own psychology as he struggles to understand Ellador’s continuing independence after the two have been wed. Ellador and the other women do not understand the notion the men have brought with them of married privacy. Indeed, the idea of “private families” is completely alien to Herland, where the larger group always overrides any such smaller connections between individuals. The real frustration for Van is in the matter of romantic or recreational sexuality. Ellador simply has no interest in sex, aside from its procreative purposes, and to her the idea that sexual pleasure could be an end in itself seems odd, even unnatural. Van does his best to entice her, but Ellador is a skilled psychologist, and she is able to steer the relationship away from sexuality and back toward simple friendship. Van is smart enough to see what Ellador is doing, and over time he begins to experience the changes he details above.
Van eventually puts his sexual drive at the service of his rational will, just as the women of Herland have done, thus overturning the common assumption that the sex drive is essentially unstoppable, especially in men. Gilman is aware that such beliefs about the male physiological “need” for sex are behind many of the excuses made for male sexual misconduct, from adultery to promiscuity and even to rape. However, Van finds he has much more self-control than he ever thought possible. Later, Van continues to make the case that sexuality can be expressive of true love, even when reproduction is not the object, but he does so in terms of spiritual union, not simple physical desire. Ellador is much more open to this argument, and it is clear that their discussion of sex does not end when the novel does.
5. When we say men,man, manly, manhood, and all the other masculine-derivatives, we have in the background of our minds a huge vague crowded picture of the world and all its activities. . . . And when we say women, we thinkfemale—the sex.
But to these women . . . the word woman called up all that big background, so far as they had gone in social development; and the word man meant to them only male—the sex.
Toward the end of the novel, in Chapter 12, the men are faced with expulsion from Herland, thanks to Terry’s attack on Alima. Ellador, eager to join Van in exile and to see the outside world, imagines that Van must be homesick. Van tries to explain how different his feelings about men and women are after a year in Herland, and he realizes that his thinking has changed in a fundamental way. Now, when he thinks of humanity or “mankind,” he includes women and womanliness as fully part of the equation, not merely as a subset of a larger entity. Before his experiences in Herland, Van unconsciously thought of women as a kind of man—attractive, but weaker and not representative of the group as a whole. Previously, whenever Van thought of history and the progress of human achievement, he’d really been thinking of men and things men had done.
Van can now see that he’d excluded half of humanity from full membership in the group. The same situation applies in reverse for the women of Herland. In the absence of men, these women have come to think of men as a kind of woman, and to assume that the men of the outside world must be as devoted to reason, cooperation, and children as they are. This assumption, says Van, is partly why Terry’s attempted rape comes as such a shock to the women. Terry’s act was a particularly male kind of violence, directed at another person, not as a person, but as a woman. As they come to understand the outside world, the women of Herland must expand their definition of humanity, just as the men have had to. The difference is that the information they will have to assimilate is not entirely benign.