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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
In Herland, Gilman contrasts the way things are done in Herland and the way “we” do things. At first, these contrasts seem neutral, the incidental differences any two cultures would have. As the men become more familiar with Herland, however, a pattern emerges. In any realm in which there is a contrast between the customs of Herland and those of the outer world, the policies of Herland inevitably appear to be more rational and more effective. One example is the contrast drawn in the matter of the domestication of animals. Herland’s cats are model citizens, intelligent, healthy, and beautiful. They have been systematically bred for good behavior, chasing rodents only and leaving birds alone. Somel and Zava are shocked and disgusted to hear about the dirt, danger, and disease associated with dogs in the outer world and marvel that such a situation is tolerated. Eventually, after increasingly embarrassing comparisons, Van and his friends are forced to wonder why their society does tolerate such things. At every stage of the novel, Gilman contrasts a society built on reason, equality, and cooperation—all standards we claim to value—with one organized along the lines we have in fact chosen: tradition, inequality, and competition.
When Van, Terry, and Jeff first encounter their future brides, the extreme physical prowess of Herland’s women is strikingly clear. This encounter is only the first in a series of scenes in which Gilman shows our conventional notions of male physical superiority to be completely inaccurate, at least in the case of the Herlandians. Gilman uses the women’s amazing athleticism to illustrate one of her recurring points: that the inferiority and supposed weakness of women is entirely a product of culture. For instance, during their confinement and education into the customs of Herland, the men are allowed to exercise—and are humiliated by the ease with which the older women match and beat them. Later, the men play a stone-tossing game with the three girls, who easily beat them. Van comments on the naturalness of the girls’ physicality—vastly different from the women back home. Gilman wants to show that women would soon cease to be the “weaker sex” if they were not treated as such. The assumption of female frailty becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which women are sheltered because they are weak and weak because they are sheltered. The unique history of Herland explodes the myth of female weakness.
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