[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.