Places: Herland

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: serial, 1915; book, 1979

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Places DiscussedHerland

Herland. HerlandImaginary subtropical country ringed by heavily forested mountains as high as the Himalayas that is about the size of Holland. Its location is kept secret by the few outsiders who have visited it. Herland’s Aryan inhabitants, now limited to three million women, once were in contact with the best Old World civilizations. Two thousand years before the events of Gilman’s novel, the country extended beyond its mountain perimeter, reaching the coast of the “Great Sea.” Because of wars with external enemies, the ancient Herlanders contracted their settlements to within the protective mountains, defended the mountain pass, and built fortresses. When the men were fighting in the mountains, a volcanic eruption killed all of them and isolated Herland from the rest of the world. At the time of the novel, the country stands like a “basalt column,” accessible only by airplane, with thick forests at the base of the mountains.

Bordered by a belt of forest, the interior of Herland ranges from mountain valleys with winter snow to a large valley in southeastern Herland with a climate similar to that of California. The valley contains broad plains and well-tended forests, almost all of whose trees are either hardwood or food-bearing varieties. The three male adventurers compare the entire land to a garden, a park, and a truck farm. They comment that the forests are better tended than Germany’s, with no dead limbs and even with trained vines. Interspersed throughout the well-cultivated land are small glades with shaded stone furniture placed near fountains with birdbaths.

The dust-free roads crisscrossing Herland are constructed of a durable manufactured material. Sloped, graded, curved, and guttered as well as the best European highways, they lead to towns containing both white and pink houses, situated “among the green groves and gardens like a broken rosary of pink coral.” The white buildings are for public use, whereas the pink ones, especially those near the town center, resemble palaces or college buildings in parklike settings. All of Herland’s towns and cities are clean, orderly, and lovely, without the urban blight common in American and European population centers. The entire country of Herland underscores the virtues of its all-female inhabitants.

Herland castle

Herland castle. Massive fortress more than one thousand years old in which the three Americans are detailed after they enter Herland. In contrast to the town’s pink and white buildings, the castle is built of gray stone with thick walls and is isolated in the hills. Its high, smooth walls, built of huge stones interlocked like puzzle pieces, are reminiscent of Peru’s massive pre-Columbian architecture. Perched on a lofty rock, the castle’s high walls line the edge of a sheer cliff, with a river at its base. Its location in northern Herland gives it a clear view of the open plains in the southeast of the country.

The castle has no bars, though initially the three men are not allowed to leave. In contrast to the European princesses imprisoned in castles in traditional medieval tales of Europe, these men are interned only until they learn the language and customs of Herland. Instead of trying to possess the men, the women of Herland want to liberate them and learn from them.

Herland’s forests

Herland’s forests. Important because the women whom the three adventurers court and eventually marry all work in Herland’s well-fertilized forests, as do the three men after they wed. The forests seem almost magical to the intruders; they are also practical, since their many food-producing trees require little upkeep and yield more produce in a smaller area of land than do traditional farming methods. Herland’s women have enriched their soil and nurtured their trees until they have created an Eden-like country, a standard against which the three male American intruders and their civilization are judged and found lacking.

Suggested ReadingsAllen, Polly Wynn. Building Domestic Liberty: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Architectural Feminism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988. An outstanding analysis of Gilman’s interrelated ideas about homes, communities, and the social arrangement of the built environment.Deegan, Mary Jo. Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892-1918. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1988. This monograph is the major study of the Chicago women’s sociological network, centered at Hull House, in which Gilman participated. Deegan’s work is indispensable for untangling many of the relevant intellectual currents that defined Gilman’s era, especially the concept of “cultural feminism.”Donaldson, Laura E. “The Eve of De-Struction: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Feminist Re-Creation of Paradise.” An Interdisciplinary Journal 16 (1989): 373-387.Gubar, Susan. “She in Herland: Feminism as Fantasy.” In Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Asserts that women’s abusive reality within the patriarchy enables a visionary revolution. Argues that Gilman’s utopic work serves as a rejection of the patriarchy.Hill, Mary A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980. A major biography of Gilman and the one to which students should turn first. Hill presents an astute, well-documented, and trustworthy account of Gilman’s early life and the origins of her ideas.Karpinski, Joanne B., ed. Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. An ambitious compendium of wide-ranging contemporary, reprinted, and original literary essays and critical assessments. Although somewhat technical, Lois Magner’s study carefully explores Gilman’s ideas on evolution and social Darwinism.Keith, Bruce. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Stetson).” In Women in Sociology, edited by Mary Jo Deegan. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. Presents a useful and straightforward overview of Gilman’s work, writings, and stature as a sociologist. Keith includes a bibliography of Gilman’s major works and a list of critical sources.Keyser, Elizabeth. “Looking Backward: From Herland to Gulliver’s Travels.” In Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. Discusses Gilman’s utopia as a transcendent reinterpretation of Jonathan Swift’s satire on male pride in Gulliver’s Travels.Lane, Ann J. Introduction to Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979. Provides a new introduction to the book, which had long been out of print. Argues that Gilman’s use of humor originates from a personal and political praxis to promote a transformative, socialized world.Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Pantheon, 1990. This popular biography interprets Gilman primarily from a psychological perspective (an orientation that Gilman rejected) and stresses Gilman’s family and interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, Lane gives short shrift to major social issues and the intellectual milieu in which Gilman labored.Meyering, Sheryl L., ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989. This compendium offers fourteen frequently referenced critical essays, three of which focus on Herland.Peyser, Thomas Galt. “Reproducing Utopia: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Herland.” Studies in American Fiction 20, no. 1 (1992): 1-16.Scharnhorst, Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985. This reference is indispensable for serious students. Scharnhorst lists 2,173 of Gilman’s writings, including many found only in obscure magazines. This useful book also includes a compilation of published criticism, biographical materials, and relevant manuscript collections.
Categories: Places