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Gender Roles in “Herland” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman


The book Herland written by an American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman tells about young men who randomly got into an unusual place where only women lived. The way of life of local inhabitants was completely different from a standard order. These women have special laws for raising children; they had other ideas of religion and perception of the world around them. Therefore, this work is rightfully considered one of the evident confirmations that the primary idea of ​​Gilman, which she developed in her novel, is to demonstrate the difference between the two sexes and roles that they usually try to play.

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Novel’s Male Characters

Throughout the story, readers can see that the author frequently made a distinction between men and women, and it can be traced in almost every scene and dialogue. The writer made the male images too soft and gentle. One of the male researchers is Jeff, whom Gilman described as a botanist immersed in science (2). Another character is Van, whose interests were also related to science, in particular, sociology (Gilman 2). Perhaps, Terry was the only one who had talents that were more inherent to men than women: he was fond of mechanics, electricity, and, as Gilman wrote, he was wealthy enough to afford different hobbies (1).

Also, the author periodically gives non-standard comparisons. For example, the writer sometimes presents the main male characters of the novel (Van, Terry, and Jeff) in a slightly effeminate manner. At the same time, the women of the amazing country of Herland, as one of the men call it, look courageous and forceful. When the men first met the inhabitants of that unusual place, they did not immediately recognize women in them.

Having seen Herland, Terry said the following: “there’s no dirt” (Gilman 31). They were astonished by the beauty of the place where they had been led. The room where they had a rest was perfect, according to Van, with a perfect bed and many lofty windows (Gilman 36). They liked the food that they ate there, and the overall impression was amazing. Perhaps, Gilman wanted to show her readers that the place, which she described, had virtually no shortcomings.

Female Images of the Novel

As for the female images of the novel, almost all the characters manifested themselves as active and purposeful people who adhered to rather strict order and did not allow it to change. The narrators admitted that one of the features that distinguished the local women from those they used to see was the length of their hair that was short (Gilman 41).

As the characters got to know the local people closer, they learned about their striking features. Gilman’s heroines demonstrated an amazing ability to have children without the participation of men. Moreover, childbearing was the primary goal of the whole community of the mysterious country, hidden from the eyes of all other people. As Terry, one of the characters noted, their sense of motherhood was the most dominant element of the culture (Gilman 50). It is likely that this approach to family values has a connection with the life of the author of the novel.

A rather evident difference in masculine and feminine representation is probably a characteristic feature of the author’s work. The characters mentioned that Herland women were strikingly deficient in what they called “femininity” (Gilman 62). The natives had no beauty, but they had strength. Perhaps, it was Gilman’s desire to show readers that women can also be the sterner sex.

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Non-Standard Concepts of Motherhood and Religion

The concept of religion in the country of women did not have such development as in ordinary society. The fact that there was no formal division into good and evil in Herland is rather interesting. Their greatest joy was life and constant development. The women of the country did not try to explain their existence from a divine point of view; they relied only on their strengths and saw the happiness in the upbringing of children and the improvement of their world. As Gilman wrote, maternal love for them was not the same usual feeling that is common to ordinary women but rather a religion (58). In addition, the local women were quite surprised at the idea of burying people (Gilman 60). It is also one of the main differences between the inhabitants of Herland from the rest of the world.

An atypical concept of motherhood, which the writer offered in her book, is a fascinating topic for discussion. As it was mentioned earlier, their main object of worship were children, to whom they gave all their love and affection. In Herland, the birth and upbringing of a child were almost a religion treated with reverence by all. Probably, Gilman wanted to demonstrate the utopian possibility of women to realize their potential independently without the participation of men, even in this context. At the same time, the writer always demonstrated to readers that the process of educating the inhabitants of Herland was almost perfect. This approach to upbringing can probably be considered almost ideal, and the author sought to emphasize it.

Community Theme

The subject of the community and its importance in women’s society played a distinct role in the book. The writer wanted to convey to readers the idea that an ideal society is one where the equality and individuality of each member were relevant. As Van noted, they all three became “well used to the clothes,” they ceased to notice the peculiarities of the local way of life (Gilman 74). Judging by the novel, the inhabitants of Herland successfully adapted to an independent life. The women were interested in the men’s previous way of life, but they did not demonstrate much enthusiasm about all the peculiarities (Gilman 86). Perhaps, they were satisfied with their order in Herland and did not want to change anything that could break it.

The writer paid particular attention to the organization of the city and the dwellings of its inhabitants. The main characters were very surprised at how well-adjusted the life of local women was. According to Van, a child born in Herland got into a completely prepared and safe world (Gilman 100). It was everybody’s key goal to take care of their daughters, and the central task of all women in the country was to develop the body and spirit of their children, making them healthy and educated (Gilman 104). The men called local women different flattering epithets: patient, gentle, courteous, etc., and they valued such care (Gilman 106).

The characters liked this order, which, perhaps, emphasized the author’s desire to point out that women were able to organize coziness and beauty much better than men. It was an attempt to demonstrate that women’s community is fully capable of doing without the sterner sex, and the central narrators of the story realized it when they entered this amazing and peculiar country. Even when it was decided that they were to leave the country, the men could not believe it because they loved their wives and did not want to part with them. The protagonist Van, as it was known, got a feeling for one of the heroines – Ellador.

Afterward, he married the woman and confessed his love to her, saying that she meant everything to him (Gilman 120). However, many Herland women condemned this behavior and tended to minimize the impact of new men in their ideal world. The coming of the strangers led their perfect world to changes, and many women did not like it. Perhaps, it can be considered as another proof of the feminist orientation of this novel. At the end of the story, Van mentioned that they, at last, left Herland, but their feelings were certainly mixed and incomprehensible as it was hard for them to say whether it was good or bad (Gilman 130).

Thus, Gilman succeeded in demonstrating her extraordinary idea of ​​an ideal and utopian world from the perspective of feminism and once again showing her desire for individualism and independence. Her novel Herland, which became the second part of the trilogy, was able to arouse resonance in the society. Despite the fact that it was written more than 100 years ago, many thoughts and ideas presented in the story are impressive even today, and people still find the invented world of Gilman utopian and impossible. Probably, it is this impossibility, which is the primary factor that has attracted attention to the novel and caused the interest of readers and critics for such a long time.

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Work Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. (Dover Thrift ed.). Dover Publications, 2012.

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