The Well-Tended Forests
One of the first observations the men make about Herland is how carefully the forestland around the city is maintained, and Jeff confirms that every tree in the forest is fruit- or nut-bearing, or in some way useful. The entire forest is not so much a wilderness as an immense garden. The forests exemplify the Herlandian way, especially with regard to nature. First, the forests are completely under human control. Every aspect of the ecosystem has been rationalized and made to serve the women in the most efficient way possible, but without the waste and ugliness associated with industrial exploitation. The useful, pleasant aspects of nature have been encouraged to flourish, and the aggressive, wasteful elements have been bred out. The women have gently forced nature to cooperate.
Though men such as Terry associate nature with ferocity and physical challenge, the Herlandian forests represent a different kind of relationship between humans and their environment. Natural life is humanized; it cooperates with and supports humanity rather than reduces human behavior to so-called “natural laws” that tend to favor competition and the domination of the strong over the weak. The women are disgusted to learn the barest details of the modern meat industry, which stands in sharp contrast to the Herlandian women’s relationship to their well-tended forests.
Contrary to the men’s expectations, the Herlandian women’s clothes are not frivolous, but rather, practical and stylish: the women wear a one-piece undergarment, hose, and either a tunic or a long robe, which is attractively stitched and has many useful pockets. In our society, women are often assumed to be vain and frivolous because of their clothing, and thus, Gilman uses the Herlandians’ clothing to confound the shortsighted expectations of the men, who are forced to admit that the women are no less attractive for having shorter hair and practical clothes. In time, Jeff and Van even come to prefer the Herlandian style. The men, too, must adopt Herlandian dress, and they find the clothes comfortable and becoming, which suggests that Herland’s style is fitting for both men and women alike. When Van eventually leaves Herland, he misses the clothing, and, by extension, the eminently reasonable, attractive, and comfortable lifestyle that those clothes represent.