When Gilman's three male protagonists--Van, Jeff, and Terry (oh, Terry)--show up on the shores of Herland, they are soon met by three young women: Ellador, Celis, and Alima. Here the treatise of the novel overtakes the narrative. And perhaps it should. What results is an extended "info dump"--a term which Edward James doesn't invent, but identifies as a stain which most sf writers try to coverup. In Herland the information comes, but the characters do not change. Van remains the reasonable observer of the "middle landscape," Jeff the chivalric courtier, and Terry (oh, Terry) frees his closeted rapist; so perhaps there, if measuring by degrees, Terry does descend, although his fate is never in question. The moment the three young "girls" walk on stage we can hear the genre mold ker-plump in the background: there will be a triple wedding. To Gilman's credit, she purposefully mucks this up and nicely sets up an anti-pastoral sequel, but something has been lost. And this isn't loss in the romantic sense; no Wordsworthian nostalgia, here. The loss is in the telling.
In parsing combinations of ecology, feminism, and pragmatism, Mary Jo Deegan and Christopher Podeschi list a few points of friction between Gilman and the more common ecofeminist line, the most interesting of which is the repression of sexuality in Herland. The Wonder-Women reproduce through recurring immaculate conception, or, in the novel's terms, parthogenesis. The crux of the novel, then, is a fantasy. There is no scientific explanation. There is not even a bit-by-a-radioactive-spider, pseudo-science explanation. There is only a type of Heideggerian calling into being. The characters--male or female--don't question it. Just as quickly, we learn the women will re-accept a bi-sexual society.
Somewhere in- between, the two most complex characters, Van and Ellador, fall chunkily in love. Here, the straightforward prose seems unsure of how to develop its characters through something as abstract as romance: "my sense of pleasant friendship became but a broad foundation for such height, such breadth, such interlocked combination of feeling..." The problem seems that while the males may swell with desire (oh, Terry), Gilman leaves nothing for the women. This has the benefit of creating a land without strife. It also saves the land from the destructive history Greg Gerrard ties to the concept of nature as lover. But the payment is the purging of desire. The women truly will not want.
Maybe this is too manly of me. Maybe I want to be wanted. Still, I hope for the kind of awakening that Le Guin gives her small band of anarchists on a planet of institutionalized anarchy in The Dispossessed. One will awaken and ask: why do I not want what I do not want?