History: Published in 1909, this was Gertrude Stein's first published work. The book is separated into three stories, "The Good Anna," "Melanctha," and "The Gentle Lena." The three stories are independent of each other, but all are set in the fictional town of Bridgepoint.
Plot: "The Good Anna," the first of Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, is a novella set in "Bridgepoint" about Anna Federner, a servant of "solid lower middle-class south german stock."
Part I describes Anna’s happy life as housekeeper for Miss Mathilda and her difficulties with unreliable under servants and "stray dogs and cats." She loves her "regular dogs": Baby, an old, blind, terrier; "bad Peter," loud and cowardly; and "the fluffy little Rags." Anna is the undisputed authority in the household, and in her five years with Miss Mathilda she oversees in turn four under servants: Lizzie, Molly, Katy, and Sallie. Sometimes even the lazy and benign Miss Mathilda feels rebellious under Anna’s iron hand; she is also concerned because Anna is always giving away money, and tries to protect her from her many poor friends.
Part II, "The Life of the Good Anna," fills in the background. Born in Germany, in her teens Anna emigrates to "the far South," where her mother dies of consumption. She moves to Bridgepoint near her brother, a baker, and takes charge of the household of Miss Mary Wadsmith and her young nephew and niece, who are orphans. Little Jane resists Anna’s strong will, but after Anna has provoked a showdown becomes "careful and respectful" and even gives Anna a green parrot. When after six years Jane is finally married, Anna refuses to follow Miss Mary in the new household. Mrs. Lehntman, a widow and midwife who "was the romance of Anna’s life," helps Anna tell Miss Wadsmith that she cannot accompany her. Anna then goes to work for Doctor Shonjen, a hearty bachelor, with whom she gets along. Previously Shonjen has operated on her, and Anna’s general health remains poor: she has headaches and is "thin and worn." When Mrs. Lehntman, who has two careless children, adopts a baby without consulting Anna, the latter is offended and spends more time with another large working family, the Drehtens. She also visits her brother the baker, but has trouble with her sister-in-law, though she eventually helps with her savings when her god-daughter niece is married. Mrs. Lehntman rashly decides to open a boarding house, and Anna despite her misgivings lends her the necessary money, for "Romance is the ideal in one’s life and it is very lonely living with it lost." Having been once defeated in the matter of Johnny’s adoption, she can no longer impose her will in the relationship. ("In friendship, power always has its downward curve.") When Dr. Shonjen marries a "proud" and "unpleasant" woman, Anna seeks a new position. Encouraged by a fortune-teller, she goes to work for Miss Mathilda, and these are her happiest years, until finally her ailing favorite dog Baby dies and Miss Mathilda leaves permanently for Europe.
Part III, “The Death of the Good Anna”, chronicles her last years. Anna continues to live in the house Miss Mathilda has left her and takes in boarders, but charges too little to make ends meet and has to dismiss her help Sallie. She is still happy with her customers and her dogs, but works too much and weakens. Mrs. Drehten, her only remaining friend, convinces her to be operated. "Then they did the operation, and then the good Anna with her strong, strained, worn-out body died." Mrs. Drehten writes the news to Miss Mathilda.
The story is written in Stein’s straightforward and sometimes repetitive prose, with a few notable digressions, like the discussion on power and friendship in a romance, and the description of the medium’s dingy house. Stein portrays brilliantly the tense confrontations between Anna and her (female) adversaries. At one point she describes Anna’s quite elaborate costume. One theme is female bonding, since the narrator insists on Anna’s "romance" with Mrs. Lehntman. Anna likes to work only for passive and big women who let her take care of everything, otherwise she prefers to work for men, because "Most women were interfering in their ways."
"The Good Anna" is indebted to Gustave Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple (the first of the Three Tales), which is about a servant and her eventual death (in both stories a parrot figures). But Stein’s Anna is much more determined and wilful than Flaubert’s Felicité, and, though generous to a fault, gets her way in most things.
Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha,” the longest of the Three Lives stories, is an unconventional novella that focuses upon the distinctions and blending of race, sex, gender, and female health. Stein uses a unique form ofrepetition to portray characters in a new way. “Melanctha,” as Mark Schorer on Gale's Contemporary Authors Online depicts it, “attempts to trace the curve of a passion, its rise, its climax, its collapse, with all the shifts and modulations between dissension and reconciliation along the way." But “Melanctha” is more than one woman’s bitter experience with love; it is the representation of the internal struggles and emotional battles in finding meaning and acceptance in a tumultuous world.
The main character Melanctha, who is the daughter of a black father and mixed-race mother in segregated Bridgepoint, goes throughout the novella on a quest for knowledge and power, as she is dissatisfied with her role in the world. Her thirst for wisdom causes her to undergo a lifelong journey filled with unsuccessful self-fulfillment and discovery as she attaches herself to family members, lovers, and friends that each represents physical, emotional, and knowledgeable power. She visualizes herself in relation to those around her, but is consistently unable to meet their expectations. And yet, for all the colorization and gendering of the characters, color and sex are incongruent to social and romantic success. “Melanctha” depicts each of its characters into racial degrees and categories, but their fates often run counter to what the audience would expect to see.
Thoughts of suicide are often appealing to Melanctha who finds herself “blue” and in despair. The last betrayal and Melanctha’s final blow, the abandonment from her close friend Rose who shuns her from her home, leaves her broken and ill. At the culmination of the novella, Melanctha is consumed not by the physical illness that overtakes her, but by the despair she has felt all throughout life. She often complained of feeling “sick,” of being “hurt,” and of having “pain,” perhaps this physical pain included a deep mental pain that stemmed from her experiences in life. Melanctha’s death from “consumption,” often believed as tuberculosis, concludes the story.
Werner Sollors boldly declares: "Stein's merging of modernist style and ethnic subject matter was what made her writing particularly relevant to American ethnic authors who had specific reasons to go beyond realism and who felt that Stein's dismantling of the 'old' was a freeing experience….Strangely enough then, 'Melanctha' - which was, as we have seen, the partial result of a transracial projection - came to be perceived as a white American author's particularly humane representation of a black character." Ultimately, “Melanctha” is an experimental novel with complex racial, gender, and sexual constructs that leaves plenty of room for literary interpretation.
"The Gentle Lena," the third of Gertrude Stein's Three Lives, follows the life and death of the titular Lena, a German girl brought to Bridgepoint by a cousin. Lena begins her life in America as a servant girl, but is eventually married to Herman Kreder, the son of German immigrants. Both Herman and Lena are marked by extraordinary passivity, and the marriage is essentially made in deference to the desires of their elders. During her married life, Lena bears Herman three children, all the while growing increasingly passive and distant. Neither Lena nor the baby survives her fourth pregnancy, leaving Herman "very well content now...with his three good, gentle children."
Review: These stories reveal a young Gertrude Stein, who has begun to experiment with language but is still rooted to some extent in traditional narrative. The repetition and musical cadence that characterize her later style are quite clearly present. In fact, these stylistic experiments--although fun to read at first--compromise rather than enhance the psychological portraits the author is attempting to paint.
Stein had dropped out of Johns Hopkins Medical School before graduating, but not before completing her third year clerkships. She was particularly interested in psychology and had been a student of William James when she was an undergraduate. These three stories are extended personal and psychological characterizations.
"Melanctha" is of particular interest. The introduction to this edition of Three Lives notes that "Melanctha" may well be the first American fiction in which a black person is portrayed sympathetically. That statement seems incorrect to me, both in terms of "first" and also in terms of "sympathetically." "Melanctha" contains lots of negative "Negro" stereotypes.
It appears, in fact, that one of Melanctha's best attributes (according to the omniscient author) is that she is half-white and her skin is light tan. Perhaps that is why her thinking is so subtle--she is always searching for something, although it is never clear what she is searching for.
From a clinical perspective, Melanctha suffers from neurotic depression or, in DSM IV terms, dysthymia. She is chronically unhappy, ruminates a lot, and is never clear about what she really wants to do. Toward the end of the story, she probably has an episode of major depression and considers suicide, but goes on to die (anticlimactically) of tuberculosis.
Three Lives was Stein’s first book, and is composed of stories about three women: Anna, Melanchta and Lena. The bulk of the book is given to Melanchta’s story, and maybe it’s a sign of my impatience and blah blah blah that I found this longest story (it runs over half the length of the book) so painful that I seriously considered giving up reading for good, and also fell asleep every time I started reading it. (Three Lives is a book that must be read in the upright position, preferably in the least comfortable chair you own.)
The lives Stein writes about are constricted in their view and scope. The first story, about “the good Anna,” sets this tone of small and relatively quiet lives. Stein doesn’t develop her characters in any traditional way I can think of describing, but uses repetition to set the terms through which we see her characters. So, “Anna led an arduous and troubled life”, and repeatedly we read, “Anna Federner, this good Anna, was of solid lower middle-class south german stock.” “The Good Anna” is concerned with Anna’s movements from employer to employer, a little with her private life and her tendency to be overgenerous with the money she has saved, about the collapse of her friendship with a woman who takes advantage of her money. There’s one description in this story that I love, when a dog Peter, “would retire to his Anna and blot himself out between her skirts”. Other than that and a vague interest in the way Stein used repetition (which maybe was revolutionary at the time, but now seems pretty standard), I didn’t find much of note in this story and I was vaguely relieved when Anna died and I got to move on to the second story.
That relief was pretty short-lived though. What can I say about “Melanchta”? This is the only story in the book about a black woman (or a “mulatta”, more exactly) and it made me so uncomfortable in its tone and the stereotypes it throws around. I am uncomfortable even writing about this, so let me just quote a bit and put this subject to rest:
"Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress. She laughed when she was happy and grumbled and was sullen with everything that troubled. […]
Rose laughed when she was happy but she had not the wide, abandoned laughter that makes the warm broad glow of negro sunshine. Rose was never joyous with the earth-born, boundless joy of negroes. Hers was just ordinary, any sort of women laughter.
Rose Johnson was careless and was lazy, but she had been brought up by white folks and she needed decent comfort. Her white training had only made for habits, not for nature. Rose had the simple, promiscuous immorality of the black people."
Just, oh my god.
Add to this that Stein went truly nuts with the repetition, and you’ve got yourself a painful read. Again, Stein doesn’t develop her characters so much as she tries to create a lasting image of them through repetition, but here the repetitions are so extensive and unrelenting that I spent most of the story praying the characters would die soon so I could stop reading the same goddamn lines over and over again. (Also, about every other word in this story is “certainly”.) Let’s do another quote to kill this subject:
“I certainly don’t rightly understand what you are doing now to me Jeff Campbell,” wrote Melanchta Herbert. “I certainly don’t rightly understand Jeff Campbell why you ain’t all these days been near me, but I certainly do suppose it’s just another one of the queer kind of ways you have to be good, and repenting of yourself all of a sudden. I certainly don’t say to Jeff Campbell I admire very much the way you take to be good Jeff Campbell. I am sorry Dr. Campbell, but I certainly am afraid I can’t stand it no more from you the way you have been just acting. I certainly can’t stand it any more the way you act when you have been as if you thought I was always good enough for anybody to have with them, and then you act as if I was a bad one and you always just despise me. I certainly am afraid Dr. Campbell I can’t stand it any more like that. I certainly can’t stand it any more the way you are always changing. I certainly am afraid Dr. Campbell you ain’t man enough to deserve to have anybody care so much to be always with you. I certainly am awful afraid Dr. Campbell I don’t ever any more want to really see you. Good-by Dr. Campbell I wish you always to be real happy.”
Imagine, if you will, an entire novella written like this. Every sentence loops around on itself and when my reading wasn’t putting me to sleep I found myself entering a sort of trance that made it impossible for me to recall what characters actually said or did, though the knowledge that it probably wasn’t a whole lot was comforting. Towards the end Stein uses a little repetition that I find more effective, when she recalls passages from early in the story and circles the reader through time back to the opening pages of “Melanchta”, but the bulk of this story I found dull and impossible. Melanchta’s dealings with men, which is what the story concerns itself with, end only with her death. I am not sure I have ever been so relieved to see a character die.
The book’s final story, “The Gentle Lena”, is a return to the form of “The Good Anna”. Still repetitive but it’s a breath of fresh air (Stein goes in for repetition, I go in for cliches) after “Melanchta”. Like “The Good Anna”, “The Gentle Lena” is about a German girl, this time a young women who’s brought to the States by family. She works for some time, then is married to a German-American man, bears him three children, and dies while delivering the fourth. “The Gentle Lena” is the shortest story in Three Lives, and if you’re looking to read something by Stein I’d go for this story above the others because, well, it’s short, and fairly painless, if not particularly distinguished.
Opening Line: “The Tradesmen of Bridgepoint learned to dread the sound of “Miss Mathilda”, for with that name the good Anna always conquered.”
Closing Line: “Herman Kreder was very well content now and he always lived very regular and peaceful, and with every day just like the next one, always alone now with his three good, gentle children.”
Quotes: “Anna led an arduous and troubled life”
“Melanctha these days wandered very widely. She was always alone now when she wandered. Melanctha did not need help now to know, or to stay longer, or when she wanted, to escape.”