“Three Lives” by Gertrude Stein

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Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives is a literary masterpiece that everyone admires, and no one reads. Of those who do read it, few understand it. The reason is that it is innovative on many levels, and innovations have the big drawback of being shocking and disorienting. The most shocking aspect is that the novel depicts women of the servant class with respect. The innermost lives of women who are generally overlooked and undervalued are studied with care and sympathy. The humble are raised up. In addition, Stein shows how being in service constricts their opportunity to develop a sense of self, and their lack of self-hood makes their lives futile.

The true subject of the novel is selfhood or authenticity; it’s about free will and self-awareness. The three lives represent three unsuccessful stages of development of self-awareness, not culminating in fulfillment. Stein embodies these stages in fully-drawn characters, and then immerses these protagonists in detailed renderings of their social scene, peopled by vivid minor characters.

The first story is called The Good Anna. Anna represents the perfect servant, according to certain parts of the German-American community who adhered to old world traditions in the early 1900s. She devotes herself to service, both in her job and in her private life. She lives by an elaborate set of rules and strives to control everything around her. Anna’s life story is told through her relationships with others. We learn the complete life histories of her dogs, and we meet the under-servants that she scolds constantly, but her principal relationships are with her employers. First there’s Miss Mary Wadsmith, “a large, fair, helpless woman, burdened by the care of her brother’s two children.” She manages that household for several years, until the girl gets married. Then Anna goes to work for Dr. Shonjen, a jovial bachelor doctor. When he gets married to a social-climbing woman, Anna goes to work for Miss Mathilda. This was the happiest period in Anna’s life:

With Miss Mathilda Anna did it all. The clothes, the house, the hats, what she should wear and when and what was always best for her to do. There was nothing Miss Mathilda would not let Anna manage, and only be too glad if she would do.

Anna’s only family is a half-brother, a wealthy fat baker, and his sharp-tongued wife. Anna does her duty, as she sees it, by their family, but she doesn’t really care about them, nor they about her. The romance in Anna’s life is Mrs. Lehntman, a widow who supports her two children by working as a midwife. Anna is entirely “subdued by her magnetic sympathetic charm.” Romance, Stein explains, is the ideal in one’s life. The way this plays out is that Anna helps Mrs. Lehntman in all her endeavors—especially tending to poor young girls who are pregnant and alone. The two remain friends for many years, though Anna disapproves of some of her friends’ actions and gradually gains a more realistic attitude toward her. Anna’s other friends are all needy and dependent. She spends all her spare income helping people who are sick, who have bad luck, who are too ignorant to care for themselves, who long to follow their dreams. She makes no effort to plan for her own future or to care for her own health.

Anna complains constantly about the failure of the people in her life to meet her high standards of behavior, but generally she finds both success and contentment in her work as a servant. But service is the only way of relating to people that she understands, and it is the basic rule of her life. When she comes to a point in her life when she can no longer work as a servant, she opens a boarding house, and basically works herself to death in the service of the poor young men who live with her. All of Anna’s employers and friends urge her to take better care of herself, but Anna is not really aware of herself. That is the problem: no sense of selfhood.

The third story is called The Gentle Lena. Lena represents a person who is totally lacking in self-determination; she is a good girl, meaning a good maid who does as she is told without complaining. Her passivity causes her to be pushed about; her lack of will or self-assertion condemns her to a short, unhappy life, ending in gray and miserable dissolution. Stein represents Lena’s sweet and gentle nature in a lovely passage:

Lena’s german voice when she knocked and called the family in the morning was as awakening, as soothing, and as appealing, as a delicate soft breeze in midday, summer. She stood in the hallway every morning a long time in her unexpectant and unsuffering german patience calling to the young ones to get up. She would call and wait a long time and then call again, always even, gentle, patient, while the young ones fell back often into that precious, tense, last bit of sleeping that gives a strength of joyous vigor in the young, over them that have come to the readiness of middle age, in their awakening.

When we first meet her, Lena’s life is an easy routine of housework and childcare, with an “unexacting mistress,” and she is fairly content. But Lena totally lacks will or self-determination:

Lena always saved her wages, for she never thought to spend them, and she always went to her aunt’s house for her Sundays because she did not know that she could do anything different.

Several times, the author describes her with this phrase: “She was always sort of dreamy and not there.” Her downfall starts when her bossy aunt succeeds in marrying her to an unaware gay man named Herman who appears to be as bland and obedient as she is, despite the fact that neither wants to marry. Herman is a tailor. He works for his father and lives with his parents in the house next door. Though the family is prosperous, they are stingy with money and lax in their grooming.

Lena began soon with it to look careless and a little dirty, and to be more lifeless with it, and nobody ever noticed much what Lena wanted, and she never really knew herself what she needed.

The worst part of living with Herman’s parents is that his mother harangues Lena constantly for not having their same stingy ways. Lena has no reassuring contact with old friends, who might come to her defense. Always dreamy, she becomes ever more absent and dull. When she gets pregnant, she is paralyzed with fear and sickness. The only way Lena gets any relief is through the help of an old cook who intervenes on her behalf and starts a process that leads to Lena and Herman getting a separate house after the child is born. But neither having her own place nor motherhood is enough to lift her out of her despair.

This did not seem to make much change now for Lena. She was just the same as when she was waiting with her baby. She just dragged around and was careless with her clothes and all lifeless, and she acted always and lived on just as if she had no feeling. She always did everything regular with the work, the way she always had had to do it, but she never got back any spirit in her.

Herman’s sense of self is awakened by his strong desire to be a father, and the pair have two more children. Herman takes over the care of the children, while Lena becomes more and more lifeless. Lena’s fourth baby is still-born, and she dies giving birth as well. Except for the ‘good german cook,’ no one cares. In fact, now Herman can raise his family without having to worry about her.

These two stories serve as book-ends or supports for the central story, Melanctha. Melanctha is a seeker. She says she wants to know the world, but what she is really looking for is unconditional love, expressed as unbridled passion. When you dig down into the depths of this story, you learn that she was unloved in childhood, both by her pale, ineffective mother and her absent brute of a black father. A psychologist might say that she never learned to love herself because her parents didn’t show her much love. Early in childhood, she developed a cheery and helpful personality that hid her emotions and prevented her from making authentic contact with people. No one can ever love her enough to make up for her parents’ neglect.

While Stein makes women from German culture represent suffocating tradition, she reaches into the African-American community to create a character on a quest. Her father is black, but her mother is described as a pale yellow colored woman. Stein makes much of the fact that Melanctha is half-white. Her personality combines the stereotypical attributes of the two races: smart and articulate like white people; passionate and wild like black people, all this according to the stereotypes of the time.

When we first meet Melanctha she is in high school and just beginning to explore the world of men. When she gets out of school, she doesn’t seek employment. Just how she gets by is not explained, except to say that occasionally she does a little sewing for people. She spends more and more time hanging about with men; while she might not be hooking, she might be receiving various favors from admirers that help her get by. None of this is stated. Her circumstances are not important to the story. The story that Stein wanted to tell was about her inner life.

After a lot of romantic and sexual adventure, described in very vague terms, Melanctha rises to the point of engaging in a romantic relationship with a serious and virtuous doctor from the black community. The development, culmination, and decline of their romance is rendered with greater intimacy than any other fictional romance I know: we see exactly what Melanctha and the doctor think of each other at each stage of the process. From the beginning, they argue about authenticity. Doctor Jeff is a thinker, and has a lot of ideas about virtuous living that he likes to expound. Melanctha accuses him of ignoring his own principles; she says his behavior is not so virtuous as he likes to think. On the other hand, Doctor Jeff doesn’t quite trust Melanctha; she always seems to be holding something back.

Despite these initial misgivings, the two are attracted to each other. Melanctha grows to like Doctor Jeff’s warm and generous ways. Jeff is attracted by her beauty and her ability to articulate her thoughts, and he is charmed by the sympathetic way Melanctha listens to his incessant ruminations. Melanctha begins to hope he can make her feel secure. Their earliest conversations seem to be very authentic, each one expressing their truth sincerely. Stein allows them months of blissful wandering in nature and enjoyment of each other’s company.

But there is a fly in the ointment, and that is the original question of authenticity. At the peak of their bliss, Melanctha does something, just some random gesture, that reminds Jeff of her other life, her life with other men, the world she doesn’t talk about while she is listening to him so demurely. And in fact, Melanctha is not quite satisfied with Jeff either; she still thinks he is out of touch with his emotions; she secretly thinks he is sort of a wimp, but she has been submissive because she wants to please him. Stein depicts every step in the unwinding of their relationship. In the course of their arguments, they seem to cover every aspect of the search for authenticity that any psychologist ever identified, though they use everyday language, and are not sure themselves just what they are talking about.

Doctor Jeff drives himself crazy with too much thinking, but eventually he figures out that he was right all along. He rejects Melanctha’s claim that he is hypocritical and inadequate; he rejects her neediness that manipulates him into expressing more than he feels; he rejects her inability to talk about her past life. He sees that some place along the way, she quit talking to him sincerely like an equal, and started putting on an act in order to bind him to her. Slowly and painfully, Doctor Jeff backs away, and resumes his quiet, virtuous life.

Melanctha, on the other hand, is unable to learn from the experience. She doesn’t quite achieve a level of self-awareness that would enable her to learn from her mistakes; she is all instinct, driven by unquenchable psychological needs. Generously, Stein allows her to meet the man of her dreams and to have the perfect all-encompassing romance, for awhile; but the man is a gambler, and when his luck runs out, his love fades as well. Players only love you when they’re playing.

The strongest character in Melanctha’s life is Rose Johnson. Rose is described as careless, negligent, and selfish, but she is completely authentic: she always knows what she wants, she always has an idea of how to behave to get what she wants, she always has faith in herself. Melanctha becomes more attached to Rose than to any of the men in her life, and will demean herself with any sort of service in order to be with her. But even Rose eventually rejects her. She too becomes concerned about Melanctha’s other life, her secret interactions with unspecified men. She hates that Melanctha’s self-defeating behavior patterns. She gets sick of her simpering submissiveness, hiding a wild and promiscuous personality. She totally disdains Melanctha’s whimpering threats to end her own life.

Stein handles the rest of Melanctha’s life in summary fashion. She gets very sick, with consumption or something; she gets well after long treatment. She takes an actual job as a servant, and attempts to live a quiet regular life, but her health is compromised, and she dies young. Sad story.

An aspect of the novel that sounds harsh to the modern ear is Stein’s use of stereotypes in building her African-American characters, including the use of the word ‘nigger.’ However, you notice that she uses positive as well as negative character types, and she makes each character rise above type into eccentricity and particular traits. Moreover, her German characters are all stereotypes as well. All the characters conform to some known type, but the way they talk and the details of their lives are highly individualized and convincing.

On top of innovations in subject, theme, and structure, Gertrude Stein invented her own writing style, an elusive style that sometimes serves as a barrier because people reject its lack of conformity. The most obvious feature is repetition—repetition of descriptive phrases, sentences and whole paragraphs. Characters may be described with the same phrase in one situation after another, but each time that phrase relates to new phrases. She treats phrases like shapes that can be repeated in different parts of the picture. Whole anecdotes might be told in the beginning and repeated at the end of a story. For instance, Melanctha’s story opens with an event in a friend’s life: Rose Johnson has a hard time with her baby. That anecdote is repeated toward the end of Melanctha’s story, after we learn a lot about Rose and Melanctha.

This aspect of Stein’s style has been compared to Cubist painting, because it looks at a subject from different angles, and builds up a picture from layers. Repetition of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs also makes it sound like music; repetition is like the chorus in a song. These stories sound a little like long ballads.

For the critics of Stein’s time—who were steeped in the stilted prose of the 19th century and enthralled by the elaborate sentences of Marcel Proust and James Joyce—the ordinary, everyday quality of Stein’s language and sentence structure must have seemed primitive. Stein’s vocabulary is about 6th grade level, maybe lower, the type of words used by the servant class. The most complex psychological concepts are alluded to vaguely by everyday words, vernacular speech for German maids and women in the lower levels of the black community.

Stein also minimized punctuation: no colons or semi-colons, only commas allowed, and only when really necessary. Similarly, no capitol letters: she refers to ‘german’ girls. More remarkable, Stein doesn’t use subordinate conjunctions, like ‘although’ or ‘since’, to show relationships between facts or ideas. She tends to string simple sentences together with ‘and,’ piling up details one at a time. Nor does she use a lot of modifying prepositional phrases, such as ‘despite her reluctance…’ The result is, the novel can be read very rapidly; it sounds like ordinary conversation. Stein’s style is so fluid that she moves in and out of the thoughts of various characters without the reader noticing the changes from one to another. If you let down your resistance, the novel sounds like a long sad song cycle.

Three Lives is a hard book to put down. It sort of seeps into your soul. The only answer is to go on to Stein’s next major work, The Making of Americans, as I plan to do.

Three Lives
Author: Gertrude Stein
First published 1909

Contributor: Jan Looper writes a blog for armchair culture vultures.

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