Gertrude Stein Essay - Stein, Gertrude (Short Story Criticism)

Stein, Gertrude (Short Story Criticism)


Gertrude Stein 1874–-1946

American novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, autobiographer, and dramatist. See also Gertrude Stein Poetry Criticism and Gertrude Stein Drama Criticism.

A controversial figure during her lifetime, Stein is now regarded as a major literary modernist and one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Working against the naturalistic conventions of nineteenth-century fiction, she developed an abstract manner of expression that was a counterpart in language to the work of the post-impressionists and cubists in the visual arts. While Three Lives was Stein's first published work of fiction, it displays many of the characters of her later works and was in its time revolutionary in form and subject matter.

Biographical Information

The youngest daughter of a wealthy Jewish-American family, Stein spent most of her childhood in Oakland, California. Biographers describe her mother as a weak, ineffectual woman and her father as an irrational tyrant; some have inferred that this family situation was the origin of Stein's lifelong aversion to patriarchal cultural values. Lacking a satisfactory relationship with her parents, Stein grew very close to her brother Leo. When Leo went to Harvard in 1892, Stein enrolled in the all-female Harvard Annex—soon to become Radcliffe—the following year. Radcliffe, and in particular her favorite professor there, the psychologist and philosopher William James, proved a decisive influence on her intellectual development. With James's encouragement, Stein decided to become a psychologist, and she began medical studies at Johns Hopkins University as part of her training. But in 1902, after several years of study, she grew disaffected with medicine and left the university without completing her degree. In the months that followed, Stein devoted herself to the study of literary classics. Inspired by her reading, particularly the works of Gustave Flaubert and Henry James, she began to write her first novels. In 1903, after travels in Europe and Africa, she and Leo settled in Paris, where they began to collect works by the new Modernist painters and became personally acquainted with many of them, including Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. The Steins' apartment became a salon where numerous artists and literary figures met regularly, and Stein absorbed many of their revolutionary ideas to formulate her own literary aesthetic that would violate existing formal conventions in order to allow the reader to experience language and ideas in provocative new ways. Leo, however, who was not enthusiastic about Cubist painting, responded to his sister's work with scorn, causing her anxiety and self-doubt. Stein found a much more appreciative audience in her friend Alice Toklas, a young woman from California who was staying in Paris. In 1909 Stein invited Toklas to live with her, and the women developed a close and affectionate relationship that Stein referred to as a marriage; they remained together for the rest of their lives. While Stein's work at this time was initially rejected by commercial publishers, many of her influential and distinguished friends admired and promoted her writings, and by the outbreak of World War I she was regarded as a central figure in the modernist movement. Stein remained in Paris for most of the war, winning commendation for her volunteer work as a medical supply driver. After the war, she became the friend and mentor of a number of young writers from the United States, most notably Ernest Hemingway, with whom she enjoyed a mutually beneficial professional relationship as well as a friendship. In the 1920s Stein was as well known for her many friendships with talented, wealthy, and famous people as for her innovative literary work. Stein at first feared that personal notoriety might spoil her as an artist, but she instead used the publicity to her advantage, especially in a series of lectures she delivered at American universities in 1934. During World War II, Stein and Toklas remained in Nazi-occupied France. As Jews, they were at risk of being deported to concentration camps, but they were protected from the Nazis by collaborationist friends. Stein maintained an active social and literary life until her death of cancer in 1946.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Because of its taboo subject matter, Stein's first novella, Q.E.D. (1950), was not published until after her death. Consequently, Three Lives is generally considered her first major work. Consisting of three long stories, each describing events in the lives of three women, the book is unified by Stein's use of the literary portrait form. Drawing heavily on William James's theory of psychological types, Stein did not attempt to construct individual characters with unique personalities; rather, her three heroines—“The Good Anna,” “The Gentle Lena,” and “Melanctha”—fit into James's categories, and the bulk of the creativity in the stories is centered on Stein's concentration on form and language that emulates the visual experimentation of the modernists and cubists. Nonetheless, the stories are considered some of Stein's most accessible works. In both “The Good Anna” and “The Gentle Lena,” which concern two German-American servants, Stein explored traditional notions about women's roles in society. “Melanctha” is the most-studied of the three stories, as well as the most controversial. Thought to be a reworking of the autobiographical story of a disappointing lesbian affair recounted in Q.E.D., “Melanctha” casts the story as a heterosexual relationship between an African-American couple.

Critical Reception

Little critical commentary exists on “The Good Anna” and “The Gentle Lena,” although both stories are considered interesting as evidence of Stein's developing literary genius. “Melanctha,” however, has received much attention because of its focus on the love affair of a black couple—one of the first such portraits written by a white female writer. Revolutionary in its day, “Melanctha” came under fire as contemporary readers began to consider its characterizations to be racial stereotypes. More recently, Stein has been vindicated by some critics who recognize that Stein was a product of her time rather than a deliberate purveyor of racist cliché. Additionally, the story is believed to succeed on other levels, notably as a literary example of Jamesian psychological portraiture.

Principal Works

Three Lives 1909

Q.E.D. (novella) 1950

The Yale Edition of the Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein. 8 Vols. (novellas, poetry, and novels) 1951–58

Mrs. Reynolds, and Five Earlier Novelettes 1952

Tender Buttons (poetry) 1914

Geography and Plays (dramas and prose) 1922

The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress (novel) 1925

Composition as Explanation (essays) 1926

How to Write (prose) 1931

Lucy Church Amiably (prose) 1931

Operas and Plays (dramas) 1932

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (biography) 1933

Four Saints in Three Acts (drama) 1934

Lectures in America (lectures) 1935

Narration: Four Lectures (lectures) 1935

The Geographical History of America; or, The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind (prose) 1936

Everybody's Autobiography (autobiography) 1937

Ida (novel) 1941

Wars I Have Seen (prose) 1945

Brewsie and Willie (novel) 1946

Four in America (prose) 1947

Last Operas and Plays (prose, dramas, and librettos) 1949


The Nation (review date 1910)

SOURCE: A review of Three Lives, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 90, January 20, 1910, p. 65.

[In the following review, the critic finds Three Lives difficult but rewarding and notes that Stein shows great promise as a writer.]

These stories [in Three Lives] of the Good Anna, Melanctha, and the Gentle Lena have a quite extraordinary vitality conveyed in a most eccentric and difficult form. The half-articulated phrases follow unrelentingly the blind mental and temperamental gropings of three humble souls wittingly or unwittingly at odds with life. Whoever can adjust himself to the repetitions, false starts, and general circularity of the manner will find himself very near real people. Too near, possibly. The present writer had an uncomfortable sense of being immured with a girl wife, a spinster, and a woman who is neither, between imprisoning walls which echoed exactly all thoughts and feelings. These stories utterly lack construction and focus, but give that sense of urgent life which one gets more commonly in Russian literature than elsewhere. How the Good Anna spent herself barrenly for everybody in reach, the Gentle Lena for the notion of motherhood, while the mulattress Melanctha perished partly of her own excess of temperament, but more from contact with a life-diminishing prig and emotionally inert surroundings, readers who are willing to pay a stiff entrance fee in patient attention may learn for themselves. From Miss Stein, if she can consent to clarify her method, much may be expected. As it is, she writes quite as a Browning escaped from the bonds of verse might wallow in fiction, only without his antiseptic whimsicality.

Haldeen Braddy (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: “The Primitive in Gertrude Stein's ‘Melanctha,’” in New Mexico Quarterly Review, Vol. 20, 1950, pp. 358–65.

[In the following essay, Braddy contends that “Melanctha” demonstrates aesthetic primitivism in its narrative form as well as in Melanctha's characterization.]

Three Lives narrates the histories of three women in humble stations of life—these under the titles of “The Good Anna,” “Melanctha,” and “The Gentle Lena.” In each of these narratives Gertrude Stein employs repetition as a principal element in her style; but it is in the middle story, “Melanctha,” that the various forms of reduplication in words and sounds are...

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Carl Wood (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Continuity of Romantic Irony: Stein's Homage to Laforgue in Three Lives,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, June, 1975, pp. 147–58.

[In the following essay, Wood considers Three Lives as a conscious literary homage to the French Romantic ironist Jules Laforgue.]

The epigraph at the beginning of Gertrude Stein's first published book may be considered archetypical of the utterances of Jules Laforgue, the short-lived, post-Baudelairean poet whom Warren Ramsey has called “the greatest of French Romantic ironists”1: “Donc je suis un malheureux, et ce n'est ni ma faute, ni celle de la vie” (“I'm unhappy of...

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Michael J. Hoffman (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “The Beginnings,” in Gertrude Stein, Twayne Publishers, 1976, pp. 24–37.

[In the following essay, Hoffman presents an overview of Three Lives and considers its role as one of Stein's first published works.]

Settled in Montparnasse at 27, rue de Fleurus, Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo became quickly acquainted with the emerging Modernist art and inevitably with many painters who lived in the artists' quarter. During this time, Stein continued the quiet work in her notebooks; and, in the spring of 1905, she began her next book, Three Lives, on which she proceeded steadily until she completed it the following February.1 During...

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Marilyn Gaddis Rose (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Gertrude Stein and Cubist Narrative,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter, 1977, pp. 543–55.

[In the following essay, Rose considers Three Lives as a “verbal portrait” in the style of cubist narrative.]

“… If it were possible that a movement were lively enough it would exist so completely that it would not be necessary to see it moving against anything to know that it is moving,” writes Gertrude Stein in “Portraits and Repetition” (1935). “That is what we mean by life and in my way I have tried to make portraits of this thing.”1 She is discussing here her own verbal portraits of the 1920's. But she could...

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Anthony Channell Hilfer (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Stein's ‘Melanctha’: An Education in Pathos,” in The Ethics of Intensity in American Fiction, University of Texas Press, 1981, pp. 143–62.

[In the following essay, Hilfer argues that “Melanctha” is a radical empiricist work in the vein of the philosophy of William James, in which “mood is a phenomenological reality.”]


There is a passage in “Melanctha,” the great middle story of Gertrude Stein's Three Lives, that captures a long moment of silent tension between its two central characters: “They sat there then a long time by the fire, very silent and not loving, and never...

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Lisa Ruddick (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “‘Melanctha’ and the Psychology of William James,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1982–83, pp. 545–56.

[In the following essay, Ruddick discusses the “buried psychological allegory” in “Melanctha” that owes much to the psychological studies of William James.]

Since the fifties, Gertrude Stein's critics have been alert to the possibility that her work owes something to the psychology of William James.1 Stein hinted at a debt; James, her college professor and a mentor of sorts, was one of “the strongest scientific influences that I had.”2 But it has been difficult to establish a concrete point of...

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Jayne L. Walker (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Three Lives: The Realism of the Composition,” in The Making of a Modernist: Gertrude Stein from “Three Lives” to “Tender Buttons,” The University of Massachusetts Press, 1984, pp. 19–41.

[In the following essay, Walker explores the role of modernist painting in Stein's composition of Three Lives.]

In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Stein recalled that she wrote Three Lives while “looking and looking” at Cézanne's Portrait of Mme Cézanne (ABT, 34). Before she began these stories in 1905, she had written three narratives: Q.E.D., a semiautobiographical account of a lesbian triangle;...

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Margaret M. Dunn (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Altered Patterns and New Endings: Reflections of Change in Stein's Three Lives and H. D.'s Palimpsest,” in Frontiers, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1987, pp. 54–59.

[In the following essay, Dunn studies Three Lives and H. D.'s Palimpsest for evidence of their authors breaking through literary gender barriers.]

In her recent book concerning narrative strategies of twentieth-century women authors, Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues that these writers have had to “write beyond the ending” of the romance plot inherited from the nineteenth century. “Once upon a time,” says DuPlessis, “the end, the rightful end, of women in novels was...

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Judith Ryan (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Each One as She May: Melanctha, Tonka, Nadja,” in Modernity and the Text: Revisions of German Modernism, edited by Andreas Huyssen and David Bathrick, Columbia University Press, 1989, pp. 95–107.

[In the following essay, Ryan considers “Melanctha” as avant-garde text.]

Despite the proliferation of discussion immediately following the appearance of Peter Bürger's theories of the avant-garde in 1974, our understanding of this phenomenon does not appear to have moved forward substantially in the last several years, precisely the time frame during which one might have expected a second phase in critical avant-garde theory. One problem arises no doubt as...

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Sonia Saldivar-Hull (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Wrestling Your Ally: Stein, Racism, and Feminist Critical Practice,” in Women's Writing in Exile, edited by Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, The University of North Carolina Press, 1989, pp. 181–98.

[In the following essay, Saldivar-Hull examines critical commentary on Three Lives and deems the text groundbreaking in its treatment of race, class, and gender.]

And this movement that began with a moving evocation of truth, begins to appear fraudulent from the outside, begins to mirror all that it says it opposed, for now it, too, is an oppressor of certain truths, and speakers, and begins, like the old oppressors, to hide from...

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Lisa Ruddick (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “‘Melanctha’: The Costs of Mind-Wandering,” in Reading Gertrude Stein: Body, Text, Gnosis, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 12–54.

[In the following essay, Ruddick determines “Melanctha” to be Stein's conscious break with nineteenth-century literary standards.]

Gertrude Stein thought of herself as having spent her life escaping from the nineteenth century into which she had been born. This [essay] is about the ambivalent beginnings of that escape. With the story “Melanctha,” Stein made her first leap into modernist modes of representation; she herself described the story (immodestly but plausibly) as “the first definite step away from the...

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Marianne DeKoven (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Darker and Lower Down: The Eruption of Modernism in ‘Melanctha’ and The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,’” in Rich and Strange: Gender, History, Modernism, Princeton University Press, 1991, pp. 67–84.

[In the following essay, DeKoven addresses the modernist meaning of race and class in “Melanctha” and Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the “Narcissus.”]

Neither Irigaray nor Theweleit considers race, a category of otherness crucial to the formation of modernist narrative. As Jameson has made clear, Conrad occupies a privileged position in the history of that formation; quite possibly because he does consider the issue of race. Plato's cave is...

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