“Melanctha,” the central story in Three Lives, is considered one of the most original short stories of the twentieth century. By employing simple words to express complicated thoughts, Stein endowed ordinary people with a complex psychology that earlier writers had given only to characters of high social standing.
“Melanctha” tells the story of Melanctha Herbert, a beautiful, light-skinned black woman who struggles to comprehend her troubled, passionate nature. Melanctha’s language, like her life, moves toward people, then away, then back again, in a spiral of acceptance and rejection.
Melanctha is a victim of her search for excitement and her barely controlled eroticism. In her affair with Jefferson Campbell, a young black doctor called in to attend her dying mother, Melanctha encounters a lover who is her exact opposite. Whereas Melanctha is vibrant, sensual, and committed to living in the present, Jeff Campbell is quiet and thoughtful, a man who recoils from physical passion.
The story describes in long stretches of dialogue their tormented debate over the virtues of their respective psychological natures. Slowly, Jeff learns to think less and to feel more deeply, until finally he is able to feel the glory of the physical world. Yet once Melanctha has taught him how to love as she does, she loses interest in him and enters into a series of love affairs that, in the end, leave her alone, facing death, in a home...
(The entire section is 457 words.)