Three Lives Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Three Lives, Stein’s collection of three biographical portraits of lower-class women, combines French literary realism with American psychological theory. Two stories describe the monotonous lives of Anna and Lena, two German servant girls in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Williams James’s psychological theories inspired Stein’s episodic style, which transports the reader directly into the characters’ consciousness, especially in “Melanctha,” the longest of the three stories. The psychological drama of Three Lives consists in the protagonists’ search for the right words to express their identities. Trapped in their socially realistic, simplistic vocabulary and in perpetually repetitive speech patterns, these women fail to communicate their dreams of love and emotional fulfillment.

Anna, of “The Good Anna,” is a soft tyrant with a firm Old World sense of “the appropriate ugliness” of things. Her “hard and arduous life” rests on her overdeveloped sense of mothering others: Miss Mathilda, her friends, and the maids, whom she perpetually “scolds” to improve their characters. Her friend Mrs. Lehntman—“the only romance Anna ever knew”—exploits Anna’s desire to give money and affection but then leaves her. Shortly afterward, Miss Mathilda moves from the town into the country. Thus abandoned by the women who had governed her life, Anna opens a boardinghouse but charges her guests too little to cover her...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Three Lives Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Good Anna. For five years, Anna Federner, a small German woman of about forty, has managed Miss Mathilda’s full household of both women, an underservant, three regular dogs (old Baby, young Peter, and fluffy Rags), and various strays. Anna manages the household well but becomes flustered when her mistress spends money frivolously. Miss Mathilda, on the other hand, tries to curb Anna’s lending to friends.

Anna’s story begins when she is a young woman; a servant since she was seventeen years old, she travels from Germany to the United States with her mother. After her mother dies, Anna moves from the Deep South to Bridgepoint, in the Northeast, where her half brother lives. In Bridgepoint, Anna first goes to work as a servant to Miss Mary Wadsmith and her orphaned niece and nephew. Anna likes working for the large, helpless woman, who lets Anna manage all her affairs, but Anna does not care much for children. She prefers the spoiled Edgar to the obstinate Jane. One day, Jane gives Anna an order that she says comes from Miss Mary. Anna angrily tells Miss Mary about the incident, and her employer faints. Jane and Anna make no more trouble after that.

When Anna begins having severe headaches, Jane Wadsmith and Mrs. Lehntman, a widowed friend who works as a midwife, convince her to let Dr. Shonjen operate. She improves some, but she is never really well again.

When Jane marries, Miss Mary goes to live with her. Anna does not believe that she can work in a household with Jane as mistress; therefore, she begins working for Dr. Shonjen. She loves working for men, who enjoy eating and let her manage the home. Anna continues helping the midwife, Mrs. Lehntman, who adopts a baby boy. Anna is concerned that her friend cannot afford another child, but Mrs. Lehntman is resolved to keep the baby.

Anna often helps another poor family, the Drehtens, whom her sister-in-law despises. Her best friend is Mrs. Lehntman, and when her friend wants money to start a lying-in home, Anna lends it to her, despite reservations about the venture. Anna’s troubles are compounded by Mrs. Lehntman’s interest in a man and by her employer’s marriage. Dr. Shonjen’s new wife and Anna do not get along, so Anna looks for a new place. She learns of Miss Mathilda, who has recently moved to Bridgepoint. Anna is reluctant to work for a woman again, but Mrs. Lehntman urges her to consult a medium, who encourage her to take the job. Anna enjoys working for Miss Mathilda, who lets Anna manage everything and keep her dogs. However, Anna loses her friendship with Mrs. Lehntman after Mrs. Lehntman fails to pay back another loan and continues her involvement with an unscrupulous physician.

Anna continues to befriend stray animals and needy people, including...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)