Three Lives, an extensive literary experiment in language and psychology, is generally called a novel, as noted above, because of the unifying thematic threads that run through it. The book is more than three disparate episodes gathered together in a single volume. Much influenced by Gustave Flaubert’s Trois Contes (1877; Three Tales, 1903), Three Lives is as realistic in its recording of the speech patterns of commonplace people as Stein can make it. Stein’s medical research took her into lower-middle-class neighborhoods in Baltimore, where she became fascinated by the way people spoke. The characters in her books speak in the same repetitive, stream-of-consciousness constructions that Stein heard from the working-class people of Baltimore with whom she came into contact.

Stein is unfailingly interested in the psychological underpinnings of the characters of the three servant women she has chosen to portray. She reveals each in her relationships with other people, and in so doing, she develops with considerable insight and sensitivity three distinctly different personalities, each with a unique view of love and life.

Lena (whose name suggests that she is a “leaner”) is best summed up in her response when her aunt, Mrs. Haydon, presses her to marry Herman Kreder, whom she has no desire to marry. Lena merely tells her aunt that she will do whatever she (Mrs. Haydon) tells her is right to do. She agrees to marry Herman because Mrs. Haydon wants her to.

Juxtaposed with Lena in this episode is Herman, who is as weak and spineless as his bride-to-be. When his parents decide that he will marry Lena, they tell Mrs. Haydon not to discuss the matter with their son. Mrs. Kreder tells Herman that Lena is thrifty, a good worker, and never wants her own way. Herman’s response is a grunt that is taken for assent.

Unlike Lena, both Anna and Melanctha have considerable backbone. Anna is...

(The entire section is 803 words.)