What would be a thesis that fits the following topic concerning Gertrude Stein's Three Lives: motherhood and how women may or may not honor expectations of their time period and society? The...

What would be a thesis that fits the following topic concerning Gertrude Stein's Three Lives:

motherhood and how women may or may not honor expectations of their time period and society?

The thesis should also explore these following ideas: 

Anna, not a mother, acted motherly to other maids in the house. She also had a clear idea of how a mother should parent her children based on her reaction to her friend's adoption of a third child and letting her children "run wild."

Lena was a mother but not because she so wished. It seemed like she just wanted to go with the flow of pleasing her auntie by marrying and later having a family of her own, but she tragically dies giving birth.

What does this all mean?

Asked on by mianak

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Your idea of writing about how women in Gertrude Stein's Three Lives may or may not honor expectations of their time and society is definitely a great start. But to construct your thesis, you'll want to go a bit deeper than that. You'll want to figure out why they behave this way. Answers for as to why they behave this way may actually be found in Stein's themes; therefore, you can use your analysis of the recurring motif of motherhood to argue that Stein is trying to illustrate a specific theme. Let's take a look at some possible themes you might choose to argue about.
 
One thing of importance to note about the author is that she was a medical researcher in "lower-middle-class neighborhoods in Baltimore" (eNotes, "Three Lives Essay--Critical Essays"). She particularly became interested in understanding the psychology behind the actions of the lower-middle-class individuals, especially their relationships, personalities, and unique views on love and life ("Three Lives Essay--Critical Essays"). More specifically,
Stein was particularly influenced by the psychological theories of William James, and we can see this influence in her writing with respect to her characterizations (eNotes, "Three Lives Summary"). William James was an early 19th century American psychologist. He notably helped develop the theory of pragmatism, a theory that asserts truth of any "ideology or proposition" cannot be proven ("Pragmatism"). Instead, we value or reject the ideology or proposition based on the practical consequences or "cash value," meaning usefulness of the ideology or proposition ("Pragmatism"). He also helped establish the James-Lang theory of emotion, which argues that experiences produce physiological reactions, such as "muscular tension, heart rate increases, perspiration, dryness of the mouth, etc." ("James-Lang Theory of Emotion"). The theory further states that these physiological reactions produce our emotions; therefore, "emotions happen as a result of these [physiological reactions], rather than being the cause of them" ("James-Lang Theory of Emotion"). You could easily argue that Stein is using her characters to purposefully illustrate one or all of James's psychological theories and incorporating his theories into her book's themes. Hence, one approach you can take for your thesis is to use your analysis of the motherhood motif to argue that Stein uses the motif to present one of James's psychological theories as a theme to show how the theory applies to the psychology of the lower middle class. To connect it to your own idea, you might argue Stein uses a motherhood motif to show that, when lower-middle-class women are acting in ways that either honor or dishonor social expectations, they are also applying James's psychological theories and doing so in ways that either do or do not benefit them.

Let's look at James's theory of pragmatism as an example. You could easily argue that both of the mother figures in your analysis behaved in ways that did or did not honor expectations of their time period and society because they either did deem or did not deem the actions as having any cash value. But what's particularly interesting about the lower-middle-class characters in Stein's book is that the characters do not profit from their actions, making us call into question the benefit of their choices and their actions.

Let's look at Anna as an example. As you pointed out, Anna was not a mother but chose to act motherly. If we are to apply James's theory to understand her motherly actions, we could say she subconsciously makes the decision that acting upon her ideology of being motherly is to her advantage. We see her motherly behavior in how she scolds the maids, takes in stray animals, and befriends the needy, giving them loans. She even acts motherly when she eventually begins to run a boarding house; however, her fatal error is that, out of extreme generosity, she charges her boarders too little to actually make a living, causing her to overwork and eventually leading to her death. Looking at James's theory, we can also say that Anna makes the decision to act upon her ideology of being generous and sympathetic by undercharging her boarders. However, as we can see, the ideology she chooses to value actually does not lead to her benefit. One can ask why she decided to be so generous with her boarders; what lies behind this ideology she chose to value? You might find the author revealing many reasons behind Anna's ideological value, but one reason may be that the lower middle class typically has less education than the upper class. So, you might choose to argue that Anna's lack of education led to Anna valuing the wrong ideology, which led to her death. We can see many wrong choices throughout many of the other characters.

If you were to argue that Stein used the recurring motherhood motif to illustrate a theme concerning James's theory of pragmatism and how the theory applies to the actions of the lower middle class, in order to explain why the women characters act in ways that either honor or dishonor social expectations, your thesis might look something like this:

  • Stein uses the recurring motif of motherhood to illustrate her theme concerning the disadvantageous actions of the lower middle class, showing her readers that, due to lack of education (or whatever reason/reasons you decide on), individuals in the lower middle class are unable to make choices that ultimately benefit them and fit William James's theory of pragmatism.

For your analysis, you would take each character that illustrates the recurring motif of motherhood and analyze how the character's actions reflect an ideological value and how that value actually does or does not benefit the character, just as we see with Anna.

Sources:

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