How does gender subaltern perspective explain Gertrude Stein's "Three Lives"?

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A subaltern position is usually a subordinate one. In subaltern studies, the subaltern is a woman, one who represents a group of people who have been denied agency and freedom. At every juncture of life, the voice of the subaltern woman is silenced and her relevance is questioned.

Gertrude Stein's Three Lives perfectly exemplifies the lives of women who occupy subaltern status within their society. The book is divided into the stories of three women, Anna, Melanctha, and Lena. All three women lead unsatisfying and depressing lives which eventually culminate in obscure deaths. Even in death, they are largely forgotten and marginalized.

Gertrude Stein, herself a modernist to the core, tells the stories of these women in often repetitive and stream-of-consciousness prose. Through her language, Stein highlights the theme of women's oppression in her stories. These stories tell of women who experience no improvements in their tragic lives; their marginalization is both complete and eternal, in life as well as in death. For example, the following is indicative of much of Stein's stylistic use of repetition throughout all three stories.

Melanctha Herbert was always seeking rest and quiet, and always she could only find new ways to be in trouble.

Melanctha Herbert was always seeking peace and quiet, and she could always only find new ways to get excited.

Melanctha always loved and wanted peace and gentleness and goodness and all her life for herself poor Melanctha could only find new ways to be in trouble.

In 'Melanctha,' our protagonist never really finds what she is looking for. Her ambiguous, possibly lesbian relationship with Jane Harden hints at Stein's own same-sex relationship with Alice B. Toklas. Melanctha seeks contentment in her own life, but the virile and powerful violence of her father's personality forever clouds her vision of peace. In the story, she is torn between the women she would rather be with and the men she tries to appease. The cautious Jeff Campbell eventually breaks off his relationship with Melanctha because he cannot shake his distrust of her. One by one, the men and women Melanctha has come to depend on reject her, and she dies alone in a 'home for poor consumptives.'

eNotes Melanctha summary and analysis.

eNotes Three Lives summary and analysis.

Perhaps the most tragic of circumstances surround both Anna and Lena who are both abandoned and rejected by women they have come to trust and depend on. Anna does not live long after her marginalization; she tries to operate a boardinghouse business but fails miserably. Bereft of emotional support and in despair, she dies during a difficult operation in the hospital. Lena, on the other hand, has always lived under the oppressive influence of her domineering aunt, Mrs. Haydon.

The meddling Mrs. Haydon takes Lena under her wings and unleashes the full weight of her overbearing personality on the malleable Lena. To add to Lena's woe, Mrs. Haydon's two daughters, Mathilda and Bertha, treat Lena with contempt and disgust. However, Stein tells us that Lena bears this affront to her good graces with patience and humble resignation. The tragedy of Lena's circumstances stem from her passive acceptance of her lowly status and her marginalized existence.

Lena is forced to submit to marrying an indifferent husband, Herman Kreder, who proceeds to ignore her throughout their short marriage. Stein makes clear that Kreder doesn't care for the presence of women in his home. However, he is enthused with the children Lena does bear for him. In the end, Lena dies during childbirth, as unobtrusively as she lived her life. Meanwhile, Herman continues living happily with his children, oblivious to any pain he might have caused his wife when she was alive.

In all, Stein skilfully illuminates the perspective of the female subaltern as she tells us the stories of Anna, Melanctha, and Lena.


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