What are the gender roles in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein?
The gender roles in Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas are somewhat affectionately presented in terms of the martial and frequently hypercritical perceptions of the average male vice the more endearing, less confrontational relationships enjoyed by women – an unsurprising presentation given the relationship between Stein and Toklas. An early indication of the role of men in Stein’s satirical if historically accurate “autobiography” of her friend, lover, confidante, etc. is presented at the story’s outset. Describing Toklas’ family’s history, Stein writes (in the first-person, as this is presented, of course, as an autobiography) regarding her subject’s lineage:
“My father came of polish patriotic stock. His grand-uncle raised a regiment for Napoleon and was its colonel. His father left his mother just after their marriage, to fight at the barricades in Paris, but his wife having cut off his supplies, he soon returned and led the life of a conservative well to do land owner.”
Note, here, the role of testosterone in Stein/Toklas’ descriptions of the family patriarchs. These are men, prone to martial instincts. Note just as clearly, however, the suggestion of the power behind the throne, the wife’s “having cut off his supplies,” thereby precipitating the husband’s return to normalcy. Stein, in particular, was an important feminist figure, as well as being a key participant in the American expatriate fine arts scene in Paris. Male chauvinism was prominently displayed, but in the more subtle manner appropriate to the genteel society the author describes:
“He (my father)also told me that a hostess should never apologise for any failure in her household arrangements, if there is a hostess there is insofar as there is a hostess no failure.”
A particularly good example of the presentation of the role of gender in Stein’s “autobiography” involves the maid Helene, a particularly capable housekeeper/cook who was hired by Stein and Stein’s brother. Stein’s description of Helene is telling with respect to gender distinctions in the society in which they lived:
“Hélène had her opinions, she did not for instance like Matisse. She said a Frenchman should not stay unexpectedly to a meal particularly if he asked the servant beforehand what there was for dinner. She said foreigners had a perfect right to do these things but not a Frenchman and Matisse had once done it. So when Miss Stein said to her, Monsieur Matisse is staying for dinner this evening, she would say, in that case I will not make an omelette but fry the eggs. It takes the same number of eggs and the same amount of butter but it shows less respect, and he will understand. . . Hélène stayed with the household until the end of 1913. Then her husband, by that time she had married and had a little boy, insisted that she work for others no longer. To her great regret she left and later she always said that life at home was never as amusing as it had been at the rue de Fleurus.”
In the above passage, Stein is describing a woman of intellect and will who is condemned by virtue of society’s strictures with regard to the proper place of women to a subordinate place in that society’s hierarchy, but one who nevertheless uses what tools she has at her disposal to exert influence when and where she can. Helene’s are small victories, but they are victories indeed. Ultimately, however, her destiny is still in the hands of the dominant gender, evidenced by her husband’s insistence that she quit her job and stay at home.
The artists who play a prominent role in Stein’s book are predominantly male, but of a particularly eccentric nature. Picasso, a notorious womanizer with an occasionally abrasive personality, and Ernest Hemingway, the embodiment of masculinity, are equals to Stein, as ‘described by Toklas,’ and they collectively form a clique in which all are simply friends and colleagues. Hemingway stands out as a singularly masculine figure, and Stein/Toklas includes a vignette about a conversation between her and the author of books about war and bull-fighting regarding the number of people Hemingway had killed, the latter suggesting the number was limited to one, a “bad man” who “deserved it.” Later in the book, however, Stein/Toklas describes a conversation with novelist Sherwood Anderson:
“It was during this visit that Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson had all those amusing conversations about Hemingway. They enjoyed each other thoroughly. They found out that they both had had and continued to have Grant as their great American hero.”
Again, Stein is presenting herself, through the prism of Toklas, as equal to the men in her life. Men continued to represent the dominant influence in much of society, but Stein was determined not to allow herself to be subordinated to them in any way. That her reputation and record continue to endure is testament to the success of her efforts.