The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

by Gertrude Stein

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Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Analysis

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The longest chapter in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas covers the fourteen years from the end of World War I to 1932, the years during which talented Americans swarmed into Paris. Stein wrote the book in six weeks during 1932, modeling it loosely on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). It is significant that Stein devotes three pages to Toklas’ background but twenty-two to her own and to her move from the United States to Paris. Obviously, despite its whimsical title, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is Gertrude Stein’s autobiography, fancifully presented.

The writing style in this book is unique. In previous works, Stein had used her combined psychological and medical training to observe closely how people actually speak and to represent that speech as accurately as she could. In Three Lives (1910), she recorded precisely if often monotonously the actual speech cadences of three domestics: Lena and Anna, German immigrants, and Melanctha, a serving girl, the first African American protagonist seriously presented by a white American writer. The speech of these three women involves endless repetition and circularity. Although they sometimes talk drivel, Stein presents them with respect. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein is still experimenting with a style that bewildered her earlier readers but that has delighted many later ones. She allows thoughts to flow as they do in the unconscious mind. She uses punctuation sparingly. Her sentences often ramble in Stein’s attempt to depict how the unconscious mind processes thought. Stein’s deviations from the mechanical and grammatical norms to which most writers adhere alarmed early publishers, who refused to publish her writing. Stein herself financed the printing of some of her early work, although Harcourt, Brace and Company published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was commercially successful.

One can analyze this book in terms of its structure, its use of language, its social commentary (particularly its revelations about more than three decades of artists and writers), and an experimental approach which shocked many readers and still startles the uninitiated. In the first place, novices might ask how an author dares to write the autobiography of another person. The inherent contradiction in doing so is obvious, but it is also indicative of the outrageous way in which Stein uses contradiction and of her marked ability to find the truths inherent in it. Stein knew what she was about artistically. She was never swayed by the demands of publishers and readers who failed to appreciate her heterodox manner of representing her unique vision of life and society.

Stein’s writing will annoy readers who value linear thinking. Those, however, who enjoy divergent thinking, who revel in the wordplay of Lewis Carroll or J. R. R. Tolkien, will delight in Stein’s inventions. In this autobiography, probably the most linear of all of her writing, Stein shows rather than discusses how women can compete in the world of men.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas evoked considerable interest when parts of it appeared in The New Yorker. Behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner in 1934 published “Has Gertrude Stein a Secret?” in the Atlantic Monthly, contending that Stein’s early work in psychology in Harvard’s laboratories motivated her writing directly, pointing out striking similarities between it and the automatic writing that these experiments produced.

One of Stein’s most quoted lines is, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” This is not a simple line. It represents Stein’s essentialism, but it also poses the question, by not beginning the line with an indefinite article, of whether “Rose” is a flower, a color, or a person. Such is the enigmatic quality that pervades much of Stein’s writing and that makes a book such as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas yield more to readers on second, third, or fourth readings than on the first one.

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