The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

by Gertrude Stein

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By telling her own story through the persona of someone close to her, Stein implicitly suggests that a person’s identity can only ever be provisionally known. She adopts Toklas’s voice and draws on her memories for her ventriloquist’s trick, effectively creating an identity that is part Toklas, part Stein. Experiments with point of view in literature and painting were popular during Stein’s time, and the idea of objectivity was giving way to the notion that reality was subjective and plural. Stein experiments with point of view in other books as well, most notably, Three Lives.

Women’s Rights
Stein describes her unconventional and lesbian relationship with Toklas as if there were nothing unusual about it. However, by presenting their partnership unapologetically and as entirely natural, Stein, intentionally or not, holds herself up as a model for what women can accomplish, both in the personal and professional sphere. The art world was a notoriously male province in the early twentieth century, and Stein’s influence, financially, emotionally, and ideologically, showed that strong women could shape the direction of industries such as art and literature. Her influence on writers and painters such as Matisse, Picasso, Hemingway, Anderson, and others was profound.

Stein’s stream of consciousness narration, her use of repetition, her disregard for conventional punctuation, and her presentation of events in sometimes helter-skelter order mark her book as distinctly modern. Modernism in the arts emerged fully after World War I and was largely a response to changes in the world order wrought by the war. In an effort to represent these changes, writers, painters, and musicians broke with many of the traditions that had defined their work, experimenting with collage, fragmentation, stream of consciousness narration, multiple points of view, non-standard syntax and sentence structure, etc., to depict the increasing anxiety and uncertainty of human life. Modernist writers who pioneered these changes include Stein, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce.

Implicit in Stein’s book is the disappearance of any difference between fictional and nonfictional characters. The media contributes to this by creating a culture of celebrity, and removing the need to imagine personalities. By writing her own autobiography through the eyes of someone else, Stein underscores the idea that all lives are constructions, imagined as much by those who live them as by those who read about them.

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