Gertrude Stein Short Fiction Analysis - Essay

Gertrude Stein Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Gertrude Stein’s work has never been easily accessible to the reader. During her lifetime, her work was both ridiculed and celebrated, and indeed these two attitudes continue to prevail among Stein’s readers. Historical distance has provided a supportive context for Stein’s work, however, and now that readers can see Stein in a milieu of highly creative artists devoted to wrenching art from the restrictions of realism and verisimilitude, her work is more easily appreciated for the inroads it makes against conventions, although perhaps not more easily understood. Stein was a powerful initiator, a ruthless experimenter, and a bold and forthright manipulator of words.

Tender Buttons

Having already written Things as They Are, Three Lives, and The Making of Americans, Stein was in full command when she made the surprising innovations of Tender Buttons. The author herself always rated the work highly, considering it to be one of her most significant writings despite the ridicule and scorn it received from those who did not agree that it added a new dimension to literature. Prior to Tender Buttons, Stein had grown increasingly abstract in her writing. Tender Buttons marks something of a culmination in this progressing abstractionism, for here she produces a set of “still lifes,” each of which sustains abstraction. The subject matter, too, has changed from earlier writing. In Tender Buttons, Stein moves from people to things. The book is divided into three sections: “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms.” While the divisions classify, the effect is still that of eclecticism, for no perceptible principles of order determine either the arrangement within each section or the sequencing of the sections themselves.

The title of Tender Buttons indicates some of the ironies of the collection. A button is something hard, concrete, and functional, while the word “tender” as an adjective suggests the opposite—something soft. “Tender” can also be a verb, and, in this sense, the collection is Stein’s offering of discrete bits of prose. “Tender” may suggest an emotional state, but, if so, the emotion must emanate from the reader, for the hard little buttons of prose in Tender Buttons do not themselves develop an emotional state. In the title, as in the name of each passage within the work, Stein seems to be offering the reader something tangible, something realistic, but she does so only to challenge the reader’s notions of reality and to tease the mind.

The verbal fragments in Tender Buttons reveal a variety of strategies, and it is the flexibility of language and idea that keeps one reading. Each entry is titled; “A Red Stamp,” “A Plate,” “Roastbeef,” “Sugar,” and “Oranges” are typical examples. Entries range in length from a single short line to the approximately twelve pages of the undivided section “Rooms.” In some of the entries, the title shapes the suggestions and hints, while in others, the title seems to bear little or no relationship to what follows. Stein’s prose does not describe the objects realistically, but rather, opens the mind to the flow of thoughts that the title evokes. In these verbal fragments there is no logic, no sequence; sometimes an entry shows accretion, but no line of thought is developed. Indeed, even the logic of syntax is refused in favor of phrases and, ultimately, in favor of single words.

The work is abstract not only because it collects seemingly discrete verbal fragments but also because it seems to follow one of Stein’s axioms about abstract painting: that a painting has its own existence, its own life. Aesthetic value does not derive from a work’s referential quality but rather from itself. In modern painting, the focus is on the colors of the paint, the shapes, the textures, the forms. In Tender Buttons, the focus is on the words themselves, their sounds, juxtapositions, and the life that emanates from their unconventional arrangement. Stein recognized that words bring with them a whole series of associations that are different for each reader and uncontrollable by the artist, so she deliberately aimed to remove words from their usual contexts to reduce their associational qualities and to cause new associations to arise from novel juxtapositions. A reader of Stein’s work must surrender selfhood to the text and accept the linguistic experience offered.

“As Fine as Melanctha”

In naming volume 4 of the Yale edition of Stein’s writings As Fine as Melanctha, the editors draw attention to one of Stein’s short pieces of prose that takes the appearance of a short story but turns out to defy the conventions of that genre, just as Stein defies other literary conventions. “As Fine as Melanctha” was Stein’s answer when requested to write something “as fine as ‘Melanctha,”’ one of the three pieces that constitute Three Lives; yet “As Fine as Melanctha” is radically different from the earlier work. The 1922 piece has no characters, no setting, no plot, and no chronology. The opening line announces that it is “a history of a moment,” but a moment has no history. “As Fine as Melanctha” is a moment out of time, or rather many moments out of time, moments so common as to be timeless and timely simultaneously.


(The entire section is 2216 words.)