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“Melanctha,” the central story in Three Lives, is considered one of the most original short stories of the twentieth century. By employing simple words to express complicated thoughts, Stein endowed ordinary people with a complex psychology that earlier writers had given only to characters of high social standing.

“Melanctha” tells the story of Melanctha Herbert, a beautiful, light-skinned black woman who struggles to comprehend her troubled, passionate nature. Melanctha’s language, like her life, moves toward people, then away, then back again, in a spiral of acceptance and rejection.

Melanctha is a victim of her search for excitement and her barely controlled eroticism. In her affair with Jefferson Campbell, a young black doctor called in to attend her dying mother, Melanctha encounters a lover who is her exact opposite. Whereas Melanctha is vibrant, sensual, and committed to living in the present, Jeff Campbell is quiet and thoughtful, a man who recoils from physical passion.

The story describes in long stretches of dialogue their tormented debate over the virtues of their respective psychological natures. Slowly, Jeff learns to think less and to feel more deeply, until finally he is able to feel the glory of the physical world. Yet once Melanctha has taught him how to love as she does, she loses interest in him and enters into a series of love affairs that, in the end, leave her alone, facing death, in a home for impoverished consumptives.

To counter the bleakness of her tale, Stein invents a glowing, elemental language that evokes an eternal present. Vocabulary is pared to the bone, and syntax and diction are subtly distorted to echo common speech. Phrases are repeated over and over, with only minor changes, until they assume a hypnotic power. The story is about a love affair and the torture of two people trying to comprehend what they mean to each other.

The words they use to explain themselves entrap them. Language as a medium of expression both liberates and obscures emotion. The inner lives of two common people are revealed by the rhythms of their speech but can never be exactly known. Huge psychological spaces are suggested, while the story contains little plot or description. No character is treated as being more important than another. Absent entirely is the socially elevated tone of conventional fiction, and nowhere can the commanding presence of the author be found.

“Melanctha” was a breathtaking advance in short-story writing but one that Stein never repeated. It was read by few people when it was first published (partly at Stein’s expense), but its influence was enormous on such writers as Hemingway, Anderson, and Richard Wright, who borrowed Stein’s verbal rhythms to express the inner worlds of black people growing up in Chicago.

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