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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 292

Gertrude Stein's Three Lives (1909) showcase the lives of three women. Their lives are distinct from one another (and described in three separate parts), but all share the setting of the fictional city of Bridgeport.

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The first part, "The Good Anna," describes the life of a working woman who was brought to America with her mother, who dies of consumption (tuberculosis). She then spends her life as a nanny to a family in Bridgeport (having moved there to be near her brother). When her charge, Jane, grows up and gets married, Anna works for Doctor Shonjen, but this ends when he marries a disagreeable woman. Anna then goes to work for one Miss Mathilda, where she becomes head housekeeper. Anna's best friend is a widow and mother, Mrs. Lehntman, to whom she lends money. Anna, overly generous and overworked, dies during an operation.

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The second part, "Melanctha," describes the life of the titular woman, born to mixed-race parents. She was abused as a child by her father and lives a sexually promiscuous life before settling down with a shy black doctor, Jeff Campbell. When the two part owing to their disparate personalities, Melanctha chases the other extreme and finds herself with a gambler, Jem Richards. When this relationship also fails, Melanctha, who has spent her life struggling with mental illness, dies—alone—of tuberculosis.

The third part, "The Gentle Lena," describes the life of another German immigrant, Lena, who came to America with her family as a child. Lena is forced into marriage to Herman (himself also forced) and lives a quiet, domestic life in a loveless marriage. She dies in childbirth, having given birth to three live children (whom she thinks her husband loves more than he loves her) and one stillborn.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1140

The Good Anna. For five years, Anna Federner, a small German woman of about forty, has managed Miss Mathilda’s full household of both women, an underservant, three regular dogs (old Baby, young Peter, and fluffy Rags), and various strays. Anna manages the household well but becomes flustered when her mistress spends money frivolously. Miss Mathilda, on the other hand, tries to curb Anna’s lending to friends.

Anna’s story begins when she is a young woman; a servant since she was seventeen years old, she travels from Germany to the United States with her mother. After her mother dies, Anna moves from the Deep South to Bridgepoint, in the Northeast, where her half brother lives. In Bridgepoint, Anna first goes to work as a servant to Miss Mary Wadsmith and her orphaned niece and nephew. Anna likes working for the large, helpless woman, who lets Anna manage all her affairs, but Anna does not care much for children. She prefers the spoiled Edgar to the obstinate Jane. One day, Jane gives Anna an order that she says comes from Miss Mary. Anna angrily tells Miss Mary about the incident, and her employer faints. Jane and Anna make no more trouble after that.

When Anna begins having severe headaches, Jane Wadsmith and Mrs. Lehntman, a widowed friend who works as a midwife, convince her to let Dr. Shonjen operate. She improves some, but she is never really well again.

When Jane marries, Miss Mary goes to live with her. Anna does not believe that she can work in a household with Jane as mistress; therefore, she begins working for Dr. Shonjen. She loves working for men, who enjoy eating and let her manage the home. Anna continues helping the midwife, Mrs. Lehntman, who adopts a baby boy. Anna is concerned that her friend cannot afford another child, but Mrs. Lehntman is resolved to keep the baby.

Anna often helps another poor family, the Drehtens, whom her sister-in-law despises. Her best friend is Mrs. Lehntman, and when her friend wants money to start a lying-in home, Anna lends it to her, despite reservations about the venture. Anna’s troubles are compounded by Mrs. Lehntman’s interest in a man and by her employer’s marriage. Dr. Shonjen’s new wife and Anna do not get along, so Anna looks for a new place. She learns of Miss Mathilda, who has recently moved to Bridgepoint. Anna is reluctant to work for a woman again, but Mrs. Lehntman urges her to consult a medium, who encourage her to take the job. Anna enjoys working for Miss Mathilda, who lets Anna manage everything and keep her dogs. However, Anna loses her friendship with Mrs. Lehntman after Mrs. Lehntman fails to pay back another loan and continues her involvement with an unscrupulous physician.

Anna continues to befriend stray animals and needy people, including Mrs. Lehntman’s foolish newly married daughter. She also nurses Mrs. Drehten through an operation. Anna experiences some sadness when her old dog Baby, who had been a gift from Mrs. Lehntman, dies, and Miss Mathilda moves to another country.

Anna takes in boarders at Miss Mathilda’s house, and the boarders love her, but she charges too little to make a profit. She works so hard that she wears herself out and dies during an operation. Mrs. Drehten writes to Miss Mathilda to tell her about Anna’s death.

Melanctha. Melanctha Herbert, a young African American woman with some white blood, has recently befriended Rose Johnson, a black woman reared by white people. When Rose and Sam Johnson’s baby is born, Melanctha helps her friend with the child. Rose is so lazy that she fails to take care of the child when Melanctha is not there, and the baby dies. Melanctha reflects that she did not really love her black father or her light-skinned mother. Her father once fought a man who he thought was too interested in Melanctha.

Melanctha’s story begins when she is an adolescent, wandering the streets and talking with men. She becomes friends with Jane Harden, who tells her much about men and the world but drinks far too much. Melanctha’s mother becomes ill, and Dr. Jefferson Campbell arrives at their home to treat her. As he and Melanctha talk, she becomes so fond of him that she ceases to wander. They discuss his beliefs about African American people. Melanctha’s mother dies, her father disappears, and she focuses all her attention on Jeff Campbell.

Jeff is uncertain about his feelings for her, however. Just as he is beginning to feel love for Melanctha, Jane tells him of Melanctha’s earlier interest in men. This information makes him angry, and he fears that he will quarrel with Melanctha. He also doubts her love for him. Jeff’s mistrust of Melanctha drives them apart, and she begins to love him less. She surrounds herself with friends, including Rose Johnson.

After several breakups and reunions with Jeff, Melanctha explains to him that she loves him, but not with her former passion. At that point he realizes that he truly loves her. After she and Jeff end their relationship, Melanctha casually dates white men. Jeff, having been schooled in love, finds that he is now a better doctor.

Melanctha begins dating Jem Richards, who, like her, loves horses. He gets into trouble betting at the racetrack. Melanctha becomes more dependent on Rose and Sam Johnson, but Rose becomes increasingly cold toward her. Jem breaks up with her, leaving Melanctha quite alone in the world. She thinks about killing herself, but she does not. After an illness and brief recovery, she dies.

The Gentle Lena. Lena Mainz came from Germany with her aunt, Mrs. Haydon, to Bridgepoint, where Lena has worked for the same family for four years. Lena is gentle and finds the family agreeable. She had been quite ill on the voyage to America but recovered upon arrival.

Lena’s aunt decides to find a husband for Lena, and she settles on Herman Kreder, a tailor. Neither Lena nor Herman wants to marry, however. On the day they are supposed to wed, Herman cannot be found, and the wedding must be postponed. Eventually, Herman’s father finds him at his married sister’s house in New York and brings him back to Bridgepoint.

Lena and Herman get married and move into his parents’ house. The Kreders are sloppy, and the usually neat Lena adopts their ways. Mrs. Kreder scolds, but Herman takes Lena’s side. Lena becomes withdrawn.

Lena gets pregnant and has a healthy baby, and after the child is born she becomes even more careless about her life. She has two more babies, whom Herman adores. Lena’s fourth child is stillborn, and Lena dies soon after. Herman happily cares for his children.

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