Three Lives, an extensive literary experiment in language and psychology, is generally called a novel, as noted above, because of the unifying thematic threads that run through it. The book is more than three disparate episodes gathered together in a single volume. Much influenced by Gustave Flaubert’s Trois Contes (1877; Three Tales, 1903), Three Lives is as realistic in its recording of the speech patterns of commonplace people as Stein can make it. Stein’s medical research took her into lower-middle-class neighborhoods in Baltimore, where she became fascinated by the way people spoke. The characters in her books speak in the same repetitive, stream-of-consciousness constructions that Stein heard from the working-class people of Baltimore with whom she came into contact.
Stein is unfailingly interested in the psychological underpinnings of the characters of the three servant women she has chosen to portray. She reveals each in her relationships with other people, and in so doing, she develops with considerable insight and sensitivity three distinctly different personalities, each with a unique view of love and life.
Lena (whose name suggests that she is a “leaner”) is best summed up in her response when her aunt, Mrs. Haydon, presses her to marry Herman Kreder, whom she has no desire to marry. Lena merely tells her aunt that she will do whatever she (Mrs. Haydon) tells her is right to do. She agrees to marry Herman because Mrs. Haydon wants her to.
Juxtaposed with Lena in this episode is Herman, who is as weak and spineless as his bride-to-be. When his parents decide that he will marry Lena, they tell Mrs. Haydon not to discuss the matter with their son. Mrs. Kreder tells Herman that Lena is thrifty, a good worker, and never wants her own way. Herman’s response is a grunt that is taken for assent.
Unlike Lena, both Anna and Melanctha have considerable backbone. Anna is more resolute than Melanctha, but she is also more than twice Melanctha’s age and appears to have gained self-confidence over the years. Anna’s pattern in life has been to seek out bungling, dependent people who need her, then to run their lives for them.
Anna is unswerving in her notions of decency, as a result of which she occasionally suffers grave disappointments, as she did when she discovered that Mrs. Lehntman, whom Stein describes as the “romance in Anna’s life,” has been involved in something shady with the doctor with whom she is working. Having once made a judgment of this sort, Anna is intractable.
Melanctha’s development depends on Stein’s showing her in relation to her two close female friends, Rose Johnson and Jane Harden, as well as in relation to the three men who are important in her life: her father, Jeff Campbell, and Jem Richards. As it turns out, Melanctha loses everyone she cares about, but she has never really cared deeply about anyone. Her death is sad but falls far short of being tragic because of Stein’s portrayal of Melanctha as insensitive. Stein exposes her readers neither to Melanctha’s eventual physical decline nor to her death throes. Instead, she reports Melanctha’s death almost incidentally at the end of this longest section of Three Lives.
As Stein portrays them, both Anna and Lena, despite the great differences in their personalities, are mundane characters whose intellectual and emotional compasses are limited. Stein captures their banality well, particularly in her faithful depiction of their speech patterns. The endless repetition in their dialogue reinforces the lack of drama and the constant recurrences in their lives.
Melanctha, however, is a far more romantic character than is...
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either Anna or Lena. As a mulatta, she has a foot in the black world and one in the white, even though the milieu in which Stein presents her is black. Jeff Campbell, a professional who represents the rising black upper middle class, displays many of the characteristics and values of whites.
Melanctha, however, rejects Jeff in favor of Jem, a man who fits Stein’s conceptions of the black men of her day, only to be discarded by him. Melanctha is the most fully realized character in Three Lives, although each of Stein’s three major characters is memorable.
The components of Three Lives reflect the personal problems with which Stein was dealing when she wrote the book: moral uncertainty, fear of rejection, mixed emotions about her relationship with May Bookstaver, and sexual desire without a stable object toward which she might direct it. Alice B. Toklas was not yet in Stein’s life when Three Lives was being conceived, although the two were living together by the time it was published. This book, in a sense, is a cry by a highly intelligent woman who had not yet found what she was seeking for herself.