Critical Evaluation

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Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, a trilogy of character sketches, is remarkable for its experimental style, its lower-class characters, and its naturalistic themes. Stein uses a deceptively simple, repetitive style, sometimes reminding the reader of previously made points. For example, in the section of the novel titled “The Good Anna,” Stein writes, “Anna never liked her brother’s wife.” Two lines later, she writes, “Anna never liked her half brother’s wife.” After describing Anna’s nieces, Stein writes, “Our good Anna loved them not, nor their mother.” The reader begins to realize that Stein means more than she says; Anna’s half brother’s wife does not deserve to be liked. Each repetition gets the reader closer to this truth. The repetitions also mirror the thinking of Anna, whose dislike for her sister-in-law is constant and annoying.

Stein also eschews most punctuation because, in her opinion, it interrupts the flow of language. The sparsity of punctuation marks makes Stein’s writing read more like thought than like written ideas.

The simple language of Three Lives reflects the simplicity of the women whose lives the novel portrays. Anna Federner and Lena Mainz are German American servants. Melanctha Herbert is a young, relatively uneducated African American woman. The language in the first and third parts of the book, the ones about the servants, is less sophisticated than that of the middle piece, partly because “Melanctha” includes conversations between a physician and the young woman, who is fairly intelligent. In the second character sketch, paragraphs are longer and more fully developed. The characters use simple words and repeat their ideas, however, a hallmark of Gertrude Stein’s style. For example, Dr. Jefferson Campbell says, “You see Miss Melanctha I am a very quiet kind of fellow, and I believe in a quiet life for all the colored people.” Melanctha replies, “Yes I certainly do see that very clear Dr. Campbell. . . . I see that’s certainly what it is always made me not know right about you and that’s certainly what it is that makes you really mean what you was always saying.”

Many critics have remarked that Stein treats lower-class characters with the same regard with which Henry James and other authors treat upper-class characters. She illustrates the importance of the lives of servants and other members of the underprivileged classes and makes the pains, joys, and loves of lower-class characters real to the reader. She shows the value of their emotional and intellectual lives.

Stein’s theme in Three Lives is naturalistic. No matter how hard Anna, Melanctha, and Lena try, they are defeated in their efforts by a society that does not sufficiently value them. Anna, possibly based on a woman who worked for Stein in France, is the best servant anyone can be, always trying to make her employers’ lives happy and easy. In the end, her generosity is her downfall; others take advantage of her friendship, borrowing money and never paying it back, eating her good food at her boardinghouse while paying little for it, and letting her work herself to death for them. Most of them are not bad people, but Anna’s goodness cannot stand up to the harsh reality of her life.

Melanctha befriends weak people, and their weakness interferes with a love that could have made her very happy. Jane Harden tells Jeff Campbell about Melanctha’s youthful wanderings and interest in men, and he doubts Melanctha’s love for him. His doubt destroys their love. Her sorrow and loneliness leave her vulnerable to illness and death.

Lena’s gentleness destroys her. She resigns herself to being ruled by her aunt, who believes that...

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marriage is best for all girls. Lena lets herself be married to a man who does not love her, lets herself have children, lets her husband ignore her, and finally dies bearing a fourth child. Her gentleness, like Anna’s goodness, cannot stand up to a world that is not gentle.

Gertrude Stein was a well-educated, intelligent, upper-class woman who surrounded herself with artists and writers. In Three Lives she displays interest in and affection for people not like herself, treating them with sympathy but not pity, with respect, not condescension. Even their flaws are admirable. Her keen eye and ear and her generous heart are evident on every page.