Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Three Lives consists of three episodes, the novella-length “Melanctha” and two short pieces, “The Good Anna” and “The Gentle Lena.” The work is generally called a novel because of its thematic unity, although it is not a novel in the conventional sense of the word. Stein set out to portray “the bottom nature,” as she called it, of three lower-middle-class women employed as domestic servants. In all three episodes, Stein pushes language to its extremes, using her rhetoric to reflect salient elements in the three women about whom she writes.

Each of the women—Anna Federner, Melanctha Herbert, and Lena Mainz—represents a generalized type of character, although Melanctha rises above the stereotypical and becomes the best realized character of the three. “Melanctha” is among the first works by a white writer to depict a black character in depth.

The episodes, told in the present with ramblings into the past, are not overtly connected to one another, nor do characters from one episode recur in either of the other two. A major connecting thread from one episode to another is love: Stein uses each episode to speculate on a different kind of love.

Stein, shortly before she wrote Three Lives, was herself working through a triangular love affair with May Bookstaver and Mabel Haynes and had, for some time, been Bookstaver’s lover. Much of this book is Stein’s attempt to work out her own feelings...

(The entire section is 594 words.)