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.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

For Gertrude Stein, Three Lives was a quite personal book. In writing it, Stein did not consciously aim to write a feminist tract, and the book did not turn into one. It is a penetrating psychological study of three distinctly different women and of the three faces of love that they represent. As women’s issues have become a prominent concern in assessing and analyzing literature, however, Three Lives has emerged as an important book in that regard.

The world of Three Lives is one of male dominance. The three women whom Stein portrays are locked by their social class into a setting that definitely limits their possibilities in life. Anna Federner, who shows definite signs of having lesbian tendencies, lived a life of willing self-sacrifice, inviting—indeed, needing—people to take advantage of her good will and generosity. Perhaps this is Anna’s means of expiation for essentially having desires of which she, as staunchly moral as she is and living in the age in which she lived, can hardly approve and possibly cannot admit even to herself. If she has lesbian tendencies, as seems quite probable, it is unthinkable that she has ever acted on them or has even considered doing so.

Lena has the sexuality of a slug. She seems to be living life just to get it over with. She has no enthusiasms, no joie de vivre. She is in a class with Frank Norris’s McTeague (McTeague, 1899), a fictional character...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Bridgepoint. Fictional southern port town in an unspecified state in which the entire novel is set. Created from Stein’s memories of Baltimore at the turn of the twentieth century, Bridgepoint contains diverse neighborhoods, from well-appointed row houses erected like dominoes along steep hills, to slum districts near the factories, and the home of fortunetellers and the poor. To the novel’s three women, Bridgepoint presents a narrow life that forbids escape.

Part one of the novel, titled “The Good Anna,” views Bridgepoint through the eyes of Anna Federner, a hard-working immigrant woman who is generous to all who need help, employers and friends alike. Anna lives in the homes of a series of wealthy families, who benefit from the responsible, frugal servant who can always strike a good bargain with local shopkeepers. Eventually one of her rich employers moves from Bridgepoint to a new, unnamed country and leaves Anna the redbrick house they have shared for many years. To pay the bills, Anna takes in boarders, which allows her no time to visit old friends. The endless work causes Anna to grow tired and thin: Eventually she dies.

Melanctha Herbert, the sad, graceful, central character of part two, lives in the African American community of Bridgepoint. Intelligent and courageous, she loves too hard and too often. When she is young she lives with her pale-yellow, sweet-appearing mother and only rarely sees...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Gertrude Stein. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Part of the Modern Critical Views Series, this work includes fifteen essays on Stein, a chronology, and a bibliography. Donald Sutherland’s essay on Three Lives and Richard Bridgman’s on Things as They Are and Three Lives are instructive.

Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Bridgman asserts that all three women in Three Lives are “victimized by fate” and says that Stein is concerned more with thoughts than with actions.

Doane, Janice L. Silence and Narrative: The Early Novels of Gertrude Stein. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Discusses the artists who influenced Stein, explaining that Stein is not constrained by convention. Some of Doane’s arguments, such as the assertion that in Three Lives Stein shows that marriage destroys women and uplifts men, are provocative but not always easily supported.

Hobhouse, Janet. Everyone Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989. This book gives a good run-down of the significant people who frequented 27 rue de Fleurus. Well illustrated.

Hoffman, Michael J. Gertrude Stein. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Compares Three Lives with Stein’s roman à clef Things as They Are (1950; later Quod Erat Demonstrandum). Hoffman provides good discussions of Stein’s “wise-child” style and of the narrator of Three Lives.

Mellow, James R. Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company. New York: Praeger, 1974. Mellow’s thorough treatment of Stein’s literary and artistic circle includes an examination of the autobiographical undertones of Three Lives and circumstances of its publication.

Souhami, Diana. Gertrude and Alice. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. The most thorough account of Gertrude Stein’s long lesbian relationship with Alice B. Toklas, this book shows how strong Toklas was and how she dominated many aspects of her forty-year association with Stein.

Souhami, Diana. Introduction to Three Lives. New York: Bantam Books, 1992. In her thirteen-page introduction, Souhami provides a strong feminist reading of Three Lives.

Sprigge, Elizabeth. Gertrude Stein: Her Life and Work. New York: Harper Brothers, 1957. Like Mellow’s book, this well-written biography is replete with excellent illustrations. Tells much about the genesis of Three Lives.

Sutherland, Donald. Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1951. Sutherland examines the almost scientific precision of Stein’s description and style in Three Lives.