In Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work, the scholar/critic Donald Sutherland says, “Gertrude Stein uses the simplest possible words, the common words used by everybody, and a version of the most popular phrasing, to express the most complicated thing….[S]he uses repetition and dislocation to make the word bear all the meaning it has….one has to give her work word by word the deliberate attention one gives to something written in italics.” This is certainly true of one of her early works, a collection of three stories called Three Lives, which is much more readable than her later more experimental works. Still, even with this early work, the “repetitions and dislocations” of language would confuse an inexperienced, simple reader who was reading mainly for the story and who was also launching a fledgling attempt to get a sense of the English written language. This would be true even were the reader going only for the story of the characters’ emotions and nothing else.
Thus it is that though I have routinely read very challenging poetry and prose both, I have no enthusiasm for the works of Gertrude Stein in general, except to view them as experiments, perhaps necessary stages the written English language had to go through (or perhaps “confront” is the correct word) in order to be renovated. Something similar could be said of the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet in terms at least of what they have contributed in English translation: they are amazingly like each other, and seem all to go about language developments in the same way. Yet they were at the time they were written part of a focus to objectify the narrative voice or experiment with it in a way which was begun but not finished by people like Ernest Hemingway. Still, Hemingway is readable, whereas often Gertrude Stein is simply difficult, mainly meant for people who like romans à clef, word puzzles, and guessing games. One way around this difficulty with Stein, if you are determined to read things she has written other than Three Lives, is to look over a copy of editor Renate Stendhal’s biography in captions, short quotes, and pictures entitled Gertrude Stein: In Words and Pictures, a thick photographic history of Stein’s life which enables the reader to see better the things and people Stein was referring to in her novels and poetry, and to get a better sense of the time in which she lived. I looked at that, but I also read Three Lives, mainly because it was the one thing of hers I felt I could read well from start to finish. Here’s what I found and what I feel I can honestly offer about the collection of stories:
The stories are three sobering portraits of three different women’s lives in America in the early 1900’s. The first woman, who is the main character of “The Good Anna,” Anna Federner, is “of solid lower middle-class german stock” (the lower-case “g” in german is as Stein uses it throughout the book). The entire story is concerned with incidents relating to Anna’s employers’ lives (she is a sort of housekeeper and a general factotum), her dogs’ lives, and her conflicts with the scheming and lack of generosity she sometimes encounters. For, she is good to others; it is not just a title, it is her title, this is the source of what she is, some short-sighted errors aside. She comes to a dismal but quite ordinary end and the story ends simultaneously.
“Melanctha,” the second story, while different from the first story in that it speaks of a young African American woman and her intrigues and relationships with men and with women, ends similarly. Though more enigmatic in nature and more amoral, just as the prose about her is more enigmatic in its starkly expressed picture, without narrative sympathy or reserve, Melanctha too comes to a bad end, but without having noticeably distinguished herself by unmotivated kindness to others, as the first character, the “good” Anna did. There is also a certain amount of dated treatment of black people’s issues in the book, for all that it is Gertrude Stein writing, and for all that she was in sympathy herself with the African American struggle for rights in her own time.
In the third story, “The Gentle Lena,” the shortest of the three stories, Lena is described as “patient, gentle, sweet and german.” She too starts out life as a servant, brought over to the U. S. to serve. Though her life is called “peaceful” by the narrative voice, her fellow nursemaids tease her, apparently because she is not intelligent or quick-witted and will believe anything they tell her. Her basic incomprehension of what is going on around her is shown quite clearly in Stein’s recording style: it isn’t a language barrier problem, because it persists even when she is with other German people. For example, we are told that Lena did not enjoy her life in Germany, but that she herself is unaware of this. Stein quite simply tells us why, with no preamble or laborious psychologizing to indicate special insight (and this is true though Stein herself was a gifted student of the American psychologist William James before she went to live in France). Lena’s life only slightly improves materially when she gets married and has her husband’s three children, and it improves not at all emotionally, for after going into what used to be termed “a decline,” she too dies, with no moral to the story, in true Steinian fashion.
What can be said about these three lives? First of all, that they are simply that: three lives, varied in some specifics, but each of them ending where we all end. Yet, they do so without the least fanfare or blare of symbolism, imagery, or obvious rhetoric. And that they are no better, or happier, or more rewarded with heroic status is the point I believe we are meant to take away. Since they are all three women, this can possibly be interpreted to be a feminist moral if one is so inclined, yet Stein doesn’t assign any moral at all. The final point is perhaps that there are so many unremarkable lives, which so many of us live, and that we are lucky even to be as well-remembered as these characters are, either by the other “characters” in our lives or by writers like Stein.