Friday, April 21, 2017

the kind of ugliness appropriate to each rank in life - Gertrude Stein's Three Lives

Should I try to write about Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (1909)?  Do I have anything to say about it?  I don’t know – answer to both questions.

Two longish short stories about German-American women who work as servants surround a novella about an African-American woman who has some money of her own.  None of these characters are the normal stuff of American fiction at this point.  The Baltimore setting, to the extent that the setting matters, is also unusual.

Anna knew so well the kind of ugliness appropriate to each rank in life.

If taken ironically, that could be a statement of purpose.  One purpose.

The book begins with a quote from Jules Laforgue, in French, which post-T. S. Eliot is a good way to establish High Modernist credentials, but this is pre-Eliot.  How many American readers in 1909 knew who the heck Laforgue was?  I have no idea. “Donc je suis malheureux et ce n'est ni ma faute ni celle de la vie” – “So I am unfortunate and it’s neither my fault nor that of life.”  The people in Stein’s stories are ordinary, a lot of things just happen to them, and the things they choose – well, they are the way they are.  The worldview is fatalistic.

Yet the German women are “The Good Anna” and “The Gentle Lena,” and Melanctha is good and gentle, too.  Lena, in the final story, is close to a saint, if a perfectly normal person can be a saint.  Her arranged marriage causes her suffering, something like a suppression of her personality, and eventually her death, but it seems that her husband and children are in some way saved through her.

Anna love animals and children and helpless people, and devotes her life to helping them.  “She knew too, that Anna had a feeling heart.”  The word “feeling” is used constantly in these stories.  From “Melanctha”:

Jeff was at last beginning to know what it was to have deep feeling…  He was very tired and all the world was very dreary to him, and he knew very well now at last, he was really feeling…  He was very sick all these days, and his heart was very heavy in him, and he knew very well that now at last he had learned what it was to have deep feeling.

All of this from a single paragraph, about Dr. Jeff Campbell learning how to feel through his treatment by the deep but restless and willful Melanctha.  Maybe she is also a kind of saint, like Lena.  Maybe all of the characters are saints.

“The Good Anna” has some resemblance to Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” (1877).  The simple, kind-hearted servant in that story achieves an apotheosis by means of her beloved pet parrot.  And here is Anna, a servant, who loves animals, and oh lordy – I am re-enacting my reading of the story – Stein has just given Anna a parrot.  In a parodistic move, though, the parrot does not really work out:

… and soon they were all content.  All except the parrot, for Miss Mathilda did not like its scream.  Baby [a dog] was all right but not the parrot.  But then Anna never really loved the parrot…

All right, so if “The Good Anna” is parallel to “A Simple Heart” – what “if,” it is – then are the other two stories in Three Lives related to the other two stories in Flaubert’s Three Tales?  “Gentle Lena” is like Saint Julian, and “Melanctha” is somehow connected to “Hérodias”?  If so, I don’t get it.  But now I wonder what I missed.

The prose style is plain and repetitive, but across rather than within sentences.  The “feeling” passage above gives a sense of how this sounds.  It is rhythmic, but not the rhythm of poetry.  Entire sentences recur.    The prose at times pulses.  I don’t think anyone had written anything quite like it.


  1. I read these many, many years ago (well - decades) and remember that although it was unusual, Stein's was not as impenetrable as I'd been led to believe. It definitely helps to get into the rhythm of her words.


  2. Yes, me too, decades ago - "The Good Anna," at least. Entirely accessible, which I suppose is why it was in the Norton Anthology. "C'mon, Stein's not scary."

    But the prose is still an avant garde move. A mild, friendly one.

  3. Me too -- decades ago! I should give them another read.

  4. Maybe when I read the book next time, decades in the furtue, I will find something to say about it.