Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index


to e-mail us:

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Three Lives

Gertrude Stein

general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Three Lives

Title: Three Lives
Author: Gertrude Stein
Genre: Novellas
Written: 1906
Length: 279 pages
Availability: Three Lives - US
Three Lives - US/inexpensive Dover edition
Also in: Writings 1903-1932 - US (recommended)
Three Lives - UK
Also in: Writings 1903-1932 - UK (recommended)
Three Lives - Canada
Trois vies - France
Drei Leben - Deutschland
  • Available in Writings 1903-1932 (see our review).

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B : forthright stories of common women at the turn of the century

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The three novellas -- the three lives described here -- are those of The Good Anna, Melanctha, and The Gentle Lena. Stein's study of these simple lower class women at the turn of the century in the city of Bridgepoint is straightforward and honest, neither overly simplifying nor glorifying their lives. Told in fairly conventional prose (by Stein's standards), it is an interesting and generally pleasant read.
       "Anna led an arduous and troubled life," we are told. She is a servant, running the household of Miss Mathilda. It is an ordinary, simple life that the good Anna lives -- helpful, generous, generally unrecognized. Here, as in the other two pieces, Stein makes a full character out of an existence that seems otherwise to be, to most of those around her, a mere shadow, hardly missed when it is gone.
       Melanctha Herbert is a negress, better educated than most at the time, but still limited in her circumstances. She befriends Jane Harden, "a roughened woman", older and hardened who teaches her about life -- rougher lessons. She also has an ambiguous relationship with the ultimately unappreciative Rose Johnson. Melanctha also gets close to a black doctor, Jeff Campbell, who helps treat her dying mother. It is an ambivalent and difficult affair they have, neither completely sure of the other, and Stein describes the tensions both from outside and from within them well. They ultimately go their separate ways, with Melanctha then never really finding fulfillment in her life.
       The gentle Lena is a German girl brought over to Bridgepoint by her aunt. She takes a position as a servant, a job she enjoys and does well. After a few years her aunt finds her a completely unsuitable husband, Herman Kreder. The marriage is arranged, though neither of the two parties is eager to wed. Herman proves to be a devoted father but an indifferent husband, and when Lena dies she is hardly missed.
       Tinged with melancholy, each section ending in death, these are not happy tales. They are, however, realistic and well-told, unusual in that they are devoted to common lives in which no great, dramatic, exceptional things happen. Well worth reading, Three Lives is among Stein's most approachable texts.

       Note that some people apparently take offense at Stein's portrayal of black people in Melanctha (see, for example, the reader comments at Amazon.com). Is it the use of the word "negress" ? Melanctha's careless friend Rose, who lets her baby die ? We found no overt racism in the piece, and it is certainly no more condescending than the other two are (in which the central figures are white). Indeed, while Anna is good and Lena kind, Melanctha is the only one whose greatest gift is intellectual -- and one of her tragedies is that, because she is a woman and black, she can not use her gift to best advantage (just as the goodness and the kindness of the others ultimately does not get them the recognition they deserve).
       Privileged Ivy League gal Stein might be guilty of ignorance at certain points, but the portrayal seems fair to us, and to foist current notions of political correctness on a piece written in 1906 seems misguided. Nevertheless, be warned: some people have taken offense at the piece.

- Return to top of the page -


Three Lives: Gertrude Stein:
  • Other works by Gertrude Stein under review: Other books of interest under review:

    - Return to top of the page -

    About the Author:

           American author Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) is best known for works such as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Three Lives. She was an influential literary figure who spent much of her life in Europe.

    - Return to top of the page -

    © 1999-2010 the complete review

    Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links