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literature

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Stein, Gertrude (1874-1946)  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  

The story is narrated in three parts, each devoted to the "bottom nature" or ruling characteristic of one person in the triangle. Adele, the character based on Stein, is a hearty and sincere young woman who recognizes only two varieties of feeling, a Whitmanesque "affectionate comradeship" and a Wildean cultivation of "physical passion."

Ironically, Adele's programmatic rejection of the latter coincides with her growing attraction to Helen, an ambivalent and seductive woman based on May Bookstaver. The two potential lovers are jealously watched over by the worldly and cynical Mabel, who treats her lover Helen as a possession.

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Later, this trio of female companions returns from Europe to the United States, and Adele and Helen arrange for a clandestine meeting in New York that culminates in an embrace and a declaration of love. Mabel, her jealousy fiercely aroused, reveals to her rival Adele the precise sexual and financial nature of her relationship with Helen.

Adele oscillates between sympathy for Helen's dependency and revulsion at her willingness to "prostitute" herself. By the time Adele has finally decided to dispense with her moral scruples, Helen has become exhausted by Adele's dithering and rejects her advances. Q. E. D. thus ends with Adele, thrust back into the role of the romantic friend, recognizing that the dynamics of the relationship are "very near being a dead-lock."

The Move to Paris

Writing Q. E. D. gave Stein a way of understanding her unsuccessful relationship to Bookstaver as well as her failure in medical school. She once again followed her brother Leo, this time to Paris, where he had found an apartment on 27, rue Fleurus.

After enduring a period of despondency and lethargy, Stein, with Leo, began to collect the works of such modernist painters as Picasso, Cezanne, and Matisse.

Three Lives

During the same period that she sat for Picasso's famous portrait of her, Stein wrote her first mature work, Three Lives (pub. 1909).

These stories were, according to Stein, influenced by Cezanne, who, she said had revolutionized painting by giving equal emphasis to all the elements in a composition. This democratic mode of composition is evident in both the style and subject matter of Three Lives.

The work, written in a repetitive or "insistent" style that employs simple diction and limited vocabulary to great effect, examines three working-class female outsiders ("The Good Anna," "Melanctha," and "The Gentle Lena") living in Baltimore ("Bridgepoint" in the text) who are crushed by circumstances beyond their control and who die young from bad luck, childbirth, or the inability to form meaningful and lasting human bonds.

The text also provides an implicit analysis of Stein's dissatisfaction with medical school, for the illicit and unsuccessful practice of medicine lurks in the background of each of these stories and shows "science" to be ineffectual in ameliorating the condition of these women's lives.

The inadequacy of nineteenth-century notions of scientific and moral progress is particularly evident in "Melanctha," the longest and most stylistically ambitious of the stories. Although "Melanctha" has been interpreted as a transposition of the lesbian drama of Q. E. D. into heterosexual and African-American terms, the relationship between these two texts is, in fact, more complex than such an argument would suggest.

The story retains an important lesbian element in the teacher-student relationship between Melanctha and Jane Harden, a reckless seductress who initiates the younger woman into the mysteries of lesbian sexuality and who shows her "what everybody wanted, and what one did with power when one had it."

Reflecting Stein's unhappy experiences at that point in her life, however, the relationship between Jane and Melanctha is a "passing phase" from which Melanctha "graduates" into her heterosexual romance with Jeff Campbell.

Even at this juncture, however, the heterosexualization of the narrative is incomplete, for Stein projects a masculinized version of herself in the character of Jeff Campbell, a naively moralistic African-American doctor who wants his people to "live regular" and avoid "excitements."

Crucial aspects of the characters of Stein and Bookstaver are also apparent in Melanctha herself, a woman who "feels blue about all the way her world is made" and who wanders disconsolately from relationship to relationship.

Significantly, this story, as well as "The Good Lena" and "The Gentle Anna," shows bonds between women as tenuous and problematic, reflecting both Stein's relationship with her "shadowy" mother and her inability to form a lasting, mature bond with another woman.

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