This first published work of fiction by Gertrude Stein includes two stories, "The Good Anna" (71 pp.) and "The Gentle Lena" (40 pp.); and a novella, "Melanctha" (151 pp.) Each one is a psychological portrait of the named protagonist. All three are members of the lower socioeconomic stratum of the fictional town of Bridgepoint.

"The Good Anna" tells the story of a German immigrant who kept house for Miss Mathilda. Anna was honest, steadfast, and loyal as the day is long, but she was also stern and difficult to deal with. Anna's special friend was Mrs. Lehntman, the romance of her life. After Miss Mathilda moved to a far country, Anna took in boarders for a living, didn't make much money, and after a while died. "The Gentle Lena" is the story of another German servant girl who married unhappily and died shortly after the birth of her fourth child.

"Melanctha" is an extended portrait of Melanctha Herbert, a mulatto woman, and her unhappy love affair with Dr. Jeff Campbell, the doctor who took care of Melanctha's mother during her final illness. Much of the novella consists of protracted conversations between Melanctha and Jeff and extensive descriptions of their respective mental states.

Eventually the two lovers drifted apart. Melanctha took up with Jem Richards, "who always had to know what it was to have true wisdom." But that relationship didn't work out either. Melanctha became depressed and considered suicide. After she recovered from depression, she developed consumption and died.


These stories reveal a young Gertrude Stein, who has begun to experiment with language but is still rooted to some extent in traditional narrative. The repetition and musical cadence that characterize her later style are quite clearly present. In fact, these stylistic experiments--although fun to read at first--compromise rather than enhance the psychological portraits the author is attempting to paint.

Stein had dropped out of Johns Hopkins Medical School before graduating, but not before completing her third year clerkships. She was particularly interested in psychology and had been a student of William James when she was an undergraduate. These three stories are extended personal and psychological characterizations.

"Melanctha" is of particular interest. The introduction to this edition of Three Lives notes that "Melanctha" may well be the first American fiction in which a black person is portrayed sympathetically. That statement seems incorrect to me, both in terms of "first" and also in terms of "sympathetically." "Melanctha" contains lots of negative "Negro" stereotypes.

It appears, in fact, that one of Melanctha's best attributes (according to the omniscient author) is that she is half-white and her skin is light tan. Perhaps that is why her thinking is so subtle--she is always searching for something, although it is never clear what she is searching for.

From a clinical perspective, Melanctha suffers from neurotic depression or, in DSM IV terms, dysthymia. She is chronically unhappy, ruminates a lot, and is never clear about what she really wants to do. Toward the end of the story, she probably has an episode of major depression and considers suicide, but goes on to die (anticlimactically) of tuberculosis.


Originally published in 1909. This edition includes an introduction by Carl Van Vechten.


New Directions

Place Published

Norfolk, Conn.



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