“Here the baby was born, and here it died, and then Rose went back to her house again with Sam” (Stein 89).
“During this year ‘Mis’ Herbert as her neighbors called her, Melanctha’s pale yellow mother was very sick, and in this year she died” (Stein 110).
This narrative is written from the point of view of a third person limited narrator in the character-bound focalization of Melanctha. The way in which the narrator writes the story, and these two peculiar statements in particular, is very telling of Melanctha’s character: She is able to write without emotion or any subjectivity about the deaths of two people, one being a newborn baby and the other being the main character’s mother. The narrator says very simply the facts of what happened, as if she is reporting about the weather. This lack of feeling is consistent with Melanctha’s lack of wisdom and experience. She wants to learn how to love and feel deeply, but her detachment from Rose’s baby and ‘Mis’ Herbert causes her to not express any kind of emotions when mentioning the events of their deaths. The main character does not yet understand the world and what it expects of her, but she is desperately trying to figure that out.
Gertrude Stein, “Melanctha,” in Three Lives (New York: The Grafton Press, 1909).
“Sometimes the thought of how all her world was made, filled the complex, desiring Melanctha with despair. She wondered, often, how she could go on living when she was so blue.” (p48)
“Melanctha wondered often how it was she did not kill herself when she was so blue. Often she thought this would be really the best way for her to do.” (p50)
Gertrude Stein, Melanctha, in Three Lives, Dover Thrift Editions, 1994
The story is told by a third-person omniscient narrator, so the reader gets suggestive descriptions of the characters’ personalities and thoughts. From the very beginning, Stein uses repetition as a significant feature of the language in Melanctha, whether it be in the narrative parts or in the dialogues. She establishes a detailed description of the characters and especially of Melanctha’s, using repetition, as if she was trying to build a specific image of each of the characters, in the reader’s conscience.
“Melanctha Herbert was always losing what she had in all the things she saw. Melanctha was always being left when she was not leaving others.
Melanctha Herbert always loved too hard and much too often. She was always full with mystery and subtle movements and denials and vague distrusts and complicated disillusions. Then Melanctha would be sudden and impulsive and unbounded in some faith, and then she would suffer and be strong in her repression.
Melanctha Herbert was always seeking rest and quiet and always she could only find new ways to be in trouble” (89).
“It was never Melanctha’s way, even in the midst of her worst trouble to complain to any one of what happened to her, but nevertheless somehow every one who knew Melanctha always knew how much she suffered. It was only while one really loved Melanctha that one understood how to forgive her, that she never once complained nor looked unhappy, and was always handsome and in spirits, and yet one always knew how much she suffered” (92).
The development of Melanctha is intricate and complex, as demonstrated through these two passages. She is not a character that can be explained in a few sentences, a stark contrast to her friend Rose Johnson, who the author describes in blunt statements. Melanctha is painted in layers, making her an enigma that the reader is encouraged to understand. She seems to possess an inescapable sadness, which she refers to as being “blue”, that impacts her much more deeply than what is initially seen. One can assume it is depression, but what makes this intriguing is how her suffering is masked by the persona she chooses to put on.
Gertrude Stein, “Melanctha,” in Three Lives (New York: The Grafton Press, 1909). Web.
Girls who are brought up with care and watching can always find moments to escape into the world, where they may learn the ways that lead to wisdom. For a girl raised like Melanctha Herbert, such escape was always very simple.
Gertrude Stein, “Melanctha,” in Three Lives (New York: The Grafton Press, 1994), 54
Jane had many ways in which to do this teaching. She told Melanctha many things. She loved Melanctha hard and made Melanctha feel it very deeply. She would be with other people and with men and with Melanctha, and she would make Melanctha understand what everybody wanted, and what one did with power when one had it.
Gertrude Stein, “Melanctha,” in Three Lives (New York: The Grafton Press, 1994), 60
Throughout Stein’s novella Melanctha is alluded to having a thirst for knowledge, and yet she is constantly misunderstood for her pursuit by her friends and family. There are multiple references to the wisdom she gains from talking with men, but as to the nature of the knowledge, that is kept misleading. Her closest friend in her youth is Jane Harden, who also passes knowledge to Melanctha. Jane wants Melanctha to know how to please people, but Melanctha seems to constantly anger the people she comes into contact with.
“After she had lived some time this way, Rose thought it would be nice and very good in her position to get regularly really married.” (Stein, 49)
“…Rose stayed home in her house and sat and bragged to all her friends how nice it was to be married really to a husband.” (Stein 49)
Stein, Gertrude. Three Lives. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.
I found these two passages interesting because of their emphasis on the reality of Rose’s marriage to Sam Johnson. Stein qualifies married with the word “real” or “really” more than these two times. It’s interesting to think that maybe Stein believes there could be fake marriage. I just thought it was interesting and kind of funny how Stein keeps asserting the validity of Rose’s marriage.
“Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, child-like, good looking negress. She laughed when she was happy and grumbled and was sullen with everything that troubled. Rose Johnson was a real black negress but she had been brought up quite like their own child by white folks.” (Stein 47)
“Melanctha Herbert was a graceful, pale yellow, intelligent, attractive negress. She had not been raised like Rose by white folks but then she had been half made with real white blood.” (Stein 48).
In both of these passages the description by Stein makes the characters of Melanctha and Rose as polar opposites in terms of their background. The use of the word “real” is really interesting here – it seems to imply that there is a significant difference between being a real black and not. It is unclear if that difference is something that is intentional and will be explored or if it is left for us as readers to question. The description is also very simple, and very much only on the surface. We don’t get much depth into the characters at this very early point in the novella.
Stein, Gertrude. ” Melanctha” Three Lives. Mineola: Dover, 1994. 47-94. Print
“Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress. She laughed when she was happy and grumbled and was sullen with everything that troubled.” (p. 84)
“James Herbert was a powerful, loose built, hard handed, black, angry negro. Herbert never was a joyous negro. (p. 91)
These passages are very similar due to the fact that they are so simple. They describe the characters of Rose and James that are almost insultingly straight-forward.Stein’s style reflects this in her simple syntax and diction. She also uses a lot of repetition, and lines like this can be found on many pages throughout the work. This redundancy makes Stein’s work a little frustrating to read.It makes the reader question why Stein is choosing to repeat these facts over and over, yet leave out others, which perhaps may be more important. Also, both of these passages bring up the idea of happiness in relation to “blackness”. Rose is referred to as “childlike” because of her happiness and presence of emotion, yet Herbert is simply described as “angry”.
“‘Mis’ Herbert had always been a little wandering and mysterious and uncertain in her ways” (50).
“She was always pleasant, sweet appearing, mysterious and uncertain, and a little wandering in her ways” (52).
The content that Stein provides us, and the way in which she does it, is really interesting and quite confusing. She seems to always repeat these very vaguely broad words to describe her characters, such as Melanctha’s mother’s description above. And she doesn’t offer us any new ways to describe her the second (or third or fourth) time around. This instantly made me think if she is also using the delayed gratification method like we saw from James, in that she keeps dancing around the actual idea that she wants us to get from her helpful yet roundabout way of giving us any solid information.
Stein, Gertrude, Three Lives. Dover Publications, New York, 1994.
Rose Johnson was careless and was lazy, but she had been brought up by white folks and she needed decent comfort. Her white training had only made for habits, not for nature. Rose had the simple, promiscuous unmorality of the black people.
Melanctha Herbert always loved too hard and much too often. She was always full of mystery and subtle movements and denials and vague distrusts and complicated disillusions. Then Melanctha would be sudden and impulsive and unbound in some faith, and then she would suffer and be strong in her repression.
In the two above passages, Stein gives a brief description of Melanctha and her friend Rose. Stein’s description of each woman gives us a bit of insight to their personalities. Rose is more frivolous and is a very simple almost 1 dimensional character. Her simplicity may be sttributed to the fact that “she had been brought up buy white folks and she needed comfort”. However Melanctha’s personality seems to be much more complex. She seems to be a total opposite to Rose. Melanctha is more reserved and mysterious while Rose is carefree and careless.
“Melanctha Herbert who was Rose Johnson’s friend, did everything that any woman could. She tended Rose, and was patient, submissive, soothing, and untiring, while the sullen, childish, cowardly, black Rosie grumbled and fussed and howled and made herself to be an abomination and like a simple beast.” 85
“Melanctha took good care of her mother. She did everything that any woman could, she tended and soothed and helped her pale yellow mother, and she worked hard in every way to take care of her, and make her dying easy. But Melanctha did not in these days like her mother any better, and her mother never cared much for this daughter who was always a hard child to manage, and who had a tongue that always could be very nasty.” 110
Notes: The two passages are similar in many ways including their vocabulary and structure. Both passage included the phrase “did everything that any woman could.” The repetition of the phrase helps emphasize a point. In this case it emphasizes the kind of woman Melanctha is. The passages are also similar in that it uses similar adjectives to describe the way Melanctha served her friend and her mother. The first paragraph had the word “untiring” while the second had “worked hard.” These similar words allow a reader to truly understand the type of character Melanctha is and how she has not changed in that aspect of her personality over the years. Also, the structure of these two paragraphs are similar in that they both start off with how Melanctha treats others then ends with how those people react to her. In these two passages both women are not pleasant and in a way ungrateful. The similarities that can be drawn from the two passages reveal how the story is constructed in a way that helps emphasize a point as well as show how things have or have not changed.
Stein, Gertrude. “Melanctha.” In Three Lives. New York: Grafton, 1909. Internet Archive. http:/archive.org/details/threelivesstorie00steirich.