Tag Archives: stein

Use of repetitions : a stylistic pattern from the modernist era

In Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, “he could not feel” (86), “he could not feel” (87), “he could not feel” (87), “but he could not taste, he could not feel” (88), “he could not feel” (88), “he felt nothing” (90).

In Gertrude Stein, Melanctha, “Rose Johnson was a real black (…) negress. She laughed when she was happy” (47), “Rose Johnson was a real black negress” (47), “Rose laughed when she was happy” (47).

In William Faulkner, As I lay dying, “It wont balance. If you want it to tote and ride on a balance, we will have” (96), “it wont tote and it wont ride on a balance unless” (96), “it wont balance. If they want it to tote and ride on a balance, they will have” (96).

In Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time, “the burned-over country” (133), “burned off the ground” (133), “at the burned-over stretch of hillside” (133), “watched the trout” (133), “he watched them” (133), “Nick watched them” (133), “He watched them” (133), “as he watched” (133).

In these four works Three Lives, (1909), In Our Time (1924), Mrs Dalloway (1925), As I lay dying (1930), the authors use a common pattern of repetition. The examples chosen above are representative of this stylistic use so typical of modernist writers. It seems to reflect obsessions that characters embody, whether it be the absence of feeling for Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway, the negro race identity in Melanctha, the coffin and its technical features for Cash in As I lay dying or the sense of sight for Nick and the destroyed land after the war in In Our Time. We can notice that Gertrude Stein was using this repetitive device in 1909, that is to say before WWI and that Faulkner, in a very modernist perspective, kept using it in 1930, in the interwar period. This stylistic pattern allows the reader to enter the character’s mind and to share his/her obsessions and fears.

Dialect of Modern Writing

Heart of Darkness (1899): Conrad distinguishes race and critiques imperialism with dialect.

“Melanctha” (1909): Stein experiments with dialect to emphasize how things are said and what is left unsaid.

As I Lay Dying (1930): Faulkner’s use of dialect to emphasize regionalism in the United States.

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937): As part of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston uses black dialect to represent black life.

These four works use dialect for different purposes. Over the course of time that these works were written, dialect moves from emphasizing a point to representing different lifestyles. Dialect in Heart of Darkness is a point of shame, whereas dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God is a source of pride.

Desire in Their Eyes, Mrs. Dalloway, Melanctha, Heart of Darkness

Sometimes it’s harder to know what you want, than it is to know what you don’t want.

Example: “I don’t know if I want ice cream, but I definitely know I don’t want olives.”

Desire stems from discontentment (knowing what you don’t want). Perhaps the desire is ambiguous and confusing, but the discontentment is clear and definitive. I’ve noticed this complicated theme in stories like Their Eyes, Mrs. Dalloway, Melanctha, and even in Heart of Darkness.

Despite the difference in story and narration, each protagonist portrayed within the novels mentioned carry a need and desire for something more… from their lives. This discontentment leads to a searching, in hopes to find what is fulfilling, adventurous, and satisfying. In the 1909 short story, Melanctha, for instance, she wanders. “  From the time that Melanctha was twelve until she was sixteen she wandered, always seeking but never more than very dimly seeing wisdom” (Stein 80) http://www.bartleby.com/74/21.html

It is unclear how wandering is defined; it is left up to the reader to decipher that. Perhaps it is wandering for a freedom from her dysfunctional family, perhaps it is wandering for a knowledge outside of her limited education, or perhaps it is wandering to fall in love. Nonetheless, Melanctha wanders to seek something more than what her life is offering.

Published in 1925, Mrs. Dalloway shares a similar desire, but for raw connection with people as opposed to her empty and dull relationship with Mr. Dalloway. It isn’t until the end of the novel when Septimus commits suicide, does Mrs. Dalloway interestingly feels enlightened and even at peace, recognizing how she could relate to Septimus’s depression.
She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away.”

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Orlando: Harcourt Inc, 1925. Print.

In Joseph Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness, (1899): ” I wouldn’t have believed it of myself; but then-you see- I felt somehow I must get there by hook or by crook” (Conrad 109), Marlowe expresses his desire for adventure and exploration, to discover the unknown.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008. Print.

In Hurston’s Their Eyes, Janie Starks contemplates her resentment towards Nanny, feeling as if she has limited her from her desire to live outside of the traditionally “successful” norm for a black woman. “She hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity. She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people…But nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. (89)”

Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York, New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Web.

The historical trajectory of these novels can be applied to the fact that this was during a time when people were embracing identity and defining what makes up culture. Naturally, one would want to discover and learn to see what life can offer outside of the traditional norm.


“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).

Blue Melanctha and Stein’s repetitive style

“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 wanted very much to know and yet she feared the knowledge. As she grew older she often stayed a good deal longer, and sometimes it was almost a balanced struggle, but she always made herself escape” (Stein 63).

“Melanctha had learned how she might stay a little longer; she had learned that she must decide when she really wanted to stay longer, and she had learned how when she wanted to, she could escape” (Stein 68).

The author, Gertrude Stein, uses a lot of repetition in both these passages. She repeats the words “longer”, “escape” and “wanted” (Stein 63).  These words are repeated  to show the reader that what is happening to  Melanctha is very important. Also, the second passage seems to answer the first passage. In the first passage, Stein calls what is going on for Melanctha a “balanced struggle” something that is taking her in two different directions (Stein 63). By the second passage, “Melanctha …learned that she must decide…” and seems to choose the way she wants to go (Stein 68). 

Stein, Gertrude. Three Lives and Q.E.D.  “Melanctha.” New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 53-147. Print.

Layers and masks

“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.


Multi-faceted Melanctha Herbert

“Melanctha Herbert had not made her life all simple like Rose Johnson. Melanctha had not found it easy with herself to make her wants and what she had, agree.”

“Melanctha now really was beginning as a woman. She was ready, and she began to search in the streets and in dark corners to discover men and to learn in their natures and their various ways of working.”

Stein’s use of repetition with Melanctha’s name signifies the importance of her as a pivotal character. Through the way she describes her fearless and venturous behavior, it is evident that Melanctha is complex and multi-faceted. Her independence is apparent from the very beginning. She doesn’t answer to anyone which is reflected in her relationship with her parents.  Her indifference towards them, especially her father, indicates a sense of self-searching and internal conflict. The difficulties she faces are matching up her wants along with her needs. Melanctha is not satisfied with society’s customs she is expected to uphold. The “simple life” of those around her is unappealing to her. For example, her best friend Rose Johnson has gotten married and has followed the conventional path all women followed at that time. Melanctha desires to be her own person and is in a constant search to attain this thirst for more than what is laid out for her. She craves to “search in the streets and  dark corners.” Instead of being served everything on a silver platter, Melanctha wishes to see and experience the world for herself.

Stein, Gertrude, Three Lives. Dover Publications, New York, 1994.



An Education

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.

Real Marriage

“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.