Tag Archives: stein

Simplicity in Description and Realness

“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

Complex Development

“Melanctha Herbert had not loved herself in childhood. All of her youth was bitter to remember.” (50)

“And Melanctha loved him for it always, her Jeff Campbell now, who never did things ugly, for her, like all the men she always knew before always had been going to her.” (90)

Stein, Gertrude. ” Melanctha” Three Lives.  Mineola: Dover, 1994.  50-90. Print


In Melanctha, the first part of work focuses on her childhood, and how this would shape her into the women described as the book goes on. The first quote sums up that section rather well. It states that she had a bad childhood, from a mean father, to misleading friends. What is interesting is the second quote. She say ‘all the men she always knew before…’, which references her father and the men she interacted with prior to meeting Jeff. This is important because the first quote reminds us that Melanctha did not have a great childhood, one that she tries to block out. Yet, Jeff Campbell is so good to her, that when she does look back at the dark time in her life, she clearly sees she has something better. After keeping to herself, she is willing to open up to this young man. It is the idea that as the book develops, so does the complex protagonist.

James Herbert and Melanctha Herbert

“James Herbert was a powerful, loose built, hard handed, black, angry negro. Herbert never was a joyous negro. Even when he drank with other men, and he did that very often, he was never really joyous. In the days when he had bee most young and free and open, he had never had the wide abandoned laughter that gives the broad glow to negro sunshine” (77).

“His daughter, Melanctha Herbert, later always made a hard forced laughter. She was only strong and sweet and in her nature when she was really deep in trouble, when she was fighting so with all she really had, that she did not use her laughter. This was always true of poor Melanctha who was so certain that she hated trouble. Melanctha Herbert was always seeking peace and quiet, and she could always only find her new ways to get excited”(77).

Stein is genius with her use of syntax. The way each word builds up to the image of character is quite striking, but in a way it too gives the character voice. Although the story is written in third person, one is hard pressed, not to hear James’s voice break through as the narrator concludes the first sentence of the passage, “black, angry negro”. This bitterness is not missed and it is probably due to the rhythm that is constructed through Stein’s syntax. And it is even more interesting how the voice of each character, or the narration’s rhythm, continues into the next paragraph with Melanctha. When the content is telling one that she is fighting for her belief, and that it too sounds like she is fighting to persuade. Finally, the last element that ties both passages together is the specific vocabulary. Words that are either synonymous or heavily associated such as power, strength, force; joyous, free, peace, etc., are littered through these two passages, all the while juxtaposing the related but opposite characters.


Opposites attract

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.

“..did everything that any woman could”

“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.

Gertrude Stein, How Could You??

The child though it was healthy after it was born, did not live long. Rose Johnson was careless and negligent and selfish, and when Melanctha had to leave for a few days, the baby died. Rose Johnson had liked the baby well enough and perhaps she just forgot it for awhile, anyway the child was dead and Rose and Sam her husband were very sorry but then these things came so often in the negro world in Bridgepoint, that they neither of them thought about it very long.

Gertrude Stein, “Melanctha” in Three Lives, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994), 47.

“No, what I don’t like, Miss Melanctha, is this what I see so much in the colored people, their always wanting new things just to get excited.”

Gertrude Stein, “Melanctha” in Three Lives, 68.

Analysis: There is a lot of judgment surrounding Bridgepoint’s black culture, all stemming from racist beliefs. The third-person narrator makes a large claim about the “negro world in Bridgepoint” as though the belief that all black people neglected their children were true. The narrator also continues to insinuate that black people are unfeeling when it comes to the deaths of their children and that they do not “[think] about it very long.” This makes the blacks in Bridgepoint, and the entire world, seem uncaring, lazy, and selfish. Not only does the narrator say racist things, but Gertrude Stein uses Dr. Campbell, a black character, to judge black culture in Bridgepoint as well. This tactic is used to make it seem as though even some black people look down upon the black culture in Bridgepoint, which may legitimize, to some readers, the racist beliefs that black people are lazy and selfish.

Commonplace and analyze

Choose two passages from the Stein reading to commonplace. Look for passages that seem to you connected in some way—by a pattern in language, a shared image, a common problem. Put both passages in a single blog post. Then, in the same blog post, write a paragraph connecting those passages in as many ways as you can. Pay close attention to Stein’s technique as well as her themes: consider syntax, vocabulary, and rhythm; think about what she omits as well as what she says; think about the ordering of events (or non-events) in the text. Do not summarize plot or talk about character psychology.

This is an ungraded exercise, but it is required. You have until 5 p.m. on Sunday 9/22 to complete this assignment for credit. As usual, it is possible to do valuable work in the commonplace book even if you have not yet completed the whole text. Focus on the details of Stein’s sentences.