Three Lives – Where Does the Power Lie?

Introduction

To a person who is reading Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, for the first time, there is usually a predominant question in the mind: is the book really what it is: (an account of the lives of three people) or is there some deeper meaning hidden between the lines? The linguistic expressions of Stein seek to encompass a great array of emotions that were very often suppressed, in keeping with the era in which her book was set. Whether it is a description of a woman or an animal, there are constant efforts to depict the simple joys and sorrows of life. Part I of this book explores the mindset of the principal character, Anna who is a stereotypical representation of spinsterhood. Her attitude towards the vagaries of life and the behavior of those around her are portrayed in such a way that a lesser reader might dismiss Stein’s style of writing as being verbose. Stein’s technique of repetition in order to bring reality to a given situation is one that has influenced quite a few writers.

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Three lives – Part I – the basic facts

The household of Miss Mathilda was one where the ubiquitous presence of its other most important inmate, the maid, Miss Anna, governed all that went on within its four walls. Whether she was dealing with tradesmen or domestic help or with the pet dogs, for that matter, she demanded a very high level of discipline, responsibility, and accountability from all those around her. She took it upon herself to be the collective conscience of all those who came into contact with her at the house of Miss Mathilda. As a result, apart from her myriad household duties that kept her busy all day long, her moral policing gave her an aura of being a very stern and demanding guardian angel.

Much to the displeasure of her assistants – the young and not so young women who waltzed in and out of the Mathilda household – Miss Anna took it upon herself to lay down rules some of which were stifling for her mistress as well. Her serious approach to life and her sharp and vocal disapproval of their behavior did not make her a favorite. Anna’s propensity for helping people seemed to be a little more than could be swallowed. In fact, there were occasions when her mistress, Miss Mathilda, felt smothered by the inordinate amount of care and concern that Anna showered on her. Anna had very definitive views about Miss Mathilda, because of her almost-proprietorial right overall she did: the money she spent, the clothes she wore, the company she kept and the hours spent doing nothing.

Between the lines

In the words of Gertrude Stein: “Anna led an arduous and troubled life” (Stein, 1990). Even though the author is at pains to describe the physical exertion and mental agony that wracked the life of Miss Anna, there is something more than meets the eye. A closer look at this character reveals that there is a certain level of masochism that manifests itself in the punishing routine that she follows.

This is not the only quirk in Miss Anna’s psyche. Her ardent and often oppressive devotion to her mistress and the needs of the latter seem to mask emotions and ideas that are not only different but also fairly disturbing. Considering the fact that Stein’s sexual orientation did not exactly fit the norm, it is not surprising that this should be reflected in her writings.

Stein’s involvement in new art forms such as Cubism seems to have brought a fresh perspective to her short-story writing. On the surface, cubism and Stein’s Three Lives read as a short story cycle may seem to have little in common, but a foregrounding of surfaces is exactly what they share. (Heldrich, 1997).

Conclusion

Though Gertrude Stein is considered an avant-garde writer who sought to express her thoughts and perspectives without any restraint, there are some readers who are not quite comfortable with her style of writing. Part I of the book Three Lives speaks about the travails of its protagonist Miss Anna, paints a picture of a woman who makes valiant attempts to define and guard her territory. The question is therefore one of power; the debate is on the various dimensions of this power that Miss Anna tries to wield. Socio-psychologists like Steven Lukes have argued that three views of power have been articulated; the difference between them is the number of dimensions to power that is perceived (Lukes, 1974). As is the case with many lives of men and women, Miss Anna’s life and attempts to guard the household of Miss Mathilda is a constant struggle with few ups and many downs, where death is the final leveler.

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References

Heldrich, P. Connecting Surfaces: Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, Cubism, and the Metonymy of the Short Story Cycle. Studies in Short Fiction. 1997. Web.

Lukes, Steven. Power: A Radical View. Macmillan. 1974.

Stein, G. Three Lives. New York. Penguin Twentieth Century Classics. New Edition. 1990.

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