Stein Writes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Based on a student love affair, Q.E.D. is Gertrude Stein’s first and most overtly lesbian text and the first modern lesbian novel by any author. Q.E.D. also is one of the queerest novels of the early twentieth century, although it was not published until 1950.

Summary of Event

While attending Johns Hopkins Medical School, Gertrude Stein began a love affair with fellow student May Bookstaver. Stein was mystified by the tacit rules of May’s social circle of largely short-term “romantic friends” and was ultimately rejected by May in favor of her more experienced lover, Mable Haynes. In response, Stein spent much of the following year (1903) contemplating this failure and writing about it explicitly in the novella, Q.E.D. Despite the importance of this relationship and text for Stein’s personal and literary development, it was her “marriage” to Alice B. Toklas from 1908 until Stein’s death in 1946 that defined her as one of the foremothers of modern feminism and lesbianism as well as of literary modernism. [kw]Stein Writes Q.E.D. (1903) [kw]Writes Q.E.D., Stein (1903) [kw]Q.E.D., Stein Writes (1903) Q.E.D. (Stein)[QED] Literature;lesbian Publishing;and lesbian books[lesbian books] Things as They Are (Stein) [c]Literature;1903: Stein Writes Q.E.D.[0170] [c]Publications;1903: Stein Writes Q.E.D.[0170] Stein, Gertrude Toklas, Alice B. Bookstaver, May Haynes, Mable

Given the controversial nature of the novella, Stein claimed to have forgotten about it until 1932, when she asked a publisher for advice on the work. Given the continued atmosphere of sexual oppression, however, Q.E.D. did not appear in Stein’s lifetime. Toklas, as she did with so many other works by Stein, was finally successful in getting Q.E.D. into print; it was published in 1950 by Bayam Press under the title Things as They Are, although it bore its original title in subsequent editions.

Alice B. Toklas, left, and Gertrude Stein.

Q.E.D. is divided into three sections named for the three fictional representations of the members of the romantic triangle: book 1, Adele (Stein); book 2, Mabel Neathe (Mable); and book 3, Helen (May). While this predictable structure and the novella’s straightforward language make it Stein’s least experimental work and largely a holdover from narrative traditions of the nineteenth century, the text also reflects a faith in science primarily associated with twentieth century literary and cultural modernism.

The title itself suggests this modern turn. Standing for the Latin phrase quod erat demonstrandum (literally, “which was to be demonstrated” or “proved”), the abbreviation often occurs at the end of a mathematical or logical proof to signal its completion. Used for this novella, the title reflects Stein’s attempt here and in subsequent writing (notably in The Making of Americans, 1925—begun in the same year as Q.E.D.) to make a nearly scientific study of “bottom nature,” or the forces and rhythms that define personality and determine all human interaction.


The importance of this text’s composition must be measured both in terms of its role in Stein’s development as an icon of lesbian and gay culture and an innovator in modernism and in terms of its more direct and literal historical impact. In the first case, this novella was most obviously important for Stein as it figured in her developing sexuality. After the ill-fitting relationships she saw and experienced in May’s social circle of romantic friends, she and Toklas, like the butch and femme lesbians who followed them, created a very different kind of relationship in the relative openness and stability of their lesbian “marriage.”

The text is also prominent in Stein’s development as a writer, reappearing in or influencing many of the most important of Stein’s later works. For example, Stein rewrites the novella as the 1905 short story “Melanctha,” or “Each One as She May,” in the Three Lives trilogy (1909). Well known for its use of dialect and repetition in depicting the rhythm of its (apparently heterosexual) African American characters, this text marks the emergence of Stein’s more experimental modern voice. It also represents one instance of the kind of deployment of racial others for which both white GLBT culture and modernism have been criticized.

In 1932, Toklas’s anger at discovering that Stein had kept Q.E.D. from her for thirty years dramatically impacted two of Stein’s most important works. Comparing manuscripts of the long poem she was writing at the time, Stanzas in Meditation

(published as Stanzas in Meditation, and Other Poems, 1929-1933, 1956), from before and after the discovery of Q.E.D., scholar Ulla Dydo has shown that Stein significantly revised it, probably in response to Toklas’s anger. Specifically, Dydo demonstrates that the author edited out nearly all of the poem’s many uses of the word “may.”

More significantly still, it seems likely that even Stein’s most famous piece, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, The (Stein) (1933), was begun the year of Q.E.D.’s discovery, at least in part as another gesture to appease Toklas. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and the U.S. book tour that it inspired were crucial factors in creating Stein-the-icon and in bringing the Stein-Toklas relationship to the public eye.

Approaching its impact more directly, as the first modern lesbian novel, the importance of Q.E.D. as a milestone in GLBT culture cannot be denied. In this sense, the text represents a kind of time capsule, depicting in the sexual anxieties and silences of its characters those of its historical moment. A phrase from the novella suggests this sense best: Like the silences surrounding issues of fidelity in the text’s romantic triangle, the moment was full of “the atmosphere of the unasked question” regarding sexuality. The importance of Q.E.D. is that it gave voice to that question. Q.E.D. (Stein)[QED] Literature;lesbian Publishing;and lesbian books[lesbian books]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dydo, Ulla E. “Reading the Hand Writing: The Manuscripts of Gertrude Stein.” In A Gertrude Stein Companion: Content with the Example, edited by Bruce Kellner. New York: Greenwood, 1990.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hovey, Jaime. “Sapphic Primitivism in Gertrude Stein’s Q.E.D.Modern Fiction Studies 42 (1996): 547-569.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katz, Leon. Introduction to Gertrude Stein’s “Fernhurst,” “Q.E.D.,” and Other Early Writings, edited by Donald Gallup. New York: Liveright, 1971.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kostelanetz, Richard, ed. The Gertrude Stein Reader: The Great American Pioneer of Avant-garde Letters. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Souhami, Diana. Gertrude and Alice. London: Pandora, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stein, Gertrude. Q.E.D. In “Fernhurst,” “Q.E.D.,” and Other Early Writings, edited by Donald Gallup. New York: Liveright, 1971.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Three Lives, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin. Bedford Cultural Editions. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Three Lives”; and “Q.E.D.”: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism, edited by Marianne DeKoven. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.

July 4, 1855: Whitman Publishes Leaves of Grass

May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency

1896: Der Eigene Is Published as First Journal on Homosexuality

1896: Raffalovich Publishes Uranisme et Unisexualité

October, 1909: Barney Opens Her Paris Salon

1924: Gide Publishes the Signed Edition of Corydon

1928: Hall Publishes The Well of Loneliness

1939: Isherwood Publishes Goodbye to Berlin

1947-1948: Golden Age of American Gay Literature

1956: Foster Publishes Sex Variant Women in Literature

1973: Brown Publishes Rubyfruit Jungle

1975: Rule Publishes Lesbian Images

1981: Faderman Publishes Surpassing the Love of Men

1982: Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published

Categories: History