Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
Part one of the novel, titled “The Good Anna,” views Bridgepoint through the eyes of Anna Federner, a hard-working immigrant woman who is generous to all who need help, employers and friends alike. Anna lives in the homes of a series of wealthy families, who benefit from the responsible, frugal servant who can always strike a good bargain with local shopkeepers. Eventually one of her rich employers moves from Bridgepoint to a new, unnamed country and leaves Anna the redbrick house they have shared for many years. To pay the bills, Anna takes in boarders, which allows her no time to visit old friends. The endless work causes Anna to grow tired and thin: Eventually she dies.
Melanctha Herbert, the sad, graceful, central character of part two, lives in the African American community of Bridgepoint. Intelligent and courageous, she loves too hard and too often. When she is young she lives with her pale-yellow, sweet-appearing mother and only rarely sees her black father, who treats her roughly. As Melanctha develops into a young woman, she explores–sometimes alone, sometimes with friends–other working-class neighborhoods of Bridgepoint, as well as the railroad yards, docks, and construction sites. For her, the exciting stories of the workmen and railroad porters evoke a free and adventurous future, but one that she will never know.
In part three, “The Gentle Lena,” Stein introduces Lena Mainz, a patient, sweet servant brought from Germany to Bridgepoint by a cousin. Working for a pleasant mistress and her children, Lena enjoys her peaceful life and the sunny afternoons with other servant girls in the park. After four years, however, her life abruptly changes when she enters into an arranged marriage to Herman Kreder and moves to the house he shares with his mother and father, a thrifty old German tailor who works at home. The Kreders’s smelly, dirty, poorly heated house soon overflows with the addition of the couple’s three children. The normally clean and happy Lena is transformed into a lifeless shell of her former self. None of her friends visit the Kreder house to see her, and eventually she dies giving birth to their fourth child.
*New York City. Northern city to which Herman Kreder flees to escape his arranged marriage with Lena. He stays in the home of his married sister, but she urges him to take a train back to Bridgepoint to marry the woman his parents have chosen for him. His departure from New York signals his loss of freedom and individual will and ultimately leads to the same loss for his wife, Lena.