Places: Three Lives

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1909

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedBridgepoint

Bridgepoint. Three LivesFictional southern port town in an unspecified state in which the entire novel is set. Created from Stein’s memories of Baltimore at the turn of the twentieth century, Bridgepoint contains diverse neighborhoods, from well-appointed row houses erected like dominoes along steep hills, to slum districts near the factories, and the home of fortunetellers and the poor. To the novel’s three women, Bridgepoint presents a narrow life that forbids escape.

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

*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.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Gertrude Stein. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Part of the Modern Critical Views Series, this work includes fifteen essays on Stein, a chronology, and a bibliography. Donald Sutherland’s essay on Three Lives and Richard Bridgman’s on Things as They Are and Three Lives are instructive.Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Bridgman asserts that all three women in Three Lives are “victimized by fate” and says that Stein is concerned more with thoughts than with actions.Doane, Janice L. Silence and Narrative: The Early Novels of Gertrude Stein. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Discusses the artists who influenced Stein, explaining that Stein is not constrained by convention. Some of Doane’s arguments, such as the assertion that in Three Lives Stein shows that marriage destroys women and uplifts men, are provocative but not always easily supported.Hobhouse, Janet. Everyone Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989. This book gives a good run-down of the significant people who frequented 27 rue de Fleurus. Well illustrated.Hoffman, Michael J. Gertrude Stein. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Compares Three Lives with Stein’s roman à clef Things as They Are (1950; later Quod Erat Demonstrandum). Hoffman provides good discussions of Stein’s “wise-child” style and of the narrator of Three Lives.Mellow, James R. Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company. New York: Praeger, 1974. Mellow’s thorough treatment of Stein’s literary and artistic circle includes an examination of the autobiographical undertones of Three Lives and circumstances of its publication.Souhami, Diana. Gertrude and Alice. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. The most thorough account of Gertrude Stein’s long lesbian relationship with Alice B. Toklas, this book shows how strong Toklas was and how she dominated many aspects of her forty-year association with Stein.Souhami, Diana. Introduction to Three Lives. New York: Bantam Books, 1992. In her thirteen-page introduction, Souhami provides a strong feminist reading of Three Lives.Sprigge, Elizabeth. Gertrude Stein: Her Life and Work. New York: Harper Brothers, 1957. Like Mellow’s book, this well-written biography is replete with excellent illustrations. Tells much about the genesis of Three Lives.Sutherland, Donald. Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1951. Sutherland examines the almost scientific precision of Stein’s description and style in Three Lives.
Categories: Places