is one of three novellas in Gertrude Stein’s first published book, Three Lives
(1909). Set in Bridgepoint, a fictional town based on Baltimore, Melanctha
tells the story of assertion, emotional responsiveness, and sexual liberation. In a time when few black authors were published, Stein deliberately populated Three Lives
with black characters and used experimental storytelling techniques to rail against the Victorian values still controlling women’s lives. Stein was recognized by her contemporaries as a democratic feminist, even if her values may have been considered racist today.Melanctha
is the longest of the three novellas in Three Lives
, and it is possibly the most unconventional. It tells the story of an articulate and intelligent mixed-race woman, Melanctha Herbert, who must come to terms with the passionate and sometimes wild emotions she experiences.
Melanctha is always searching for something she can’t have. She always wants more, whether love or life—Stein never specifies what, exactly, Melanctha desires. Stein uses deliberately verbose, thick, and repetitive language to express how Melanctha feels, to express emotion with immediacy as it happens without any filtering.
Melanctha is old when the novel opens; she’s caring for her friend, Rose Johnson. Rose is giving birth, but the baby dies. The novella then looks back at how the women become friends.
Early in Melanctha’s life, she has a serious argument with her father, James Herbert. James concedes to Melanctha, and she wins the argument. This incident makes her aware of her power and ability to influence others. It also shows her that if she wants something, she may be able to get it.
With this new belief in herself, Melanctha begins wondering what she truly wants. She spends a good deal of time pondering over this. It’s never clear that she finds out. She spends most of her time hanging around Bridgepoint, meeting men. Melanctha passes by manual laborers and general workers every day. She watches them work and pauses to listen to their stories. While loitering, she also notices the effect her own presence has on them, as a female surrounded by men.
There’s nothing in any of these encounters to suggest Melanctha goes beyond watching and listening. She develops a keen sense of sexual awareness without engaging in any sort of sexual activity. It’s the power she comes to understand about herself that’s truly important, and that she can have an encounter if she wants to. Melanctha also reflects on what these workers want and how many opportunities are out there. She doesn’t, however, ever leave Bridgepoint.
Eventually, Melanctha meets Jefferson Campbell, a young and promising doctor. Jefferson had a comfortable and safe childhood with staid and reliable parents. This is the opposite Melanctha’s upbringing, so they disagree about what makes a good life. Jefferson advocates a quiet and stable life, whereas Melanctha craves excitement and diverse experiences.
Jefferson, however, is impressed by Melanctha’s passionate convictions and expresses romantic interest in her. They argue again when Jefferson prioritizes thinking over feeling, which Melanctha can’t understand. Still, they spend all their time together, particularly after Melanctha’s mother dies—until the constant arguing and disagreements make her pull away from him.
Melanctha makes new friends, including Rose. Jefferson finds it harder and harder to get time alone with her until she admits she does not love him passionately. He seeks work in another town and Melanctha then meets a successful gambler, Jem Richards. Jem and Melanctha have an intense relationship, and they quickly get engaged.
She can’t help thinking obsessively about the future, even to the point that Rose and others tell her that her expectations aren’t realistic. When Jem hits a losing streak and no longer wants to marry Melanctha, she is devastated. She presses Jem about it, but this only pushes him away, rather like how she pushed Jefferson away.
Rose is pregnant, and this gives Melanctha something else to think about. She focuses much of her attention on her friend, but she can’t help thinking about Jem. Melanctha thinks on him to the point she wants to kill herself. Rose grows tired of listening about Jem and feels smothered by Melanctha. She wants peace and tells Melanctha to stop visiting her.
Melanctha, heartbroken that she’s been abandoned by her friend, wishes things were different. While she is fretting over Rose, Jem tells her he doesn’t want to see her anymore. Melanctha is left feeling rejected by everyone whom she wants in her life; she’s still no closer to discovering the life she truly wants. The novella ends with Melanctha falling ill in her old age and dying in a home. There’s a sense of sadness at her life ending this way and a sense of unfulfilled expectations.