Gertrude Stein: “The Good Anna” & “Melanctha”



Anna Federner is a servant of “solid lower middle-class south german stock.” The story follows the rigid Anna through her happy days with Mathilda, as well as positions with Miss Mary Wadsworth and Dr. Shonjen. She prefers serving big women or men and dislikes pretty young girls, most often her subordinates. Her friend Mrs. Lehtmann is “the great romance in her life,” but she abandons this friendship when Mrs. Lehntmann adopts a baby without consulting Anna, ignoring what Anna sees as their almost familial, or even queer, bond. Anna dies at the end, still attached to Mathilda, who probably cares much less, exposing the bonds created by class (think Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, or Downton Abbey). The painful and dull cyclicality of much of the story’s language emphasizes Anna’s static life, as well as the nuances of its changes.


Melanctha is the second and longest story in the collection. It tells the tale of a light-skinned black woman who experiments with her sexuality and is eventually shunned by her best friend Rose because of it, a blow from which Melanctha cannot recover. She dies of “consumption.” Werner Sollers has claimed that Stein’s sympathetic portrayal of a black protagonist paved the way for the experiments of Black Modernism (Richard Wright admired it), while other critics take issue with her appropriation of that voice. The looping, trickster-cycle style of the narrative experiments with changing practices of writing, as well as society’s treatment of women and minorities. However, all three characters die and are not free like tricksters, but bound by their material conditions. As in her poetry and “The Good Anna,” repetition serves to expand meaning rather than to dull it (vs Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho).

The third and final story in the collection is called “The Gentle Lena,” about a “german” servant girl (like those who serve Anna) who bears four children and also dies at the story’s conclusion.


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