Stein, Gertrude. Melanctha.
Melanctha is the middle part of Three Lives, a book consisting of three novella-length stories, the other two being The Good Anna and The Gentle Lena.
Melanctha & Rose: The story is set in Bridgepoint and deals with lower middle-class black characters. It opens with Rose Johnson giving birth to her baby with the assistance of Melanctha Herbert. The little one dies shortly afterwards due to the carelessness of its mother. The incident introduces a curious pair of friends, Rose and Melanctha. Rose is a young black woman, childish, stupid, selfish and lazy, also unmoral and promiscuous. A child of a trusted servant, she was brought up by white people as their own daughter. She is married to Sam Johnson, a decent, honest and kindly black man who works as a deck hand on a coasting steamer. Melanctha is a young pale yellow woman of mixed black and white blood. She is graceful, intelligent, helpful and pleasant, also described as good-looking and complex with desire. Melanctha does not complain but she suffers keenly.
Melanctha’s Parents: The core of the story is narrated in retrospect, starting with Melanctha’s girlhood. Melanctha lived with her mother, a sweet-appearing and pleasant mulatto. Her estranged husband James Herbert, a coarse black, occasionally visited. Melanctha was not loved by her parents and she did not love them either. She was a difficult child with a sharp tongue and considerably more education than her parents, both of which she did not hesitate to use against them. Melanctha ostensibly hated her father but at the same time she admired his power, a feature she inherited from him. Melanctha’s father did not participate in her upbringing, he left this trouble on her mother. He intervened only once. It was when Melanctha won the affection on John, bishop’s coachman, whom she often went to see because she loved horses. John was old enough to be her father and Melanctha had not discovered the woman in herself as yet, still Melanctha’s father feared difficulties and provoked a fight with John.
Melanctha’s Wandering: At the age of twelve Melanctha starts wandering through the streets and meeting various men. She searches for wisdom but she does not seem to be sure what exactly it is. She does not know what she wants, she only knows that she fails to find it. At first she likes watching men at work. Then she starts chatting with them. Men are attracted by her. Melanctha flirts with them but she always manages to leave them in time, before anything happens. Later Melanctha accepts any challenge from men to show off her courage. She does many dangerous things until she finally breaks her arm. The men leading her to the doctor are impressed by Melanctha’s not crying or complaining.
Melanctha & Jane: At sixteen Melanctha meets Jane Harden, an educated mulatto of twenty three, a roughened free-thinking woman. Melanctha starts wandering with her. Jane teaches Melanctha her world wisdom and they become intimate friends: ‘She [= Jane] loved Melanctha hard and made Melanctha feel it very deeply’ (p. 355). At eighteen Melanctha grows stronger than her mentor who weakens herself by heavy drinking. They drift apart. Melanctha is ready now to start teaching herself. Melanctha has no permanent home or job, she lives with different black women and does occasional sewing and teaching. She starts wandering alone and tries many kinds of men in her search for a man to teach her very deeply. She becomes experienced and finds out what everybody wants, though it does not seem to be the thing she was looking for: ‘Melanctha Herbert was always seeking rest and quiet, and always she could only find new ways to be in trouble’ (p. 343).
Melanctha & Jeff: Melanctha’s father stops visiting. Melanctha’s mother is dying and Melanctha looks after her in her terminal illness. She does everything that any woman could do but it does not win her her mother’s affection. Melanctha meets Jefferson Campbell, a young mulatto doctor who takes care for her mother. Jeff is a serious, earnest but also sympathetic and joyous person. He takes care also for Jane Harden. At first he likes Jane better than Melanctha because Jane has a good mind, though destroyed by drinking. He is devoted to helping coloured people and argues for a regular life and hard work. He criticizes Melanctha’s restless search for ‘real wisdom’ and ‘real experience’ (p. 364). According to him new experiences and new excitements make harm to coloured people. Melanctha thinks this opinion pretentious, hypocritical and cowardly. Jeff is a rational person while Melanctha is very emotional. Melanctha blames Jeff for thinking too much and feeling too little. Jeff after all decides that Melanctha has a good mind, too, and starts preferring her to Jane.
Difficult Relationship: Melanctha kisses Jeff for the first time as if by the way when they are staying up to attend Melanctha’s mother. They start wandering together. To Jeff Melanctha remains a mystery. He does not know what she wants, he does not even know what he wants himself. When he frankly asks Melanctha to tell him what she is, whether good or bad, Melanctha is badly hurt. Jeff soothes her and they reconcile. For some reasons the couple keeps their relationship secret. When Jeff is on one of his medical visits to Jane, she abuses Melanctha and talks about her bad ways. Jeff is upset by what he learns and starts avoiding Melanctha. In a letter Melanctha accuses him of changeability and informs him that she does not want to see him again. Jeff explains himself in his reply, on which Melanctha asks him to come to her. They reconcile and start seeing each other every day. Jeff feels he must confess to Melanctha his source of information about her. Melanctha gets angry but they reconcile again: ‘It was a struggle that was as sure always to be going on between them, as their minds and hearts always were to have different ways of working’ (p. 393).
Estrangement: Melanctha and Jeff get very close to each other. Once when they are together, on an unknown impulse Jeff shrinks from Melanctha and throws her from him. He is disgusted by what everybody wants and by what Melanctha knows. Jeff knows only two kinds of love, the good love in the family and the bad sexual love. Jeff constantly struggles with himself but he lets Melanctha teach him what love is. Jeff is unhappy with the too fast development of their relationship but he does not want to hurt Melanctha because he knows that she suffers. Jeff blames Melanctha for exposing her suffering. Melanctha blames Jeff for not deserving her love. Melanctha thinks Jeff cowardly but he does not wish to have her kind of courage: ‘I ain’t ashamed Melanctha, right here to tell you, I ain’t ashamed ever to say I ain’t got no longing to be brave, just to go around and look for trouble.’ ‘Yet that’s just like you always, Jeff, you never understand things right, the way you are always feeling in you’ (p. 404).
Breaking Up: Jeff doubts the honesty of Melanctha’s love. He suffers like Melanctha. When he experiences the sensation himself, he stops feeling his former awe for Melanctha’s suffering. Melanctha commences wandering again without Jeff knowing. She seems not to need Jeff anymore, she prefers her friends. When Melanctha does not come for a date without apology, Jeff writes her a letter of explanation and stops seeing her: ‘I know now no man can ever really hold you because no man can ever be real to trust in you, […] you certainly never have got any way to be honest’ (p. 423). At first he feels relief and peace, though he becomes rather dull and joyless. Later he realizes that Melanctha may be suffering and writes her about what he feels. Melanctha invites him to come and Jeff does so. They reconcile. Later Melanctha suddenly tells Jeff that she loves him indeed but no more with ‘hot passion’ (p. 432). Jeff is hurt because he does feel the hot passion now himself, he has achieved real wisdom. Jeff and Melanctha say good bye to each other. Jeff never forgets but he overcomes his suffering.
Melanctha & Rose: Melanctha, who was raised to be religious by her mother, meets Rose in church. The two start wandering together. Melanctha is attracted to Rose because Rose knows what she wants and in her simplicity she is free from doubts and troubles. Melanctha tries out new men, she is in constant search for new excitements which are accompanied by new difficulties. Rose scolds Melanctha for spending too much time with white men. In fact Melanctha does not really care for white men, but neither does she care for coloured ones. Melanctha clings to Rose because she feels safety in her. She hopes for Rose to save her from her suicidal thoughts. She willingly demeans herself to act as an unpaid servant to the lazy Rose. Later she does not seem to need Rose anymore and she starts wandering alone again to find out what it is that she always wanted.
Melanctha & Jem: Rose meets Jem Richards, a mulatto who earns his living on horse betting. He is a reckless man who possesses real wisdom and understanding. Melanctha is attracted by his successful power. She finally finds contentment in loving Jem. The couple is engaged to be married. Melanctha is so madly in love that she gets foolish with her new happiness. Jem faces prolonged problems with betting and starts neglecting Melanctha. Melanctha is no more sure about his intentions. Once again she needs Rose’s support. Rose learned about Melanctha’s bad repute and decided that Melanctha is not honest and cannot be trusted. She refuses to have Melanctha come to her house again. Without warning Jem breaks up with Melanctha. Melanctha breaks down. She needs someone to let her cling to them. The book concludes with Rose’s dismissing commentary on Melanctha’s ways and Melanctha’s leading a regular life and working hard for some time. Later Melanctha is reported to have incurred consumption and died in a home for poor consumptives.
Form: The novella does not use any graphic divisions beyond paragraphs, it is not further divided into chapters or parts. It is narrated in a non-linear way in that it opens at a later stage of Melanctha’s life, follows with her preceding history since her girlhood, eventually arrives at where the story began and continues from thence in a linear way.
Narrative: The story is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator who has access to the thoughts of the major characters. The books carefully develops characters while largely ignoring the outward circumstances. It follows a relatively uneventful plot, mostly avoiding direct physical action and dispensing with descriptive detail. The focus is on the novella’s complex protagonist, Melanctha, and her interactions with various characters, male and female. It is a subtle narrative which prefers suggesting rather than explicating, so that it naturally allows for a multiplicity of interpretations.
Language: The language is relatively simple as to the choice of words. The narrative passages avoid complicated syntax in favour of short simple sentences. In contrast the dialogues contain long complex sentences which dispense with punctuation. Both the narrative and the dialogue parts rely on heavy repetitions, which creates a chant-like effect. Especially the dialogues play with words and their meanings, they are preoccupied with the tensions between what is said, what is meant and what is eventually understood by it. The same phrases are often rehearsed and further elaborated upon. The language of the narrative is standard English, the dialogues employ black dialect.
Message: The protagonist of the novella is also its driving force, it is around Melanctha that most of the questions of the book evolve. Being both coloured and female, Melanctha represents two suppressed social groups. Being highly unconventional and rebellious in many ways, Melanctha’s struggle for fulfilment epitomizes the struggle of all women and coloured people for their liberation. Melanctha does not conform to the stereotypes concerning women, neither does she conform to the stereotypes concerning blacks. The traditional female role is being a wife and mother but Melanctha is neither of these. Even more, she raises daring bids for sexual freedom, which is not tolerated in a woman. The traditional stereotype concerning blacks is embodied in the views of Jeff who argues for a regular life and hard work. Melanctha again does not fulfil either of these conditions. The liberal Melanctha seems to be too progressive for her times and her premature death suggests that the time has not come yet for such strong coloured women.
An extract from Rose’s monologue to Melanctha characterizing the style and language of the whole of the book: ‘You certainly never can learn no way Melanctha ever with all I certainly been telling to you, ever since I know you good, that it ain’t never no way like you do always is the right way you be acting ever and talking, the way I certainly always have seen you do so Melanctha always. I certainly am right Melanctha about them ways you have to do it, and I knows it; but you certainly never can noways learn to act right Melanctha, I certainly do know that, I certainly do my best Melanctha to help you with it only you certainly never do act right Melanctha, not to nobody ever, I can see it. You never act right by me Melanctha no more than by everybody.’ (p. 450)
AuthorStein, Gertrude. (1874 - 1946).
Full TitleMelanctha. Each One as She May.
First PublishedNew York: Grafton Press, 1909.
Stein, Gertrude. Melanctha. 1909. Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Ed. Carl van Vechten. New York: Vintage, 1990.