In “The Gentle Lena”, Stein brings to the forefront of the story the ideas of perception and self-awareness. The contrast between the way people view themselves versus how others view them is extremely prevalent. It is in this quote that one is able to view, blatantly, that the way someone, for example Mrs. Haydon, views herself (she views herself as Lena’s kind-hearted, always-knows-best savior) can be so incredibly far fetched from the way she is actually perceived by others. Here, we see that while Mrs. Haydon perceives herself as this kind of “savior” of Lena’s, the reality of the situation is, as the german cook perfectly puts it, Mrs. Haydon “never did really do things right for anybody”. The conflict between the semi-delusional perception Mrs. Haydon has of herself in comparison to the reality of who she is and how she is actually perceived comes to light here.
Yet, the reason why this is such a relevant and interesting quote to discuss is because of how it perfectly reflects a major theme that runs through the story. The reader witnesses various cases in which the perception conflicts with the reality. Mathilda, Mrs. Haydon’s eldest daughter, provides another perfect example of this. Mathilda thinks herself so high and mighty and superior to the “ugly and dirty” german people from her mother’s land, yet Mary, the Irish girl, wouldn’t ever want to “be a fat fool like that ugly tempered Mathilda Haydon”. The perception Mathilda has of herself conflicts entirely with the perception others, such as Mary, have of her. There is then additional conflict between the author’s own perception and description of the character and then what the character actually thinks of him or her self. For example, Mathilda severely judges the german people, obviously regarding herself as something superior to them, yet the descriptions Stein lends to her character, such as “fat”, “slow”, “stupid”, “flabby”, etc. suggest quite the opposite of that superiority. Thus, the differences in perception not only come from the different characters’ input on other characters but also from the author’s descriptions of those characters, which is something interesting to note. Lastly, this issue of self-awareness and perception comes into play majorly throughout the story in Lena’s character, who has absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever. While it is unclear whether or not she has any pre-conceived perception of herself at all, it is obvious that she does not have any idea what others think about her, as she is completely oblivious to for example, the teasing she gets from Mary, completely missing the fact that Mary thinks she is slow and stupid and thus takes pleasure in teasing her. Ultimately, Stein successfully forces the reader to question both the legitimacy of their own, perhaps, self-constructed self-awareness and even further, the belief they have about themselves, their own character, and who they think they are versus the reality of who they really are and how they are really perceived.