Tag Archives: Gertrude Stein

“People who always thought they were so much never did really do things right for anybody” (p. 9)

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.

“Sometimes Lena would wake up a little and get back into her face her old, gentle, patient, and unsuffering sweetness, but mostly Lena did not seem to hear much when the good german woman scolded.” (16)

Stein uses a unique style of writing in this story to reflect the dull, monotonous, and eventually unsatisfying life that Lena lives.  The narrative is written entirely in short, simple statements, such as this sentence, using verbatim descriptions and observations over and over again.  Her style reflects the choppy and often ungrammatical English a German immigrant, such as Lena, would speak.  This can be seen as a glimpse into the workings of Lena’s mind; the simple, straightforward writing reflects Lena’s simple, childlike mind.

She is never described as being extremely overjoyed at anything, only as having a pleasant life.  Stein uses tepid words to describe Lena at the beginning of the story before her marriage such as “gentle,” “patient,” and “sweet” (1).  She is content living a simple life as an unmarried nanny.  When she agrees to marry Herman she becomes “lifeless,” “dirty,” and “pale” (16).  She becomes depressed and unhappy, eventually losing touch with the world altogether. Her simple life seems to have had no importance.  No one remembers her after her death, not even her husband.   Because of her gentle nature she has been taken advantage of and abused by the stronger, more forceful people around her like her aunt and mother-in-law. She doesn’t seem able to live a more complicated life of being married and having children.

“It was a new feeling Herman now had inside him that made him feel he was strong to make a struggle.” pg. 15

Gertrude Stein’s diction throughout this story is bland and simple, much like the characters introduced throughout. The characters appear very static and almost one-dimensional, with defining traits that envelop their entire personalities. In the beginning of the story, the protagonist, Lena, is a patient, subservient and seemingly simple girl who is unable to stand up for herself. She remains in these personal boundaries, scolded and commanded by others around her until her death. Her marriage is dictated by her family members, with Lena’s personal desires completely dismissed. Ultimately, she lives her entire life under the command of others, hardly making personal decisions or demonstrating initiative.  Lena is only one of many static characters who do not change throughout the story.

However, this passage stood out to me as it highlighted who appeared to be the only dynamic character in the story and his change: Herman Kreder. Herman, also coaxed into marriage, is initially extremely reluctant and has little desire to be married. He is in fact disinterested in women, a personal fact he is unable to bring forth. The birth of his first child catalyzes a distinct change in character and motivation. Herman Kreder, who until the arrival of his child endured and obeyed the scolding commands of his parents, feels prepared to stand against his parents to care for his child. The change would not have appeared as drastic had the other characters been dynamic whatsoever. Kreder’s child has changed him from a meek, subservient individual with little to care about to a doting father.

It is possible to speculate that Kreder’s transformation may provide insight on Stein’s opinion of children. Perhaps even the most indifferent and numbingly obedient individuals can be changed by the birth of his/her child.