Marguerite Ida-Helena Annabel in Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights

By Cardullo, Bert | Notes on Contemporary Literature, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Marguerite Ida-Helena Annabel in Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights


Cardullo, Bert, Notes on Contemporary Literature


The Faust legend is something of a retelling of the Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden as it appears in Genesis 2-3. There Eve is tempted by the devil, in the form of a serpent, to taste fruit from the tree of knowledge and to share that fruit with Adam--an action that banishes all humanity from paradise. Similarly, the Faust of legend is tempted to sell his soul to the devil (and, consequently, his right to a place in the paradise of heaven--the only Eden humankind can ever know) in exchange for omniscience, even omnipotence. Throughout Gertrude Stein's play Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1938), major characters themselves usurp or reject power typically associated with God. Faustus claims the power to create light, as does Marguerite Ida-Helena Annabel, although she seems less interested in this power than Faust.

This female character's dual names and fluctuating identity mark her as a kind of conflated womankind. (Marguerite Ida-Helena Annabel's names themselves derive from various recountings or dramatizations of the Faust legend by Christopher Marlowe [1588], Karl von Holtei [1829], George Sand [1869], Ida Hahn-Hahn [1840], and Stephen Vincent Benet [1937].) And womankind, as represented by Marguerite Ida-Helena Annabel, in the end rejects all deities, turning her back on both the sun (which could be interpreted as a natural god) and the electric light (the new technological god).

Unlike the Biblical Eve--who is only tempted or figuratively "bitten" by a serpent--Marguerite Ida-Helena Annabel is literally bitten by a viper. Initially, however, Marguerite Ida-Helena Annabel appears to triumph over the bite. Faustus cures her, despite his repeated assertions that he cannot see her, and thereafter Marguerite Ida-Helena Annabel becomes immune to the viper's poison. As Stein's Chorus intones, "See the viper there, / Cannot hurt her" (in the play as published in Stein's Last Operas and Plays [New York: Rinehart and Co., 1949], 106). At first glance, this seems to be a triumph of science over God, but Marguerite Ida-Helena Annabel rejects not only the natural light of the sun but also the science of Faust. And for the first time in the play she gains a unity of identity: "With her back to the sun / One sun / And she is one / Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel as well" (107).

With both unity and duality thus present in her main female character, Stein focuses attention on the multiple identities of women. Like the Dadaists, who expressed skepticism about the unity of character in any dramatic or theatrical presentation (let alone life itself), Stein creates a character who, in name alone, evokes both the good and evil depictions of women in history and literature. …

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