Connecting Surfaces: Gertrude Stein's Three Lives, Cubism, and the Metonymy of the Short Story Cycle

By Heldrich, Philip | Studies in Short Fiction, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Connecting Surfaces: Gertrude Stein's Three Lives, Cubism, and the Metonymy of the Short Story Cycle


Heldrich, Philip, Studies in Short Fiction


In the spring of 1906, during numerous portraiture sittings for Picasso, Gertrude Stein returned home filled with the desire to work on a project of her own. Inspired by the innovative canvases of such twentieth-century painters as Picasso and Matisse, Stein, in a room full of her collected art, wrote Three Lives seated beneath Cezanne's portrait of "Madame Cezanne [in a red armchair]." As Georgia Johnston explains, at the turn of the century Stein sought to break with the past (31). She desired to create a text that changed conceptions of the literary realism of that time. In many respects, she wanted to move away from nineteenth-century styles toward an aesthetic informed by a more circular narrative (Chessman 22). The appeal both of a burgeoning cubism's fragmentation of the subject and of the short story presented in a cyclical form offered her just such freedom. While critics as diverse as Richard Bridgman and Lisa Ruddick point out the impact of modern art's influence on Stein's work, the specific relationship between cubism, Three Lives, and the short story cycle form has yet to be explored. On the surface, cubism and Stein's Three Lives read as a short story cycle may seem to have little in common, but a foregrounding of surfaces is exactly what they share. More specifically, cubist art, Three Lives, and the short story cycle use metonymy to mark differences in perspective and to draw attention to contingent relationships between part and whole. Reading Three Lives as a story cycle incorporating metonymic, cubist strategies provides a refreshing way to understand Stein's interest in the short story, which gives new meaning to both Stein's interest in cubism and her linguistic experiments of that time.

In many ways, Stein's interest in cubism developed from her profound appreciation of Cezanne's work, which may be characterized by its protocubist strategies influential to Picasso's Analytic cubism. As Stein describes to Robert Haas in "A Transatlantic Interview, 1946":

   Cezanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important
   as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole, and that
   impressed me enormously, and it impressed me so much that I began to write
   Three Lives under this influence and this idea of composition and I was
   more interested in composition at that moment, this background of
   word-system, which had come to me from this reading that I had done. I was
   obsessed by this idea of composition, and the Negro Story ("Melanctha" in
   Three Lives) was a quintessence of it. (15)

As Stein emphasizes, intrinsic to the structure of Three Lives is the particular relationship between part and whole. Each part of the composition, Stein explains, asserts an independence distinct from the whole. However, as Stein also notes, such parts never fully lose their relationship to the whole, though "[e]ach part is as important as the whole." This relationship between part and whole has profound implications for the short story cycle, in which each story of the cycle, each part, exists both independently of and subordinately to the whole of the composition. In this fashion, the story cycle foregrounds the important dynamic between part (story) and whole (collection/cycle) in the text. Critics reluctant to read Three Lives as a story cycle would neglect this important aspect of Stein's aesthetic intentions.

More specifically, as Stein observed, Cezanne emphasized this relationship between part and whole in his paintings through the use of lighting to create contrasts. According to Edward Fry, Cezanne sought through such a technique of lighting contrasts to create "multiple perceptions from discrete points of view, accumulated and then expressed in a single composite shape" (37). Cezanne's landscapes and still lifes such as Mont Sainte-Victoire (1904-06) exemplify his aesthetic approach. He creates contrast through his use of lighting and color, through juxtaposed blues and greens that call attention to the relationship between part and whole. …

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