The Gentle Lena: Book Overview

Category: Book Reviews

The Gentle Lena

“The Gentle Lena” is a part of the trilogy written by famous American writer Gertrude Stein, who “was a major innovator, one of the leading figures in American literary modernism” (Gray 400). The short story deals with the description of Lena’s life – the German girl, who was taken to the USA by her aunt in order to lead a better life. According to Donald Lyons “The Gentle Lena” is “a rather glum story of suffering” (Wilson). 

The whole plotline – from the young age of the main character till her infatuation and unhappy marriage, through which the inner core of the personality is expressed, hints at the opportunity of potential personal formation and growing up. But unfortunately, it does not happen. The image of the character is immutable and it finished in a pointed manner. Those few things that happen to Lena do not form an interconnected chain of unique events of life, but they are perceived to be just various demonstrations of a certain constant archetype of the fate. Gertrude Stein immerses the readers into the atmosphere of hopelessness via using the recurrence to the earlier said phrase. It creates the impression of cyclicality and absence of the distance between the writer and the plot for a realistic representation of the matter.

Lena, the main character of the third part of G.Stein’s trilogy, is described as “patient, gentle, sweet and German” (Stein). She was taken by her aunt from Germany to the USA in order to be given a chance to have better prospects, become happy and successful. At first sight, Lena is perceived to be a calm and patient girl, who respects other people and is grateful for the pieces of advice, which she considers to be the intention of those people to help her and make her life good. She sees kindness in everything and everyone, she does not understand jokes and mockery from the side of her cousins and fellows, who conceive her to be silly, and she has no doubt in love of her relatives, she always accepts everything without any critical reflection. It really may mean that Lena is very complaisant and obedient. But at the same time, all these traits of Lena’s character indicate the core of the story. 

These personal features form the prerequisite of Lena’s tragedy in the end, mean the absence of will to make decisions by herself and take responsibility for them, the absence of interest to outer things and the lack of desire in general. She is passive and absolutely out of the context of everything that is happening at the moment. The reason for this lack of desire results in the lack of knowledge: knowledge of her personality, facts and essences, personal wills, fears, thoughts; knowledge that occurs after the touch with the world. She is closed in her poor world, because it can be enriched and broadened only by the impressions given by the communication with herself and the outer world. However, at the same time, this lack of knowledge leads to the fact that Lena does not want anything. This circle creates the atmosphere of inescapability and boredom. Lena has determined her further life from the very beginning. She accepts death as something natural, but not from a philosophical point of view, but from a standpoint of a person, who feels indifferent towards anything: “Lena lacks deep feelings of any kind; the gentleness that calms others takes on a darker cast, when it makes up the total of one’s emotional life” (Wilson). She has no fear because she is not used to experiencing any strong emotions. She does not love anyone, because she does not know what love is. She understands just subordination based on the absurd trust in words of other people, whom she considers to be an authority. 

Without critical thinking, she does not possess any notions about good and evil, even at least in relation to her personality. When she was said to get married by her aunt Mrs. Haydon, she accepted it without any objection. All other characters are opposed to Lena. Even her husband, who was a very gentle and not a self-reliant man listening only to his parents, expressed his position and acted in the way he felt was right. He escaped from the town before wedding willing to hide and avoid something that was not a consequence of his decision but was an idea of his parents. Even though it ended with Herman’s defeat, it showed his potential. Later it was reflected in Herman’s gentleness and tenderness towards his children, which cannot be traced in Lena’s behavior. After the birth of her first child, even her gentleness started to degrade. According to Wilson, “her tragedy is not a denial of self, but a lack: ultimately, Stein demonstrates that Lena’s marginalization results directly from the gentleness that seems at first to be a source of peace and strength”. 

The counterargument could be that the society did not give Lena an opportunity to express herself and thus cognize her inner and outer environments. To my mind, she was given a chance in the USA after a grey life in Germany with a shortage of love and care from the side of her family. Indeed, the position of women at the beginning of the XX century was vague and not equal in comparison to men. But still, this fact cannot justify her passive life and absence of will to be the owner of her intentions and actions. Through the whole story, readers were waiting for the crucial turn in Lena’s worldview that was to no purpose. That is why Lena’s calmness and maybe even her absence creates the feeling of emptiness and fits the best to the plan of the author.

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