Gertrude Stein’s Masking: Convention and Structure Essay

Gertrude Stein’s Masking: Convention and Structure Essay

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Drawing from a wide range of theoretical fields, both Michael North in “Stein, Picasso, and African Masks,” and John Carlos Rowe in “Naming What is Inside,” analyze Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, engaging the text as a means by which to understand the birth of literary and aesthetic modernism and as a way to explore Stein’s conceptions of the dichotomies brought up by race, gender, culture and geography. The two critical essays approach Three Lives by engaging “masking” as a technique by which to demonstrate the “conventionality” of a subject, and as an integral development in Stein’s creation of American modernism.
Stein and Pablo Picasso, her friend and contemporary, both used masking as an aesthetic means by which to alter the nature of an initial subject. Inspired by African masks, Picasso painted a mask on a portrait of Stein, while Stein rewrote her own story, first captured in Q.E.D., into the black characters of the central tale in Three Lives. In doing so, North argues, Stein both invited her white readers to live in to her characters, and allowed herself to see both race and gender as a “role,” not as a biologically predetermined attribute. At the same time, the literary and linguistic mask establishes itself as representative of freedom from European “convention” and as an example of nature and freedom, but also as a construction, a cultural convention and restriction fin and of itself. The usage of the mask, for North, represents the breaking down of the dichotomy between “impersonality and individuality, [and] conventional representation and likeness.”
Rowe visits North’s assertion that the role of the mask, as applied to visual art, is “convention embodied, the sign of signs,” which exposes the structure of art b...

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... concluding that Stein’s style serves to “destabilize prevailing racial and ethnic stereotypes,” Rowe constructs a framework through which to understand Three Lives as a proposal of an alternative to “rationalist and technocratic social values,” and as an exploration of literary representation. Together, the two essays build an image of Stein’s use of language and structure as a means by which to escape conventional preconceptions and representations, and to begin an exploration of American literary modernism.

Works Cited

North, Michael. “Stein, Picasso, and African Masks.” In Three Lives and Q.E.D., edited by Marianne DeKoven, 429-440. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006.

Rowe, John Carlos. “What Is Inside: Gertrude Stein’s Use of Names in Three Lives.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 36, 2 (Spring 2003): 219-243.

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