The Ethics of Desire in Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha”: A Lacanian Reading
Keywords:“Melanctha”, Gertrude Stein, Lacan, Desire, Ethics
AbstractThe heroine of Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha,” the centerpiece story of her Three Lives (2006), is an unconventional character whose “wandering” entails involving herself in relationships with both men and women. As her lover Jefferson, contrary to Melanctha, on the other hand sets as “ethical” goal in life and strives to be “good,” there has persisted a tendency in readings of the story to read Jefferson and his classically Aristotelian moral values as superior to Melanctha. The objective of this article is to overturn this conclusion and reinstate Melanctha as ethical, through the framework of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Specifically, I will point to how Jefferson is in fact immersed in a false belief in the wholeness of the Symbolic, which is something that Melanctha continuously doubts. Melanctha refuses Jefferson’s attempts to decipher her and instead continuously heads towards the beyond of language, towards the “evil” real thing. Unobtainable as this real thing may be, “wandering” towards it while ever questioning what it may be is what Lacan claims is “ethical.” As Melanctha remains a subject who does not know, while also inviting readers to “wander” with her, she is Lacan’s ethical subject.
Bridgman, R. (1971). Gertrude Stein in pieces. New York, NY: Oxford UP.
Brinnin, J. M. (1959). The third rose: Gertrude Stein and her world. Reading, PA: Addison-Wesley.
Cohen, M. A. (1984). Black brutes and mulatto saints: The racial hierarchy of Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha. Black American Literature Forum, 18(3), 119-121.
Detloff, M. (2009). Stein’s shame. In The persistence of modernism: Loss and mourning in the twentieth century. New York, NY: Cambridge UP.
Doane, J. L. (1986). Silence and narrative: The early novels of Gertrude Stein. Westport, CT: Greenwood P.
Fink, B. (1990). Alienation and separation: Logical moments of Lacan’s dialectic of desire. Newsletter of the Freudian Field 4.1&2, 79-119.
Fink, B. (1995). The Lacanian subject: Between language and jouissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
Freeland, C. (2013). Antigone, in her unbearable splendor: New essays on Jacques Lacan’s The ethics of psychoanalysis. Albany, NY: State U of New York P.
James, W (1982). Psychology: The briefer course. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
Lacan, J. (1992). The ethics of psychoanalysis 1959-1960: The seminar of Jacques Lacan. (J. Miller. Ed.; D. Porter, Trans.) London: Routledge.
Lacan, J. (1998). The seminar of Jacques Lacan book XI: The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. (J. Miller. Ed.; A. Sheridan, Trans.) New York, NY: Norton.
Niemeyer, M. (1994). Hysteria and the normal unconscious: Dual natures in Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha.” Journal of American Studies 28.1, 77-83.
Ragland, E. (1995). Essays on the pleasures of death: From Freud to Lacan. New York, NY: Routledge.
Ruddick, L. (1991). Reading Gertrude Stein: Body, text, gnosis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP.
Saldívar-Hull, S. (1989). Racism in “Melanctha.” In M. N. L. Broe & A. Ingram (Eds.), Women’s Writing in Exile. (pp. 186-195). Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P.
Stein, G. (2006). Three lives: Norton critical edition. New York, NY: Norton. (Original work published in 1909)
Authors who publish with this journal agree to the following terms:
- Authors retain copyright and grant the journal right of first publication with the work simultaneously licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License that allows others to share the work with an acknowledgement of the work's authorship and initial publication in this journal.
- Authors are able to enter into separate, additional contractual arrangements for the non-exclusive distribution of the journal's published version of the work (e.g., post it to an institutional repository or publish it in a book), with an acknowledgement of its initial publication in this journal.
- Authors are permitted and encouraged to post their work online (e.g., in institutional repositories or on their website) prior to and during the submission process, as it can lead to productive exchanges, as well as earlier and greater citation of published work (See The Effect of Open Access).