Illusory Conceptions of Control in The Good Anna

As Gertrude Stein asserts in her lecture entitled “Composition as Explanation,” “Beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic.” This quotation, especially the portion referring to the element of irritation present in much of Stein’s work, applies directly to her novel Three Lives. Diverging from a plot centered upon narrative, the author’s concentration upon each and every minute detail can result in the reader’s exhaustion and frustration. This reaction could be elicited throughout one of the stories included in the novel The Good Anna. Although the prevalence of detail in some seemingly trivial instances and the omission of it in others may seem illogically repetitive upon first reading, it is later established that these details instead interact to characterize the main character, Anna. Contrary to a normative literary style, Stein routinely grants lesser importance to events that are commonly considered central to one’s life while simultaneously emphasizing those considered ordinary. This tendency toward an overabundance of detail to certain life events and ignorance to others throughout the superficially simple and sterile structure of The Good Anna exemplifies the sense of power that the main character believes herself to have, though it is often a false or exaggerated conception. One significant area in which this approach to incidents of importance is most effective is in the detailing of Anna’s potential involvement in the resolution of conflict with those who surround her. This prominence or absence of detail relates directly to the amount of control the main character is perceived to possess of both her environment and relationships.Within the scope of character interaction, there are multiple situations that the text explores with regularity, one of which being the association between servant and supervisor. Despite the fact that Anna is meant to epitomize the role of a loyal and undemanding servant, Stein routinely suggests that the desire for power and a sense of significance are unrelenting motivational forces for this subordinate figure. This dynamic is exemplified early in the novel as the detached narrator describes that “This one little house was always very full with Miss Mathilda, an under servant, stray dogs and cats and Anna’s voice that scolded, managed, grumbled all day long,” (Stein 3). This quotation suggests that, despite the fact that Miss Mathilda’s name is listed first in the sentence and Anna’s last, it seems that Anna is given the majority of the agency in regulating the household. This notion of the main character’s potential control over her surroundings, however, is undermined by the reader’s later understanding that only relatively insignificant tasks are left entirely to Anna’s jurisdiction. The only things upon which she has control are animals, as Stein depicts that “Anna would leave the room a little while and leave them together, and then she would suddenly come back. Back would slink all the wicked-minded dogs at the sound of her hand upon the knob, and then they would sit desolate in their corners like a lot of disappointed children whose stolen sugar has been taken from them,” (Stein 4-5) The amount of detail in this passage, instead of conveying the influence Anna possesses over the lives of those by whom she is employed, works to display a less significant authority over her dogs. Upon Anna entering the room, her pets retreat to corners as punishment and are given emotions associated with human-like disappointments. In likening the dogs to young children, Stein asserts that the main character has little to no significant and influential interaction with people and must instead settle for manipulating the moral fabric of her dogs. The strategy of employing an abundance of detail in this situation satirizes the influence Anna believes herself to have and exemplifies the misconceptions that she has about the indispensability of her position in Miss Mathilda’s household.This same high level of detail and importance that is given the events dictated in the above passage corresponds to the later contrast between the main character’s virtually nonexistent power and that of those in more important social positions. One of such authority figures, Miss Mary Wadsmith’s daughter Miss Jane, elicits an explosive reaction from Anna even as a child. The young girl requests, upon alleged instructions from her mother, that Anna bring blue dressings to their country home. But, upon Miss Mary Wadsmith’s and Miss Jane’s departure, “Anna stood still on the steps, her eyes hard and sharp and shining, and her body and her face stiff with resentment…On the third day, Anna and Edgar went to the Wadsmith country home. The blue dressing out of the two rooms remained behind,” (Stein 15). As is evident in the above quotation, Stein once again employs descriptive, though simplistic, diction to depict the frustration the main character experiences when her conceived control of Miss Mary Wadsmith has been impinged upon. Stein does generally seem to employ detail more heavily whenever a significant emotional episode occurs, and this trend also correlates with the triviality of that event. Although it is clear that Anna displays a tendency toward an increase in sentiment when she feels that her position of influence in her environment is being constrained or manipulated, the events that cause this shift in power are determined by an object as seemingly unimportant as blue dressings. This item, however, embodies a larger concept that is stressed within the psyche of the main character—the thought that the effort put into a relationship ought to yield a greater influence upon the superior. Due to the fact that Anna’s interaction with Miss Mary Wadsmith is very much connected with her power to manipulate and advise her mistress, a large amount of both detail and emotion is associated with any loss of influence. There are specific instances, however, that include a minimal amount of detail but are concurrently considered relatively important or, in some respects, live-altering. Such an event within the text of The Good Anna could be said to be the preparation for Miss Jane’s wedding, in which Anna seems to be exceptionally involved, as Stein writes that “The preparations for the wedding went on day and night. Anna worked and served hard to make it all go well.” The text asserts two paragraphs later that “The wedding grew always nearer. At last it came and passed” (Stein 20). In the pages previous to these overly simplistic statements, Anna laments her imminent split from Miss Mary Wadsmith because, once her two mistresses relocate to Miss Jane’s new husband’s home, Anna “[never could be] a girl in a household where Miss Jane would be the head” (Stein 19). In considering these quotations as a continuous entity, it is evident that though this marriage between Miss Jane and her fiancé will have significant consequences upon Anna’s well-being, the day of the wedding itself does not receive any more concession in the text than one sentence in its own independent paragraph. The lack of emphasis upon an event that has the potential to have a determining effect upon the course of the main character’s life exemplifies the situations in which Anna possesses even less control than is normally given her by the narrative correspondingly elicit even less detail. On the contrary, however, despite the actual wedding day being absent of detail, Anna’s disappointment concerning her rapidly ending relationship with Miss Mary Wadsmith does receive a great amount of attention in the narrative. In comparing the work’s treatment of a deteriorating bond between two people to that of a uniting of others, it is more important to detail the situation which is within the main character’s control. Throughout Anna’s interaction with her mistress, she is frequently able to manipulate Miss Mary Wadsmith into the ideals she has fashioned for a proper way of life, but the marriage of Miss Jane indicates an end to this control. It is for this reason, then, that Anna’s decision to relinquish the power she holds over Miss Mary Wadsmith receives the most detail and attention rather than an event over which she possesses no control. Another such instance in which the narrative does not employ detail in its relaying a crucial event is identified in the death of the main character. In the final lines of The Good Anna, the text simply declares that “They did the operation and then the good Anna with her strong, strained, worn-out body died” (Stein 56). This quotation once again exemplifies that, in situations in which Anna has little or no control, the narrative does not consider it necessary to do more than outline her struggles. Within the operating room, Anna is unconscious and incapable of her usual tendencies toward advice and guidance and, therefore, the text does not bother with the inconsequential details. What is instead focused upon following the news of her death are her relationships with her mistresses through a sterile and impersonal letter that states that “Miss Annie died easy, Miss Mathilda, and sent you her love,” (Stein 56). Despite the fact that this correspondence does not give concession to any emotion surrounding the death of Anna, it does give substantial detail about Anna’s last wishes and thoughts, though they are presented in a rather minimalistic fashion. The principle of perceived control is embodied through this letter in that Anna regulates the sentiments and possessions to be relayed to those she leaves behind. In contrast to the more in-depth stipulations the letter outlines, the statement that announces her death passes in a succinct moment, which ultimately creates a more realistic depiction of the event. Much like the marriage of Miss Jane, there is much anticipation surrounding the occurrence of Anna’s death, but it arrives and passes without high distinction between each separate physical state because it does not involve the agency of the main character. Ultimately, Stein’s use of details throughout The Good Anna directly suggests the level of agency that the main character is perceived to have at any point throughout the narrative. When these details are employed, all of the central conflicts of the text only seem to exist for the purpose of catalyzing an outcome that will either remove or augment Anna’s conception of control. This concept is connected with the idea of the self-contained within Modernist ideals, which states that the citizen is deserving of consideration and should be entitled to some level of participation in the making of the world. According to this standard, all people, however seemingly insignificant, are worthy of attention. The prevalence of agency in Stein’s novel is inextricably linked with this model of thought, in that Anna consistently desires to leave a significant impact on her environment through her advising of and frequent direction of attention toward others. It is no wonder, then, that the consequences of the main character’s actions receive a greater intensity of consideration than the events themselves, since it is, in theory, the principal goal of a Modernist text to present realistic suggestions about the self as well as the environment in which that self is contained. Anna, in this work, is the vehicle for an overarching comment upon what Modernists consider to be a basic right of each member of a society.