Copyright

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein: Summary & Concept

Instructor: Sophie Starmack

Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.

'The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,' written by Gertrude Stein, relates the lives of two American expats living in Paris in the early 20th century. This lesson reviews the characters, plot summary, timeline, and literary significance of the book.

Overview

Despite what the title would have you believe, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is not actually an autobiography at all. It was written in 1933 by Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), an American novelist and poet known for her unconventional life and groundbreaking literary style.

Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967) was Stein's life partner. Born in San Francisco, she came to Paris in 1907. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein takes on the voice of her lover, reflecting on their life together as part of a bohemian circle of artists and writers.

Witty and humorous, at times reading like a politely written gossip column, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas relates the often hilarious intrigues of many famous figures, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque. In the 1900s and 1910s, Paris was considered the go-to spot for culture and art. Today, aspiring artists and writers often leave behind conventional small-town life in search of fame and like-minded friends. In the same way, the 'it crowd' of Stein's day flocked to the glittery jazz clubs, sensational galleries, and gritty cafés of Paris, looking for inspiration and an uninhibited lifestyle.

Alice B. Toklas in 1949, photographed by Carl Van Vechten.
Alice B. Toklas

Style

Much of Gertrude Stein's writing can be hard to approach, as she plays with repetition, imagery, and a stream-of-consciousness style that disregards traditional narrative form. Unlike her other works, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is written in easy-to-comprehend, direct prose. However, key traces of Stein's distinctive style can be found (for example, her unconventional use of capitalization, writing 'french' instead of 'French,' and 'american' instead of 'American').

Analysis

Cheekily, Autobiography really turns out to be a portrait of Stein herself, telling us much more about the author than it does about its supposed subject. Stein writes in the first person, taking on the persona of Toklas in order to examine her own life and identity. She even uses the novel for some snarky self-promotion here and there: 'I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius,' the character Alice relates, '… Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead.' Some scholars have suggested that Stein's use of language and her unusual definition of 'autobiography' represent a feminist re-interpretation of English literature.

Gertrude Stein in 1934, photographed by Carl Van Vechten.
Gertrude Stein

Timeline and Plot Summary

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is divided into seven parts:

I. Before I Came to Paris

Only three pages long, this section introduces Alice B. Toklas, covering her early life in San Francisco and her decision to leave home.

II. My Arrival in Paris

Discusses Stein's and Toklas' home in the Rue de Fleurus, which was used as a studio and meeting place for important artists such as Picasso. Relates the (often melodramatic) trials and tribulations of these artists as they struggle to balance womanizing and making a living.

III. Gertrude Stein in Paris: 1903-1907

Tells the story of how Stein and her brother Leo set up house in Paris and began to collect paintings by contemporary artists such as Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse.

IV. Gertrude Stein before She Came to Paris

Covers the first part of Stein's life, her upbringing in Pennsylvania and her education at Radcliffe College and Johns Hopkins University. Bored with medical school, she leaves for the avant-garde social circles of Paris.

V. 1907-1914

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