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Gertrude Stein

A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1914

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Summary and Study Guide


Gertrude Stein wrote “A carafe, that is a blind glass.” In Stein’s typescript, only the “A” is capitalized in the title. The poem is the first prose poem in her collection Tender Buttons, where Stein describes an assortment of objects, food, and rooms in puzzling, repetitious prose. “A carafe, that is a blind glass” contains neither stanzas nor line breaks, which is why it’s a prose poem. The explicitly beguiling elements in “A carafe, that is blind glass” and Stein’s other works—The Making of Americans (1925) among them—show why scholars continually present Stein as one of the greatest Modernist, experimentalist, and avant-garde writers in the Western literary canon. The poem reflects Stein’s commitment to applying inventive painting techniques to the written word. Starting around 1907, painters such as Pablo Picasso began an artistic movement called Cubism, where painters intentionally distorted ordinary objects, as Picasso does in Bowl of Fruit, Violin, and Bottle (1914). Stein, too, presents a byzantine perspective on objects, starting with the carafe.

Aside from her work, Stein is known for her personality and personal life. Although she never used the term “lesbian,” she had a romantic, lifelong partnership with a woman named Alice B. Toklas, who also served as her typist, literary agent, cook, press secretary, traveling companion, and all-around assistant. Together with her brother Leo, Stein collected lots of modern art, including works by Picasso and Henri Matisse. Leo and Stein lived together in Paris at 27 rue de Fleurus, where they held Saturday night salons attended by a long list of famous artists and writers—Picasso, Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Duchamp, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Juan Gris, to name a few. Although inventive works like “A carafe, that is a blind glass” are central to her legacy, even Stein admitted that her singular, unconventional life often overshadowed her prolific and complex cannon.

Poet Biography

Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1874. Her parents, Daniel Stein and Amelia Keyser, came from families of Jewish immigrants. The youngest of the surviving five children, Stein was the baby of the family and spent her early years in Europe. In her World War II memoir Wars I Have Seen (1945), Stein discusses the “privilege of being the youngest one” and how it shaped her belief that “nobody could do anything but take care of you.”

Fortunately for Stein, her father was an enterprising business person. Around 1880, Stein and her family came back to the United States and lived in East Oakland, California. Her father was a stockbroker and made investments that supplied Gertrude and her siblings with modest but adequate incomes for the remainder of their lives.

In 1893, Stein enrolled in Radcliffe, where she studied psychology, among other things, with the well-known psychologist and philosopher William James. She conducted psychological experiments on automatic writing and published a research paper “Normal Motor Automatism” in Harvard’s The Psychological Review. After graduating from Radcliffe, Stein went to Johns Hopkins to earn a medical degree. Following an intense affair with another student, May Bookstaver, and failing four classes, Stein dropped out of Johns Hopkins and joined her brother Leo in Europe.

By 1903 Stein had moved in with Leo at 27 rue de Fleurs. She went to work on her first novel, Q.E.D, based on her relationship with Bookstaver. At the same time, Leo and Stein used their incomes to buy art by burgeoning artists like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Cezanne. Soon, Leo and Stein were having Saturday night saloons at their home. The guest list was impressive, featuring the “who’s who” of avant-garde artists.

In 1907, a woman from San Francisco, Alice B. Toklas, traveled to Paris with a friend. At first, Stein did not like Toklas. In her notebooks, Stein called Toklas “a liar of the most sordid, unillumined, undramatic, unimaginative prostitute type.” A year later, Toklas and Stein were all but joined at the hip, and Toklas was typing pages from Stein’s long, experimental novel The Making of Americans. Janet Malcolm, the author of Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (Yale University Press, 2008), describes the novel as a “morass into which writer and reader are sinking together.”

As Stein and Toklas grew closer, Stein and Leo grew apart. Their break might have been because Leo disapproved of Stein’s writing and the direction of Picasso's paintings. It also might have been because Leo wouldn't acknowledge his sister’s genius or because, now that the baby of the family had Toklas, she didn’t need Leo anymore. Whatever the case, by the end of 1910, Toklas moved into 27 rue de Fleurus. As Linda Simon writes in The Biography of Alice B. Toklas (Avon Books, 1978), “They would live together, Alice as wife, Gertrude as husband.” A year later, Stein met the free-spirited arts connoisseur Mabel Dodge. Jealous of their relationship, Toklas tried to keep Stein and Dodge apart. Years later, threatened by Stein’s relationship with Ernest Hemingway, Toklas pushed the famous fiction writer out of the picture.

As for Stein’s literary developments, she published a collection of relatively conventional stories, Three Lives, in 1909. In 1914, she published the experimental Tender Buttons, and in 1922, she published a collection of experimental poems, prose, and plays called Geography and Plays. Malcolm’s book spotlights Stein’s “playful egomania.” None of Stein's avant-garde works gave her the glory she craved, so in 1933, Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which talks about Stein, her genius, and her bohemian life from the perspective of Toklas. The book was a bestseller and brought Stein fame.

In 1934, Stein and Toklas traveled across America, as Stein lectured at colleges and universities and visited with famous figures such as silent film star Charlie Chaplin and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Upon returning to Paris, Stein published a children’s book, The World Is Round, in 1939—the year World War II started. Since Stein and Toklas were both Jewish, people advised them to leave Europe, but they stayed. In 1940, Nazi Germany invaded France and took control of Paris, among other parts, while permitting a pro-Nazi French regime to control the remaining areas, including Vichy. The French General Philippe Petain led the Vichy government. Stein and Toklas lived in the countryside under the rule of the Petain’s regime. A close friend of theirs, Bernard Fay, worked in the Vichy government as the director of France’s national library. Fay made sure Stein and Toklas were safe. A conservative with a political ideology that might strike some as problematic, Stein didn't find Petain disagreeable and started to translate some of his speeches into English.

After the war ended in 1945, Fay was jailed for taking part in the Vichy regime and collaborating with the Nazis. Stein and Toklas visited him in prison and worked to release him. Stein also worked on operas, plays, and she published her World War II memoir Wars I Have Seen. In 1946, Stein died due to stomach cancer. Toklas died 21 years later in 1967. Toklas spent much of her post-Stein life carefully guarding and ornamenting Stein’s legacy.

Poem Text

Stein, Gertrude. “A carafe, that is a blind glass.” 1914. Poetry Foundation.


Gertrude Stein's poem starts with the title, which tells the reader that the object under consideration is a carafe. The speaker then elaborates on what they mean by “a carafe.” “That is, a blind glass,” adds the speaker. The speaker doesn’t explain why or how the glass is blind—not in the title, not in the poem. Moving on from the title, the speaker moves away from its blindness but expands on the glass aspect. The carafe is a “kind in glass and a cousin” (Line 1); the “kind” and “cousin” suggest the speaker thinks about the carafe as a part of something. “Kind” links the carafe to a larger group with similar characteristics, and “cousin” places the carafe in the context of a family. After the first comma, the speaker ensures the reader the carafe is a “spectacle and nothing strange” (Line 1). Maybe the carafe is a spectacle since it's on display. Alternatively, the carafe might be a spectacle because “spectacle” relates to “spectacles,” which is another word for “glasses.” Perhaps the speaker wanted to mention glass again with a different world. Additionally, the speaker maintains that there is “nothing strange” about the spectacle of the carafe, so the speaker normalizes their description of the carafe.

At the end of Line 1, the speaker calls the carafe “a single hurt color.” Yet the speaker doesn’t tell what color the carafe is nor why this color is hurting the carafe. The speaker moves on and announces that the carafe is “an arrangement in a system to pointing” (Line 2). Thus, the carafe is a part of a larger structure, which is “pointing” to somewhere or at something. Perhaps the system involves the liquid in the carafe and the cups receiving the liquid from the carafe, which means the carafe points towards these cups. The speaker reminds the reader that the carafe is, “All this and not unordinary, not unordered in not resembling” (Lines 2-3). The carafe is everything the speaker previously mentioned—it’s “All this”—but it’s also not ordinary and not disorderly because it doesn’t look like something. In Line 1, the speaker said the carafe was “nothing strange.” This might still be true, but it’s somewhat contradictory or puzzling for the speaker to say that the carafe isn’t “ordinary,” as what’s unordinary can often be seen as “strange.” More so, in Line 1, the speaker links the carafe to a “kind” and a family, but now the speaker implies that the carafe might not belong to a kind or family since it’s not “resembling.” Then again, one can still be of a kind and a part of the family even if they don’t look like the other members.

By the final sentence in the poem, the speaker has created multiple alternating perspectives and interpretations. The speaker acknowledges the beguiling description of the carafe when they declare, “The difference is spreading” (Line 3). With this admission, the speaker suggests that they intentionally wrote a description of a carafe with pieces and elements that don’t fit neatly together. The poem isn’t about producing a tidy and cohesive image of a carafe but “spreading” the disparate ways to write about and display an object such as a carafe.