Originally published in the collection Geography and Plays (1922), “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” has received critical attention for two reasons. First, much has been made of Gertrude Stein’s experimentations with language and their consequent challenges to and elaborations on the modernist tradition. “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” relies on repetitious wordplay to complicate the relatively straightforward tale of Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, two women who choose to live together. Second, because of its use of double entendre, particularly with the word gay, the story suggests a subversive and positive rendition of a lesbian relationship.
Helen Furr escapes her boredom and moves in with the exciting Georgine Skeene. In the text, although Helen and Georgine are seen in the company of “dark and heavy” men, it is implied that they enjoyed their sexual pleasures with each other, not with the opposite sex. At the end of the story, Georgine leaves Helen to live with her brother for two months, but Helen does not return home to her parents. Rather, Helen “did go on being gay,” and, in fact, was “gay longer every day than they had been being gay when they were together being gay.” She also becomes a teacher, “telling some about being gay,” and “taught very many then little ways they could use in being gay.”
The text itself remains impervious to an easy reading because it never allows secure judgments about characters and action. Much of the reader’s inability to decide absolutes is due to Stein’s at times exasperating style. Constructing her story from a deliberately limited lexicon, Stein repeats certain words, such as gay, regularly, and cultivating, changing the meaning of the word each time it is used. First introduced in the seventh sentence of the story—“She [Helen Furr] did not find it gay living in the same place where she had always been living”—the word gay initially seems to mean no more than that Helen is somehow bored at home. Not until gay begins to undergo its series of permutations does its other meaning come into prominence, leading readers to question the heterosexual status quo in which Stein was writing. In October 1923 Vanity Fair reprinted the story, thereby increasing the audience of those who knew the underground meaning of Stein’s playful “gayness.”
Behling, Laura. “ ‘more regularly gay and in a wholly new way’: Marketing a Heterosexual Cure to Gertrude Stein in Vanity Fair.” Journal of Modern Literature 21, no. 1 (1997): 151–154.
Stein, Gertrude. Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Edited by F. W. Dupee and Carl Van Vechten. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Wineapple, Brenda. “Gertrude Stein: Woman Is a Woman Is.” American Scholar 67, no. 1 (1998).