Inspired by the diaries of Russian artist Marie Bashkirtseff, MacLane's prose is lyrical, sharp, bizarre, and anguished. The "barrenness" of existence is at the forefront: "It is not deaths and murders and plots and wars that make life tragedy. It is Nothing that makes life tragedy." Her life is a monotonous routine: "I rise in the morning; eat three meals; and walk; and work a little, read a little, write; see some uninteresting people; go to bed." Ad infinitum.
MacLane creates the "Devil," an imaginary creature who created her "without a conscience," a primary character in her diaries, representing experience, sensuality, and hedonism. She alternates between lust and admiration for the Devil, impatiently waiting to join his world of pleasure. He "constructed a place of infinite torture—the fair green earth, the world. But he has made that other infinite thing—Happiness." MacLane calls on the Devil to release her from mind-numbing, small-town life—and begs for marriage. The Devil asks, "If I were to marry you how long would you be happy?" "For three days." (She also wrote of marrying Napoleon for three days.). "You are wonderfully wise in some things," he replies, "though you are still very young."
But perhaps even more scandalous for the times than MacLane's longing for the Devil—a man—is MacLane's desire for a woman.
"I love Fannie Corbin," she writes, of her former schoolteacher, "with a peculiar and vivid intensity." MacLane doesn't declares herself a lesbian until her third and final "Me-book," I, Mary MacLane, (1917), written when she was "at a lowering impatient shoulder-shrugging life-point where I must express myself or lose myself or break." In I, Mary, she describes being "kissed by Lesbian lips in a way which filled my throat with a sudden subtle pagan blood-flavored wistfulness." Still, her early writing leaves little doubt about her ambivalence towards her sexuality. Towards Miss Corbin, MacLane senses "a strange attraction of sex. There is a masculine element in me that... arises and overshadows all the others." By asking, "Do you think a man is the only creature with whom one may fall in love?" MacLane challenged heterosexual norms.
MacLane's feelings about being a woman, the "plague-tainted name," and her role in society, were complicated. She loved her "excellent strong young woman's-body" and enjoyed the simple physical act of housework. When asked in a 1902 interview by Zona Gale: "What would you rather do with your life than anything in the world?" MacLane answered, "I would rather be a fairly happy wife and mother. There is nothing better in the world."
But, she said, "I never shall be."
Devoted to her work and eager to see its impact on the world, MacLane saw limitations in the roles women were expected to assume. Despite wanting the Devil's hand in holy matrimony, she questioned the institution of marriage. "How many of them love each other?" MacLane wrote of married couples. "Not two in a hundred, I warrant. The marriage ceremony is their one miserable petty paltry excuse for living together." And, sixty years before The Feminine Mystique was unveiled, MacLane warned of the suffocation of a domestic life. A woman is "born out of her mother's fair body, branded with a strange, plague-tainted name, and let go," MacLane writes, "But before she dies she awakes. There is a pain that goes with it."