WHAT HAPPENS IN “AT THE BAY”?
The sun rises over Crescent Bay. Each of the characters goes about the day: Stanley’s morning swim, children playing with their cousins, Mrs Fairchild’s afternoon rest… All of this is ordered, even though the family is obviously on holiday. Conflict centers on the characters succumbing to social expectations.
The story divides into 12 sections. The relevance of each section to the others is not always clear. Vagueness is probably deliberate, as KM illustrates her own attitude towards the events that shape a life. The montage of scenes is a recreation of the haphazardness in life.
STORYWORLD OF “AT THE BAY”
This is the story of an upper-middle-class household near Wellington, colonial New Zealand. It is a constricted social environment where gossip can run rife.
At the Bay opens with a panoramic description of the bay. A camera-like eye follows the shepherd, his sheep and the dog. The eye switches to Stanley Burnell. In Prelude, the house and garden are surrounded by the dark bush. In At the Bay, the story moves in and out of the house to the sea and shore. But the characters seek answers to the same questions. The setting illuminates the world of childhood, where nobody knows the answers to certain, fundamental questions.
This time, The Burnell Family go to the beach, finding a new environment in which to explore their interactions and their philosophies on life and death.
IMAGERY IN “AT THE BAY”
This is Mansfield’s attempt to demonstrate in art the triumph of
- beauty over ugliness
- mystery over simplicity
- artistic knowledge over nature baseness
The themes and imagery are all set up in the first section, when the microcosm of the bay is described in detail. Sea and earth merge together: a metaphorical statement of the mutability of time and life.
The sheep are heard by the little children in their dreams. Later in the day they will find fear.
The dog’s natural impulse is to frolic but trots beside its master because it has been trained to do so. The characters, too, must maintain control over their impulses and natural inclinations. When the dog runs from the path onto a rocky ledge and ventures too far, it retreats hurriedly, just as the characters will do during the day that follows.
Also, the Trouts’ dog (Snooker) sleeps on the steps of one of the bungalows but looks as though he’s dead. This suggestion of mortality sets the tone for the conversation to follow between Kezia and her grandmother.
The eucalyptus tree
‘Something immense,’ like an ‘enormous shock-haired giant with his arms stretched out’. A meeting will take place there – Alice hurries towards it when she is frightened of being on the road alone. Alice will duck inside to see Mrs Stubbs who is going to have a photograph of a giant fern tree enlarged – a continuation of the phallic imagery. (Alice dwells on size.)
Like the aloe in Prelude, the gum tree serves as a symbol of sex (birth) and death.
The manuka tree
Its blossoms will fall and scatter and be brushed aside as ‘horrid little things’. The blossoms symbolise Linda’s questions about the meaning of life. Linda sees herself as a leaf blowing about. She feels there’s no escape. But unlike the scattered blossoms of a tree, life offers Linda sensual pleasures; her question is partially answered when she sees her baby smile. As in Prelude, Linda is presented as an earth-goddess in her connection with nature and the tree.
The encounter between the dog and the cat:
Foreshadows the encounter between Beryl and Harry Kember.
There has been some time lapse since the readers met these characters in Prelude but there have been no significant changes in their relationships and routines. This is because:
1. People are essentially unchanging
2. Time is constant
3. People and time continue on an unbroken line that extends from the past into the future, crossing the present.
Here’s the thing about beaches — this is where the land meets the sea. Seems obvious, but worth pointing out because when there’s a beach in a story, this points out attention towards something else merging. The significance of water in At The Bay is apparent from the opening passage, with mention of the sea, the dew.
What’s merging here, in this story?
Well first, life and death are unified.
There’s this Jungian idea that water is an ever-moving, feminine flow and Katherine Mansfield utilised that. The Bay, as a body of water, bears a heavy weight of historical, mythical and psychological meaning.
The illusion of freedom is central to At the Bay.
Linda gave up a life of travelling to marry a man she loves only sometimes. She has conformed to society’s expectations, having children and tending to her husband, though there are many times she doesn’t feel great love towards them.
Then Linda is seduced by the sight of her baby boy lying on the grass beside her. She experiences joy, another form of motherhood’s entrapment. When Jonathan tells her he feels like an insect trapped in a room, he is explaining a variation on the same theme: ‘something infinitely joyful and loving’.
Likewise, Jonothan Trout imprisons himself in an office for all but three weeks of every year. Unable to find a way to escape, he would rather be a prisoner in a jail.
Even the sheep are controlled by the dog, but the dog is inhibited by the cat on the fence. Each creature has its own prison.
Freedom is symbolised by the water and each character’s attitude towards it:
Linda wants to escape ‘up a river in China’ but, ironically, is the only character who doesn’t go to the water at the bay during the day.
Jonathan Trout is a ‘trout’ in the water. He gives himself to life easily and wholeheartedly yet is inhibited by his job.
Life and Death
Kezia asks her grandmother about death, but neither of them understand. The uncomfortable conversation turns into a game of love and affection, which take the place of knowledge. The meaning of life and death ultimately escapes them.
When Lottie sees the face at the window and screams it’s not simply that the children have overactive imaginations, but also that they understand something about death: an intuitive understanding, symbolised by Jonothan’s bearded face.
Life and death merge on some other plane which transcends human experience. The characters see them merge at points throughout the story: The rock pool becomes a microcosm of the universe. Beneath the water there is a glimpse of the unknown.
The theme of mortality is also felt by Linda as she sits under the bush. The flowers fell as soon as they flowered. And when Mrs Fairchild and Kezia take a nap, the peaceful rest itself is a prelude to death.
Connected to this is the theme of…
Darkness and Light
A pattern throughout the story is contentment and joy followed by disappointment and disillusionment. This is like the natural cycles of the earth: night, day, night, day. This is evident as the story takes place over the course of a day, in itself measured by darkness and light.
The story does end on a positive note; we know that the next day will follow.
CHARACTERS OF “AT THE BAY”
The activities of the characters are seen against the background of ocean tides, much as the waxing and waning of the moon is significant in Prelude.
Stanley fancies himself in a class of his own. If he fails to be first in the water his morning is ruined. He plays games of substitution to make his life seem more smooth, but is constantly involved in competitive battles. Life is an exclusive affair, a business to be negotiated profitably without unnecessary human intercourse or waste of time.
1. He engages the entire household in a race against time to find his cane. When Linda breaks a rule she is penalised – he does not say goodbye. But he has to wave to avoid losing face in public.
2. Stanley recoups his losses by bringing home gloves. He feels guilty.
Stanley’s brother-in-law also plays games. He role-plays in a game of masquerade to hide his overall dissatisfaction with his lot.
Beryl is an unusual character because on the one hand she lives in a dream-world, hoping that one day her prince will come to rescue her, and on the other hand, is not naive to the ways of the world. She understands the Kembers couple, for instance.
Beryl’s play-acting, like Jonathan’s, allows her to escape her unsatisfactory life but she is her own audience. She plays games to evade knowledge of the meaning of life. Beryl is childlike. The children are capable of seeing a piece of green glass as a beautiful emerald as big as a star. This is how Beryl is able to imagine herself.
All of these games, played by the adults, are juxtaposed with the innocent games played by the children. All of life is make-believe, with rules, penalties and rewards.
Beryl’s attempts to ‘discover herself’ are juxtaposed with Lottie’s efforts to compete with her older sisters. She is always left behind. Similarly, Beryl fears she will be left behind unmarried. When Lottie screams at the whiskered face in the window this foreshadows Beryl freezing in horror when a man appears outside her bedroom window later.
For Beryl, the day at the bay is a frustrated attempt to find a life and lover. Stanley can see there is something wrong with her humour; Beryl is mindful of Stanley and cross with Kezia over breatkfast. Beryl’s humour changes when she stops the coach and has a chance to socialise with one of the passengers. She is also happy when Stanley leaves – a feeling shared by all the women in the Burnell household. “Their very voices were changed as they called to one another…’
Linda Burnell is one of three daughters (one of whom is Beryl; the other is the unnamed mother of Rags and Pip). Linda is half-way between youth and age. She has three daughters of her own. Isabel, the eldest, remains unexplored. Linda is aligned most closely to Kezia, as they share the same concerns. (Likewise, Lottie’s concerns reflect those of Beryl.)
This kind of juxtapositioning of characters gives a sense of continuity to the story; a sense that time exists beyond the single day spent At the Bay, that time stretches over generations and beyond.
The themes of identity and sexual conflicts are explored through the character of Linda. Her father once promised that they would both run away together. That didn’t happen; Linda found Stanley instead, as a substitute for her father. Her baby boy holds a hope for Linda’s expression of her masculine side.
The Josephs Family provides a neat contrast to the Burnells. In comparison, his family is vulgar and bad-mannered. (Their lady-help blasts on a whitle and hands out dirty parcels. The basin of fruit-salad has turned brown. The children play like savages.) Meanwhile, Mrs Fairchild sits genteel in her lilac cotton dress and black hat. The Burnell children no longer play with the Samuel Josephs children, nor do they attend their parties.
Sinister. Notorious locally because she refuses to conform to societal conventions, including what it means to be a woman. This nebulous way of living is reflected in the landscape; the shoreline itself blurs the boundary between sea and land.
Although Mrs Kember has money, Mrs Kembers breaks social conventions in her relationships with men and with her servants. She cares nothing for her house. She does not have children. She behaves with men as if she is one of them. Beryl is more accepting of Mrs Kembers because she is younger and less traditional. She is fascinated by the freedom. Curiosity outweighs disapproval. Beryl is both seductive and seduced by Mrs Kember. She becomes shy then reckless, defiant of other women on the beach. She undresses boldly and joins Mrs Kember in the water.
With her ‘black waterproof bathing cap’ Mrs Kembers is the image of Satan and like Satan she is constantly shifting forms. Later that night, Beryl puts Mrs Kembers’ words ‘You are a little beauty’ into the mouth of an imagined suitor; she has not been threatened.
Outrageous, like his wife. “How did he live? Of course there were stories, but such stories! They simply couldn’t be told…”
That night, Mr Kembers appears outside Beryl’s window, not an apparition at all. Beryl goes out to him but suddenly she is frightened. He calls her a ‘cold little devil’ and Beryl disappears back into her bedroom. Mr Kembers has become a horrible caricature of a fantasy lover.
Alice the Servant Girl
Alice is constricted in this place; like Beryl, she has nowhere to go in the evenings. Her predicament mirrors Beryl’s, who we might expect to have more personal freedom as she is not a ‘servant’ but a member of the white upper-middle-class.
When Alice visits Mrs Stubbs, their encounter mirrors Beryl’s encounter with Mrs Kembers on the beach. This visit emphasises the role of women as guardians of tradition. If women act like men, tradition is threatened. Mrs Stubbs says that ‘freedom’s best’ and Alice laughs but she longs for the security of the Burnell kitchen, safe from the dangers of sex, life and freedom.
Sex again loses its boundaries when the edema of the dead man and the edema of pregnancy become one in Alice’s mind.
Alice is Beryl’s counterpoint in age. Just as Beryl seeks knowledge from Mrs Kembers, Alice visits an older woman, seeking knowledge. But neither Alice nor Beryl have any luck. Neither woman is any the wiser at the end of the story. Both Alice and Beryl are puzzled when the three younger girls meet the boys at the beach, digging for treasure.