Katherine Mansfield finished “The Garden Party” on her 32nd birthday in 1921. She took a month to recover from her previous story, “At the Bay” before embarking upon this one. She felt that The Garden Party was better than “At The Bay”, ‘but that is not good enough, either…’ It is apparently based upon an actual incident.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE GARDEN PARTY”
Mrs Sheridan holds a party, which she leaves to her teenage children to organise. This will mark their entry into the world. However, the story is not about the party itself but rather the lead-up and the aftermath, when the upper class Sheridan family learns that a man has been killed down below. Laura thinks to offer solace by taking his bereaved wife some of the leftovers. She goes to the house down below and is overcome with a feeling of hopelessness, inappropriateness and perhaps some greater understanding of the nature of life and death.
The Garden Party is much more a story than the other shorts involving the Burnell family. Here, events are used to carry the meaning; Prelude and At the Bay are more explorations of milieu (storyworld), where a series of keen observations about seemingly insignificant details add up to form a lasting impression and offer a deeper message.
SETTING OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”
KM presents this deeper message by building an atmosphere of fun and frivolity before presenting the characters with an awful situation. The ostentatious nature of the party is emphasised with our attention drawn to the comfortable circumstances of The Sheridans: large house, tennis court, spacious garden, hilltop view, lily lawn, green baize door.
When close reading a story for setting, pay attention to altitude. Where altitude is mentioned, it’s probably symbolic.
The house KM imagines is her bigger childhood house in Thorndon, Wellington, at 75 Tinakori Road. The Beauchamp family moved back to town when Kathleen was 9 and a half.
Also within this setting, we see a comparison between the Sheridans and the underlings – we see them interact with each other and the different reactions of the family to their social inferiors.
THEMES OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”
Most stories have several themes.
Remember: A theme is always a full sentence! ‘Party’ cannot be a theme, for instance. ‘Party’ is ‘subject matter’. When you write themes as a sentence they often sound simple or trite, but that’s okay. The stories themselves are much more subtle.
Growing up involves some uncomfortable truths.
The party is the children’s first time to prove their new-found maturity. Their mother is ‘determined to leave everything to the children this year’. Laura is torn between her own feelings and the dominance of her mother, who never really does relinquish control of the party, ordering masses of lilies on a whim.
Laura does not reject the life she is a part of; rather, she has understood something about it — she reaches a more serious maturity than her mother and older sisters have reached.
People are able to insulate themselves somewhat from class distinctions.
Criticism of the social values of bourgeois society is the most obvious, basic theme, with the upper-class Sheridan family living at the top of the hill and the lower-class in their ‘poky little holes’, ‘little cottages just below’. KM herself must have been keenly aware of class distinctions as she was the daughter of a self-made man, living in upper-class New Zealand society. This theme is also important in The Doll’s House.
The upper-class is symbolised by sheer extravagance. The sandwiches each have flags (fifteen kinds). There is a hired band, cream puffs and masses of canna lilies. Each member of the family has power over the cook, the maids and the men putting up the marquee.
[In my own illustrated short story Midnight Feast, this is also a theme. Growing up in New Zealand, I have been heavily influenced by Katherine Mansfield!]
CHARACTERS OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”
The family is no longer the Burnells but The Sheridans, who reflected KM’s family during her own teenage years. Unlike the Burnells, the family does not live within its own microcosm of the world but is fully participant in the wider social world of town.
The name Laura is a Latin baby name. In Latin the meaning of the name Laura is: Laurel tree or sweet bay tree (symbols of honour and victory).
This is Laura’s story. Main characters are linked inextricably to the setting, and perhaps KM chose a ‘plant’ name for Laura for that reason?
Although there are some general, impersonal passages and several scenes without her, we see this storyworld through Laura’s eyes. We observe others how she sees them, especially their response to her own behaviour.
At the beginning of the story, Laura is still a child. She doesn’t fully understand what is happening; her reaction to the workman’s death is a mixture of instinct, upbringing and egotism. She sees the workman’s death in an emotional way, torn between her own instinctive feelings and the powerful dominance of her mother and older sisters. She finally reaches her own personal understanding of life, which is left ambiguous in the final sentence. She does not reject the social life of the upper-class but comes to her own serious kind of maturity.
Being still a child, and not fully aware of the power of class distinctions and her own place within the social structure, Laura acts as a bridge between the upper and lower classes. She decides ‘it’s all the fault… of these absurd class distinctions’. Unlike Mrs Sheridan, she sees the workmen as individual people, indeed, as attractive ones.
When the carter dies, again, Laura sees him as another human, with the frivolity of their party exposed. But after she has her eyes opened to the true class distinctions, she is able to take her mother’s lead and return to the safety of the grand house on the hill. Just because she now knows the truth doesn’t mean she is going to do much about the income disparity.
Mrs Sheridan is comfortable with her social status and at ease with ordering others about. We see this clearly in her attitude towards the cook. She is teaching her children to see the world from her own elevated by short-sighted perspective. Mrs Sheridan doesn’t want her children to be socially aware. We see this when she tries to divert Laura’s attention with the talk of the new hat.
Mrs Sheridan is in charge of all the food, and might be compared to some kind of goddess of fertility.
Meg ‘could not possibly go and supervise the men’.
Jose, too, has absorbed the attitudes of her mother re class distinctions.
Laura and Laurie are similar in their outlook on life, symbolised by their similar names. It is only natural that Laurie understands Laura’s reaction to the grieving family without Laura needing to put her feelings into words because Laurie is the only other person in this world who could possibly understand her inner conflict.
SYMBOLISM IN “THE GARDEN PARTY”
By placing the hat upon Laura’s head, Mrs Sheridan claims her to the upper-class – superiority and indifference. Compare the passing of the hat to the passing of a crown (or similar talisman: sword, coat, cloak, cape, teacher’s pen etc.) in many other kinds of stories — generally flipped, in that a downtrodden, underprivileged character eventually earns a crown. That’s how most traditional stories go. Here, Laura doesn’t have to do much to get it, and when she does get it, she seems to realise that she hasn’t really earned it.
‘Forgive my hat.’
Nor is she entirely comfortable in her class. Nevertheless, she does wear the hat, just as she takes part in her upper class, privileged lifestyle.
Birds and Flight
Mansfield uses the metaphor of birds and flight as a strategy to show how the Sheridans insulate themselves from the lower classes. Jose is a “butterfly”. Mrs. Sheridan’s voice “floats” and Laura must “skim over the lawn, up the path, up the steps” to reach her. They are all perched high on an aerie up a “steep rise” from the cottages below. But Laura is a fledgling. Her mother steps back and encourages her to flit around in her preparations for the party, but Laura’s wings aren’t quite experienced enough–she “flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall,” then sighed, so that even a workman “smiled down at her.”
— How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster
That’s why Laura describes her fellow party-goers as ‘birds’.
This bird symbol running right through the story also explains the significance of the man down below whose house front is studded all over with minute bird cages. Those cages are a threat to the upper-class people on the hill.
The Garden As (Apparent) Utopia
Those with Biblical knowledge may see the perfect weather and beautiful garden described in the first paragraph as the Garden of Eden. Failing that, KM has at least set up the garden as a kind of utopia. (For more on utopias, specifically in children’s literature, see here.)
Whenever you come across a utopia such as this in literature, ask yourself who’s in charge. This is, as John Truby would tell you in his book Anatomy of Story, an ‘apparent utopia’. In a genuine utopia there is a community, and everyone in that community is able to grow in their own way, supported by others. But the world of The Garden Party is not like that at all, and Laura has realised it by the story’s end:
This world appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster. The suburbs are often an apparent utopia, with their manicured lawns and friendly neighbours, but in stories there is usually something terrible going on in the suburbs.
— John Truby
There are a number of different words you might use when describing something like utopia:
Nostalgic — can have a negative connotation, meaning a kind of ‘homesickness’, where nothing can ever be as good as you think it was (and it never was that great anyway).
Topophilia — this is a term coined by Gaston Bachilard in his book The Poetics of Space. It means simply ‘love for a place’, free of the negative connotations associated with ‘nostalgia’.
Arcadian — Another word for Utopian. Arcadia is the name of a Greek province. Utopia also comes from Greek and literally means ‘nowhere/not a place’, though this might be a somewhat simplified etymology. But in some ways, Arcadia and Utopia are opposites — Arcadia is thought of as a garden full of good fruits for humans to enjoy whereas Utopia can be considered a place which has been shaped by humans, in which the environment is as much a construction as the society itself. Utopia in its purest form is a spaceship in a futuristic science fiction story.
Pastoral — when referring to land, it means land for raising cattle or sheep. But when referring to literature, pastoral means ‘portraying an idealized version of country life. But if you look for ‘pastoral books’ you’ll probably find books relating to the Christian church. The Wind In The Willows is pastoral, though also treated as nostalgic and Arcadian, depending on the critic.
Prelapsarian — characteristic of the time before the Fall of Man; innocent and unspoilt.
See also: Utopian Children’s Literature
Allusion to Persephone?
If the garden is an apparent utopia, this sets us up to regard the cottages down below as Hades/hell — the classical underworld. We might then regard Laura as Persephone. If Laura is Persephone, Mrs Sheridan is Demeter. As evidence for the comparison, here’s the list from Thomas C. Foster:
- fertility-goddess mother, who is the match-maker (people arrive at the party in couples)
- beautiful daughter
- kidnap and seduction by god of underworld
- permanent winter
- pomegrante-seed monkey business
- six-month growing season
- happy parties all round
- they live on an ‘Olympian’ height
- the broad road into the cottages is kind of like the River Styx, which you have to cross to get into Hades (roads are often like rivers in literature, when the city/suburbs are a symbol of the forest/plains)
- When Laura returns from ‘the underworld’ she has basically become her mother. In Greek mythology, there is often no difference between mother and daughter.
The myth of Persephone is also about a young woman arriving into adulthood. This involves facing death and understanding it. The myth involves the tasting of the fruit. (The story of Eve in the Garden of Eden also makes use of fruit, and how tasting it gives you unwelcome but adult knowledge.)
Darkness and Shadow as Death
KM does a great job of describing the darkness and shadow of the township below. There are many examples in the text e.g. the large dog ‘running like a shadow’.
NCEA ENGLISH 1.4 Example Essay
DESCRIBE AN IDEA THAT INTERESTED YOU IN EACH TEXT. EXPLAIN WHY THESE IDEAS INTERESTED YOU.
AUTHOR: Katherine Mansfield
TITLES OF SHORT STORIES: The Voyage and The Garden Party
An interesting idea that Katherine Mansfield dealt with in two stories, The Voyage and The Garden Party, is the transition from childhood to adulthood. In both stories, Mansfield makes use of symbols to let readers know that growth has taken place.
The Voyage is about a young girl, Fenella, who is being taken to Picton to live with her grandparents. As the story progresses it is revealed that this is because her mother has died, and we presume her father is unable to care for her alone. The death of a parent is in itself a time for children to grow up suddenly, and Fenella’s ‘journey’ to the South Island on the Picton Ferry is symbolic of this period of growth.
Within the symbolic journey is a symbolic umbrella, which comes to represent Fenella’s transition into the next phase of her maturity. Fenella’s grandmother, who accompanies her on this journey, allows her to look after the precious ‘swan-necked umbrella’. At first, the grandmother feels she must remind Fenella to be careful with the umbrella, being careful not to poke it into the railings of the ferry and break it. Later on in the journey, however, when Fenella and her grandmother leave the ship, Grandmother is about to remind Fenella about the umbrella, but does not need to, saying only:
“You’ve got my –“
“Yes grandma”. Fenella showed (the umbrella) to her.
This demonstrates that Fenella has now grown up to the extent that she need not be reminded about looking after precious things.
In the same story, darkness is contrasted with light to symbolise childlike ignorance versus the knowledge and understanding that accompanies adulthood. Images of light are used repeatedly in the first half of the story. For example, as Fenella and her grandmother walk to the ship, everything is dark except for a shining lamp. The solitary shining lamp highlights the darkness. On board the ship, it is revealed that the grandmother is dressed all in black; likewise, the men on the deck are hiding in the shadows. In contrast, as the ship sails into Picton, images of light prevail. “The cold pale sky was the same colour as the cold pale sea”. As Fenella is walking up the path to her grandparents’ house, she notices the path of ‘round white pebbles’. These images of light contrast with the initial images of darkness to indicate that Fenella can ‘see the light at the end of the tunnel’; that she has grown up sufficiently to get on with life despite the death of her mother and that she has moved into the next phase of her life. This is interesting because Mansfield’s view of life and death is ultimately a positive one, despite the overall negative view created in European culture.
The Garden Party also deals with the interesting issue of growing up, as Mrs Sheridan has decided to let her children organise their first garden party all by themselves. Unlike Fenella in The Voyage, though, Laura’s journey to independence is not as clear and definite; she flits between feeling very grown up and suddenly losing confidence. When the workmen arrive to put up the marquee, for instance, she begins to address them in an authoritative manner, but suddenly feels that this is too affected, and “stammered like a little girl”. This demonstrates the difficulty Laura initially feels in taking on adult responsibilities.
The real test for Laura comes later, when she is forced to make her own mind up on a moral issue. When the news arrives that a man from down in the cottages has been killed, Laura feels that the party must be cancelled out of respect for the family. Until her father and brother arrive home, however, she is forced to stand alone in this opinion. She decides to compromise by putting the incident out of her mind until the party is over, then taking it more to heart when the fun is over. At the conclusion of the story, when Laurie, her more mature older brother meets her in the village below Laura says, “Isn’t life-“ and does not finish the sentence. She does not need to, as Laurie understands her. This demonstrates that the younger sister has now joined her older brother (whose names are symbolically similar) in the increased understanding of life that comes from making one’s own decisions and contemplating death. This increased empathy with a more mature individual is an interesting one to consider, as it affects all of us as we grow older.
Both of these short stories deal with the fascinating theme of growth in two individuals who are confronted with the issue of death. Mansfield’s skilful use of symbolism and imagery help the readers to plot the growth of her central characters for themselves. This is interesting because the idea of growth and development is relevant to all human beings.