The Voyage by Katherine Mansfield

the voyage katherine mansfield

“The Voyage” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1921.

Katherine Mansfield always disliked intellectualism and aestheticism (one thing she had in common with her husband John Middleton Murray). She strove to combine a realist way of writing with personal and relatable symbols.

“The Voyage” is a good example of her philosophy on that. This is one of Katherine Mansfield’s later stories and was published only after her death, in her 1923 collection The Garden Party. (She died in January of that year.) Continue reading “The Voyage by Katherine Mansfield”

Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield

Miss Brill Katherine Mansfield

“Miss Brill” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1920, three years before she died. The emotional valence of “Miss Brill” is similar to that in “Bliss”. In both stories, a young woman starts off happy but then an unwelcome Self-revelation sends her plunging into a downcast mood. In both stories, the reader must do a little work to understand what, exactly, she has realised.

What [Mansfield] does so brilliantly in her writing is to capture the mood of a moment, the feelings that go with some particular event.

— Susanna Fullerton

In a letter, Mansfield compared her story ‘Miss Brill’ to a piece of music, demonstrating to us how carefully she chose each word: ‘I chose not only the length of every sentence, but even the sound of every sentence. I chose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her.’

Miss Brill and Me

My boss used to call me ‘Miss Brill’. This was the early 2000s and I was a young high school English teacher. One of my three sets of clothing was a zip up sweater with fur collar, a knee-length skirt, fishnet stockings and shiny black heels with a buckle strap. Pale face, bright lips. I wasn’t consciously emulating a character from the Year 10 short story syllabus, but there you go.

Students had another name for me. Around that time the live action Scooby Doo movies came out. Even my friends told me they were shocked at how much I resembled ‘Velma Dinkley’ as played by Linda Cardellini. That’s when I stopped wearing the orangey red sweater. However, I didn’t mind looking like Miss Brill.

Let it be known that my fur collar was wholly synthetic. But I’m just old enough to remember when men really did give their women fox furs as romantic gifts. My grandmother’s second husband was into that kind of thing, and though I never saw Nana actually wear her dead fox — by then the fashion was well-and-truly over — its beautiful orange fur lay dead and curled up on one of her spare beds. That’s the bed I was required to sleep in when I visited for holidays. The enduring memories of sleeping over at Nana’s: She wouldn’t let me use the main bathroom (for fear I’d mess it up), the sheets were tucked in so firmly that you woke up stiff as a board, and touching that scary fox fur, which looked for all the world like an emaciated sleeping animal, head intact. Furs have a distinctive smell about them, too — nothing animal about it — it’s probably the chemicals used in the process of preservation. That smell is the smell of death to me.

There’s nothing like the skin of a dead mammal to remind a child of death, and I believe the fox fur in this story foreshadows Miss Brill’s Self-revelation, which is of the Heidegger’s Being-toward-death variety: Miss Brill sees herself as elderly for the first time ever.

What Happens In “Miss Brill”?

A young woman called Miss Brill visits the French Public Gardens on a chilly fine Sunday. She’s wearing a fur animal draped around her neck, after having taken it out of its box, where she probably stored it for summer. The eyes seem sad to her, though of course it’s Miss Brill herself who feels sad. (Pathetic fallacy.) She sits on a seat she considers her special seat.

At the park, Miss Brill surveys the scene around her:

  • There’s a band in a rotunda, playing as if there’s no audience.
  • She notices what people are wearing, and whether or not the clothing is new.
  • Miss Brill doesn’t seem to have a deep understanding of music because she hasn’t the words to describe it, but she appreciates ‘the little “flutey” bit’.
  • Two characters share her seat: an old man and woman, together but not speaking. As an adept voyeur, Miss Brill would love to listen in on anything they have to say.
  • There’s a flash back to the previous Sunday, showing that Miss Brill is a creature of habit and comes here at the same time each week. She remembers an Englishman and his wife and describes their clothes. She’s a noticer of fashion. Miss Brill reveals herself to be a judgemental snob as well as a voyeur. Their conversation had been about spectacles, a narrative (and actual) symbol of middle-age. Miss Brill had grown inwardly impatient with the woman, who kept making excuses for why she couldn’t wear glasses.
  • Bored by the elderly couple with nothing to say, she turns her attention to the antics of the children, and the mothers who remind her of hens with their chicks.
  • Miss Brill considers the elderly people sitting on the benches odd. She can’t identify with them (even though she’s sitting on the very same bench, also silent).
  • She thinks instead of the children, who juxtapose with the elderly people.
  • Eventually a young couple join Miss Brill to replace the elderly couple on the seat. The young man is trying to cajole his beau into something — into kissing him, probably. Miss Brill overhears the young man disparagingly refer to herself as ‘old’, wishing she’d go away. The young woman describes Miss Brill’s fur as reminiscent of ‘fried whiting’, which isn’t in itself a particular insult, but means Miss Brill has become an object of ridicule. She’s now also on the receiving end of her own trick of noticing what other people are wearing, then comparing them to other things for her own amusement.
  • Miss Brill normally buys a honey-cake at the baker’s on her way home from sitting in the garden but today she does not.
  • At home, she takes off her fur animal and puts it in the box. She imagines she hears ‘something’ crying.

SYMBOL WEB OF “MISS BRILL”

SYMBOLISM OF SEASON

We can infer that this story takes place in autumn. Autumn is well-understood to symbolise late middle age, before the winter which precedes death. Mansfield hints at the season — to say it directly would feel a little too on the nose. We know because of the sunny chill in the air and because of the moth powder, which indicates the fur has been in long storage. Then we are told about the yellow leaves, with emphasis on the sky — the Heavens — arena of death:

Behind the rotunda the slender trees with yellow leaves down drooping, and through them just a line of sea, and beyond the blue sky with gold-veined clouds.

THE FUR

To have something literally dead hanging around one’s neck is no better reminder of one’s own impending death. But that’s not how a fashionable young woman would have seen it back in 1920. This is before animal rights activists did their work in educating the general public on all the very good reasons to avoid wearing fur. At the beginning of this story Miss Brill doesn’t see her fur as a dead creature at all. She sees it as a fashion item, even as she describes its eyes and its nose. But by the end of the story she can no longer manage that. The animal fur now has an emotion; the dead fur feels nothing — this is how Miss Brill feels.

Miss Brill’s foil (proxy) character also wears fur — an ermine (stoat) toque.

The young woman who appears at the end with her beau describes Miss Brill’s fur as ‘fried whiting’, which is presumably not the look Miss Brill was going for. She’s now being compared to food rather than described as a beautiful ‘young lady’.

THE SPECTACLES

The spectacles are an obvious symbol for middle-age, and the older woman’s vain refusal to accept her own entrance into that phase of life. But as Marina Warner has said, glasses are one of those things which can mean two opposite things in a story:

Like the absurd figure of the learned ass in popular comic lore, Mother Goose often dons spectacles; in her bird shape, with glasses perched on her beak, she presides before the blackboard in children’s books like Chest Loomis’s Mother Goose Tales.

Spectacles carry a double meaning: in medieval painting, the rabbi at Jesus’ circumcision sometimes wears them, and Saint Anne, too, lays them down in the crease of her Bible. But the learned can be fools, as in Swift’s kingdom of Laputa, were the scholars all wear spectacles and see nothing. And fools, on the other hand, can be wise.

— Marina Warner, From The Beast To The Blonde

Like the colour yellow in “Bedrock” and blackberries in “Heart songs“, both by Annie Proulx, Mansfield’s glasses in “Miss Brill” carry double, contradictory meaning. Such items are invaluable to a short story writer because they can be absolutely milked for deeper meaning.

The double meaning of glasses: Unless one dons spectacles, admitting one’s own middle age, one will never have the ‘foresight’ to see one needs them in the first place.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “MISS BRILL”

WEAKNESS/NEED/DESIRE

Miss Brill is so caught up on noticing fashions — ephemeral by their nature — that she has thus far failed to see how quickly the seasons of fashion pass. By extension she hasn’t seen how quickly her own life will pass. Until she understands the ephemeral nature of her own life, she will fail to make the most of it.

[“Miss Brill”] is about an elderly lady who’s obviously English. She’s teaching in France.It’s a job that she absolutely hates and it’s one of her days off and she goes off to a park to just enjoy watching people. And what Katherine Mansfield makes so clear is that Miss Brill has very few friends, she’s very much a woman on her own. And her position is so vulnerable, because the teaching work will run out, she’s having to cope with very little money, she obviously has no security in her life, and that comes through very strongly indeed in the story.

— Susanna Fullerton

DESIRE

She wants to do the same thing every Sunday and be entertained by those around her. She hopes interesting people will enter her orbit and carry out amusing, inconsequential conversations so that she might listen in and complete their narratives in her own head.

OPPONENT

Unfortunately for Miss Brill, if she’s going to wait around for voyeuristic opportunities, she’s going to overhear conversations she’d rather not. One of these conversations will lead her to an epiphany she’d rather not have.

PLAN

Her weekly plan is to sit in the public gardens on her ‘special’ bench and wait for people to join her on the other end of it. She pretends to be listening to the band, though she has no real appreciation of music. (Rather than listening to the music, she’s imagining there is no audience at all.)

BATTLE

The Battle scene takes place not between the main character (Miss Brill) and an opponent she encounters along her journey. Mansfield does something slightly different: The Battle happens between Miss Brill’s proxy and the man who blows smoke in her face–a blatant and insulting form of rejection.

The day was so charming—didn’t he agree? And wouldn’t he, perhaps?… But he shook his head, lighted a cigarette, slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face, and even while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on. The ermine toque was alone; she smiled more brightly than ever.

SELF-REVELATION

I’m noticing as I examine the structure of short stories as opposed to films and picture books and any other kind of story, that the Self-revelation phase is the most fully fleshed out. When it comes to short stories, it’s all about the Self-revelation.

But first, the reader’s own revelation. As the story progressed, I had a realisation that Miss Brill — though ‘Miss’ and not ‘Mrs’ (the only two titles available to women in 1920) was not as young as her childlike voice, with its onomatopoeic turn of phrase and frequent exclamation points. She speaks of the ‘young girls’ with their ‘two young soldiers’ as if they are still children, yet they’re obviously of dating age.

But what is Miss Brill’s realisation? The women who just had smoke blown into her face ‘smiles more brightly than ever’ — and Miss Brill recognise this for what it is — repression. Mansfield was very interested in repression. You can see it clearly in other short stories such as “The Fly” and “Bliss”.

Miss Brill’s youthful narcissism–regardless of her age in years– affects her view of her surroundings to the point where she thinks the world bends to fit her own emotions at any given time:

But even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly, and the drum beat, “The Brute! The Brute!” over and over.

Miss Brill won’t lose her youthful narcissism, but she’s just lost her feeling of youth.

Not immediately, however.

At first she stays sitting there on the bench, trying to enjoy the day as she had before, only with avid determination to enjoy herself no matter what:

Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play.

She’s also trying to convince herself that this ‘play’ playing out before her is completely separate from herself, as actors are separate from their audience. She’s earlier described the band inversely to how she describes this woman in the ermine toque — as no different from audience members, as if they were playing in their own living rooms. Oh but now Miss Brill is determined to draw a strong line between herself and what she sees around her. Why’s that?

Because she doesn’t want to admit that she is old and alone like the woman who just had smoke blown into her face. Then she tries to convince herself that she’s important, a cast member of a play that happens every Sunday in the gardens. She’s not some nobody, dammit.

She thinks that this is her Self-revelation. In contrast to her repressed Self-revelation, she’s very conscious of this one:

How strange she’d never thought of it like that before!

But even consciously, Miss Brill knows she hasn’t filled in the details of her fantasy about the characters in the garden:

And Miss Brill’s eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, we understand, she thought— though what they understood she didn’t know.

This phase is followed by the real Self-revelation — that the young lovers see her as ‘old’ and laughable. But she refuses to dwell on that. She gets up and leaves, in a hurry to get home.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

At home, Miss Brill feels she sits in a cupboard, just like all those old people whose home lives she has imagined. The fur animal, too, is put into a box. Along with the dead animal, her youth is put away.

Here is the transcript a 2010 interview between Ramona Koval (The Australian Book Show) and Susannah Fullerton, a Kiwi Katherine Mansfield specialist.

Bliss by Katherine Mansfield

bliss mansfield

“Bliss” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield and one of Mansfield’s last.

From a writing point of view, “Bliss” is interesting for its battle scene, in which the main character experiences purely positive emotions rather than the negative charge which normally goes hand-in-hand with the ‘Battle’ part of a story.

Likewise, the self-revelation phase is not a SELF-revelation but a plot revelation (more commonly known as a ‘reveal’) which serves to prevent the main character from understanding something deeper about her own psychology. In this respect, “Bliss” is a similar story to Annie Proulx’s “In The Pit” (though in every other respect the stories are nothing alike).  Continue reading “Bliss by Katherine Mansfield”

The Wind Blows by Katherine Mansfield

The Wind Blows Katherine Mansfield

On the surface level, “The Wind Blows” by Katherine Mansfield is a coming-of-age short story about an adolescent girl (Matilda) who wakes up one morning, nervous and tense. While the wind blows outside, she gets ready for her music lesson. Before she leaves she has a minor disagreement with her mother. She has her music lesson, goes home, meets her brother walks with him to the sea. They stand together and watch a ship in the water. Then she imagines a time in the future when she and her brother will be leaving their home on a ship like this one.

(The ship is carrying coal. Mansfield uses the word ‘coal hulk’. Interestingly, these ships used to be used as prisons, as well as for freight.)

On the metaphorical level, the wind is an extended metaphor for the feelings of adolescence. It’s not easy to tell whether Katherine Mansfield is empathetic to the tumultuous feelings of adolescence, or if she’s poking fun. She has written “The Wind Blows” in a melodramatic tone.

Download the full text of “The Wind Blows” as a document. Or as a PDF.

STORYWORLD OF “THE WIND BLOWS”

Continue reading “The Wind Blows by Katherine Mansfield”

A Dill Pickle by Katherine Mansfield

A Dill Pickle Katherine Mansfield

“A Dill Pickle” is a 1917 short story by Katherine Mansfield. Over the course of a single cafe scene, a woman meets up with a former beau. This is a feminist story about how men and women tend to communicate, and illuminates Mansfield’s deep interest in psychology.

Download full text of “A Dill Pickle” by Katherine Mansfield (pdf)

WHAT HAPPENS IN “A DILL PICKLE”

A man and woman meet after six years apart. It is revealed that they used to be prospective lovers/beaus. The entire story is a conversation between them, and the reader sees (hopefully) that this partnership is doomed. A modern reader can probably put names to some of the psychological tricks going down.  Continue reading “A Dill Pickle by Katherine Mansfield”

The Fly by Katherine Mansfield

The Fly Katherine Mansfield

“The Fly” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1922.

Mansfield’s short stories are out of copyright and available at various places online. Download “The Fly”by Katherine Mansfield as a document.

Mansfield wrote “The Fly” in February 1922 as she was finding her TB treatment debilitating. She died in January of  1923, soon after its publication. Thirty-four seems young to be contemplating old age, and to write about elderly character with any sort of gravitas, but it’s likely Mansfield always had empathy for the elderly. It’s likely she knew she would die young. For one thing, she’d faced plague. The Beauchamp family escaped central Wellington to live in Karori, probably to evade the bacterial infections which were highly dangerous to Wellingtonians at the turn of the 20th century. Aside from that, Mansfield grew up with weak lungs. The family doctor told her family (if not Mansfield herself?) that she was a case of tuberculosis waiting to happen. Continue reading “The Fly by Katherine Mansfield”

Dollhouse Symbolism In Storytelling

Dollhouses in fiction serve various main functions:

  • Miniature representations of big, aristocratic houses full of furniture but devoid of real love
  • A mismatch between domesticity as we wish to set it up versus how it actually plays out
  • Fakery
  • Girlhood and naivety

The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter

If humans could inhabit their own doll’s houses they would be small enough to observe, and even join — what? Few have handled this theme with any kind of realism. The Borrowers and the Lilliputians are not part of the human race; their traditions and customs are their own. S.H. Skaife’s The Strange Old Man (1930) makes the human characters small enough — by a reducing drug — to live in a doll’s house at the bottom of the garden and see nature as it really is. The insects, birds and small animals they meet are not at all cosy, and life is full of peril and excitement. It is impossible to pretend, when presenting a disguised history lesson, that the world is anything but strange, ruthless, wonderful, sometimes ugly and dangerous.

However, these animal societies that are happening somewhere in the grass or at the back of the cupboard or in a doll’s house are spoiled by human intervention. They really don’t need it. The most specialised branch of this kind of story, the Mouse Tale, nearly always includes heroic endeavour against giants — the humans — who have to be natural, real and large.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

See also: Tom Thumb, Thumbelina and Other Miniature Tales

Tale Of Two Bad Mice Doll House

The immortal line about the lobsters, the ham, the fish, the pudding and the fruit, ‘They would not come off the plates but they were extremely beautiful’, is a definitive summary of what all doll’s houses are like — appealing to the eye but firmly defeating all four of the other senses, as the two bad mice discover.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

The Dollhouse In Gilmore girls

Emily and Richard’s house is large but it is stifling. Presided over by a matriarch who can’t be civil to any of the maids, dinner must arrive on-time, everything has a place and it is even an historic home, opened to visitors at a certain time of the year. Lorelei’s childhood room has a creepy dollhouse and is full of frou-frou. This house stands in stark opposition to the house Lorelei has made for herself, with its mismatching lamps her mother disapproves of and her refusal to stock anything in the kitchen. The dollhouse in Lorelei’s childhood room is empty and unplayed with just as the bedroom itself and the large house is mostly empty due to the only Gilmore daughter refusing, for years, to bring the grand-daughter to the house.

Lorelai had a dollhouse while growing up in the Gilmore Mansion, which is kept in her old bedroom. It is one of the few things that she actually likes from her childhood. Emily later threatens to give it away to charity if Lorelai doesn’t take it from her immediately, but Richard delivers it to her house so he can talk to her about Rory. While Jackson is staying at her house to avoid catching the chicken pox, he accidentally breaks it.

— Gilmore girls wiki

Jackson’s buffoonery is ironically, darkly funny because the dollhouse is so precious, and the only item that connects Lorelai to her parents’ house. But Jackson probably did her a favour. Over the course of 7 seasons, Lorelai does learn (mostly) to untangle herself emotionally from her parents, and the American Revolution Aristocracy that her parents — and the big fancy dollhouse — represent.

Monica’s Dollhouse In Friends

Monica's doll house

The character of Monica Geller has quite a bit in common with Lorelai Gilmore, save their separate fates at the end of the series.

Monica marries Chandler Bing, of course and, unable to conceive, the couple eventually adopts twins and moves out of their apartment into a larger house in the suburbs to raise their growing family. The dollhouse (inadvertently?) foreshadows all that is to come for Monica. This is what she was brought up to do: to build a family in a standalone house. Monica comes from an upper-class American family and the ownership of a gigantic dollhouse is a symbol of that.

 

Pam’s Dollhouse In Big Love, HBO TV Series

Remember Pam, the nosy neighbour from across the street? Pam is naive enough to believe Margine’s story at first, that her husband died in the Iraq War (which makes her a good fit as a friend for Marge, who is obviously equally naive). Pam can’t have children, but her interest in building a family — a typically Mormon aspiration — is symbolised by her hobby, which is working on a beautiful and elaborate doll’s house. She’s spending hours and hours on this to fill the void of having no family to tend to.

Big Love Pam who loves dollhouses

But Pam’s dollhouse does more than simply depict the childlike nature of Pam, and the void in her life. The episodes of Big Love open with a high-angle establishing shot of the street, in a new development somewhere in Sandy, Utah. This makes the houses themselves look like doll’s houses. These adult humans are ‘playing’ happy families, when behind closed doors they are anything but. The doll’s house is therefore a symbol of ‘play’, contrasting with ‘harsh reality’. The setting of Big Love is an excellent example of an apparent utopia.

A dollhouse is meant to be looked at — at least, the kind of doll’s house Pam makes are decorative — and they are storybook in their nature; staircases don’t need to go anywhere; furniture is arranged to be accessed from only one side of the house.

Doll’s houses are therefore like a stage.

The furniture you find in doll’s houses is from another era. You don’t find computers, phone chargers and flat-screen TVs inside doll’s houses.

Doll’s houses are therefore symbols of a former time.

All of these aspects of the doll’s house make it an excellent symbolic object for use in Big Love, where image does not match reality, where the family lives in modern society with anachronistic values and where the ‘staircase’ (to Heaven) probably doesn’t lead where Bill Henrickson thinks it will.

My Summer Of Love, 2004 Film

My Summer Of Love is about a 15-year-old girl who falls into infatuation with a rich girl home for the summer. They sort of fall in love, though it turns out the rich girl has been immersed in an elaborate fantasy life. There is a dollhouse in the older sister’s room. The girls play around with it, not as children, but to find a packet of magic mushrooms. This is where adult decisions rub up against childhood fantasies.

Only when we look back on this scene do we realise that the dollhouse is also highly symbolic of fakery. Even the name of Tamsin Fakenham is symbolic.

The Doll’s House, Short Story by Katherine Mansfield

This story appeared in Mansfield’s collection The Dove’s Nest and is considered one of her more important works.

“The Doll’s House” is concerned with the difficulties of the child in coming to terms with the brutal realities of class consciousness and social ostracism.

The social attitudes of the parents are an important feature of the story. e.g. Emmie Cole “nodded to Isabel as she’d seen her mother do on those occasions”. Lil, when ordered away by Aunt Beryl is seen “huddling along like her mother.”

“Your ma told our ma you wasn’t to speak to us” says Lil. The Kelvey children accept the social division as much as the other children do.

Note the significance of the lamp – this is symbol of light, of awakening.

“The father and mother dolls, who sprawled very stiff as though they had fainted in the drawing room, and their two little children asleep upstairs were really too big for the doll’s house. They didn’t look as though they belonged. But the lamp was perfect. It seemed to smile at Kezia, to say “I live here”. The lamp was real.

The lamp symbolizes light – truth. It is a contrast to the material splendours of the doll’s house, and to the materialistic values of the stiffly sprawling parents. It is significant that it is Kezia’s favourite as she is the only one in the story who has the courage and kindness to reach out across social barriers. Note that Else’s words at the end of the story suggest that she and Kezia share the same values.

Tom’s Midnight Garden

This story is not about a dollhouse but I am reminded of the experience of playing with a dollhouse as Tom explores the magical realm:

[T}his was a great disappointment to him–he found that he could not, by the ordinary grasping and pushing of his hand, open any of the doors in the garden, to go through them. He could nto push open the door of the greenhouse or of the little heating-house behind it, or the door in the south wall by the sundial.

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

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!]

Scene from Midnight Feast showing class distinction
Scene from Midnight Feast showing class distinction

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.

Laura

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

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

Meg ‘could not possibly go and supervise the men’.

Jose

Jose, too, has absorbed the attitudes of her mother re class distinctions.

Laurie

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”

Laura’s Hat

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.

In children’s fantasy, the flight is often literal flying.

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’.

from Hilda Bewildered
from Hilda Bewildered

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.

[750 words]