How To Write Like Katherine Mansfield

How To Write Like Katherine Mansfield

Mansfield borrowed from those who came before her and we may do the same. In fact, it’s inevitable. It pays to know our own influences… if only so we don’t mimic them too closely.

Overall, Mansfield was a modernist writer. And of the modernist writers, she was at the highly aesthetic and visual end of the spectrum. She wasn’t big into verisimilitude.

Mansfield was also an Impressionist writer and wrote lyrical short stories (rather than ‘plotted’ ones).


  • Mansfield sought to subvert convention, sometimes even while appearing to use it. How does one subvert convention? See here. What exactly did Mansfield subvert? She had a distaste for bourgeois life. She hated the stuffier sides of Victorian and Edwardian life. She also targeted the (German) greedy preoccupation with food. In earlier stories she rejected a stuffy, stereotyped ideal of domesticity. Other things she despised: man-chasing, admiration for numbers of babies, the work-a-day aspects of marriage.
  • Mansfield’s stories are sometimes about the terrors of childbirth, known as Fear of Engulfment (“The Child-Who-Was-Tired“, “Prelude“, “At The Bay“).
  • There’s a confessional tone to Mansfield’s stories. We all have a public, private and secret self. The stories feel confessional because Mansfield spends a lot of time on the secret self — the self which is barely understood by the characters themselves let alone by anyone near to them. When writers allow readers insight into a character’s secret self we tend to understand, judge, forgive and then sympathise with the confessor. This is indeed one way to create likeable characters.
  • The family circle is generally presented unfavourably. Some of her fictional families got the gross, satirical treatment. Others are presented directly and harshly (“The Child-Who-Was-Tired“). The family in “A Picnic” gets less harsh treatment. The Burnell family are presented harshly but are not treated satirically at all.
  • Related to her Fear of Engulfment, Mansfield liked to explore the theme of retaining one’s individuality. Characters seem terrified of losing themselves, of being subsumed by the roles expected of them. They wish for individuality. Stories show that there are many pitfalls in love. Take the emotional variability in “The Swing of the Pendulum“, “Psychology“, “Taking The Veil” and “The Singing Lesson“.
  • Mansfield had no time for sycophancy or chauvinism. (She was woke.)
  • She wrote of childhood joys, of adolescent pleasures and pains, of adult aspirations and frustrations, and of the memories and final knowledge of the aged.
  • As characters she chose children exploring the world alone, children reacting to adults, lonely or isolated women in a hostile world, overbearing businessmen, fathers.
  • Mansfield afforded legitimacy to the emotional lives of children, with the idea that children feel as keenly as adults. She was ahead of her time in this. Early psychologists grouped infants with ‘primitive peoples’. Civilised intellects were considered of a higher order, and privileged in literature as well.
  • Many of Mansfield’s characters are in the early years of life, in some kind of transition. The transition might be from the infant’s purely affective sensory world to the adult’s world, where emotion and thought are entwined. The child is often learning how to contend with or express emotion. Children have a physical reaction before realising what happened. (“The Little Girl“, “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped“)
  • To convey her characters’ constricted view of the world, Mansfield used isolation, delusion, cognitive restrictions, fantasies, hallucinations, dreams and fears as well as the difficulties of apprehensive youth.
  • It is often difficult to pinpoint an exact theme in her work, though a story like “The Doll’s House” is said to be accessible because of its clear theme and message.
  • One of her recurring themes is Proustian — to do with the shift and flux of time. No human relationship remains unchanged. At the moment of its consummation the relationship is being altered, lost until it is reanimated from the past.
  • Mansfield is also known for depicting the world of the child. After 1915 there is no bitterness or criticism in her work — young people are instead presented sympathetically, perhaps with humour (“Her First Ball“, “The Voyage“, “At The Bay“, “The Garden Party“, “The Doll’s House“, “The Young Girl“, “Taking The Veil“).
  • One of Mansfield’s major themes is the theme of illusion, of a faulty interpretation of an experience. Illusion is central to Literary Impressionist fiction. It’s hard to talk about in Mansfield’s work because it is pervasive. Every character exists somewhere on the Continuum of Imaginative Powers, whether they’re indulging in fantasy or are accidentally deluded.
  • Mansfield quite often changed the titles of her stories. It pays not to read too much into the significance of a title — just because “Prelude” was originally named “The Aloe” doesn’t necessarily mean the aloe is the central symbol. “The Man Without A Temperament” was earlier named “The Exile” and “The Doll’s House” was earlier named “The Washerwoman’s Children”. A setting frequently leads to the final choice of a title, or Mansfield uses the name of the main character. But also, an ironic twist in a main character’s perception of reality may also serve as a title.


Mansfield is known as the one of the first to bring modernist short stories to the West. She took her cues from Chekhov (who was Russian). She read early English translations of his work. Biographers don’t know if she first encountered Chekhov in Wellington. She may have, because she loved to spend many hours at the Wellington library. Or she may have read him later in England. In any case, he was clearly influential.

(If you want to narrate like Katherine Mansfield, you’re also narrating like Chekhov, and many other stylists who came after.)

  • Mansfield was a pioneer in interior monologue.
  • Mansfield generally makes use of shifting viewpoints, never settling on one character in particular. Because the ‘camera’ never settles, we expect her to shift viewpoints. That means you can’t settle in one head for too long. “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House” are examples of this. Other stories remain with a single character, in close third person narration. Examples are “The Tiredness of Rosabel” (until the final sentence, considered by some to be a writing mistake), “Miss Brill” and “The Wind Blows“.
  • To finish off a story, Mansfield sometimes switches point of view to that of another character who hasn’t had much airtime until now. (The Escape, “The Doll’s House”)
  • A technique called ‘narrative irony’ is present in Mansfield’s work right from “In a Cafe”, written at the age of 19. See also “In A German Pension“. Characters in her stories often continue to believe certain things even though experience tells them they shouldn’t. For example, a character describes something as ‘it seems’. Or the narrator might present wrong interpretations without any judgement.
  • Mansfield creates different perspectives on a given temporal event by offering perspectives from different viewpoints. This technique has been called narrative parallax.
  • Mansfield often follows this formula of ironic narrational parallax. This is what makes Mansfield Impressionist. This is what makes Mansfield’s work ironic. Her view of reality is ephemeral evanescent, constantly shifting its meaning and defies precise definition.
  • Parallax is a part of a wider movement known as Literary Impressionism, in which a (homodiegetic) narrator tells a story which is fragmentary, seemingly objective, dramatic and indirectly suggestive, as well as parallactic. Characters are conditioned by their environment and prone to distortion and misinterpretation. Unreliable, in other words. But not because they’re being deliberately deceitful — because they don’t quite understand themselves or their relationship to their world. This is how the character genuinely perceives reality. The central issues of Literary Impressionism are ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is happening now?’ It is up to the reader to piece together fragments and come to our own conclusion about who this person is and what’s happening in the story. The character can’t see the full picture because they are stuck within the setting.
  • Characters are usually unable to comprehend much beyond their own personal world, however beautiful the natural surroundings and its ‘Stimmung’ (mood) and however strong the impulse to resist a passive outlook upon life.
  • A character’s view of life is necessarily subjective, solipsistic, tentative and qualified by preoccupation. Mansfield’s reality is arbitrary, fragmentary, momentary, ambivalent and complex.
  • Characters are reflected in each other’s thoughts. They’d hardly recognise themselves as they are presented, coloured and changed by different points of view. In “Prelude“, Stanley is seen by his wife by turns as a turkey or a Newfoundland dog.
  • The constantly shifting perspective gives the reader a series of shocks, as one perspective shifts to another. (Look for windows and mirrors in stories with shifting perspectives — “Prelude” as well as To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.
  • The narrator in Mansfield’s stories is often perceptive but has no prior knowledge of characters or of the situation or the meaning of events. The in medias res beginning of many of her stories allows for no extra information. The narrator attempts to capture impressions in statu nascendi (in a state of being born). This narrator depicts the outer world not as it is, but as it appears, via the senses rather than the intellect. If that’s all we’re using, what have we got? Commentary on: appearance, size, age, voice. This will require a healthy number of adjectives and adverbs.


  • Mansfield created fictional impressions of real life around her. She gave her themes a fictional expression that attempted to define reality as viewed by one or more central characters.
  • Though Mansfield expressed disdain for her home country of New Zealand, as she approached death, her thoughts returned to her homeland and her last, most accomplished stories are all set in and around Wellington.
  • Some of her settings are ambiguous, such as “A Dill Pickle”, which is almost certainly London, but set in a cosmopolitan cafe which could be many places.
  • Mansfield lived in France and is now buried there. A number of her stories are set in France.
  • Others are set in Germany. Her collection In A German Pension is set in Germany, though Mansfield later said she didn’t like those stories.
  • Mansfield wrote contemporary tales, which means they’re all set in the late 1800s, early 1900s.
  • World War One (and events leading up to it) makes an appearance in some of her stories, if only to underscore how unimportant world events are to her characters, who must go on with their own small lives regardless. (“A Dill Pickle”, “The Fly”.)
  • Mansfield knew how a well-to-do, moneyed household worked. Her New Zealand natal family went by that exact description, and because English immigrants were still very English in their custom, she knew how that class of English people lived, too. Bertha of “Bliss” is presumably English born, but she’s no more English in character than the young fictional women who grew up in New Zealand.
  • Critics talk about ‘the snail underneath the leaf’ in Mansfield’s worlds, referring to the corruption of the world or ‘The Ugliness of Leaf’, which exists just below the surface. The ‘snail under the leaf’ theme also has a more general aspect in its emphasis on the evil of the universe, the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity. In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing. ‘The snail underneath the leaf’ is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.
  • Mansfield liked to juxtapose life with death. From early 1920 onwards the death theme is either directly or indirectly present in many of her stories.
  • Related to this, time is brief. After 1917 Mansfield’s stories show nostalgia for New Zealand. Enough time had elapsed to allow her to look back on her childhood with fond memories, though while actually living there she felt stifled. She seems sorrowful to be separated from it and also feels joy and remembers its beauty.
  • What does it all mean? This is another question Mansfield asks over and over again, starting with a more satirical view that there is no point. Later she blends this theme with the beauty of nature. (There may be no point apart from living in the moment and enjoying life’s beauty.) When this is done she’s often describing trees e.g. “Bliss“, “The Escape“, “Weak Heart“, “Prelude“, “At The Bay“.
  • Mansfield’s symbol web often involves whirling, clusters, chains and patterns and these groups evoke a variety of effects.
  • Reliable data are difficult to find in Mansfield’s short stories and reliable interpretations of data are even more rare. Her reality is elusive, shifting and impenetrable.
  • The class system stands in the way of friendship and romance (“The Doll’s House“, “The Garden Party“.)
  • What is Mansfield’s relationship to nature? Nature is seen as a beautiful and serene phenomenon amid the calamities of human strife. It juxtaposes the corruption of human action. Nature is often used to evoke a special atmosphere in order to create an Impressionistic Stimmung (mood).
  • Katherine Mansfield is often called a modernist writer. The modernist movement happened from about 1900 until mid 20th century. One feature of modernist stories: the slightly unusual treatment of time. Critics have talked about ‘the temporal unconscious’. This refers to how time manifests itself subliminally in literary works. In the antipodes (including New Zealand), it worked slightly differently. The modernist works that came from New Zealand and Australia and surrounds have been called ‘micromodernism’ (by Tim Armstrong). It’s to do with the sense of distance we have, growing up so far away from the imaginative ‘home land’, which back then, was England.


Tiny, quotidian moments make for sufficient plot:

  • Being late for a train then losing your parasol off the cart (The Escape)
  • Going home after work to fantasise about a brief encounter you had with another young woman’s beau (The Tiredness of Rosabel)
  • Sitting on a park bench at the gardens, voyeuristically listening in to other people’s conversations (“Miss Brill”)
  • Riding the Picton Ferry with your grandmother, in charge of looking after her umbrella (“The Voyage”)
  • Preparing for a party (“Bliss”, “The Garden Party”, “Sun and Moon”)
  • Killing an irritating fly in your office after a former employee drops in with some news (“The Fly”)
  • Showing two classmates your new doll’s house even though those girls aren’t allowed in the yard (The Doll’s House)

However ambiguous Mansfield’s stories seem after a first reading, they’ll make sense to the careful reader after a second read-through. Symbolism is King. In common with writers like Joseph Conrad and Annie Proulx, Mansfield’s stories are about ‘delayed decoding‘. That’s a fancy way of saying the reader doesn’t know what’s happening until later, and often not until after a second read.


Get the mood first, and focus on the psychology of the characters. Some of your stories will require a cast of characters who are all equal as ‘main’ characters, because the themes are about the problems in a community:

  • Families, especially those with lots of money, are nicely dysfunctional for narrative purposes (Prelude)
  • Isolated women such as Beryl of the “Prelude” trilogy, “Miss Brill” and Rosabel from “The Tiredness of Rosabel“. These women tend to be fantasists, escaping regularly into their own fantasy worlds to compensate for lack of affection in real life. Many of the female characters don’t speak, or do not respond to speech. It’s as though they’re silenced by the power of the voices around them. But we shouldn’t read these women as conventionally ‘weak’. When these characters avoid words as the ‘natural’ medium of communication they not only circumvent the limits of conventional ‘meaning’ but also implicitly question the conventional association between male speech and authority (exemplified by the verbose Stanley from “At The Bay“.)
  • Overbearing businessmen fathers (“The Fly”,  the Comical Stanley Burnell from the “Prelude” trilogy)
  • Adolescents or women young beyond their years (“The Wind Blows”, The Tiredness of Rosabel)
  • In stories which include children, there’s a division between the adults and the children, with emphasis on how the adults’ behaviour is affecting the children as easily influenced little people, with reader empathy lying firmly with the children. We also realise these children will turn out exactly like their parents.
  • Mansfield tended to write absent, disinterested mothers. Maternal love is depicted negatively, especially when compared to the love children show for their grandmothers. Linda Burnell from the Prelude trilogy is uninterested in her children. She seems more interested in taking material goods to the new house in “Prelude” than in taking all of her children and helping them settle in. “We shall simply have to leave them. That is all. We shall simply have to cast them off…”
  • And where there are young children there is often an elderly character who Mansfield aligns them with. (“The Voyage”, “Sun and Moon”.) This has the effect of making the reader view a lifetime as a package all at once, and a life in terms of snapshots in a photo album, rather than viewing the very old and the very young as completely different creatures.
  • Older women tend to live with their younger, extended families and although they play an important role in the household, they are without much power. (“New Dresses,” the “Prelude” trilogy)
  • Young women have been taught that the most important thing about them is the way they look. They’ll probably love the way they look, aesthetically, when trying on a new hat in the mirror, but judge others harshly for their imperfections, especially imperfections of skin. This will lead some readers to conclude narcissism, but we are reminded that narcissism is borne of deep insecurity.
  • A common shortcoming of many Mansfield characters is that they absolutely love party preparation and even the parties themselves, but that after party clean up period (even though there are usually maids to do it) tends to remind them of death and decay. They can’t bear the flip side of carefully managed perfection. (“The Garden Party“, “Sun and Moon“)
  • Many of Mansfield’s characters have trouble with the falseness, ostentation and the sterility of modern life — especially characters from the upper classes.
  • Though Mansfield isn’t well known as a ground-breaking feminist writer, women in her stories are often at a disadvantage due to gender roles of the time. (New Dresses, “Her First Ball”, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”.) “A Dill Pickle” is an obvious display of white male privilege, and the tough decision a white woman must make — does she marry an ass and gain some social status, or does she continue life as a middle-aged single woman?
  • Mansfield created characters with shortcomings designed to explore ‘the irreconcilable cleavage between the rich potentialities of live and the inescapable brutalities of human experience which must evoke despair.’ – Berkman
  • In many of Mansfield’s stories she’ll compare a character to a bird at some point. She uses quite a wide range of birds, though. The Kelvey girls are chickens in The Doll’s House, to underscore the motherly nature of the older Kelvey girl. “The Birdcage” and Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day are the ultimate examples of a character as bird.
  • If you really want to immerse yourself in how Katherine Mansfield viewed people, you probably want to read Principles of Psychology by William James (brother of Henry James). James was what psychologists call a ‘vitalist’ (alongside Henri Bergson). James believed that behaviour influences emotion, whereas previously it was thought that a person’s emotion influences their behaviour. We now know that it’s more of cycle than a cause and effect kind of thing. James also came up with the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, which describes modernist authors (a phrase which had entered literary criticism by 1918). Vitalism affected how modernist writers viewed ‘character’. Beforehand, the self had been understood in terms of a single transcendent ego, but modernists put it to their readers that ‘self’ was not only multiple, but also mutable. The self is not one single, never-changing thing. We change from moment to moment, as situations change. (Bergson added to this theory by making a distinction between superficial personality and deeper consciousness, which is exactly how storytelling gurus tell writers to create characters today.) This is partly what made Mansfield feel so modern. She challenged the ideology of the one true self (which we still see in much children’s literature today, as in ‘Be yourself’ stories). What does it mean to be yourself?
  • Vitalism also probably encouraged Mansfield to question the nature of time. She does all sorts of interesting things with time in her stories. She achieves The Overview Effect in “Prelude” and links children to the elderly. She picks symbols (e.g. the aloe in “Prelude“) for their interesting relationships with time. According to Henri Bergson, these separate selves don’t begin and end (I guess the would make it dissociative identity disorder), but each personality extends into another. It’s impossible to respond in exactly the same way to a single thing twice in succession. That’s because you’ve already had one reaction, and that will inevitably influence all subsequent reactions. It’s impossible to remain the same person, even from moment to moment. This is why so often Mansfield’s characters seem to be high on something one moment — the next downcast. e.g. Beryl in “At The Bay“, first viewing herself as a ‘lovely, fascinating girl’, then ‘All that excitement and so on has a way of suddenly leaving you’. (She has become aware of a nearby ‘sorrowful bush’.)
  • Mansfield’s diaries and letters show that when she felt down she experienced this as a kind of tiredness, though she knew the difference between lack of sleep and low mood. Similarly, when Mansfield’s characters feel tired, it’s often because they feel low affect. e.g. in “Something Childish But Very Natural” thinks he’ll never again see the girl on the train and ‘felt very tired—he only wanted to sit down and shut his eyes—she was not coming—a forlorn relief breathed in the words.’
  • Mansfield writes adolescents whose feelings are subject to confusion and whose mental processes are at their most restless. She mixes childlike savagery and adolescent purity with idealism. They can be irresponsible and passive. (Yvonne of “A Little Episode“, Henry and Edna of “Something Childish But Very Natural“.)
  • Nearly every main character suffers from the reality-illusion-disparity problem due to limited experience. This affects both matters of fact and matters of judgement.
  • Illusion is especially evident in the stories about children, who are often playing out their own interpretation of adult behaviour. The children reveal the social pretensions of their parents through their imitative fantasy but also portray the common illusions of adult life.
  • Many characters are described from the outside only. Unless they are moulded into a narrative focus, the characters are barely sketched in. Many characters make only brief appearances. We barely know their names.
  • ‘Positive’ characters are generally those who grow and develop new ideas. This is why there are many young people and children in Mansfield’s work, or interest to her because they still have the potential for change.


Characters must all have a conscious desire which connects to a deeper one. The conscious desires tend to be quite shallow, such as getting from point A to point B, or finding a hat suitable for a party, but the deeper desires include:


Characters don’t necessarily even know who their opponents are. Opposition a Mansfield story is very low grade (compared to a war big struggle), but has devastating consequences for the main character.

  • Mother and daughter form opponents in New Dresses to the point where the adults are causing their daughter serious psychological damage. And all because the mother wants her daughter to look clean and tidy and presentable.
  • Rich and poor make for natural opponents. Both rich and poor have already learned their place, even when the characters are children, as in The Doll’s House. No one’s trying to climb outside their designated social rank. They’re trying to live within it, as best they can. The Tiredness of Rosabel is another example.
  • In stories about couples, lovers make for natural opponents, because they are in and out of love with each other at different times. (Bliss, Prelude) In the Prelude trilogy, Linda both loves and hates her husband at the same time.
  • Sometimes the object of one’s affection doesn’t even know it. (“The Wind Blows”, “Bliss”.)
  • An emotionally mature character is a natural opponent for an emotionally immature character. (For Mansfield, maturity has nothing to do with age in years.) (New Dresses, “The Fly”.)
  • Mansfield liked the technique of counterposing one character with another. In the same way, excited and searching Bertha is counterposed to the calm and contained Pearl Fulton in “Bliss“. Sabina is counterposed next to the pregnant woman in “At Lehmann’s“. In the “Prelude” trilogy Kezia is set next to Linda, Beryl and Mrs Fairfield. This method of juxtaposing characters’ attitudes and moods give structural unity to stories.


  • The big struggles in Mansfield short stories are very subtle and often entirely inside a character’s head. The kitchen girl in Prelude regularly has arguments with her employers which take place only inside her head. Her witty (unsaid) comebacks make her feel much better.
  • Mansfield would often make use of the language of big struggle as proxy for an actual fight. “The Wind Blows” is an excellent example of that, in which the language of a fight is used to describe the adolescent brother and sister’s evening walk down to the seaside, where they will see the boat.


The experience of an epiphany is a key aspect of modernist writing: Virginia Woolf and James Joyce also tried to articulate flashes of realisation, revelation, insight and understanding. Woolf described these as ‘moments of being’.

  • Epiphanies are experienced in many of Mansfield’s stories, although they do not necessarily lead to complete comprehension. Rather there is awareness, intimation and possibly just a glimpse of something beyond a character’s everyday perceptions. Miss Brill thinks she’s realised something amazing as she sits on her park bench — that everyone is an important character in some kind of play. But her real realisation, though she doesn’t fully understand the reason behind her sudden downcast mood, is that she is old.
  • Quite often Mansfield refuses to express a character’s epiphany in words. The epiphany might actually take place in the ‘break’ between scenes (often divided by three asterisks).
  • Mansfield makes much use of symbolism and imagery in helping the reader to understand more about the character than the character knows about themselves. The fox fur in “Miss Brill” is a great example of that.
  • Mansfield’s stories are all about how no one has a full grip on ‘reality’. Everyone’s interpretation of reality is different.
  • Her stories tend to follow a regular pattern with the ‘positive’ theme dominant until the climax (the Battle). Then it comes into decisive conflict and is superseded by the negative theme. In other words, the story often takes a turn for the depressing at this point.
  • Although reality is elusive, shifting and impenetrable, it is at this point in the story when a character often experiences a moment of awareness. That said, there’s very little accurate ‘interpretation of reality’ in Mansfield’s stories, which on either side of the brief Anagnorisis are all about misinterpretation, distortion, misplaced emphasis and illusion.
  • Apperception is a dated word in psychology which indicates the mental process by which a person makes sense of an idea by assimilating it to the body of ideas he or she already possesses. Mansfield’s characters are often like this.
  • Nature images often help convey an epiphany.


  • In the end, the individual is alone and insignificant.
  • Some of Mansfield’s characters seem to have a revelation then we’re told they’ve forgotten all about it. This is partly why Mansfield’s work is referred to as ‘Freudian’, drawing upon Freud’s theories of suppression and repression. (Her First Ball, The Doll’s House)
  • This repression might be provoked by something trivial which causes some glimmer of hope. (“Daughters of the Late Colonel”)
  • Mansfield’s images often encapsulate the full impact of a short story, especially in a concluding or ironic paragraph.
  • A quiet day’s end is rarely as peaceful as illusion suggests.


  • There’s a lot of imagery! “At the Bay” is 40 pages long and contains 101 comparisons and 88 metaphors. (It wasn’t me who counted.)
  • Sometimes images are a standalone metaphor. Other times she creates a complex imagistic pattern, combining several forms of imagery.
  • Mansfield varies the intensity of her images. She is able to weaken or enlarge a pictorial image. The narrator wants to leave a gap between a subjective impression and an objective presentation of the experience to be described and compared. This can leave the reader with a deliberately fostered feeling of vagueness, indirection or insufficiency. (e.g. something which is like longing, and yet it is not longing. Or regret — it is more like regret — “The Canary“.)
  • Some images have purely narrative function but other imagistic patterns indirectly emphasise a character-trait which the reader has seen via their dialogue and action.
  • Mansfield makes heavy use of pathetic fallacy — whatever a character feels, everything around them will seem to feel like that, too. An aloe tree or a pear tree (“Bliss”) might make a character feel buoyantly happy, but for another character (“The Escape”), a beech tree will make him feel suffocated. (Nothing inherently to do with the tree.) Miss Brill feels sad and lonely, so her fur fox (or stoat, or whatever it is) also looks sad to her.
  • Hats in Mansfield’s stories are repeatedly associated with systems of authority. (This is not stated but unarticulated) e.g. “The Tiredness of Rosabel“. In “Something Childish But Very Natural“, Henry’s story begins with him becoming separated from his hat in a different train carriage. This seems to relieve him of inhibitions. In “The Garden Party” the images of hats are incorporated in the action of the story not only because people wore hats in those days and put a lot of thought into them, but also because they are related to moral values.
  • Contrasting patterns of images often generate a thematic layer of meaning.
  • The birds, trees, insects and objects are often introduced by means of a precise comparison e.g. the pear tree in “Bliss“: ‘At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky’.
  • Grown-up people are often compared with children and children with grown-ups. This reveals contrasting joyful or painful emotions.
  • Sad tones often dominate the scene, sometimes conveying a feeling of claustrophobia, when characters feel as if they are in prison or hospital, or like actors performing on a stage. People appear like actors, wearing masks.
  • Mansfield sometimes personifies material objects. These objects share a character’s emotions in a fused emotional atmosphere.
  • When Mansfield compares people to animals, beasts, insects, water-creatures or birds, unpleasant emotions are revealed. Insects are helpless, snakes are cunning, spiders are hunting for prey. Rabbits are escaping. They all represent a cruel or suffering aspect of humankind.
  • Mansfield especially likes bird images. Bird comparisons comprise almost half of all the animal imagery. In some stories, birds represent freedom or happiness (because they fly and seem to sing joyfully). But this is not how Mansfield makes use of birds.
  • Acoustic images are important, too.  Often sounds are distant or muted.
  • Visual and acoustic imagery fuses in an almost synaesthesic way, creating a dreamlike atmosphere.
  • Characters themselves are either highly aware of these images or not so much — this places them within a scene and tells us how they relate to their setting.
  • Colour is emphasised, and relates to character mood. Colour is used for more than simply describing something. Colour images fall into two basic categories: [1] Images related to the visual experience of the character who sees it and [2] images which express in colour the atmospheric mood or their mental state. Some commentators have said that Mansfield’s technique of describing colour maps directly onto pointillism, in which artists use short brush strokes to create a lot of dots, and avoid blending, instead requiring the viewer to stand back in order to make out a scene. (Stand too close and all you’ll see are the dots.)
  • Though this is a stretch, there is a painterly quality to Mansfield’s prose. She uses purple, green and gentle colours such as mild yellows, greys, blues and variations of light. This paints tones and creates atmosphere.
  • One of Mansfield’s ways of expressing emotion was to find a set of objects, a situation or a chain of events which conveyed the formula of the particular emotion.
  • Mansfield’s figurative language and images are often ironic, projecting a character’s wrong interpretation of events.
  • Here’s what she doesn’t do. In common with the Realists of the late 1800s, Mansfield avoided figurative language that would draw on spiritual and supernatural worlds for their meaning. She doesn’t refer to mythology either.
  • Mansfield often tries to arrest the reader’s attention through an unexpected, rare or even bizarre image, so that the impression will strike home. The image may create an illusion of objectivity, but the reader is nevertheless aware of the particular manner in which the illusion is created.


The value of language is one of the most pervasive motifs in Mansfield’s writing, and she clearly was interested in words and sentences.

  • Mansfield created meaningful silence in her stories. Silence is a form of communication in its own right. When her characters don’t speak or refuse to respond, this highlights other symbolic nuance — the reader is trusted to read the signs: irony, puns, negation, intertextual allusion, metaphor.
  • She made much use of spatial breaks (three asterisks) e.g. in “Die Einsame”, “In a Cafe”, “Old Cockatoo Curl”, (all found in Poetry and Critical Writings of Katherine Mansfield edited by Gerri Kimber), “Something Childish But Very Natural“, “An Indiscreet Journey“, “Six Years After” and in some of the German Pension sketches. These divisions affect the pacing of the stories, speeding the narrative up or slowing it down as required. Feel free to use the three dot ellipsis when ‘ending’ a sentence.
  • Mansfield repeats words, partly to make the rhythm of the prose work more like poetry.
  • Language is succinct, both at a sentence level and at a scene level. The prose is akin to lyric poetry with much thought given to prosody and scansion.
  • She often opens stories grounding us in time, telling us the season or the day of the week or the time.
  • There are many qualifying terms of uncertainty: ‘as if’, ‘in a kind of’, ‘rather like’ etc. This often indicates the illusion of proximity or a variable intensity. This is Mansfield stressing the deluding tricks of the eye. Visual phenomena are thereby presented as problematic. An example of this can be found in “At The Bay“, in which Mansfield describes an early foggy morning at sea. She distorts proximity by merging the hills, the bungalows, the paddocks, the dew drops, the birds, the sea — distorted when seen from a distance.
  • Little touches are placed side by side and concatenation prevails in Katherine Mansfield’s imagery. One of her methods is to heighten the pictorial atmosphere by accumulations of comparisons for the same object. The images are swollen and blown up by extra additions. ‘Every note was a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness.’ ‘How extraordinary shell-like we are as we are — little creatures, peering out of the sentry-box, ogling through our glass case at the entry, wan little servants, who never can say for certain, even, if the master is out or in’

Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

The Woman At The Store by Katherine Mansfield

The Woman At The Store text

“The Woman At The Store” (1912) is one of Mansfield’s earlier stories, written for the magazine Rhythm. The aesthetic goal of this magazine was pity, brutality and a carefully wrought plot with adequate foreshadowing. It is now thought that this story is far from Mansfield’s best work.

This short story has been criticised for its foreshadowing, considered ‘telegraphing’ (foreshadowing which is far too blatant):

When Mansfield writes ‘It sounded a ridiculous arrangement’ (in regards to the sleeping set-up), this sounds like a contrivance to fit the story — a writing hack otherwise known as ‘lampshading‘.

What Happens In “The Woman At The Store”?

Three people make a journey on horseback through the rough New Zealand country. The narrator, her husband and a brother. (Not sure from which side.) They come across a house where a woman is living with her five-year-old daughter.

The travellers stop for the night. One of the party — Jo — wants to have sex with the woman who runs the store. Despite her haggard appearance, he makes arrangements to spend the night with her.

The daughter is sent to sleep in the store with the narrator and her husband. Later, the daughter reveals through a drawing that the mother has killed her husband.

The next morning the narrator and Jim leave. Jo, left behind, shouts to them that he will catch up.

Setting of “The Woman At The Store”

The woman at the store remains unnamed — she remains ‘other’ to them — and the worst kind of other to Jo, who does not acknowledge her as attractive in any meaningful way, yet still wants to do sex to her. (Not necessarily ‘with’.) Despite living in a whare, she has blue eyes and yellow hair. (Was her former husband Maori?) Her front teeth are ‘knocked out’ (rather than rotted out). Her former husband was almost certainly abusive.

There’s plenty of bird imagery running throughout this story — Mansfield did love a good bit of bird symbolism. And the child is described as a ‘rat’, same as The Kelvey Girls in “The Doll’s House“.

The season is midsummer — I’d guess January, which is the only time New Zealand is really oppressively hot. (It’s more the humidity which makes a bit of heat unbearable.) Throughout this story Mansfield makes the most of extreme weather conditions:

Rain whipped in our faces, the land was light as though a bush fire was raging.

Some have said this is melodramatic, and blatant pathetic fallacy to boot. I figure that’s what this is — a melodramatic ghost story pastiche. The wild weather is a form of magical realism.

Narration of “The Woman At The Store”

Much has been said about the ‘naturalistic technique’ of this story. The syntax and word choice (especially the strong verbs) do create an oppressive atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the narrator intrudes, and breaks the spell. Details are not left to speak for themselves. Mansfield gives us a bit too much help.

Hundreds of larks shrilled; the sky was slate colour, and the sound of the larks reminded me of slate pencils scraping over its surface.


Alongside ‘The Young Girl’, some critics think that both stories would have been better if cast in another point of view. In “The Woman At The Store”, some have said there is no argument to justify use of first person. We are not even clear of her sex until the feminine pronoun is used much later in the story. Unlike Mansfield’s other female protagonists, who tend to be feminine and narcissistic, this one seems like one of the boys.

However, I’m guessing Mansfield had a good reason to write in first person. I think she’s writing a New Zealand ghost story. In that case, first person lends the verisimilitude of eyewitness account.


It is no longer considered acceptable to change the spelling of words to mimic lower-class speech. This is generally considered condescending. Any sort of dialect comes only from syntax.


  • a blue galatea shirt — a white cotton fabric with blue stripes
  • wideawake — a type of hat, resembling that worn by a Quaker in colonial America, with a broad brim and black or brown felt
  • jaeger —Jaeger is a United Kingdom based high-end fashion brand and retailer of menswear and womenswear formed in 1884
  • duck trousers —The duck trousers get their name from the material from which they are made, a linen or cotton fabric that is finer and lighter than canvas. While occasionally used for men’s clothing, generally, the fabric is used for the lighter sails of vessels and the sacking of beds.
  • fly biscuits — I’m guessing here, but the fly biscuits I grew up with in New Zealand (in the 1980s) were named so due to the sultanas, which look like dead flies.
  • whare — a Marae, Maori meeting house
  • bluchers — ankle-length, front-laced shoes. (Your bog standard lace up. Your ‘holotypic‘ men’s lace up.)
  • embrocation — an old-fashioned word for liniment, which is also quite old. What do the young folks say now? Ointment? Lotion? Rub? Fudge?
  • Pawa — is now spelt paua, after standadisation of Maori spelling. The paua is a large, edible abalone, native to New Zealand.
  • Richard Seddon — the Prime Minister of New Zealand 1893-1906. (He took strong measures to try and stop New Zealand women from winning the right to vote. He refused to retire despite strong encouragement, then died in office age 60. All this aside, he remains much revered, and the woman at the store obviously revered him, too. She would’ve had affinity with a man who himself ran a pub before he became a full-time politician.)
  • Sundowner — now the breed of a popular Australian breed of apple, in Mansfield’s time, in New Zealand, it referred to a tramp who habitually seeks out accommodation each day around sundown.
  • Beano — short for bean-feast, a British colloquial term (1875-1940?) for an excursion or celebration with food and drink
  • Rook rifle — an obsolete English single-shot small calibre rifle intended for shooting small game e.g. rooks and rabbits. Rooks are a gregarious Eurasian crow with black plumage and a bare face. (Rabbits were brought to New Zealand from the 1830s onwards, for food, sport… and total decimation of the landscape. Rooks were introduced in the 1860s to make European immigrants feel more at home, and later had to be brought under control because they were doing too well.)


There’s a whole category of ghost stories about travellers who stumble upon an eerie place, interact with characters, then leave, never to find that same place again.

This story structure of “The Woman At The Store” is similar to that of a ghost story. The ‘whole place disappears’ as two of the party round the bend. We might take that literally, as in, the store no longer exists because there’s no one there to see it. (Jo could have been a ghost already, when he waved goodbye.)

There’s plenty of ominous detail.

  • flies
  • the twilight which ‘frightens — as though a savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw’.
  • The image of the bottles and pickles in a room all lined up has a horror feeling to it — as if the pickles might actually be body parts or something.
  • “She’s the dead spit of me!”
  • The landscape is described as alive: ‘I went to the end of the paddock where the willows grew and bathed in the creek. The water was clear and soft as oil. Along the edges held by the grass and rushes, white foam tumbled and bubbled.’
  • The kid did not utter a cry.
  • she stood in her grey flannel night-gown


Three travellers (two men and a woman) need somewhere to stay for the night. It has been a long, hot day, their pack horse is in need of medical attention and their own basic needs must be met.

Jo has stopped singing, which tells us the party is not in good spirits.


The three travellers want food and a bed for the night. Jo wants to have sex with a woman, any woman, and this one will do.


The woman at the store has everything they need, but isn’t willing to give it easily.

The child doesn’t want to sleep with two strangers, which is completely fair enough. How many parents would let their five-year-old bed down with strangers? The child ends up an ally, really, for telling them the truth of the situation, but for the duration of the story, this is the Creepy Child with the Nightmare Fuel Colouring Book.


They plan to sweet talk her, but this isn’t necessary as the woman at the store comes around in her own time.


The child grows angry at being cast out into the store room and for this reason reveals that the mother killed the father with a gun.


In lieu of a anagnorisis, there is a plot revelation (that the woman killed the man).

In the best short stories, a plot revelation is accompanied by a anagnorisis. That doesn’t happen in this one. As a bit of entertainment, “The Woman At The Store” is serviceable, but as a great work of literature… no. There’s only one layer to this one.


There’s the Inn of No Return trope, in which those who check-in can never leave, then there’s this kind of story. In “The Woman At The Store”, two of the travellers do get out of there, but are forever changed by what they have learned. The other, who went right into the house and stayed the night with the woman, may be stuck there forever.


Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Fake Gender Equality In The Christmas Chronicles

The Christmas Chronicles

The Christmas Chronicles is this year’s tentpole festive family movie from Netflix. Directed by Clay Kaytis, the script is written by another two men, David Guggenheim and Matt Lieberman.

The nice thing about The Christmas Chronicles is that a few of the old gender tropes have been inverted. Instead of an adventurous younger brother juxtaposed against a surly teenaged older sister, we have an adventurous younger sister juxtaposed against a surly teenaged brother. Instead of killing off the mother, they’ve killed off the father to allow the kids to go out on their own Christmas Eve jaunt completely unsupervised.

But as I have said before, inversion doesn’t equal subversion.

Writers cannot simply flip a few gender tropes and hope for pats on the back. Writers need to read the damn room. They need to actually listen to women when women say — as women have been saying this entire year, and last year, and all the years before that — that women know our own minds. We don’t need men to know our minds for us.

In The Christmas Chronicles, our adventurous heroine causes Santa to crash his sleigh. On the ground, nobody but the kids believe he’s ‘the real santa’, but Santa manages to pull adults up short by knowing everyone’s names, and also the content of their deepest desires, stretching back to when they were kids. (In storytelling terms, he knows their conscious desires — a certain toy of the year — as well as their underlying desires — their wish to make their families happy etc.) Basically, Santa is a red and white version of an omniscient god. (I’m going to leave the inherent creepiness of that aside.)

In this particular version of a ‘true believers will be richly rewarded’ story, Santa ends up in prison, which allows for a good fish-out-of water comic set-up. Jail is the last place for Santa, right? Santa breaks into people’s homes to GIVE stuff, not to take it away. The writers have made the most of the comic irony here.

The jail sequence begins with a scene completely lacking in 2018 informed sensibility.

The following conversation takes place between the newly imprisoned Santa and a police officer who thinks he’s being pranked. The only way Santa can prove he’s the ‘real’ Santa is by playing the role of a TV psychic. Santa tells the officer things deeply personal things about himself.


POLICE OFFICER: You know what I want for Christmas?
SANTA: It’s my job, Dave.
POLICE OFFICER: Okay, then, smart guy. What do I want?
SANTA: Lisa.
SANTA: Your ex-wife.
POLICE OFFICER: I know who Lisa is. How did you…
SANTA: She left you a couple years ago, and all you want for Christmas is for her to come back.
POLICE OFFICER: Yeah, well, that ain’t ever gonna happen.
SANTA: Yeah, I think maybe. [facial expression suggests the officer is wrong]
POLICE OFFICER: Okay, look, pal. You don’t walk in here and talk about my ex-wife.
SANTA: Dave, just… just give her a call.
POLICE OFFICER: She doesn’t wanna talk to me.
SANTA: Yes! Yes, she does! Now, she’s… she’s having second thoughts and… she’s lonely, too. And she really misses you!
POLICE OFFICER: Now I know you’re out of your tree. Will you please stop this?
SANTA: You know who I am! I mean, you’ve always been a suspicious, doubtful type. That’s probably why you’re a good cop. But deep down, you know that I know what everybody wants for Christmas. So, just give her a call, Dave!
POLICE OFFICER: I don’t know how you know all this stuff.

Within the world of this story, Santa knows what the unseen ex-wife really wants because he knows what everyone really wants. The ex-wife wants the man she previously left to just call her.

If stories existed in a completely separate bubble from the real world, this might work fine.

But within the world of the actual real world, when women leave their partners, it’s generally for a damn good reason, and if they give their ex-partners the impression they want no further contact, they damn well mean that. Women don’t need men sitting together in rooms, trying to persuade each other that women don’t really mean exactly what women say.

The notion that women don’t mean ‘no’ when we say ‘no’ is dangerously pervasive, for women. For women, this sometimes means murder. It very frequently means physical or emotional abuse.

When script writers create scenes like this in a movie for children, they are perpetuating the idea that women don’t know our own minds — that men know better. Worse, men *magically* know better. Or they should magically know better. Silly old emotionally deaf police officer, failing to pick up the real situation. Santa is persuading the police officer that he’s got the situation completely arse about. (Because men are emotional dolts when it comes to women — another tired, self-perpetuating trope.)

If a man wants the love of a particular woman, all he needs to do is ‘persevere’, said every stalker ever. Where on earth do they learn this?

Since this character is a police officer, the scene feels even worse, if that’s possible. In family films, police officers are portrayed as the good guys, except when they blatantly are not. The police officer in The Christmas Chronicles is an unambiguous good guy. Like the child viewer, he craved certain toys. (It is implied he didn’t get them — poor him.) Now he’s an adult, all he wants is love. Poor him. It can’t be just any love, though. It must be the love of the woman who left him for reasons known only to herself. Another concerning trope: The myth of the one true love.

Domestic abuse among police officers is even higher than in the general population. This has been known for some time.

Research suggests that family violence is two to four times higher in the law-enforcement community than in the general population. So where’s the public outrage?

The Atlantic, 2014

Once again, an audience is encouraged to take a man’s sexual desire seriously without considering the woman’s side. What a man wants — the love (and possibly the control) of a woman — is prioritised above what a woman wants — to not have that with this particular man.

Since it obviously needs saying, people cannot read minds. Women can’t read minds, either — though women are acculturated into listening to cues, prioritising male desire over our own and picking up on body language, then acting accordingly. Too often, men fail to do the same for women.

Have we not had enough of that this year? Have we not?

Also relevant, family violence spikes at Christmas. The violence is heavily gendered. It’s mostly men trying to control women, thinking they know better than women, thinking their own right to exist in the world takes preference over a woman’s autonomy.

That’s why a scene in which two men discuss the desire of an unseen woman is so hugely problematic.

In case you think, “It’s only a story”, consider this: precisely because it’s only a story, the writers could have given the police officer in The Christmas Chronicles LITERALLY any other desire. It did not have to involve the love of a woman who left the officer for unexplored reasons.

If the writers were really reading the room, the police officer would have been a woman.

My wish for 2019: Keep men away from movies for kids. Hand over the reins.

For audiences: Don’t mistake a sparky, adventurous female lead for genuine feminism in film. The Christmas Chronicles is not it.


At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield

Albert Chevallier Tayler - The Mirror 1914

At the Bay” (1921) is considered one of Mansfield’s best short stories, by a writer at the height of her powers. This is one of the three about the Burnell family, who also star in “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House“.

Read “At The Bay” at the Katherine Mansfield Society website.

At The Bay” is an interesting case study for writers, for so many reasons. Notably:

  • The way Mansfield creates her characters in pairs, to compare and contrast them. If one character goes visiting, so does her counterpoint character.
  • This is an example of a story in which no one has any big self revelation. Like Mad Men famously achieved, the characters go about their own lives, continuing to make mistakes, learning little, and that is how life really is. This is the ultimate realism, though it can feel to the reader like ‘nothing happens’. We tend to say of these stories, ‘It’s not got any plot’. Or, it’s an ‘anti-plot’.
  • But apart from the lack of growth, “At The Bay” does conform to classic story structure, and even the lack of Anagnorisis is replaced by characters who suddenly change their emotional valence, either because they are practising ‘opposite action’ or because they suddenly become scared or whatever.
  • Mansfield’s scenes each feel complete in their own right because the emotional valence changes from beginning to end. Linda starts off with no emotional affect, but ends the scene beaming at her baby boy. Beryl starts off scared with Mrs Kembers than feels jubilantly free for a second. Stanley rushes into the water triumphant to be first and is immediately irritated to find he is not first after all. Mansfield’s emotions swing from one extreme to the other. If we find our own scenes emotionally flat, a read of “At The Bay” should set us back on the right track.
  • Mansfield also has a real affinity for children. She recreates play scenes and child interactions so authentically, without glossing over the fact that the hierarchy between children can be brutal. There’s nothing mawkish about these children.


The story divides into twelve sections. Mansfield is using what’s known as the ‘enclosure technique’.

The prototype of the enclosure technique is in “At The Bay”, where themes, characters and settings of the 12 sections are structurally enclosed, presenting the different characters in their activities, thoughts, fears, fantasies and dreams, from dawn to dusk. The enclosure -technique functions structurally and thematically.

Each of the sections in “At the Bay” are juxtaposed, by different points of view, imagistic patterns and all the sections co-exist, not in subordination but in juxtaposition. All the various sections, with all the different perceptions of life, like pieces of coloured glass pierced by various shafts of light, form the episodes in the lives of the Burnells and Trouts. Life is just as random as that. The enclosure-technique is used as a unifying force.

Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism

Mansfield illustrates her own attitude towards the events that shape a life — life is made up of moments just like these. This montage of scenes is therefore a recreation of the haphazardness in life. Or in other words, the structure of the story works symbolically. That interaction between form and meaning is a feature of modernist writing.

Like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), ‘At the Bay’ covers just one day from different points of view. Modernist writers followed the example of cubist artists, who used multiple perspectives to delineate their subjects.

Beryl Fairfield has become friendly with a controversial figure, Mrs Harry Kember: ‘the only woman at the Bay who smoked’. The other ladies consider her ‘very, very fast. Her lack of vanity, her slang, the way she treated men as though she was one of them, and the fact that she didn’t care twopence about her house and called the servant Gladys “Glad-eyes”, was disgraceful’. It is widely assumed that her husband must have married her for her money.

Linda Burnell, Beryl’s sister, is married, with children; Beryl is single and childless; neither woman has found fulfilment. Beryl indulges in fantasies about a lover, and in the final scene she is propositioned by a man. Although she recognises him, the reader is kept waiting. Her feelings fluctuate: initially, she senses the possibility of achieving her desire for ‘a new, wonderful, far more thrilling and exciting world than the daylight one’. When Beryl reaches the gate, she becomes terrified: ‘The moonlight stared and glittered; the shadows were like bars of iron’. Harry Kember urges her on; yet she fears the ‘little pit of darkness’ beyond the fence. Ultimately, Beryl faces a moment of understanding and, again, the reader wonders what her prospects will be subsequently.

An Introduction To Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories

Each of the characters have their own shortcoming (described below). If there’s a ‘main’ character it’s Beryl, the unmarried sister. She longs for freedom, but at the same time is scared of that. (Considering whether a main character achieves freedom or increased slavery is one interesting way of looking at story arc.)

Beryl has no Anagnorisis at the end when her friend’s husband comes to her bedroom window to seduce her — instead she retreats into herself, which is ostensibly the opposite of what she longs for. Her desire to be admired and her longing for freedom remains hampered by her fear of danger.


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.


This is Mansfield’s attempt to demonstrate in art the triumph of

  • beauty over ugliness
  • mystery over simplicity
  • artistic knowledge over nature’s 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.

Sheep Bleating

The sheep are heard by the little children in their dreams. Later in the day they will face fear.

The dog

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. (If it influenced plot we’d call it ‘foreshadowing‘.)

The eucalyptus tree

Mansfield does a lot with trees and plants, whether it’s the aloe in “Prelude”, the beech tree in “The Escape“, the pear tree in “Bliss“, and a vast selection of drooping and bowing personified flowers, which to Mansfield have psychological meaning for her characters.

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. This is part of what makes “Prelude” and “At The Bay” feel like a diptych (a single image across two separate canvases).

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.

On this point, the Japanese manga (and also animated film) 5 Centimeters per Second would make a good compare and contrast.

As you probably guessed, cherry blossoms are highly symbolic in Japan.

The encounter between the dog and the cat

This 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 in line with Mansfield’s underlying thesis:

  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.

The Tide

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. For more on that, see The Symbolism of The Ocean. In “At The Bay”, the ocean symbolically rises to meet the characters — in the first scene, two of the characters are literally in the water. Later, Beryl and Mrs Kembers enter the water, but at other times as well, the characters feel the ocean meets the bungalow. These characters are living in a kind of liminal space, symbolised at that point ‘where the ocean meets land’, but also in terms of freedom vs. liberation, and in terms of their sexuality, both exciting and scary at once.


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 by having children and tending to her husband, though there are many times she doesn’t feel great love towards any of 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, Jonathan Trout imprisons himself in an office for all but three weeks of every year. Unable to find a way to escape, he thinks 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. As Bob Dylan said, ‘You have to serve somebody.’

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 with a comically symbolic name. 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 understands the nature of it. The grandmother’s way of dealing with grief is to think on it for a short time then put it out of her mind. The uncomfortable conversation Kezia tries to initiate about the dead relation turns into a game of love and affection. The meaning of life and death ultimately escapes them.

The grandmother, and Kezia, under her influence, are practising what today is known as ‘opposite action’. This is a skill learned as part of dialectical behaviour therapy, developed by Marsha Linehan in the 1990s as a modified version of cognitive behaviour therapy. This is probably an evolution on the work of vitalist psychologists such as William James, who Mansfield definitely read and was very interested in. A main idea (radical at the time) is that actions and emotions are more of an interacting cycle, whereas beforehand it was thought that we behave a certain way because we feel a certain way, and that’s all that was to it. When the grandmother decides to do something fun with her granddaughter rather than continue to think sad thoughts, she is practising ‘opposite action’.

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 Jonathan’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.


Burnell Trout Family Tree

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“.

The group of characters in the story correspond very closely to the extended family in which Mansfield, as Kathleen Beauchamp, grew up. Kezia Burnell; her older sister, Isabel; and the younger Lottie correspond respectively to Kathleen, Vera (or Charlotte), and Jeanne Beauchamp. “The boy” (as the baby in the story is called) occupies Leslie’s position in the family and bears his nickname. The Burnell parents, Stanley and Linda, closely resemble Harold and Annie Beauchamp. Linda’s unmarried sister, Beryl, and their mother, Mrs. Fairfield (a bilingual pun on “Beauchamp”), live with the family, as did Annie’s sister (Belle) and mother (Mrs. Dyer). Sharing the Burnells’s holiday at the beach are Linda’s brother-in-law, Jonathan Trout, and his two boys (Pip and Rags). Their surname mocks that of Kathleen’s uncle, Valentine Waters, and his sons, Barrie and Eric. The Crescent Bay of the story corresponds to Muritai Beach (across the harbor from Wellington city), where the Beauchamps and the Waterses spent their summer holidays.


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 big struggles. Life is a zero sum game, a business to be negotiated profitably without unnecessary human interaction and time wastage.

  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, and his ‘love language’ is to buy a present in lieu of saying sorry.

Jonathan Trout

Stanley’s brother-in-law also plays games but of a completely different sort. He role-plays in a game of masquerade to hide his overall dissatisfaction with his lot. He is a smart man in a menial job (as a clerk) and probably consoles himself with the knowledge that deep down he’s smarter than most other people, including people who out-earn him. Case in point, his ridiculous brother-in-law, who he likes nonetheless.

His older son Pip resembles him in looks — dark hair and eyes with pale skin, tall and lanky.

His surname — that of a fish — makes him seem a little ridiculous to the reader, especially as we first meet him in the sea.

Beryl Fairfield

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 dynamic between 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. Lottie is always left behind, sometimes literally — unable to navigate a stile — sometimes because she can’t grasp the rules of a game. Similarly, Beryl fears she will be left behind as an unmarried spinster. 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 breakfast. 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…’

Is Beryl bisexual? I don’t think so, necessarily. I think she enjoys any kind of sexual attention from anyone, but my guess is that sex with any gender scares her to death. As we are shown in “Prelude”, her fantasies stop before any actual physical interaction, stopping at the romantic ‘prelude’ in which lovers first meet and the man declares his infatuation.

Linda Burnell

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, replicating the structure of her own natal family. Isabel, the eldest, remains an undeveloped character — the caricature of a bossy big sister. Linda is aligned most closely to Kezia, as they share the same concerns. (In the same vein, Lottie’s concerns reflect those of Beryl.)

This kind of juxtaposition of characters affords 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. Mansfield does the same in “Prelude”, using various symbols.

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.

Today we attach words to psychological conditions and we might say Linda Burnell is dealing with postpartum depression. She has no strong feelings for her baby. We now know how common perinatal depression is, so it’s hardly a radical reading of the text. There’s the added information we get from “Prelude”, that Linda has been told she has a weak heart, and child bearing may kill her.

The Stanley Josephs Family

The Josephs Family provides a neat contrast to the Burnells. In comparison, the Josephs family is vulgar and bad-mannered. (Their lady-help blasts on a whistle 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. A similar white class snobbery comes fully to the fore in “The Doll’s House“.

Mrs Kembers

Depicted as 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 Kembers has money, she breaks social conventions in her relationships with men and with her servants. She smokes, which makes her a ‘fast’ woman for the era. She cares nothing for her house. She does not have children in an era when contraceptives were a futuristic invention. She behaves with men as if she is one of them.

Beryl is hardly a forward looking woman herself. Why is she drawn to Mrs Kembers when those other ‘ninnies’ are scared of her? That may be because she is fascinated by the freedom Mrs Kembers represents. Beryl has a longing for freedom. Her curiosity thereby outweighs her disapproval. Beryl is seductive with 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.

Mr Kembers

Outrageous, like his wife. Later, scary.

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. Because the reader is used to Beryl’s habit of fantasising (especially if you’ve already read “Prelude”) we are not sure at first if she’s imagined him. But he’s not an apparition at all. Beryl goes outside to him but she is (quite legitimately) frightened. Mr Kembers makes fun of her fear, not understanding the social and physical consequences of a tryst, or the very real possibility that he’s not going to take no for an answer.

Naturally, Beryl is frightened. Mr Kembers calls her a ‘cold little devil’ and Beryl disappears back into her bedroom. Mr Kembers has become an awful inverse 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. But socially, Beryl is just as restricted as Alice.

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. Both Beryl and Alice end up retreating back inside the safety of the home.

Sex again loses its boundaries when the oedema of the dead man and the oedema of pregnancy become one in Alice’s mind. (Oedema is a condition characterised by an excess of watery fluid collecting in the cavities or tissues of the body.) Alice ends up linking death with sex, which ruins the idea of sex for her, naturally. (Roberta Seelinger Trites has theorised that sex is taboo because death is taboo.)

Alice is Beryl’s counterpoint in age. Just as Beryl seeks knowledge from Mrs Kembers, Alice visits an older woman, seeking wisdom. 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. “At The Bay” is therefore an example of a story in which there is no Anagnorisis, and that is the entire point.

Header painting: Albert Chevallier Tayler – The Mirror 1914


Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Good Morning Mr Pancakes by Chris McKimmie

Good Morning Mr Pancakes

I first heard of Australian author illustrator Chris McKimmie on Children’s Books with Kate De Goldi.

Listen also to the interview between Kate and Chris at the Adelaide Writer’s Festival.

One of the secrets to success as an illustrator is having an instantly recognisable, one-of-a-kind style. McKimmie’s various book covers will give you a glimpse of his style.

The naive style of art also works really well to encourage children in their own illustration. The Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey, and the treehouse books by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton do the same thing. Kids look at these pictures and think, you know what? I can do that. It doesn’t have to be realistic. Realistic art is sometimes confused for ‘good’ art.

Art is ‘good’ when it makes its audience feel something. That’s the only criterion. In picture books, art also tells a story.

Two Peas In A Pod

McKimmie is himself trained in graphic design. Moreover, McKimmie’s wife is a book designer.Assuming pillow talk, that’s an indication as to the deceptively naive graphic design going on in his work. Graphic design knowledge plus free-style, expressive, naive art = greatness in picture books. (His wife Jackie is also a writer and they collaborate at times on solving plot problems.)

Me Teddy

McKimmie started his career in the 1970s. Since then he has been a cleaner, a graphic designer, lectured in illustration at the Queensland College of Art, been a stay-at-home dad and an exhibiting painter. Freshly inspired, he came back to creating picture books when he had his own grandchildren.

Alex and the Watermelon Boat

His handwritten font looks like the careful ‘running writing’ of a child trying to do their neatest work. The intratext often includes asides which we assume to come from adults watching on.

Crikey and Cat is a landscape book, which requires different layout skills.

Kate de Goldi says “there’s nothing electronic about his work”.

I know exactly what she means, but as someone who illustrates digitally, I can tell you, there’s art created on computer/tablet now and you would not know it from real media. Software such as Rebelle is a good example of the digital art software revolution, which has only really levelled up in the last couple of years.

I knocked up the following on my iPad using Procreate to see if I could emulate the real-world media feel achieved by Chris McKimmie. It’s the owl from the back cover of Good Morning, Mr Pancakes:

Chris McKimmie owl

Brian Banana Duck Sunshine Yellow is one of the more popular of Chris McKimmie’s picture books.

The illustrations are deceptively naive. They look like they’re being thought of on the page, evoking childlike renderings on paper. McKimmie has re-channeled his inner child after a lifetime of experience as an adult illustrator.

Perhaps his style is best described as ‘naive collage’. He makes much use of washes and dye. Collages comprise scraps of paper, rips, tears, folds, borders which seem to be the drawing surface underneath, pencil/crayon/felt pen sketches. Characters are drawn with a minimalist level of detail, which has the advantage of allowing the child to see themselves in the characters on the page.

McKimmie’s Strengths

  • He is adept at not only channeling kids, but also at channeling kids using adult language. Alongside all the child’s immersion in her own world is all this verbiage floating in the air from the adults.
  • The adult language is often presented as intratext coming from an adult who stands out of the frame (not seen).
  • In Good Morning Mr Pancakes, McKimmie uses direct quotes from his grandchildren, making use of ‘found language’. If you are proximal to young kids (age 3-7 is great) sit down and really listen to what they come out with. This is obviously what McKimmie has done.
  • Not all author illustrators design their own books. A book designer generally comes in. But McKimmie has the skills to do all three, which affords perfect integration.
  • His stories are joyful, full of hilarity, except when deliberately sombre. (Lara of Newton is about a cat abandoned at Christmas. The cat is given as a Christmas present, which is where most picture books might end, but this cat is abandoned again.) Some of the humour is distinctively Australian, I expect. (In Good Morning Mr Pancakes, one of Larry’s chooks is called ‘Steggles‘, which is a local brand of frozen chicken.)
  • Across the entire work McKimmie preserves perspective of the young eye. For instance, things collide with each other on the page. He’s the most persuasive writer and illustrator using the child’s eye view that de Goldi has seen in 30 years of reviewing children’s books.
  • McKimmie is very good at taking small but important childhood moments and anxieties. (We see the pets from Good Morning Mr Pancakes in a later book, in which the pets have died. The mood in thatnext one is elegiac and a little scary, but gentle. McKimmie understands that small losses loom big in children’s lives.)
  • He steps across the real into surrealism, as children do. (‘Surreal’ refers to ‘super real’ art which tells us a super-real truth.)
  • He elides all the ‘connective tissue’ in stories (which de Goldi finds boring anyway, she says). In other words, there’s no clear bridge between events — he uses a kind of picture book version of stream-of-consciousness.
  • He is an illustrator’s illustrator. Other author/illustrators such as Sue deGennaro count his books among their favourite.


McKimmie’s stories are ‘simple’ and ‘wacko’ As de Goldi puts it, he doesn’t write ‘what happened next’ stories. I’m interested in looking a bit more closely at that, because there are two main types of picture books:

  1. You can easily pick the seven step story structure.
  2. The story is carnivalesque.

There may be something else I can add to my binary classification. Maybe I just haven’t seen it yet… Do Chris McKimmie’s books create their own genre?

After looking very closely at the structure, I conclude that Good Morning Mr Pancake is a combination of both. I had no trouble picking out the seven step structure, which dips into carnivalesque mode after the Plan stage.

Kim Hill suggests an adult might find his books somewhat enigmatic and cryptic. De Goldi responds that these are books which need to be read slowly. There’s a ‘vertical profundity’ — you have to sit with a child, look hard and read (though without effort). Reading McKimmie’s books is an absorptive process. Collage and controlled chaos.

Her shortcoming (of not noticing) is revealed on the first double page spread, when an adult (off page) yells BEE THE TOAST IS BURNING.


Bee is going on a fun holiday but she’s anxious about how the pets will get on without her to look after them. So she has to go through these rituals before she can look forward to her time away.

There’s ironic distance between animal-loving Bee’s stream-of-consciousness concern and the words coming out of the animals. Bee lacks true empathy, thinking, for instance, that the dogs are going to love the dog motel. (The dogs themselves are dreading it.) I imagine she thinks the chooks enjoy having their ‘toenails’ painted as much as she enjoys painting them.

This childlike concern for pets feels very familiar to me. In their wish to involve pets as characters in their imaginative play, pets sometimes become mild victims.


Bee wants all the animals to be waiting and safe for her when she and they get back.

But she also wants to have fun getting them prepared for everyone’s holiday. Getting ready is a game in itself. She imagines the fish is going to be minding the house. She imagines her toy leopard has to stay behind because she is ‘too wild’ to be allowed on holiday.


Because the pets are animals, and though they can ‘talk’ they have the sensibilities of actual animals, there’s a natural opposition between their desire to be left alone and young Bee’s desire to ‘love them to death’ with care and attention.


  • Bee paints the chooks’ toenails so they don’t get mixed up with the chooks they’re going to be staying with.
  • She packs bags for the dogs and cats. (Some treats and a ball of string.)
  • She provides Gregor with enough greens for a whole week. (Gregor is a caterpillar and needs zero help munching his own leaves, if only he were left alone.)


In place of a Battle, in common with carnivalesque picture books, Bee slips fully into her imagination. She hasn’t gone on holidays yet, but she imagines how the holiday will be.

  • McKimmie is using the trick of hyperbole when Bee imagines ‘ten hundred turkeys’ on her island.
  • Bee is utilising the tall tale tradition when she tells us/herself that one of them sleeps at the end of her bed.
  • The most carnivalesque part of her imaginative holiday on the island: she is allowed to do what she wants. This includes drinking out of large puddles and licking her bowl. She has mentally aligned herself with her pets; she is now an animal herself. Bee is now removed from the picture. All we see are turkeys.

Good Morning Mr Pancakes green bird

  • When Bee watches spiders writing on a red sky, McKimmie has slipped into dream territory.
  • He inverts girl and dolphin on the following spread, when Bee says ‘beep beep peep’ and the dolphin replies in English. This is ‘hat on the dog’ inversion humour, popular with preschoolers especially. This scene also continues the thread in which Bee imagines she swaps places with animals.
  • The fish talking to each other under the water is an excellent example of what de Goldi means when she says McKimmie is great at channeling adult language, but through children.
  • This carnivalesque escapade also contains elements of classic mythic structure, similar to Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. For example, she eventually meets up with a crab (called Mr Sidewalker), who is playing the role of the mentor, as described by Joseph Campbell (transliterated more simply much later by Christopher Vogler).
  • The journey gets kind of mystical when Bee imagines all the holes she can climb into and out of again.
  • Eventually she lands into an Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland sort of scene, in which she’s sitting at an outdoor table eating cake, cheese and fruit with a Bee (her alter ego) and a turkey.

The carnivalesque sequence is apparently a story told by one of McKimmie’s grandchildren. He has incorporated that story into a wrapper story.


Eventually, after eating, Bee imagines herself sailing, sailing home across the sea.

She must have realised that whatever happens on her trip, it will probably be fun, and it will involve coming back home again. Therefore, so long as she prepares (including mentally), she has nothing to worry about.


Once home, Bee imagines greeting each of the animals by name. This spread is reminiscent of Goodnight Moon in that it seems to be a chant designed to reassure herself that nothing is going to change.

The dogs didn’t like their holiday, but the caterpillar has turned into a butterfly — a metaphor for how Bee herself has grown, all over the course of an imaginative trip to precede a real one.

The final sentence, “It’s like starting the world all over again” is apparently a real line from McKimmie’s 8 year old grandchild.


McKimmie’s art style reminds me of paintings by Odilon Redon.

Odilon Redon, Centaurs musicians, watercolor

Prelude by Katherine Mansfield

Albert Chevallier Tayler - The Quiet Hour

Katherine Mansfield wrote “Prelude” in 1916 then revised it the following year. “Prelude” is the first in a trilogy of interlinked short stories. The other stories starring the Burnell family are “At the Bay” and “The Doll’s House“. Although “The Doll’s House” is populated by the same characters, the themes and motifs of “At The Bay” are so closely aligned to “Prelude” that these two stories might be considered a diptych. “New Dresses” is thought to have explored an earlier version of the Burnell family dynamics.

Commentaries on this story fall into two main categories:

  1. Over multiple viewpoints we are shown that Kezia still has the future before her. (Sometimes Beryl is thought to have the future before her.) Linda, in contrast, has no future at all. In this reading, Mrs Fairfield is seen as a warm and encouraging grandmother. In this reading we can find numerous examples of preludes: The family’s move is a prelude to a new kind of suburban living, the children’s prelude to adolescence, Beryl’s prelude to spinsterhood, Mrs Fairfield’s prelude to death. Unfortunately Linda gets no prelude. She’s done. This explains why she’s a little down, I guess.
  2. In the feminist reading, Mansfield uses imagery to reveal the power struggle between men and women. Kezia is all caged up. Linda is trapped within marriage, but going through an hysterical rebellion. Stanley exerts dominion over not just the house he bought, but also wants to expand to buying a pew at church etc.
Continue reading “Prelude by Katherine Mansfield”

Outrage News Is Powerful Storytelling

outrage cat

Recently I played a form of mixed doubles tennis in which the final point is served from female to female, or male to male. At our small club, when it comes to tennis skills there’s no clear division along gender lines. A number of the women can outplay the men.

So I mentioned maybe we could ignore that rule, depending on who’s playing. I’m also mindful of being gender inclusive. The distinction between male and female has been shown — across different disciplines — to be nowhere near as binary as previously decided by culture. Our club may, in the distant future, seem sufficiently liberal that a gender non-conforming player joins in for the occasional hit. That’s my goal.

But my politically conservative tennis partner, who vociferously voted against marriage equality in Australia last year, chortled at my suggestion and said, “Don’t you know there’s 33 different genders now?” (Subtext reading: Once we get started down that line, where do we stop? How are we meant to play a fun game of mixed doubles with 33 different genders!)

I had no words. Words were useless anyhow, as our opponents on the other side of the net agreed that all of this leftie gender talk is nonsense. We continued to play. We served the decider woman to woman, man to man.

I had no words at the time, but have since encountered the phrase to describe the so-called 33 genders article as recalled by my tennis partner:  ‘outrage news’.

Outrage news describes media specifically designed to undermine a movement by making it out to sound ridiculous. Readers are thereby encouraged to focus on ridiculous non-facts of the movement, and feel justified in dismissing everything said by the movement’s informed activists after that point. It is remarkably effective as a tool of propaganda.

Sure enough, 33-genders-guy has referred to that ridiculous ‘fact’ about gender more than once since then. Whenever anyone says anything about gender, he comes out with that.

As is the case with most outrage news, the outrage article he read was based on a kernel of fact.

Here’s the fact: As part of a new anti-discrimination policy, it was reported that Australia is preparing to introduce at least 33 different gender OPTIONS on birth certificates and passports.

To those who know nothing about gender, ‘gender option’ (the box one ticks on a government form) becomes conflated with ‘gender’, which actually lies on a spectrum.

Pick your number, because the number doesn’t matter. Other articles will declare 63 genders. Some say 37, because apparently it’s newsworthy that Tinder offers 37 gender identity options in its efforts to not be assholes.

To conservatives who insist on the importance of a clearly delineated gender binary, the higher that ‘ridiculous’ number, the more they like it. I won’t link to the outrage articles themselves, but what these articles are describing is ‘language’. The English language is a constantly evolving beast, used across many, many different cultures and subcultures. Of course English contains at least 63 different ways to talk about various gender identities. Next year we’ll be up to 150, I guess. And then, next time anyone tries to bring up a real issue regarding gender, conservatives can bring that up, too.

Or maybe they’ll bring up the following 2018 pre-Christmas outrage article courtesy of Fox News:

Some say it’s time for gender neutral Santa.

A classic outrage news template: [X] group petition against [much beloved pop-culture/tradition] because [discrimination].

Here’s a classic template from Fox 13 News Utah:

Petition against ‘Deadpool’ promotional poster says its [sic] religious discrimination against LDS Church

Super popular fictional stories, such as say, an X-Men comic, are vulnerable to the outrage news treatment, especially when paired with major religions:

Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men Wipes Out Centres of Catholicism, Islam and Hinduism

No. No one is saying that, apart from the people who wrote that article.

This is why the following Onion parody works as parody:

Radio Station Playing Controversial ‘Little Drummer Boy’ On Repeat In Defiance Of Those Who Claim It Contains Sexually Predatory Themes

Oftentimes, the title is an outrage title but the few people who read the article within learn that the title doesn’t match the contents:

This Australian University Is Under Fire For Offering A Controversial Western Civilisation Degree

Read the article and we learn the main concerns are not about the degree itself, but the fact that it’s sponsored and run by the Ramsay centre and not the university. The course was rejected by other universities because it takes away their autonomy and allows a third party to control their courses. But the outrage title encourages the casual scroller to assume a different article: That it’s not okay to offer a course Western civilisation these days, because it might offend the non-Westerners (or the ‘PC’ crowd). However, a title about internal university politics isn’t near as interesting, let alone outrageous.

When we feel outraged, we hit share. And we remember the basic message. Outrage is a strong emotion; any strong emotion makes memories stick. Worse, in this case, the disseminators of outrage news believe they themselves are the lone skeptics, living in a world gone PC mad.

Such is the power of story.

We love stories for many different reasons:

  • To see ourselves reflected in others
  • To question and to think
  • To feel a strong emotion, perhaps as catharsis
  • To feel thrilled, excited, turned on, horripilated, depending on the genre

But sometimes, unfortunately, we also have the capacity to hold on to any story which makes us feel something, especially if it confirms our existing beliefs about how the world should work.

The Tiredness of Rosabel by Katherine Mansfield

The Tiredness of Rosabel Katherine Mansfield

Outside school magazines, “The Tiredness of Rosabel” was Katherine Mansfield’s first published story (1908, when Mansfield was 20 years old).

Already we can see features the author became known for:

  • The ability of a character to impersonate another
  • Daydreams/fantasy used to reveal deeper desires
  • Three time levels are used simultaneously (past, present, future)
  • A central theme throughout Mansfield’s work: ‘fastidious feminine recoil from the arrogant male, conflicting with a romantic idealism and resulting in disillusionment’ (Alpers).


Rosabel takes a bus home after a tiring day working in a millinery shop. She thinks of a good dinner, feeling she would sacrifice her soul. On the bus, Rosabel sits next to a girl reading a sentimental novel. Once home in her room, Rosabel recalls two well-dressed customers who came to the shop to buy a hat for the young lady. They had been hard to please until Rosabel found a hat that entranced them all. Rosabel models the hat at the request of the young woman, who then buys it. The couple leave, but not before the young man has spoken to Rosabel with a touch of insolence.

Alone in her room, Rosabel imagines that she is the young woman with the new hat, inspired by the sentimental novel she noticed on the bus.



In the first paragraph, Rosabel would like to eat a substantial meal at Lyon’s. This is a massive chain which closed the year before I was born, so I’ve had to look it up. Basically, Lyon’s sounds a bit like Starbucks today. In 1920, the waitresses who worked there weren’t allowed to bob their hair. (That rule was loosened up in 1924.) Young women who worked there were supposed to find it easy to find a marriage partner, which is a solemn reminder of the limited options for young women in those days. Mansfield’s character of Rosabel, likewise, existed in the world as a pre-married young lady, whose main purpose in life was to find a husband.


Rosabel gets onto a London bus, next to a girl reading a ‘tear’ spattered book. The warm, humid bus with its garish advertisements contrasts with the magical streets outside.

All five senses are evoked:

  • The street is blurred and misty
  • Rosabel’s feet are horribly wet
  • The sickening smell of warm humanity
  • The girl licks her fingers and mouths her words
  • Rosabel feels stifled

Rosabel’s own room is marked by poverty, with the chipped enamel on the wash basin and the overall grimy description. We already know she’s living in poverty because she’s hungry. She would like a meal including meat but can only afford a scone, tea and boiled egg. Later in the story, a male customer will compliment her on her petite figure. The irony is one that endures today — Rosabel is fashionably petite (in the 1920s, a straight-up-and-down, boyish body for women was the dominant ideal). But Rosabel’s small body is due to lack of nutrition. The man wouldn’t suspect that for a moment, never having experienced hunger himself.

In this era, hats were a booming business because no one was seen in public without one. Hat shops are far fewer now, beause elaborate hats are worn only on very special occasions.


The structure of “The Tiredness of Rosabel” juxtaposes Rosabel’s reality with her imagined world, highlighting the difference between them. In 1908, ‘structure creating metaphor’ was something of a revolution in British short fiction. Mansfield grew up in New Zealand but was part of that revolution. At the time, short stories were not considered an art form in their own right, but rather a sort of inferior novel for beginners.


Apart from the final sentence, the point of view is consistent. The narrator’s comments merge with Rosabel’s thoughts to minimise the distance between readers and the story. This serves to draw the readers into Rosabel’s world and keep us there.

Language employed by the narrator is the same as Rosabel’s, and we hardly notice a difference between Rosabel’s voice and the that of the unseen narrator.

Some critics have said that the final sentence is not in keeping with the tone and focus of the story, violating point of view.

Critics have also said that Mansfield’s parenthetical expressions break the narrative at awkward places. For example, we don’t need to know that Rosabel’s knees are getting stiff and that she is so taken by her own fantasy that she laughs out loud. What kind of details should authors include in stories? For more on that, see this post. What do you think about these details? Alice Munro is another short story specialist who includes unexpected detail.


A young woman makes her way home from work in central London. She works in a hat shop.

Rosabel is also a fantasist, but not in a way that damages others, as in the Mansfield-esque movie My Summer of Love.

This story opens with Rosabel buying violets for herself. Later, she dreams the young man buys her great sprays of violets yet still there is enough money for a lavish lunch. Throughout the day, serving customers, she imagines being at a ball. The ball tires her out in the same way serving customers tires her out, hence the title. The story is full of parallels between Rosabel’s real world and her fantasy world.

Fantasising about another life is Rosabel’s way of coping with her own economic reality. She is weary (and I submit, undernourished, probably iron deficient). Mansfield makes use of sentence structure to reflect the weariness of Rosabel. The sentence structure of Rosabel’s real world contrasts with the light structure apparent in her dream state.

We are inclined to be quite harsh on fantasists. Stop dreaming, get out and do something about it! we’re inclined to think. But what are Rosabel’s options, really? Her best hope is meeting a well-off young man to marry.

Rosabel’s innocence is underscored when her imagined night with the man does not include sex – she may not have considered what comes next in a real world relationship.


Rosabel would like to escape living in poverty. That’s her long-term desire, which we deduce from her immediate desires:

  • First she imagines she ate a much more expensive and sustaining evening meal.
  • Once home and in bed, she imagines scenario in which she and her rich customer swapped places.

The violets in the opening sentence are a motif throughout; like the violets, Rosabel herself is delicate of taste, sensitive, charming and innocent. Perhaps the purple colour of the flowers suggests royalty – the role Rosabel would like to play.


Rosabel’s foil character is the rich young woman who comes to buy a hat. Rosabel imagines herself in her place later, and she is attracted to (as well as repelled by) the young woman’s beau. The young man is obviously attracted to Rosabel, which is Rosabel’s entry point into her imagined other-self.


Perhaps a story like this one challenges the idea that a character needs a plan in order for the story to work.

But Rosabel does have a plan. Her ‘plan’ is to go home and continue her fantasy in private, really delving into her secret, other world.

I’ve often wondered what proportion of people have a secret fantasy world they regularly dip into for fun and escapism. I know anyone who writes definitely has this facility. What about the proportion of humanity who does not write?


The ‘Battle’ of this story is the interaction Rosabel has with the young man and woman. She almost cries from anger. We don’t necessarily know exactly what this anger is borne of until afterwards — plain unfairness. When Rosabel is required to try on that hat, she’s literally trying on another girl’s life.

Hats are often used this way in stories, as well as in real life — crowns are the ultimate ‘hat’ which are used to symbolise a new role for its wearer. The addition of a crown suddenly makes one a prince. Hats exist partly to tell the world who you are. White hats and black hats in Western movies tell the audience who’s good and who is bad. Jon Klassen’s tortoises fight over a hat for a good reason — a hat would make one tortoise more important than the other.


When the young man (creepily, in my opinion) cracks on to Rosabel, despite being there with his own girlfriend, Rosabel seems to realise that finding a rich boy to marry might not be out of her reach after all, because of the way she looks.

As I mentioned above, because she happens to be fashionably slim, Rosabel matches the female fashion of the era, and in a rich girl’s hat she looks exactly the same as a genuine rich girl.

Why could that not have been her? It’s all down to luck and circumstance. And she knows it. Perhaps she has realised it fully, only after literally trying on another woman’s hat.


Rosabel goes about her day, eventually building upon her regular fantasy of a better life.

We extrapolate that she will go to work at the hat shop the next day and the next and the next. Because of her looks, who knows? She may well attract the serious attention of a rich boy.

But I doubt it. Rich boys don’t enter hat shops unless they’re there with an existing girlfriend. And this boy isn’t serious about Rosabel. I think he enjoys the adrenaline of temporary attraction, and the power he has over a shop girl, unable to respond as herself, bound to formality by her subservient role. I learnt this as a young woman working in customer service: some customers love this dynamic and seek it out.

So what of that final sentence? Mansfield seems to be saying that because of Rosabel’s youth, she’s still optimistic that she’ll marry her way out of poverty. She is still able to smile, unlike Miss Brill of a later story, who realises suddenly that she is old. For Miss Brill, an unpleasant day out seems to mean her life will keep going the way it is, possibly without change, until she dies.



Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Sarah Marshall Has A Stalker, For All The Receptionist Knows

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a silly, fun film, designed to appeal to an audience of teenage boys.  The film was produced by Judd Apatow. The script was written by its star, Jason Segel. Some critics have applauded the film for turning the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ trope on its head.

(Inversion does not equal subversion.)

I don’t aim to review the entire film because then I’d have to watch the entire film, but I’d like to offer a single scene as an example of storytelling which can have damaging real life consequences, depending on what the audience brings.

In common with all Judd Apatow movies, beautiful young women are found at every turn and they all seem to find the underdog Joe Shmoe lead attractive. A classic male fantasy, it would seem.

The problem with this scene, even as fantasy: Jason Segel’s character appears before the receptionist as a stranger. He ‘just so happens’ to be holidaying at the very same resort. Next (as shown in the clip) he makes an awkward (but also really creepy) ironic joke about coming to the hotel to kill his ex-girifriend. Then he laughs, because OBVIOUSLY, that’s just a joke, right?

Any intelligent woman in Mila Kunis’s position would hear alarm bells. She already knows he can’t afford the only room available. She would back away from the desk and hope he leaves soon.

The statistics around stalking and real world intimate partner violence should shock us all. The most dangerous time for a woman — the time she’s most likely to be killed — is when she has just left a man who was formerly an intimate partner. (Rachel the receptionist knows exactly when this pair of strangers broke up because she’s just been told.)

Stalking is still not illegal in many countries, but this is slowly changing. Stalking became an offence in England and Wales in 2012. “About 120,000 victims, mostly women, were stalked every year.” Here in Australia, stalking laws were first introduced in the 1990s, but it has always been very difficult to prove someone’s behaviour constitutes stalking. “Stalking, as a discrete concept, is a surprisingly recent phenomenon, relatively unknown until towards the end of the 20th century.”

In Western society, we have a very strong cultural belief in the romance and intensity of unrequited love as a narrative that conveys magnificent emotional intensity of which humanity is capable. Whether this narrative ends in the object appreciating and reciprocating the love, or the subject dying nobly through loss of this love, the general theme is one which has gained cultural reification across the centuries, enough to be celebrated in literature, performance art and the continuation of historical accounts.

(For more on stalking in storytelling see my post The Ideology Of Persistence.)

The audience of Forgetting Sarah Marshall knows that Jason Segel’s character is not stalking his recent girlfriend. We know it’s a complete coincidence that he’s at the same hotel. There’s even a setting reason given for the coincidence.

But sometimes, in real life, like the receptionist in that scene, we encounter someone desperately looking for a family member. “Have you seen this woman?” he asks. “I’m so worried about her. I haven’t seen her in a week. I’m worried she may have done something stupid…”

If you ever encounter someone asking you that, I want you to use Rachel from Forgetting Sarah Marshall as your negative role model.

Never give details of a woman’s whereabouts to a man who is looking for her. She may have left him for a damn good reason. You can’t tell whether a man is dangerous from his affable Hawaiian shirt, his underdog sob story or his everyman looks. If you’re in attendance for an estranged couple’s encounter, do what you can to keep the woman safe. Maybe don’t check in her former boyfriend if you’re running a resort… because statistics.

It’s also possible a woman doesn’t need help in keeping safe. The backstory might be completely different. But that’s for the authorities to work out. In this scene, the look on Kristen Bell’s face offers more than enough information about her discomfort, and an empathetic character such as Rachel the receptionist would have picked that up.

I haven’t forgotten that these are fantasy women, written, directed and produced by men.

And if everyone watching that scene understood all of that about women and who tends to stalk and murder who, I might accept Forgetting Sarah Marshall as pure entertainment. Instead I worry that movie scripts function as subconscious real life scripts.

Story is powerful.

Her First Ball by Katherine Mansfield

Louis Haghe - The Ballroom, Buckingham Palace, 17 June 1856

“Her First Ball” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1921. Though this story is nigh on 100 years old, it’s a tale of pick up artist culture, and reminds of the ‘toolies’ who attend Schoolies Week here in Australia.


Leila has turned 18, so must now attend balls in order to find a husband. Her city cousins, The Sheridans, introduce country-girl Leila to this exciting, dream-like world.

The story opens like this…

Exactly when the ball began Leila would have found it hard to say.

… which reminds me of a classic writer’s problem: Where does this story begin? This is a problem faced by anyone who’s ever recounted an incident. What was the inciting incident? Peter Selgin writes about that here.

Mansfield decides to open “Her First Ball” in the cab on the way to the ball, which Leila shares with her cousins Meg, Jose, Laura and Laurie. Later she’ll include a flashback to Leila’s anxiety, as she sits on the bed pleading with her mother not to go at all.


Leila is at a social disadvantage because she lives in the country, and the fact that she lives in the country in itself speaks to a naivety below her years.

Another iconic New Zealand writer, Frank Sargeson, didn’t think much of this story. He didn’t accept the overarching shortcoming of Leila:

… the title by itself almost tells the story. A young country girl is staying with her town cousins who take her to a drill-hall ball. It is all very much indeed in the feminine tradition. Dresses, gloves, powder, flowers — and all the similes come tumbling out: A girl’s dark head pushes above her white fur like a flower through snow … little satin shoes chase each other like birds…. But later on we come to the point of the story. The girl, Leila, bewildered and enchanted by it all, is breathless with excitement. How heavily, how simply heavenly! she thinks. She dances with young men with glossy hair—and then with an older man who is both bald and fat. He perceive stat it is her first dance and tells her that he has been doing this sort of thing for thirty years. Then he goes on and pictures Leila herself in years to come. Her pretty arms will have turned into short fat ones, he says. And she will be sitting up on the stage with the chaperones while her daughter dances down below. And his words destroy her happiness. The music suddenly sounds sad. And she asks herself an agonising question: Why doesn’t happiness last forever? ‘Deep inside her’ we read, ‘a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed.’ And of course she hates the bald fat man.

Now I don’t know how my listeners will feel about this story, but for me it just doesn’t come off. It is, no doubt, tru e enough of many young girls, but for my part I’m afraid I can’t help making some comparisons. For instance, had any of Shakespeare’s young heroines (wonderful ones, say, like Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, or Marina in Pericles)—had they encountered that elderly bald fat man, and had he told them that shocking truth—well, I don’t know, but I fancy they would have just laughed and asked him why he wanted to say anything so obvious. In other words, young female character can be made of somewhat sterner stuff, and there is something in my make-up which refuses to accept the suggestion that that particular trying moment in the girl’s life was really so important and significant as it is intended to be.

Frank Sargeson, Conversation in a Train and Other Critical Writings

Sargeson seems to have forgotten the final paragraph of this story, in which Leila forgets all about it, but he taps into something that’s been a more recent conversation among bookish and film-loving types: Why do female characters always have to be so kick ass and confident? Lack of diversity among female characters is a big part of the problem with the phrase ‘strong female character’. Why do girls always have to be so damn strong? This is the problem boys have faced since forever… Is it girls’ turn now?

I can’t say I’ve had the exact experience Leila had. But I can give you two personal examples which resonate:

The first is from watching TV. Most of TV is forgettable, and the vast majority of TV dating show interactions are equally forgettable, but a few years ago I was watching that Chinese dating show on SBS when one bachelor rejected an interested young woman by telling her, “I can imagine what you’ll look like when you’re old.” She seemed taken aback and replied with something like, “I can see what you’ll look like when you’re old, too.”

I took a close look at this young woman and I really couldn’t see what he was seeing. Of all the insults hurled on that show, the accusation that she already, as a young woman in her prime, masked the shadows of ageing, seemed to me about the worst thing someone could say to another person in a dating context. (My take on it: She reminded him vaguely of someone he knows in real life who is actually old, and he blurted it out awkwardly.)

When I was in my mid-twenties, a guy who worked as an artist in the shed attached to my rented converted barn (long story) turned up one night when I was making a funny video starring my workmates. I was doing some last minute editing because I had to show it to my audience the following day. But I had run out of storage space on my laptop and I showed him what I was doing. He volunteered to pop down to the supermarket and pick up a spool of CDs.

First, I showed him what I was doing. I’d taken a video of my boss — an experienced, capable and very kind French teacher, who was speaking to her class at the time of filming, in what I assume was a fairly boring vocabulary exercise — one she’d done a thousand times. She wasn’t exactly animated. She sat hunched on her stool, with a look of middle-aged concentration.

I was the other languages teacher in our department, about 25 years younger than my head of department. Alistair next door was a young looking 39, but 39 nevertheless. Whereas women consider ourselves old around the time of our 30th birthday, he considered himself well-and-truly in his prime. “Oh. You’re hot,” he mused, looking at the video I’d made, “but I guess you’re gonna look like her one day. Such a damn shame.”

It’s worth pointing out, though Frank Sargeson was not your stereotypical privileged macho man owing to his being gay in an anti-gay era, he did not experience life as a woman, either. He wasn’t a product of a culture which tells young women that the most important thing about us is the beauty which comes only with healthy, fulsome youth, and that when our beauty is gone, there’ll be nothing at all left to replace it. (In fact, Frank was well-known for his lack of attention to aesthetics. His house was a hovel — he cared only about his vege patch.)

Having been on the receiving end of comments like that, I have more empathy for Leila than Frank did.

What about you?


By today’s standards, Laurie’s a little weird with his sister Laura, calling her ‘Darling’ and possessively telling her he’ll dance the usual two dances with her. Meanwhile, country-cousin Leila is noticing every detail, wanting to keep the rubbish tissue paper out of Laurie’s new gloves as keepsake.

Leila doesn’t know what to do, so she follows her cousins. Once at the ball, the girls go straight to the toilet/dressing area, where young women crowd around the mirror. This is exactly what it’s like:

And everybody was pressing forward trying to get at the little dressing-table and mirror at the far end.

I once wrote a short story in which this happens at a school ball, and a male critique partner expressed his skepticism, not believing that women’s toilets are like that at all. I’ve since concluded that “Her First Ball” is a particularly feminine story, more generally relatable to woman readers.

Mansfield herself sees the ridiculousness of the dressing room situation:

“How most extraordinary! I can’t see a single invisible hair-pin.”


Henry Gillard Glindoni - Title Unknown
Henry Gillard Glindoni – Title Unknown

Meg introduces Leila to her friends in a rather condescending way, turning herself into a mother hen. The girls respond with etiquette but are obviously more interested in the men, standing on the other side of the room. The men are the romantic opposition, and one man in particular.


Though Leila hasn’t got a clue what the formal proceedings are, the men all cross the parquet floor at once and fill up the girls’ dance cards. Failure to fill up a dance card felt like a serious rejection. The dance card culture lasted in New Zealand until about the 1950s, when dating started to become more informal. The wars changed culture a lot — women would have fun dancing with each other when there weren’t enough men to go round.

In 1921, the girls don’t have much say in who they get to dance with. If they don’t want to dance with someone, they’re unable to decline:

“Let me see, let me see!” And he was a long time comparing his programme, which looked black with names, with hers. It seemed to give him so much trouble that Leila was ashamed. “Oh, please don’t bother,” she said eagerly. But instead of replying the fat man wrote something, glanced at her again. “Do I remember this bright little face?” he said softly.

Because in this social milieu, it is men who do all of the choosing. It’s not up to Leila to make any plans. Instead she is swept along with the proceedings, on a treadmill (the first step on the moving walkway towards boring middle age). The ‘whirlpool’ sensation we get from Mansfield’s imagery, with ribbons flying and streamers and elongation describes most literally the sensation of being spun around during a dance, but it also symbolises being swept up into a culture of matrimony which begins with one’s first ball and ends with the women dressed in black (as the chaperones are — as a clear sign they’re not ‘on the market’ — but this is of course symbolic of death). By going to your first ball, you’re now on that inevitable decline. For Mansfield, beginnings are reminiscent of endings. She can’t enjoy a beginning without also thinking of its ending.

There’s a flashback to Leila’s boarding school, where she learned to dance but under completely different conditions — staid and without the sexual tension Leila had not anticipated.

In the brief moment where her designated partner doesn’t come to collect her, Leila thinks melodramatically that she’s going to ‘die’. But then he does come and they make small talk as they dance. This hooks into the ‘treadmill towards death’ idea.

The second dance partner also opens with a comment on the floor. Leila wonders if this is customary. Like the previous one, this young man asks if Leila had attended a certain party the week before. The conversation with the second young man is revealed to be exactly the same as that with the first. This is significant. The night now has a fatalistic feel to it — as if everything is playing out according to some supernatural rulebook — the characters might be automatons, and there’s something creepy about robotic behaviour. (That’s why they’re used so often in horror.) Within the world of the story, these boys attend many balls, saying basically the same thing to most of the girls, and are bored by it. This juxtaposes with Leila’s excitement at the novelty, serving to emphasise it. (This boy takes her to eat an ‘ice’ — a novelty people had fridges and freezers in their homes. Such products had to be delivered right before they were consumed.)

Now that Leila has experienced two identical interactions, she’s expecting the same again. So are we, due to the Rule of Three in Storytelling, but at the same time, we know our expectation of sameness will be subverted.


Leila’s third dance does not go as the first two did. The old fat man turns out to be even older than she thought.

As reader, I am annoyed with this man. What the hell is he doing, inserting himself into a social event designed for young people? He reminds me of the 29-year-old men who insist on attending Schoolies Week year after year after year. (Here in Australia these men, mostly men, often in their 40s, are known as ‘Toolies’.)

This guy seems to get off on shit-talking to young women — the younger and more naive she seems, the more he enjoys it. These days there’s a word for it: Negging. In its most basic form, a man insults a woman hoping to elicit a strong reaction, because a strong reaction is — for him — better than no reaction. He then has something to ‘work with’, and his next task is to simply flip that negative strong emotion into a positive one, which according to pick up artists, actually sometimes works.

Because Leila has been culturally conditioned to be nice to men, she looks at his bald head and feels ‘quite sorry for him’.

Sensing this, the middle-aged man negs Leila by pointing out that the rules are different for women, who must modify their behaviour as they hit middle age, unlike himself, who continues to dance, since he feels like it:

“Of course,” he said, “you can’t hope to last anything like as long as that. No-o,” said the fat man, “long before that you’ll be sitting up there on the stage, looking on, in your nice black velvet. And these pretty arms will have turned into little short fat ones, and you’ll beat time with such a different kind of fan—a black bony one.” The fat man seemed to shudder. “And you’ll smile away like the poor old dears up there, and point to your daughter, and tell the elderly lady next to you how some dreadful man tried to kiss her at the club ball. And your heart will ache, ache.”

The middle-aged man has been doing this for so long, he knows the exact kind of scripted small talk Leila has already been exposed to. He mentions the floor, but points out her feelings will have changed towards it, almost as if he’d been listening intently to Leila’s first two conversations:

And you’ll say how unpleasant these polished floors are to walk on, how dangerous they are. Eh, Mademoiselle Twinkletoes?” said the fat man softly.

The man’s omniscience almost turns him into a kind of evil fairy godfather — a ghostly figure whose only purpose at the ball is to ruin Leila’s night.

I’m also reminded of a scene from Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. The first person main character, a faithful butler, embarks upon a mythic journey and encounters a fellow traveller.

“I’m telling you sir, you’ll be sorry if you don’t take a walk up there. And you never know. A couple more years and it might be too late” — he gave a rather vulgar laugh — “Better go on up while you still can.”

It occurs to me now that the man might just possibly have meant this in a humorous sort of way; that is to say, he intended it as a bantering remark. But this morning, I must say, I found it quite offensive and it may well have been the urge to demonstrate just how foolish his insinuation had been that caused me to set off up the footpath.

Remains of the Day

No one appreciates anyone else reminding them of how old they’re getting, no matter how young they are at the time. It strikes me that women absorb the message that they are getting too old too fast before men feel it. (This has been studied. Women first start to feel old at the age of 29, men at 58.


Leila takes him at his word, and laments:

Oh, how quickly things changed! Why didn’t happiness last for ever? For ever wasn’t a bit too long.

Leila has had one of those epiphanies like Sun of “Sun and Moon”, in which the much younger Sun also realises that perfect evenings can never last forever.

Leila continues to smile, because that’s what you’re required to do at a designated ‘happy’ occasion, but her feelings on the inside are quite different:

But deep inside her a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed. Why had he spoiled it all?

Then the middle-aged man pulls out a classic pick up artist (and also a classic schoolyard bullying) technique — he tells, “you mustn’t take me seriously, little lady.” He was just joking, see! JOKES! If Leila took him seriously it’s all on her! Why can’t young ladies grow a sense of humour? Sheesh.


The ending is similar to that of “The Doll’s House“, in which the underdog girl has something horrible happen to her, but almost with determination, she’s resolved not to let it bother her. Like Else Kelvey, Leila forgets all about her dance with the horrible, middle-aged man, but the reader knows that even if she’s ‘forgotten’ the incident, the epiphany remains with her.

I expect one day, when Leila sits up on the stage watching her daughter, she will recall her first dance and she will recall that man.

What do you make of endings in which the character ‘forgets’ the bad thing and moves on?

We now know that the brain can go back in time and change how an event is perceived. Psychologists call it ‘postdiction’ (riffing on PREdiction). There is also a Latin term for it:  vaticinium ex eventu (foretelling after the event).

This is probably an adaptation to help us get on in life after horrible things happen.

Lucien Davis The Washington Post 1898
Lucien Davis The Washington Post 1898


In-flight Entertainment” by Helen Simpson is a much more modern story but the underlying structure is the same.

I use the same epiphany sequence in “Midnight Feast“. Roya sees the impact of climate change when she finally takes a peek out of her own kitchen window, but she’s unable to sleep until she forgets she’s ever seen it.

Header painting: Louis Haghe – The Ballroom, Buckingham Palace, 17 June 1856


Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.