The Escape by Katherine Mansfield

The Escape Katherine Mansfield

It’s almost impossible to read Katherine Mansfield’s “The Escape” (1920) without linking back to the author’s own biography. But perhaps we shouldn’t look to Mansfield’s relationship with a man in order to understand where this story might have come from. Biographer Claire Tomalin has said this about Mansfield:

[Mansfield] was a liar all her life — … and her lies went quite beyond conventional social lying. Whereas Murry “forgot” things or distorted subtly, she was a bold and elaborate inventor of false versions. A charitable view of the origin of this habit could be that it was a bid for attention, a response to feeling obscured and overlooked in a large family with an inattentive mother; this may then have developed into a pleasure in dramatising for its own sake, making herself into the heroine of the story. If the truth was dull, it could be artistically embroidered; and if she was the heroin of her own life story, lies became not lies but fiction, a perfectly respectable thing.

A Secret Life

I don’t necessarily believe we need to go into a person’s childhood to understand why they do the things they do. The Internet phenomenon of Catfishing has taught us that sometimes drawing others into our fantasies makes our fantasies even more fun. Couldn’t it simply be that?

Whatever her reasons for invention, Mansfield had first hand insight into fantasists. “The Escape” is the ultimate fantasist story, evident from the title.

There’s more to this story than ‘insight into a fantasist’, however. That alone would be quite boring — like hearing all about someone’s dream.

Mansfield seems to be conducting an experiment: What if an author gave silence to a man and speech to a woman?

Download “The Escape” by Katherine Mansfield (PDF with line numbers)

George Henry Boughton - The Waning Honeymoon
George Henry Boughton – The Waning Honeymoon


Much has already been said on Mansfield’s life and her intimate relationships, so I’d like to focus on the story structure of “The Escape”, which is a classic example of a story in which ‘nothing happens’. It’s often said that Mansfield didn’t write plots.

Of course, that’s never true of any enduring tale, and it’s not true here, either. “The Escape” conforms — with subtlety — to standard story structure.

‘The plots of my stories leave me perfectly cold.’ They tend to begin at the heart of a situation, without preamble (although flashbacks and reflection feature), and frequently they end abruptly. Primarily, Mansfield is concerned with the psychology of her characters, many of whom are isolated, frustrated and disillusioned. She moves between them, using focalisation and free indirect speech to communicate their thoughts. Often they feel that they have ‘two selves’ and, repeatedly, there is a sense of wasted potential and a yearning for escape.

An Introduction to Katherine Mansfield
Robert Walker MacBeth - Our First Tiff 1878
Robert Walker MacBeth – Our First Tiff 1878


Characters remain unnamed in “The Escape”, which keeps the reader at a distance and also tells a story of ‘people’ rather than of ‘individuals’. Writers sometimes avoid naming characters in an attempt to say something universal about humanity.


As far as moral shortcomings go, this woman is full of them. She’s not sympathetic at all. Whatever’s going on with her, you can bet your bottom dollar it runs deeper than ‘missing the train’. But Mansfield doesn’t let us in on any of her history. There are no flashbacks to earlier that week, when her husband really did do something to make them miss a train, which meant they missed their connecting train… we get no solid clue that the man is the problem. This is interesting, because another writing choice would have been to include that. Mansfield was not especially concerned with making her characters ‘likeable‘, not even her female characters, for whom the likability bar is set higher.

The woman is also shown to be melodramatic — the unseen narrator is in on her melodrama, sensing it along with us, the reader.

The husband, even at this point in the story, imagines his wife as dead, as if a Queen in Egypt.

Whenever there’s focus on a woman’s handbag in fiction, there inevitably comes some judgement with that: We are told about her make up and other female fripperies.

What is this detail designed to do? Are we meant to judge her as insubstantial because these things are ultimately superfluous? There is a long history of judging women based on female accoutrements. For more on that particular type of misogyny, see the work of Julia Serano, because it really comes to the fore in discussions of transmisogyny.

But it’s equally possible to read that detail as the husband emphasising the importance of her handbag contents:

[I]t could be that he is emphasizing the importance of the trivial objects in her bag, since they are presented as equivalent to the treasures which Egyptians were buried with. Thus,Mansfield’s symbolism presents the husband as viewing his wife, and her handbag’scontents, in a way which is potentially both elevated and trivial, in one short sentence.

However, there is a scene later where she complains about his smoking, so it is very possible that the broken cigarette in her bag is not hers. Maybe it is a cigarette which she took from him and broke in a fit of anger. If this was so, she could have thrown it away immediately, but instead she keeps it. This suggests that she does not intend (or even want) to separate from him, and that maybe she will be with him to the grave like the treasure of the Egyptians, although she is constantly irritated by his overly relaxed attitude and actions.

Masami Sato


On the surface, the woman wants to be in time for her train. She’s perseverating on this, and no one around her is moving fast enough. Her inner turmoil is at odds with the holiday feeling around her.

Underlying her wish for others to hurry, I sense an imperative personality, who needs to control others around her as a proxy to controlling her own inner turmoil, whatever that is. This is an another story of repression, probably. I see her irritation directed at the driver as misplaced irritation she feels in regard to her husband. But because she’s married to her husband, she can’t direct her frustration directly at him.

Anyone who has worked in the service industry knows this dynamic well: The quietly simmering couple, one of whom will find something terribly wrong with your service, for some strange reason…

The ‘escape’ of the title, to me, is about this woman’s wish to escape the difficulties of her own marriage.


The real opponent is the husband, but the proxy opponent is the driver, who opposes her only by passive-aggressively refusing to hurry as she requests.


The reader doesn’t even know where this couple is going. We deduce they’re on holiday — wealthy enough to spend months at a time doing not much at all except ‘have fun’ in each other’s company. Perhaps they’re even on honeymoon, trying to come to terms with each other’s vastly different travelling styles — his laidback, hers highly structured.

The woman’s subconscious plan is to direct her frustrations away from her husband, but it needs to come out somewhere. It comes out on someone working in the service industry.

Another story in which service workers bear the brunt is John Cheever’s “Reunion”.


Insofar as “The Escape” is a road-trip journey, something needs to happen which leads to the woman’s (or the reader’s) revelation. This doesn’t need to be some big big struggle, and Mansfield never wrote your classic, masculine mythic structure anyhow.

But what? What happens in this horse-and-cart seaside journey to change the emotional valence?

The precious parasol falls off the cart. Parasols, I suspect, were important to Mansfield. There’s emphasis on the umbrella in her story “The Voyage”. One’s umbrella/parasol was almost a part of a woman’s self — as integral to her identity as her handbag.

In any case, the woman realises it fell off, then the cart driver reveals he knows it had fallen off but didn’t stop because no one said anything. He was in a bit of a bind really, because he is also expected to hurry.  The real problem is that he’s not on his customer’s wavelength at all: He doesn’t understand her wish to hurry; nor does he understand the importance of a parasol.


At this point, Mansfield’s ‘camera’ stays with the cart and viewpoint switches to the husband who until this point has been absent in his presence.

We learn his way of dealing with his wife is to pretend he’s basically dead. He becomes a fiction.

In fact I wonder if one legitimate reading of this story is that he actually did die in cart, and his wife is so preoccupied with getting from here to there, and on her precious parasol, that she wouldn’t even notice if he were dead.

In that case, the revelation would go something like: If you spend your entire life focused on the small things you miss the really big things, and take people for granted.

But since this is a Mansfield short story, the tree is important. Extreme noticing of a tree is also important in another story, “Bliss” (that masculine pear tree). Here, by Mansfield’s description, it’s probably a beech tree. Unlike in “Bliss”, this tree offers the husband nothing positive. As used here, the usual tree symbolism (as life giving) is wholly inverted: These trees are portrayed as suffocating. In this example of pathetic fallacy, a character feels suffocated (by marriage), so everything he sees around him seems to suffocate him.


After the double line break we have another scene, but the reader doesn’t know what this is:

Mansfield doesn’t let us know. The scene therefore functions in a similar way to her child-elderly character duos in stories such as “The Voyage” and “Sun and Moon” — the reader is encouraged to see time as a series of moments in a life rather than focus on the sequential, linear nature of time. Our experience of life as lived is less linear than it is like that, especially for the imaginatively capable, in which it’s possible to live a number of different lives, including our own, owing to the power of the mind to jump backwards, forwards and sideways.

The man has developed the ability to separate mentally from his wife. This may be the first moment he did this, or it may be his usual mind trick. In an era when divorce was rarely an option, I expect this couple will live out their lives together in body but completely apart in spirit.

The final statement of the story can be read as sardonic: “so great was his heavenly happiness as he stood there he wished he might live for ever”.

In the end, what position does Mansfield take on this fictional fantasist? She seems to be arguing that not all fantasies are acceptable. Fantasies can instruct but also mislead. They can accurately represent alternatives or they can do the opposite. Sometimes, fantasies can simply reconstruct the limits of the status quo. But they are at their most seductive when they seem to promise escape.

(The graphic in the header is a painting by Monet called Road at La Cavée, Pourville, 1882.)


Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

New Dresses by Katherine Mansfield


“New Dresses” (1912) is nowhere near as accomplished as Katherine Mansfield’s later short stories as it lacks focus and appears contrived. “New Dresses” is a different sort of story altogether from the Prelude trilogy, and we need a different yardstick. That said, The Carsfield family is said to be the prototype of the Burnells who we meet later in Prelude, At the Bay and The Doll’s House.

Read “New Dresses” at The Katherine Mansfield Society website.

I’m interested in why “New Dresses” is considered ‘contrived’. What makes one story feel contrived and another natural, given that both are made from scratch, technically making one as contrived as the other?


“New Dresses” is the story of a family and the family’s toxic dynamics rather than the story of an individual. In these cases, the narration will be a fairly distant third person, ducking from one character’s head to another.

This is a story about parenting. Especially by today’s parenting standards, the Carfield adults are terrible.

“New Dresses” is valuable as an historical document of parenting practices common in early 1900s New Zealand. My own grandparents — and to a lesser extent my parents — were certainly brought up with some of the practices seen in “New Dresses”:

  • The belief that corporal punishment is an effective way of stopping unwanted behaviours. Also: That delayed corporal punishment has an even stronger effect, because the child must spend time dreading it, which is supposed to give them extra time to ‘mull it over’.
  • The belief that if corporal punishment is dished out alongside exchanges of love, the child will not be damaged. This view of parenting is still disturbingly common, but if adults hurt their children while requiring the child to tell them they love them, or when telling the child that they are loved, the adult is preparing that child for a
  • Lack of understanding about neurodiversity, and in this case the idea that stuttering is an affectation — that when children are ‘different’ they’re doing it because they’re attention seekers.
  • Overt favouritism between one’s own children, predicated on an old-fashioned view of genetics — that some children are just born better than others, and that your treatment of them has nothing to do with anything.

The sympathetic adult is the doctor. The doctor is also the viewpoint character, and viewpoint characters tend to automatically align with the audience. The doctor is the only reasonable adult in the story. We are encouraged to side with his point of view and with his actions. It is especially easy to side with him as a modern reader, since the culture of parenting has changed considerably.

Also by today’s standards, it’s odd and borderline creepy for a man to make off with a little girl’s dress, even if his intentions with it are honourable.

The doctor is the character who has the revelation at the end and, for my purposes, that makes him ‘the main character’ as well as ‘the erstwhile viewpoint character’.

“New Dresses” is divided into two quite distinct parts:

  1. The conversation between Mrs Anne Carsfield and the grandmother as Mrs Carsfield makes the dresses on the sewing machine. This scene exists to show the family’s dynamic, though ‘showing’ is via dialogue.
  2. The scenes including the children and the doctor, whose lively personalities make for a much more engaging read.

It’s possibly a mistake to have started where Mansfield did. She needed some way of conveying to the reader:

  1. The favouritism. Helen is insecure within the family structure.
  2. The mother’s irritating emphasis on image and dresses
  3. The grandmother’s way of deferring. Although Helen’s grandmother understands, the elderly woman is powerless to act.

But in general, writers need to trust readers to pick up subtleties, and I believe it was possible to convey those ideas in a shorter scene, or to combine them into a subsequent one. I believe this is one major reason why “New Dresses” feels contrived to some readers.


The shortcoming of the family: The parents can’t see their children equally.

The shortcoming of the grandmother: The first scene shows us she’s powerless within the family structure, but the doctor’s anagnorisis will show us there’s a little more to it than that.

There’s plenty to be said about gender roles in this story, too. If these characters weren’t victims of a strict delineation of gender, they’d all be a lot better off:

  • Although women of this class aren’t even allowed to work for money, and although unpaid the labour of shopping and sewing falls upon them, Mrs Carsfield is roundly criticised for performing her wifely role. And as part of that criticism, her husband talks about ‘his’ money, as if it doesn’t belong rightly to all of them. The reader doesn’t know if Mrs Carsfield has flagrantly spent money they don’t have — she thinks to herself that they have more than enough and that her husband is treating her like a child. I’m inclined to go with that, because of Henry Carsfield’s attitude towards ownership of the finances, and also because he seems to think making trousers out of old ironing material is prudent. He doesn’t seem to realise, as his wife does, that there would be a social cost to such frugality.
  • Whereas the girls are required to be still, ostensibly to protect their expensive dresses, boys are expected to behave in a rough, and probably very annoying, manner. The Boy (unnamed, since his gender is the main point as far as Mansfield is concerned) bangs a spoon for a solid five minutes. Instead of a reprimand, the father says, “Go it, old man. Tell Mother boys like to kick up a row.”


Mrs Carsfield wants to dress her children in pretty clothes for church, but of course it’s not about the clothes, per se. Her deeper desire, so we can deduce, is for her family to look good in the eyes of the community.

She could not help thrilling, they looked so very superior.

(Superior to who? To their former, undressed selves, or to certain other social classes in their community?)


For an image conscious mother such as Anne Carsfield, a daughter like Helen is a curse. Helen is hardly boisterous by her little brother’s standards, but she is not a naturally clean and tidy girl, which embarrasses her mother. Mother and daughter are the main opponents here, though Henry Carsfield and the grandmother could nip this in the bud if they had a mind to.


It feels good to write a story and then send a capable character in to save an underdog. Here we have a doctor who steps in to save Helen. Mansfield gives the reader enough information to know what he’s done — he’s taken the dress, and we can guess he’s going to have it fixed.

Meanwhile, Helen’s father plans to punish his daughter with corporal punishment.

The Grandmother isn’t happy about this, but we learn later that she deals with these parenting decisions by buying presents for her grandchildren after they have been roundly whipped. She has consoled Helen with this. (I can’t think of many worse ways in which to ruin a child.)


An underdog character is about to get a whipping for something that isn’t wholly her fault. (Expensive material shouldn’t rip so easily, especially not when the child is doing a regular childhood thing, such as sitting on a swing.)

The natural Battle scene in a story like this is the whipping scene itself, but Mansfield knows this isn’t the interesting thing. Writers don’t have to write the most obvious scene.

That said, we can’t skip any part of compulsory story parts either, and the Battle stage is not optional.

So what’s the Battle stage in this particular story?

The discussion in the girls’ bedroom in which Helen denies doing anything with the dress, and in which Henry refuses to believe her, forms the first part of the Battle. The second is the visit from the doctor to the grandmother, which leads right up to the doctor’s anagnorisis.


When the doctor hears the grandmother’s response, and laments that she can’t give her granddaughter the new doll unless she ‘earns it’ by enduring the whipping, he knows the problems in this family run much deeper. He had mistaken the grandmother for someone who understands the toxicity running in the family, assuming her simply powerless to intervene. But now he realises she doesn’t understand at all, in which case she is useless to Helen, and to the doctor’s own wishes to act.

The reader may realise something at this point, too. By trying to help, the doctor may have made things worse. Helen has sworn to her father that she left the dress in her bedroom, but the doctor has taken it, and the story is that Helen took it to school. It now appears that Helen has lied as well as torn her dress.


I fully expect that Helen will receive her whipping — possibly a double dose — and the grandmother will give her the doll.

Helen will learn that whenever good things happen in life, she doesn’t fully deserve them until enduring terrible experiences first. Her natal family is preparing Helen for a subservient role in an abusive marriage.

What do you make of the ending? Do you think the doctor took the dresses, or do you think his story about Lena, and Helen taking it to school saying she’d grown out of it, is true? Do you think Helen will escape a sound smacking if the grandmother tells Helen’s parents she found the dress under her dolman? (What’s a dolman? It describes any number of loose robes, based on the Turkish model.) I’m pretty sure a mother who makes dresses will notice if one of her creations has been sewn up.

Perhaps part of the problem with this ending — and its contrivance — is that we’re not sure if Mansfield herself had all of this straight in her head.


Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

The Weirdness of Yotsuba&! by Kiyohiko Azuma

Yotsuba 1 cover

The other day someone in a book recommendation group wanted suggestions for a 10 year old who loves Hayao Miyazaki movies.

This basically describes my own kid, who’s been a Miyazaki fan since the age of three, before she even knew transmogrification wasn’t a thing. My kid enjoys Yotsuba&! (among other things, so I recommended that.

Yotsuba&! is a manga series which has been translated into English to capture an international market. We can deduce: Yotsuba&! is actually one of the least ‘weird-to-Westeners’ stories produced by Japan.

Someone else said, “Oh I love Yotsuba! She’s so cute.” Another person mentioned the general weirdness of Japanese media for kids. (It’s worth mentioning at this point, our kids generally love this stuff. Adults find it weird.) In any case, I should probably have recommended the series ‘with reservations.’

Because of my interest in storytelling, I wondered if I could attempt a theory on why, so often, adult English speakers find Japanese stories so… inexplicably weird.

  • What do we mean when we call something ‘weird’?
  • Why does a culture find some story elements ‘plausible’, but elements from another culture ‘weird’?
  • What are the different expectations of ‘a story suitable for children’?

Any insight I have on this subject comes from 10 years of Japanese study, including a couple of years living in Japan — first as a high school exchange student living with a host family, next at a Japanese university living in a dorm Then I taught Japanese at high school level, though I’ve had little to do with Japan since the 2000s. I can only guess at the general trajectory, as more and more young Japanese people spend part of their youth abroad, many learning English to a high level which no doubt leads to a more internationalised Japan.

Conversely, is the West becoming a bit more accepting of Asian entertainment? I know white people who listen to nothing but K-Pop, and others who spend a lot of time playing Nintendo games from the 80s and 90s. Western fans of Japanese entertainment tend to be uber fans.

Japanese Weirdness and the Western Media

My general thoughts on Japanese ‘weirdness’ is this: Our Western media loves to paint Japanese people as downright quirky. We’ll pick up any out-there news article and disseminate it with glee, to bolster our view that these people are somehow ‘Other’. Oftentimes, our media’s ‘proof’ of Japanese weirdness is a complete misunderstanding of intent — Japanese people love to poke fun at themselves. Where they’re poking fun, we’re imagining they are taking themselves completely seriously. Either that or we can’t possibly see the joke because jokes are so culturally specific.

Yotsuba&! is a great introduction to Japanese ‘weirdness’.


Yotsuba&! is centered on Yotsuba Koiwai, a five-year-old adopted girl who is energetic, cheerful, curious, odd, and quirky — so much so that even her own father calls her strange. She is also initially ignorant about many things a child her age would be expected to know, among them doorbells, escalators, air conditioners, and even playground swings.This naïveté is the premise of humorous stories where she learns about, and frequently misunderstands, everyday things.

Wikipedia overview

Yotsuba means ‘four leaf clover’ in Japanese, which explains the green hair and four pigtails.


Well, the first weird thing is the title. An English speaker would not shove an ampersand into that title unless it meant ‘and’. What’s it doing there?

Well, that symbol means ‘and’ in Japanese, too. It’s just used a little differently here. Japanese orthography doesn’t put spaces between words (because there are three different ‘alphabets’ and it doesn’t need to).

The phrase Yotsuba to means “Yotsuba and,” a fact reflected in the chapter titles, most of which take the form “Yotsuba and [something].


First of all, Yotsuba&! is full of onomatopoeia and mimesis, which is amazingly rich in Japanese. The English version keeps the Japanese (written in Japanese) and adds its English transcription in small letters. For an English speaker, this still won’t be enough. We do fine with the echomimesis, but need further translation for ideophones such as ‘kuru’ to represent the turning of something. (This comes from the Japanese verb form of ‘to turn’, thus making perfect sense to Japanese readers.)


Japanese is so different from English that wordplay never translates. Yotsuba is young and gets words wrong, which presents a problem for the translator to the point where jokes simply do not work. Sometimes the translator gets around this by describing the problem in marginalia. In Yotsuba&! number one, Yotsuba mistakes her father’s job ‘translator’ for ‘jelly maker’. This works in Japanese because the words sound very similar. (Even the translation of ‘jelly’ doesn’t work — konnyaku is not what Westerners think of when we hear the word ‘jelly’ — it’s a grey, black flecked substance made from potato starch.) On a meta-level, it’s ironic that the character of the father is a translator, yet the joke about his job simply doesn’t translate.


The fictional child orphan is a very American trope. Yotsuba as a character doesn’t fit this trope at all, though. This backstory (such as there is) feels foreign. The father just kinda picked her up from someplace.

Yotsuba is not really a… real child? She’s more like Ponyo of the Hayao Miyazaki film — someone who just turns up and joins the family. She seems to have come from a different planet. In the world of the story, she’s understood to simply be ‘foreign’:

She is also initially ignorant about many things a child her age would be expected to know, among them doorbells, escalators, air conditioners, and even playground swings. This naïveté is the premise of humorous stories where she learns about, and frequently misunderstands, everyday things.

This particular character trope isn’t entirely foreign to a Western audience. We’re seeing a lot more comedy about characters who don’t seem to know what on earth is going on around them. Some of these characters are coded as autistic, which I go into more thoroughly here.

Because Yotsuba has no mother, and because her adopted father is so useless, the girls next door step in and they perform much of the emotional (and housework) labour a mother would otherwise provide. I don’t believe this is a specifically Japanese phenomenon at all, but it is an unusual family set up to see in contemporary Western children’s literature. Hopeless Dads are dime a dozen, but Dads who kind of fall in lust with their children’s informal babysitters next door? Not so much. (See below.)


In Yotsuba&! volume one, the story takes place over summer. Summer in Japan has its own specific atmosphere — after the rainy season of June comes a very hot and humid time, and unless you live in a very built-up area, summer sounds like cicadas. (Cicadas and frogs.) A ‘typical’ Japanese summer includes eating watermelons with family, wind chimes and festivals. This summer experience is depicted clearly in Yotsuba&!, though may not be coded as specifically ‘summer’ by readers who haven’t experienced the specifically Japanese summer. My Australian summer includes many of those things, too, but an Australian ‘vision of’ summer is different: the beach, swimming, surfing, shorts, sunscreen, icy-poles, thongs, beer. Each culture has its own Symbolism of Seasons, and Japanese symbolism is a little different even when summer itself is basically the same.


As a high school exchange student, I was surprised to see teachers thwack students across the head. Touching the head is taboo in my own culture, especially when it’s a teacher to a student. Yet I saw it done mostly in jest.

Likewise, in Japanese entertainment, when one character hits another over the head, this is coded by the audience as funny. It’s one character ‘owning’ the other, usually as the conclusion (or as the main part) of a joke.

This joke is used numerous times in Yotsuba&!, first with one sister hitting the other on the head in the chapter where Yotsuba thinks she’s being abducted by the girl next door. (She doesn’t know that yet.) Later, Yotsuba insists everyone goes cicada catching. She jokingly ‘Catches an Ena’, which involves capturing her neighbour’s head in a net.

In another gag, Yotsuba’s father ends up with underpants on his head and pretends he’s some kind of underpants monster. This version of the joke translates the best out of all of these ‘head’ gags — probably because a young Western audience is also laughing at the inversion of a clothing article meant for the butt ending up on the head. For a Japanese audience there’s an added layer of embarrassment around showing your underwear to someone in your out-group — for girls and women especially, this is taboo. While modern attitudes are various, some Japanese women will never, ever show anyone their underwear, to the point where they won’t hang underwear on the line. (Therefore, a joke about the father’s underwear exposed to a non-family member works as a joke, but I doubt it would work if the underwear belonged to a girl.)

There’s a huge irony in this, which I’ve never been able to reconcile: Whereas the underwear of a post-pubescent Japanese female is absolutely taboo, the white, voluminous underpants of a little girl is considered cute, whereas in the West, adult women get to show their bodies as a form of empowerment, but when it comes to little girls, we are very protective of them. Pixar would never show the underpants of a little girl flying on a broomstick or falling comically from a height, but Hayao Miyazaki has no such qualms.

In Yotsuba&! we see examples of butt shots used comically:

funny butt

But my Western sensibilities come to the fore in the relationship between Yotsuba’s ‘father’ (according to the story he simply found her and decided to keep her), and his reaction to the triad of adolescent/teenage sisters who live next door.

In the first, minor example, the comically inappropriate Yotsuba refers to one of the sisters next door as the pretty one, the other as the ‘not pretty’ one. The father says, “You’re right, but you shouldn’t say it that way…”

not so pretty

My Western sensibility wants a Good Dad to tell Yotsuba that all the sisters next door are beautiful in their own way, but this father is more pragmatic, instead acknowledging that yes, he has noticed and yes, some girls are pretty, others not so much. I’ve noticed in the West, a general lack of willingness to accept that some people fit the Beauty Cultural Norm better than others. The problem with that: Unless we accept Beauty as a concept, we can’t acknowledge Beauty Privilege. If we can’t acknowledge Beauty Privilege, we can’t go out of our way to move past it.

Besides, this father is not your typical father. He’s more of a young guy who isn’t quite up to the task of taking care of a kid. This kid regularly finds herself in perilous situations, because the father is asleep or busy working or whatever. A permissive, indulgent parent is useful to a writer of children’s literature, because it’s really hard to realistically get adult caregivers out of the way. Modern kids, in real life, are rarely afforded the opportunity to head off on their own adventures. Not so Yotsuba, who goes off on her own around the neighbourhood. “Don’t worry, she eventually comes back,” says Father to the concerned girl next door. While he’s sleeping, Yotsuba’s getting herself locked in the toilet, then escapes by tottering precariously along the rail of the balcony. Instead of fixing the lock on the door, the father leaves it be, paving the way for further embarrassing window-escape adventures. An adult Western reader may well look at this father-daughter relationship and have grave concerns. Has the creator removed the father from Yotsuba’s life in a way that doesn’t set us on edge? What is he even doing with this little girl? Does her origin story need to be explained a little more? Readers will vary on this point.

More salient: Is Yotsuba&! even for kids? At first glance, of course it is. Japanese publishers have definitely aimed it at a young child market: We know this because they include the ‘kana’ readings over the Chinese characters, which is a sure sign a book is aimed at emergent readers. (Around 5-8.)

The main character, Yotsuba is also five. But Yotsuba is five in the way Junie B. Jones is five — her particular quirks appeal to older readers.

Here’s a scene Junie B. Jones would never include: The father’s friend comes round to the house, sees the girl next door with the father and makes a comment about ‘jail bait’.

jail bait yotsuba

This is icky to me, especially after the way in which this girl is introduced to Yotsuba’s father — and to the reader:

Yotsuba up skirt shot

I’m no manga apologist, but it’s possible that within manga culture this is such a normalised objectification of a teenage girl that it doesn’t really even strike the manga-enthusiast as a sexualised pose. I recall my year as an exchange student, in which I wore the school skirt a lot lower than any of my Japanese classmates. I wore it just below the knee, whereas they rolled theirs up. Some concerned classmates offered fashion advice, and tried rolling it up at the waist to achieve a more acceptable look. The girls themselves have internalised the idea that women’s legs are to be looked at.

To me, this pose is very gazey and, depending partly on the viewer, absolutely sexual. I was prepared to look past it until the ‘jail bait’ section, but considering the story as a whole, the creators are well-aware of their intent: To depict these teenage girls in a sexual manner to appease the male gaze. Although we do see examples of the male gaze in Western children’s literature, it’s been a long time since I saw something this blatant. This is manga culture pulled down into children’s entertainment.


Yotsuba&! is the perfect example of an ‘episodic’ story, found quite often in middle grade fiction, especially that aimed at (and starring) girls. Boys more often go off on linear adventures, but in Yotsuba&!, each chapter is its own self-contained story. Apart from the first chapter, in which Yotsuba moves house and meets new people, any of the others could easily be switched around.

‘Episodic’ is often used as a negative descriptor when it comes to fiction — as a synonym for ‘boring’ or ‘goes nowhere’. Modern middle grade novels in English tend to have a single driving thread even if it includes subplots which seem to take the reader off on self-contained tangents. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a good example of a Western counterpart. I’m also thinking of Clementine — also about the quotidian life of a girl. The difference is, each of the Clementine books has a single plot thread with means the chapters could not be switched up.

In general, Japanese audiences accept a slower pace. There’s a long history of very long Noh and Kabuki plays, in which the audience happily leaves part way through, goes to eat a meal, then comes back to see the end.

But partly this is because of the huge crossover appeal of its anime, manga and also pop music, which tends to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. To generalise, even children’s media ends up with a more adult pacing:

Toy Story – 76 mins
Brave – 84 mins
Monsters Inc. – 85 mins, 8 secs
Toy Story 2 – 85 mins, 32 secs
Inside Out – 87 mins
A Bug’s Life – 88 mins
Up -89 mins
Wall·E – 90 mins
Finding Nemo – 93 mins
Toy Story 3 – 94 mins
Monsters University – 94 mins
Cars 2 – 98 mins
Ratatouille – 103 mins
The Incredibles – 107 mins
Cars – 108 mins

Pixar Running Times

Summer Wars – 114 mins
Wolf Children – 117 mins
Spirited Away – 125 mins
Paprika – 90 mins
Totoro – 86 mins
Ponyo – 101 mins
Your Name – 106 mins
From Up On Poppy Hill – 91 mins

My comparisons aren’t perfect, because ‘animated’ doesn’t mean ‘for kids’ in Japan. Summer Wars is more for an adult audience despite being anime, in line with Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill, whereas all of the Pixar films are made solidly for kids despite humour that only their adult co-viewers would get. Totoro is Japanese anime made solidly for kids, making for a better Pixar comparison, and Totor’s runtime lines up nicely with the films of Pixar. My wider point is: A more diverse story structure is accepted by audiences in Japan, with younger audiences enjoying films of ‘adult length’. (Spirited Away is enjoyed by children, but you won’t see a Pixar film of 125 minutes.)

Why are some Japanese films much longer? Because they are ‘slower’. By ‘slower’ I mean there tends to be more emphasis on scene-setting. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known for his emphasis on food scenes. Food is important across all children’s literature from any part of the world, but the emphasis on food preparation and the sharing and consumption of food is not something you’ll find easily in the West.

However, emphasis on food culture is not specific to Miyazaki. Keep looking and you’ll find it holds true across all aspects of Japanese entertainment. It’s true of Yotsuba&!, too.

The word ‘pillow shot’ was first used to describe the films of Yasujiro Ozu:

A “pillow shot” is a cutaway, for no obvious narrative reason, to a visual element, often a landscape or an empty room, that is held for a significant time (five or six seconds). It can be at the start of a scene or during a scene.

Dangerous Minds

Although it describes film, I like to apply the word equally to stories comprising static images (e.g. manga) because all the Yotsuba&! shots of first waking up, slurping on food, announcing one’s intention to visit the toilet… these are the quotidian aspects of life more commonly omitted from Western stories, even in stories for children:

I didn’t mean to pick a scene which literally includes a pillow, but there you go.

My Japanese teacher in Japan also taught English to Japanese students (that was her main job). She always found it uniquely Japanese that when asked to write an essay about their daily, her Japanese students would include details English speaking students would not: “I got up, went to the toilet, brushed my teeth…”

I have concluded over time that Japanese natives do a better, more thorough job of noticing the details of everyday life, and this is reflected in entertainment coming out of Japan.

In Sum

As you can probably gather, I have mixed feelings about the Yotsuba&! series as a middle grade text. Yotsuba as a character is a satisfying character for girls in particular — she’s irreverent (especially by Japanese standards of politeness), she’s energetic and her family situation means she’s often out on interesting hi jinx. Yotsuba herself is not sexualised — in fact she’s dressed in hardy shorts and is wholly unlimited by cultural gender expectations.

All of these wonderful things about Yotsuba are undermined by the dynamic between Yotsuba’s young, adoptive father, the father’s creepy best friend and the triad of teenaged sisters next door. I believe the creator has been influenced by manga culture to the point where he perhaps doesn’t even realise this dynamic could be read as anything other than innocent.

I suspect a proportion of Japanese parents would share this view in common with me, and to finish off, I’d like to emphasise that ‘manga’ culture is not synonymous with ‘Japanese culture’.

The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield

Benjamin Leader - A Relic of the Past

“The Doll’s House” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, set in New Zealand, written 1922. This is Mansfield’s most accessible story, and a good introduction to her work. Its main themes are seen across children’s literature as well. Unlike stories such as “The Garden Party” and “Bliss”, the reader is not required to fill in so many gaps by interpreting imagery. Readers are told exactly what happens.

(It always bothers me that the apostrophe doesn’t come after the ‘s’ in dolls’ house, since more than one doll always lives there…)

Margaret Drabble reads “The Doll’s House” by Katherine Mansfield at The Guardian.


Schools looked like this around the time Katherine Mansfield was growing up in New Zealand — the New Zealand of her memory.

Opotiki School

New Zealanders have long loved to tell ourselves the myth that New Zealand is without social class. “When Europeans settled in New Zealand, everyone was equal. Everyone started from scratch, and everybody drank at the same pubs, attended the same schools…”

That was never true. My earliest ancestor to New Zealand emigrated as a bannister maker. He went to New Zealand to make bannisters for rich people, who took their servants, their wealth and their attitudes with them. Nothing magical happened on that boat to wipe those slates clean.

It is true that for hard-working early settlers, climbing the economic hierarchy became a genuine possibility, given good luck, white skin and valuable skills. One line of my working-class ancestry managed to secure swathes of farmland, some of it in an area which is now central Christchurch. That land was stolen by a lawyer who duped a new widow and ran off to Australia with the late husband’s fortune. (Women weren’t taught much about money in those days.) My family’s newly acquired immigrant fortune was thereby lost, even more quickly than it was gained. (Back then, Australia might as well have been the other side of the world.) My own family’s example demonstrates the ebb and flow of fortune in a young, new land, but classist attitudes are slower to change.

Do they ever change? Mansfield encourages us to mull that one over.


Doll house stories inevitably utilise one of two literary effects (or even both at once):

  • The miniature effect, in which a story set in a particular time and place represents times and places everywhere. (Click that link, because there are many other uses for it.)
  • The mise-en-abyme effect, which I cover in detail in an Angela Carter short story. In Mansfield’s story, imagine a doll house inside a doll house inside a doll house and so on. This conveys the idea of a never-ending pattern. What’s the never-ending pattern? Classism. Each new generation learns the same old classism from the one before, transmitting it later to their own children. A dolls’ house is therefore the perfect symbol to convey how classist attitudes transmit across generations.

For other examples of dolls’ houses in literature, see this post. (Squirrel Nutkin was published in 1903 — was this a favourite of Katherine Mansfield? Mansfield was a teenager by that stage, but Potter’s stories found very wide appeal.)

The central image of “The Doll’s House” is the little lamp, often interpreted as a symbol of light and therefore of knowing. But the lamp is a symbol of tricks, shams and illusions:

It was even filled already for lighting, though, of course you couldn’t light it.

… you couldn’t tell it from a real one’.

This is very similar to how Beatrix Potter uses the doll house in “The Tale of Two Bad Mice“. Potter’s story would therefore make an excellent companion text to this one. Unlike the Burnell children, the two ‘bad’ mice are outraged to learn that the miniature food is fake. They have a tantrum and make a complete mess of the dollhouse. But I find “The Tale of Two Bad Mice” the most affecting of all Potter’s tales — we feel genuine sorrow for the mice, who looked forward to a wonderful treat, only to have their hopes dashed.

Let’s look more closely at the imagistic pattern described in “The Doll’s House”, focusing on the dollhouse itself:

the door was like a slab of toffee
very big, awful smell, big lumps of paint, the hook was stuck fast
as if they had fainted [describing the very stiff dolls]

These details reenforce the basic theme: the gradual revelation to a child of social discrimination and injustice.

Significantly, only Else seems to realise that the rich people’s ‘little teeny lamp’ is a sham.



This is the story of a community rather than of an individual. This narrative choice fits the theme, because social strata requires an entire community in order to exist. As in “Sun and Moon”, it makes more sense to divide the cast into two ‘main characters’ — adults versus children.

Whenever rich and poor people interact in a story, you get immediate, ready-made conflict. The adults of this rural town resemble rural towns dotted throughout New Zealand today, with the stark division between landed farmers and the service industry workers who work for them, alongside the unemployed. Rural towns are the perfect arena for rich and poor to mingle together. Although some of the rich farmers’ children are sent away to high school, they do still tend to attend the local primary school together. Katherine Mansfield herself was sent away to ‘finishing school’. (My father always used to threaten to send me away to finishing school if I didn’t behave like a proper little lady, though but the 1980s such institutions no longer existed, and I never really understood the empty threat. Even in England, Princess Diana was the very last of the finishing school class of lady, alongside Penelope Keith’s character in To The Manor Born.)

The moral shortcoming of the adults: They have no empathy for people they consider beneath themselves.

The moral shortcoming of the children: The children are emulating their adults, and this story is a snippet of indoctrination. The little girls mimic their mothers exactly, and the in-group, out-group bias is evident in the playground, where niceties are extended in return for social favours. You could even draw parallels between the doll’s house and the housing market, which is even more of a social issue than it was back then, when even the servant class were able to afford their own small cottage. In contemporary New Zealand there is an ever-increasing class divide between those who can own their own homes (and rental properties), and those who will never afford the payments on a the most modest of mortgages. This year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern created legislation preventing offshore ownership of New Zealand real estate, in an attempt to put a lid on this problem.

Anthony Browne covered similar issues in his picture book Voices In The Park. Before children learn who they may and may not talk to, they are inclined to talk to everyone. Browne’s book would make a good companion text to “The Doll’s House”.


Another short story master who tends to write communities rather than individuals is Annie Proulx. If you want to create a story with community themes, it’s all in your choice of narration:

Imagine a camera, attached to a silent drone. This drone follows Mrs Hay, who leaves a doll’s house with the Burnells, then flies over to the Burnell children, goes with them to school, flies up to pan out and include the Kelvey girls, who wait in the wings. For the big struggle scene it follows Aunt Beryl, but we accept this change in point of view because Mansfield never settles in on any single individual. Finally, it rests with the Kelvey girls, who are given the final word. This moment of sweetness makes the rest of the story all the worse.


The Burnell children are proud of their new dolls’ house and they want to tell everybody about it.


The web of opposition is:

  • Children versus adults (though the children don’t realise this — to them, it’s perfectly natural that the Kelveys would be excluded.)
  • The children have their own social hierarchy, and Mansfield does a good job of depicting the hierarchy of a schoolyard, with its false niceties and the ‘designated untouchables’.

For more on that see Bullying In Children’s Literature.


The Burnell children scheme between themselves how to milk this doll’s house for all the social capital it’s worth. They decide who’s going to pick friends to come home and view it, how to create momentum. (If the era were different, Isabel would have found great success in a marketing career.)

Little Kezia eventually gets sick of her big sister taking all the glory, and she makes her own plan: To invite the Kelveys to see it. (I imagine everyone else has seen the doll’s house by this point.)


When Aunt Beryl finds the Kelveys in the yard she shoos them out as if they are chickens, later described as rats.

There may have been another reason, apart from the father in gaol/servant reason given, that the Burnell adults refused to allow poor children into their yard, treating them as disease-spreading rodents. The following is a fairly new theory, to do with the discovery that Harold Beauchamp (Katherine Mansfield’s father) probably moved the family out to the ‘country’ (now pretty central Wellington) to escape a bacterial plague affecting the old central Wellington:

What if, Yska wondered, Harold Beauchamp moved his family inland to escape what was nothing less than a galloping bacterial plague? The more he looked, the more clues he found in Mansfield’s stories – instances long seen as coded references to class consciousness. What if there was an alternative or companion subtext to her stories’ famous theme: “Don’t let little Kezia play with the washerwoman Kelvey’s little tykes”?

Yska says the reality wasn’t that the Beauchamps were snobs, but that at a certain point, they realised socialising with people from the poorer parts of central Wellington could literally kill them. For, as is ever the case, the poor succumbed to the plague first.



I doubt Kezia had any sort of epiphany regarding social class and exclusion and untouchable culture. She most likely learned that the Kelvey girls are too disgusting to enter the yard, and she won’t dare associate with them again.

In this story, the revelation is for the reader rather than for the characters, who are victims of the cogs of the local social hierarchy.

Apart from being asked to offer critique of classism, the paragraph with Aunt Beryl offers an insight into human psychology: Adults get mad at children when their own personal lives aren’t working out. This has nothing to do with the children, but children (similar to the adult servant class) bear the brunt. Or, ‘shit travels down’, as corporate workers well know. (I believe Americans say ‘shit rolls downhill’.)


The ending serves to underscore this: The underclass are learning their place. This isn’t just one-sided, with the upper class learning their place at the top. The Kelvey girls are meek. They don’t complain.

Else is satisfied that she’s seen the little lamp. She’s ‘forgotten the cross lady’. As time goes by, she’ll not necessarily remember the Burnells’ Aunt Beryl at all, and she may barely remember that little lamp. But all of these micro-aggressions add up, and by the time she’s grown, Else will know her place in the social hierarchy: firmly at the bottom.

This ending is similar to that of “Her First Ball” in which an underdog character has an unpleasant interaction then apparently forgets all about it.

There is a concept in psychology known as “relative deprivation

by which disenfranchised groups, having been trained to expect little, tend paradoxically to report the same levels of satisfaction as their better-treated, more privileged peers.

Lili Loofbourow, The Female Price of Male Pleasure

Because the Kelvey sisters are so socially and materially deprived, the opportunity to view a fancy doll’s house makes their day, despite the inevitable (to them) ostracisation which follows.

There are subcategories of relative deprivation. It can work the other way, in which a disenfranchised group or individual looks at far more privileged others around them and this maximises their dissatisfaction. Mansfield covered this variety of relative deprivation in “The Tiredness of Rosabel“.

Header painting: Benjamin Leader – A Relic of the Past. I chose this painting not because it is set in New Zealand but because of the children playing, and because the angle makes the foregrounded house look so much bigger than the cottage.


Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

Sun and Moon by Katherine Mansfield


“Sun and Moon” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1918.

The story opens with a description of gold chairs, which reminds me of a totally unrelated Colin Carpenter (Comedy Company) skit:

And while I’m being random, I read recently in a Marcus Chown science book that tides are caused by both the moon and the sun, with tides of the moon being twice as big as tides of the sun, because the moon is closer.  I had never really implicated the sun into my understanding of how tides work.

Read the story at The Katherine Mansfield Society website.

LISTEN to Sun and Moon by Katherine Mansfield AUDIO BOOK

Lucien Davis — Except on Business
Lucien Davis — Except on Business

What Happens In “Sun and Moon”

  • As the story opens the whole house is involved in preparing for an ostentatious party. (Party preparation also forms the bulk of “The Garden Party”.)
  • Nothing feels norma to the children, named Sun and Moon: Cook is nicer than usual, there is a man come to tune the piano, Nurse is too busy to look after them (when presumably that is her entire job).
  • Cook takes the children by the hand and shows them the marvellous food in the fridge. Sun is taken by the nut which serves as a door handle on the little green house.
  • The children are dressed up to greet the guests. Then they are sent to bed.
  • Their sleep is disturbed by the excitement of the party downstairs.
  • When the guests have gone, Father finds the children on the stairs and brings them down to have some of the leftover food.
  • But when Sun sees the food has all been destroyed he is upset, lets out a loud wail and is sent back to bed.
James Hayllar - Miss Lily's Return from the Ball
James Hayllar – Miss Lily’s Return from the Ball


The story takes place inside the house of an upper class family who live like the old aristocracy, with a Nurse to bring up their children, while a large part of their main job is socialising among people of their own class. This is a Downton Abbey setting.

Mansfield spends a lot of time on details, of the flowers, chairs etc. and it’s all from Sun’s point of view. As in “The Voyage”, the reader is forced to notice the things a child would notice.

J. C.Leyendecker c 1932



Multi-personal point of view records the children’s reactions at various points:

“Oh! Oh! Oh! It was a little house…”

“But – oh! oh! what had happened?”

“broken – broken – half melted away in the center of the table”

The majority of “Sun and Moon” is told in third person limited POV: limited to the thoughts of Sun. This narrative choice encourages the reader to empathise with Sun’s feelings about the green house and the nut. Ideally we remember our own childhoods as we read.

  • Do you have an early memory of a big social gathering which required a lot of preparation?
  • Do you remember the sorts of questions adults would always ask you?
  • Who were your favourite adults, outside your family? How did they treat you differently?
  • Do you remember a time when something you loved was destroyed?
  • What was that thing? Why were you so enchanted by it?
Norman Rockwell – Little Girl Looking Downstairs at Christmas Party – 1964


In common with almost every single young child in a story, the children’s main shortcoming is their powerlessness, owing to dependence, youth and naivety.

Layered over that, Mansfield does an interesting thing with the symbolism: Throughout “Sun and Moon”, the children’s psychological needs are symbolised by hunger. (For another example of the same technique see “A Suburban Fairy Tale”.)


There is no strong, obvious desire line from Sun in this story. Because he is so young, he doesn’t really know what it is he wants.

By the end of the story we know that what he wants is for things to stay amazing, whole and intact. With a crowd of drunk adults around, this is never going to happen…


Along with “See Saw” and “The Voyage“, “Sun and Moon” is a story which juxtaposes children and adults. The adults are opponents because their party is designed to destroy the entire set up.

Unlike their son, the parents remain in a kind of everlasting innocence in their failure to see his distress. Their drunkenness highlights their regression to childhood; they have become playful with each other again. Mother calls Father a ‘naughty boy’, but as Son realises, she is not talking to him. This is a little perplexing for Son; he is not used to seeing his parents like this.

The parents probably do not spend a lot of time with their own children, addressing them as if they don’t know them very well. Care of the children is spread among the house servants, particularly Nanny, and also Cook, who is the only adult in the story who engages with the children as if she understands them. However, Cook is often overworked and therefore grumpy, as Sun observes.

The other adults are not really very interested in the children, engaging in the kind of small talk usually indulged in with small children by people who don’t know them well.

Moon is Sun’s foil character rather than his opponent. Whereas Sun is sensitive and serious, Moon is dainty, seductive, outgoing, flighty, extroverted and impulsive. When Moon sees the nut she wants to touch the house. This shows she is sensual and tactile. Moon sees the world at surface level, probably because she is younger.

The children’s names, quite obviously, reflect the roles they play. The sun and the moon, for Mansfield, represent ‘The Whole’. (Similar symbolism is found in “Bliss“.)

When Moon takes the nut, she becomes Sun’s opponent.

Symbolism Of The Little House

As the children admire the pre-party set up, the confection house represents a pre-lapsarian innocence in which everything is bliss. The children look forward to the party and are allowed to wait up, full of expectation. The see the feast in all its splendour, and then the guests arrive. Their parents get drunk. The food is spoiled. The children no longer want anything to do with the adult world and demand to be taken away. Perhaps, like me, this house made of sweets reminds you of Hansel and Gretel. As in the fairytale, this artefact seems made to draw children in (even though it’s a party for adults).

The confection house represents an ideal for Sun. When Moon grabs the nut and eats it he feels she has taken a part of himself – his ego – which is further diminished when he is sent back upstairs.


The children don’t have the power to make their own plans, propelled along but the plans of their parents. They are dressed up like dolls, are required to greet the guests, then they are required to go to bed.

The parents’ plans take a different turn — drunk and happy, the father gets them up to see the leftovers, though he wouldn’t normally disturb their sleep in the middle of the night. Children are comforted by routine, and this is a deviation.

Saturday Evening Post cover - November 1961
Saturday Evening Post cover – November 1961


The Battle scene is the part where Sun cries. He’s an overtired child, of course, but that’s only a surface level reading.

He’s crying for another reason…


Sun’s realisation might be described as a fall from innocence.

When Sun sees the nut he suddenly ‘feels tired.’ Like the whiskered man who attends the party later, Sun is already an old man in his own way; he has already walked round and round the table with his hands behind his back: a grandfatherly sort of body  language. In fact, the grey whiskered man is an elderly version of Sun. Both of them are alone and quiet and both are equally taken with the nut. Mansfield aligns child with an elderly counterpart the way she also does in “The Voyage”. This trick achieves various effects:

  • Time feels like a bit of an illusion. We normally think of time as linear, and the young and old as different species, almost. But by aligning old and young, we are encouraged to think of time in terms of snapshots in a photo album — at any given time you could pull a photo out, and the child version of an old man is as true a version of the man as the elderly version.
  • We’re encouraged to take children seriously. The children are not treated seriously in this story. They are dressed up like dolls and prepped to greet as if they have nothing original to contribute themselves. The adults are irritated that Sun cries. They think they’re doing something special for their children. But they don’t dig deeper into any reason for the distress, in a way we might dig a bit deeper for a fellow adult.

When Moon lets out a wail, he has realised something quite profound.

I’m reminded of a child who spends all day building a house out of Lego. The nature of Lego is that it is meant to be pulled apart — the pulling apart is part of the fun. Without pulling it apart, no more Lego houses can be made.

Sun’s revelation: We work hard to create amazing, beautiful things, but those amazing, beautiful things cannot exist untouched in their pure form. The world, and our lives, are built around the physics of entropy.

The reader’s revelation: This applies to humans, too. We all get older. Boy = old man.


The children are sent to bed and tomorrow their lives will continue as usual — we extrapolate. Sun may not even remember the incident, but he will remember the lesson: That all good things must end.


Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

The Voyage by Katherine Mansfield

the voyage katherine mansfield

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

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

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

Mansfield’s technique can be called impressionist, a term borrowed from art world. (“Impressionist” generally describes the way  19th century painters depicted sensory impressions.) Mansfield mainly aimed to offer the reader a series of interconnected experiences. It’s often said there’s no ‘point’ to her stories other than that. It’s true that Mansfield’s stories were without didacticism (morals). We’re used to that now. It was unusual at the time.

It’s easy to forget how avant garde Mansfield was. You’ll have seen a lot of modernist, impressionist work since Mansfield’s time, and in fact, series of montages with none of the 19th century padding is now the storytelling norm. So I’d like to really emphasise that Mansfield’s impressionistic way of writing was a very new technique back in the 1920s. Katherine Mansfield was part of a movement, and made an important contribution to the development of the short story genre in particular.

Scholars are sometimes keen to point out that Mansfield’s short stories had ‘no plot’, either, comprising nothing but a series of quotidian snippets. Think of the montage technique in film and you’ve got the idea.

I disagree with the view that Mansfield’s short stories are without plot. Her stories are lyrical, but still adhere to conventional storytelling structure, which I’ll show you below.

What Happens In “The Voyage”

A girl of about five (Fenella) travels from Wellington with her grandmother by boat to her grandparents’ home in Picton, where she will live with the grandmother and grandfather. Her mother has passed away and her grandmother now takes care of her as her guardian. It is only halfway through the story when we discover Fenella’s mother is dead, hence the grandmother as new guardian. This information is revealed via imagery rather than via the narration, which emulates the way we learn things as children, before language and explanations even make much sense. It’s likely that Fenella has already been told in words exactly what’s happening, but she cannot really understand her new situation — or her mother’s death — until she feels it.

Setting of “The Voyage”

In the opening sentence we know where this story is set. Picton is a small town at the top of the South Island of New Zealand. If you want to travel between the North and South Islands, that’s where you catch the ferry, which takes you to the capital of Wellington, where Mansfield grew up. Historians and Mansfield’s contemporary readers would know the characters on the Picton side of the trip because of the landing stage:

‘And now the landing stage came out to meet them.  Slowly it swam towards the Picton boat.’

Mansfield was very familiar with the Picton Boat. As a child she visited her Picton relatives many times with her family, and the Picton relatives came often to visit her.

It’s difficult to imagine now, just how dark it was before street lighting. The buildings ‘all seemed carved out of solid darkness’. The area around the Old Wharf is brought to life, with words like ‘quivering’, and the description of how it ‘burns softly, as if for itself’.

Why? Candles are used not only to light spaces but also as meditations. We have a tradition of lighting candles to remember dead loved ones. This is Fenella burning a candle for her early childhood life. We don’t know this yet — this is all foreshadowing.

This was an era when it was believed fathers were incapable of bringing up their own children. I’m sure a few did, but it was just as acceptable to give children to other female relatives if the children’s mother had died. The father walks in ‘quick, nervous’ strides. We’re not encouraged to take a good look into the father’s psychology, but it must have been terrible to lose a wife and then to lose your child, via nothing other than social circumstance.

A Brief History Of The Picton Boat

These days it’s common to take a flight between islands, but of course back in Mansfield’s era, the ferry was your only choice.

Now, a large proportion of the passengers will be travelling by ferry mainly for the tourist experience. The view of the mountains as you sail close to land is magnificent. And if you’re not sick to the stomach from choppy waters, it’s even more magnificent! The Cook Strait is a strip of water above a major network of fault lines — hence New Zealand is chopped in two in the first place!

The ‘Picton Boat’ known in my childhood as the ‘Picton Ferry’ is now called The Interislander, and the journey takes between 3-3/5 hours. But in the early 1900s, this boat trip between islands lasted an entire day. Back then, a trip between islands (a strip of water known as The Cook Strait) was more drama than a trip to Australia is today. Apart from the boat trip itself, you had to make it to the Old Wharf in Wellington, probably by horse and cart, and you couldn’t pay to just leave your horse there. You had to be dropped off. Today, travelling between islands is simple. To call it a ‘voyage’ would be hyperbole. But not for young Fenella, and not back then.

The Voyage Old Wharf
A view of Old Wharf around 1910

Other Setting Details

Without knowing anything else about the story, the reader can deduce the early 1900s setting of “The Voyage”:

  • They use the old British style currency (shilling, tuppence). New Zealand switched to dollars and cents in 1967.
  • Fenella’s grandmother wears restrictive clothing such as stays and bodice. Adults are wearing bonnets and caps in public. Even my mother, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, was required to wear a hat in public. Straw hats were part of her public school uniform. The social revolution of the late 1960s meant people no longer regarded it ‘improper’ to leave the house without wearing a hat. ‘To her surprise Fenella saw her father take off his hat.’
  • The language used by the characters feels dated at times e.g. ‘what wickedness’.
  • Bananas were a luxury product in this era. You couldn’t get them just anywhere, but Picton wharf was one place known for bananas. Unlike Australia, New Zealand’s climate has never been able to support its own banana growing industry. Even so, bananas are cheaply available now. They’re grown in the Phillipines and imported. New Zealand’s cheap bananas have huge ethical implications because the people who grow them are working under slave conditions. When I lived in London in 2006, I noticed Londoners had the option of buying ‘regular’ bananas or ‘fair trade’ bananas. There was never that option in New Zealand and I’d never given much thought to where bananas came from. Ethical bananas have since become an option for New Zealanders who still want to eat bananas.
  • We know the grandmother doesn’t drink alcohol because the staff know her and therefore now it’s hopeless offering. Then she eats wine biscuits, and I realised that’s a word I haven’t heard in a very long time. I grew up in the 1980s with Griffins biscuits, and wine biscuits describe a sweet, plain biscuit with a complicated imprint of grapes on one side. I must have eaten thousands of those. Did they originally have something to do with wine? Probably, given the grapes. Griffins has rebranded them as ‘Superwine’ biscuits. I don’t know what the Picton Boat offerings looked like, and I can’t find a single image of a single Superwine biscuit on the entire Internet! In any case, Grandma was eating a plain, sweet biscuit, probably to settle her stomach.
  • I’ve never booked a cabin on the Interislander. I have slept literally underneath the seats in the main area, on a midnight trip… after having missed my daytime one. According to one reviewer who booked a cabin in 2015: For $40 extra we had our own 4 bunk cabin on the Interislander. It had lovely white sheets, a window, our own shower and toilet. Two free cups of coffee and a newspaper thrown in! It was excellent and well worth the money.’ — Paula from Christchurch

For more on the historical era and the setting around the Old Wharf, see this post by Julie Kennedy.



When the child is a main character, their biggest shortcoming is their naivety and their reliance upon those around them.

Mansfield never lets readers know the exact age of Fenella, but we can guess she is a young child because of the limited understanding she has of different situations.

Mansfield writes this story in free, indirect discourse. Another story written with this narration is What Maisie Knew by Henry James, a description of a divorce but via the limited understanding of a girl about Fenella’s age.

When the audience knows something the character does not, this is a technique known as dramatic irony. Irony describes any sort of ‘meaningful gap’ in a story — in this case between audience and character.

Examples of dramatic irony:

  1. The woodpile is described as a “huge black mushroom”, an image that would perhaps be unusual from an adult’s point of view, but completely understandable from a child’s.
  2. In the middle of the story Fenella is in the private cabin with her grandmother. In wonder, Fenella sees the old woman undress. Until then she had hardly ever seen her grandmother with even her head uncovered. Because this is new and strange to Fenella. We know this is through the Fenella-filter because Fenella does not know the right words to describe women’s clothing:  ‘Then she undid her bodice, and something under that, and something else under that.’ This is Fenella’s introduction to what it would be like to have a woman’s body.
  3. Fenella doesn’t know why Grandma thinks selling sandwiches for twopence is such ‘wickedness’.  She doesn’t understand the value of money.
  4. Also, it is the first time Fenella makes this trip. We can also tell from the images — Fenella’s impressions — the narrator uses to describe the public area on the boat that everything is new to the girl: ‘They were in the saloon. It was glaring bright and stifling; the air smelled of paint and burnt chop-bones and india-rubber.’ An experienced traveler would no longer register this strangeness, but children — in common with adults on psychedelics — notice every new detail around them.


Fenella is a typical child, and small children tend to live in the moment. She’s not fully aware of the significance of this journey and she may not even know where they’re going. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be away from her father.

For this reason, her desires are very much in the moment.

  • She wants to take care of her grandmother’s fetching umbrella.
  • She wants to touch the sandwich, so she does. (She wants to eat it, too, but it’s too expensive.)
  • She wants to take off her lace booties.
  • She wants the soap to lather up, though it doesn’t.



Sometimes in a story populated by two people, they are each other’s opposition.

Definition of opponent: Any character who stands in the way of what the main character wants.

It’s irrelevant how kind the opponent is. In this story, grandmother is a caring, kind woman. The way in which she deals with Fenella belies her personality – she tells Fenella she would be more comfortable taking her lace socks off, though doesn’t insist that she do so. She reminds me a lot of my own grandmother.

Yet this loving grandmother is still Fenella’s opponent, because Fenella is a little anxious, and the grandmother is requiring her to do something she’d really prefer not to. The grandmother is taking her away from everything she knew and loved. To a child, who has not yet developed the meaning of permanence, a dead parent might come back at any stage.

The other opponent is that of nature — the inherent danger — or the sense of danger — which attends boat travel.

Grandma tells Fenella that ‘God is with you at sea more than he is on land’, betraying her nervousness, and the possibility of disaster.

The grandmother’s fears aren’t wholly imagined. The most notorious of New Zealand’s ferry disasters is the Wahine Disaster of 1968. My father was living and working in central Wellington at that time. He describes the wind as so strong that day that for a smaller individual it was impossible to stand upright outside. He remembers office workers on their hands and knees, trying to cross the street. 53 people lost their lives. The unbelievable part of it was, the ship was so very close to shore.

The Wahine was not New Zealand’s first maritime disaster. Shipwrecks were common in the 1800s, when this grandmother grew up, and as for this particular route:

On 12 February 1909 the Penguin struck a rock (Maybe Thoms Rock or the floating remains of a wreck) off the Wellington coast of Cook Strait and foundered with the loss of 75  lives.  Katherine Mansfield left New Zealand in July 1908 so it is possible to speculate that if the Beauchamp family had been on the boat New Zealand might have lost its best known writer. She would certainly have been upset about this incident when she heard about it in England.

Julie Kennedy

When Grandma and Fenella first go into the cabin, Fenella feels she has been ‘shut into a box’ with Grandma. The ‘box’ refers equally to a coffin. Mansfield probably thought of coffins whenever she entered small rooms — she uses that same imagery with the same reference in her story Miss Brill, who returns to her small bedsit after a visit to a public garden, in which she realises for the first time that she’s old. (I wonder if Mansfield suffered a little from claustrophobia.)

In any case, when Fenella thinks of grandma, she thinks of death. If they’re both in the coffin-like cabin together, they’re both adjacent to death, together. But then Mansfield juxtaposes this vision of grandma as one-foot-in-the-grave by making her climb nimbly up the ladder to the top bunk. Though this is a juxtaposed image of the elderly woman (who probably wasn’t all that old, given the era — she was probably in her forties, dammit), the story function is the same and therefore reinforces the idea that though Fenella is at one end of her life and grandma is at the other, they are both equal: they are both mortal. They will both die, and whenever that is? That doesn’t matter. It can happen at any time, as it happened to her mother.

If grandmother is an opponent, it’s because she is positioned as Fenella’s older version of herself. Fenella is therefore unable to get away from the concept of mortality.

Mansfield is drawing on a long history of the elder-care in this story, especially upon the history of old women. European fairytales are a good place to look for the contradictory feelings people have always held in regards to the sick, frail and elderly. On the one hand, old people have been given special status and privilege as founts of wisdom. By the same token, once a person becomes senile and can no longer contribute to family and society, they are pushed from this position of honour. In the medieval era, the elderly were oft-times executed or abandoned. Death is often considered a good thing, especially when compared to being old here on earth. When dies and joins her grandmother in Heaven, this is considered a happy ending.


The little boy in “The Voyage” functions as more of a foil character than of outright opposition. His circumstances are the inverse of Fenella’s: Fenella’s grandmother is kind to her, but the little boy is jerked angrily along between two parents. Note that he has his parents, so is technically more lucky. But what if your parents are angry types?


The plan is made by the adults and Fenella has no choice but to go along with it. That’s the typical case for a naive child character.


The ‘big struggle’ scene isn’t any sort of argument or fight but rather conveyed through an imagistic system of light and dark. (See below.)


Now’s a good time to talk about the imagery, which links directly to Fenella’s Anagnorisis.


There are two themes symbolised by the contrast between darkness and light.  First of all, complete the following chart using quotes and examples from the text.

The old wharf is ‘dark, very dark’. (Everything on the “Old Wharf” is dark, and the one lantern with its timid light only seems to underline that sensation.)‘The lamp was still burning, but night was over’ (Describes the morning they arrive in Picton to Fenella’s new life).
Woodpile looks like a ‘huge black mushroom’.‘the cold pale sky was the same colour as the cold pale sea.  On land a white mist rose and fell’.
grandmother is wearing black clothes ‘crackling black ulster’Grandma’s cheeks are ‘white waxen’.
Little boy has black arms and legs‘up a little path of round white pebbles’
Wool shed has a trail of smokeOn the table at Grandma and Grandpa’s sits a ‘white cat’.
A ‘huge coil of dark rope’ on the ferryGrandpa has a ‘white tuft’ on his head and a ‘long silver beard’.
‘Dark figures of men lounged against the (ferry) rails’. 
The ‘dark round eye’ is the window in the cabin on the ferry 
‘spider-like steps’ of Grandma climbing the bunk 

This darkness/light imagery symbolizes:


There’s a point in our childhoods when we understand the concept of death. Until that moment, we believed everyone lives forever. The death of her mother forces Fenella to confront this fact earlier than she otherwise would have.

In a different story, “The Wind Blows”, Katherine Mansfield uses a ship in the distance to symbolise the later developmental phase — that of a teenager: The realisation that childhood comes to an end. This can feel like a kind of death (in hindsight more than at the time, I think).


The sense of darkness may illustrate both Fenella’s uncertainty and  her grief.

Symbolically, these images may indicate a difficult period in Fenella’s life is now behind her. Perhaps there have been years of her mother being ill, and now she has arrived in a new, stable home. (The mother might equally have died in childbirth.) However, it is implied that life will never regain the stability it seemed to have from a child’s point of view. Dealing with the death of a beloved one and becoming an adult also means getting a sense of the irrevocable passage of time. Fenella’s grandparents are obviously no longer young, and a final image, the text painted by her grandfather, underlines the awareness that life is transitory. Fortunately for Fenella, Grandpa looks very happy.

Fenella’s slight maturation over the course of a single night on the ferry is such a subtle ‘Anagnorisis’ that the reader is offered a second one, in the form of the grandmother’s painted message, affixed above the old grandfather’s head:

Lost One Golden Hour
“Lost! One Golden Hour Set with Sixty Diamond Minutes. No Reward Is Offered For It Is Gone For Ever!”

I wonder if this saying is a Katherine Mansfield original. It sounds like a poem that was commonly passed around, but I can’t say either way.

This story is about the inevitable passing of time — the hurtling towards death. When Katherine Mansfield wrote “The Voyage”, she had well and truly faced her own mortality. She would die just a few years later. The passing of time must have felt acute.


The umbrella is important when making sense of the ending.

The umbrella is a repeated symbol throughout “The Voyage”, which technically makes it a motif. Fenella’s grandmother lets Fenella take care of her swan-necked, probably expensive umbrella. At first it seems a burden to Fenella as it is big and awkward (too big for her to manage — just like the notion of death). Fenella focuses on it during the trip, almost as a way of avoiding anxiety. At one point she prevents it from falling over at the same moment her grandmother does.

When they have arrived on the island, Grandma does not even have to say the word or Fenella can confirm she has performed her duty:

“You’ve got my—”

‘Yes, Grandma.’ Fenella showed it to her.”

The umbrella comes to symbolize Fenella’s new sense of responsibility, a process which has been accelerated because of the death of her mother. It surprises her grandfather that Fenella arrives carrying his wife’s precious novelty umbrella.

“Ugh!” said grandpa. “Her little nose is as cold as a button. What’s that she’s holding? Her grandma’s umbrella?”

We have learned, along with the grandfather, that little Fenella has grown up a little — enough to be trusted with a precious umbrella, and enough to cope with the tragic death of her mother. She’s going to be okay.


Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield

Miss Brill Katherine Mansfield

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

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

Susanna Fullerton

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

Connection To Katherine Mansfield’s Own Life

“Miss Brill” is a story about loneliness in a city. There’s something ironic about cities — that you can be chronically lonely even while surrounded by people.

Stories about people who are in some way on the move and have mislaid their roots are so numerous that to express this category as a fraction would be impossible. […] Katherine Mansfield the expatriate colonial, the doubly uprooted, had come on the scene with a talent precisely fitted to the rootless age of solitude in cities, constant movement and dreams of travel.

Anthony Alpers, 1984

Another of Mansfield’s stories about a woman alone in a city is “Pictures“. Ada Moss could almost be Miss Brill but a theatrical, older version.

Miss Brill and Me

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

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

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

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

What Happens In “Miss Brill”?

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Marina Warner, From The Beast To The Blonde

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

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



Critic Mieke Bal has called Miss Brill a “Sunday Wanderer” archetype. The Sunday Wanderer is a highly sensitive individual who enjoys observing their surroundings. There are overlaps with the Flaneur. Like a literary flaneur, the Sunday Wanderer is a focaliser. These highly observant characters are great tools for when the author wants to appear to step right out of the picture. The story doesn’t need an unseen narrator adding extra information when the character is as observant as any good author.

When reading a story about a Sunday Wanderer, the reader is invited to wander alongside.

But Miss Brill can’t get inside other characters’ heads. She is limited to what she can observe, and imagine. She can only imagine their motivations. ‘She glanced, sideways, at the old couple. Perhaps they would go soon.’ What Miss Brill imagines says more about her than about the characters she describes.

Like Miss Brill, the reader Sunday Wanderer will be required to fill in the gaps. Here’s how I fill in the gaps:

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

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

Susanna Fullerton

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

To be old, female and single is a dangerous state in 1920. Women in this position were likely to fall into poverty as they grew older. Even if she worked her whole life, women did not have pay equality. A woman teacher was paid on the assumption that she was earning pocket money until a man came along to turn her into a mother.


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


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


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


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

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


“Miss Brill” … employs ironic narrative juxtaposition, contrasting Miss Brill’s preoccupation with a detached narrator’s perspective. Miss Brill’s search for knowledge is involuntary and, for better or worse, she is momentarily forced to quit her shell of self-delusion. The narrator first elevates the character to the pinnacle of comfortable delusion, by means of fantasies, dreams or distorted visions and then throws him/her into deep despair. The narrator, extra-diegetic and detached, leaves Miss Brill heart-broken at the end.

Mansfield often follows this formula of ironic narrational parallax. It is in the narrative juxtaposition of perspectives that Mansfield’s basically Impressionist achievement lies. The method may be seen as the fundamental source of Mansfield’s irony. Mansfield’s view of reality is ephemeral and evanescent, constantly shifting its meaning and continually defying precise definition.

Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism, Julia van Gunsteren

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

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

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

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

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

Not immediately, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Charles May interprets this moment as Miss Brill’s revelation, with the story ending there. We don’t see her New Situation:

The short story, standing alone, with no life before it or after it, can receive no … comforting merging of the extraordinary with the ordinary [like the novel can]. For example, we might hypothesise that after Miss Brill  has been so emphatically made aware of her role in the park each Sunday, she will still go on with her life, but Katherine Mansfield’s story titled “Miss Brill” gives us no such comforting afterthought based on our confidence that “life goes on”, for it ends with the revelation.

Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis


  • Here is the transcript a 2010 interview between Ramona Koval (The Australian Book Show) and Susannah Fullerton, a Kiwi Katherine Mansfield specialist.
  • Alice Munro’s short story “Tricks” reminds me quite a lot of “Miss Brill”, and I like to think the symbolism of the fur is a nod to Katherine Mansfield.
  • Psychoanalytic Approach To Miss Brill’s Behaviours 

Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

“Good People” Is A Terrible Film

Good People movie

Good People is a 2014 film with a screenplay written by Kelly Masterson, based on the novel by Marcus Sakey. This is not a quality film. That said, the ideological issues have remained wholly untouched by paid reviewers, who focused on the problems within the action thread of the plot. Good People is an excellent example of why we need more feminist film critics, not to mention women in the writers’ rooms. The human-relationship thread of this plot makes for a faux-feminist story, created in a room full of men.

The Moral Dilemma of Good People

Discovering a stash of cash in their dead tenant’s apartment, a couple in debt take the money and find themselves the target of a deadly adversary – the thief who stole it.

IMDb logline

With a premise like that, the audience is encouraged to scrutinise our own moral code. The story thus begins, with a clear (though contrived) moral dilemma:

  • If you found a stash of dirty money would you hand it in to the cops?
  • What if you were about to lose a house you’d been working on?
  • What if you were about to be evicted from your flat?
  • What if you desperately wanted to procreate but couldn’t afford IVF?
  • How far would you go to keep it?

An Overview of Criticism

It’s a little unfair to criticise the film for its unrealistic action thread. Fans of realism should steer clear, but you could argue equally, a realistic romp into London’s gangland is not what this film is about:

Crime thrillers typically have an advantage over the public in that their depictions of illicit worlds need only to look believable. The vast majority of us who aren’t gangsters and detectives require little to be convinced of the realism. But here, viewers will repeatedly call into question the far-fetched nature of scenes designed to keep the plot moving in a contrived fashion.

DVDizzy review

Reviewer Jane Crowther uses the term ‘morally dubious’ to describe the decisions made by the characters, in which ‘cold-blooded murder with DIY tools turns out to be entirely excusable, and strangely in a film ostensibly about consequences goes completely unchallenged.’

Good People reminds reviewers most strongly of Straw Dogs, in which characters played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George are terrorised in their home by thugs. Unfortunately the madcap sequence reminds others of Home Alone, which undermines its adult action-thriller cred.

Good People reminded me of No Country For Old Men, but only because of its character web.

The Character Web of Good People

  • Both films star the ‘ordinary’ guy who is economically unfortunate. Except Llewellyn lives in a trailer and — let’s be real — Anna and Tom of this film are hardly destitute, and if they are, it’s their own damn fault. (More on that below.)
  • There is a range of ‘evil’ in the opposition web, ranging from common crims right up to a sociopathic, cold-blooded murderer who isn’t in crime for the money anymore, but is propelled forth by his own moral code. He’s in it for vengeance and power. The degrees of bad in the baddies is the best thing about this film, though their evil is completely undermined when they’re proved so easy to trick. (A teacher kills them without using a gun. They have guns.)
  • The husband makes a decision that implicates his wife, all without telling her. But she sticks by her man and goes along with him.
  • Soon she is drawn into the trouble, along with a peripheral woman who is used as collateral damage. In No Country For Old Men it’s the wife’s elderly mother. In this one it’s the wife’s best friend and her baby. The female friendship feels completely unrealistic.  Women aren’t in the habit of saying shit like, “You’re in a bad mood. Are you on your period?” Not if they’re actually friends, that is. These women are meant to be friends, make no bones about it. The strength of their friendship is tested later in the plot. Male writers need to do better when writing women. A good place to start would be this: Treat women as if women are human, without feeling the need to embellish with extra ‘femaleness’ stuff like talking about menstruation in the one scene when men are out of the room. (This awfully written conversation cancels out the passing of the Bechdel test.)
  • Then there’s the track with the cop. The cop in this one has a predictable backstory of a dead daughter, who overdosed on drugs. This can be done well. It’s not done well here. The psychology of the bereft cop remains wholly unexplored, whereas in the much better written Happy Valley, the emotions of the police officer who has lost her daughter are more fully explored, including the psychological toll of grief and trauma. Only then does death of a daughter avoid feeling like a cheap gimmick to satisfy the ‘ghost‘ section of the character. (The cop’s wife only exists to make him look better in her reflection — she, like Anna, supposedly works in a caring role.)

A huge problem with the main characters: They’re not likeable… which is fine. Characters don’t have to be likeable. They just have to be interesting.

The problem here: the storytellers think they have created likeable people. We know this because we can see them pulling out all the writerly tricks. But Tom and Anna are not likeable. Now that is a problem.

Genz does his best to make us like them – they’re grafters in a rough patch who do all those things Hollywood would have us do, like have sushi nights when fertility levels are high or go running along the Thames.

Dog and Wolf review

What Makes Characters Accidentally Unlikeable?

Apart from the obnoxious jogging and expensive sushi and wine nights, that is. It’s worth taking a closer look at why I do not like this couple. Others may feel differently, perhaps because they like the actors. My response went like this:

  • The physical chemistry between Tom and Anna is depicted as great, but this is masking a deeper problem with their relationship — massive, destructive deception. And the deception is wholly one-sided. (More on that below, but this is the huge sinker for me.)
  • We’re meant to feel sorry for this guy because he’s been working so hard on this house. (Anna tells her friend he’s ‘always at the house’.) This is a guy who is a hard worker. We’re meant to respect that. But it turns out they inherited the house. They didn’t work hard for that. I know how much housing costs in London. The minute they inherited that massive reno project, this couple were millionaires. If they’re about to lose their wholly inherited fortune, it’s their own stupid fault. I don’t warm to stupid characters.
  • I don’t like that these are Americans living in London. I feel like this is not their turf. (The book keeps them in America.) I don’t feel they’re part of the landscape. Also, why didn’t they just return to America as soon as shit hit the fan? For them that was always a viable option. They never even discuss it as a possibility.
  • When the detective visits the house, they’re sitting in the kitchen and the wife answers questions on behalf of her husband. This is insufferable. She’s meant to be doing a bad job of masking her anxiety due to having stolen dirty money, but it’s a super annoying conversational tic in general. She also overshares, to the consternation of the husband. This shows how fish-out-of-water this woman is. Generally, Londoners are not known to overshare with strangers.
  • Anna is supposed to be a teacher, which is supposed to mean she’s good with babies and children and all the rest, but we never see her doing her job. I know how busy teachers are. I taught in London. Teachers get home at about 7pm each night. But okay, maybe this is summer holidays. Still, if the writers wanted to imbue Anna with some of that teacherly empathy for humankind, they could’ve included one scene in which she’s with the kids that she teaches. She could have been lovingly preparing lessons. Or something to show she’s also got an actual proper job other than getting herself pregnant. (And she does get herself pregnant. We never see her husband go to the IVF clinic with her, which suggests the writers don’t know how IVF works. Or worse, they’re suddenly meant to have conceived naturally, now that the husband’s manliness — or virility — has been put to the test and he passed?)
  • That scene where we Anna is actually super creepy. Any contemporary audience is used to stories in which an infertile woman steals a baby. This is meant to rely on desperation and grief experienced by women who ‘fail’ to give birth to her own. (In reality, men tend to feel more grief than women when deprived of the chance to become fathers.) When Anna kisses that baby’s head I’m half expecting Anna to steal her friend’s child. That is really not what the writers were going for at all. It takes me a while to get past this possibility in my head.
  • Anna reveals herself as completely unlikable when she turns up to ‘pet’ her best friend’s baby, then declares that the godmother duty does not involve washing. (It totally would. How hard would it be to offer to take a load of washing home?) This is a soon-to-be mother who has no idea how big a deal it is for a washing cycle to halt when there’s a baby to take care of.

Problems With The ‘Strong Female Character’ Archetype

Good People is an excellent example of why the phrase ‘strong female character’ has fallen out of favour. At first glance it may seem Anna makes for a more feminist film because the writers have afforded her agency. Llewellyn’s wife (whose name I’d have to look up) accepts her fate with grace but she makes no decisions of her own, caught up in a web of male greed and violence. In Good People, Anna is soon revealed to be just as scheming and dangerous as her husband when put to the test. Anna becomes a trickster character, who manages to kill experienced murderers through wit and planning alone.

But female agency alone does not make for satisfying feminist entertainment. There is another huge problem with this film, to do with the underlying ideology.

At the beginning of the film the audience follows Tom and we learn information Anna doesn’t have. This ‘good’ husband tells his work partner that he’s gone over budget (by double!) on the house renovations but he hasn’t told his wife. Then he goes home and is served with an eviction notice. When Anna comes in smiling and happy, ready to have sex with him, he slides the eviction notice under a pile of papers and avoids telling her about any of this.

Clearly, Tom is not a good husband. In real life, this would count as economic abuse.

Partway through the movie, Anna reveals that she knows more about their financial situation than Tom realised. Wives are commonly portrayed in stories as all-seeing, all-knowing — as if women have some animalistic extra sensory perception. Cute. Tom refuses to admit their imminent eviction, however. He hasn’t yet admitted it to himself, you see. We’re supposed to admire his fortitude: He tells his wife that he has some jobs coming up and she doesn’t need to worry. The main issue — the relationship-crumbling issue — is that Tom lied to his wife… so that she wouldn’t worry. This is a man who not only loses their joint fortune, but who infantilises his life partner.

Anna is the ‘cool girl’ archetype. Any self-respecting woman would confront her partner about his enormous deceit. This never happens. Instead she matches her husband in his masculine bravado, and the audience is encouraged to conclude that, wherever our own morals lie, the wife is just as bad as the husband. This aspect is very Gone Girl, which is where the cool girl archetype entered popular culture as a trope. 2014 was also the year Gone Girl hit cinemas. But rather than critique the trope, the writers of Good People are oblivious to it.

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

the Cool Girl monologue from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Good People is clearly a wish fulfilment thriller, in which (supposedly) relatable characters get to go on an adventure without leaving home. They get to exact vengeance on some truly terrible baddies, making London into a (supposedly) better place. They don’t get to keep the huge bag of money, but they come out with what they wanted most of all: a pregnancy.

Clearly, the writers have aimed for a fleshed-out human angle to run alongside the wish-fulfilment action plot. But as so often happens in action thrillers written by a room full of men, the human angle has been completely mucked up. They failed to subvert a sexist trope, instead reinforcing it. They failed to show a healthy relationship, despite their best intentions. In genuinely healthy relationships the partners are economic equals. They speak to each other with honesty. Yet here they are, freshly pregnant, about to drive into the sunset to outro music which suggests this is a woman who will stick by her lying, economically abusive husband no matter what.

More than that, the film has ‘proven’ her to be ‘just as bad(-ass)’ as he is.

Dumplin Film Storytelling Techniques

Dumplin movie poster

Dumplin is a 2018 young adult film based on the 2015 novel by Julie Murphy.

Willowdean (‘Dumplin’), the plus-size teenage daughter of a former beauty queen, signs up for her mom’s Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant as a protest that escalates when other contestants follow her footsteps, revolutionizing the pageant and their small Texas town.

IMDb description

At a deep, structural level, Dumplin shares similarities with Pixar’s Brave. I also see similarities in Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Whip It! (2009).


Like Whip It!, Dumplin is set in a small Texas town in which the tradition of beauty pageantry, and the attendant ideology, divide women into those who subscribe to Pageantry Values and those who do not. Stories set in the world of beauty pageantry create conflict ripe for exploring themes such as:

  • What it means to be a woman
  • How women with completely different views can learn to get along in this world as true allies

Since the world of beauty pageantry is a heterotopia, the audience is more likely to identify with the character who is coming into this subculture as an outsider.


Dumplin and her mother

Women tend to be presented as those who’ve taken the red pill and those who’ve taken the blue*. These days, borrowing from the language of religion, we say ‘woke’ versus ‘not woke’. But this division has been around for as long as the feminist movement has been around. There’s a scene in Six Feet Under when Clare tries getting an office job for a while. She complains about the mandatory nylon hose, and complains to a non-woke female co-worker that it’s not fair women have to wear such torturous items. The co-worker says, “Well the men have to wear ties,” as if ties and hose are equal in the comfort department. This interaction served to illuminate two very different types of women, who must nonetheless learn to get along.

* I bet you’re thinking of The Matrix, but don’t forget the idea originated in children’s literature, with Lewis Carroll.

The feminine divide is at its most fraught between mothers and their daughters, in which case a generation gap is also manifest. For this reason, the setting of a beauty pageant is often peopled by a mother who is big into pageantry and a daughter who is decidedly not.

Occasionally, as in Little Miss Sunshine, participation in a beauty pageant is driven wholly by the daughter, with the bemused, fish-out-of-water family along for the ride. However, Little Miss Sunshine is an atypical inversion on the norm.

The ‘rebel daughter’ character in this set-up will have a best friend who shares her basic values but who will also function in the story as the ally who challenges the girl’s views, encouraging her to examine the exact nature of her rebellion, and refining it in to something more manageable for existing among polite society. In Dumplin, the character of Ellen performs this function, and for a good portion of the film the girls are estranged.



Julie Murphy draws on personal experience to create the character of Willowdean (aka Dumplin), who is about halfway there in terms of accepting her body as it is, but has yet to jump the final hurdle. That ‘final hurdle’ is revealed in the Anagnorisis phase of the story, but at the beginning Murphy is good at setting Willowdean up as a fully-developed character:

Her psychological shortcoming is inevitable, after a childhood living in a society where her body is of an unacceptable size and shape. Willowdean does not have the confidence to live life to the fullest, with the ultimate test being ‘getting a hot boyfriend’.

Willowdean’s moral shortcoming is more pronounced in the book than on the screen, where saying this sort of thing out loud would seem even worse than putting it down on paper:

“Millie is that girl, the one I am ashamed to admit that I’ve spent my whole life looking at and thinking, Things could be worse.I’m fat, but Millie’s the type of fat that requires elastic waist pants because they don’t make pants with buttons and zippers in her size. Her eyes are to close together and her nose pinches up at the end. She wears puppies and kittens and not in an ironic way”.

In the film, Willowdean acknowledges to her best friend that she feels like a bad person, but she doesn’t want to call another fat girl ‘stupid’. In the film, there is no BMI difference between Willowdean and Millie — instead, Willowdean despises her for being ‘stupid’.

It says something terrible about our culture that despising someone for being stupid is more relatable than transferring your own body issues onto someone else. I mean, it’s terrible that there is a hierarchy of terribleness in our fictional characters. It’s quite possible that in ten years time, even this modification for the screenplay — from very fat to stupid — will look horribly outdated. (Well, we live in hope.)

On the other hand, the audience is fully encouraged to criticise Willowdean for thinking these things, and it is later revealed that Millie’s apparent stupidity is actually something else: Enforced Christian politeness and a people-pleasing attitude which overrides her own sense of autonomy.


Willowdean’s outer desire is to join the beauty pageant to teach her mother a lesson — that her pageant stuff is stupid and she’s a fool for being so heavily involved, and for living in the past, when she peaked as crowned winner back in 1991.

Below that conscious desire, Willowdean wants her mother to really see who she is, and to accept her for who she is without constantly asking her to change.


Willowdean’s mother is her first opponent.

Society in general is another opposition, personified by groups of boys who point out her fatness in public, as if she didn’t already know.

Willowdean’s argument with her best friend goes into another aspect of fat politics — is a skinny (read: not fat) girl ever able to fully understand what it’s like to be fat? Can she ‘join the revolution’? I did like this storyline because it reminded me of my own high school experience. I do think that with sufficient listening and awareness that a skinny person can achieve a passable handle on fat politics. So I like how that relationship evolves, very much. I also like that Ellen seems, on the outside, to conform exactly to the dominant beauty ideal, yet as she explains to Willowdean in the car, she can never escape the constant criticism which is attendant with existing in a female body. Her boyfriend points out her pimples, for instance, and she goes numb. The closer a girl conforms to the beauty ideal, the more society picks on the tiniest imperfections.


When Willowdean finds her dead aunt’s entry form into the 1991 beauty pageant which she never entered, Willowdean takes this opportunity to honour her memory (and help with her own grieving process) by entering it herself as the first fat girl to do so.

There are various barriers to this, of course:

  • Persuading her mother to sign her entry form
  • Coming up with a ‘talent’ when she doesn’t have any
  • Finding a suitable fashion style

The plan takes Willowdean and her assortment of fellow rebels (not yet friends) on a mythic journey to a bar, where Willowdean is introduced to people her dead auntie once knew. Drag queens perform the songs of Dolly Parton. Because Drag Queens are transgressive in their fashion choice, outside the cultural norm, one of the drag queens takes Willowdean under his wing and performs the narrative function of a fairy godmother dressing Cinderella for her ball.

Meanwhile, Willowdean is being actively pursued by the hot guy she works with at the fast food restaurant — a guy who looks a lot older than Willowdean in the film, by the way. He sucks on a lollipop stick in the way bad boys more commonly suck on a cigarette, giving him comical, inverse cowboy cred. We conclude this boy is right for Willowdean because he, too, refuses to conform to the norm. (At least, I think it’s a lollipop stick?)


The anagnorisis and Battle phases of this story are inverted somewhat, or to put it another way, the Anagnorisis occurs in parts, taking place across several scenes around the Battle.

In a beauty pageant story, the big struggle is probably the beauty competition itself (or in Whip It, the beauty competition was replaced by a roller derby comp.)

Dumplin shares this in common with Pixar’s Brave. In both stories, the young heroine gives an impassioned, didactic speech to a crowded room, showing that she has had her Anagnorisis (most of it) before the Battle sequence has fully begun. In Dumplin, I’m talking about Willowdean’s onstage speech about loyalty, which she describes as the signifier of true friendship. (At its heart this is a “Who’s Your True Friends?” story.)


Here’s the important rule I’m noticing if you want to create a story in which the main character’s Anagnorisis comes BEFORE the Battle. (Because for the audience, this is an unexpected inversion.)

The main character may well get her Anagnorisis out of the way before she hits the Battle, newly steeled and ready to win (whatever winning means to her). But the Anagnorisis phase still requires SOMEONE to realise something.

In Dumplin, as well as in Brave, and in Lady Bird, we have a mother and daughter who both undergo a character arc. In effect, two characters each undergo their own Anagnorisis, their journeys interlinked.

In each of these stories, mother and daughter learn to get on better. In Brave and in Dumplin, this is partly achieved by the daughter literally taking on the mother’s care role, caring for her own mother.

In Brave, Merida looks after her mother in bear form, feeding her with berries and guiding her in human etiquette. We see that same sequence in Dumplin when Willowdean’s mother is unable to zip up her own dress. (This is a classic unmasking, by the way.) Willowdean reassures her own mother, then goes to find her ‘suitable’ clothes. Dressed in a costume which serves to take the mother out of her cloistered, judgemental and highly circumscribed world, Willowdean mouths encouragement to her unconfident mother. Mother-daughter emotional support has thus been inverted.

The dressing-room scene also finishes off Willowdean’s Anagnorisis sequence for the audience: Mother apologises for calling her Dumplin, but now Willowdean is fine with the moniker. “It’s just a word,” she says, signifying much more to the audience about her newfound body positive attitude.


Willowdean was always going to get the boy. We knew this from the beginning. Her self acceptance means that she’s now sufficiently confident to accept that a hot boy might genuinely want to date her. This is an old, conservative plot line but it’s still being used in 2018, straight out of fairytale princess narrative.


I’d like to say those two will be very happy together, but I hope he likes Dolly Parton. The problem for young adult authors: Which pop cultural references can I use? If I use things I really like myself, I’ll be accused of being hopelessly out of date. But if I use contemporary references, I’ll be accused of being trendy, and trends change so rapidly anyhow.

A lot of young adult authors get around this by creating a slightly eccentric interest for their main character which is deliberately and self-consciously retro. And for contemporary young adult readers, who may not know someone like Dolly Parton, there will be a scene in which a peer asks who on earth that person is.

That way, the young adult author gets to:

  1. Make use of a cultural reference known to them
  2. Avoid being accused of forced trendiness
  3. Know in advance that this is a real icon — Dolly Parton isn’t ever going to be forgotten in the way some of today’s artists will be
  4. Create an interesting eccentricity for their main character

It’s a win-win, really.

Dolly Parton turns 73 next month. Gotta say, that alone makes me feel old.


I sense two main schools of body acceptance feminism in this cultural moment.

  1. The first message is to embrace your body type by putting yourself out there. Activists demand to be noticed. Small, everyday actions such as taking a selfie of your culturally unacceptable body and uploading it to social media constitutes a small act of activism which, over the long term, with all body types doing this, will help to expand our cultural notion of physical diversity.
  2. The other form of activism, as explained by Beauty Redefined, is to move beyond the very notion that physical body is a meaningful way to gauge one’s self worth. While loving your body is important, the focus here is very much on what the body can do rather than what it looks like. Under these ideas, one would never set foot in a beauty pageant because there’s no avoiding the fact that the emphasis of such an institution is still very much on the body — no matter what that body looks like.

Dumplin belongs to the first school of body acceptance. Julie Murphy wrote this series specifically to provide models of fat girls confidently entering spaces where there are not traditionally accepted. This is achieved with flamboyance.

In the meantime, new limitations of the inverse kind have popped up. It almost seems like now, if a woman is physically large, she is required to be flamboyant. Flamboyance is no longer a choice. There is now comedy which parodies the very message Julie Murphy worked hard to create in Dumplin — that fat girls shouldn’t hide.

There are other problems, pointed out by others, regarding the ideology in Dumplin. I cover that in this post: The Ideology of Fatness in Children’s Stories.

One thing I’m confident saying — fat politics are changing so rapidlythat a book written three years ago will seem ideologically naive to a mainstream audience, if not outright offensive, even if its author is a self-described fat woman herself. In the week of Dumplin’s release on Netflix I have seen tweets to the effect of, “I don’t want anyone’s opinion on the Dumplin movie unless the reviewer is fat themselves”, which is a good indication that the politics of the body are some of the most important — and can be the most damaging — to a young adult audience.

I hope that some of Dumplin’s young adult audience will see themselves in these characters, and that this story’s transition to screen opens up many more interesting discussions.

Bliss by Katherine Mansfield

George Sheridan Knowles - The Duet

“Bliss” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield and one of Mansfield’s last. “Bliss” is offered as an example of a ‘lyrical’ short story.

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

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

It is possible to read this story many times at different levels and on each reading to notice a new detail. It did much to establish Katherine Mansfield’s reputation as a ‘modern’ writer. Although Virginia Woolf despised it, T.S. Eliot and others regarded it with considerable interest. There is clever satire in the grotesque caricature of the London/Garsington intelligentsia, yet there are moments of quite lyrical beauty and colour which impress themselves on the mind with vivid clarity. Through the character of Bertha, Katherine Mansfield explores the nature of the feminine friendship and female sexuality, both of which are recurring preoccupations in much of her work. Underneath the brittle sophistication the reader senses the underlying tension as it mounts to its disquieting climax.

Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer by Gillian Boddy

What Happens In “Bliss”?

Thirty-year-old Bertha Young is blissfully happy, preparing to spend the evening with bohemian, artsy friends who arrive for a dinner party at her house in London. At the end of the evening she catches sight of her husband and friend in the entrance hall and realises that the two are having an affair.

Connection To Mansfield’s Own Life

Mansfield wrote “Bliss” only one week after a haemorrhage which indicated the seriousness of her lungs.

I can’t imagine Mansfield’s state of mind at that time — surely not entirely blissful? Or perhaps Mansfield was experiencing some emotional ups to counterbalance the downs. She did write to her husband, John Middleton Murry, that her awareness of nature had heightened after her terminal diagnosis. Perhaps news of your own impending death can be enough to give you something akin to a psychedelic hit, alongside all the other emotions.

It is quite possible to achieve a state of bliss without chemical input. In his book How To Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan mentions breathing techniques and meditation as other ways of accessing this part of our brains. Apart from deliberate and focused efforts to achieve a state of bliss, bipolar disorders include manic states which present as the flip side of unbearable lows. The human brain has the capacity for extremes of emotion. Most of us coast along in the middle on an ordinary kind of day.

A Mushroom Diversion

I am inclined to go a bit off-piste in my interpretation of this short story. (My unimaginative English lit tutor thought so.)

FTR, I don’t seriously think Bertha is high because she ingested something, but revisiting “Bliss” did leave me wondering: Did young New Zealand bohemians know about mushrooms in the early twentieth century? Though Mansfield grew up in New Zealand, this story is set in England. Were they used recreationally in England in the early 20th century?

Psychedelic mushrooms aren’t mentioned in New Zealand literature until almost 100 years after Mansfield’s birth, but obviously people knew about them long before mycologists were writing them down in books.

New Zealand has its own varieties of magic mushrooms endemic to New Zealand. I can’t easily find information on magic mushroom use among Māori populations prior to European arrival, but mushrooms were a small part of traditional Māori diet. (Wood ear was eaten by Māori people, who called it “hakeke”.) Surely at some point someone tried an hallucinogenic mushroom and discovered its powers by accident. That said, Māori didn’t really like mushrooms and ate them only when nothing else was about. (Unlike Chinese people, say, for whom mushroom is an important part of the diet.)

European New Zealanders didn’t seem to know much about magic mushrooms until the 1980s, after news of the psychedelic era in America had been widely disseminated. (In pre-Internet days these things took a while. Plus, New Zealand was always England focused rather than America focused until about then.)

Still, I’m left wondering, partly with facetious interest, if Mansfield ever went for a mushroom scavenge on Mt Vic. Wellington is said to be magic mushroom capital of New Zealand and would have been the perfect place for Bertha to experiment with psilocybin. This housewife seems high on something.

Okay, here’s my argument, though:

  • Colours seem to pop for Bertha. She notices how different objects match because of a shared hue: the fruit with the carpet, Eddie’s scarf with his socks. She’s seeing patterns where most people would not make note of such coincidence.
  • She’s noticing small details in the way of a child, as reported by users of psilocybin.
  • Michael Pollan describes an intense experience with a tree, and Bertha really has a thing for that pear tree.
  • Bertha is on a different emotional wavelength from her husband. Her husband wants to talk to her about time — about putting dinner off for an extra ten minutes — but Bertha seems to have lost her awareness of time passing until he calls, and his mention of it irritates her somewhat.
  • She sits up and feels ‘quite dizzy, quite drunk‘. (This indicates some kind of altered state doesn’t line up with a typical psilocybin experience, in which case the body feels heavy.)
  • Mrs Norman Knight seems to shapeshift into a ‘very intelligent monkey’ even after taking off her coat with monkey decorations on it.
  • The dialogue of Bertha’s guests is quite strange, made up of fragments rather than full thoughts, which may be how Bertha hears it:  “I have had such a dreadful experience with a taxi-man; he was most sinister. I couldn’t get him to stop. The more I knocked and called the faster he went. And in the moonlight this bizarre figure with the flattened head crouching over the lit-tle wheel . . . “
  • If Bertha had been up on Mt Vic, I know who she was with earlier. Her wonderfully camp friend Eddie. Eddie has also lost all concept of time. “I saw myself driving through Eternity in a timeless taxi.”
  • She has to try hard not to laugh at something that’s not all that funny (‘Face’s funny little habit of tucking something down the front of her bodice–as if she kept a tiny, secret hoard of nuts there’.)
  • Mansfield’s creation of Bertha is in some ways a fictional recreation of herself. She is satirising the very same social set she herself was a part of — bohemian arty types sharing big (ridiculous) ideas for one-act plays (a ripe genre for making fun of), and decorating a room in absurdist fashion — ‘a fried-fish scheme’. The narration is what we’d now call ‘close third person’ — we see this dinner party through the viewpoint of Bertha and Bertha alone. If Bertha is making fun of her own bohemian friends, she’s feeling separated from them. You could describe her as being on her own planet. (Mansfield referred to her character of Bertha as ‘artist manqué‘, meaning an artist who has failed to live up to expectations. She and her friends seem drawn into Emperor’s-New-Clothes ridiculousness posing as art.)

“You’re of course, absolutely right about ‘Wangle’. He shall be resprinkled mit leichtern Fingern, and I’m with you about the commas. What I meant (I hope it don’t sound high falutin’) was Bertha not being an artist, was yet artist manqué enough to realise that those words and expressions were not and couldn’t be hers. They were, as it were, quoted by her, borrowed with… an eyebrow… yet she’d none of her own. But this, I agree, is not permissible. I can’t grant all that in my dear reader. It’s very exquisite of you to understand so nearly.”

Letter to Murry, March 14, 1921
  • She’s feeling this (wholly imagined) connectedness to Pearl Fulton. She’s lost some of her sense of ego.

But as Mansfield showed us in “A Windy Day”, adolescence can feel like that too. Hormones can do it. Bertha is a thirty-year-old housewife but she has not yet come of age. She has yet to experience sexual awakening. Her name is literal and symbolic: Bertha Young.

Bertha is likely bisexual, as was Mansfield. What she’s feeling towards Pearl seems simple erotic attraction, though Bertha is reading a whole lot of mystical meaning into it. A character such as Bertha wouldn’t have known the word or the concept ‘bisexual’. This is Bertha trying to make sense of her attractions.

Derwent Lees Pear Tree in Blossom 1913
Derwent Lees Pear Tree in Blossom 1913

Freudian Stuff

Mansfield is known for her Freudian themes. At this point in her life especially, she’s interested in repression.


Up for debate: Did Bertha know that her husband was having an affair with her friend?

“How idiotic civilisation is. Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?”

Could Bertha have known all along about her husband’s affair with Pearl? Mansfield explores the psychology of repression in “The Fly”, written just before she wrote “Bliss”, in which an old man has developed techniques for avoiding any sort of thoughts about his only son killed in the war. When Bertha tells herself that her husband rushes after Pearl because he feels bad about some social sleight, this could be part of a bigger story she tells herself about Harry: How his meanness is really just him being funny, and he’s the sort of man one has to get to know. The irony is, Bertha herself doesn’t know her own husband.


The story works through symbolism, carefully selected detail and the clever unobtrusive fusing of the central character and narrator.

Gillian Boddy

The elliptical narrative style of “Bliss” would support the view that Bertha can’t finish a full thought. The question is, why not? Oftentimes Bertha cannot finish her next sentence and allows herself to be distracted. Perhaps the reality of her life is too uncomfortable.

Take the first paragraphs. Bertha speaks as if observing herself from a distance. Her words are not her own. She thinks one thing then immediately edits herself, as if observing herself taking part in some drama. Her words are simply a collection of quotations, gleaned from elsewhere.

Much use is made of dots and dashes, throughout Mansfield’s work, but especially in this story. Bertha’s feelings are reproduced in breathless, repetitious sentences. The broken syntax — full of dashes and exclamation marks — make the language seem (faux-)spontaneous, like someone thinking out loud, or like someone doggedly determined to live in the moment (and therefore avoid putting uncomfortable pieces of evidence together… the husband late home, who arrives at the same time as Pearl…)

Symbolism and Imagery of “Bliss”

Vincent Van Gogh Stil Life with pears, 1887-1888. Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden
Vincent Van Gogh Stil Life with pears, 1887-1888. Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden

In Mansfield’s short stories, 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’.

What of the two cats? The beauty is somewhat diminished by the appearance of the cats — one is grey and pregnant, the other black, following like a shadow.

Some have said the pear tree is a phallic symbol. When both women look at the tree they’re both looking at Harry. I may have gone awol on a psilocybin interpretation, but I think this is a bit of a stretch. Almost everything can be phallic in literature.

The pear tree could be a symbol of nature’s indifference to human suffering.

Or the tallness of it may represent Bertha’s homosexual aspirations, realised suddenly to their fullest. The flowering of the tree could symbolise the flowering of her sexual feelings. ‘[Bertha] seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.’ Across literature, blossoms are a common symbol of sexual maturation and release. The flowering tree could be a symbol of Bertha’s life, and the image of the cat appears once more after Bertha realises her husband has been unfaithful.

Combine these possible meanings, the tree might represent masculinity after all — the tree is tall and assertive and represents the ‘masculine’ part of Bertha’s sexual desire.

Bertha herself isn’t quite sure about the significance of the tree, and the symbolism of the tree remains only vague to the reader.

  • The first mention of the pear in storytelling is in Homer’s (9th century BC) epic poem, The Odyssey.
  • You find pears, apples and figs throughout Christian iconography, probably as a metaphor for any kind of sacred tree. It frequently appears in connection with Christ’s love for humankind.
  • Paintings of pear were found in the ruins of Pompei.
  • Elsewhere in the world the pear means a wide variety of things. China: justice, longevity, purity, wisdom. Korea: grace, nobility, purity, comfort. Also good for female fertility, health, and sitting exams. The flower is meant to resemble the face of a beautiful woman. But the transience of petals is a metaphor for the sadness of departure. In many other parts of the world the pear symbolises the human heart, which it kind of resembles.
  • Pears need to be cross-pollinated. A lone pear tree won’t give you any fruit, or reach ‘its potential’.
  • People hasten fruit bearing by causing the tree damage — “punishing” them — driving iron pegs into the trunk and so on. Pear trees are therefore associated with pain.
  • Pears are associated with temptation. The Bible talks about an apple in the Garden of Eden, but actually the name of the fruit tree is not mentioned in the biblical text. 13th century illustrations suggest apples. Two hundred years later everyone thought it was an apple. But honestly, that fruit could just as easily have been an early variety of pear.
  • When did the pear make it to Europe? We don’t know exactly. It may have been independently domesticated or it could have been introduced by the Greeks who founded Marseille in 600 BC. Most likely, it was introduced by the Romans. Charlemagne gets the credit for establishing the first collection of pear in France. Charlemagne was the rules of the Franks in the ninth century — so, the early medieval period.
  • By the late 1500s pears were common in England. Shakespeare makes a few references to pears. He didn’t seem to like them much. Maybe the bard accidentally picked a stewing pear and tried eating it raw? Who knows. He certainly considered the pear phallic, kind of like how bananas are commonly considered today. ‘As crest-fallen as a dried Pear…I must have saffron to color the Warden pies… O, Romeo… thou a Poperin Pear.’ (A sexual euphemism — ‘pop her in’. (Another fruit I’ve never encountered, the medlar, was thought to resemble an ‘open arse’, actually referring to the vagina. The medlar is Persian, and closely related to the pear.)
  • Pears are closely associated with France. Pears were really popular from the 16th to 19th centuries, where many varieties were cultivated.
  • They fruit from May to December in the Northern Hemisphere, so are associated with that time of year.
  • Charles Dickens also used pears as sexual metaphor. From David Copperfield: ‘I suppose you have sometimes plucked a pear before it was ripe, Master Copperfield? I did that last night, but it’ll ripen yet! It only wants attending to. I can wait?’
  • ‘Pyriform’ means ‘pear shaped’, but this refers to European pears. Asian pears are round and crisp (think of the nashi). Asian pears don’t need to be softened before eating.
Sun and Moon Imagery

Mansfield like sun and moons in her stories, and even named one story “Sun and Moon”. In “Bliss”, the earlier imagery for Bertha’s happiness is symbolised by a series of sun images.  Later in the story, the sun image is linked to the moon (via a candle metaphor). This suggests prelapsarian innocence – i.e. before the world is supposed to have turned to shit. (Lapsarian refers to the Fall of Man — a Calvinist idea.)


Mansfield returns to images of hot and cold throughout “Bliss”, referring back to ‘that bright glowing place – that shower of little sparks coming from it’. As the story progresses, the metaphor of sun and sparks becomes a form of shorthand for Bertha’s state of mind, and perhaps of her eventual ‘seeing the light’.



Anthony Alpers, who wrote The Life of Katherine Mansfield, believed the women in this story are humanised whereas the man are types.

Bertha is young, naive and perhaps repressing the reality that her husband and friend are in love.


Bertha wants to enjoy a dinner party surrounded by interesting friends, and by one friend in particular — a beguiling young woman.


Character webs become more interesting when opponents and allies are not who they at first appear to be. Bertha thinks Pearl is an ally, but it is eventually revealed that she is a firm romantic opponent. (As is her husband, Harry.)


Because Bertha is in a blissful mood, she’s not really in ‘planning’ mood. Matilda of “The Wind Blows” is similarly driven by her mood. Bertha flits from one blissful thing to the next, remaining deliberately in the moment. There’s nothing sequential or logical about her party planning, but we assume she made at least some of the arrangements. (I suppose cook was out back making the soufflés, though Bertha takes credit for ordering them.)


Underneath the brittle sophistication the reader senses the underlying tension as it mounts to its disquieting climax.

Gillian Boddy

Which is the ‘big struggle’ scene in “Bliss”?

In a Mansfield short story, the big struggle scene is probably some emotionally charged moment. The big struggle scene in this story is the strong image of two women staring at the same pear tree. We don’t know this until later, but they’re looking at the same man. This scene is an interesting example of a ‘big struggle’ scene which contains the direct inverse of what we’d normally expect from a big struggle — Bertha is filled with utter joy. Not fear, not anger, nothing negative. Joy. But that joy has a certain big struggle-like rugged determination about it. She is determined for Pearl to be joined to her in spirit. This is reminiscent of your archetypal big struggle.


Perhaps Mansfield does a bit of a bait and switch when it comes to the anagnorisis (which is more of a plot revelation than a deeper understanding of Bertha’s own self). We might expect that by the end of this story Bertha will have come to understand her attraction to Pearl as sexual. The reader can clearly see this situation for what it is, yet Bertha cannot.

But no. She has no such anagnorisis. Her anagnorisis is cut-off short. Instead, her revelation is that her husband is in love with her friend (to whom she is also attracted). I put that very deliberately in parentheses.

This is especially bad timing for Bertha, whose sexual attraction for Pearl has prompted — for the first time ever — a sexual attraction for her own husband.


The abrupt ending leaves the reader wondering what will happen to Bertha now that she finally understands the irony of that bliss that earlier ‘she did not know what to do with’. Will she finally grow up— or is she trapped in this deceptive world of polite pretence?

While a plot-driven story would offer the satisfaction of narrative closure — a definite ending — nothing is finally resolved in “Bliss”. Not overtly, anyhow. We have to read the symbols.

Mansfield’s imagistic patterns are important in that they suggest various levels of meaning not always inherent in the action of the story, create ironic contrasts and support themes with rhetorical figures.

Julia van Gustaren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism

Certainly, Bertha is shattered and crestfallen. But Mansfield ends not with Bertha but with the pear tree, the story’s central image. The pear tree hasn’t changed at all, juxtaposing with Bertha’s extreme change in emotional valence.


Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

Header painting: George Sheridan Knowles – The Duet