An Ideal Family by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

an ideal family short story by katherine mansfield

“An Ideal Family” is a 1921 short story by modernist writer Katherine Mansfield. This is a young Mansfield writing about the tiredness of ageing as an elderly man who feels disconnected from his family. Mansfield herself was never old, let alone an old man, but she was very ill with tuberculosis by 1921 and died just two years after the publication of “An Ideal Family”.

One of the standout features of TB is tiredness, so I believe Mansfield wrote Mr Neave’s exhaustion from experience. Exhaustion, or chronic fatigue, can alienate a person from others around them, whether that comes from age or ill health.


English is impoverished when it comes to explaining the different types of fatigue. The disabled community does better:

  • Social fatigue — when you need to wind down after you’ve had more than your fill of socialising or dealing with people
  • Emotional fatigue — the tiredness that comes after feeling big emotions for long periods without reprieve
  • Physical fatigue — my favourite kind — the feeling you get after heavy exercise, hopefully when your muscles are a good kind of sore
  • Mental fatigue — this can feel good, too — the feeling you get after filling your brain with information yet to be processed (hopefully interesting)
  • Pain fatigue — pain is exhausting in its own right, and can also interrupt sleep
  • Chronic illness fatigue — damage to the brain or spinal cord can cause fatigue in its own right, or any disease in which the mind must work hard to send messages to the rest of the body e.g. in multiple sclerosis. Flu, long covid, glandular fever, thyroid disorders, heart disease, diabetes and many other illnesses cause this kind of fatigue.

We might also divide tiredness into type by duration:

  • Transient — when you haven’t got enough sleep over the past 2-3 days
  • Cumulative — repeated mild sleep restriction or extended hours awake across days
  • Circadian — you’re awake when you’d normally be asleep, resulting in reduced functioning, which for most people is between 2 and 6 a.m.
  • Chronic — an invisible disability in which exhaustion endures to the point where it interrupts a person’s life

In Mansfield’s “An Ideal Family”, Mr Neave experiences an existential exhaustion, as if he’s about done with life and feels himself slipping slowly away towards death. This type of exhaustion is perhaps an outworking of existential loneliness.

See also: Loneliness in Art and Storytelling

Another short story which feels similar in this regard: “Walking on Water” by Alice Munro, written in the 1970s.


  • “Walking On Water” makes use of an elderly man as viewpoint character
  • and places him in proximity to a number of young adults who are full of energy.
  • Notably, both “Walking On Water” and “An Ideal Family” feature a son-like character who has gone walkabout. The elderly man is consumed by the question of where he has gone, as if the disappearance of a younger version of himself prefigures his own death.
  • The elderly man in both stories admires the youthfulness in the body of the younger man. Various commentators have read a gay subtext into Munro’s story (though I don’t). The gay subtext is absent in Mansfield’s story as the younger man is literally the son of the older man, who notes that his son is too good-looking for his own good, before listing the particular attributes which make him so: ‘No man had a right to such eyes, such lashes, and such lips; it was uncanny.’ In this case, the young man’s beauty is the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to male privilege, turning it from beneficial (to self) to toxic.
  • Whereas “Walking On Water” takes place in an apartment block in which the elderly viewpoint character has taken up residence, Mansfield’s “An Ideal Family” is set in an English country mansion on a fictional well-to-do Harcourt Avenue. The effect is the same: Proximity of young and old, but the two groups are kept mostly apart by corridors and closed doors. The young people are dismissive of the elderly ‘intruder’ and banish him back to his own apartment, or to his own room in the case of Mr Neave, where he is dressed for dinner by a manservant.


An English country house. Mansfield grew up in New Zealand and if you’re ever visited Mansfield House in Wellington you may be surprised how poky it is. However, her family was wealthy. Her parents went on long voyages overseas. The Neave family is perhaps a slightly more wealthy version of the Beauchamp family of New Zealand. The Neaves have a gardener mowing the grass tennis court and a young man called Charles employed as a male servant. (In the 1800s white New Zealanders prided themselves on their flat social structure, which really only looked flat in comparison to England’s aristocracy.)

Due to the father’s business success, the Beauchamps were wealthy enough to escape central Wellington when there was an outbreak of disease in the drinking water. (At least, that’s the current theory of why they moved out to Karori.) When the Beauchamps held parties, this was reported in the local newspaper. So Mansfield absolutely understood the social milieu she describes here.

This short story could take place in New Zealand or in England, but I’m imagining a country house in Surrey or somewhere like that. Perhaps she was imagining the Beauchamps’ rented house at Karori, only with the addition of a tennis court?

The house itself feels like a feminine, partly personified version of the Beauchamps’ Karori residence. Mansfield emphasises its feminine qualities, suggesting this house belongs to the women, really. The man of the house is on its periphery:

The carriage gates were pushed back; there were fresh marks of wheels on the drive. And then he faced the big white-painted house, with its wide-open windows, its tulle curtains floating outwards, its blue jars of hyacinths on the broad sills. On either side of the carriage porch their hydrangeas—famous in the town—were coming into flower; the pinkish, bluish masses of flower lay like light among the spreading leaves. And somehow, it seemed to old Mr Neave that the house and the flowers, and even the fresh marks on the drive, were saying, “There is young life here. There are girls—”

“An Ideal Family”


Unlike Katherine Mansfield herself, who was sent to the other side of the world in part because her bisexuality and other hijinks were proving an embarrassment to her upper-class Wellington family, the daughters in this “ideal” family are comfortable in their wealthy natal home to the point where they don’t want to get married and leave. After reading several biographies of Katherine Mansfield, it struck me that Katherine’s mother was a cold person who criticised Kathleen unnecessarily. Unlike the daughters of this family, Kathleen was required to leave home.

As a standout example of Mrs Beauchamp’s coldness, after a months long trip abroad, the first thing Mrs Beauchamp said to young Kathleen (later Katherine) when she saw her adolescent daughter was a nasty comment about how Kathleen had put on weight in her absence. This feels all the more harsh since Mrs Beauchamp absolutely knew that this daughter would die from tuberculosis eventually. A doctor had made note of Kathleen’s weak lungs and, knowing the prevalence of TB in that era, correctly predicted that Kathleen would die of it young. As an adult, Kathleen—Katherine—struggled to maintain her body weight due to the illness. Her mother would have been pleased, presumably, that at least her daughter was not fat. However, Katherine Mansfield never made it back home to New Zealand after being sent away. For all intents and purposes, she remained estranged in at least some ways from her New Zealand family.

I feel this biographical context is important, because Katherine Mansfield The Writer would have understood very well how a family can look ideal from the outside, but function quite differently in private. Perhaps this was Mansfield imagining what her life might have looked like had she felt comfortable in her own natal home and stayed there rather than leave the hemisphere entirely.

It’s interesting that she explores family estrangement not from the point of view of a daughter, but from the more comfortably distanced position of the patriarch.



As the story opens, it is evening in spring. Mr Neave is on his way home from the office.

Mansfield makes use of the symbolism behind spring—in spring everything comes to life. So how about spring when you feel pretty much the opposite of that? Horrible. Everything around Mr Neave reminds him by dint of juxtaposition how very tired he is, and old. Mansfield paints the picture of an archetypal patriarch, with the white beard and walking stick. He ‘tips his wide awake’, which is a type of hat:

A wideawake hat is a broad brimmed felt “countryman’s hat” with a low crown, similar to a slouch hat. 


If, like me, you don’t know what a slouch hat is either, that won’t be of much help. If you’re from the USA, think Quaker hat (the other name for them). Perhaps the most famous image of a wideawake hat is the hat worn by Rembrandt when he painted his self-portrait:

And disconnected from his family. He’d very much like to know where his has gotten to. As the only son, young Mr Neave (Harold) has joined the family business.

The older Mr Neave has presumably done very well financially, or been born into privilege or both—he has everything he was supposed to acquire: The big house with a tennis court, the wife, the healthy children who made it to adulthood and who are brimming with the gaiety of youth.

So what’s wrong? Why can’t he just be happy with his lot?

Well, first of all, his privileged white-boy son sounds like an absolute private school jerk:

As for [Harold’s] mother, his sisters, and the servants, it was not too much to say they made a young god of him; they worshipped Harold, they forgave him everything; and he had needed some forgiving ever since the time when he was thirteen and he had stolen his mother’s purse, taken the money, and hidden the purse in the cook’s bedroom. […] But it wasn’t only his family who spoiled Harold, he reflected, it was everybody; he had only to look and to smile, and down they went before him. So perhaps it wasn’t to be wondered at that he expected the office to carry on the tradition.

“An Ideal Family”

Note that this boy arranged his crime to victimise someone with no power, someone from the servant class in his family and that he hasn’t changed since, not even after his theft was discovered. In strongly patriarchal societies, as the 1920s were, it’s a dangerous thing for a boy to be surrounded by so many women. I mean, look at King Henry the eighth. King Henry’s older brother died age 15, which meant he was surrounded by and doted on by women: his sisters Margaret, Elizabeth, Mary and his female caregivers.

Be very wary if ever a dodgy man tries to persuade you of his goodness by invoking his numerous female relatives. After all, Henry the eighth grew up surrounded by numerous female relatives and look what happened to his future wives.

Sounds like we’ve got a young Henry the eighth character in the beautiful Mr Harold Neave.


Mr Neave himself is disappointed at how his son has turned out though, like the ineffective Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, he will blame the women in his life for how the son turned out. No self-responsibility is assumed for any of the parenting, despite the reality that in a patriarchal environment, boys will look first to their fathers when determining how to behave.

Note that at no point does Mr Neave worry about the financial future of his wife and daughters, even knowing that his son will run the business into the ground. In this he is like Mr Bennet, whose disregard for his wife and daughters’ futures is callous.

As Mr Neave the elder reckons with his increasing age and creep towards death, he understands that his son will run his business into the ground.

No business—not even a successful, established, big paying concern—could be played with. A man had either to put his whole heart and soul into it, or it went all to pieces before his eyes…

“An Ideal Family”

The women in his family have been insulated from the world of business. The business world is no place for wives and daughters, and so the women of his family cannot understand why Mr Neave refuses to retire. He can’t retire. Their son and brother, the successor, doesn’t have what it takes.

And so Mr Neave is left to wrestle with this alone. Of course, that’s what happens when roles are so bifurcated by binary gender. Men cannot enjoy emotional comfort with their wives when their wives have never been treated as intellectual equals, or even as adults.

This is one of the many, many ways that patriarchy is no good for men. (Of course, patriarchy is even worse for women.)


Note that Mr Neave considers his wife Charlotte and all of his daughters ‘smart’. This man is not sexist. However, the entire society is misogynist, which makes him a misogynist, too. Regarding the difference between ‘sexist’ and ‘misogynist’, I refer to the work of feminist philosopher Kate Manne, who regards it important to maintain a distinction:

There’s a tendency to define misogyny as this deep hatred in the heart, harbored by men toward girls and women. I define misogyny as social systems or environments where women face hostility and hatred because they’re women in a man’s world — a historical patriarchy.


Sexism is an ideology that says, “These arrangements just make sense. Women are just more caring, or nurturing, or empathetic,” which is only true if you prime people by getting them to identify with their gender.

So sexism is the ideology that supports patriarchal social relations, but misogyny enforces it when there’s a threat of that system going away.

a Vox interview

In Down Girl, Manne offers as case study the example of Donald Trump, who is misogynistic but not sexist. Trump is not sexist because he really does seem to regard women as capable human beings. He has said publicly that he is surrounded by capable women. However, his misogyny revealed itself ‘bigly’ when he was campaigning for president against Hilary Clinton. Donald Trump is very happy to utilise the talents of women to further his own cause, but stops short at existing happily in a world in which women are actually in positions of power. The women are interested in whether there were ‘ices’ at the party—imagine Charlotte and Ethel as Mrs Bennett and Lydia from Pride and Prejudice, and their obsession with men in red coats and hat decoration and who is dancing with who. (Mansfield’s Marion is more like Austen’s Mary. When Mansfield’s Lola dashes out and screams at the sight of her father, she reminds me of partially-dressed Lydia running into Mr Collins on the stairwell in the 1990s BBC miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.)

In both households, is it really the fault of the women that the chief concerns are limited to the superficial? Moreover, are the concerns of women really superficial when the extent of their power is limited to the matrimonial, and everything else around securing a husband? Plenty has been said on this topic in the context of Pride and Prejudice. This short story is set over a century later, but much of the same applies.

Back to the difference between sexism and misogyny. Mr Neave is misogynistic but not sexist. (So is Mr Bennet. While he believes his own wife to be foolish, he sees in Lizzie that women are capable of intelligence.) ,In “An Ideal Family”, Mr Neave understands that his wife and daughters are smart. So why not take the smartest daughter and bring her into the business instead of the horrible son? Because women cannot possibly be allowed to occupy positions of power outside the domestic sphere. By this point, none of them is suitable. These women have been acculturated to be interested in party food, not business. It is too late for a do-over. Besides, in the 1920s it was extremely rare for a daughter to continue her father’s business.

I don’t believe Mansfield wrote this story as a push to get more fathers to consider their daughters as business prospects. Not at all. However, I do feel Mansfield had an intuitive understanding of the difference between sexism and misogyny even if she did not have access to those exact words. In “An Ideal Family” she is painting a portrait of a man who realises he’s done everything ‘right’ according to the heteronormative laws of patriarchy, and yet those same laws which granted him privilege have granted his son the toxic version of it.


At the same time, Mansfield paints a picture of a household run entirely by women, where a man is not entirely at home. A man can never be fully at home in his own house when the domestic sphere is relegated to women. And when women are limited to the domestic sphere—their chief concerns being matrimony and children—can a father be surprised when his own daughters start to treat him like a child?

But Marion could not be stopped. “No, mother, you spoil father, and it’s not right. You ought to be stricter with him. He’s very naughty.”

“An Ideal Family”


Although Mr Neave just wants to relax in his own house, the women of the household have made different plans. They’ve invited company, and so their father must play the part of the successful patriarch for their benefit.


We watch as Mr Neave struggles to find his place in a household run by the women of the family, and come to terms with the reality that his own son and protegee looks set to run his business into the ground due to being an over-privileged brat.


Mr Neave ultimately loses the struggle; this is a tragedy. In fact, the anagnorisis happened earlier in the day, when Mr Neave realised his son wasn’t about to put in a decent afternoon’s work. This was not the first opportunity Mr Neave had to see his son in action but the onset of spring has reminded him of his own mortality, and also brought his life’s work into focus because he is freshly focused on his own demise.

What does Mansfield mean by ‘little ancient fellow’?

And now that little ancient fellow was climbing down endless flights that led to a glittering, gay dining-room. What legs he had! They were like a spider’s—thin, withered.

“An Ideal Family”

Mansfield has temporarily zoomed the narrative character out, away from the close third person point of view to something more akin to the outtake of the film adaptation of Remains of the Day, in which we see the failing mansion get smaller and smaller from the birds-eye view of a released pigeon:

When Mr Neave compares his elderly man’s legs to that of a spider, he has shrunk himself down to someone very small and insignificant. He does not want to attend dinner and play the part. He is acting on autopilot as he descends the stairs.

Does Mr Neave really see Harold ‘slip past the dining-room and make for the porch, the dark drive, the carriage gates, the office’? Mansfield is messing with our spatiality, to match the detached, disembodied Mr Neave who does not feel as if he belongs in this house of his.

In this story, unlike in some others (notably “The Garden Party“) Mansfield is clear about her main character’s realisation:

He’d been forgotten […] They were strangers to him […] Life had passed him by.

“An Ideal Family”

We might read this as dementia since dementia turns family into strangers also, but I don’t believe dementia is requisite for this feeling to manifest in the old man. He feels like his family are strangers because he’s spent his entire life working, like a Good Man Should. The only member of the house who should understand him properly is his son Harold, who exists in this story only as a shadowy ghost who flits about, concerned only for himself.

We can say with certainty that old Mr Neave has lost his sense of wellbeing. S.K. Toombs has listed five essential features of illness:

  1. Loss of wholeness
  2. Loss of certainty
  3. Loss of control
  4. Loss of freedom to act
  5. Loss of the familiar world

Toombs SK. The meaning of illness.

Mansfield has occasionally been called ‘mawkish’, and I believe paragraphs such as this invoke accusations such as that:

… A dark porch, half hidden by a passion-vine, that drooped sorrowful, mournful, as though it understood. Small, warm arms were round his neck. A face, little and pale, lifted to his, and a voice breathed, “Good-bye, my treasure.”

My treasure! “Good-bye, my treasure!” Which of them had spoken? Why had they said good-bye? There had been some terrible mistake. She was his wife, that little pale girl, and all the rest of his life had been a dream.

“An Ideal Family”


But then:

the door opened, and young Charles, standing in the light, put his hands by his side and shouted like a young soldier, “Dinner is on the table, sir!”

“An Ideal Family”

He hasn’t died quite yet, but we can deduce he will die one of these days, likely in exactly this spot on another iteration of the exact same day. (Another example of an ending like this can be seen in the movie The Wrestler.)


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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