“Pictures” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1919. The London Evening Standard said of the story ‘it is stark realism from first word to last and yet it gives an impression of infinite understanding and pity’.
The character Ada Moss was inspired by a woman Mansfield met three years earlier. They had sat in the same cinema. We know this because Katherine Mansfield wrote in her diary on January 27, 1915: ‘her old yellow teeth [?] and pink roses in her hat and hollow lovely [lonely?] eyes and battered hair. I shall not forget her. No, no. She was wonderful.’
STORY STRUCTURE OF “PICTURES”
The indomitable Ada Moss, drawn with humour and compassion, is one of the first of a remarkable line of middle-aged women that Katherine Mansfield created and with whom the reader sympathises. Alone and embattled she soldiers on — though the solution to her problems was not to be followed by Miss Brill, Ma Parker or the Lady’s Maid!
— Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer, Gillian Boddy
Mansfield was very interested in the plight of older women, though she never became one herself.
Like the young protagonist of “The Tiredness of Rosabel“, Ada is in a precarious situation, right on the edge of poverty. She is so hungry she’s dreaming of food. Food is becoming a preoccupation. She’s constantly cold. As an opera singer, Ada’s ideal body is one with a good covering of fat but the fashion has since changed. She’ll soon learn that the film industry is after younger, thinner women.
Ada is a character who lives, to some extent, in the world of her imagination. She pretends to be someone she is not.
Starting with children’s books, fiction is harsh on characters who lose sight of their ‘true selves’. In all types of stories from thrillers to comedy, characters who wear metaphorical masks will have the mask ‘ripped off’, and the uncovered face is the real face.
What did Katherine Mansfield think about masks? She left us an insight, actually. And I believe this quotation sums up Ada’s situation in “Pictures”:
It’s a terrible thing to be alone — yes it is — it is — but don’t lower your mask until you have another mask prepared beneath — as terrible as you like — but a mask.
The idea that there is a true self and a false self is a peculiar ideology. Modern psychology does not subscribe to the concept of the ‘one true self’. Our private, public and secret selves are all equally valid.
In fiction, one way of losing one’s ‘true’ self is to conflate public self with the private and secret selves.
Artists live by profession in imaginary worlds and are especially prone to this. In The Wrestler, Randy the Ram leaves our company as a tragic figure because he is unable to extricate his job from his self-identity. When his work lets him down (as work inevitably does) he has nothing left. Randy the Ram is juxtaposed against his stripper girlfriend. Significantly, the girlfriend keeps her work name separate from her legal name. Randy the Ram is always Randy the Ram, no matter the context.
And what of Mansfield’s Ada Moss? Like Randy the Ram, Ada Moss is an opera singer, by profession and by identity. She has been forced to take acting work lately, and only with the threat of mid-winter eviction does she consider less prestigious, menial work. Throughout “Pictures”, Ada subscribes to the idea that you ‘fake it til you make it’. She approaches strangers and acquaintances as a theatre professional and exaggerates her busyness in Moira Rose fashion. But unlike Moira Rose of Schitts Creek, Ada doesn’t have an erstwhile millionaire husband to support her.
Moira Rose is known for saying to her children, “You are blind to reality, and for that I am most proud.” For Moira, her theatrical persona is a work of art in its own right. Such characters make excellent comedy fodder, and Ada Moss of “Pictures” is one of Katherine Mansfield’s rare comedic creations, showcasing the author’s sense of humour.
Is Ada’s ability to reimagine her status a weakness or a strength, though? It’s certainly a coping mechanism. When you’ve got nothing else, is a fantasy-self so bad? Take the two has-been theatre ladies of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Miss Miriam Forcible and Miss Spink live entirely in a world of fantasy and this serves them well.
Ada wants to be a revered opera singer. Most pressing in this story, she wants to earn enough money to pay her rent by 8pm on a Saturday.
Unfortunately Ada is not getting any paid work. Her landlady is about to evict her if she doesn’t come up with rent.
The situation is against her — there were few establishments open at the weekend, narrowing Ada’s options for paid work considerably.
Ada must leave her bed and embark upon a mythological journey where she will meet a variety of people of varying degrees of helpfulness. She’s trying to find work, but no can do, partly because it’s a Saturday, and partly because people see through her pretensions. She is simply not welcome in the working class world.
The Battle scene involves the technique of pathetic fallacy:
There was a high, cold wind blowing; it tugged at her, slapped her face, jeered; it knew she could not answer [the questions].
Ada sits down and looks at herself in the mirror. Then she begins to cry. It seems she’s had some sort of self-revelation at this point, though I think this is more of a ‘revelation of circumstance’, rather than some insight into herself. She has realised she’s not going to get work in the film industry. Her theatre skills don’t translate. She is too old for aviating, high-diving, driving cars, buck-jumping and shooting.
Ada Moss is in sensory overload by this point, described in detail at the Psychogeographic Review.
Sensory overload at the Battle sequence is a technique Mansfield used frequently. The world becomes too much. All five senses are heavily utilised.
Miss Moss, to her surprise, gave a little snigger.
The snigger seems to indicate some kind of self-revelation. Ada seems to have realised that this is what it has come to — a great lady of the theatre, reduced to sex work.
The snigger is why I think this is the story of the first time Ada engages in sex work. There’s nothing to suggest this has happened before. Threat of eviction in winter is Ada’s rock bottom.
Ada’s cultivated ability to imagine another self will help her to dissociate her ‘self’ from the sex work.
Perhaps as part of her coping mechanism, she imagines herself and the stout man she’s about to have sex with as yachts:
And she sailed after the little yacht out of the cafe.
Mansfield used this technique in “The Wind Blows“, in which Matilda becomes the coal hulk. In both cases, the imagined self as water vessel seems to signify inevitability as well as vulnerability, because a ship/boat is very small compared to the vastness of the sea, and also at the whim of weather (environment).