The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

In March 1907 Katherine Mansfield’s mother, Annie Beauchamp, held a garden party at their residence, 75 Tinakori Road, Wellington, New Zealand. On the same day, a poverty-stricken neighbour was killed in a street accident.

In 1921, on her 32nd birthday, Katherine Mansfield finished “The Garden Party”. She had taken a month to recover from her previous story, “At the Bay“. She felt that “The Garden Party” was better than “At The Bay”, “but that is not good enough, either…”

Commentators have said that “The Garden Party” is one of Mansfield’s ‘cry against corruption’ stories. These stories convey outrage at a society with great inequalities, and where the privileged ignore the injustice, getting on with their own lucky lives in a self-imposed bubble.

“The Garden Party” is like Mansfield’s other Sheridan stories — keenly interested in human relationships and the impact of local conditions on the developing personalities of young people. These stories are also about how the present affects the past and the future.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE GARDEN PARTY”

Mrs Sheridan holds a party, which she leaves to her teenage children to organise. This will mark their entry into the world. However, the story is not about the party itself but rather the lead-up and the aftermath, when the upper class Sheridan family learns that a man has been killed down below. Laura thinks to offer solace by taking his bereaved wife some of the leftovers. She goes to the house down below and is overcome with a feeling of hopelessness, inappropriateness and perhaps some greater understanding of the nature of life and death.

“The Garden Party” is much more a story than the other shorts involving the Burnell family. Here, events are used to carry the meaning; “Prelude” and “At the Bay” are more explorations of milieu (storyworld), where a series of keen observations about seemingly insignificant details add up to form a lasting impression and offer a deeper message.

STORYWORLD OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”

Mansfield presents this deeper message by building an atmosphere of fun and frivolity before presenting the characters with an awful situation. The ostentatious nature of the party is emphasised with our attention drawn to the comfortable circumstances of The Sheridans: large house, tennis court, spacious garden, hilltop view, lily lawn, green baize door.

Conspicuously absent from “The Garden Party”: any mention of The Great War. Mansfield’s own brother was killed early in this war during a training exercise. However, The Great War is very much symbolically present in this story. Thsi was the war that spawned new anxieties in the upper and middle classes.

When close reading a story for setting, pay attention to altitude. Where altitude is mentioned, it’s probably symbolic.

The house KM imagines is her bigger childhood house in Thorndon, Wellington, at 75 Tinakori Road. The Beauchamp family moved back to town when Kathleen was 9 and a half.

Also within this setting, we see a comparison between the Sheridans and the underlings – we see them interact with each other and the different reactions of the family to their social inferiors.

Mansfield would have been aware of the symbolic significance of garden parties as metaphor in literature at the time:

Although Mansfield’s The Garden Party was published in 1922, the metaphor of the garden party is a trope of the Edwardian Era, which lasted from 1901-1910. This is seen in children’s literature such as The Wind In The Willows — a classic example of the utopia which is nonetheless surrounded by political unrest.

Edwardian Culture: Beyond the Garden Party

THEMES OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”

Growing up involves some uncomfortable truths.

The party is the children’s first time to prove their new-found maturity. Their mother is ‘determined to leave everything to the children this year’. Laura is torn between her own feelings and the dominance of her mother, who never really does relinquish control of the party, ordering masses of lilies on a whim.

Laura does not reject the life she is a part of; rather, she has understood something about it — she reaches a more serious maturity than her mother and older sisters have reached.

People are able to insulate themselves somewhat from class distinctions.

Criticism of the social values of bourgeois society is the most obvious, basic theme, with the upper-class Sheridan family living at the top of the hill and the lower-class in their ‘poky little holes’, ‘little cottages just below’. KM herself must have been keenly aware of class distinctions as she was the daughter of a self-made man, living in upper-class New Zealand society. This theme is also important in The Doll’s House.

The upper-class is symbolised by sheer extravagance. The sandwiches each have flags (fifteen kinds). There is a hired band, cream puffs and masses of canna lilies. Each member of the family has power over the cook, the maids and the men putting up the marquee.

[In my own illustrated short story Midnight Feast, this is also a theme. Growing up in New Zealand, I have been heavily influenced by Katherine Mansfield!]

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

CHARACTERS OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”

The family is no longer the Burnells but The Sheridans, who reflected Mansfield’s family during her own teenage years. Unlike the Burnells, the family does not live within its own microcosm of the world but is fully participant in the wider social world of town.

Laura

The name Laura is a Latin baby name. In Latin the meaning of the name Laura is: Laurel tree or sweet bay tree (symbols of honour and victory).

This is Laura’s story. Main characters are linked inextricably to the setting, and perhaps Mansfield chose a ‘plant’ name for Laura for that reason? See also: How can a setting be a character?

Although there are some general, impersonal passages and several scenes without her, we see this storyworld through Laura’s eyes. We observe others how she sees them, especially their response to her own behaviour.

Mrs Sheridan

Mrs Sheridan is comfortable with her social status and at ease with ordering others about. We see this clearly in her attitude towards the cook. She is teaching her children to see the world from her own elevated by short-sighted perspective. Mrs Sheridan doesn’t want her children to be socially aware. We see this when she tries to divert Laura’s attention with the talk of the new hat. 

Mrs Sheridan is in charge of all the food, and might be compared to some kind of goddess of fertility.

Meg

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

Jose

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

Laurie

Laura and Laurie are similar in their outlook on life, symbolised by their similar names. It is only natural that Laurie understands Laura’s reaction to the grieving family without Laura needing to put her feelings into words because Laurie is the only other person in this world who could possibly understand her inner conflict. 

STORYWORLD AND SYMBOLISM OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”

Laura’s Hat

By placing the hat upon Laura’s head, Mrs Sheridan claims her to the upper-class – superiority and indifference. Compare the passing of the hat to the passing of a crown (or similar talisman: sword, coat, cloak, cape, teacher’s pen etc.) in many other kinds of stories — generally flipped, in that a downtrodden, underprivileged character eventually earns a crown. That’s how most traditional stories go. Here, Laura doesn’t have to do much to get it, and when she does get it, she seems to realise that she hasn’t really earned it. 

‘Forgive my hat.’

Nor is she entirely comfortable in her class. Nevertheless, she does wear the hat, just as she takes part in her upper class, privileged lifestyle.

Birds and Flight

Mansfield uses the metaphor of birds and flight as a strategy to show how the Sheridans insulate themselves from the lower classes. Jose is a “butterfly”. Mrs. Sheridan’s voice “floats” and Laura must “skim over the lawn, up the path, up the steps” to reach her. They are all perched high on an aerie up a “steep rise” from the cottages below. But Laura is a fledgling. Her mother steps back and encourages her to flit around in her preparations for the party, but Laura’s wings aren’t quite experienced enough–she “flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall,” then sighed, so that even a workman “smiled down at her.”

How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

That’s why Laura describes her fellow party-goers as ‘birds’. (Describing women as birds is also a well-worn trope throughout literature, which doesn’t mean it can’t ever be done.)

This bird symbol running right through the story also explains the significance of the man down below whose house front is studded all over with minute bird cages. Those cages are a threat to the upper-class people on the hill.

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

The Garden As (Apparent) Utopia

Those with Biblical knowledge may see the perfect weather and beautiful garden described in the first paragraph as the Garden of Eden. Failing that, KM has at least set up the garden as a kind of utopia. (For more on utopias, specifically in children’s literature, see here.)

Whenever you come across a utopia such as this in literature, ask yourself who’s in charge. This is, as John Truby would tell you in his book Anatomy of Story, an ‘apparent utopia’. In a genuine utopia there is a community, and everyone in that community is able to grow in their own way, supported by others. But the world of The Garden Party is not like that at all, and Laura has realised it by the story’s end:

This world appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster. The suburbs are often an apparent utopia, with their manicured lawns and friendly neighbours, but in stories there is usually something terrible going on in the suburbs.

John Truby

See also: Utopian Children’s Literature

Allusion to Persephone?

If the garden is an apparent utopia, this sets us up to regard the cottages down below as Hades/hell — the classical underworld. We might then regard Laura as Persephone. If Laura is Persephone, Mrs Sheridan is Demeter. As evidence for the comparison, here’s the list from Thomas C. Foster:

  • fertility-goddess mother, who is the match-maker (people arrive at the party in couples)
  • beautiful daughter
  • kidnap and seduction by god of underworld
  • permanent winter
  • pomegrante-seed monkey business
  • six-month growing season
  • happy parties all round
  • they live on an ‘Olympian’ height
  • the broad road into the cottages is kind of like the River Styx, which you have to cross to get into Hades (roads are often like rivers in literature, when the city/suburbs are a symbol of the forest/plains)
  • When Laura returns from ‘the underworld’ she has basically become her mother. In Greek mythology, there is often no difference between mother and daughter.

The myth of Persephone is also about a young woman arriving into adulthood. This involves facing death and understanding it. The myth involves the tasting of the fruit. (The story of Eve in the Garden of Eden also makes use of fruit, and how tasting it gives you unwelcome but adult knowledge.)

Darkness and Shadow as Death

Mansfield does a great job describing the darkness and shadow of the township below. There are many examples in the text e.g. the large dog ‘running like a shadow’.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

At the beginning of the story, Laura is still a child. She doesn’t fully understand what is happening; her reaction to the workman’s death is a mixture of instinct, upbringing and egotism. She sees the workman’s death in an emotional way, torn between her own instinctive feelings and the powerful dominance of her mother and older sisters.

Compared to the others in her family, Laura is the least inward looking. Her youth is also what saves her from a completely insular view, in which she doesn’t even see other classes. Being still a child, and not fully aware of the power of class distinctions and her own place within the social structure, Laura acts as a bridge between the upper and lower classes. She decides ‘it’s all the fault… of these absurd class distinctions’. Unlike Mrs Sheridan, she sees the workmen as individual people, indeed, as attractive ones.

But at the beginning of the story she mistakenly thinks she has more in common with working class people than she really does. The workman’s love of lavender is so cute and striking to Laura that she thinks if workmen like lavender I like lavender, then I must be ‘just like a work-girl’. She can’t see further than a very basic shared humanity (an enjoyment of sensory pleasures). It’s notable that she’d never before considered that enjoying the smell of flowers is a human thing rather than a class/gender thing.

In other words, the working class Other influences Laura’s subjectivity.

DESIRE

At first Laura simply wants to enjoy the party. But something happens to change that — now she wants to do something good for less fortunate people nearby.

OPPONENT

The other members of Laura’s family are completely insular and who Laura might have become, had she not ventured down to see the carter’s dead body.

PLAN

Laura doesn’t know what to do but she does the one thing she can: She will take food to the grieving widow.

BATTLE

The Battle takes place right before the Self-revelation. The trip to the bereft widow’s house is the battle scene in this story. An accident has just taken place, which may have been dramatised in a different story, but here we are shown the aftermath, in which the Battle is different depending on the focalising character (in this case the rich girl from up on the hill).

SELF-REVELATION

In 1920 Mansfield wrote the following in a letter:

This man drew a design of the flower bed on the gravel, & then after telling me the names of the flowers he described them. In trying to describe the scene — c’est — un — parrr-fum — & then he threw back his head put his thumb & forefinger to his nose — took a long breath & suddenly exploded it in a kind of AAAHHH, almost staggering backwards — overcome — almost fainting. To think the man cares like that — responds — laughs like he does and snips off a rosebud for you while he talks. Then I think of poor busmen & tube men and the ugliness of wet dark London. It’s wrong. People who are at all sensitive ought not to live there.

Letter written 13 October 1920, description of an exchange she had with a ‘jardinier who comes here le vendredi’.

What has this letter got to do with “The Garden Party“? Commentators believe this letter anticipates two interactions between characters in the fictional world of the short story:

  1. Only the tall fellow was left. He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender.
  2. The interaction between Laura and Scott the carter’s body, which lines up with ‘the poor busmen & tubemen’ in the letter.

When upper middle class Laura is invited ‘to her horror’ deeper and deeper into the ‘disgusting and sordid’ storyworld of the working classes she confronts working class reality and its unhomely abjection. She also knows that this is part of her own reality. She’s not as separated from it as she previously thought.

Laura seems to realise that she is unable to experience the Scott family’s pain in any primary kind of way. This level of pain is inaccessible to her. She realises she has trespassed on the community of feeling inside the widow’s home.

She realises she is not just like a work-girl at all.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Laura knows class distinctions exist and that they are ‘absurd’. Throughout the story she is shown to have egalitarian politics. But because of her upper-middle class sheltered existence, she is as yet unable to move into a deeper understanding of class.

When the carter dies, Laura feels empathy for another human, and the frivolity of their party is exposed. But after she has her eyes opened to these true class distinctions, she is able to take her mother’s lead and return to the safety of the grand house on the hill. Just because she now knows the truth doesn’t mean she can do anything meaningful and long-lasting about entrenched income inequalities.

NCEA ENGLISH 1.4 Example Essay

DESCRIBE AN IDEA THAT INTERESTED YOU IN EACH TEXT.  EXPLAIN WHY THESE IDEAS INTERESTED YOU.

AUTHOR: Katherine Mansfield

TITLES OF SHORT STORIES: The Voyage and The Garden Party

An interesting idea that Katherine Mansfield dealt with in two stories, The Voyage and The Garden Party, is the transition from childhood to adulthood.  In both stories, Mansfield makes use of symbols to let readers know that growth has taken place.

The Voyage is about a young girl, Fenella, who is being taken to Picton to live with her grandparents.  As the story progresses it is revealed that this is because her mother has died, and we presume her father is unable to care for her alone.  The death of a parent is in itself a time for children to grow up suddenly, and Fenella’s ‘journey’ to the South Island on the Picton Ferry is symbolic of this period of growth.

Within the symbolic journey is a symbolic umbrella, which comes to represent Fenella’s transition into the next phase of her maturity.  Fenella’s grandmother, who accompanies her on this journey, allows her to look after the precious ‘swan-necked umbrella’.  At first, the grandmother feels she must remind Fenella to be careful with the umbrella, being careful not to poke it into the railings of the ferry and break it.  Later on in the journey, however, when Fenella and her grandmother leave the ship, Grandmother is about to remind Fenella about the umbrella, but does not need to, saying only:

“You’ve got my –“

“Yes grandma”.  Fenella showed (the umbrella) to her.

This demonstrates that Fenella has now grown up to the extent that she need not be reminded about looking after precious things.

In the same story, darkness is contrasted with light to symbolise childlike ignorance versus the knowledge and understanding that accompanies adulthood.  Images of light are used repeatedly in the first half of the story.  For example, as Fenella and her grandmother walk to the ship, everything is dark except for a shining lamp.  The solitary shining lamp highlights the darkness.  On board the ship, it is revealed that the grandmother is dressed all in black; likewise, the men on the deck are hiding in the shadows.  In contrast, as the ship sails into Picton, images of light prevail.  “The cold pale sky was the same colour as the cold pale sea”.  As Fenella is walking up the path to her grandparents’ house, she notices the path of ‘round white pebbles’.  These images of light contrast with the initial images of darkness to indicate that Fenella can ‘see the light at the end of the tunnel’; that she has grown up sufficiently to get on with life despite the death of her mother and that she has moved into the next phase of her life.  This is interesting because Mansfield’s view of life and death is ultimately a positive one, despite the overall negative view created in European culture.

The Garden Party also deals with the interesting issue of growing up, as Mrs Sheridan has decided to let her children organise their first garden party all by themselves.  Unlike Fenella in The Voyage, though, Laura’s journey to independence is not as clear and definite; she flits between feeling very grown up and suddenly losing confidence.  When the workmen arrive to put up the marquee, for instance, she begins to address them in an authoritative manner, but suddenly feels that this is too affected, and “stammered like a little girl”.  This demonstrates the difficulty Laura initially feels in taking on adult responsibilities.

The real test for Laura comes later, when she is forced to make her own mind up on a moral issue.  When the news arrives that a man from down in the cottages has been killed, Laura feels that the party must be cancelled out of respect for the family.  Until her father and brother arrive home, however, she is forced to stand alone in this opinion.  She decides to compromise by putting the incident out of her mind until the party is over, then taking it more to heart when the fun is over.  At the conclusion of the story, when Laurie, her more mature older brother meets her in the village below Laura says, “Isn’t life-“ and does not finish the sentence.  She does not need to, as Laurie understands her.  This demonstrates that the younger sister has now joined her older brother (whose names are symbolically similar) in the increased understanding of life that comes from making one’s own decisions and contemplating death. This increased empathy with a more mature individual is an interesting one to consider, as it affects all of us as we grow older.

Both of these short stories deal with the fascinating theme of growth in two individuals who are confronted with the issue of death.  Mansfield’s skilful use of symbolism and imagery help the readers to plot the growth of her central characters for themselves.  This is interesting because the idea of growth and development is relevant to all human beings.

[750 words]

Header illustration: Auguste Toulmouche – Vanity 1889

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.