Six Years After by Katherine Mansfield

“Six Years After” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, first published in 1923 after the author’s death. Find it in The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories, alongside other works considered incomplete.

Important biographical information: Katherine Mansfield wrote this story (or story fragment) six years after her brother Leslie’s death by grenade.


  1. What is Mansfield’s method of narration? (See: How To Write Like Katherine Mansfield)
  2. Why might the wife sit outside on the deck despite feeling cold? The husband insists on this, knowing his wife hates it. What does the narrator mean by the “law of marriage”?
  3. How long has this couple been married? What do they call each other and why?
  4. What happened six years earlier? Describe the circumstances involved.
  5. In the wife’s memories of the son’s childhood, how did the husband act?
  6. The wife struggles with the juxtaposition between her roles as mother and wife. How fulfilled is she these days?
  7. This is an example of a short story with an elliptical ending. The wife is waiting for something at the end of the journey. What is she waiting for?
  8. The reader is left to extrapolate what happens next. How do you imagine the future of this wife and husband?
  9. Is “Six Years After” one of Mansfield’s ‘incomplete’ stories, or does it work as it is? In the collection, this story is listed as one of the unfinished stories. I think it works on its own. What do you think?


A husband and a wife are on a ship. Why? Because six years ago they lost their (only?) son. We deduce this journey is a means of getting away from it all. A psychological reset.

Can you think of another story with this exact set up? I’m thinking of a movie. An Australian movie based on an American novel. Starring Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill. 1989.

Yes, I’m thinking of this movie. A husband and young wife are out on their private yacht as they grieve the recent loss of their child. But where Katherine Mansfield leaves off, the movie turns to horror.

There’s a horror vibe to Mansfield’s story, too. A ship in the middle of nowhere. A grieving wife and husband, emotionally distanced from each other. Rainy, cold. A sea mist, a seascape ‘veiled with slanting rain’. Gulls flying listlessly further out, reminding the characters they’ll soon be far from land.


We know from Mansfield’s letters that she was profoundly affected by the Great War and believed that literature which avoided its themes and consequences wasn’t being entirely honest. ‘Nothing can ever be the same’, she wrote, and ‘we are traitors if we feel otherwise’. Of course, she lost her beloved brother in 1915 during grenade training.

You’re in my flesh as well as in my soul […] Dearest heart, I know you are there, and I live with you and I will write for you.

Mansfield’s journal entry upon learning that her brother Leslie had been killed

That said, Mansfield did not write directly about war. In true Modernist tradition, she approached it indirectly. (The modernists were especially interested in how war neuroses affected civilians.)

  • Prelude” is about the unspeakable tragedy of loss (which explains why she doesn’t speak of it on the page).
  • The Garden Party” broaches issues around pain and aestheticism (in which Laura looks at a dead young man “fast asleep” and considers the corpse “simply marvellous” in its stillness. Perhaps this illuminates Laura’s naïve romanticism. Perhaps this is Mansfield coming to terms with images of her own dead brother (whose body did not look like that after such a violent accident).

In a 1967 speech to architecture students, Michel Foucault named ships as an example of what he called ‘heterotopia‘ — ‘other’ places which:

  • are simultaneously real and unreal
  • are constructed
  • are for a specific operation anchored to a specific time
  • have incompatible elements in a single state
  • exhibit some kind of break in the normal flow of time (with past, present and future brought together in the same space)
  • have some way to enter and exit (linked to the opening and closing of doors)
  • create some kind of illusion (e.g. a brothel allows fantasies to play out)
  • tend toward one of two extremes, either rare chaos or rare order

The boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development… but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.


How Mansfield makes literary use of the (yet unnamed) heterotopia in “Six Years After”:

  • While aboard the ship, away from the routines of daily life, the characters are left only with their memories. The memories feel simultaneously real and unreal. When we have time to reflect on times past, we are living in the past and the present simultaneously. The infinity of the sea helps with this feeling.
  • The ship journey is (probably) for health and leisure purposes, a shared ideal space, but sadness intrudes. So we’ve got that juxtaposition.
  • Another juxtaposition: the simultaneous remembering and forgetting experienced by the mother as the ship crests the waves.
  • A ship requires passengers buy a ticket, which separates the space from the everyday, ordinary world. Only certain people are allowed on board.

There are two main types of heterotopies (crisis and deviation e.g. boarding schools and prisons). But when a ship is used as a place of rest and recuperation after a crisis (death of a child), it is actually spanning both of these functions. Children are supposed to lose their parents, not the other way around. So when a mother loses her son, this has inverted the accepted natural order of life. This family is now ‘deviant’. So the parents have been put into this space parallel to our everyday world, and the floating space has been made to feel as utopian (ideal) as possible.

See also: The Symbolism of Ships and Boats


Third person narration ducks between the close points of view of the husband and then the wife. This technique (‘shifting points of view’) is a Mansfield specialty. We see it also in “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House“.


From early 1920 onwards the death theme is either directly or indirectly present in many of Katherine Mansfield’s stories, and so it is here. It has been said that a feature of post-war literature exists in the hopes of keeping the fallen alive, ‘by speaking for them, to them and about them’ (Jay Winter).

However, that’s not what Mansfield is doing in “Six Years After”. She’s basically doing the opposite, writing about the loneliness, the grief, the trauma of loss. This mother is terrified her son will be forgotten, and imagines his voice crying out:

And it seemed to her there was a presence far out there, between the sky and the water; someone very desolate and longing watched them pass and cried as if to stop them—but cried to her alone.


“Don’t leave me,” sounded in the cry. “Don’t forget me! You are forgetting me, you know you are!” And it was as though from her own breast came the sound of childish weeping.

“Six Years After”

Mansfield is no stranger to ellipsis dots and em-dashes. Here she puts the good old em-dash to good effect:

“I called and called to you—and you wouldn’t come—so I had to lie there for ever”

“Six Years After”

Who is the ‘I’ in that sentence? Well, it’s both the mother and the son. We don’t know who says what. The imagined dead son and the mother who conjures him are calling for each other. The result is a nightmarish, dreamlike, agitated state of mind.

Another example:

When the war was over, did he come home for good? Surely, he will marry—later on—not for several years. Surely, one day I shall remember his wedding and my first grandchild—a beautiful dark-haired boy born in the early morning—a lovely morning—spring.

“Six Years After”

We know that Mansfield was interested in psychology. (One of her short stories is even named “Psychology“.) In Mansfield’s time, English psychologists such as Charles Samuel Myers and William McDougall were making use of a talking-cure, hypnosis combo to help patients turn fragmented memories into coherent narratives of their past lives. Mansfield’s heavily hyphenated syntax feels influenced by this modality. Without a literal therapist on the page, this bereft woman is by herself taking fragments of memory and turning them into something coherent as a means of therapy. Readers are a part of this process — we are required to fill in the gaps.



A couple has been married to her husband for 28 years. Together they had a son. The son died six years earlier.

They are now on a ship — perhaps they’re going somewhere new, perhaps this journey is purely for recuperation. We’re not told.

The mother remains deep in her grief, emotionally stuck with her dead son. The father’s preference for the open deck suggests he is at a different stage in his grief. We are told that ‘it was still an effort to him, each time, to adapt his pace to hers’. Whenever he approaches some kind of insight into his wife’s state of mind he just ends up wishing for a cigar.

This is what he privately calls ‘the law of marriage’. Perhaps he imagines something like a physical law in which spouses are like electrons with the same charge who repel each other once a certain closeness is reached. This would prevent two close people from becoming one and the same being. It might be an evolutionary adaptation that when one partner is deep in misery, the other remains just distant enough to deal with practical matters of life.

‘All the same, he always felt guilty when he asked these sacrifices of her’.

Whereas the wife would like to remain in her cabin (both literally and metaphorically), the husband knows it’s in their best interest to get her out in the open air.



Whereas the wife would like to be inside their warm cabin with a blanket and a hot cup of tea, the husband has the opposite desire: to remain ‘above board’. The husband is a traveller and frequent passenger on ships and he makes it a habit to stay above board as much as possible. As an idiom the phrase ‘all above board’ means ‘legitimate, honest and open’.

Perhaps the husband craves more emotional openness and intimacy from his wife, who remains bereft and unreachable six years after the loss of their son. Emotionally, the wife is still in her cabin.


The mother is terrified of forgetting her dead son, and the only way she can keep him alive is by remembering the trauma of loss. Obviously, the son cannot be brought to life, so she imagines a dead version of her son calling out for her, urging her not to forget him.


The wife calls her husband ‘Daddy’ and the narrator refers to the husband as ‘Father’. This shows the wife has psychologically positioned herself with their dead son rather than with her alive husband. She identifies more with the son. This husband and wife are alienated from each other. Added to the grief aspect, it is the husband who controls the purse strings, infantilizing her.

The childlike aspect of the wife is emphasised in the description of the timelessness of the ‘little steamer’:

It is extraordinary how peaceful it feels on a little steamer once the bustle of leaving port is over. In a quarter of an hour one might have been at sea for days. There is something almost touching, childish, in the way people submit themselves to the new conditions. They go to bed in the early afternoon, they shut their eyes and “it’s night” like little children who turn the table upside down and cover themselves with the table-cloth. And those who remain on deck—they seem to be always the same, those few hardened men travellers—pause, light their pipes, stamp softly, gaze out to sea, and their voices are subdued as they walk up and down.

“Six Years After”

In turn, the wife recognises in her husband his own childlike qualities, evinced by his choice of hat, in which he seems to be playing some role.


It seems the husband has decided to take his wife on a steam ship in a gentle attempt to bring her out of her grief on the sixth anniversary of their son’s death. And he can’t let her remain cooped up in her cabin, no matter the weather. He has these folk-medicine ideas about needing to fill the lungs with sea air as soon as possible, as inoculation against chills.


After enjoying a pleasant moment with her husband, ‘lonely’ gulls remind the wife of her own grief. She’s starting to panic a bit that they’re steaming further and further from land. She senses ‘a presence far out there, between the sky and the water; someone very desolate and longing watched them pass and cried as if to stop them—but cried to her alone.’

This in turn reminds her of a time when the dead son was young, waking from a nightmare in which he’d been abandoned in the woods.


Can one do nothing for the dead? And for a long time the answer had been—Nothing!

… But softly without a sound the dark curtain has rolled down. There is no more to come. That is the end of the play. But it can’t end like that—so suddenly. There must be more. No, it’s cold, it’s still. There is nothing to be gained by waiting.

“Six Years After”


The mother has realised there is nothing to be gained by waiting for her dead son to come back from the war, but this in itself doesn’t help.

Just as the steamer moves in linear fashion through the sea, the mother imagines the life her dead son might have led had he returned from war, gotten married and had children of his own.

These thoughts increase the sense of loss and are unbearable, yet the mother can’t seem to avoid doing it.


We know the steamer will keep going along its inevitable journey, which suggests the mother will keep her son alive in her mind by imagining the life he might have led. Although this tortures her, she will keep doing it.

Meanwhile, her husband has a psychological strategy in which he can avoid going there. Whenever he’s about to have a painful thought, he reaches for his cigar, examines the tip and then lights up. He will probably remain her rock, and she will have good days and bad days, but the loss of their son will forever keep them apart.


Mansfield’s “Daughters of the Late Colonel” is another short story in which memories of the dead continue to impact the living. In that case, the dead father was an overbearing, controlling patriarch. The adult daughters can’t quite believe they’ve gotten rid of him.

In “The Fly“, a man forgets his dead son by imagining himself drowning in his own inkwell at his work desk. Critics argue a lot over the meaning of this one. Is the fly a proxy for the dead son trying to struggle out of a trench? Is this symbolism all about God playing with people’s lives? Isn’t that too obvious, too on the nose? Is Mansfield ‘othering’ the fly by presenting it in such a disgusting way, with all its legs flailing?

Perhaps Mansfield feels men deal with their dead sons differently from mothers. In this story the father uses his cigar. In “The Fly” a father uses whatever happens to be in front of him that day. Both strategies work to prevent the father from properly remembering their sons. (I’m sure psychologists have a word for this.)


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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