Tobermory Short Story by Saki Analysis

Tobermory” is a short story by Hector Hugh Munro, otherwise known as Saki. Anyone with a pet has probably wondered what that pet would say to you if it could talk. Many children’s stories have this premise, and this particular wish fulfilment fantasy. We imagine if our pets could talk they would say satisfying things.

Saki’s story, about a talking cat, reminds me of a cartoon in which a man wishes his dog could talk. But as soon as the dog starts talking the man is weirded out and says, “You’ve seen too  much.” He immediately takes the power of talking away from his pet.

Gary Larson has also mined this gag, also on dogs:

Man invents talking machine for dogs and they only say hey hey hey

But cats are thought to be more circumspect. We consider them haughty, knowing and at the top of their own hierarchy. The heterodiegetic narrator of Tobermory is like a cat himself, and as viewpoint character, sees through bluff and bluster of the assembled human party.

HUMOUR OF SAKI

The humour of Saki’s stories derives from an ironic gap between the highly formal register, most often used by the highly educated, and the subject matter, which is completely unbelievable. The register tips over into ostentatious and affected. Saki makes deliberate use of purple language such as ‘he expostulated’.

The comparisons he makes go way outside the bounds of the story itself. Here is a sentence which says ‘Cornelius Appin was crestfallen.’

An archangel ecstatically proclaiming the Millennium, and then finding that it clashed unpardonably with Henley and would have to be indefinitely postponed, could hardly have felt more crestfallen than Cornelius Appin at the reception of his wonderful achievement.

Australian author Kathy Lette writes in a similar fashion in some of her novels, such as The Boy Who Fell To Earth. This story gets a lot of its humour from its great many parenthetical asides.

It’s the ironic gap between register and subject matter that makes Saki’s humour feel irreverent. Add to that insights on human nature from his narrator and you have a wry social commentary. No better character than a talking cat to criticise humans.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “TOBERMORY”

SHORTCOMING

The great shortcoming of this group of people is that they don’t really like each other at all, yet here they are, all forced to commingle. They’ve been saying nasty things about each other behind backs.

DESIRE

Each has their own conflicting desire which they bring to the dinner party:

  • Mr Cornelius Appin wants to demonstrate his wonderful invention (foiled because the invention is terrible)
  • Sir Wilfrid does not want to be taken for a fool (foiled because he is revealed to be a fool anyway)
  • Lady Blemley wants to be a good hostess (foiled by the cat)
  • Mrs Cornett wants to be regarded a beauty (though she spends much time with make-up to get herself looking presentable)
  • Miss Scrawen, ironically, doesn’t want everyone to know she leads such a good and virtuous life
  • Odo Finsberry wants to keep his private life private since he is meant to be reading for the Church
  • Agnes Resker wants to enjoy a free meal since she is experiencing financial hardship
  • and so on

OPPONENT

The talking cat is the opponent, but only because the web of opposition has already been set up.

PLAN

Sir Wilfrid suggests they put strychnine in the table scraps and leave them out for the cat to eat.

The rest of the party do their best to paper over that a huge rift has emerged between the neighbours of the Tower.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle of cat eating poison and dying is subverted. The death happens off-stage in an unexpected fight with a Tom. On the other hand, this is entirely expected. We might imagine the cat was able to articulate nastiness to other cats as well as to other humans.

ANAGNORISIS

This story includes an entire cast of characters but Saki has chosen to home in on one character’s response to all this: That of Lady Blemley, who ‘sufficiently recovers her spirits to write an extremely nasty letter to the Rectory about the loss of her valuable pet’.

This is displaced anger, of course. And this is the reader’s revelation. People deal with humiliation by branching out with it. It’s called lateral violence, when it happens as part of a system.

NEW SITUATION

Saki finishes in children’s picture book fashion (also utilised a lot by Paul Jennings) in which another similar story happens a second time, but with a different main character. This time it’s an elephant, and the reveal is that the elephant learned to talk and got sick of an Englishman who was trying German irregular verbs on it.

The joke is readily understood by any English speaker who has ever tried learning German verb conjugation. (Though English is far less regular than German.) Note that Saki has not waited until the final paragraph to mention the elephant — one of the characters suggested elephants at the dinner party, since elephants can’t sneak about under chairs and whatnot and therefore make a safe subject.

It’s a good idea to prepare the reader in this way if you mean to end your short story like this. This is how you get your ending to feel ‘both expected and surprising’. Otherwise, readers will complain that the ending feels ‘tacked on’.

Elephants are an excellent choice for this final episode. My father remembers a traveling circus coming to the small town of Amberley. This was the 1950s. He and another boy rode their bikes to see the animals before the circus opened, one evening in summer. The friend had nothing to offer the elephant, so offered it a stone. The elephant took the stone in its trunk, perhaps thinking it was a peanut. But after realising its mistake, the elephant heaved the stone at the boy. The elephant seemed to know it had been tricked, then exacted revenge.

HOW WOULD YOU ILLUSTRATE THIS CAT?

The wonderful thing about cats is that they can be depicted in so many ways, from contemplative, gentle, silky creatures to mischievous tricksters to evil familiars.

wood engraving by Tirzah Garwood Ravilious  The Cat Wife, 1930 a LaFontaine fable
wood engraving by Tirzah Garwood Ravilious The Cat Wife, 1930 a LaFontaine fable

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Compare “The Child” by Ali Smith, in which a woman finds a baby in her supermarket trolley. The child can talk, and it says nasty things.

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Champion by Ring Lardner Analysis

two men one in foreground boxing one in background his manager

Champion” is a short story about boxing by Ringgold Lardner, who was an American sports columnist as well as a short story writer. He had three main subjects: sports, marriage and theatre. The story was first published in October 1916, Metropolitan magazine.

Lardner’s family was wealthy, he had to wear a brace on his foot until age eleven, he and his one wife had four sons and he died age 48 due to tuberculosis.

“Champion” is a rags-to-riches story.

by Charles Dana Gibson, Life Magazine. Possibly a picture of James J. Jeffries being followed by scores of children who regarded him a hero. Big Jeff (The Boilermaker) was the first heavyweight champ to retire undefeated until pulled out of retirement as “the great white hope” to fight Jack Johnson. (He lost.)

SETTING OF “CHAMPION”

“Champion” starts out in Chicago (shortened to “Chi” later in the story). Midge moves around to other places such as Milwaukee, New York, New Orleans. The eventual setting fiction about Midge is that he also has a wife up in Canada (outside the range of the American media) with five sons, all ‘dead ringers’ for Midge: the ultimate dream for a man who has dreams of being all-powerful.

The pattern of domestic abuse isn’t so different from how it works today, with the following noteworthy addition:

“I’ll put you in a hospital where they’ll keep you quiet.”

Last century, sending ‘crazy’ wives and girlfriends to mental asylums was one strategy used by men to get rid of partners they no longer wanted. This was considered an alternative to divorce, for which the man could not be blamed. It was more common in the 1800s, but continued into the 1900s.

a list of reasons women were admitted to insane asylums, including masturbation and novel reading

CHARACTERS OF “CHAMPION”

The cast of characters in “Champion” is a long one, because the point is that Midge goes through people like they’re nothing, one person after another after another. They are listed again at the end, to remind us of all the people he has screwed over.

For a full list of the characters, see here.

Caricature of heavyweight champion Primo Carnera, 'The Ambling Alp' for a 1934 issue of Vanity Fair
Caricature of heavyweight champion Primo Carnera, ‘The Ambling Alp’ for a 1934 issue of Vanity Fair

STORY STRUCTURE OF “CHAMPION”

This story is dialogue heavy and written in a working class Northern American lower class dialect of a century ago. All considered, it’s amazingly simple to read, and I’m sure it’d be satisfying to listen to.

Legend has it that his spelling wasn’t very good, though he was super smart academically. In those days, spelling alone could let  you down in school.

SHORTCOMING

Midge (Michael Kelly) is a man who uses violence like a workshop tool. He could be a sociopath, and this serves him well. Midge is more like a robotic horror opponent than a fleshed-out main man with human shortcomings and needs. I don’t even code his sociopathy as a shortcoming.

Instead, we see the cast around him suffer because of their own shortcomings. “Champion” is a good case study in stories which create a cardboard ‘main character’ then delve into how that person wreaks destruction on those around him.

Tony Soprano is a similar character in that regard.

Champion 1949 film poster

Interesting that when this story was adapted for film in 1949, the screenwriters gave Midge more humanity.

Possibly we should be grateful that the makers of the film have sweetened the character just a little from the way he was in the tale, for Mr. Lardner’s Midge Kelly was as cruel and contemptible as they come.

New York Times

Reason given: the audience can put up with a one-dimensional psycho for main character in a short story, but watching him on screen for full movie-length would be highly unpleasant. In other words, you can’t get away with one-dimensional main characters in works of length.

DESIRE

As Midge observes, everyone around him wants a piece of him for his fame, his money, his prestige.

OPPONENT

Everyone in Midge’s life is an opponent, because this is a man incapable of friendships and genuine romance.

PLAN

Nothing stands in Midge’s way because he has the superpower gift of his fists. So when he gets in trouble for beating up his disabled brother, he simply leaves home to make his fortune. And so he does, going from strength to strength.

BIG STRUGGLE

Because this guy is a fighter we see an endless stream of punches and kicks. There’s no big fight that will determine the course of this guy’s future — after a while we know he’s going to win.

Is it just me, or is everyone else waiting to see Midge get his punishment? I thought the industry itself might chew him up and spit him out. Most stories are conservative in their values — bad characters meet bad endings.

ANAGNORISIS

But this story subverts that expectation and ends with the following message: Once people are champions, their audience wants them to remain champions.

This is absolutely mimetic to real life. It works especially well for white men. We have seen it over the last few years in men who have been accused of assault then come back and keep on doing whatever’s been making them money. I’m sure Ring Lardner witnessed this himself, while working as a sports journalist. He must have wondered how such assholes can keep doing what they’re doing.

NEW SITUATION

The answer, of course, is that an audience loves a champion.

It’s about wish fulfilment. We project our own wish to be famous and powerful onto celebrities and if they fall, we fall. There’s also the cognitive bias of sunk cost, in which we tend to stick with those into whom we’ve already invested our attention. It’s related to status quo bias, in which we prefer things how they are, even if that thing happens to be a patriarchy powered by toxic masculinity.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

the wrestler movie poster with mickey rourke bending forward looking defeated

In one way this short story reminds me of the film The Wrestler, which is about how the modern American wrestling entertainment industry uses their wrestlers up and spits them out, without looking after them when their bodies become too broke to fight. But the main character of The Wrestler is a sympathetic figure and he is the underdog. Midge is no sympathetic underdog. Because I’ve seen The Wrestler, I know to expect he will get his comeuppance from the industry itself.

But no. Midge remains top dog. But even in The Wrestler, broken fighters remain top dog in the minds of the audience, and that’s what brings in the bucks.

If we met Midge at the end of his life, we might find someone looking more defeated, as Mickey Rourke looks in that poster.

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Je ne parle pas français by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

Leonid Pasternak Boris Pasternak Writing 1919

Je ne parle pas français” (I don’t speak French) is a 1918 short story by Katherine Mansfield. Nothing much ‘happens’, but the character of Raoul Duquette is a comedic archetype seen in contemporary creations such as Dwight Schrute from The Office.

Connection To Mansfield’s Own Life

Hard to fathom today, but the obliquely gay subject matter of this story would have shocked a 1918 readership. John Middleton Murry therefore printed it privately. When it was published for a wider audience in 1920, it was only after heavy censoring. Mansfield hated the cuts, which amounted to bowdlerisation.

THE BOWDLERISATION OF Lgbtq TEXTS

Bowdlerisation is the act of editing a work in an attempt to make it ‘more suitable’ for its intended audience. The word often used to describe adult literary works subsequently adapted for a young reader. 

But bowdlerisation can be carried out for other, political reasons. For instance, a lesbian love story might be bowdlerised by removing the lesbian elements, gender flipping it, avoiding the obvious, or by cherchez l’homme (tracing any woman’s motivations back to her supposed desire for a man). Emily Dickinson’s letters to Sue Gilbert were bowdlerised by Dickinson’s niece, Martha, who deleted sentences such as ‘be my own again, and kiss me as you used to’. Note that Martha published her famous aunt’s bowdlerised love letters in 1920 — the exact year “Je ne parle pas francais” was released to the public.

Katherine Mansfield’s private letters have been subjected to these strategies, along with Frances Hodgkins, Ursula Bethell and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Owing to the obliqueness required by the era, this short story has been interpreted in different ways by various commentators:

  • a reflection on the impact mass media has on reality, or how people decode reality. (Mass media was nascent at the time, so Mansfield demonstrates quite some insight into the impact it would eventually have on us all moving forward.)
  • a story about the menace of pretence. Power without value can be attractive and value without power can be debilitating.
  • a bemused exploration of pop genres e.g. the sensational vs the sentimental

Some commentators have suggested that Katherine Mansfield would have identified in turn with Duquette and with Mouse. Like Duquette, Mansfield was a theatre creative, liked to hang out in cafes observing humanity and was a member of the rainbow community (bisexual? pansexual?). And she had certainly experienced the emotions we might expect Mouse to experience in this story, alone in another country where she doesn’t speak the language, disconnected from everything she knows to be home.

By the way, Mansfield did speak French. She would speak schoolgirl French with her sisters, thinking no one else in their company could understand what they were saying. (Others very often could — French has been studied by academic streams in New Zealand high schools for generations.) If you don’t speak French: This is how to pronounce the title.

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The Woman At The Store by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

The Woman At The Store text

“The Woman At The Store” (1912) is one of Mansfield’s earlier stories, written for the magazine Rhythm. The aesthetic goal of this magazine was pity, brutality and a carefully wrought plot with adequate foreshadowing. It is now thought that this story is far from Mansfield’s best work.

This short story has been criticised for its foreshadowing, considered ‘telegraphing’ (foreshadowing which is far too blatant).

When Mansfield writes ‘It sounded a ridiculous arrangement’ (in regards to the sleeping set-up), this sounds like a contrivance to fit the story — a writing hack otherwise known as ‘lampshading‘.

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Prelude by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

Albert Chevallier Tayler - The Quiet Hour

Katherine Mansfield wrote “Prelude” in 1916 then revised it the following year. “Prelude” is the first in a trilogy of interlinked short stories. The other stories starring the Burnell family are “At the Bay” and “The Doll’s House“. Although Mansfield also populates “The Doll’s House” with the same characters, the themes and motifs of “At The Bay” align so closely to “Prelude” that we might consider these two stories a diptych. High school teachers commonly teach “The Doll’s House” as an introduction to other (Mansfield) short stories, as it has a very clear plot and symbol web.

Then there’s a lesser known Mansfield short story called “New Dresses“. This seems to be Mansfield’s practice story for the Burnells.

Commentaries on this story fall into two main categories:

THE EMPHASIS-ON-PRELUDES READING

Over multiple viewpoints Mansfield shows that Kezia still has the future before her. (Some commentators believe Beryl has the future before her as well.)

In this reading, Mrs Fairfield is a warm and encouraging grandmother.

These commentators point to numerous examples of preludes:

  • The family’s move is a prelude to a new kind of suburban living.
  • There’s the children’s prelude to adolescence.
  • Beryl experiences the prelude to spinsterhood.
  • Mrs Fairfield experiences the prelude to death.

Unfortunately Linda gets no prelude. She’s done. This explains why she’s a little down, I guess.

THE female-entrapment READING

In a dominant feminist reading, Mansfield uses imagery to reveal the power struggle between men and women. Kezia is all caged up. Linda is trapped within marriage, but experiencing an hysterical rebellion. Stanley exerts dominion over not just the house he bought, but also wants to expand to buying a pew at church etc.

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New Dresses by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

NEW DRESSES

“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?

STORY STRUCTURE OF “NEW DRESSES”

“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.
NARRATION

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.

Andrew Loomis (1892–1959)
Andrew Loomis (1892–1959)

SHORTCOMING

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.”

DESIRE

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?)

OPPONENT

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.

PLAN

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.)

BIG STRUGGLE

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.

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.

NEW SITUATION

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.

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Bliss by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

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 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.

William Bouguereau – The Little Marauder 1900

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 scene starts in one place emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends embarrassed. Starts lovestruck, ends disgusted.

Jane Fitch, from 10 Rules For Writers

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.

Botanical Illustration of a Seckel Pear by Ellen I. Schutt, 1912
Botanical Illustration of a Seckel Pear by Ellen I. Schutt, 1912

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.

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.

NARRATION

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”

THE PEAR TREE
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.)

HEAT AND COLDNESS

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’.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BLISS”

SHORTCOMING

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.

DESIRE

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

OPPONENT

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.)

PLAN

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.)

BIG STRUGGLE

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.

ANAGNORISIS

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.

NEW SITUATION

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.

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A Dill Pickle by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

Bank Holiday 1912 William Strang

“A Dill Pickle” is a 1917 short story by Katherine Mansfield. Over the course of a single café scene, a woman meets up with a former beau. This is a feminist story about how men and women tend to communicate, and illuminates Mansfield’s deep interest in psychology.

I’m in a restaurant in Cambridge and this woman just yelled at a man “economics is part of culture” and he shouted back “that’s YOUR notion” and five minutes later she said, “do you want this” and he said “what is it” and she said “a pickle”

@sarahlovescali 9:41 am – 11 Aug 2019

Here’s your soundtrack: horribly anachronistic but about a dill pickle. (There are no words so we must use our imagination.)

WHAT HAPPENS IN “A DILL PICKLE”

A man and woman meet after six years apart. It is revealed that they used to be prospective lovers/beaus. The entire story is a conversation between them, and the reader sees (hopefully) that this partnership is doomed. A modern reader can probably put names to some of the psychological tricks going down. 

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