Marriage á la Mode by Katherine Mansfield

“Marriage á la Mode” (1921) is a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, first published in a December edition of The Sphere: An Illustrated Newspaper for the Home. Magazines don’t normally publish summery stories in winter, but it makes more sense to know this magazine was aimed at British citizens living in the colonies.

This story was later published in The Garden Party And Other Stories.

Love letters are a risky business. Revealing yourself to another person opens the risk of rejection, but if you had to do it onstage? What if the recipient of your ardour and your expression of vulnerability thought it was funny, and shared your most private, loving self with others for jokes?

Have you ever sent a love letter? What about a revealing email? A selfie? A naked selfie? This story is 100 years old, but we are still sharing ourselves with others in ways that leaves footprints. In fact, we now do this in a variety of uber-revealing ways. People we trust still betray us by sharing our secrets more widely, without our permission. With the Internet, the size of the audience, and the size of possible shame, has grown many times over. The point of shame in this story is probably even more relatable to a contemporary audience.

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The Daughters of the Late Colonel by Katherine Mansfield

“The Daughters of the Late Colonel” (1922) is a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, included in The Garden Party And Other Stories.

This story contains some classic horror tropes, and if you didn’t know what a barrel-organ sounded like before, here’s the creepy-ass thing. Honestly, I’d rather go to sleep listening to the tinkle of an ice-cream van driven by the clown from IT:

Look, it’s the monkey. The monkey makes it.

A perfect fountain of bubbling notes shook from the barrel-organ, round, bright notes, carelessly scattered.

Although Katherine Mansfield died at the tender age of 34 and so never lived long enough to experience the invisibilisation which comes to women around menopause, she must have either felt it as a younger woman or observed it in others. She did grow up in a household which included two unmarried aunts — younger sisters of her mother. Belle did eventually marry, around the time Katherine left New Zealand the second time, and if Claire Fallon’s biography is anything to go by, Harold Beauchamp (Katherine’s father, Belle’s brother-in-law) didn’t really like everyone leaving his home, where he had been surrounded by women (and lest we forget, so was King Henry the Eighth).

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U.F.O. In Kushiro by Haruki Murakami

“U.F.O. in Kushiro” is a short story written by popular contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami. English readers first had access to the story in 2001, when it appeared in an issue of the New Yorker magazine. It was republished in 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami devastated northern Japan. Safe to say this is considered a Japan-disaster-story.

Bryan Washington joins Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “U.F.O. in Kushiro,” by Haruki Murakami.

But “U.F.O. in Kushiro” is not really about the Hanshin earthquake, one of Japan’s most devastating and expensive disasters in history. To convey the magnitude of disaster in a short story is difficult because of the phenomenon of ‘psychic numbing‘. I’m sure we’re all feeling that in the year 2020. It’s impossible to extend equivalent empathy to everyone affected by disaster, but when we hear about someone’s personal tragedies, we can be overcome with empathy for them, personally, because we can more easily imagine the trials of one person, or one small community.

To get around the psychic numbing, Murakami has focused on the story of an individual. Unusually for a ‘disaster story’ though, this individual isn’t near the scene of the disaster, but instead lives in Tokyo, three hours away from Kobe (by train). But in a different way this is a story about psychic numbing. The main character is entirely passive right until the end of the story. He does what he is told to do by others. He is numb because his wife has left him and he did not see it coming. ‘The ground shifts beneath him.’ The symbolism of the earthquake is very clear.

What big ideas is Murakami hoping readers will explore in this story? Which storytelling techniques does he utilised to take us there? Let’s take a look.

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The Split Attraction Model in Stories

Vintage Al Parker ( b.1906) illustration 1950s

What does it mean to string someone along? In conversation with her friend Jill Stark, Australian feminist activist Clementine Ford is pretty clear. Clementine refers to a tentpole article (“an oldie but a goodie”) by Tracie Egan Morrissey at Jezebel: Dudes Today: The Emotional Conquistador Is The New Sexual Conquistador.

Maybe. I’m fortunate not to have met dudes like that. Or maybe not.

Nothing about this take accounts for The Split Attraction Model of human relationships — a concept which wasn’t much talked about ten years ago, and which remains little known outside queer circles and philosophy.

There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing.

Francois La Rochefoucauld

The Split Attraction Model of Philosophy

American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925 – 2015) divided sex into three aspects:

  1. Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
  2. Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture, but
  3. Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.
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Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day

‘Le Soir’, a decorative panel by Camille Martin (1861-1898)

“Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” (1917) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, functioning mainly as a character study.

Chris Lilley’s hipster-ironic comedy techniques have been criticised for enforcing stereotypes rather than critiquing them. That said, Mansfield’s Mr Reginald Peacock reminds me very much of Chris Lilley’s high school drama teacher, and I consider Mr G. the modern Australian equivalent of this very old archetype: The youngish white man who considers himself sensitive, unappreciated, entitled and artistic, solipsistically the star of his own show, and wholly unable to empathise with others.

Mansfield’s Reginald Peacock has a clearly symbolic name, and so do other characters in this short story.

This post will be sprinkled with peacock art, because peacocks were once very fashionable in a way I haven’t seen in my lifetime. Mansfield would have been surrounded by peacocks in fashion and in art. The peacock is still widely understood as a symbol of vanity, which is pretty unfair to peacocks, who are born with their magnificent plumage, and who don’t get to mate unless they strut and rattle their trains.

by the French artist Paul Jouve 1878 - 1973, for Le Livre de la Jungle (The Jungle Book), Rudyard Kipling, 1919 peacock
by the French artist Paul Jouve 1878 – 1973, for Le Livre de la Jungle (The Jungle Book), Rudyard Kipling, 1919

STORY STRUCTURE OF “MR REGINALD PEACOCK’S DAY”

SHORTCOMING

As a rule of thumb, readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the viewpoint character but I doubt I speak for myself when I say that Reginald Peacock is less empathetic than his wife from the get go, whose point of view we don’t see at all. Reginald is clearly an unreliable narrator. He imagines his wife wakes him up deliberately, but only because the world revolves around Reginald, not because his wife has a full-time ob of her own, and housework really was a fulltime job back in the early 1900s.

Reginald Peacock embodies a number of deadly sins: sloth, vanity, quiet wrath of his own wife. He is clearly envious of the aristocratic acquaintance who asks his children to shake their father’s hand each morning, and comically tries to gain the same respect from his own son by instituting the practice in his own household. He’s basically a comically depicted flaneur. I have a feeling Mansfield was surrounded by flaneurs in her adult lifetime, hanging around with artists and poets. She was also involved in theatre and acting, so I wager she knew a few Reginald Peacocks in real life.

Mansfield has Reginald self-describing himself as a bird, and how his wife clips his wings, which is a bit of an inversion because it’s most commonly women who are described as birds in fiction and art. I almost forgot for a second that peacocks are a bird. Perhaps the peacock is one of the few masculinised birds in fiction, outshadowing the peahens because of their highly decorative plumage. Mansfield didn’t exactly shy away from describing her female characters as birds. I guess Mansfield was equal opportunity on that score. By the way, what do you call the technique of comparing a human to an animal? If it happens the other way round we call it personification, so I’m going for animalification. At one point, Reginald Peacock is also likened to a frog. (He’s doing his daily exercises.) This is interesting because there’s a particular frog-person archetype which is basically the middle-aged equivalent of the younger peacock. (Peacocks are beautiful, like youth; frogs not so much.)

Apart from the seven deadly sins, at first glance Reginald seems prone to coveting, about to breakone of the Christian commandments, first by fantasising about the latest and most beguiling of his female students. The word ‘latest’ is key here, because these women are not fully rounded in Reginald’s mind. So long as they fit his outsourced image of a desirable woman any one of them could easily be exchanged… and oh, they are, as Mansfield demonstrates with one woman after another. Ostensibly this works because Reginald sees a succession of women over the course of his working day. Aenone Fell, Miss Betty Brittle, the Countess Wilkowska, Miss Marian Morrow. The job fits him well: constant novelty all day, and the opportunity to perform in front of a revolving audience. None of these women has the time to get utterly sick of him.

Charles-Dufresne-The-Peacock-of-Versailles
Charles Dufresne, The Peacock of Versailles

DESIRE

Reginald wants to be the star of his own show, leading a better life than the one he already has. As happens to the best of us, reality punctures his romanticism. For Reginald, it wouldn’t matter who he married, the day-to-day familiarity of his partner would be the killer. Reginald is all about cultivating and seeking out novelty, constantly drawn to mystery.

Common Peacock, Ringed Pheasant, Horned Pheasant, and Silver Pheasant from A history of the earth and animated nature (1820) by Oliver Goldsmith

OPPONENT

The wife remains mindfully unnamed. She goes without a name because she exists as a function to Reginald, not as a human in her own right.

These days, to go without naming a put-upon wife in a story opens the writer up to challenges of sexism. I prefer to trust readers. There’s a darn good reason why Mansfield hasn’t named the wife, but has fully named Reginald , as well as his younger female ‘love’ interests. It’s evidence of his dismissal of her. But this naming avoidance also universalises the wife.

Gaspar Camps (1874-1942) peacock fashion
Gaspar Camps (1874-1942), woman staring at a peacock feather whill wearing a costume that makes her look like a peacock.

PLAN

In a flashback we learn that the wife has learned to deal with Reginald by immersing herself in the day-to-day running of their household. Reginald earns enough to keep her and their son, and in an era of no social security, this was something.

I think most people have the ability to unsee things if it’s to our detriment. It would be to the wife’s emotional advantage if she were to occasionally play along with Reginald’s games. A number of Mansfield’s short stories end with a female character seeing something (perhaps with the fling of the boot, in this case), then mindfully disregarding it. “Her First Ball” is an excellent example of that. The ‘temporary epiphany’ (more commonly known as ‘phantasmagoric’) is a feature of Impressionist fiction, though contemporary short story writers regularly use it, too. As one example, Helen Simpson utilised the phantasmagoric epiphany in her modern climate change story “In-flight Entertainment“. Climate change is the ultimate ‘look away’ example of our times.

Reginald seems to have some kind of phantasmagoric epiphany in this story though goodness knows what it is. I’m sure it’s only champagne-induced.

We get no insight whatsoever into the psychology of Mrs Reginald Peacock. I am relying heavily on Mansfield’s oeuvre when trying to deduce her motivations.

Reginald himself doesn’t have much of a plan other than to reluctantly be broomed about by his wife, then quietly seeths about her while fantasising about other women. If you can call that a plan.

By Warwick Goble (1862-1943)--'Hundreds of peacocks of gorgeous plumes came to the embankments to eat the khai.'- Ill. f. Folk-tales of Bengal, Lal Behari Day (1912)
By Warwick Goble (1862-1943)–‘Hundreds of peacocks of gorgeous plumes came to the embankments to eat the khai.’- Ill. f. Folk-tales of Bengal, Lal Behari Day (1912)

BIG STRUGGLE

It’s pretty unpleasant being stuck for a (short-story-length) day with this pair, who clearly despise each other. (At least, Reginald despises her.) And we don’t get any big fight scene, either. The scene where Reginald comes home drunk is truncated, or perhaps that’s all that happens before husband and wife drift off to sleep.

1920 ad for fragrant Florient Flowers of the Orient beauty products, from Colgate & Company peacock
1920 ad for fragrant Florient Flowers of the Orient beauty products, from Colgate & Company peacock

ANAGNORISIS

In Christianity the peacock is considered a symbol of rebirth, but there’s no such rebirth here. Mansfield clearly isn’t using that particular aspect of peacock symbolism. Reginald starts out lazy, self-absorbed and vain, and ends the same way.

It’s possible that his wife finally had a gutsful of the guy and experienced a self-revelation of her own. But we don’t get to hear her response. (And I don’t imagine that’s how it went down. See below.)

Arthur Wardle - A Fairytale, All seemed to sleep, the timid hare on form, Walter Scott 1895
Arthur Wardle – A Fairytale, All seemed to sleep, the timid hare on form, Walter Scott 1895

NEW SITUATION

However, there’s one small shift that happens at the end, and that wholly resides within me (and I assume in other readers). I see what Reginald’s wife must have initially seen in him, and how she might put up with him still. To be clear, it’s not evident that she does put up with him. This was an era in which a married woman with a child was economically and socially unable to leave her husband. But when Reginald draws her into his own game for a moment, even after scaring her with the clunk of his flung boot, he says, “Dear lady, I should be so charmed–so charmed!” and I’m reminded of the ending of another Mansfield short story, “A Blaze“. At the end of “A Blaze”, husband and wife (Elsa and Victor) come together in what I consider an amae relationship, in which one person loves to be ‘babied’ by the other. Both get a lot of reward from it. (The Japanese concept has far more to it than that.)

If “A Blaze” had been published after “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” I’d have guessed that the marriage dynamic in “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” were a practice story for the more sophisticated but similar relationships in “A Blaze”. In fact, “A Blaze” is the earlier story.

EXTRAPOLATION

The title “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” suggests this is a typical day-in-the-life-of story, not an extraordinary one.

Wouldn’t you like to know how (if) Reginald’s wife responded? I want her to throw his other boot at his head, but I doubt that happened. I suspect this is one of those relationships where it’s fight fight all day, kiss kiss at night.

But I don’t know. My prior reading experience of “A Blaze” is colouring my interpretation of Mr Reginald Peacock’s marriage. Sticking only to this particular story, my best evidence for a peaceful reunion is the darkness. Reginald is clearly a night person, preferring to sleep into the day and partying at night. When he returns home to his wife, he can’t see her through the darkness. Aided by liquor and by the fantasy life he’s been living all evening without her, the darkness itself might provide sufficient mystery for him to pretend his wife is not his wife, but a more mysterious and alluring member of his cast. In turn, she might imagine Reginald is not Reginald.

RESONANCE

Even today, highlighted by the 2020 pandemic, the work traditionally expected of women has less social and economic value attached to it than work traditionally done by men. Today, much of women’s work is also invisibilised. I’ve wondered at times if the housewives of the early 20th century at least had their work considered proper work, even though they weren’t personally recompensed, of course.

Mansfield’s 1917 creation of Mr Reginald Peacock is the painfully comic portrait of a man who sort of does consider the running of a house ‘work’ but sort of actually doesn’t at all. We know this because he encourages his wife to hire someone (while also making it impossible for her to keep anyone). The hiring of help is more about status for himself rather than help for his wife. Reginald’s his cognitive dissonance is right there on the page, because when his wife requires him to get out of bed by late morning, and to let her know if he won’t be in for his evening meal, he clearly disrespects the job she is doing.

This short story shows that in the first half twentieth century, while housework and childcare were indeed considered a fulltime job, the cognitive dissonance of husbands infuriated women, even temporarily married and child free women like Katherine Mansfield: Wifely work was proper work — invaluable! — but not valued.

Elizabeth Shippen Green, early 20th Century American illustrator threading needle
Elizabeth Shippen Green, early 20th Century American illustrator threading needle peacock

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Home » Katherine Mansfield

Header illustration: ‘Le Soir’, a decorative panel by Camille Martin (1861-1898)

Loneliness in Art and Storytelling

Edward Hopper Nighthawks

There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on […] Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive.

Toni Morrison

Best cure for loneliness is solitude.

Marianne Moore
The Lone Ranger Annual 1953
The Lone Ranger Annual 1953. To be alone is not synonymous with ‘lonely’.

Edward Hopper was a master at depicting loneliness with paint. The sense of isolation is achieved with colour and composition. Eyes don’t meet, or not at the same time. Body language is closed off. Figures are small inside vast spaces, their heads far from the top of the canvas. They gaze from windows as if longing for connection. Edward Hopper did not call this emotion ‘loneliness’, however:

Why did Hopper not want to talk about loneliness? Perhaps he wanted to avoid conflating ‘loneliness’ with ‘isolation’ and in this he was right, as shown by more recent psychological research.

There is only a weak correlation between social isolation (not seeing others) and loneliness, so we don’t necessarily need to fear becoming lonely.

Holly Walker
Edward Hopper (American, 1882 – 1967) Solitude, 1944. Even a house can look lonely.
Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927

“Liverpool Art & Illustration – markmyink” has this to say about Hopper’s Automat painting:

Automats were open at all hours of the day and were also ‘busy, noisy and anonymous. They served more than ten thousand customers a day.’ Moreover, the woman is sitting in the least congenial spot in the entire restaurant for introspection.

‘They were clean, efficient, well-lit and – typically furnished with round Carrera marble tables and solid oak chairs like those shown here – genteel.’

By the time Hopper painted his picture, automats had begun to be promoted as safe and proper places for the working woman to dine alone.

Edward Hopper was influenced by a number of artists including Martin Lewis.

Martin Lewis
Martin Lewis

Phil Lockwood, who used to teach art in Sheffield, took Hopper’s famous painting of the lonely American diner and zoomed out to offer a peopled view. Do you think he’s removed the loneliness, or is it still there?

Phil Lockwood

Artist David Inshaw’s image below has a loneliness to it.

David Inshaw (b.1943) She Did Not Turn, 1974, rainbow
David Inshaw (b.1943) She Did Not Turn, 1974

Images of young women and girls with their backs turned to the viewer, contemplating a single building in the middle distance are reminiscent of a famous 1948 painting called Christina’s world by painter Andrew Wyeth.

Christina's World painting, Andrew Wyeth 1948
Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, 1948

Artists and filmmakers have been creating pastiches of this lonely work since then.

And here are some men alone on an open plain. Archetypal scenes of the Western.

Another artist who depicts loneliness is O. Louis Guglielmi. The painting below includes a girl playing alone, an empty chair on a balcony and a street mostly devoid of decoration.

O. Louis Guglielmi, South Street Stoop, 1935.
O. Louis Guglielmi, South Street Stoop, 1935.
When I go to the MOON illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, 1961
When I go to the MOON illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, 1961
Loneliness is dangerous, Ed Vebell, 1955
Loneliness is dangerous, Ed Vebell, 1955. The accent colour of red separates the woman from her background. Another woman also wears red. This could be her, but it’s not. Seeing another version of herself only heightens the sense of loneliness. ‘Heightens’. She’s standing on a precarious balcony.

Alain de Botton doesn’t like the concept of ‘single’ versus ‘in a relationship’. He instead prefers to think of ‘connected’ people and ‘disconnected’ people. This makes more sense because you can still feel lonely even when ‘in a relationship’. Simply having people nearby doesn’t quell loneliness; it really is all about connection.

John Knapp-Fisher (1931 – 2015) Figure in the Street

A CATEGORISATION OF LONELINESS

Not everyone means the same thing when talking about loneliness. Until now, most research on loneliness has focused on social isolation. Yet social isolation and feeling lonely aren’t the same at all. Loneliness most often derives from the experience of feeling like you are different from the people around you and also misunderstood by them.

At The Spinoff, Holly Walker explains the following categories:

  1. EMOTIONAL LONELINESS: related to the lack or loss of an intimate other
  2. SOCIAL LONELINESS: feeling unconnected to a wider social network, such as friends, family, and neighbours
  3. EXISTENTIAL LONELINESS: related to a feeling of lacking meaning and purpose in life.

A good example of a story about existential loneliness: Taxi Driver. Tagline: On every street in every city in this country, there is a nobody who dreams of being a somebody. I believe this particular type of ‘loneliness’ is connected to the feeling that no one is paying attention to you. In stories it frequently leads to a character doing something for attention.

On the subcategorisation of social and emotional types of loneliness, a paper entitled “Who are the lonely? A typology of loneliness in New Zealand” breaks social connectedness into four different profiles. One of its authors spoke with Jim Mora on Radio New Zealand:

  1. HIGH LONELINESS (5.7%). This group comprise the most introverted, emotionally unstable and score poorest in wellbeing. This is a much smaller percentage than some other loneliness studies would suggest, but it depends where researchers draw the loneliness line. Chronic loneliness has a very real effect on health, affecting every kind of mortality, impacting sleep.
  2. LOW LONELINESS (57.9%). These people don’t really feel lonely at all. This NZ percentage reflects UK and USA statistics.
  3. APPRECIATED OUTSIDERS (29.1%) Appreciated outsiders receive acceptance from others but feel like social outsiders. These people experience experience and support in the social connections that they do have.
  4. SUPERFICIALLY CONNECTED (7.2%) The superficially connected are the opposite to ‘Appreciated outsiders’. They have many ‘friends’ but do not enjoy close connections with many or any of them. This group had moderate wellbeing, but ‘appreciated outsiders’ are relatively higher in wellbeing despite greater introversion and neuroticism.
Cover design and illustration by Sydney Leff, 1932 loneliness
Cover design and illustration by Sydney Leff, 1932

Hannah Hawkins-Elder explains that in reality loneliness is more of a spectrum because all of us feel lonely at different times. Loneliness forces us to seek social connection, so this is an important emotion, drawing us back into society.

This song feels a bit like an updated version of Eleanor Rigby with its character sketches of loneliness.
From 'Kiss my Tears Away' - True Life Library, 1965. Designer unknown lonely
From ‘Kiss my Tears Away’ – True Life Library, 1965. Artist not yet found.

LONELINESS AND AGE

Young adults (18-24 year olds) tend to score highest on loneliness in general, followed by the elderly and people with chronic health issues, neurodiversities and similar. British people feel most alone at the average age of 37, which may be quite an arbitrary age.

People look to social media for encouraging loneliness in young people. Social media enables a high quantity of friends but does not encourage authenticity. It’s easier to wear a mask online. We see everyone’s well-lit shop window on the Internet, not their messy storerooms. That said, social media apps are changing in a way which aims to do a better job at fostering authentic connections online, for example by encouraging sharing and chat between smaller groups of people who know each other well.

The 18-24 age is a very liminal, volatile time when we are still forging our own identities. We are quite often leaving home or moving cities, starting new work where we lack confidence. Connecting with others has the prerequisite for finding your people, so we must all understand who we are as people before forging deep, close personal connections. This takes time, and social media aside, may explain why young people are the loneliest demographic. However, this theory requires more research.

LONELINESS AND THE MOON

Cover design and illustration by Sydney Leff, 1926 Are You Lonesome Tonight
Cover design and illustration by Sydney Leff, 1926 Are You Lonesome Tonight

In images and stories about loneliness, the moon often features large in the background. This connection goes back a long way. “To the Moon” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is an ode to the moon, functioning as a symbol of loneliness.

A companion to Shelley’s poem would be the children’s book Owl At Home by Arnold Lobel.

Why might the moon be so connected to loneliness? When we are far from loved ones and look up at the moon we know that those separated from us are also seeing the same object. The moon is one of the few objects which can unite humankind. I speculate that this feeling is related to a psychological experience known as The Overview Effect.

LONELINESS IN FICTION

LONELINESS AND THE IMAGINATION

Other people are so necessary to our mental health that when we have no people around us, we start to hallucinate.

Some of the most compelling descriptions of sensed presences come from lone sailors, mountain climbers, and Arctic explorers who have experienced hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. In one amazing 1895 incident, Joshua Slocum, the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat singlehandedly, said he saw and spoke with the pilot of Christopher Columbus’s ship The Pinta. Slocum claimed that the pilot steered his boat through heavy weather as he lay ill with food poisoning.

Psychology Today
LONELINESS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

“I’m lonely,” she said.
The old gardener pushed his cap back on his bald head and stared at her a minute.
“Art tha’ th’ little wench from India?” he asked.
Mary nodded.
“Then no wonder tha’rt lonely. Tha’lt be lonelier before tha’s done,” he said.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

All stories about friendship start from a place of loneliness. Since many children’s stories are about friendship, many start off with lonely main characters. This explains why the trope of the child moving houses is so enduring — everyone is lonely when they move to a new place, faced with the daunting task of starting friendships from scratch.

  • Lucy Pevensie is alienated from her older siblings for having a wild imagination but by the end of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe she is a fully included equal.
  • Fern is alienated from her farming family The Arables for caring too much about pigs, but soon makes barnyard friends. Initially her mother is worried about this, but the doctor reassures the mother that animal friends are just fine. Whatever it takes to quell the loneliness.
  • Picture books are less about loneliness than middle grade literature, though all small children experience a kind of loneliness after being required to sleep alone in their own bed. There exist many Western picture books about that particular experience. Tropes include monsters under the bed and imaginative trips into the night, with carnivalesque guests who may or may not be imaginary. The postmodern picture books of Anthony Browne have a lonely aesthetic (see for example Gorilla), though these picture books tend to appeal to an older audience.
  • Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli is a picture book which ostensibly ends happily because a lonely man is appreciated by his wider community despite the revelation that a box of chocolates from a secret Valentine was not meant for him at all. However, I’m not consoled by this ending. Mr Hatch is your classic ‘appreciated outsider’ who is clearly in want of a lover.
Vasily Perov (1833 – 1882)

There is an unwritten rule in children’s stories that empathetic young characters cannot remain lonely. Lane Moore wrote The Art of Being Alone for adults, and in this interview she talks about all the reading she did as a kid, in which every lonely character ended up with a loving home, from Anne of Green Gables to Matilda. This didn’t reflect Moore’s own childhood experience of loneliness, which continues into adulthood. So perhaps we need revise that unwritten rule.

In his collection Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness, Richard Yates includes a short story about a boy who starts at a new school and becomes ostracised by his peers, helped to fit in by his well-meaning young teacher. So far, so good — you might read it to your child and they’d understand every beat. But why is “Glutton For Punishment” a short story for adults? By the end this young boy has lost the support of his teacher as well as his peers. His loneliness looks set to continue. We don’t accept that ending in stories for children, which must end with hope and at least one friend to quell the interminable loneliness.

Károly Ferenczy (Hungarian, 1862 - 1917) Divorce, 1892
Károly Ferenczy (Hungarian, 1862 – 1917) Divorce, 1892
LONELINESS AND FICTIONAL MEN

We would rather electrocute ourselves than spend time in our own thoughts. This was demonstrated in a controversial 2014 study in which 67 per cent of male participants and 25 per cent of female participants opted to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks rather than spend 15 minutes in peaceful contemplation. I would like to know why so many more male participants than female participants preferred the electric shocks.

Like children’s stories, many fictional narratives for adults are also about loneliness followed by a happy ending of friendship, though in stories for adults, some stories end on loneliness, with no relief in sight. This marks a difference between the sort of narrative accepted for adult readership versus those accepted for child readership. A story which begins and ends with loneliness is considered a tragedy.

Hud based on the novel by Larry McMurtry is a good example of that kind of tragedy.

Hud is an excellent example of a character who cannot form deep connections because he plays by the rules of toxic masculinity. He cannot form a close connection with a woman because he uses them and assaults them. He cannot form a close connection with his father because he is in direct competition with him for patriarchal control of the farm. Ditto for his nephew, who initially looks up to him.

The Wrestler is another excellent peek into male loneliness, though again, this story is a tragedy.

There’s another type of story which so far predominantly stars men: The story of the man who gets himself a doll. There are two standout examples of this in film: Her and Lars and the Real Girl.

Charles Spencelayh (British, 1865 – 1958) The Empty Chair, 1947. The visual motif of the empty chair is also used in The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers.
Jacques Maes (Belgian,1905 - 1964) Breakfast
Jacques Maes (Belgian,1905 – 1964) Breakfast
THE SPECIFIC LONELINESS OF THE MIDDLE AGED WOMAN

The “Sex Machine” episode of the Hidden Brain podcast outlines the history of sex objects, going back to Prometheus who created humanity from clay. Likewise, Pygmalion seemed to enjoy fashioning women to his own tastes (he carved a woman out of ivory) and we see the influence of that ancient myth in modern storytelling.

Most middle-aged women are surrounded by people, partly because of the extra caregiving duties experienced by women in midlife (for both children and elderly parents) and also because more women tend to work in people-oriented roles such as nursing and teaching and human resources.

Though she didn’t use this terminology, Irish author Marian Keyes explained on the How To Fail podcast that she feels like an appreciated outsider much of the time, and the main character of Grown Ups is also an appreciated outsider, a fifty-year-old woman who gets social gatherings organised, pays for them, does the dishes at a party and ultimately feels a little like she is buying her friends by performing all this labour.

There’s a teacher archetype who fits into the appreciated outsider category. Richard Yates also includes one of these types of loneliness in his Eleven Kinds of Loneliness collection. “Fun With A Stranger” is the character study of an end-of-career teacher who does not know how to connect with her students, though she tries to with the best of intentions. Though told from the point of view of a student, this woman’s loneliness shines through. A teacher is a prime example of a person surrounded by people, but because of the need for emotional distancing, and due to the intensity of the job, I suspect appreciated outsiders can be found in schools everywhere.

The loneliness of the performer is similar. Surrounded by people, the performer is nonetheless alone on their stage.

Michael Sowa, a German painter from Berlin
illustration by Michael Sowa, a German painter from Berlin

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is a popular contemporary novel about a thirty-year-old woman so lonely she attempts to take her own life. The ideological issues of this novel are covered in detail here. (Is there something lonely-sounding about the name Eleanor? Cf. Eleanor Rigby.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is often compared to Eleanor Oliphant. She does something very odd to avoid scrutiny as an unmarried woman nearing middle age. But was she ever really lonely? The Convenience Store Woman partners up with someone she doesn’t even really like, and immediately discovers she is now accepted by mainstream society. No one cares if they’re good together; they only care that she’s partnered. Now they can regard her as Normal.

I’d like to read a story that ends with this particular anagnorisis, and Convenience Store Woman comes pretty close to it:

There are far too many absolute cinnamon rolls who are unhappily alone, and waaaaaaaay too many selfish jerks celebrating golden wedding anniversaries and stinking up R/relationships to ever conclude that romantic love is distributed fairly according to merit.

Captain Awkward
LONELINESS AND KATHERINE MANSFIELD

Katherine Mansfield wrote many lonely women across her short stories. Standouts include:

  • Miss Brill, who sits on her on in a park and imagines social connectedness by making up backstories about complete strangers, then returns to her room with the new understanding that she is probably too old to be married and must remain forever alone.
  • Linda Burnell of the Prelude trilogy is a mother living in a three-generational household yet remains interminably lonely, perhaps due to post-natal depression or similar. Beryl is unmarried and romantically lonely, though I’d argue she is less lonely than Linda, who is married to hapless Stanley. Beryl knows how to console herself with her imaginative powers.
  • Pearl Button is playing alone in her front yard but enjoys a lovely social day after she is whisked away by some Maori women.
  • In “The Doll’s House“, two girls are ostracised due to their lower social class. The sisters still have each other, however. We can extrapolate that their exclusion will forge a stronger sisterly bond.
  • A Dill Pickle” is another story about an unwed woman living in genteel poverty, but she is not so lonely that she will marry just anyone.
  • The Escape” features a married couple who live on different emotional planets.
  • In “The Tiredness of Rosabel“, Rosabel goes through her life surrounded by people but utterly alone and hungry. This story highlights the inherent loneliness of a large city.
  • Psychology” is a more uplifting story because an unmarried woman seems to have found a way to deal with sexual loneliness, and it involves more than one person.

The song by Charlotte Cardin below is about the specific loneliness of being the ‘other’ girl rather than a guy’s ‘main girl’. Stories generally feature, centre and create empathy for ‘the main girl’, and Cardin wanted to tell the other side for a change.

So often in books, or in movies, one character looks at another character and understands in a precise way what that person is feeling. So often in real life, one person wants to be understood, but obscures her feelings with unrelated words and facial expressions, while the other person is trying to remember whether she did or didn’t turn off the burner under the hard-boiled eggs.

Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

FURTHER READING

“And there is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf; and that one must respect, thought Clarissa, watching him open the door; for one would not part with it oneself, or take it, against his will, from one’s husband, without losing one’s independence, one’s self-respect—something, after all, priceless.”

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art.

Moving fluidly between the works and lives of some of the city’s most compelling artists, Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed.

Growing up is always hard, but especially when so many think you’re a washed-up has-been at twenty-two.

Jena Chung plays the violin. She was once a child prodigy and is now addicted to sex. She’s struggling a little. Her professional life comprises rehearsals, concerts, auditions and relentless practice; her personal life is spent managing family demands, those of her creative friends, and lots of sex. Jena is selfish, impulsive and often behaves badly, though mostly only to her own detriment. And then she meets Mark – much older and worldly-wise – who bewitches her. Could this be love?

When Jena wins an internship with the New York Philharmonic, she thinks the life she has dreamed of is about to begin. But when Trump is elected, New York changes irrevocably and Jena along with it. Is the dream over? With echoes of Frances Ha, Jena’s favourite film, truths are gradually revealed to her. Jena comes to learn that there are many different ways to live and love and that no one has the how-to guide for any of it – not even her indomitable mother.

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing explores the confusion of having expectations upturned, and the awkwardness and pain of being human in our increasingly dislocated world – and how, in spite of all this, we still try to become the person we want to be.

The Haunting of Shirley Jackson: Emily Alford on the hazards of loneliness seen in Shirley Jackson’s books and the ways recent film adaptations have missed the mark.

RELATED TO LONELINESS

Adronitis: Frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone.

Anecdoche: A conversation in which everyone is talking but no one is listening.

Exulansis: The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.

Kenopsia: The eerie, forlordn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.

Mauerbauertraurigkeit: The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.

Nodus Tollens: The realisation that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore.

Onism: The frustration of being stuck in just one body, inhabiting only one place at a time.

FURTHER READING

Books about Loneliness from the University of Miami Picturebook Database

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Home » Katherine Mansfield

Symbolism Of Ships and Boats In Literature

‘The Tyger Voyage’ by Richard Adams, illustrated by a Nicola Bayley (1976) ship in a cove

Ships, boats and other sea vessels are symbolically significant across literature. How are they used and what do they symbolise?

NOAH’S ARK

If Noah’s Ark existed, it would have looked more like a massive floating crate than like a storybook boat, but illustrators clearly enjoy creating a more aesthetically pleasing ship.

Spring clean on Noah’s Ark, 1925 by William Heath Robinson, 1872 to 1944

THE FRAILTY OF HUMAN ENDEAVOUR

Just as the image of billowing sails against a backdrop of clear sky can evoke these ideals of liberty and human ingenuity, the life at sea, at the mercy of Nature, is one very much grounded in age-old tradition and deep-seated superstition. As in both “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Byron’s “Darkness”, the austere images of stranded and wrecked ships serve as grim reminders of the essential frailty of the human endeavor.

Ships (“Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Darkness”)

SHIP AS METONYM FOR COLONIAL INVADERS

Metonymy: when a word, name, or expression is used as a substitute for something else closely associated. For example, Canberra is a metonym for the Australian government.

“This ship…is England. So it’s every hand to his rope or gun. Quick’s the word and sharp’s the action! After all, surprise is on our side.”

Master & Commander

WHITE SAILS, BLACK SAILS

In the Ancient Greek myth about Minotaur, King Minos and the Labyrinth of Crete, Theseus, son of Aegeus decided to be one of the seven young men that would go to Crete. He planned to kill the Minotaur and end the human sacrifices to the monster.

Theseus promised his father King Aegeus that he would put up white sails coming back from Crete, allowing him to know in advance that he was coming back alive. The boat would return with the black sails if Theseus was killed.

Theseus did manage to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne’s thread he managed to retrace his way out. Unfortunately, Theseus was not a great person. He left Ariadne behind on the shore even though she saved his life, and was so drunk after celebrating his victory that he forgot to change the sails. His father therefore saw the ship approaching and assumed his son was dead. King Aegeus suicided by drowing himself in the sea, now called the Aegean Sea.

The premature, completely unnecessary suicide is utilised in a number of modern stories including The Mist by Stephen King and in one of the stories of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, directed by the Coen Brothers.

BOATS AND THE HUMAN BODY

In the most general sense, a ‘vehicle’. Bachelard notes that there are a great many references in literature testifying that the boat is the cradle rediscovered (and the mother’s womb). There is also a connexion between the boat and the human body.

A Dictionary of Symbols, J.E. Cirlot

SHIPS AND BOATS AS SECOND HOMES

Most people like paintings of ships. You probably know someone with a painting of a ship on their wall. Perhaps we like to imagine the adventure promised by ships… but only while cosied up inside our own safe homes.

Harald Skogsberg depicts a cosy family mealtime, with a painting of a ship on the wall of the dining room.

The painting below by N.C. Wyeth is a wonderful chimera of the Dream Boat (apologies to Gaston Bachelard). Ships and boats featured prominently in 20th century literature aimed at boys. “Imagination” is an amalgamation of the main seafaring archetypes:

"Imagination", N.C. Wyeth, 1922.
“Imagination”, N.C. Wyeth. The boy is Wyeth’s son. Originally published as a Ladies Home Journal magazine cover for March of 1922.

(The following year, Norman Rockwell painted Lands of Enchantment, perhaps inspired by Wyeth’s cover.)

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The Little Governess by Katherine Mansfield

George Dunlop Leslie - Roses

“The Little Governess” (1915) is one of the most functionally useful stories Katherine Mansfield wrote. It’s a cautionary tale without the Perrault didacticism. It’s Little Red Riding Hood, but social realism. This story exists to say, “You’re not alone.” It’s a gendered story, about the specifically femme experience of being alone in public space. Some critics find the ending inadequate. This is a stellar example of a lyrical short story with emotional closure but no plot closure. And it only succeeds in offering emotional closure if the reader can identify with the experience.

Tricksters, villains and criminals are everywhere in narrative. But throughout storytelling, across history the femme seule must deal with a particular subcategory of predator: The sexually predatory trickster. “The Little Governess” is Mansfield’s treatment of that particular dynamic.

Though this story is over 100 years old, it hasn’t dated as much as we might have hoped. Have you ever got a bad feeling about somebody but didn’t want to seem rude, so went along with their plan anyway? “The Little Governess” is a case study into why a young woman might ignore her instincts and find herself isolated.

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Poison by Katherine Mansfield

F.X. Leyendecker (brother of J.C. Leyendecker)- Rachel Peace

Poison” (1920) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, the last in the Something Childish and Other Stories collection, published by Middleton Murry four years later, after her death. Commentators have noticed veiled references to “My Last Duchess“, a poem by Robert Browning about a murderous duke. Browning’s poem in turn is based on popular imaginings surrounding historical events involving Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the 16th century.

Literary and Historical Allusions

In Browning’s dramatic monologue of a poem, a duke is showing a visitor around his castle. They stop in front of a painting of his dead young wife and the story becomes ekphrastic. At first the duke describes his dead wife in glowing terms. But as the poem progresses, we are meant to realise it was the duke who killed her. This is the story of a coercively controlling man. He didn’t like how his wife flirted with everyone (according to him). The poem is especially disturbing because the visitor has arrived to negotiate the duke’s marriage to yet another young woman, and we extrapolate that he may kill her, too. It’s basically a Bluebeard story.

Likewise, the real Duke of Ferrara may have been a Bluebeard figure of the Italian Renaissance. He married three times and never had children. Some historians think he may have poisoned his first wife when she was just 17. His next wife died from tuberculosis, but the third outlived him. But who else might the Duke of Ferrara have poisoned? These powerful men lived in an era of unmitigated power.

Browning forces his reader to become involved in his poem in order to understand it, and Mansfield asks the same of us in “Poison”. What’s going on behind the words? Who is wearing the mask?

When it comes to the turbulence of emotional valence, some commentators are reminded of “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats. In Keats’ poem, as in “Poison”, a character is almost tortured by the extent of their own happiness. (Happiness as anguish.) The character is anguished because they know a deliriously happy moment can never last. It’s always punctured by something.

Oh, God! What torture happiness was — what anguish!

Connection To Mansfield’s Own Life

It’s difficult to separate the author from her work. Some Katherine Mansfield biographers feel that “Poison” is covertly about her relationship with John Middleton Murry, Mansfield’s long-term male partner. They were pretty turbulent as a couple.

I’m reluctant to go there myself, because writing “Poison” may have simply been a cathartic act. Perhaps Mansfield read Browning’s poem and imagined that one of his wives killed him off instead. There’s certainly plenty to be angry about when it comes to partner violence. Mansfield may have been doing an Angela Carter, who turned victimhood of “Bluebeard” right around in her re-visioning of the archetypal tale: Carter called hers “The Bloody Chamber“.

Significantly, the fictional newspaper article in this story flips the general feminine connection to death by poison, because this time it is a man who may have poisoned his wife:

Either some man did or didn’t murder his wife, and twenty thousand people have sat in court every day and two million words have been wired all over the world after each proceeding.

SETTING OF “POISON”

France is synonymous with romantic stories, then as it is now. A villa in Southern France is the perfect setting for this guy to carry out his romantic fantasies.

Mansfield paints a setting but in words, and the words she uses put us in mind of Impressionist paintings. A good description of an Impressionist painting: It’s like you only got a glimpse of a scene. You are left with an overall ‘impression’, rather than fleshed out details, as in a dream.

There’s a lot of white, a lot of green in the setting of this story. We’re seeing this image through tulle (net) curtains. We’re shown moonlight, shadows, lamps, twilight in the narrator’s imagination.

Apart from the flowers and birds (commonly used across Mansfield’s short stories), Mansfield chooses two details of the environment which come up more than once and are therefore probably motifs: the blue beetle and the pearl ring Beatrice wears on her third finger.

Pearls are found in oysters — hard to crack open. Pearls suggest containment and also working hard for rich reward. Over the course of “Poison” our narrator prizes Beatrice open a little. Ignoring subconscious misgivings, he continues to see her beauty shining from within.

The motif of the blue beetle is less clear to me. Mansfield may be talking about the Hoplia coerulea, found in humid environments, generally near a stream or a swamp, in Southern France and Northern Spain.

the blue beetle mentioned in Poison
Hoplia coerulea. Males are a more striking blue than females.

The narrator may be focusing on the beetle as a strategy to avoid dwelling on his deep fear that Beatrice is pretty far from perfect. A beetle can also look a bit like a pearl — especially certain iridescent beetles, especially when light hits them, say through net curtains on a sunshiny day. The beetle might almost be the grotesque symbolic equivalent of the pearl. The difference is that beetles crawl/fly away, whereas Beatrice’s pearl is stuck to her finger forever.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “POISON”?

With nothing else to do apart from walking around and eating snacks, two upper-class characters return to their hotel in the South of France after a walk and a poke around the shops. A servant called Annette brings them food. They wait around for the post. This is all from the point of view of an unnamed male narrator. His companion is Beatrice, a twice-before married woman who he is over-the-top smitten with.

The entire story is framed around an ironic ticking clock: the pair of them are waiting for something, actually nothing, to arrive (in the post).

“”Who? The silly old postman? But you’re not expecting a letter.”

“No, but it’s maddening all the same…

I believe ‘waiting around for the post’ is a metaphor for the narrator ‘waiting around for something to happen in his life, more generally’. By the end of the story the reader is waiting for the penny to drop with him.

Otherwise, this storytelling decision perplexes me a little. Mansfield introduces what we might deem ‘false suspense’ with all that waiting around for post. Because when the post arrives, it’s not some amazing life-changing letter, but is simply the newspaper, which they surely get everyday and is therefore not a surprise. An article in the newspaper leads to a semi-revelation for our narrator, although in true literary Impressionist form, he doesn’t have any major breakthrough. It simply sets him thinking.

Just before the newspaper arrives, conversation has turned to the couple’s future together. The narrator wants to marry Beatrice. But Beatrice remains unknowable, to both the narrator and to us. The basic worldview of Impressionists went like this: People don’t really change very much. Plus, there’s no such thing as the veridical truth of a situation anyway. We can only ever view the world through our own particular prisms. This is especially true when it comes to relationships. Two people in the ‘same’ relationship experience completely different versions of it.

Throughout “Poison”, Mansfield is playing with the various permutations of the word ‘poison’. First the narrator has a cigarette, both deliciously necessary but also a type of poison.

There are times when a cigarette is just the very one thing that will carry you over the moment. It is more than a confederate, even; it is a secret, perfect little friend who knows all about it and understands absolutely. While you smoke you look down at it — smile or frown, as the occasion demands; you inhale deeply and expel the smoke in a slow fan. This was one of those moments.

Mansfield doesn’t touch on the criminal meaning until the newspaper is opened and read literal as in ‘putting something into someone’s food and then watching for them die in agony’.

Instead she encourages us to go there ourselves, by delving into the metaphorical meaning, in which it’s possible to poison someone invisibly. We could apply plenty of modern terms to describe this form of poisoning within a relationship: Passive aggression, emotional withdrawal, coercive control… We never hear any backstory about Beatrice’s former relationships so we don’t know the exact nature of the ‘poisoning’. We don’t even know Beatrice’s degree of culpability. However, Mansfield makes use of symbolism to give Beatrice the appearance of innocence:

She was dressed in white, with pearls round her throat and lilies-of-the-valley tucked into her belt.

Mansfield was very aware of the symbolism around flowers. Unlike lilies, lilies of the valley most often symbolise chastity, purity, happiness and humility.

This 1927 painting of Lilies of the Valley (by Malcolm Milne) isn’t sexual at all. Lilies of the valley don’t look anything like the archetypal lily. Lilies of the valley are not lilies. They belong to the Asparagaceae family (yes, related to garden asparagus). However, unlike asparagus, the lily of the valley can be poisonous when ingested causing abdominal pain, blurred vision, drowsiness, and reduced heart rate. I believe this is a slightly hidden layer of poison Mansfield makes use of in this short story.

The white dress emphasises Beatrice’s innocence, and the reader will think of a wedding dress, and its associations with virginity.

Charles Courtney Curran (1861-1942) American — three young women wearing white dresses

We are therefore surprised when Mansfield reveals that Beatrice has already been married twice. (This makes her a ‘fast woman’ for the era.) The flowers ‘tucked into her belt’ suggest Beatrice exercises restraint a desirable feminine virtue. Of course, we are told these details because these are what the narrator is looking for: evidence of a good woman. (Significantly, the narrator is also dressed in white.)

But appearances can be deceptive. And people can see only what we want to see, especially when romantic love is involved. The reader is not deluded by love for Beatrice and can see infatuation. In contrast, the narrator is yet to achieve a clear-headed view of Beatrice. But by the end of the story, he seems to have understood more of Beatrice over the course of recounting their conversation ‘out loud’. This often happens in first person narratives with storyteller narrators. The very point of them telling their stories (to no one in particular) is to come to some greater understanding.

Until the newspaper arrives, Mansfield never touches directly upon the literal meaning of poison. But because she so clearly goes there in the metaphorical sense, the reader is primed to suspect that perhaps Beatrice has poisoned both of her earlier husbands. At this point, Mansfield is leaning upon an age-old trope which connects ‘women’ to ‘poisoning’.

Witches, Women and Poisoning

This notion of women as sneaky, murderous poisoners harks back to the era of witchcraft and hasn’t entirely died. During the European witch craze, women were often accused of poisoning their victims. (Men were also tried for witchcraft but in England it was 90 per cent women.) These so-called poisoners didn’t need to be anywhere near their victims in order to do away with them these witches were supposedly making use of necromancers and magic.

Historical Women and Poisoning

I would be interested to know if Mansfield knew about the case of Louisa Collins, the last woman ever hanged in Australia. Louisa Collins was found guilty of poisoning two husbands with Rough on Rats (basically arsenic, available at any local store). Her hanging was carried out in 1889, and happened across the Tasman Sea, not in New Zealand, and when Mansfield was just one year old. However, it’s possible this case was much talked about in New Zealand, because both New Zealand and Australia were grappling with how to treat those found guilty of heinous crimes: to hang or not to hang? It was shocking to the public that a woman was being hanged. Three women in New Zealand had been sentence for execution by this time, but all three women (accused of murdering children) had their sentences commuted to imprisonment. Louisa’s hanging in Australia was certainly reported in the Auckland newspaper in 1889. Media coverage of this Australian case in New Zealand, as well as the mythology around it over the next few decades as Mansfield was growing up, may have furnished the writer with ideas for “Poison”.

Minnie Dean and New Zealand Imaginations

I guess Mansfield would’ve known about the Louisa Collins case because in 1895, when Mansfield was seven years old, New Zealand agreed to hang its first (and only) woman: Williamina (Minnie) Dean.

Scottish born Minnie Dean settled near Invercargill (near the bottom of the South Island.) She took in unwanted young children for money. Minnie Dean was found guilty of murdering some of them, sometimes by suffocation, sometimes by poisoning (with laudanum). Dead little bodies were found buried in her yard. New Zealand never hanged another woman after that. It was that shocking. But it was salaciously shocking. People clearly enjoyed the drama of it. Outside the court house, vendors were selling hat boxes with figurines of babies inside it. (Minnie had apparently killed a baby then tried to hide the body inside a hat box.) While some New Zealanders no doubt found this distasteful, for others this was the late 19th century equivalent of going to the movies for a murder mystery then buying a plush toy.

I was born in New Zealand 90 years after Katherine Mansfield. The case of Minnie Dean was never a formal part of our history curriculum, but the figure of Minnie Dean, this formidable child killer, loomed large in our collective consciousness. There is a highly wooded park we called “Dean’s Bush” near where I lived in Christchurch. This bush and historic house is not named after Minnie Dean at all, and is now more regularly called Riccarton Bush, but in my subconscious I connected this wooded area to ‘child killer’. It’s actually a beautiful Christchurch spot, but the area took on a sinister tone in my mind. I hated walking through there.

In any case, if the trial of Minnie Dean had that much effect on me, born 90 years later than Mansfield, I can imagine the case had a large effect on the childhood games Mansfield played with her sisters, and on her writer’s imagination.

NARRATION OF “POISON”

“Poison” is told through the mind of a male narrator whose point of view is best described as thinking about the events as they occur in the present. Of course, such a narrative perspective cannot really be achieved, but this narrator is certainly not telling the story with any kind of judgmental stance after the fact. Again, the story represents Mansfield’s blend of the immediacy of a stage performance with the internal point of view of one of the actors on the stage. It cannot happen, but it does. The story is like a soliloquy without the rest of the stage performances around it.

Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler

Beatrice and her narrator-lover are presented to us without backstory in statu nascendi though it is eventually revealed that Beatrice has been married twice before. He is 24 years old at the time of the story, and because he mentions his age in hindsight, we deduce he’s had a little time to reflect on this conversation. This story is atemporal. We don’t know how much time has elapsed between this particular conversation and the retelling of it. Has he now married Beatrice or has he made a clean break? Or perhaps this only happened yesterday?

I do see evidence of reflection on the part of the narrator, suggesting some time has passed since the events of the story:

Not because I cared for such horrible shows, but because I felt it might possibly perhaps lessen this ghastly feeling of absolute freedom, her absolute freedom, of course.

That passage shows the reader that our narrator has realised his love is a controlling kind of love.

Despite these insights, the voice is quite ‘immediate’, as in, he is narrating this story not long after events happened.

This immediacy of voice doesn’t stand out as unusual today, especially if you read a lot of young adult literature. A large proportion of young adult novels are written in first person and from the perspective of a young adult who is still young. In fact, if a significant amount of time has elapsed between the happenings in a story and the supposed retelling of it, and if the first person narrator has changed so much that they are now a heterodiegetic narrator, the work is no longer classed as young adult literature. (Many works for adults cover the young adult years.)

“Poison” almost counts as young adult literature by today’s conventions of narration, except Beatrice must be in her late twenties (at least) if she’s already been married twice. The voice of the narrator suggests to me he is younger than Beatrice. In fact he tells us he ‘was twenty-four at the time’. His dramatic monologue feels like the headiness of unmoderated first love.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “POISON”

SHORTCOMING

Our narrator is not only naive Mansfield has gone one step further and painted him as a bit of a ridiculous figure. Mansfield the author is winking at the reader when she writes, via the voice of her narrator:

And when she lay on her back, with the pearls slipped under her chin, and sighed “I’m thirsty, dearest. Donne-moi un orange,” I would gladly, willingly, have dived for an orange into the jaws of a crocodile— [wink] if crocodiles ate oranges.

(Crocodiles eat almost anything, including oranges.) What’s humorous here is not that the narrator is saying something factually inaccurate about crocodiles, but the fact that he’s made a ridiculous analogy then immediately second guessed himself. He could be laughing at himself, though I see no real evidence of that. Later, at the most serious part of the story (when he has his anagnorisis) he tells us ‘I made a little joke’. This positioning highlights that he is not joking at all.

In Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler notes that Mansfield made much use of ‘nervous’ characters, meaning ‘characters whose nerves are of primary concern’. Several of these stories are filtered through the viewpoints of women: “Revelations” and “The Escape“. One portrays a man: “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day“.

Tense and terribly “modern” relationships between a man and a woman occur in three other stories: “Psychology“, “A Dill Pickle” and “Poison“.

Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler

Kobler is not alone in then saying that the best Mansfield short story about modern heterosexual relationships is “Bliss“.

It’s always interesting when an author avoids naming a character. There could be many reasons for doing so. One common reason: To keep a character as an archetype in the reader’s mind. The fewer details we have about someone, the more likely we are to avoid seeing them as human. This in my own experience is also the exact reason why some readers get really annoyed when authors avoid naming characters, especially when an unnamed character has a marginalised identity or is a woman. (Not the case here.) This is to do with a long history of symbolic annihilation. To name someone, it is thought, is to individualise them, and to give them power.

Below, Kobler noties a pattern in Mansfield’s decisions to avoid naming certain characters, and also questions Mansfield’s decision not to name this particular narrator:

Like the majority of the males in Mansfield’s stories about these modern liaisons, the narrator of “Poison” has no name, a fact that lends credence to the belief that Mansfield really did believe that the men of her generation were all alike unless, of course, they were so different as to be named Reginald, as in Peacock, and “Mr. and Mrs. Dove.” This narrator, however, perhaps ought to have a name, because he seems to embody more of the loving and caring sensitivity of Henry in “Something Childish but Very Natural” than he does the hurtful men of “A Dill Pickle” and “Psychology“.

Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler

(Male commentators really don’t like it when male characters go unnamed. I wonder if they apply the same outrage to the fact that many, many more female characters historically go unnamed.)

But I would like to draw attention to the following sentence:

“Who are you?” Who was she? She was — Woman.

Our narrator himself has realised that he regards Beatrice as an archetypal perfect Woman, as indicated by the capital W. Sure, the author does not name him, but he hasn’t noticed that Beatrice is an individualised character. Not at all. (Not until the retelling of his story.) This is Mansfield doing to him as he is doing to Beatrice.

DESIRE

There’s a very strong, clear desire line holding this story together. Our narrator clearly wants to marry Beatrice.

OPPONENT

His romantic opponent is Beatrice herself.

PLAN

He seems to think that by spending time with her and attending to her every need, he will win love and affection in return.

BIG STRUGGLE

The part where Beatrice opens up a little and lets the narrator in a little, regarding her philosophy of love and relationships, which is nothing at all like the narrator’s idealistic view of them.

ANAGNORISIS

The narrator seems to have realised how different they are, and how it will be impossible to please her in the way he hoped to.

There is no plot revelation of the kind that would tie up a genre short story, say a mystery. In that kind of story the reader might understand that Beatrice is a poisoner, and that the narrator is in danger of being poisoned himself. But this is instead a lyrical short story and Mansfield gives us only a symbol web as a lens through which to interpret events. This is in line with the Impressionist’s view that we are all viewing events through our own blurry lenses.

The true revelation comes for the reader. Guided by Beatrice’s insights into how relationships work, we now understand that the idealised relationship between this couple has now been ‘poisoned’.

“Guilt!” she cried. “Guilt! Didn’t you realise that? They’re fascinated like sick people are fascinated by anything — any scrap of news about their own case. The man in the dock may be innocent enough, but the people in court are nearly all of them poisoners. Haven’t you ever thought”— she was pale with excitement —”of the amount of poisoning that goes on? It’s the exception to find married people who don’t poison each other — married people and lovers. Oh,” she cried, “the number of cups of tea, glasses of wine, cups of coffee that are just tainted. The number I’ve had myself, and drunk, either knowing or not knowing — and risked it. The only reason why so many couples”— she laughed —”survive, is because the one is frightened of giving the other the fatal dose. That dose takes nerve! But it’s bound to come sooner or later. There’s no going back once the first little dose has been given. It’s the beginning of the end, really — don’t you agree? Don’t you see what I mean?”

Poster by Vincenzo Ceccanti, about 1900
Poster by Vincenzo Ceccanti, about 1900

At this point, Beatrice unpins her lilies of the valley. She is taking off her ‘mask’ of purity and innocence. Mansfield chooses a slightly unusual ‘body language beat‘ to garnish this line of dialogue:

She unpinned the lilies-of-the-valley and lay back, drawing them across her eyes.

But this is not just a ‘beat’ — by drawing these symbols of innocence across her eyes she is drawing attention to the fact that our narrator has been blind.

NEW SITUATION

We had very little backstory about these characters. Completely in line with that, they depart from the stage/page as abruptly as they came onto it. Mansfield offers no hint about what happens next. We can extrapolate that this narrator will never be so heavily enamoured about anyone again, and certainly not when it comes to Beatrice.

Header painting: F.X. Leyendecker (brother of J.C. Leyendecker) – Rachel Peace