Poison by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

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

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Taking The Veil by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

The Vale of Rest 1858-9 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Taking The Veil” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published in her collection The Dove’s Nest (1930). Our main character Edna should be feeling great right now. She’s eighteen, she’s beautiful and she’s in love. One slight problem. She is about to become a Bride of Christ, also known as taking the veil. (Or so we think from the title!)

Mansfield was expert at varying emotional valence from scene to scene on the page, and “Taking The Veil” is an excellent example. Check out “The Swing of the Pendulum“, “The Singing Lesson“ and “Bliss” for others.

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Feuille d’Album by Katherine Mansfield Analysis

James Jacques Joseph Tissot - Holyday

“Feuille d’Album” (1917) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, included in the Bliss collection. The word ‘album’ comes from Latin, neuter of albus ‘white’, and used as a noun means ‘a blank tablet’. This is the story of a man who appears to have no personality. Because of this, a group of women become fascinated by him, imagining he has deep, dark secrets. They endeavour to find out how he lives.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot – The Rivals (aka In the Conservatory)

NARRATION OF “FEUILLE D’ALBUM”

The narrative voice of “Feuille d’album” has a strong personality. This is ‘the village voice’ of a subculture of women, society ladies, with the leisure to speculate about the life of an unfathomable young man of their acquaintance.

If this story were adapted for screen, I’d love Scottish actress Shirley Henderson to narrate in one of her English accents, for example that of Edith Dubarry in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day.

Although the viewpoint character is this nosy unseen narrator, the ‘main character’ is the story of Ian French. We must see her as unreliable. Here’s what she can know via the gossip mill:

  • He is socially awkward in the women’s presence.
  • He keeps a neat house (because some of them have visited)
  • He gave an egg to the young woman who lives opposite.
  • He may or may not have said “Excuse me Mademoiselle, you dropped this.” The gag is too perfect, a society tall tale (with a shaggy dog ending), and the result of many retellings.

Because she has such a distinctive voice, and feels so much a part of the society she describes, this narrator is clearly not omniscient. She is never present in Ian’s rooms. She doesn’t see him watching, scribbling things down. Therefore, the bulk of the story must be pure imagination on the narrator’s part. Highly imaginative narrators/characters are very useful in stories.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot – The Artist’s Ladies

STORY STRUCTURE OF “FEUILLE D’ALBUM”

SHORTCOMING

He is probably the son of a wealthy family, highly trained in the arts. He may have been sent to France as a ‘remittance man‘ to keep him out of the way, as he may be embarrassing, socially. (Some commentators have speculated that Katherine Mansfield might have been a remittance woman, sent to Europe because she was a woman who loves woman.)

Through my contemporary lens, I understand Ian French as autistic. At first I suspected social anxiety, but as the story progressed, a number of autistic-esque features hoved into view.

  • Ian is very good at what he does, and he does that thing a lot (painting).
  • He appears to freeze in social situations. Perhaps this is because he has a disability when it comes to reading social cues, and his way of dealing with this is to simply be quiet.
  • He has a surprisingly well-ordered house.
  • He has developed strategies to get things done on any given day. He writes himself notes, perhaps in the voice of a mother or nanny, who he still needs to hear from, if only in his head.
  • He fixates on the woman with few clues. Obsessive love is common across the breadth of human experience, but Ian seems to fixate on her motherly aspects. He seems to see someone who could take care of him. The details he fixates on are unusual.
  • Case in point, the egg. He (supposedly, and supposedly based on what the narrator has previously observed) really loves that egg, and he is perhaps attracted to it in a sensory kind of way. The flipside of sensory processing issues is that unexpected things can feel immensely pleasurable.

The character of Ian French was surely inspired by Mansfield’s interactions with human beings in real life, even if Ian French is a conglomeration. There is no ‘autism epidemic’ — in previous eras there was simply no name applied to neurodifference.

DESIRE

None of Ian’s issues would be a problem, except it appears he does want social connection, on his own terms, preferably one-on-one.

Carl Frederik Sørensen (Danish, 1818 - 1879)
Carl Frederik Sørensen (Danish, 1818 – 1879)

OPPONENT

Harold C. Harvey (1874 - 1941) The Critics, 1922
Harold C. Harvey (1874 – 1941) The Critics, 1922

Ian’s opponents are the society ladies who speculate about his private life, epitomised by the voice of the unseen narrator. These women position themselves as allies, checking up on him, but are counterproductive when it comes to Ian finding the social connections he wants. They clearly consider him a figure of fun. We deduce that he knows this, for he turns them away whenever they darken his door.

A man who is a figure of fun is unlikely to find his people. He must find a new connection, with a person outside the social clutches of these particular ladies of leisure.

Unfortunately for Ian, we can also deduce that whatever he said to the young woman about the egg has got back to the ladies of leisure. So in fact, the object of his affection has revealed herself (off the page) to be as dismissive as they are.

PLAN

Ian watches the girl until he knows her weekly schedule, then he plots a way to meet her. We don’t know he has plotted this, in the veridical truth of the story. Because of the unreliable narration, it’s possible he never talked to the young woman at all, and that the entire interaction with the egg is a comical fabrication. Nevertheless, that is the level zero story. Any metadiegetic discourse in which we’re told, “Psst, that’s not actually what happened!” is missing. We must check our own tendency to believe these stories. We must. not. listen. to this gossip. Leave the poor guy alone.

Back to the level zero story. Because Ian is so passive, the ‘planning’ comes from his opponents in the form of three women who visit his house. Notice how Mansfield is making use of the Rule of Three.

BIG STRUGGLE

The climax of this story is the meeting with the young woman who likes eggs. The story finishes after this scene.

the last few paragraphs of a novel are relatively unimportant. … A short story is much different. The climax may be the ending.

Nancy Kress, Beginnings, Middles and Ends

Until this moment, the storyteller has invited us into her gossipy world. I confess that I was expecting some sort of dark act — a stabbing, perhaps? This is entirely set up, of course. Plus there’s the history of salacious stories about women murdered by stalker men. So this climax is an example of an anticlimax, which also subverts our expectations of crime and melodrama.

The story has closed with a perspectival shift. In many short stories, a notable change of perspective marks that the narrative may now come to a halt.

ANAGNORISIS

These final two steps are left for the reader to ‘write’.

The plot revelation, arrived at via deduction is the part where we realise the young woman may have gone back to the ladies of leisure and told them the story about the egg, making Ian look hopelessly silly and an object of fun.

NEW SITUATION

Ian has found himself in the wrong society. He may find like-minded people eventually, perhaps in the art world. I hope he did.

Header painting is byJames Jacques Joseph Tissot – Holyday. I imagine Ian stands partially hidden by the tree trunk on the leftmost edge.

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Psychology by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

Edwardian Interior c.1907 by Harold Gilman 1876-1919

“Psychology” (1919) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, redolent with sexual tension which unexpectedly morphs into something else at the end. As expected from the title, the bulk of the story comprises a character’s interiority. After first setting the mood, Mansfield gets right into a woman’s feelings. Yet do we feel we know her? We must read between the spaces, what I call ‘Mansfield Gaps’. Everyone fills the gaps differently in a lyrical short story; this is my interpretation.

Katherine Mansfield liked to explore the theme of retaining one’s individuality. Characters seem terrified of losing themselves, of being subsumed by the roles expected of them. They wish for individuality. Mansfield’s stories, when taken as a whole, show that there are many pitfalls in love.

“Psychology” is an exploration into the emotional variability that goes hand in hand with intimacy. This variability is also pronounced in “The Swing of the Pendulum“, “Taking The Veil” and “The Singing Lesson“.

Walter Richard Sickert The Little Tea Party- Nina Hamnett and Roald Kristian 1915–16
The Little Tea Party: Nina Hamnett and Roald Kristian 1915-6 Walter Richard Sickert 1860-1942

Fear of Engulfment

This is all related to what commentators have called Fear of Engulfment. An excellent example of a Fear of Engulfment story is “The Frog Princess“, in which a young woman is terrified of being trapped by matrimony and the ensuing (forced) pregnancy. This is a fear specific to people with child-bearing capacity, and many stories have cropped up to try and assuage this fear, or to persuade young women that everything will be all right, or at least, that they are not alone in this particular fear.

Is “Psychology” a Fear of Engulfment story? Quite possibly. A woman of reproductive age risks much in an era lacking reliable birth control, let alone social welfare payments for unwed mothers. Then there’s the intense social ostracisation.

Safer instead to develop a taste for The Erotics of Abstinence, replacing the sensual pleasures of sex with that of cake, augmented with a nice cuddle with your Auntie Virgin neighbour.

What did Katherine Mansfield think about human psychology?

If you really want to immerse yourself in how Katherine Mansfield viewed people, you probably want to read Principles of Psychology by William James.

William James was a ‘vitalist’ (alongside Henri Bergson). James believed that behaviour influences emotion. Previously it had been thought that a person’s emotion influences behaviour. Modern psychologists now know that emotion is more of an interacting cycle than a cause and effect kind of thing. James also came up with the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, which describes modernist authors.

VITALISM, MODERNISTS AND CHARACTERISATION

Vitalism affected how modernist writers viewed ‘character’. Beforehand, the self had been understood in terms of a single transcendent ego, but modernists put it to their readers that ‘self’ was not only multiple, but also mutable. The self is not one single, never-changing thing. We change from moment to moment, as situations change. (Bergson added to this theory by making a distinction between superficial personality and deeper consciousness, which is exactly how storytelling gurus tell writers to create characters today.) This is partly what made Mansfield feel so modern. She challenged the ideology of the one true self (which we still see in much children’s literature today, as in ‘Be yourself’ stories). What does it mean to be yourself?

For Mansfield, the self is porous, caught between a virtual past and a virtual future. The self transforms moment by moment under the pressure of a past which breaks through into the present, and also by a future, essentially unknowable. 

VITALISM, THE MODERNISTS AND TIME

In this way, vitalism also probably encouraged Mansfield to question the nature of time. She does all sorts of interesting things with time in her stories. She achieves The Overview Effect in “Prelude” and links children to the elderly. She picks symbols (e.g. the aloe in “Prelude“) for their interesting relationships with time. According to Henri Bergson, these separate selves don’t begin and end (I guess the would tip a personality into the realm of dissociative identity disorder), but each personality extends into another.

By this view it’s impossible to respond in exactly the same way to a single thing twice in succession. That’s because you’ve already had one reaction, and that first reaction will inevitably influence all subsequent reactions. It’s impossible to remain the same person, even from moment to moment. This is why so often Mansfield’s characters seem to be high on something one moment — the next downcast. e.g. Beryl in “At The Bay“, first viewing herself as a ‘lovely, fascinating girl’, then ‘All that excitement and so on has a way of suddenly leaving you’. (She has become aware of a nearby ‘sorrowful bush’.) Bertha in “Bliss” is another stand-out example.

Here, too, in “Psychology”, Mansfield’s unnamed playwright spends most of the story erotically charged at the thought of an impending sexual encounter… then suddenly shifts this eroticism into something else, directed at her older female neighbour who happens to drop by with flowers, and who is portrayed as a lonely, non-sexualised eccentric.

NARRATION IN “PSYCHOLOGY”

As many critics have agreed the stories in narrational parallax are [Mansfield’s] greatest. They attempt to epitomise the complicated and multifarious world within a narrow space from a variety of positions in order to create an image of an Impressionist atomistic modern world.

Apart from the juxtapositional parallactic method of using more than two perspectives, the stories “Psychology” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” are worth mentioning, because here only two equally important perspectives are contrasted with each other and sometimes even combined into a hazy, oblique one. The contrasting or juxtaposed perspectives are often roughly similar in their degree of limitation and reliability. In “Prelude” and “At the Bay”, Linda’s and Beryl’s visions are both deluded, in their fantasies and distorted views, although they themselves regard their visions as invested with superior wisdom or social or marital respectability. No perspective is authentic or authoritative, but through the narrator’s ironic modulation between various contradictory perspectives the image of the world is confused and blurred.

The world is depicted as fragmentary, momentary. It lacks a centre. The narrator is merely a medium through which reality flows into words. Mansfield’s ironic use of juxtaposition and contrast suggests that man’s experience of the world is multi-faceted and that is what marks this particular modulation as Impressionist in concept. In “At the Bay”, ironic narrative juxtaposition is employed, contrasting the preoccupations of the different characters, Kezia, Beryl, Linda, Mrs Fairfield, Stanley, and Jonathan with the minor ones. Juxtaposed to their restrictive views are the narrative intrusions, the detached philosophical and pastoral framing by the narrator, and occasional general narrative comments.

the author’s intention is not to focus the material in a certain single character and thus achieve unity of vision. She centers the material upon all characters and thus obtains a number of visions which exist not in a hierarchy but in an anarchy. The very sectioning of the stories indicates the author’s intentions of avoiding characterisation. Each section is a piece of coloured glass, and all the pieces exist together not in subordination but in juxtaposition. Out of each piece comes a shaft of light, the point of view of a character.

Yuan-Shu Yen

The effect of these ‘shafts of light’ by means of ‘the coloured glass’ suggest the different moments of great intensity, varying in significance according to the perspective from which they are seen. The reader is led to consider the preoccupations of the different characters, sometimes from both an oblique abstract view and sometimes from one which identifies closely with the characters’ situations. This is one of the impersonal and objective ways in which Mansfield was able to reconcile intrusive narratorial passages with the restrictive assumptions of Literary Impressionism.

Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism by Julia van Gunsteren
Edouard Vuillard Girl in an Interior c.1910
Girl in an Interior c.1910 Edouard Vuillard 1868-1940

SETTING AND SYMBOL WEB OF “PSYCHOLOGY”

FIRE AS EMOTIONAL STATE

As you read “Psychology”, notice how Mansfield uses fire as a metaphor for desire. The verbs could equally describe the feeling in a lover’s heart.

  • He ‘came over to the fire and held out his hands to the quick, leaping flame.’
  • ‘Just for a moment both of them stood silent in that leaping light.
  • ‘She lighted the lamp under its broad orange shade’
  • ‘Two birds sang in the kettle; the fire fluttered
  • ‘That silence could be contained in the circle of warm, delightful fire and lamplight. How many times hadn’t they flung something into it just for the fun of watching the ripples break on the easy shores.’
COLOUR

Also take note of the colours in this story. Mansfield emphasised colour and related it to character mood. Colour is used for more than simply describing something.

Colour images fall into two basic categories:

  1. Images related to the visual experience of the character who sees it and
  2. Images which express in colour the atmospheric mood or their mental state.

Some commentators have said that Mansfield’s technique of describing colour maps directly onto pointillism, in which artists use short brush strokes to create a lot of dots and avoid blending, instead requiring the viewer to stand back in order to make out a scene. (Stand too close and all you’ll see are the dots.)

The orange of the lamp and the flame in this room, the red chairs, the blue of the chair and teapot — these are complementary colours. Why complementary? The playwright’s two types of intimate experiences are are equally complementary, meaning they are opposites but also perfectly matched.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “PSYCHOLOGY”

SHORTCOMING

If we crudely divide selves into public, private and secret, Mansfield was especially interested in the secret self, and in this story she uses the actual phrase ‘secret self’, showing that she must have thought in these terms.

Their secret selves whispered: “Why should we speak? Isn’t this enough?”

DESIRE

The exact nature of the ‘secret self’ is left to the reader’s interpretation. Clearly, from the body language, from the fact that a man is visiting a woman’s private rooms, checking they won’t be disturbed, these two are getting ready for some kind of erotic experience together.

But why does the playwright hold back? That part is left for the reader to extrapolate. I am taking the era into heavy account, as well as Mansfield’s own life. Biographers believe that Mansfield had at least one abortion. Penetrative sex with men was risky for almost any young woman living in a pre-birth control era.

It seems the playwright of “Psychology” wants an erotic experience with a man, but without the masculine, patriarchal, high-risk version of sex, which is almost certainly the kind he expects.

OPPONENT

The playwright and the writer are romantic opponents. He smiles in ‘a naive way’. Why naive? Perhaps he came for the transcendent experience with cake, not realising the playwright is getting far more out of this moment than high tea.

POTENTIAL, TRANSITIONAL SPACE

What does it mean to be a ‘romantic opponent’? Much has been said about the mind-meld that takes place in this particular story, referring to how two minds become one.

Donald Winnicott was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst who came up with a concept known as ‘potential’ or ‘transitional’ space. At first I wondered why the man is talking about a little boy. Which little boy? (Is he into little boys…?) But no, commentators have gone into that.

…touch, very lightly, that marvel of a sleeping boy’s head… I love that little boy

Apparently the little boy is to be coded as a ‘symbolic object’. The (non-existent!) ‘little boy’ exists in the transitional space between the man and the woman. This space both separates and unites them. When the man imagines he touches the boy’s sleeping head, he sees it happening only inside his head. Touching but not touching. This is how Mansfield creates both distance and closeness between two characters at once.

NEIGHBOUR AS SECONDARY ROMANTIC OPPONENT

The virginal neighbour may not in fact be virginal. Mansfield’s style of narration moves in and out of a main character’s head — it’s up to the reader to decide which details are veridical fact and which are character interpretations. ‘Virginal’ is how the neighbour strikes her.

But this ‘virgin’ drops in with flowers quite often. In Mansfield’s other stories, for instance in “Carnation“, flowers are connected to eros, including between women. When we offer another person flowers we are encouraging them to enjoy a sensual experience, be it from colour, smell, texture of the petals. An offering of flowers feels almost like a check: “Are you capable of enjoying a sensual experience? How about one… with me? At some point? Maybe?”

Has the playwright already realised this about the neighbour? Doesn’t really matter. She realises it later, I think.

By the way, the violets, like the ‘little boy’ are thought to be another ‘transitional object’ which distance the two women as well as bringing them together. ‘Even the act of breathing was a joy’, she says. I have no idea what it’s like to live with tuberculosis, especially while being a smoker (as Mansfield was) but I can imagine Mansfield felt a special pleasure in easy breathing.

PLAN

It’s clear the playwright has invited the writer to her room, and made sure they won’t be disturbed (though she does have that neighbour inclined to pop in without notice). The playwright must trust this man sufficiently to respect her boundaries. He is not the ‘sexual conquering’ type:

For the special thrilling quality of their friendship was in their complete surrender. Like two open cities in the midst of some vast plain their two minds lay open to each other. And it wasn’t as if he rode into hers like a conqueror, armed to the eyebrows and seeing nothing but a gay silken flutter — not did she enter his like a queen walking soft on petals.

Nothing suggests this is a well-thought-out plan, but the playwright’s plan is this: She will enjoy the frisson of a man in her private room. She seems to want what these days may be called a queerplatonic relationship with the man.

Queerplatonic has been used to describe feelings and relationships of either/both a nonromantic or ambiguously-romantic nature, in order to express that they break social norms for platonic relationships. It can be characterized by a strong bond, affect, and emotional commitment not regarded by those involved as something beyond a friendship.

Aromantics wiki

“if you’d picture romance with taper candles over dinner, and sexual relationship as a queen bed, I would try picturing the queerplatonic as string lights over tea and a bunk bed with tin can-and-wire phones between them. The same, but not.”

Aromantics wiki

BIG STRUGGLE

The entire story is one long big struggle between desire and restraint. The playwright uses food as children’s books use food — as a highly sensuous experience, where other works use sex.

ANAGNORISIS

Mansfield tended to leave anagnorises off the page. They happened between the gaps.

In the gaps of “Psychology”, the playwright does seem to realise something, though in true modernist style, she probably doesn’t fully understand it.

The stupid thing was she could not discover where exactly they were or what exactly was happening. She hadn’t time to glance back.

She seems to realise that she can have a rounded and satisfying emotional-sexual experience with a combination of hot guy followed up with a cuddle from her virginal older female neighbour. She’s getting one type of erotic stimulation from the man, and another complementary (though completely different) sort of care from the neighbour.

On the page, it is the neighbour who realises something. “Then you really don’t mind me too much?” she asks showing that, until this moment of shared tenderness, she’d been doubting her value in the playwright’s eyes.

NEW SITUATION

Perhaps the playwright and the neighbour will forge a closer friendship after this beautiful embrace.

It’s also possible that once the playwright has come down from her erotic high, lit by her time with the man and seeping into her moment with the neighbour, the playwright will feel uncomfortable with the neighbour — who seems to want more — and shrink away. Earlier in the story she has compared herself to a snail, who retreats into its shell, so I think this extrapolation is equally likely.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
The Two Friends
1894
The Two Friends 1894 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
The Party after the Party, Norman Rockwell, 1922
The Party after the Party, Norman Rockwell, 1922

FURTHER READING

The Split Attraction Model In Short Stories

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Header painting: Edwardian Interior c.1907 by Harold Gilman

Katherine Mansfield’s Influences

THE INFLUENCES OF PLACE AND ERA

Katherine Mansfield grew up in middle class Wellington, New Zealand and moved to Europe as a young adult to finish her education in London.

Some of her stories are influenced by her experiences in England, Belgium and Bavaria (In a German Pension).

Her first stories were accepted by The Age but Mansfield grew tired of the sort of story they expected from her. At this time she met John Middleton Murry, who encouraged her to write something different. She became Murry’s partner and they later married.

New Zealand influenced her writing, and was the setting in some of her last, and best, works. ‘…if the truth were known I have a perfect passion for the island where I was born. …just as on those mornings white milky mists rise and uncover some beauty, then smother it again and then again disclose it, I tried to lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again…’

Mansfield was concerned with nationality in her early stories but later switched to a focus on modernist aesthetics and techniques. Her most New Zealand stories are the “Prelude” trilogy and “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped“. Her early stories seem to be from the perspective of a white female New Zealander. Of course she wrote her last and best stories about New Zealand.

In fact, setting seems more important in Mansfield’s German stories than in her New Zealand ones. For example, the mention of sauerkraut in “Germans At Meat” place the story in a particular place. But in the New Zealand stories, replacement of a particularly New Zealand detail (e.g. a type of tree) wouldn’t affect the story as a whole. “The Wind Blows” is set in windy Wellington, but could be set in many English speaking places. If no one knew Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealander, she wouldn’t be considered A New Zealand Writer.

Coloured pencil sketch of Chesney World on Karori World, home of Katherine Mansfield 1893-1898 based on 1900 photograph
Coloured pencil sketch of Chesney World on Karori World, home of Katherine Mansfield 1893-1898 based on a 1900 photograph

Reading Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, New Zealand feels like an imprisonment, a place of confinement, especially for female characters. New Zealand was a young colony in Mansfield’s time. Any new colony is a hugely patriarchal one — all about domination, exploring and dominion over others. Europe wasn’t much better for women of course, but isolation led to a very constricted type of monotony for young women like Katherine Mansfield growing up in New Zealand.

Her final year of life, 1922, was spent in Switzerland.

THE INFLUENCE OF THE THEATRE

Mansfield was supported financially by her father but never had quite enough. Apart from writing, she also acted as an extra in early movies. The theatre is the subject of her short story “Pictures“.

Today’s readers are different from Mansfield’s contemporaries — we have all seen a lot of TV and movies and rarely realise how influenced we are by conventions of the screen. We are highly literate in reading screen narrative compared to early 20th century readers who had seen few moving pictures. But because of her experience in the theatre, Mansfield learned far earlier than most all about the single take, juxtapositions, abrupt openings, quick dissolves and the clarity that cutting can impose. Mansfield’s translation of the language of cinema onto the page antedated that of most Modernist writers. These cinematic techniques are partly what make Mansfield’s short stories feel so contemporary compared to many short stories from around the same era. (For more on that, read Sarah Sandley’s essay on Mansfield and cinema from 2011 and Cinema and the Imagination in Katherine Mansfield’s Writing by M. Ascari.)

Mansfield was really interested in Charlie Chaplin and starts talking about him in her letters from 1918. She named one of her cats after him. Chaplin’s talent for hyper-mimesis and self-parody contrasted with the commercial side of film acting. “Je ne parle pas francais” (written 1918) is the best example of self-parody produced by Mansfield, who grew critical of cinema as the emblem of consumerist mass culture. Note that this is the year she was really into Chaplin.

THE INFLUENCE OF ILL HEALTH

Plagued by illness all her adult life, death is a major theme. Her parents were told when Mansfield was a child that tuberculosis would probably see the end of her.

Facing early death from a young age, Mansfield located herself not only in the present but in the past and future.

Mansfield’s medical treatment was expensive and in her last two years she was faced with the task of making money quickly. She spent a lot more time writing book reviews. She’d write 2-3 a week when Murry was editor of the Athenaeum.

Because Mansfield knew she was short on time, she made the decision not to write the following: novels, problem stories and ‘nothing that is not simple, open’.

In “Psychology”, the playwright character appreciates the ease of breathing. Mansfield always had lung issues, and it’s likely she really did appreciate the otherwise invisible act of easy breathing, whenever it was afforded to her.

THE INFLUENCE OF FRIENDS

Mansfield surrounded herself in Bohemian types and these people influenced her.

Take Dorothy Brett, a painter. Dorothy was a correspondent, and afforded Mansfield the space to talk about images and the depiction of images in writing. Mansfield told Dorothy that she preferred to paint an image rather than to give a technical account.

THE INFLUENCE OF HER BROTHER’S DEATH

Mansfield’s brother Lesley died early in the First World War during an army training exercise. After this Mansfield moved to southern France where she wrote ‘recollections of my own country’. The first New Zealand story she wrote was The Aloe (“Prelude“).

Various critics have said this marked a turning point in her writing. She seemed to be thinking a lot more about her time growing up back in Wellington, where she would have been with her brother. Stories she wrote after his death were about middle-class life and family dynamics.

However, the loss of her brother doesn’t explain all of the changes in Mansfield’s writing. She wrote “The Wind Blows” before he died. This story shows that Mansfield was already capable of manipulating time adroitly and unexpectedly. She had already started to delve into her Wellington childhood before Lesley’s death.

THE INFLUENCE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS

At the end of the 19th century people were starting to look into the concept of the ‘self’. Two major theories were being talked about. The first was the theory of Sigmund Freud. Freud divided the human psyche into consciousness and unconciousness (the Ego and the Id). Freud gave rise to the field of psychanalysis. The second was the theory of William James. James was all about stream of consciousness (what modernism is all about). His book The Principles of Psychology was published in 1890 and it’s said this is the book that founded the field of psychology in America. There is little evidence that Mansfield read the work of either Freud or James. But we know from her notebooks and letters that she was interested in notions of the self. She approached this as someone interested in the idea, not as an academic or philosopher. Her ideas about the self were complex, but she never really settled on a theory — concept of the self in her work is at times contradictory.

LITERARY INFLUENCES AND THOUGHTS ABOUT WRITING

As a child she read fey fairy tales and fables.

Mansfield’s stories are strewn with Biblical references. “His Sister’s Keeper” (1909) refers to Genesis 4, 9: “Am I my brother’s keeper? In “Psychology” the playwright thinks of the Book of Genesis while offering cake to her man friend. In “Something Childish But Very Natural” she creates a version of Eden when describing two very young lovers’ paradise and mention of the apple tree. (The girl’s name is Edna >> Eden.) And then snakes appear at the end. “Marriage a la Mode” gives us a missing Noah’s Ark (missing because the house of the ‘new Isabel’ is filled with a parody of Bohemian poets and artists, in which the ark is the symbol of happy childhood.

She read Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. She despised the former, but enjoyed the latter upon re-reading. ‘Little in his [Joyce’s] writing is art.’

She felt the poems in the Oxford Book of English Verse were generally poor, except for Shakespeare and Marvell and ‘just a handful of others’.

She thought lots of novels – ‘pastime novels’ – demanded little of the reader, rehashing the same old stories and settings, failing to challenge the reader.

She believed detail for the sake of detail was no good. She believed anyone could describe detail and that writers could only be set apart from the rest of the population by saying something about the greater mysteries of life. There must be an illumination.

Mansfield was influenced heavily by Chekhov, quoting him in her letters. She considered herself the English Chekhov. She admired his knowledge and truth. She particularly enjoyed “The Steppe”. Some commentators have said she plagiarised Chekhov’s “Sleepy” when she wrote “The Child-Who-Was-Tired”. Mansfield owes a lot to Chekhov, but her style is her own. For instance, Mansfield made more heavy use of symbolism than Chekhov did.

Chekhov showed her that she was quite justified in writing stories of such uneven length. She realised that some of her writing failed to fit neatly into short stories, sketches, impressions or tales. Her longer works have been called novellas; Mansfield herself did not ever categorise her own form of writing. She felt hers were different from other short pieces.

Mansfield read D.H. Lawrence’s writing though there was much she didn’t like about it. But she wrote ‘he is the only writer living whom I really profoundly care for. It seems to me whatever he writes, no matter how much one may ‘disagree’, is important.’

She also read Dorothy Richardson, and thought they had no plot and no depth.

She thought Bunin, Maupassant, Joyce and Proust did not achieve greatness.

Mansfield believed that writers who wrote with ‘purpose’ were little more than preachers, and less than artists. (She perhaps meant didacticism.)

Influenced by Dostoevsky, Mansfield believed that plot should arise naturally from situation and characters; that events should be seen rather than shown off. The climax should give a sense of inevitability. The atmosphere gives the story continuity. In other words, she believed stories should be character driven.

Mansfield believed that the weather was important in reflecting the inner-life of characters in a story and was surprised at how little this connection was explored by other writers, except in its most obvious form (happy because the sun is shining, perturbed because the wind is blowing etc.). A story such as “Pictures” suggests Mansfield herself was highly influenced by the sensory input of her surroundings.

Katherine Mansfield grew up in middle class Wellington, New Zealand and moved to Europe as a young adult to finish her education in London.

Some of her stories are influenced by her experiences in England, Belgium and Bavaria (In a German Pension).

Her first stories were accepted by The Age but Mansfield grew tired of the sort of story they expected from her. At this time she met John Middleton Murry, who encouraged her to write something different. She became Murry’s partner and they later married.

New Zealand influenced her writing, and was the setting in some of her last, and best, works. ‘…if the truth were known I have a perfect passion for the island where I was born. …just as on those mornings white milky mists rise and uncover some beauty, then smother it again and then again disclose it, I tried to lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again…’

Mansfield was concerned with nationality in her early stories but later switched to a focus on modernist aesthetics and techniques. Her most New Zealand stories are the “Prelude” trilogy and “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped“. Her early stories seem to be from the perspective of a white female New Zealander. Of course she wrote her last and best stories about New Zealand.

In fact, setting seems more important in Mansfield’s German stories than in her New Zealand ones. For example, the mention of sauerkraut in “Germans At Meat” place the story in a particular place. But in the New Zealand stories, replacement of a particularly New Zealand detail (e.g. a type of tree) wouldn’t affect the story as a whole. “The Wind Blows” is set in windy Wellington, but could be set in many English speaking places. If no one knew Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealander, she wouldn’t be considered A New Zealand Writer.

Reading Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, New Zealand feels like an imprisonment, a place of confinement, especially for female characters. New Zealand was a young colony in Mansfield’s time. Any new colony is a hugely patriarchal one — all about domination, exploring and dominion over others. Europe wasn’t much better for women of course, but isolation led to a very constricted type of monotony for young women like Katherine Mansfield growing up in New Zealand.

Her final year of life, 1922, was spent in Switzerland.

THE INFLUENCE OF THE THEATRE

  • Mansfield was supported financially by her father but never had quite enough. Apart from writing, she also acted as an extra in early movies. The theatre is the subject of her short story “Pictures“.
  • Today’s readers are different from Mansfield’s contemporaries — we have all seen a lot of TV and movies and rarely realise how influenced we are by conventions of the screen. We are highly literate in reading screen narrative compared to early 20th century readers who had seen few moving pictures. But because of her experience in the theatre, Mansfield learned far earlier than most all about the single take, juxtapositions, abrupt openings, quick dissolves and the clarity that cutting can impose. These cinematic techniques are partly what make Mansfield’s short stories feel so contemporary compared to many short stories from around the same era.
  • Mansfield was really interested in Charlie Chaplin and starts talking about him in her letters from 1918. She named one of her cats after him. Chaplin’s talent for hyper-mimesis and self-parody contrasted with the commercial side of film acting. “Je ne parle pas francais” (written 1918) is the best example of self-parody produced by Mansfield, who grew critical of cinema as the emblem of consumerist mass culture. Note that this is the year she was really into Chaplin.

THE INFLUENCE OF ILL HEALTH

  • Plagued by illness all her adult life, death is a major theme. Her parents were told when Mansfield was a child that tuberculosis would probably see the end of her.
  • Facing early death from a young age, Mansfield located herself not only in the present but in the past and future.
  • Mansfield’s medical treatment was expensive and in her last two years she was faced with the task of making money quickly. She spent a lot more time writing book reviews. She’d write 2-3 a week when Murry was editor of the Athenaeum.
  • Because Mansfield knew she was short on time, she made the decision not to write the following: novels, problem stories and ‘nothing that is not simple, open’.

THE INFLUENCE OF FRIENDS

  • Mansfield surrounded herself in Bohemian types and these people influenced her.
  • Take Dorothy Brett, a painter. Dorothy was a correspondent, and afforded Mansfield the space to talk about images and the depiction of images in writing. Mansfield told Dorothy that she preferred to paint an image rather than to give a technical account.

THE INFLUENCE OF HER BROTHER’S DEATH

  • Mansfield’s brother Lesley died early in the First World War during an army training exercise. After this Mansfield moved to southern France where she wrote ‘recollections of my own country’. The first New Zealand story she wrote was The Aloe (“Prelude“).
  • Various critics have said this marked a turning point in her writing. She seemed to be thinking a lot more about her time growing up back in Wellington, where she would have been with her brother. Stories she wrote after his death were about middle-class life and family dynamics.
  • However, the loss of her brother doesn’t explain all of the changes in Mansfield’s writing. She wrote “The Wind Blows” before he died. This story shows that Mansfield was already capable of manipulating time adroitly and unexpectedly. She had already started to delve into her Wellington childhood before Lesley’s death.

THE INFLUENCE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS

  • At the end of the 19th century people were starting to look into the concept of the ‘self’. Two major theories were being talked about. The first was the theory of Sigmund Freud. Freud divided the human psyche into consciousness and unconciousness (the Ego and the Id). Freud gave rise to the field of psychanalysis. The second was the theory of William James. James was all about stream of consciousness (what modernism is all about). His book The Principles of Psychology was published in 1890 and it’s said this is the book that founded the field of psychology in America. There is little evidence that Mansfield read the work of either Freud or James. But we know from her notebooks and letters that she was interested in notions of the self. She approached this as someone interested in the idea, not as an academic or philosopher. Her ideas about the self were complex, but she never really settled on a theory — concept of the self in her work is at times contradictory.

LITERARY INFLUENCES AND THOUGHTS ABOUT WRITING

  • As a child she read fey fairy tales and fables.
  • She read Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. She despised the former, but enjoyed the latter upon re-reading. ‘Little in his [Joyce’s] writing is art.’
  • She felt the poems in the Oxford Book of English Verse were generally poor, except for Shakespeare and Marvell and ‘just a handful of others’.
  • She thought lots of novels – ‘pastime novels’ – demanded little of the reader, rehashing the same old stories and settings, failing to challenge the reader.
  • She believed detail for the sake of detail was no good. She believed anyone could describe detail and that writers could only be set apart from the rest of the population by saying something about the greater mysteries of life. There must be an illumination.
  • Mansfield was influenced heavily by Chekhov, quoting him in her letters. She considered herself the English Chekhov. She admired his knowledge and truth. She particularly enjoyed “The Steppe”. Some commentators have said she plagiarised Chekhov’s “Sleepy” when she wrote “The Child-Who-Was-Tired”. Mansfield owes a lot to Chekhov, but her style is her own. For instance, Mansfield made more heavy use of symbolism than Chekhov did.
  • Chekhov showed her that she was quite justified in writing stories of such uneven length. She realised that some of her writing failed to fit neatly into short stories, sketches, impressions or tales. Her longer works have been called novellas; Mansfield herself did not ever categorise her own form of writing. She felt hers were different from other short pieces.
  • Mansfield read D.H. Lawrence’s writing though there was much she didn’t like about it. But she wrote ‘he is the only writer living whom I really profoundly care for. It seems to me whatever he writes, no matter how much one may ‘disagree’, is important.’
  • She also read Dorothy Richardson, and thought they had no plot and no depth.
  • She thought Bunin, Maupassant, Joyce and Proust did not achieve greatness.
  • Mansfield believed that writers who wrote with ‘purpose’ were little more than preachers, and less than artists. (She perhaps meant didacticism.)
  • Influenced by Dostoevsky, Mansfield believed that plot should arise naturally from situation and characters; that events should be seen rather than shown off. The climax should give a sense of inevitability. The atmosphere gives the story continuity. In other words, she believed stories should be character driven.
  • Mansfield believed that the weather was important in reflecting the inner-life of characters in a story and was surprised at how little this connection was explored by other writers, except in its most obvious form (happy because the sun is shining, perturbed because the wind is blowing etc.). A story such as “Pictures” suggests Mansfield herself was highly influenced by the sensory input of her surroundings.
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What is parallax in literature?

Landscape with Clerks Studying Astronomy and Geometry from the early 15th century

Parallax describes a type of movement. The position or direction of an object seems to differ when viewed from different positions.

OPTICAL ILLUSION

Parallax is an optical illusion. Extend one arm and hold up your thumb. Close first one eye, then the other. The thumb appears to have changed positions, but hasn’t. Your perspective is simply different depending on which eye you’re using. 

STELLAR PARALLAX

In astronomy, the angular amount of parallax changes depending on what point in the earth’s orbit you’re seeing it from. Early 1800s astronomers worked out that they could measure distance to stars outside the solar system by viewing the same star from different positions. 

PARALLAX ON SCREEN

Many games make use of parallax to create a more ‘alive’ setting. A good example can be found at this website. The plants in the foreground are created on a separate layer from the main background.

PARALLAX IN PHILOSOPHY

Actually, philosophers use the phrase ‘response dependence‘ to describe how individuals’ ideas differ depending on our perspective and input.

PARALLAX IN LITERATURE

But scholars of literature often use the word parallax. Like viewing a star from various places on Earth, a writer can also let readers see a situation from different positions, or perspectives. It’s called parallactic narration, or narrational parallax and refers to the device or rendering of a story from more than one point of view in variable parallactic focalisation. One writer who made much use of parallax is Katherine Mansfield, who largely used it to create irony.

Readers also achieve a parallactic experience when reading fractured fairytales, such as a retelling of “Cinderella” but this time from the viewpoint of the prince, or the ugly step-sister. I recently experienced a parallactic shift of Pride and Prejudice after reading two modern retellings, one called The Other Bennett Sister (about Mary), the other about Charlotte Lucas.

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. Wonder begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others.

WHY MAKE USE OF PARALLAX IN STORYTELLING?

Unlike linear perspective, psychological perspective is as much a factor of time as of distance. Though psychological perspective also affects and is affected by the angle of perception, and though the cubists and other artists discovered bold new ways to incorporate time into visual art, psychological perspective is mainly the domain of writers, who call it point of view. Like perspective, it changes how we see the world and ourselves in it.

Peter Selgin, “A Matter of Perspective”

When a scene is narrated from contrasting perspectives this will reveal not only a greater complexity of reality for the reader, but reveal contrasting views, values and thoughts of the perceiver as well. Certain themes are especially well suited to parallactic narration:

  1. stories about the isolation of individual human beings
  2. the lack of consequence in the universal flux of life
  3. our diminutive significance as seen from a superior vantage point
  4. stories about solipsism: people’s defiant private inflation of the significance of their own lives and the events that surround themselves, compared to everything else

HOW TO CREATE A PARALLACTIC EFFECT IN A STORY

The writer describes the same temporal event from multiple viewpoints. These will be characters who exist within the world of the story, also known as homodiegetic.

How does an author create a parallax effect in words? In a nutshell, the author creates texts which overlap and intersect. Parallax is about the apparent displacement of an object. This apparent displacement can be created by shifting the reader’s ‘line of sight’, or by using techniques of reorientation. To create a parallax effect:

  1. Foreground your subject
  2. Offer various views of it
  3. Show the reader that all perspectives are partial and reversible

And how to do that, specifically?

  1. It’s important that none of these narrators is omniscient — none of them will have seen or understood the entire ‘story’. If they had, we’d just believe that character, right? Modern literature has very few examples of truly omniscient viewpoints anyhow. The limited third person voice reigns surpreme, alongside first person narrative.
  2. You might make use of ‘narrative qualification’. Katherine Mansfield does this when using phrases such as ‘it seems’. Characters in Mansfield stories often continue believing things in the face of direct experience. Writers are often advised when starting out to cut out these ‘superfluous’ ‘hedge phrases’ but like all advice dished out to writers, as a blanket rule it doesn’t work.
  3. Another technique utilised by Katherine Mansfield: The narrator presents erroneous interpretations without narrative judgement. This creates narrative irony, because the audience will realise the judgement in the text is wrong. Perhaps it only gradually dawns on the reader — by means of reveal — that what is presented is not in fact what’s going on. Irony is generated by the reader’s progressive awareness that the views in the text are subjective and unreliable.

Parallax is a word that tends to be used by academics and scholars of literature. A word used by writers: side-shadowing. The technique of side-shadowing can induce a feeling of parallax in the audience.

THE TWO MAIN TYPES OF NARRATIVE PARALLAX

  1. the juxtaposition of two or more restricted perspectives, and the contrasting of a restricted perspective with that of an extradiegetic or omnipresent narrator.
  2. first-person perspectives recorded at different times, as for example, in Katherine Mansfield’s “Poison”.

PARALLAX AND IMPRESSIONISM

Parallactic narration is especially handy when writing an Impressionist story because parallactic narration is one way of achieving the movement’s main aims: Indirectness, lack of objectivity, and an ideology that there’s no such thing as ‘truth’. Truth always depends on who you ask, or whose shoes you walk in. The relativistic philosophy of Impressionism: Reality is a function of perspective.

The ‘no such thing as truth’ idea is best conveyed by limiting characters’ knowledge of events in a story. Multiple viewpoints, with the distortion that comes by way of parallax, is perfect for achieving such limitation. Sometimes the multiple viewpoints of the characters contrast with the viewpoint of some unseen narrator, creating an uncomfortable juxtaposition for the reader. Who to believe? In these stories, the audience is required to contribute to the experience.

DUPLICATIVE TIME

Duplicating temporal events goes hand-in-hand with parallactic narration. Not all parallactic narratives double back in time but many do.

The design of the poster suggests a parallactic effect by literally slicing the man’s head down the middle.

In the duplicative time technique, a story reaches backward to cover previous scenes over again. The plot shape of these stories might be described as ‘repeating’ or ‘vortex’. The classic film example is Rashomon, known for its duplicative time. The bandit, the samurai, the wife, the woodcutter and so on each provide subjective, alternative, self-serving, and contradictory versions of the same incident.

The duplicative time device allows experience to be seen from another vantage point. The reader gets two or more perceptions of the same temporal event. 

WHY MAKE USE OF THE DUPLICATIVE TIME TECHNIQUE?

It’s especially useful in stories with a mystery at the heart, in which a detective is trying to get to the ‘truth’. (When writing about Impressionism, I guess ‘truth’ always has to appear in inverted commas.)

The duplicative time technique is also useful if a story includes, say, a child character and a parental figure. The writer might first describe what’s going on using the child as focaliser. Then the reader gets the story with the adult as focaliser. Since adults have more knowledge about the world, gaps can be puttied in, resulting in plot reveals. Or, the writer can subvert this expectation of childhood naïveté and create a story in which the child knows what’s going on but the adult characters don’t.

EXAMPLE OF DUPLICATIVE TIME ON TV

The Affair is a TV series which uses duplicative time to wonderful effect. The viewer is told a story about a man (Noah) who falls in love with a waitress on a family holiday to his in-laws’ house. The viewer doesn’t realise at first, but we are seeing events not through the objective lens of the camera, but filtered through Noah’s eyes. According to this view, the waitress is a seductive femme fatale. She wants him bad, so the guy thinks.  

But then the viewer gets another perspective of the same temporal events, this time through the perspective of the young waitress. This time, according to her, the man is predatory. She’s not the least bit flirtatious — he is targeting her in a stalker-y kind of way. By the way, In her book Meander, Spiral Explode, Jane Alison observed that vortex plot shapes tend to feature obsessive characters.

The narrative choice is masterful because as well as questioning the nature of truth, it also conveys the idea that villains never see themselves as the villain. 

An on-screen version of duplicative time can make use of many cool tools. The outtake music of the final episode of The Affair has two versions of the same song (The Whole of the Moon)

Film makers can also change the lighting.

Alison as Noah sees her (left) and Alison as she sees herself (right)
Notice even Noah’s clothing is slightly different in different recollections the same temporal events — we don’t remember details exactly. This is an accurate portrayal of how memory works.

[The Affair’s] central conceit, showing events from overlapping and often contradictory perspectives, forced not only the writers but also the actors to present multiple takes on each of those issues. The hero of one segment could be the heel just a few minutes of screen time later.

NYT review

None of the characters are lying to themselves, so they’re thereby not lying to you in the audience. There’s no subterfuge from the internal perspective.

Joshua Jackson, who plays Cole Lockhart on The Affair

EXAMPLES OF PARALLACTIC NARRATION FROM LITERATURE

  • Prelude” by Katherine Mansfield is a short story divided into sections, each section with a different focaliser. Each of these focalising characters has a different experience of the world showing that there is no single true experience.
  • How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” — Mansfield uses parallax by restricting the reader’s knowledge through the prism of a young child character, Pearl. This perspective contrasts with the wider perspective of the narrator, which broadens over the course of the story. This narrator isn’t detached but capable of viewing the scene from a greater distance.
  • Miss Brill” is a similar example from the same author — The character of Miss Brill is a ‘Sunday Wanderer’ archetype whose preoccupied view of the world contrasts seamlessly (and subtly) with that of the detached narrator.
  • The best example from Katherine Mansfield is thought to be “The Little Governess“.
  • The Blood of the Conquistadors” is another standout short story example of parallactic narration. Events are seen from the vantage point of eight different characters. 
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, a Southern Gothic novel from 1930. Faulkner presents 15 different points of view, each chapter narrated by one character, including Addie, who expresses her thoughts after she has already died.
  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich — Erdrich’s first novel, published 1984. Thought to be influenced by As I Lay Dying. It was subsequently revised and expanded. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, using first-person and third-person limited narration. The story is non-linear. A non-linear story is standard in this technique. Throw away a sequential timeline — it won’t be much good to you.

One thing to note about characters in a parallactic narrative — audiences don’t tend to find them likeable. Not all audiences expect likeable, but some do. The Affair is a good story well done, but has been criticised for its lack of likeable characters.

Parallactic narratives are at odds with likeable because no one in the story stands out as the ‘main’ one, and everyone is shown to be unreliable. We prefer reliable people as friends.

Parallax is often used to show the reader that we are all ultimately alone. We are alone in our perspectives, which means no one is completely on your side.

This 80s song includes some pretty Impressionist lyrics: No one in your life is with you constantly. No one is completely on your side. … still the gap between us is too wide. It’s interesting how often these messages are accompanied by dual storytellers, in this case singers, looking in opposite directions.

The other big, related message in an Impressionistic story making use of parallax is that we are inconsequential. Compared to some greater perspective, our own perspective is insignificant.

The idea that humans have evolved to see the truth of a situation may not be quite right. Listen to a newer, alternative theory: That humans have evolved to see an ‘interface’ of the truth rather than the real truth. We are wholly bound by our senses, and none of us sees any objective reality — nor can we even imagine what that might be. Even more terrifying, perception of reality goes extinct.

Fitness means the ability to reconstruct a useful reality, or part of reality. More importantly, brains and neurons, according to this theory, are a species specific set of symbols, a hack. Reality is nothing like a brain or neurons, so that reality, whatever it is, is the real source of cause and effect in the world — not brains, not neurons.

The header painting is a Landscape with Clerks Studying Astronomy and Geometry from the early 15th century but no one knows who painted it. This was before astronomers discovered the usefulness of parallax.

PARALLAX FEELING

At her blog, Gretchen Rubin describes the following sensation:

I was reading a description of someone, and it said, “He lives with his wife and children on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.” As I read this line, I had a fleeting yet complete vision of what that life would be like–the life of a person living with his family on the Upper East Side.

But in the next moment, I realized, “Wait, that’s my life, I live in that neighborhood myself, with my family!” Yet the reality of my experience doesn’t at all match my vision of what that “life” would be like. And oddly, my imaginary version seems richer and more real, in a way, than my actual experience.

I realized I can provoke this feeling, just by putting my own experience into words. If I think, “She went to an all-girl school in the Midwest,” I have an idea of what that was like–but I did go to an all-girl school in the Midwest, and it was very different from what my imagination kicks up.

My Imagination and My Reality Don’t Match Up

She then asks if there’s a word for it, and comes up with ‘parallax feeling’. I think it may be related to déjà vu (already seen).

“You know, it’s strange, you live in a place half your life and yet the sight of it from an unfamiliar angle can still surprise you, it was as though I had never before seen that building, so small and hollowed out against the treeless land.”

Michael Dorris has crafted a fierce saga of three generations of Indian women, beset by hardships and torn by angry secrets, yet inextricably joined by the bonds of kinship. Starting in the present day and moving backward, the novel is told in the voices of the three women: fifteen-year-old part-black Rayona; her American Indian mother, Christine, consumed by tenderness and resentment toward those she loves; and the fierce and mysterious Ida, mother and grandmother whose haunting secrets, betrayals, and dreams echo through the years, braiding together the strands of the shared past.

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How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

George Vicat Cole - Lannacombe Bay, Start Point in the distance

“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” is a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1912. At its heart, “Pearl Button” is a story about a clash of two cultures seen through a child’s eyes.

This story plays out as a duality of restriction and freedom. The European settlers are restricted while the Māori people enjoy freedom. “Pearl Button” is the only story in which Mansfield wrote about Māori. Her treatment of Māori from a white perspective was typical for the era — a romanticized opposition between Western and non-Western cultures. Mansfield came back to the idea of colonial constriction in later stories but focused on white New Zealanders.

SETTING OF “HOW PEARL BUTTON WAS KIDNAPPED”

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The Māori of New Zealand lived in a more communal way than New Zealand’s Pākehā immigrants. Pākehā arrived in Aotearoa and immediately started sectioning up the space — from land down to living quarters. While European settlers lived in little houses, Māori people did not live like this. The pā can refer to any Māori village or defensive settlement, and is the centre of a Māori community, extending the concept of family out beyond the traditional nuclear family by European concept. Mansfield grew up alongside Māori pā culture and would have noted the differences.

The story “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” juxtaposes two ways of living — the European way of living in segmented ‘little boxes’ versus the freer, more sensual Māori way of life, closer to nature. Pearl Button herself prefers the Māori way of life. Since Pearl is the focalising character, the reader is encouraged to share in her view.

There’s another kind of juxtaposition in this story as well, a really interesting one, and it was the first time Mansfield had used it. “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” was the first time Mansfield used narrative parallax.

Mansfield’s ironic use of parallax to suggest that the man’s experience of the world is multifaceted also marks the particular modulation into a selective, restricted perspective, which is Impressionistic in concept. She employs this technique haphazardly, beginning with “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” (1910) and ending with “Miss Brill” (1920).

There is no consistent development. The method depends on a single device: the restricting of the perspective and knowledge of a focaliser-character into a broadening, more objective narrator’s one. He is not emotionally detached from the scene, but capable of perceiving it from a great distance. It often involves an initiation, a sudden awareness or enlightenment (epiphany) of some profound significance.

The imposition of narrative distance on a scene of intense emotional concern on the part of the participant(s) creates an irony of perspective which often suggests the isolation of individual human beings, their lack of consequence in the universal flux of life, their diminutive significance as seen from a superior vantage point and their defiant private inflation of the significance of their own lives and the events that surround them.

One of the best examples of this method can be found in “The Little Governess“, where the nameless, inexperienced young governess is made aware of her fellow-travellers, of herself, and reality outside her. At the end of the story she is isolated from everyone because of her own inconsistent behaviour. She feels hopelessly insignificant and deflated by events.

Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism by Julia van Gunsteren

STORY STRUCTURE OF “HOW PEARL BUTTON WAS KIDNAPPED”

“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” is basically a carnivalesque story. If this were a children’s picture book, the kidnappers might be an animal — let’s say a cat in a hat — and there would be no police officers bringing the child back — the parents wouldn’t notice she’d gone. In a carnivalesque story the child escapes into fun.

Of course, Mansfield’s story has that very dark layer because Pearl Button really is kidnapped within the world of the story. Pearl has an Unexpected Emotional Reaction. We expect children to be distraught when taken away from their natal homes. But what if a child is so young and so detached from their family that one family could easily be switched out for another? Isn’t this the horror that gave rise to an entire category of changeling stories around the world?

Throughout her ‘kidnapping’, Pearl experiences positive emotions that burgeon out of bodily experience. The women first see her in the joyful, childlike act of swinging on a front gate. They reciprocate her motions by ‘waving their arms and clapping their hands together’. Pearl’s responsive laughter reveals that her primary means of experiencing the world is through reactive and embodied emotion. Later, she will cry when tired and confused, laugh when entertained by funny faces, and scream when she sees the ocean. She learns to enjoy the sea by entering it with the trusted woman, whom she is hugging and kissing at the moment she sees the ‘little blue men’ coming to carry her back home.

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology
Eight Fairy Tales edited by Watty Piper, Platt & Munk Co., Inc. 1934. Little Red Riding Hood. A girl swinging on her front gate is similar to the image of a girl looking out of her front window. She's ready for adventure. She doesn't know what kind of adventure, but she has a deep-seated desire to leave the confines of home.
Eight Fairy Tales edited by Watty Piper, Platt & Munk Co., Inc. 1934. Little Red Riding Hood. A girl swinging on her front gate is similar to the image of a girl looking out of her front window. She’s ready for adventure. She doesn’t know what kind of adventure, but she has a deep-seated desire to leave the confines of home.
Carlton Alfred Smith - "At the Garden Gate". In a different country, an older girl waits at a different gate for something to happen.
Carlton Alfred Smith – “At the Garden Gate”. In a different country, an older girl waits at a different gate for something to happen.

SHORTCOMING

Pearl’s problem is that she’s a little girl severely constricted by her European life. The story opens with her symbolic swinging on the gate.

Pearl clearly goes willingly with the women and never complains. We assume she wants to be there the whole time, though we might read the story a slightly different way — Pearl would have been taught not to complain. This is part of the restriction of being a girl in white society in that era. When she sat in the dust while eating a peach she might have complained when she spilled the juice on her petticoat. But she doesn’t complain — she instead just tells the women what has happened, and only because she is frightened of what comes next. Ruining pretty clothes is clearly a terrible misdemeanour where Pearl Button comes from.

DESIRE

In any carnivalesque story the main character (usually a child or child stand-in) only desires to have fun.

Pearl is itching to get out of that gate, out into the world where she can be closer to nature and run around with fewer clothes hampering her movements. Pearl doesn’t know this. She doesn’t know what she’s missing until she’s taken out of her European life, full of boundaries and restrictions.

Percy Trompf, The Seaside Calls, Take a Kodak, Vintage Poster,  c. 1935
Percy Trompf, The Seaside Calls, Take a Kodak, Vintage Poster, c. 1935

OPPONENT

For plotting purposes, the opposition is the cadre of policemen who come to ‘save’ Pearl from her fun. The reader will likely feel the opponents are the abductors because popular ideology would have it that children should stay with their natal families at all costs. This feeling is even more true today than it was in 1912 when first peoples’ children around the colonised world were regularly abducted from their families by white people (especially in Australia).

The story works with long-established tropes about the colonised racial other who experiences the world as a body rather than as a mind. The two women who encounter Pearl and bring her away with them are ‘big’ and walk slowly ‘because they [are] so fat’. These large feminine bodies are, like that of the grandmother in “The Little Girl”, extremely comforting for the young protagonist. Pearl ‘nestles’ into one woman’s lap, where her physical sensations bleed into a contented emotional state: ‘The woman was warm as a cat and she moved up and down when she breathed, just like purring […] Pearl had never been happy like this before.

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

The intrigue of this story rests upon the reader feeling worried for Pearl. A long history of storytelling has taught us this much: A taken child is in danger. Think of the Greek myths, with those terrible women who eat other people’s babies because they can’t have children of their own. They wreak havoc by eating other people’s babies instead. Lamia is a standout example.

So the reader expects Pearl to come to harm, but Katherine Mansfield’s kidnapper is more of a nymph than an ogre; rather than devour the child, these proxy nymphs taker her away to look after her. Mythological nymphs are especially drawn to looking after children who have been abandoned by their mothers. Pearl Button hasn’t been abandoned, but when the Māori women find her, she is on her own, with no whanau in sight. An unusual situation for a child, according to a Māori worldview at the time.

To further the analogy of the Greek nymphs, the Māori end up by the sea. The seaside could be coded as a New Zealand equivalent of the river Ilissos, where nymphs like to frolic in the water and enjoy the shade. Importantly, Greek nymphs are not evil. They don’t even have any backstories of their own — they are about potential (young women waiting to be married).

PLAN

Pearl is too young to be a ‘planner’ as such. The adults have the plan — they let Pearl move about freely by stripping her of most of her constricting Edwardian clothing. They let her frolic on the beach and have the new experience of playing in waves. Through the focalised viewpoint of Pearl, it seems these abductors exist only to have fun themselves. We never learn why they’ve taken Pearl or if they ever intended to return her. I doubt the Māori characters who took Pearl didn’t see it as abduction, but rather a casual sharing of the parenting load, fully intending to return her at the end of the day.

BIG STRUGGLE

When the Māori mother undresses Pearl she is preparing Pearl for a metaphorical Battle. In a carnivalesque story there’s no Battle as such — instead the fun gets funner and funner, culminating in peak fun before something or someone intervenes to bring everything to an end. The child returns to their normal life in a home-away-home structure.

But there’s a structural difference between “Pearl Button” (a lyrical short story) and, say, The Cat In The Hat or The Tiger Who Came To Tea — carnivalesque picture books for preschoolers. “Pearl Button” stars a preschooler, but is clearly not for a preschool audience.

The difference is that Pearl has some sort of revelation. She doesn’t understand it, but she feels it at a sensory level. Mansfield makes use of the sea…

ANAGNORISIS

She made a cup of her hands and caught some of it. But it stopped being blue in her hands.

Throughout the story, Mansfield has mentioned colour over and over — Pearl notices the different colours of things. When witnessed as a whole, the ocean looks blue but not when she tries to hold a tiny portion of it in her hands. This detail stands in for a Anagnorisis — no doubt unformed and preverbal — after all Pearl is still a young child. What is the nascent revelation? That things look lovely from this distance (as a temporary visitor) but as soon as she gets right into it the illusion disintegrates. Her day of fun with the Māori families is about to come to an end.

It is in fact the sensory experience of the ocean that provokes the most feeling from Pearl. Its warmth, wetness and unique visual properties — ‘it stopped being blue in her hands’ — get her to shriek, exclaim and throw ‘her thin little arms round the woman’s neck’. During this time away from the restrictive civilisation of the ‘House of Boxes’, Pearl, unlike young Kass, does not have to fight a natural order in which feeling comes first.

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

NEW SITUATION

We extrapolate that the police will charge the abductors and Pearl will be returned to her family. I doubt she’ll suffer trauma because her big day out has been a lovely experience. But her freedom will probably be curtailed from now on. I doubt her mother will let her swing on the front gate without close supervision. She’ll be cautioned against talking to strangers. Pearl will be more fearful from now on. Her days of childlike bliss and innocence are over.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

  • Another story in which Mansfield explores how affectionate physical contact plays into the emotional relationships between children and adults is “The Little Girl“.
  • “The Representation Of The Maori By European Artists In New Zealand, Ca 1890-1914″ by Leonard Bell elaborates on how native New Zealanders were fictionalised by colonial settlers.
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Header painting: George Vicat Cole – Lannacombe Bay, Start Point in the distance

See Saw by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

See Saw by Frederick Morgan

“See Saw” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1919.

Before Katherine Mansfield (and similar writers e.g. Chekhov) came along, stories were all about storytelling. The whole point of telling a story: To immerse the reader in a fascinating event, to paint a picture of setting and character, and possibly to teach readers a life lesson without forcing them to make the same mistakes.

Mansfield was all about form. For some of Mansfield’s stories, the shape of the story is so important that without that close relationship between form and ‘events’, the story doesn’t work. There would be no point to its existence.

“See Saw” is possibly the standout example of a lyrical short story whose ‘events’ are wholly dependent on form.

The movement of a playground see saw shapes the story. The see saw motif as well as the saw-saw shape of the story mirror a human life, and the way age counterbalances youth.

The Voyage” and “Sun and Moon” are examples of further Mansfield short stories which juxtapose children and adults. As well as childhood and old age, “See Saw” also juxtaposes flawed humans against the beauty of nature. Everything is a counterbalance. Everything is a juxtaposition. Hence the importance of form.

Muriel Helen Dawson from Nursery Rhymes for Children 'See-Saw' 1930s, a New Zealand illustrator
Muriel Helen Dawson from Nursery Rhymes for Children ‘See-Saw’ 1930s, a New Zealand illustrator

SETTING OF “SEE SAW”

TIME

Katherine Mansfield is often called a modernist writer. The modernist movement happened from about 1900 until mid 20th century. One feature of modernist stories: the slightly unusual treatment of time.

Critics have talked about ‘the temporal unconscious’. This refers to how time manifests itself subliminally in literary works. In the antipodes (including New Zealand), it worked slightly differently. The modernist works that came from New Zealand and Australia and surrounds have been called ‘micromodernism’ (by Tim Armstrong). It’s to do with the sense of distance we have, growing up so far away from the imaginative ‘home land’ which, back then, was England.

When writers juxtapose children against elderly people, the effect is often this: We are both young and old at once. Young people are reminded that they too will be old someday. Old people rarely forget that they used to be young, often seeing themselves as permanently young as a way of avoiding thoughts of death. Alice Munro also achieves this effect by juxtaposing youth against age.

NATURE

Across Mansfield’s short stories, nature is depicted as a beautiful and serene phenomenon amid the calamities of human strife. Natural scenes juxtapose against the corruption of human action. Nature is often used to evoke a special atmosphere in order to create an Impressionistic Stimmung (mood). In “See Saw”, the narrator paints an unambiguously beautiful scene, but the characters don’t see it because they are engaged in the petty, annoying details of their lives.

SEASON

Spring.

Springtime on the Farm by Molly Brett ~ (1902~1990) see-saw
Springtime on the Farm by Molly Brett ~ (1902~1990) see-saw

So the story begins. Mansfield often opened a story with a word, clause or sentence which grounds the reader in time/space. Likewise, “Pictures” opens with ‘Eight o’clock in the morning’. “Daughters of the Late Colonel” opens with ‘The week after was one of the busiest weeks of their lives’. “The Lady’s Maid” opens with ‘Eleven o’clock, a knock at the door’.

Why is spring significant here? Spring means new beginnings, outdoor pursuits, a return to youth (or enjoyment of actual youth). All of these associations can of course be ironically inverted. If spring means youth, autumn means old age. The old people in this story are described as ‘old babies’. In spring, everyone can return to the playfulness of youth.

Grown-up people are often compared with children and children with grown-ups. This reveals contrasting joyful or painful emotions. Sad tones often dominate the scene, sometimes conveying a feeling of claustrophobia, when characters feel as if they are in prison or hospital, or like actors performing on a stare. People appear like actors, wearing masks.

Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism
Marie-Madeleine FRENCH NOHAIN
Marie-Madeleine FRENCH NOHAIN

STORY STRUCTURE OF “SEE SAW”

There is no literal see saw in this story. Mansfield’s titles often changed and didn’t necessarily point to the most important image or character but in this case, the title encourages the reader to wonder about its structural significance. Perhaps Mansfield chose this title hoping to show us that this story structure mimics the basic mechanism of a see saw, reciprocating motion:

  • The children play house while the old people talk about real life concerns
  • They alternate roles (wife and mother / husband and son)
  • And alternate between joy and anger
Edward Atkinson Hornel - The Seesaw 1905
Edward Atkinson Hornel – The Seesaw 1905

A story shaped like a see saw will be a story about juxtaposition, reciprocality and perhaps a change in emotional valence. What is Mansfield juxtaposing here? As mentioned above, she juxtaposes age against youth. But she’s also levelling them out. See saws don’t work if the person at one end is weightier. Despite a constant difference in altitude, the see saw carries to equals. Youth = age.

After Mansfield gives us a wide-angle view of the park in spring, the ‘teeter’ movement of the metaphorical see-saw begins.

  • Narration zooms in on two children.
  • Beneath a tree, two little children, perhaps five or six, have set up a make-believe house. They make a  make-believe pie. For that they need to create a make-believe fire, and they need sticks. Make-believe sticks will suffice.

The ‘totter’ takes over:

  • The scene shifts to the top of the hollow by the tree.
  • Two ‘fat old babies’, probably in their late seventies, plump themselves down on a bench.
  • They talk about a mutual acquaintance who has cut her finger, ‘not badly’.
  • A bird flies over with a ‘great jet of song’.
  • The elderly man stands and waves his hat in the direction of the tree. He doesn’t want bird muck on him.

The see-saw moves again:

  • The children’s make-believe fire is hot.
  • They get into an argument over whether dogs have kittens.

The see-saw moves again:

  • In a single sentence, the old couple get up and waddle away. (Babies also waddle, because of their napkins.)
The Ladybird Book Of Bedtime Stories Geoffrey Lapage, Illustrations George Brook (Wills & Hepworth Ltd., Loughborough UK, 9th edition 1950)
The Ladybird Book Of Bedtime Stories Geoffrey Lapage, Illustrations George Brook (Wills & Hepworth Ltd., Loughborough UK, 9th edition 1950)

SHORTCOMING

Compare “See Saw” To “Prelude“, in which old people also look like babies. In “Prelude” Mansfield inverts various expectations, not only the appearance of age, but men are equally sensitive as women and women behave like men. Linda, a mother, hates being a mother. Beryl says “I’m always acting a part”.

The girl in “See Saw” might easily be a child version of Beryl.

William Henry Knight - In Training for the Derby 1856
William Henry Knight – In Training for the Derby 1856

The elderly people get little joy from life; they are weary. Bird muck bothers the man. Make-believe food will not sustain them. Nevertheless, the old people occupy their spot on the other end of the see-saw that is life.

CHILDREN PLAYING MAKE-BELIEVE

The children aren’t worried about ageing. Yet they have clearly absorbed the language of the adults around them. The girl expresses mild but constant irritation at the boy, for failing to do his jobs properly, for failing to understand he’s playing a make-believe role. Mansfield’s scenes in which children play together often function like this. The children’s make-believe games in “Prelude” map clearly onto the social worlds of the adults. Like the Burnell children, these two are factually unsophisticated but not textually unsophisticated.

Unlike the Burnell children, these are working class kids, with the girl’s non-standard English to show that. She therefore mimics the workaday tasks of a busy, working class woman rather than worrying about how make-believe visitors are to be addressed (see “Prelude”). She asks the boy, “Is that a whole pennorth?” meaning “Is that a whole penny’s worth of sticks?”

DESIRE

The children want to play at making house — especially the girl, who is driving the game. The boy is sort of doing as he’s told.

The elderly people want to enjoy the mild weather of spring after a long winter shut indoors. But are they really enjoying themselves?

OPPONENT

The boy isn’t fully onboard with the girl’s make-believe world. He doesn’t have quite the same ability to retreat into his imagination. He quite literally thinks he needs to find sticks, until the girl points out that even the sticks could be make-believe.

The old people sit companionably but not exactly contentedly.

SETTING AS OPPOSITION

Mansfield’s opening suggested it’s spring and everyone should be enjoying the beautiful weather. Yet the two groups of characters are at odds with each other.  The children are somewhat irritated that they can’t even get an imaginary game to take off. They look at each other ‘in consternation’ when the fire won’t light using nails. Technically, the kids could make the game do anything they want. But their imagination is hampered. The girl is mimicking the consternation of an adult woman, too busy for frivolities. In this way, Mansfield equates youth with old age.

So despite the beautiful utopian park, where the weather is always springlike, this story is therefore an inversion of spring symbolism. The setting isn’t helping them to enjoy themselves at all. In some ways the setting is an opponent.

Characters are in danger of getting sprayed in bird muck, unable to enjoy the bird’s beautiful song.

The hollow used by the children seems fun as a mimicry of home, but these hollows are also described as ‘caves — caverns’ (note Mansfield’s emphasis via repetition).  Caves can be scary places.

PLAN

The girl sees her original game isn’t working so she changes the dynamics, showing a quite sophisticated ability to read the situation and adjust accordingly.

BIG STRUGGLE

Each of the two couples has their own minor argument. The children have the argument about whether dogs can have kittens (comical from the reader’s point of view). The elderly couple don’t argue as such, but the shared target of their reprobation is the woman who carelessly (to them) cut her finger at dinner with a knife.

ANAGNORISIS

The tragedy for these characters is that there is no anagnorisis.

NEW SITUATION

We extrapolate that if this beautiful spring day in this beautiful park can’t bring out the cheer in people then people are naturally grumpy.

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Header painting: See Saw by Frederick Morgan

Carnation by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

Carnation” (1918) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, included in her Something Childish collection. I like this one very much a rare story of blossoming female friendship.

SETTING OF “CARNATION”

Mansfield often opens stories in medias res and grounds us in the setting:

On those hot days

The entire story takes place in a French classroom at a girl’s school on a hot summer’s day. In Mansfield’s stories characters are usually unable to comprehend much beyond their own personal world, however beautiful the natural surroundings and its ‘Stimmung’ (mood). The characters in this story are presented to us wholly within the classroom and its immediate surroundings. There’s no sense of anything existing off-stage.

“Carnation” is a standout example of Mansfield’s synaesthesic sensibilities.

Synaesthesia is a neurological trait or condition that results in a joining or merging of senses that aren’t normally connected. The stimulation of one sense causes an involuntary reaction in one or more of the other senses. For example, someone with synaesthesia may hear colour or see sound.

The Independent

I wonder how Mansfield experienced senses. Across Mansfield’s corpus of writing she blends and fuses the senses to create a dreamlike space for the reader, and to emulate the trance experienced by a character.

John William Waterhouse - At the Shrine
John William Waterhouse – At the Shrine. Girls smelling flowers are a common subject in Victorian English art.

CONNECTION TO MANSFIELD’S OWN LIFE

Mansfield learned French at school, though surprisingly for a world class short story writer, maths was her strongest subject. Students who are good at maths also tend to be very good at languages both maths and second-language learning rely on an affinity for patterns.

In New Zealand, French has traditionally been the language you take if you’re in the academic stream. Less academically inclined girls were channeled into the secretarial route. This remained true at least until my mother’s generation of girls (the 1960s). If you were in the academic stream you could be a teacher. Otherwise you could be a secretary or a nurse.  Girls were of course expected to marry men and become mothers, which turned them into women.

Mansfield’s high school experience preceded my mother’s by half a century and I can’t imagine how stifled she felt as a natural-born contrarian. She did come from a well-off family, and probably knew even at high school that she’d be looked after financially, at least in the basic sense. Her father provided her with 100 pounds per annum. This covered her absolute necessities, though didn’t forestall money worries in Europe.

Mansfield could never be persuaded to study what she didn’t want to study, but she must have enjoyed her French classes. She learned French to quite a high level. Kathleen and her sisters would speak French to each other in front of adult acquaintances and were no doubt insufferable, because they assumed no one else around them was smart enough or worldly enough to understand what they were saying.

John William Waterhouse - The Soul of the Rose
John William Waterhouse – The Soul of the Rose

STORY STRUCTURE OF “CARNATION”

SHORTCOMING

This is the Shortcoming of any teenager almost anywhere enforced boredom and constriction.

THE WINDOW

The two square windows of the French Room were open at the bottom and the dark blinds drawn half way down. Although no air came in, the blind cord swung out and back and the blind lifted. But really there was not a breath from the dazzle outside.

In Mansfield’s short stories, a constantly shifting perspective gives the reader a series of shocks, as one perspective shifts to another. In these stories, look for windows and mirrors. In “Carnation” the symbol happens to be a window.

Katie is experiencing nascent sexuality. Katie seems less mature than Eve I gather this from Eve’s name but also from Eve’s relationship to sensory enjoyment. Until Katie looks out that window, it’s almost as if she’s never allowed herself to enjoy looking at a man like that. Yet she’s not fully mature. There’s still a glass pane between herself and that other, adult world.

But it’s not just the man Katie enjoys. This isn’t an eros that focuses on the man he is incidental to her pleasure. Mansfield only describes the man’s body after describing all sorts of things in the environment, including the drops glancing off the wheel, the sound of the pump and so on. All of these things are quasi-erotic to Katie.

THE HATS

“Roses are delicious, my dear Katie,” she would say, standing in the dim cloak room, with a strange decoration of flowery hats on the hat pegs behind her…

Hats in Mansfield’s stories are repeatedly associated with systems of authority. (This is not stated but unarticulated) e.g. “The Tiredness of Rosabel“. In “Something Childish But Very Natural“, Henry’s story begins with him becoming separated from his hat in a different train carriage. This seems to relieve him of inhibitions. In “The Garden Party” the images of hats are incorporated in the action of the story not only because people wore hats in those days and put a lot of thought into them, but also because they are related to moral values.

What is the hat imagery doing here? Eve is ’embodying’ the flower, with all is overlapping sensory offerings. By putting on a hat covered in flowers she is ’embodying’ the sensory experience of flowers, perhaps. A floral hat is the inverse of stuffy, prim bowler hats and so on.

THE BIRD

When Mansfield compares people to animals, beasts, insects, water-creatures or birds, unpleasant emotions are revealed. Insects are helpless, snakes are cunning, spiders are hunting for prey. Rabbits are escaping. They all represent a cruel or suffering aspect of humankind.

Mansfield especially likes bird images. Bird comparisons comprise almost half of all the animal imagery. In some stories, birds represent freedom or happiness (because they fly and seem to sing joyfully).

The bird imagery in “Carnation” is an excellent example of how Mansfield makes use of birds. Katie’s laugh is compared to a bird, which Mansfield describes as scary:

And away her little thin laugh flew, fluttering among those huge, strange flower heads on the wall behind her. (But how cruel her little thin laugh was! It had a long sharp beak and claws and two bead eyes, thought fanciful Katie.)

Over the course of “Carnations” the character of Eve changes in Katie’s eyes, from a scary bird girl (more like a harpy) to a seductive bird girl (more like a siren).

by Viktor Vasnetsov
colour SYMBOLISM

Mansfield uses colour for more than simply describing something. Colour images fall into two basic categories:

  1. Colour images related to the visual experience of the character looking at it
  2. Colour images expressing the atmospheric mood or a character’s mental state.

[Eve] brought a carnation to the French class, a deep, deep red one, that looked as though it had been dipped in wine and left in the dark to dry. She held it on the desk before her, half shut her eyes and smiled.

The carnation is literally deep red, but what of Katie’s reaction to it? She feels it has been ‘dipped in wine’ an adult drink ‘and left in the dark’ where adult/secret acts happen.

Mansfield doesn’t use the colour red very often. Instead she uses purple, green and gentle colours such as mild yellows, greys and blues. She’s more inclined to focus on variations in light.

The colour in this paragraph is more typical:

Even the girls, in the dusky room, in their pale blouses, with stiff butterfly-bow hair ribbons perched on their hair, seemed to give off a warm, weak light, and M. Hugo’s white waistcoat gleamed like the belly of a shark.

So what of the red of the carnation in this story? There is clearly some burning passion going on, even if it’s without a specific target.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - In My Studio
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – In My Studio

DESIRE

The girls don’t want to study French. They want to kick back on this stifling hot day.

At first Eve seems to be going for some strange social capital. That’s obviously how Katie sees her, and we’re encouraged to see her through Katie’s eyes. The weird girl who eats flowers:

On those hot days Eve — curious Eve — always carried a flower. She snuffed it and snuffed it, twirled it in her fingers, laid it against her cheek, held it to her lips, tickled Katie’s neck with it, and ended, finally, by pulling it to pieces and eating it, petal by petal.

I remember the first time I saw someone eating petals. It was on the 1987 movie The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese epic. After the royals are evicted from the Forbidden City the empress is sidelined. The Empress becomes so disaffected the filmmakers depicted her eating the floral displays at her husband’s coronation as emperor of Manchukuo, before moving on to the more diverting pastimes of opium.

We know she did become addicted to opium.

The Last Emperor eat flower
The Last Empress eating the floral display

Don’t try eating poppies at home. Don’t try selling poppy seeds from a  Wellington dairy, either, unless you sell a commensurate amount of other baking materials.

Frederick Sandys - Love's Shadow (Proud Maisie) 1867
Frederick Sandys – Love’s Shadow (Proud Maisie) 1867

But carnations are actually edible, if grown organically.

When Eve eats the carnation, what’s that all about? This is part of Eve’s desire to eke every sensory pleasure from her environment. I believe she takes equal pleasure from seeing others do the same.

Lélie, opium smoker (1916) by Raphaël Kirchner
Lélie, opium smoker (1916) by Raphaël Kirchner

OPPONENT

The girls are divided in a binary way which feels reminiscent of an adolescent classroom, in which everyone experiences puberty in their own time.

Some of the girls were very red in the face and some were white.

Eventually the other characters are ‘killed off’, leaving innocent Katie counterposed to knowing Eve:

…most of the girls fell forward, over the desks, their heads on their arms, dead at the first shot. Only Eve and Katie sat upright and still.

Mansfield liked the technique of counterposing one character with another. In the same way, excited and searching Bertha is counterposed to the calm and contained Pearl Fulton in “Bliss“. Sabina is counterposed next to the pregnant woman in “At Lehmann’s“. In the “Prelude” trilogy Kezia is set next to Linda, Beryl and Mrs Fairfield. This method of juxtaposing characters’ attitudes and moods give structural unity to stories.

I see Katie and Eve as quasi-romantic opponents. Eve is the more stereotypical masculine figure, showing a sexually inexperienced feminine figure the pleasures of life. Katie is initially resistant, even to something as benign as a flower:

Oh, the scent! It floated across to Katie. It was too much. Katie turned away to the dazzling light outside the window.

The other Oppositional web is that which exists between the French teacher and his students, especially Francie Owen, who is decorating herself with ink. (I suspect if Mansfield lived today she’d be thoroughly inked in sleeves of floral tattoos.)

In Mansfield’s stories characters are often defying societal expectations in some way. Their French teacher is not a manly man, shown with the detail of the floral detail on his small, highly decorative book. The girls mock him, possibly because he defies their expectation of manliness:

How well they knew the little blue book with red edges that he tugged out of his coat tail pocket! It had a green silk marker embroidered in forget-me-nots. They often giggled at it when he handed the book round. Poor old Hugo–Wugo!

PLAN

The French teacher first wants the students to learn French, but there is resistance due to the heat of the day. M. Hugo acquiesces, and changes his lesson plan; now they will listen to him read French poetry.

The reactions to this news are various.

“Good God!” moaned Francie Owen.

So the ‘Plan’ in this story is driven by the teacher, but the teacher is soon released from his position as Oppositional character.

Ambrosius Bosschaert Flower Still Life from 1614.
Ambrosius Bosschaert Flower Still Life from 1614.

BIG STRUGGLE

The students listen to their French teacher read poetry. The narrative ‘camera’ zooms in on Katie, who looks out the classroom window and, with all of her senses fusing, she ‘experiences’ the body of the man pumping water outside, looking at him with The Female Gaze. Her experience of looking at him is close to orgasmic.

Now she could hear a man clatter over the cobbles and the jing-jang of the pails he carried. And now Hoo-hor-her! Hoo-hor-her! as he worked the pump, and a great gush of water followed. Now he was flinging the water over something, over the wheels of a carriage, perhaps. And she saw the wheel, propped up, clear of the ground, spinning round, flashing scarlet and black, with great drops glancing off it. And all the while he worked the man kept up a high bold whistling, that skimmed over the noise of the water as a bird skims over the sea. He went away — he came back again leading a cluttering horse.

She saw him simply — in a faded shirt, his sleeves rolled up, his chest bare, all splashed with water — and as he whistled, loud and free, and as he moved, swooping and bending…

The whole room broke into pieces.

This is the ‘Battle’ scene, and an excellent example of how Battle scenes don’t always look like big struggles/fights/skirmishes/arguments.

ANAGNORISIS

If we go outside the imagery of this particular story, In ancient Greek tradition, for instance, the carnation represented symbols of love.

What’s happening when Eve gives the flower to Katie? Eve is clearly an intertextual name, associated with temptation. Eve might be giving Katie an apple, in a gender-mix up of the Garden of Eden section of the Bible.

It seems to me that while Katie has been watching the man outside, Eve has been watching Katie. When Eve gives Katie the flower, it feels like permission to enjoy the experience of watching a man in that way. Eve is giving Katie the gift of the flower, but also the gift of permission to enjoy any sensory experience that comes her way.

Is it sexual? It’s proto-sexual enjoying sensory pleasures such as the feel of petals and water running across our feet is the first step to enjoying sexual pleasures.

NEW SITUATION

Mansfield’s stories tend to follow a regular pattern with the ‘positive’ theme dominant until the climax (the Battle). Then it comes into decisive conflict and is superseded by the negative theme. In other words, the story often takes a turn for the depressing at this point.

However, “Carnation” does not end like this. I see “Carnation” as a story about the blossoming and cementing of female friendship. When Eve gives Katie the carnation, they are experiencing an “I Understand You Moment”, a necessary component of every love story. (Without this moment the audience won’t believe that two lovers would be any good together.)

And “Keep it, dearest,” said Eve. “Souvenir tendre, [tender memories]” and she popped the carnation down the front of Katie’s blouse.

Keep what? Is Katie’s little epiphany permanent? I think so.

George Dunlop Leslie - Pot-Pourri
George Dunlop Leslie – Pot-Pourri

Though Katie may not understand why Eve gave her the carnation, she’ll always remember the moment. She may look at this particular carnation more carefully. She may enjoy its spicy scent and feel its velvety petals, all by way of learning to enjoy sensations, or perhaps by way of holding onto a childlike joy of sensory experience against the stifling environment of the teenage schoolroom.

Helen Grace Culverwell Marsh-Lambert or HGC Marsh-Lambert (1888 – 1981) was a British writer and illustrator of children's books
Helen Grace Culverwell Marsh-Lambert or HGC Marsh-Lambert (1888 – 1981) was a British writer and illustrator of children’s books
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Header painting: Detail from La Confidence, by American painter Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1880).

Two Types Of Short Stories

Edmund Blair Leighton - The Ticket

Length aside, short stories are not like other works. There is something just… different about them. This difference is not about length; it’s about function. However, some stories function no differently from a novel. They’re simply… shorter.

This post is an exploration of the qualitative differences between what we might call The Literary Short Story compared to short narratives enjoyed by a wider audience — we might call it The Genre Short Story, with no hierarchy between the two and no value judgement whatsoever. The Genre Short Story has a function equivalent to a novel.

Some commentators use the words ‘Plotted’ and ‘Planned’ to describe the difference rather than ‘Lyrical’ and ‘Genre’.

PLOTTED/PLOTTY/PLOT DRIVEN

The sequence of events is crucial in some genres. In mystery, for instance, the writer drops clues. The order of events is crucial in building the mystery and creating suspense.

e.g. Stephen King writes plotted short stories. In horror, the sequence of events is crucial in order to build fear in the reader.

In the plot-driven story, the narrative must have a satisfying conclusion. In these stories, too there is an illuminating moment, an epiphany, but unlike in the image-based story, the epiphany happens due to external happenings rather than inner, psychological conflict within a character.

Michael Chabon, editor of McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales, calls Stephen King ‘the Last Master of the Plotted Short Story’.

Here’s what King himself says on that same issue:

Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.

The short stories you find in women’s magazines will be of this kind. They have more in common with the folktale than with the contemporary short story as described below. Readers of plotted short stories will appreciate a tightly plotted narrative, expect suspense techniques in the writing (reveals and reversals) and will appreciate a strong ending, for instance a twist, or at least a big surprise.

These stories also have tall tales and gothic stories (e.g. Dickens and Hardy) as ancestors.

PLANNED/PLOTLESS/IMAGE BASED/LYRICAL

These stories are based on imagery rather than events and paved the way for modernist writers (early 20th century). We could call them Image Based stories.

Joyce Carol Oates has said that these short stories function like dreams, which are highly imagistic. Oates has said that a short story is like a verbalised dream arranged in space and that the dream says something meaningful about our deeper desires. Therefore, like a dream, the short story is all about deep desires. If you’ve brushed against Freud, you’ll understand that this is Freudian. Freud theoried in 1900 that dreams are manifestations of repressed desires.

Others call them Lyrical Stories. There is a general plan, but not a plot in the sense that genre fiction requires certain scenes before the story is done. Stories concentrate on the inner mood of characters, and their subjective impressions rather than on external events.

These stories can be very short or very long — this lyrical quality is independent of word count.

Early writers of these stories distrusted plotty stories for a variety of reasons:

  • The classic story shape with its satisfying ending is indeed satisfying… but real life doesn’t work like that. There are many different ‘endings’ to any given event.
  • Plotted stories rely on a too ready-made and facile identification of cause and effect. In fact, they rely on the reader’s cognitive bias to attribute an effect to an earlier presented event. In real life, that’s not how causality works and perhaps we shouldn’t encourage people to revel in such stories.
  • When a story has a ‘strong’ ending, the reader is left with a falsely delineated sense of a finish, when in fact the character will go on with their life. No short story can actually achieve something finished, absolute and wholly understood. There will always be questions. Why not leave the reader with more questions than answers?
  • Continuing with the dream/short story analogy, any epiphany/self-revelation/anagnorisis may simply involve surfacing a deeper desire, if only for a fleeting moment. In 1983, Valerie Shaw said that a lyrical short story brings ‘the character to full consciousness for the first time in his life’.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE LYRICAL SHORT STORY

Why did these stories come about? We need to look at the historical milieu. Darwin comes in here. When Darwin shared his big idea, he knew the effect it would have on people. This is why he was so nervous about sharing it. Suddenly humans seemed demoted. We didn’t have all the answers after all. Humans now seemed insignificant, no longer the centre of the universe.

How did people cope with this new idea? By retreating inwards and making use of the compensatory powers of imagination.

These short stories are a part of the Impressionist movement. Many are what we might call a ‘psychological sketch’.

FEATURES OF THE PSYCHOLOGICAL SKETCH
  • The psychological story is about some kind of major change of feeling, or emotional valence. A character starts off happy and ends in a melancholy mood, say. (“Bliss” by Katherine Mansfield.)
  • This change in mood is conveyed via the symbol web and through patterns and images.
  • Themes are not stated directly.
  • The writer fuses narrator and character through a method of narration known as ‘free indirect style’ or ‘free indirect discourse’. This is where there’s a blurred line between what the narrator is telling us and what’s going on inside a character’s head. This style of narration allows for a more direct and colloquial register.

Whichever words we choose, these stories are similar to photographs, capturing a moment. Events are like a montage, and the writer plans rather than plots the most appropriate arrangement. Imagery creates the unity between the different pictures/scenes. Characters tend to have more psychological complexity.

e.g. Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner.

Freud was influential for all of these writers, as well as the philosopher Bergson; Freud for his ideas on the subconscious and Bergon for his interest in the flow of time.

Header illustration: Edmund Blair Leighton – The Ticket

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