Three time levels are used simultaneously (past, present, future)
A central theme throughout Mansfield’s work: ‘fastidious feminine recoil from the arrogant male, conflicting with a romantic idealism and resulting in disillusionment’ (Alpers).
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE TIREDNESS OF ROSABEL”
Rosabel takes a bus home after a tiring day working in a millinery shop. She thinks of a good dinner, feeling she would sacrifice her soul. On the bus, Rosabel sits next to a girl reading a sentimental novel. Once home in her room, Rosabel recalls two well-dressed customers who came to the shop to buy a hat for the young lady. They had been hard to please until Rosabel found a hat that entranced them all. Rosabel models the hat at the request of the young woman, who then buys it. The couple leave, but not before the young man has spoken to Rosabel with a touch of insolence.
Alone in her room, Rosabel imagines that she is the young woman with the new hat, inspired by the sentimental novel she noticed on the bus.
STORYWORLD OF “THE TIREDNESS OF ROSABEL”
the limited OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN
In the first paragraph, Rosabel would like to eat a substantial meal at Lyon’s. This is a massive chain which closed the year before I was born, so I’ve had to look it up. Basically, Lyon’s sounds a bit like Starbucks today. In 1920, the waitresses who worked there weren’t allowed to bob their hair. (That rule was loosened up in 1924.) Young women who worked there were supposed to find it easy to find a marriage partner, which is a solemn reminder of the limited options for young women in those days. Mansfield’s character of Rosabel, likewise, existed in the world as a pre-married young lady, whose main purpose in life was to find a husband.
SENSORY IMAGES AND JUXTAPOSITION
Rosabel gets onto a London bus, next to a girl reading a ‘tear’ spattered book. The warm, humid bus with its garish advertisements contrasts with the magical streets outside.
All five senses are evoked:
The street is blurred and misty
Rosabel’s feet are horribly wet
The sickening smell of warm humanity
The girl licks her fingers and mouths her words
Rosabel feels stifled
Rosabel’s own room is marked by poverty, with the chipped enamel on the wash basin and the overall grimy description. We already know she’s living in poverty because she’s hungry. She would like a meal including meat but can only afford a scone, tea and boiled egg. Later in the story, a male customer will compliment her on her petite figure. The irony is one that endures today — Rosabel is fashionably petite (in the 1920s, a straight-up-and-down, boyish body for women was the dominant ideal). But Rosabel’s small body is due to lack of nutrition. The man wouldn’t suspect that for a moment, never having experienced hunger himself.
In this era, hats were a booming business because no one was seen in public without one. Hat shops are far fewer now, beause elaborate hats are worn only on very special occasions.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE TIREDNESS OF ROSABEL”
The structure of “The Tiredness of Rosabel” juxtaposes Rosabel’s reality with her imagined world, highlighting the difference between them. In 1908, ‘structure creating metaphor’ was something of a revolution in British short fiction. Mansfield grew up in New Zealand but was part of that revolution. At the time, short stories were not considered an art form in their own right, but rather a sort of inferior novel for beginners.
NARRATION AND LANGUAGE
Apart from the final sentence, the point of view is consistent. The narrator’s comments merge with Rosabel’s thoughts to minimise the distance between readers and the story. This serves to draw the readers into Rosabel’s world and keep us there.
Language employed by the narrator is the same as Rosabel’s, and we hardly notice a difference between Rosabel’s voice and the that of the unseen narrator.
Some critics have said that the final sentence is not in keeping with the tone and focus of the story, violating point of view.
Critics have also said that Mansfield’s parenthetical expressions break the narrative at awkward places. For example, we don’t need to know that Rosabel’s knees are getting stiff and that she is so taken by her own fantasy that she laughs out loud. What kind of details should authors include in stories? For more on that, see this post. What do you think about these details? Alice Munro is another short story specialist who includes unexpected detail.
A young woman makes her way home from work in central London. She works in a hat shop.
Rosabel is also a fantasist, but not in a way that damages others, as in the Mansfield-esque movie My Summer of Love.
This story opens with Rosabel buying violets for herself. Later, she dreams the young man buys her great sprays of violets yet still there is enough money for a lavish lunch. Throughout the day, serving customers, she imagines being at a ball. The ball tires her out in the same way serving customers tires her out, hence the title. The story is full of parallels between Rosabel’s real world and her fantasy world.
Fantasising about another life is Rosabel’s way of coping with her own economic reality. She is weary (and I submit, undernourished, probably iron deficient). Mansfield makes use of sentence structure to reflect the weariness of Rosabel. The sentence structure of Rosabel’s real world contrasts with the light structure apparent in her dream state.
We are inclined to be quite harsh on fantasists.
But what are Rosabel’s options, really? Her best hope is meeting a well-off young man to marry.
Rosabel’s innocence is underscored when her imagined night with the man does not include sex – she may not have considered what comes next in a real world relationship.
Rosabel would like to escape living in poverty. That’s her long-term desire, which we deduce from her immediate desires:
First she imagines she ate a much more expensive and sustaining evening meal.
Once home and in bed, she imagines scenario in which she and her rich customer swapped places.
The violets in the opening sentence are a motif throughout; like the violets, Rosabel herself is delicate of taste, sensitive, charming and innocent. Perhaps the purple colour of the flowers suggests royalty – the role Rosabel would like to play.
Rosabel’s foil character is the rich young woman who comes to buy a hat. Rosabel imagines herself in her place later, and she is attracted to (as well as repelled by) the young woman’s beau. The young man is obviously attracted to Rosabel, which is Rosabel’s entry point into her imagined other-self.
Perhaps a story like this one challenges the idea that a character needs a plan in order for the story to work.
But Rosabel does have a plan. Her ‘plan’ is to go home and continue her fantasy in private, really delving into her secret, other world.
I’ve often wondered what proportion of people have a secret fantasy world they regularly dip into for fun and escapism. I know anyone who writes definitely has this facility. What about the proportion of humanity who does not write?
The ‘Battle’ of this story is the interaction Rosabel has with the young man and woman. She almost cries from anger. We don’t necessarily know exactly what this anger is borne of until afterwards — plain unfairness. When Rosabel is required to try on that hat, she’s literally trying on another girl’s life.
Hats are often used this way in stories, as well as in real life — crowns are the ultimate ‘hat’ which are used to symbolise a new role for its wearer. The addition of a crown suddenly makes one a prince. Hats exist partly to tell the world who you are. White hats and black hats in Western movies tell the audience who’s good and who is bad. Jon Klassen’s tortoises fight over a hat for a good reason — a hat would make one tortoise more important than the other.
When the young man (creepily, in my opinion) cracks on to Rosabel, despite being there with his own girlfriend, Rosabel seems to realise that finding a rich boy to marry might not be out of her reach after all, because of the way she looks.
As I mentioned above, because she happens to be fashionably slim, Rosabel matches the female fashion of the era, and in a rich girl’s hat she looks exactly the same as a genuine rich girl.
Why could that not have been her? It’s all down to luck and circumstance. And she knows it. Perhaps she has realised it fully, only after literally trying on another woman’s hat.
Rosabel goes about her day, eventually building upon her regular fantasy of a better life.
We extrapolate that she will go to work at the hat shop the next day and the next and the next. Because of her looks, who knows? She may well attract the serious attention of a rich boy.
But I doubt it. Rich boys don’t enter hat shops unless they’re there with an existing girlfriend. And this boy isn’t serious about Rosabel. I think he enjoys the adrenaline of temporary attraction, and the power he has over a shop girl, unable to respond as herself, bound to formality by her subservient role. I learnt this as a young woman working in customer service: some customers love this dynamic and seek it out.
So what of that final sentence? Mansfield seems to be saying that because of Rosabel’s youth, she’s still optimistic that she’ll marry her way out of poverty. She is still able to smile, unlike Miss Brillof a later story, who realises suddenly that she is old. For Miss Brill, an unpleasant day out seems to mean her life will keep going the way it is, possibly without change, until she dies.
“Her First Ball” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1921. Though this story is nigh on 100 years old, it’s a tale of pick up artist culture, and reminds of the ‘toolies’ who attend Schoolies Week here in Australia.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “HER FIRST BALL”
Leila has turned 18, so must now attend balls in order to find a husband. Her city cousins, The Sheridans, introduce country-girl Leila to this exciting, dream-like world.
The story opens like this…
Exactly when the ball began Leila would have found it hard to say.
… which reminds me of a classic writer’s problem: Where does this story begin? This is a problem faced by anyone who’s ever recounted an incident. What was the inciting incident? Peter Selgin writes about that here.
Mansfield decides to open “Her First Ball” in the cab on the way to the ball, which Leila shares with her cousins Meg, Jose, Laura and Laurie. Later she’ll include a flashback to Leila’s anxiety, as she sits on the bed pleading with her mother not to go at all.
Another iconic New Zealand writer, Frank Sargeson, didn’t think much of this story. He didn’t accept the overarching shortcoming of Leila:
… the title by itself almost tells the story. A young country girl is staying with her town cousins who take her to a drill-hall ball. It is all very much indeed in the feminine tradition. Dresses, gloves, powder, flowers — and all the similes come tumbling out: A girl’s dark head pushes above her white fur like a flower through snow … little satin shoes chase each other like birds…. But later on we come to the point of the story. The girl, Leila, bewildered and enchanted by it all, is breathless with excitement. How heavily, how simply heavenly! she thinks. She dances with young men with glossy hair—and then with an older man who is both bald and fat. He perceive stat it is her first dance and tells her that he has been doing this sort of thing for thirty years. Then he goes on and pictures Leila herself in years to come. Her pretty arms will have turned into short fat ones, he says. And she will be sitting up on the stage with the chaperones while her daughter dances down below. And his words destroy her happiness. The music suddenly sounds sad. And she asks herself an agonising question: Why doesn’t happiness last forever? ‘Deep inside her’ we read, ‘a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed.’ And of course she hates the bald fat man.
Now I don’t know how my listeners will feel about this story, but for me it just doesn’t come off. It is, no doubt, tru e enough of many young girls, but for my part I’m afraid I can’t help making some comparisons. For instance, had any of Shakespeare’s young heroines (wonderful ones, say, like Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, or Marina in Pericles)—had they encountered that elderly bald fat man, and had he told them that shocking truth—well, I don’t know, but I fancy they would have just laughed and asked him why he wanted to say anything so obvious. In other words, young female character can be made of somewhat sterner stuff, and there is something in my make-up which refuses to accept the suggestion that that particular trying moment in the girl’s life was really so important and significant as it is intended to be.
Sargeson seems to have forgotten the final paragraph of this story, in which Leila forgets all about it, but he taps into something that’s been a more recent conversation among bookish and film-loving types: Why do female characters always have to be so kick ass and confident? Lack of diversity among female characters is a big part of the problem with the phrase ‘strong female character’. Why do girls always have to be so damn strong? This is the problem boys have faced since forever… Is it girls’ turn now?
I can’t say I’ve had the exact experience Leila had. But I can give you two personal examples which resonate:
The first is from watching TV. Most of TV is forgettable, and the vast majority of TV dating show interactions are equally forgettable, but a few years ago I was watching that Chinese dating show on SBS when one bachelor rejected an interested young woman by telling her, “I can imagine what you’ll look like when you’re old.” She seemed taken aback and replied with something like, “I can see what you’ll look like when you’re old, too.”
I took a close look at this young woman and I really couldn’t see what he was seeing. Of all the insults hurled on that show, the accusation that she already, as a young woman in her prime, masked the shadows of ageing, seemed to me about the worst thing someone could say to another person in a dating context. (My take on it: She reminded him vaguely of someone he knows in real life who is actually old, and he blurted it out awkwardly.)
When I was in my mid-twenties, a guy who worked as an artist in the shed attached to my rented converted barn (long story) turned up one night when I was making a funny video starring my workmates. I was doing some last minute editing because I had to show it to my audience the following day. But I had run out of storage space on my laptop and I showed him what I was doing. He volunteered to pop down to the supermarket and pick up a spool of CDs.
First, I showed him what I was doing. I’d taken a video of my boss — an experienced, capable and very kind French teacher, who was speaking to her class at the time of filming, in what I assume was a fairly boring vocabulary exercise — one she’d done a thousand times. She wasn’t exactly animated. She sat hunched on her stool, with a look of middle-aged concentration.
I was the other languages teacher in our department, about 25 years younger than my head of department. Alistair next door was a young looking 39, but 39 nevertheless. Whereas women consider ourselves old around the time of our 30th birthday, he considered himself well-and-truly in his prime. “Oh. You’re hot,” he mused, looking at the video I’d made, “but I guess you’re gonna look like her one day. Such a damn shame.”
It’s worth pointing out, though Frank Sargeson was not your stereotypical privileged macho man owing to his being gay in an anti-gay era, he did not experience life as a woman, either. He wasn’t a product of a culture which tells young women that the most important thing about us is the beauty which comes only with healthy, fulsome youth, and that when our beauty is gone, there’ll be nothing at all left to replace it. (In fact, Frank was well-known for his lack of attention to aesthetics. His house was a hovel — he cared only about his vege patch.)
Having been on the receiving end of comments like that, I have more empathy for Leila than Frank did.
By today’s standards, Laurie’s a little weird with his sister Laura, calling her ‘Darling’ and possessively telling her he’ll dance the usual two dances with her. Meanwhile, country-cousin Leila is noticing every detail, wanting to keep the rubbish tissue paper out of Laurie’s new gloves as keepsake.
Leila doesn’t know what to do, so she follows her cousins. Once at the ball, the girls go straight to the toilet/dressing area, where young women crowd around the mirror. This is exactly what it’s like:
And everybody was pressing forward trying to get at the little dressing-table and mirror at the far end.
I once wrote a short story in which this happens at a school ball, and a male critique partner expressed his skepticism, not believing that women’s toilets are like that at all. I’ve since concluded that “Her First Ball” is a particularly feminine story, more generally relatable to woman readers.
Mansfield herself sees the ridiculousness of the dressing room situation:
“How most extraordinary! I can’t see a single invisible hair-pin.”
Meg introduces Leila to her friends in a rather condescending way, turning herself into a mother hen. The girls respond with etiquette but are obviously more interested in the men, standing on the other side of the room. The men are the romantic opposition, and one man in particular.
Though Leila hasn’t got a clue what the formal proceedings are, the men all cross the parquet floor at once and fill up the girls’ dance cards. Failure to fill up a dance card felt like a serious rejection. The dance card culture lasted in New Zealand until about the 1950s, when dating started to become more informal. The wars changed culture a lot — women would have fun dancing with each other when there weren’t enough men to go round.
In 1921, the girls don’t have much say in who they get to dance with. If they don’t want to dance with someone, they’re unable to decline:
“Let me see, let me see!” And he was a long time comparing his programme, which looked black with names, with hers. It seemed to give him so much trouble that Leila was ashamed. “Oh, please don’t bother,” she said eagerly. But instead of replying the fat man wrote something, glanced at her again. “Do I remember this bright little face?” he said softly.
Because in this social milieu, it is men who do all of the choosing. It’s not up to Leila to make any plans. Instead she is swept along with the proceedings, on a treadmill (the first step on the moving walkway towards boring middle age). The ‘whirlpool’ sensation we get from Mansfield’s imagery, with ribbons flying and streamers and elongation describes most literally the sensation of being spun around during a dance, but it also symbolises being swept up into a culture of matrimony which begins with one’s first ball and ends with the women dressed in black (as the chaperones are — as a clear sign they’re not ‘on the market’ — but this is of course symbolic of death). By going to your first ball, you’re now on that inevitable decline. For Mansfield, beginnings are reminiscent of endings. She can’t enjoy a beginning without also thinking of its ending.
There’s a flashback to Leila’s boarding school, where she learned to dance but under completely different conditions — staid and without the sexual tension Leila had not anticipated.
In the brief moment where her designated partner doesn’t come to collect her, Leila thinks melodramatically that she’s going to ‘die’. But then he does come and they make small talk as they dance. This hooks into the ‘treadmill towards death’ idea.
The second dance partner also opens with a comment on the floor. Leila wonders if this is customary. Like the previous one, this young man asks if Leila had attended a certain party the week before. The conversation with the second young man is revealed to be exactly the same as that with the first. This is significant. The night now has a fatalistic feel to it — as if everything is playing out according to some supernatural rulebook — the characters might be automatons, and there’s something creepy about robotic behaviour. (That’s why they’re used so often in horror.) Within the world of the story, these boys attend many balls, saying basically the same thing to most of the girls, and are bored by it. This juxtaposes with Leila’s excitement at the novelty, serving to emphasise it. (This boy takes her to eat an ‘ice’ — a novelty people had fridges and freezers in their homes. Such products had to be delivered right before they were consumed.)
Now that Leila has experienced two identical interactions, she’s expecting the same again. So are we, due to the Rule of Three in Storytelling, but at the same time, we know our expectation of sameness will be subverted.
Leila’s third dance does not go as the first two did. The old fat man turns out to be even older than she thought.
As reader, I am annoyed with this man. What the hell is he doing, inserting himself into a social event designed for young people? He reminds me of the 29-year-old men who insist on attending Schoolies Week year after year after year. (Here in Australia these men, mostly men, often in their 40s, are known as ‘Toolies’.)
This guy seems to get off on shit-talking to young women — the younger and more naive she seems, the more he enjoys it. These days there’s a word for it: Negging. In its most basic form, a man insults a woman hoping to elicit a strong reaction, because a strong reaction is — for him — better than no reaction. He then has something to ‘work with’, and his next task is to simply flip that negative strong emotion into a positive one, which according to pick up artists, actually sometimes works.
Because Leila has been culturally conditioned to be nice to men, she looks at his bald head and feels ‘quite sorry for him’.
Sensing this, the middle-aged man negs Leila by pointing out that the rules are different for women, who must modify their behaviour as they hit middle age, unlike himself, who continues to dance, since he feels like it:
“Of course,” he said, “you can’t hope to last anything like as long as that. No-o,” said the fat man, “long before that you’ll be sitting up there on the stage, looking on, in your nice black velvet. And these pretty arms will have turned into little short fat ones, and you’ll beat time with such a different kind of fan—a black bony one.” The fat man seemed to shudder. “And you’ll smile away like the poor old dears up there, and point to your daughter, and tell the elderly lady next to you how some dreadful man tried to kiss her at the club ball. And your heart will ache, ache.”
The middle-aged man has been doing this for so long, he knows the exact kind of scripted small talk Leila has already been exposed to. He mentions the floor, but points out her feelings will have changed towards it, almost as if he’d been listening intently to Leila’s first two conversations:
And you’ll say how unpleasant these polished floors are to walk on, how dangerous they are. Eh, Mademoiselle Twinkletoes?” said the fat man softly.
The man’s omniscience almost turns him into a kind of evil fairy godfather — a ghostly figure whose only purpose at the ball is to ruin Leila’s night.
I’m also reminded of a scene from Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. The first person main character, a faithful butler, embarks upon a mythic journey and encounters a fellow traveller.
“I’m telling you sir, you’ll be sorry if you don’t take a walk up there. And you never know. A couple more years and it might be too late” — he gave a rather vulgar laugh — “Better go on up while you still can.”
It occurs to me now that the man might just possibly have meant this in a humorous sort of way; that is to say, he intended it as a bantering remark. But this morning, I must say, I found it quite offensive and it may well have been the urge to demonstrate just how foolish his insinuation had been that caused me to set off up the footpath.
Remains of the Day
No one appreciates anyone else reminding them of how old they’re getting, no matter how young they are at the time. It strikes me that women absorb the message that they are getting too old too fast before men feel it. (This has been studied. Women first start to feel old at the age of 29, men at 58.
Oh, how quickly things changed! Why didn’t happiness last for ever? For ever wasn’t a bit too long.
Leila has had one of those epiphanies like Sun of “Sun and Moon”, in which the much younger Sun also realises that perfect evenings can never last forever.
Leila continues to smile, because that’s what you’re required to do at a designated ‘happy’ occasion, but her feelings on the inside are quite different:
But deep inside her a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed. Why had he spoiled it all?
Then the middle-aged man pulls out a classic pick up artist (and also a classic schoolyard bullying) technique — he tells, “you mustn’t take me seriously, little lady.” He was just joking, see! JOKES! If Leila took him seriously it’s all on her! Why can’t young ladies grow a sense of humour? Sheesh.
The ending is similar to that of “The Doll’s House“, in which the underdog girl has something horrible happen to her, but almost with determination, she’s resolved not to let it bother her. Like Else Kelvey, Leila forgets all about her dance with the horrible, middle-aged man, but the reader knows that even if she’s ‘forgotten’ the incident, the epiphany remains with her.
I expect one day, when Leila sits up on the stage watching her daughter, she will recall her first dance and she will recall that man.
What do you make of endings in which the character ‘forgets’ the bad thing and moves on?
I use the same epiphany sequence in “Midnight Feast“. Roya sees the impact of climate change when she finally takes a peek out of her own kitchen window, but she’s unable to sleep until she forgets she’s ever seen it.
Header painting: Louis Haghe – The Ballroom, Buckingham Palace, 17 June 1856
It’s almost impossible to read Katherine Mansfield’s “The Escape” (1920) without linking back to the author’s own biography. But perhaps we shouldn’t look to Mansfield’s relationship with a man in order to understand where this story might have come from. Biographer Claire Tomalin has said this about Mansfield:
[Mansfield] was a liar all her life — … and her lies went quite beyond conventional social lying. Whereas Murry “forgot” things or distorted subtly, she was a bold and elaborate inventor of false versions. A charitable view of the origin of this habit could be that it was a bid for attention, a response to feeling obscured and overlooked in a large family with an inattentive mother; this may then have developed into a pleasure in dramatising for its own sake, making herself into the heroine of the story. If the truth was dull, it could be artistically embroidered; and if she was the heroin of her own life story, lies became not lies but fiction, a perfectly respectable thing.
A Secret Life
I don’t necessarily believe we need to go into a person’s childhood to understand why they do the things they do. The Internet phenomenon of Catfishing has taught us that sometimes drawing others into our fantasies makes our fantasies even more fun. Couldn’t it simply be that?
Whatever her reasons for invention, Mansfield had first hand insight into fantasists. “The Escape” is the ultimate fantasist story, evident from the title.
There’s more to this story than ‘insight into a fantasist’, however. That alone would be quite boring — like hearing all about someone’s dream.
Mansfield seems to be conducting an experiment: What if an author gave silence to a man and speech to a woman?
“THE ESCAPE” AS ‘PLOT-LESS’ SHORT STORY
Much has already been said on Mansfield’s life and her intimate relationships, so I’d like to focus on the story structure of “The Escape”, which is a classic example of a story in which ‘nothing happens’. It’s often said that Mansfield didn’t write plots.
Of course, that’s never true of any enduring tale, and it’s not true here, either. “The Escape” conforms — with subtlety — to standard story structure.
‘The plots of my stories leave me perfectly cold.’ They tend to begin at the heart of a situation, without preamble (although flashbacks and reflection feature), and frequently they end abruptly. Primarily, Mansfield is concerned with the psychology of her characters, many of whom are isolated, frustrated and disillusioned. She moves between them, using focalisation and free indirect speech to communicate their thoughts. Often they feel that they have ‘two selves’ and, repeatedly, there is a sense of wasted potential and a yearning for escape.
Characters remain unnamed in “The Escape”, which keeps the reader at a distance and also tells a story of ‘people’ rather than of ‘individuals’. Writers sometimes avoid naming characters in an attempt to say something universal about humanity.
As far as moral shortcomings go, this woman is full of them. She’s not sympathetic at all. Whatever’s going on with her, you can bet your bottom dollar it runs deeper than ‘missing the train’. But Mansfield doesn’t let us in on any of her history. There are no flashbacks to earlier that week, when her husband really did do something to make them miss a train, which meant they missed their connecting train… we get no solid clue that the man is the problem. This is interesting, because another writing choice would have been to include that. Mansfield was not especially concerned with making her characters ‘likeable‘, not even her female characters, for whom the likability bar is set higher.
The woman is also shown to be melodramatic — the unseen narrator is in on her melodrama, sensing it along with us, the reader.
The husband, even at this point in the story, imagines his wife as dead, as if a Queen in Egypt.
Whenever there’s focus on a woman’s handbag in fiction, there inevitably comes some judgement with that: We are told about her make up and other female fripperies.
What is this detail designed to do? Are we meant to judge her as insubstantial because these things are ultimately superfluous? There is a long history of judging women based on female accoutrements. For more on that particular type of misogyny, see the work of Julia Serano, because it really comes to the fore in discussions of transmisogyny.
But it’s equally possible to read that detail as the husband emphasising the importance of her handbag contents:
[I]t could be that he is emphasizing the importance of the trivial objects in her bag, since they are presented as equivalent to the treasures which Egyptians were buried with. Thus,Mansfield’s symbolism presents the husband as viewing his wife, and her handbag’scontents, in a way which is potentially both elevated and trivial, in one short sentence.
However, there is a scene later where she complains about his smoking, so it is very possible that the broken cigarette in her bag is not hers. Maybe it is a cigarette which she took from him and broke in a fit of anger. If this was so, she could have thrown it away immediately, but instead she keeps it. This suggests that she does not intend (or even want) to separate from him, and that maybe she will be with him to the grave like the treasure of the Egyptians, although she is constantly irritated by his overly relaxed attitude and actions.
On the surface, the woman wants to be in time for her train. She’s perseverating on this, and no one around her is moving fast enough. Her inner turmoil is at odds with the holiday feeling around her.
Underlying her wish for others to hurry, I sense an imperative personality, who needs to control others around her as a proxy to controlling her own inner turmoil, whatever that is. This is an another story of repression, probably. I see her irritation directed at the driver as misplaced irritation she feels in regard to her husband. But because she’s married to her husband, she can’t direct her frustration directly at him.
Anyone who has worked in the service industry knows this dynamic well: The quietly simmering couple, one of whom will find something terribly wrong with your service, for some strange reason…
The ‘escape’ of the title, to me, is about this woman’s wish to escape the difficulties of her own marriage.
The reader doesn’t even know where this couple is going. We deduce they’re on holiday — wealthy enough to spend months at a time doing not much at all except ‘have fun’ in each other’s company. Perhaps they’re even on honeymoon, trying to come to terms with each other’s vastly different travelling styles — his laidback, hers highly structured.
The woman’s subconscious plan is to direct her frustrations away from her husband, but it needs to come out somewhere. It comes out on someone working in the service industry.
Another story in which service workers bear the brunt is John Cheever’s “Reunion”.
Insofar as “The Escape” is a road-trip journey, something needs to happen which leads to the woman’s (or the reader’s) revelation. This doesn’t need to be some big big struggle, and Mansfield never wrote your classic, masculine mythic structure anyhow.
But what? What happens in this horse-and-cart seaside journey to change the emotional valence?
The precious parasol falls off the cart. Parasols, I suspect, were important to Mansfield. There’s emphasis on the umbrella in her story “The Voyage”. One’s umbrella/parasol was almost a part of a woman’s self — as integral to her identity as her handbag.
In any case, the woman realises it fell off, then the cart driver reveals he knows it had fallen off but didn’t stop because no one said anything. He was in a bit of a bind really, because he is also expected to hurry. The real problem is that he’s not on his customer’s wavelength at all: He doesn’t understand her wish to hurry; nor does he understand the importance of a parasol.
At this point, Mansfield’s ‘camera’ stays with the cart and viewpoint switches to the husband who until this point has been absent in his presence.
We learn his way of dealing with his wife is to pretend he’s basically dead. He becomes a fiction.
In fact I wonder if one legitimate reading of this story is that he actually did die in cart, and his wife is so preoccupied with getting from here to there, and on her precious parasol, that she wouldn’t even notice if he were dead.
In that case, the revelation would go something like: If you spend your entire life focused on the small things you miss the really big things, and take people for granted.
But since this is a Mansfield short story, the tree is important. Extreme noticing of a tree is also important in another story, “Bliss” (that masculine pear tree). Here, by Mansfield’s description, it’s probably a beech tree. Unlike in “Bliss”, this tree offers the husband nothing positive. As used here, the usual tree symbolism (as life giving) is wholly inverted: These trees are portrayed as suffocating. In this example of pathetic fallacy, a character feels suffocated (by marriage), so everything he sees around him seems to suffocate him.
Mansfield doesn’t let us know. The scene therefore functions in a similar way to her child-elderly character duos in stories such as “The Voyage” and “Sun and Moon” — the reader is encouraged to see time as a series of moments in a life rather than focus on the sequential, linear nature of time. Our experience of life as lived is less linear than it is like that, especially for the imaginatively capable, in which it’s possible to live a number of different lives, including our own, owing to the power of the mind to jump backwards, forwards and sideways.
The man has developed the ability to separate mentally from his wife. This may be the first moment he did this, or it may be his usual mind trick. In an era when divorce was rarely an option, I expect this couple will live out their lives together in body but completely apart in spirit.
The final statement of the story can be read as sardonic: “so great was his heavenly happiness as he stood there he wished he might live for ever”.
In the end, what position does Mansfield take on this fictional fantasist? She seems to be arguing that not all fantasies are acceptable. Fantasies can instruct but also mislead. They can accurately represent alternatives or they can do the opposite. Sometimes, fantasies can simply reconstruct the limits of the status quo. But they are at their most seductive when they seem to promise escape.
“New Dresses” (1912) is nowhere near as accomplished as Katherine Mansfield’s later short stories as it lacks focus and appears contrived. “New Dresses” is a different sort of story altogether from the Prelude trilogy, and we need a different yardstick. That said, The Carsfield family is said to be the prototype of the Burnells who we meet later in Prelude, At the Bayand The Doll’s House.
Read “New Dresses” at The Katherine Mansfield Society website.
I’m interested in why “New Dresses” is considered ‘contrived’. What makes one story feel contrived and another natural, given that both are made from scratch, technically making one as contrived as the other?
STORY STRUCTURE OF “NEW DRESSES”
“New Dresses” is the story of a family and the family’s toxic dynamics rather than the story of an individual. In these cases, the narration will be a fairly distant third person, ducking from one character’s head to another.
This is a story about parenting. Especially by today’s parenting standards, the Carfield adults are terrible.
“New Dresses” is valuable as an historical document of parenting practices common in early 1900s New Zealand. My own grandparents — and to a lesser extent my parents — were certainly brought up with some of the practices seen in “New Dresses”:
The belief that corporal punishment is an effective way of stopping unwanted behaviours. Also: That delayed corporal punishment has an even stronger effect, because the child must spend time dreading it, which is supposed to give them extra time to ‘mull it over’.
The belief that if corporal punishment is dished out alongside exchanges of love, the child will not be damaged. This view of parenting is still disturbingly common, but if adults hurt their children while requiring the child to tell them they love them, or when telling the child that they are loved, the adult is preparing that child for a
Lack of understanding about neurodiversity, and in this case the idea that stuttering is an affectation — that when children are ‘different’ they’re doing it because they’re attention seekers.
Overt favouritism between one’s own children, predicated on an old-fashioned view of genetics — that some children are just born better than others, and that your treatment of them has nothing to do with anything.
The sympathetic adult is the doctor. The doctor is also the viewpoint character, and viewpoint characters tend to automatically align with the audience. The doctor is the only reasonable adult in the story. We are encouraged to side with his point of view and with his actions. It is especially easy to side with him as a modern reader, since the culture of parenting has changed considerably.
Also by today’s standards, it’s odd and borderline creepy for a man to make off with a little girl’s dress, even if his intentions with it are honourable.
The doctor is the character who has the revelation at the end and, for my purposes, that makes him ‘the main character’ as well as ‘the erstwhile viewpoint character’.
“New Dresses” is divided into two quite distinct parts:
The conversation between Mrs Anne Carsfield and the grandmother as Mrs Carsfield makes the dresses on the sewing machine. This scene exists to show the family’s dynamic, though ‘showing’ is via dialogue.
The scenes including the children and the doctor, whose lively personalities make for a much more engaging read.
It’s possibly a mistake to have started where Mansfield did. She needed some way of conveying to the reader:
The favouritism. Helen is insecure within the family structure.
The mother’s irritating emphasis on image and dresses
The grandmother’s way of deferring. Although Helen’s grandmother understands, the elderly woman is powerless to act.
But in general, writers need to trust readers to pick up subtleties, and I believe it was possible to convey those ideas in a shorter scene, or to combine them into a subsequent one. I believe this is one major reason why “New Dresses” feels contrived to some readers.
The shortcoming of the family: The parents can’t see their children equally.
The shortcoming of the grandmother: The first scene shows us she’s powerless within the family structure, but the doctor’s anagnorisis will show us there’s a little more to it than that.
There’s plenty to be said about gender roles in this story, too. If these characters weren’t victims of a strict delineation of gender, they’d all be a lot better off:
Although women of this class aren’t even allowed to work for money, and although unpaid the labour of shopping and sewing falls upon them, Mrs Carsfield is roundly criticised for performing her wifely role. And as part of that criticism, her husband talks about ‘his’ money, as if it doesn’t belong rightly to all of them. The reader doesn’t know if Mrs Carsfield has flagrantly spent money they don’t have — she thinks to herself that they have more than enough and that her husband is treating her like a child. I’m inclined to go with that, because of Henry Carsfield’s attitude towards ownership of the finances, and also because he seems to think making trousers out of old ironing material is prudent. He doesn’t seem to realise, as his wife does, that there would be a social cost to such frugality.
Whereas the girls are required to be still, ostensibly to protect their expensive dresses, boys are expected to behave in a rough, and probably very annoying, manner. The Boy (unnamed, since his gender is the main point as far as Mansfield is concerned) bangs a spoon for a solid five minutes. Instead of a reprimand, the father says, “Go it, old man. Tell Mother boys like to kick up a row.”
Mrs Carsfield wants to dress her children in pretty clothes for church, but of course it’s not about the clothes, per se. Her deeper desire, so we can deduce, is for her family to look good in the eyes of the community.
She could not help thrilling, they looked so very superior.
(Superior to who? To their former, undressed selves, or to certain other social classes in their community?)
For an image conscious mother such as Anne Carsfield, a daughter like Helen is a curse. Helen is hardly boisterous by her little brother’s standards, but she is not a naturally clean and tidy girl, which embarrasses her mother. Mother and daughter are the main opponents here, though Henry Carsfield and the grandmother could nip this in the bud if they had a mind to.
It feels good to write a story and then send a capable character in to save an underdog. Here we have a doctor who steps in to save Helen. Mansfield gives the reader enough information to know what he’s done — he’s taken the dress, and we can guess he’s going to have it fixed.
Meanwhile, Helen’s father plans to punish his daughter with corporal punishment.
The Grandmother isn’t happy about this, but we learn later that she deals with these parenting decisions by buying presents for her grandchildren after they have been roundly whipped. She has consoled Helen with this. (I can’t think of many worse ways in which to ruin a child.)
An underdog character is about to get a whipping for something that isn’t wholly her fault. (Expensive material shouldn’t rip so easily, especially not when the child is doing a regular childhood thing, such as sitting on a swing.)
The natural Battle scene in a story like this is the whipping scene itself, but Mansfield knows this isn’t the interesting thing. Writers don’t have to write the most obvious scene.
That said, we can’t skip any part of compulsory story parts either, and the Battle stage is not optional.
So what’s the Battle stage in this particular story?
The discussion in the girls’ bedroom in which Helen denies doing anything with the dress, and in which Henry refuses to believe her, forms the first part of the Battle. The second is the visit from the doctor to the grandmother, which leads right up to the doctor’s anagnorisis.
When the doctor hears the grandmother’s response, and laments that she can’t give her granddaughter the new doll unless she ‘earns it’ by enduring the whipping, he knows the problems in this family run much deeper. He had mistaken the grandmother for someone who understands the toxicity running in the family, assuming her simply powerless to intervene. But now he realises she doesn’t understand at all, in which case she is useless to Helen, and to the doctor’s own wishes to act.
The reader may realise something at this point, too. By trying to help, the doctor may have made things worse. Helen has sworn to her father that she left the dress in her bedroom, but the doctor has taken it, and the story is that Helen took it to school. It now appears that Helen has lied as well as torn her dress.
I fully expect that Helen will receive her whipping — possibly a double dose — and the grandmother will give her the doll.
Helen will learn that whenever good things happen in life, she doesn’t fully deserve them until enduring terrible experiences first. Her natal family is preparing Helen for a subservient role in an abusive marriage.
What do you make of the ending? Do you think the doctor took the dresses, or do you think his story about Lena, and Helen taking it to school saying she’d grown out of it, is true? Do you think Helen will escape a sound smacking if the grandmother tells Helen’s parents she found the dress under her dolman? (What’s a dolman? It describes any number of loose robes, based on the Turkish model.) I’m pretty sure a mother who makes dresses will notice if one of her creations has been sewn up.
Perhaps part of the problem with this ending — and its contrivance — is that we’re not sure if Mansfield herself had all of this straight in her head.
“The Doll’s House” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, set in New Zealand, written 1922. This is Mansfield’s most accessible story, and a good introduction to her work. Its main themes are seen across children’s literature as well. Unlike stories such as “The Garden Party” and “Bliss”, the reader is not required to fill in so many gaps by interpreting imagery. Readers are told exactly what happens.
(It always bothers me that the apostrophe doesn’t come after the ‘s’ in dolls’ house, since more than one doll always lives there…)
Schools looked like this around the time Katherine Mansfield was growing up in New Zealand — the New Zealand of her memory.
New Zealanders have long loved to tell ourselves the myth that New Zealand is without social class. “When Europeans settled in New Zealand, everyone was equal. Everyone started from scratch, and everybody drank at the same pubs, attended the same schools…”
That was never true. My earliest ancestor to New Zealand emigrated as a bannister maker. He went to New Zealand to make bannisters for rich people, who took their servants, their wealth and their attitudes with them. Nothing magical happened on that boat to wipe those slates clean.
It is true that for hard-working early settlers, climbing the economic hierarchy became a genuine possibility, given good luck, white skin and valuable skills. One line of my working-class ancestry managed to secure swathes of farmland, some of it in an area which is now central Christchurch. That land was stolen by a lawyer who duped a new widow and ran off to Australia with the late husband’s fortune. (Women weren’t taught much about money in those days.) My family’s newly acquired immigrant fortune was thereby lost, even more quickly than it was gained. (Back then, Australia might as well have been the other side of the world.) My own family’s example demonstrates the ebb and flow of fortune in a young, new land, but classist attitudes are slower to change.
Do they ever change? Mansfield encourages us to mull that one over.
SYMBOLISM OF THE DOLL’S HOUSE
Doll house stories inevitably utilise one of two literary effects (or even both at once):
The miniature effect, in which a story set in a particular time and place represents times and places everywhere. (Click that link, because there are many other uses for it.)
The mise-en-abyme effect, which I cover in detail in an Angela Carter short story. In Mansfield’s story, imagine a doll house inside a doll house inside a doll house and so on. This conveys the idea of a never-ending pattern. What’s the never-ending pattern? Classism. Each new generation learns the same old classism from the one before, transmitting it later to their own children. A dolls’ house is therefore the perfect symbol to convey how classist attitudes transmit across generations.
For other examples of dolls’ houses in literature, see this post. (Squirrel Nutkin was published in 1903 — was this a favourite of Katherine Mansfield? Mansfield was a teenager by that stage, but Potter’s stories found very wide appeal.)
The central image of “The Doll’s House” is the little lamp, often interpreted as a symbol of light and therefore of knowing. But the lamp is a symbol of tricks, shams and illusions:
It was even filled already for lighting, though, of course you couldn’t light it.
… you couldn’t tell it from a real one’.
This is very similar to how Beatrix Potter uses the doll house in “The Tale of Two Bad Mice“. Potter’s story would therefore make an excellent companion text to this one. Unlike the Burnell children, the two ‘bad’ mice are outraged to learn that the miniature food is fake. They have a tantrum and make a complete mess of the dollhouse. But I find “The Tale of Two Bad Mice” the most affecting of all Potter’s tales — we feel genuine sorrow for the mice, who looked forward to a wonderful treat, only to have their hopes dashed.
Let’s look more closely at the imagistic pattern described in “The Doll’s House”, focusing on the dollhouse itself:
the door was like a slab of toffee very big, awful smell, big lumps of paint, the hook was stuck fast as if they had fainted [describing the very stiff dolls]
These details reenforce the basic theme: the gradual revelation to a child of social discrimination and injustice.
Significantly, only Else seems to realise that the rich people’s ‘little teeny lamp’ is a sham.
This is the story of a community rather than of an individual. This narrative choice fits the theme, because social strata requires an entire community in order to exist. As in “Sun and Moon”, it makes more sense to divide the cast into two ‘main characters’ — adults versus children.
Whenever rich and poor people interact in a story, you get immediate, ready-made conflict. The adults of this rural town resemble rural towns dotted throughout New Zealand today, with the stark division between landed farmers and the service industry workers who work for them, alongside the unemployed. Rural towns are the perfect arena for rich and poor to mingle together. Although some of the rich farmers’ children are sent away to high school, they do still tend to attend the local primary school together. Katherine Mansfield herself was sent away to ‘finishing school’. (My father always used to threaten to send me away to finishing school if I didn’t behave like a proper little lady, though but the 1980s such institutions no longer existed, and I never really understood the empty threat. Even in England, Princess Diana was the very last of the finishing school class of lady, alongside Penelope Keith’s character in To The Manor Born.)
The moral shortcoming of the adults: They have no empathy for people they consider beneath themselves.
The moral shortcoming of the children: The children are emulating their adults, and this story is a snippet of indoctrination. The little girls mimic their mothers exactly, and the in-group, out-group bias is evident in the playground, where niceties are extended in return for social favours. You could even draw parallels between the doll’s house and the housing market, which is even more of a social issue than it was back then, when even the servant class were able to afford their own small cottage. In contemporary New Zealand there is an ever-increasing class divide between those who can own their own homes (and rental properties), and those who will never afford the payments on a the most modest of mortgages. This year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern created legislation preventing offshore ownership of New Zealand real estate, in an attempt to put a lid on this problem.
Anthony Browne covered similar issues in his picture book Voices In The Park. Before children learn who they may and may not talk to, they are inclined to talk to everyone. Browne’s book would make a good companion text to “The Doll’s House”.
Another short story master who tends to write communities rather than individuals is Annie Proulx. If you want to create a story with community themes, it’s all in your choice of narration:
Imagine a camera, attached to a silent drone. This drone follows Mrs Hay, who leaves a doll’s house with the Burnells, then flies over to the Burnell children, goes with them to school, flies up to pan out and include the Kelvey girls, who wait in the wings. For the big struggle scene it follows Aunt Beryl, but we accept this change in point of view because Mansfield never settles in on any single individual. Finally, it rests with the Kelvey girls, who are given the final word. This moment of sweetness makes the rest of the story all the worse.
The Burnell children scheme between themselves how to milk this doll’s house for all the social capital it’s worth. They decide who’s going to pick friends to come home and view it, how to create momentum. (If the era were different, Isabel would have found great success in a marketing career.)
Little Kezia eventually gets sick of her big sister taking all the glory, and she makes her own plan: To invite the Kelveys to see it. (I imagine everyone else has seen the doll’s house by this point.)
When Aunt Beryl finds the Kelveys in the yard she shoos them out as if they are chickens, later described as rats.
There may have been another reason, apart from the father in gaol/servant reason given, that the Burnell adults refused to allow poor children into their yard, treating them as disease-spreading rodents. The following is a fairly new theory, to do with the discovery that Harold Beauchamp (Katherine Mansfield’s father) probably moved the family out to the ‘country’ (now pretty central Wellington) to escape a bacterial plague affecting the old central Wellington:
What if, Yska wondered, Harold Beauchamp moved his family inland to escape what was nothing less than a galloping bacterial plague? The more he looked, the more clues he found in Mansfield’s stories – instances long seen as coded references to class consciousness. What if there was an alternative or companion subtext to her stories’ famous theme: “Don’t let little Kezia play with the washerwoman Kelvey’s little tykes”?
Yska says the reality wasn’t that the Beauchamps were snobs, but that at a certain point, they realised socialising with people from the poorer parts of central Wellington could literally kill them. For, as is ever the case, the poor succumbed to the plague first.
I doubt Kezia had any sort of epiphany regarding social class and exclusion and untouchable culture. She most likely learned that the Kelvey girls are too disgusting to enter the yard, and she won’t dare associate with them again.
In this story, the revelation is for the reader rather than for the characters, who are victims of the cogs of the local social hierarchy.
Apart from being asked to offer critique of classism, the paragraph with Aunt Beryl offers an insight into human psychology: Adults get mad at children when their own personal lives aren’t working out. This has nothing to do with the children, but children (similar to the adult servant class) bear the brunt. Or, ‘shit travels down’, as corporate workers well know. (I believe Americans say ‘shit rolls downhill’.)
The ending serves to underscore this: The underclass are learning their place. This isn’t just one-sided, with the upper class learning their place at the top. The Kelvey girls are meek. They don’t complain.
Else is satisfied that she’s seen the little lamp. She’s ‘forgotten the cross lady’. As time goes by, she’ll not necessarily remember the Burnells’ Aunt Beryl at all, and she may barely remember that little lamp. But all of these micro-aggressions add up, and by the time she’s grown, Else will know her place in the social hierarchy: firmly at the bottom.
This ending is similar to that of “Her First Ball” in which an underdog character has an unpleasant interaction then apparently forgets all about it.
Because the Kelvey sisters are so socially and materially deprived, the opportunity to view a fancy doll’s house makes their day, despite the inevitable (to them) ostracisation which follows.
There are subcategories of relative deprivation. It can work the other way, in which a disenfranchised group or individual looks at far more privileged others around them and this maximises their dissatisfaction. Mansfield covered this variety of relative deprivation in “The Tiredness of Rosabel“.
Header painting: Benjamin Leader – A Relic of the Past. I chose this painting not because it is set in New Zealand but because of the children playing, and because the angle makes the foregrounded house look so much bigger than the cottage.
“Sun and Moon” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1918.
The story opens with a description of gold chairs, which reminds me of a totally unrelated Colin Carpenter (Comedy Company) skit: https://youtu.be/LJtNHs4BfYg
And while I’m being random, I read recently in a Marcus Chown science book that tides are caused by both the moon and the sun, with tides of the moon being twice as big as tides of the sun, because the moon is closer. I had never really implicated the sun into my understanding of how tides work.
What Happens In “Sun and Moon”
As the story opens the whole house is involved in preparing for an ostentatious party. (Party preparation also forms the bulk of “The Garden Party”.)
Nothing feels norma to the children, named Sun and Moon: Cook is nicer than usual, there is a man come to tune the piano, Nurse is too busy to look after them (when presumably that is her entire job).
Cook takes the children by the hand and shows them the marvellous food in the fridge. Sun is taken by the nut which serves as a door handle on the little green house.
The children are dressed up to greet the guests. Then they are sent to bed.
Their sleep is disturbed by the excitement of the party downstairs.
When the guests have gone, Father finds the children on the stairs and brings them down to have some of the leftover food.
But when Sun sees the food has all been destroyed he is upset, lets out a loud wail and is sent back to bed.
SETTING OF “SUN AND MOON”
The story takes place inside the house of an upper class family who live like the old aristocracy, with a Nurse to bring up their children, while a large part of their main job is socialising among people of their own class. This is a Downton Abbey setting.
Mansfield spends a lot of time on details, of the flowers, chairs etc. and it’s all from Sun’s point of view. As in “The Voyage”, the reader is forced to notice the things a child would notice.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SUN AND MOON”
Multi-personal point of view records the children’s reactions at various points:
“Oh! Oh! Oh! It was a little house…”
“But – oh! oh! what had happened?”
“broken – broken – half melted away in the center of the table”
The majority of “Sun and Moon” is told in third person limited POV: limited to the thoughts of Sun. This narrative choice encourages the reader to empathise with Sun’s feelings about the green house and the nut. Ideally we remember our own childhoods as we read.
Do you have an early memory of a big social gathering which required a lot of preparation?
Do you remember the sorts of questions adults would always ask you?
Who were your favourite adults, outside your family? How did they treat you differently?
Do you remember a time when something you loved was destroyed?
What was that thing? Why were you so enchanted by it?
In common with almost every single young child in a story, the children’s main shortcoming is their powerlessness, owing to dependence, youth and naivety.
Layered over that, Mansfield does an interesting thing with the symbolism: Throughout “Sun and Moon”, the children’s psychological needs are symbolised by hunger. (For another example of the same technique see “A Suburban Fairy Tale”.)
Along with “See Saw” and “The Voyage“, “Sun and Moon” is a story which juxtaposes children and adults. The adults are opponents because their party is designed to destroy the entire set up.
Unlike their son, the parents remain in a kind of everlasting innocence in their failure to see his distress. Their drunkenness highlights their regression to childhood; they have become playful with each other again. Mother calls Father a ‘naughty boy’, but as Son realises, she is not talking to him. This is a little perplexing for Son; he is not used to seeing his parents like this.
The parents probably do not spend a lot of time with their own children, addressing them as if they don’t know them very well. Care of the children is spread among the house servants, particularly Nanny, and also Cook, who is the only adult in the story who engages with the children as if she understands them. However, Cook is often overworked and therefore grumpy, as Sun observes.
The other adults are not really very interested in the children, engaging in the kind of small talk usually indulged in with small children by people who don’t know them well.
Moon is Sun’s foil character rather than his opponent. Whereas Sun is sensitive and serious, Moon is dainty, seductive, outgoing, flighty, extroverted and impulsive. When Moon sees the nut she wants to touch the house. This shows she is sensual and tactile. Moon sees the world at surface level, probably because she is younger.
The children’s names, quite obviously, reflect the roles they play. The sun and the moon, for Mansfield, represent ‘The Whole’. (Similar symbolism is found in “Bliss“.)
When Moon takes the nut, she becomes Sun’s opponent.
Symbolism Of The Little House
As the children admire the pre-party set up, the confection house represents a pre-lapsarian innocence in which everything is bliss. The children look forward to the party and are allowed to wait up, full of expectation. The see the feast in all its splendour, and then the guests arrive. Their parents get drunk. The food is spoiled. The children no longer want anything to do with the adult world and demand to be taken away. Perhaps, like me, this house made of sweets reminds you of Hansel and Gretel. As in the fairytale, this artefact seems made to draw children in (even though it’s a party for adults).
The confection house represents an ideal for Sun. When Moon grabs the nut and eats it he feels she has taken a part of himself – his ego – which is further diminished when he is sent back upstairs.
The children don’t have the power to make their own plans, propelled along but the plans of their parents. They are dressed up like dolls, are required to greet the guests, then they are required to go to bed.
The parents’ plans take a different turn — drunk and happy, the father gets them up to see the leftovers, though he wouldn’t normally disturb their sleep in the middle of the night. Children are comforted by routine, and this is a deviation.
Sun’s realisation might be described as a fall from innocence.
When Sun sees the nut he suddenly ‘feels tired.’ Like the whiskered man who attends the party later, Sun is already an old man in his own way; he has already walked round and round the table with his hands behind his back: a grandfatherly sort of body language. In fact, the grey whiskered man is an elderly version of Sun. Both of them are alone and quiet and both are equally taken with the nut. Mansfield aligns child with an elderly counterpart the way she also does in “The Voyage”. This trick achieves various effects:
Time feels like a bit of an illusion. We normally think of time as linear, and the young and old as different species, almost. But by aligning old and young, we are encouraged to think of time in terms of snapshots in a photo album — at any given time you could pull a photo out, and the child version of an old man is as true a version of the man as the elderly version.
We’re encouraged to take children seriously. The children are not treated seriously in this story. They are dressed up like dolls and prepped to greet as if they have nothing original to contribute themselves. The adults are irritated that Sun cries. They think they’re doing something special for their children. But they don’t dig deeper into any reason for the distress, in a way we might dig a bit deeper for a fellow adult.
When Moon lets out a wail, he has realised something quite profound.
I’m reminded of a child who spends all day building a house out of Lego. The nature of Lego is that it is meant to be pulled apart — the pulling apart is part of the fun. Without pulling it apart, no more Lego houses can be made.
Sun’s revelation: We work hard to create amazing, beautiful things, but those amazing, beautiful things cannot exist untouched in their pure form. The world, and our lives, are built around the physics of entropy.
The reader’s revelation: This applies to humans, too. We all get older. Boy = old man.
“The Voyage” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1921.
Katherine Mansfield always disliked intellectualism and aestheticism (one thing she had in common with her husband John Middleton Murray). She strove to combine a realist way of writing with personal and relatable symbols.
“The Voyage” is a good example of her philosophy on that. This is one of Katherine Mansfield’s later stories and was published only after her death, in her 1923 collection The Garden Party. (She died in January of that year.)
Mansfield’s technique can be called impressionist, a term borrowed from art world. (“Impressionist” generally describes the way 19th century painters depicted sensory impressions.) Mansfield mainly aimed to offer the reader a series of interconnected experiences. It’s often said there’s no ‘point’ to her stories other than that. It’s true that Mansfield’s stories were without didacticism (morals). We’re used to that now. It was unusual at the time.
It’s easy to forget how avant garde Mansfield was. You’ll have seen a lot of modernist, impressionist work since Mansfield’s time, and in fact, series of montages with none of the 19th century padding is now the storytelling norm. So I’d like to really emphasise that Mansfield’s impressionistic way of writing was a very new technique back in the 1920s. Katherine Mansfield was part of a movement, and made an important contribution to the development of the short story genre in particular.
Scholars are sometimes keen to point out that Mansfield’s short stories had ‘no plot’, either, comprising nothing but a series of quotidian snippets. Think of the montage technique in film and you’ve got the idea.
I disagree with the view that Mansfield’s short stories are without plot. Her stories are lyrical, but still adhere to conventional storytelling structure, which I’ll show you below.
What Happens In “The Voyage”
A girl of about five (Fenella) travels from Wellington with her grandmother by boat to her grandparents’ home in Picton, where she will live with the grandmother and grandfather. Her mother has passed away and her grandmother now takes care of her as her guardian. It is only halfway through the story when we discover Fenella’s mother is dead, hence the grandmother as new guardian. This information is revealed via imagery rather than via the narration, which emulates the way we learn things as children, before language and explanations even make much sense. It’s likely that Fenella has already been told in words exactly what’s happening, but she cannot really understand her new situation — or her mother’s death — until she feels it.
Setting of “The Voyage”
In the opening sentence we know where this story is set. Picton is a small town at the top of the South Island of New Zealand. If you want to travel between the North and South Islands, that’s where you catch the ferry, which takes you to the capital of Wellington, where Mansfield grew up. Historians and Mansfield’s contemporary readers would know the characters on the Picton side of the trip because of the landing stage:
‘And now the landing stage came out to meet them. Slowly it swam towards the Picton boat.’
Mansfield was very familiar with the Picton Boat. As a child she visited her Picton relatives many times with her family, and the Picton relatives came often to visit her.
It’s difficult to imagine now, just how dark it was before street lighting. The buildings ‘all seemed carved out of solid darkness’. The area around the Old Wharf is brought to life, with words like ‘quivering’, and the description of how it ‘burns softly, as if for itself’.
Why? Candles are used not only to light spaces but also as meditations. We have a tradition of lighting candles to remember dead loved ones. This is Fenella burning a candle for her early childhood life. We don’t know this yet — this is all foreshadowing.
This was an era when it was believed fathers were incapable of bringing up their own children. I’m sure a few did, but it was just as acceptable to give children to other female relatives if the children’s mother had died. The father walks in ‘quick, nervous’ strides. We’re not encouraged to take a good look into the father’s psychology, but it must have been terrible to lose a wife and then to lose your child, via nothing other than social circumstance.
These days it’s common to take a flight between islands, but of course back in Mansfield’s era, the ferry was your only choice.
Now, a large proportion of the passengers will be travelling by ferry mainly for the tourist experience. The view of the mountains as you sail close to land is magnificent. And if you’re not sick to the stomach from choppy waters, it’s even more magnificent! The Cook Strait is a strip of water above a major network of fault lines — hence New Zealand is chopped in two in the first place!
The ‘Picton Boat’ known in my childhood as the ‘Picton Ferry’ is now called The Interislander, and the journey takes between 3-3/5 hours. But in the early 1900s, this boat trip between islands lasted an entire day. Back then, a trip between islands (a strip of water known as The Cook Strait) was more drama than a trip to Australia is today. Apart from the boat trip itself, you had to make it to the Old Wharf in Wellington, probably by horse and cart, and you couldn’t pay to just leave your horse there. You had to be dropped off. Today, travelling between islands is simple. To call it a ‘voyage’ would be hyperbole. But not for young Fenella, and not back then.
Other Setting Details
Without knowing anything else about the story, the reader can deduce the early 1900s setting of “The Voyage”:
They use the old British style currency (shilling, tuppence). New Zealand switched to dollars and cents in 1967.
Fenella’s grandmother wears restrictive clothing such as stays and bodice. Adults are wearing bonnets and caps in public. Even my mother, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, was required to wear a hat in public. Straw hats were part of her public school uniform. The social revolution of the late 1960s meant people no longer regarded it ‘improper’ to leave the house without wearing a hat. ‘To her surprise Fenella saw her father take off his hat.’
The language used by the characters feels dated at times e.g. ‘what wickedness’.
Bananas were a luxury product in this era. You couldn’t get them just anywhere, but Picton wharf was one place known for bananas. Unlike Australia, New Zealand’s climate has never been able to support its own banana growing industry. Even so, bananas are cheaply available now. They’re grown in the Phillipines and imported. New Zealand’s cheap bananas have huge ethical implications because the people who grow them are working under slave conditions. When I lived in London in 2006, I noticed Londoners had the option of buying ‘regular’ bananas or ‘fair trade’ bananas. There was never that option in New Zealand and I’d never given much thought to where bananas came from. Ethical bananas have since become an option for New Zealanders who still want to eat bananas.
We know the grandmother doesn’t drink alcohol because the staff know her and therefore now it’s hopeless offering. Then she eats wine biscuits, and I realised that’s a word I haven’t heard in a very long time. I grew up in the 1980s with Griffins biscuits, and wine biscuits describe a sweet, plain biscuit with a complicated imprint of grapes on one side. I must have eaten thousands of those. Did they originally have something to do with wine? Probably, given the grapes. Griffins has rebranded them as ‘Superwine’ biscuits. I don’t know what the Picton Boat offerings looked like, and I can’t find a single image of a single Superwine biscuit on the entire Internet! In any case, Grandma was eating a plain, sweet biscuit, probably to settle her stomach.
I’ve never booked a cabin on the Interislander. I have slept literally underneath the seats in the main area, on a midnight trip… after having missed my daytime one. According to one reviewer who booked a cabin in 2015: For $40 extra we had our own 4 bunk cabin on the Interislander. It had lovely white sheets, a window, our own shower and toilet. Two free cups of coffee and a newspaper thrown in! It was excellent and well worth the money.’ — Paula from Christchurch
When the child is a main character, their biggest shortcoming is their naivety and their reliance upon those around them.
Mansfield never lets readers know the exact age of Fenella, but we can guess she is a young child because of the limited understanding she has of different situations.
Mansfield writes this story in free, indirect discourse. Another story written with this narration is What Maisie Knew by Henry James, a description of a divorce but via the limited understanding of a girl about Fenella’s age.
When the audience knows something the character does not, this is a technique known asdramatic irony. Irony describes any sort of ‘meaningful gap’ in a story — in this case between audience and character.
Examples of dramatic irony:
The woodpile is described as a “huge black mushroom”, an image that would perhaps be unusual from an adult’s point of view, but completely understandable from a child’s.
In the middle of the story Fenella is in the private cabin with her grandmother. In wonder, Fenella sees the old woman undress. Until then she had hardly ever seen her grandmother with even her head uncovered. Because this is new and strange to Fenella. We know this is through the Fenella-filter because Fenella does not know the right words to describe women’s clothing: ‘Then she undid her bodice, and something under that, and something else under that.’ This is Fenella’s introduction to what it would be like to have a woman’s body.
Fenella doesn’t know why Grandma thinks selling sandwiches for twopence is such ‘wickedness’. She doesn’t understand the value of money.
Also, it is the first time Fenella makes this trip. We can also tell from the images — Fenella’s impressions — the narrator uses to describe the public area on the boat that everything is new to the girl: ‘They were in the saloon. It was glaring bright and stifling; the air smelled of paint and burnt chop-bones and india-rubber.’ An experienced traveler would no longer register this strangeness, but children — in common with adults on psychedelics — notice every new detail around them.
Fenella is a typical child, and small children tend to live in the moment. She’s not fully aware of the significance of this journey and she may not even know where they’re going. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be away from her father.
For this reason, her desires are very much in the moment.
She wants to take care of her grandmother’s fetching umbrella.
She wants to touch the sandwich, so she does. (She wants to eat it, too, but it’s too expensive.)
She wants to take off her lace booties.
She wants the soap to lather up, though it doesn’t.
Sometimes in a story populated by two people, they are each other’s opposition.
Definition of opponent: Any character who stands in the way of what the main character wants.
It’s irrelevant how kind the opponent is. In this story, grandmother is a caring, kind woman. The way in which she deals with Fenella belies her personality – she tells Fenella she would be more comfortable taking her lace socks off, though doesn’t insist that she do so. She reminds me a lot of my own grandmother.
Yet this loving grandmother is still Fenella’s opponent, because Fenella is a little anxious, and the grandmother is requiring her to do something she’d really prefer not to. The grandmother is taking her away from everything she knew and loved. To a child, who has not yet developed the meaning of permanence, a dead parent might come back at any stage.
The other opponent is that of nature — the inherent danger — or the sense of danger — which attends boat travel.
Grandma tells Fenella that ‘God is with you at sea more than he is on land’, betraying her nervousness, and the possibility of disaster.
The grandmother’s fears aren’t wholly imagined. The most notorious of New Zealand’s ferry disasters is the Wahine Disaster of 1968. My father was living and working in central Wellington at that time. He describes the wind as so strong that day that for a smaller individual it was impossible to stand upright outside. He remembers office workers on their hands and knees, trying to cross the street. 53 people lost their lives. The unbelievable part of it was, the ship was so very close to shore.
The Wahine was not New Zealand’s first maritime disaster. Shipwrecks were common in the 1800s, when this grandmother grew up, and as for this particular route:
On 12 February 1909 the Penguin struck a rock (Maybe Thoms Rock or the floating remains of a wreck) off the Wellington coast of Cook Strait and foundered with the loss of 75 lives. Katherine Mansfield left New Zealand in July 1908 so it is possible to speculate that if the Beauchamp family had been on the boat New Zealand might have lost its best known writer. She would certainly have been upset about this incident when she heard about it in England.
When Grandma and Fenella first go into the cabin, Fenella feels she has been ‘shut into a box’ with Grandma. The ‘box’ refers equally to a coffin. Mansfield probably thought of coffins whenever she entered small rooms — she uses that same imagery with the same reference in her story “Miss Brill“, who returns to her small bedsit after a visit to a public garden, in which she realises for the first time that she’s old. (I wonder if Mansfield suffered a little from claustrophobia.)
In any case, when Fenella thinks of grandma, she thinks of death. If they’re both in the coffin-like cabin together, they’re both adjacent to death, together. But then Mansfield juxtaposes this vision of grandma as one-foot-in-the-grave by making her climb nimbly up the ladder to the top bunk. Though this is a juxtaposed image of the elderly woman (who probably wasn’t all that old, given the era — she was probably in her forties, dammit), the story function is the same and therefore reinforces the idea that though Fenella is at one end of her life and grandma is at the other, they are both equal: they are both mortal. They will both die, and whenever that is? That doesn’t matter. It can happen at any time, as it happened to her mother.
If grandmother is an opponent, it’s because she is positioned as Fenella’s older version of herself. Fenella is therefore unable to get away from the concept of mortality.
Mansfield is drawing on a long history of the elder-care in this story, especially upon the history of old women. European fairytales are a good place to look for the contradictory feelings people have always held in regards to the sick, frail and elderly. On the one hand, old people have been given special status and privilege as founts of wisdom. By the same token, once a person becomes senile and can no longer contribute to family and society, they are pushed from this position of honour. In the medieval era, the elderly were oft-times executed or abandoned. Death is often considered a good thing, especially when compared to being old here on earth. When dies and joins her grandmother in Heaven, this is considered a happy ending.
THE LITTLE BOY
The little boy in “The Voyage” functions as more of a foil character than of outright opposition. His circumstances are the inverse of Fenella’s: Fenella’s grandmother is kind to her, but the little boy is jerked angrily along between two parents. Note that he has his parents, so is technically more lucky. But what if your parents are angry types?
Now’s a good time to talk about the imagery, which links directly to Fenella’s Anagnorisis.
LIGHT AND DARK IMAGERY
There are two themes symbolised by the contrast between darkness and light. First of all, complete the following chart using quotes and examples from the text.
IMAGES OF DARKNESS
IMAGES OF LIGHT
The old wharf is ‘dark, very dark’. (Everything on the “Old Wharf” is dark, and the one lantern with its timid light only seems to underline that sensation.)
‘The lamp was still burning, but night was over’ (Describes the morning they arrive in Picton to Fenella’s new life).
Woodpile looks like a ‘huge black mushroom’.
‘the cold pale sky was the same colour as the cold pale sea. On land a white mist rose and fell’.
grandmother is wearing black clothes ‘crackling black ulster’
Grandma’s cheeks are ‘white waxen’.
Little boy has black arms and legs
‘up a little path of round white pebbles’
Wool shed has a trail of smoke
On the table at Grandma and Grandpa’s sits a ‘white cat’.
A ‘huge coil of dark rope’ on the ferry
Grandpa has a ‘white tuft’ on his head and a ‘long silver beard’.
‘Dark figures of men lounged against the (ferry) rails’.
The ‘dark round eye’ is the window in the cabin on the ferry
‘spider-like steps’ of Grandma climbing the bunk
This darkness/light imagery symbolizes:
1. TRANSITION FROM EARLY CHILDHOOD TO CHILDHOOD
There’s a point in our childhoods when we understand the concept of death. Until that moment, we believed everyone lives forever. The death of her mother forces Fenella to confront this fact earlier than she otherwise would have.
In a different story, “The Wind Blows”, Katherine Mansfield uses a ship in the distance to symbolise the later developmental phase — that of a teenager: The realisation that childhood comes to an end. This can feel like a kind of death (in hindsight more than at the time, I think).
2. LIFE AND DEATH
The sense of darkness may illustrate both Fenella’s uncertainty and her grief.
Symbolically, these images may indicate a difficult period in Fenella’s life is now behind her. Perhaps there have been years of her mother being ill, and now she has arrived in a new, stable home. (The mother might equally have died in childbirth.) However, it is implied that life will never regain the stability it seemed to have from a child’s point of view. Dealing with the death of a beloved one and becoming an adult also means getting a sense of the irrevocable passage of time. Fenella’s grandparents are obviously no longer young, and a final image, the text painted by her grandfather, underlines the awareness that life is transitory. Fortunately for Fenella, Grandpa looks very happy.
Fenella’s slight maturation over the course of a single night on the ferry is such a subtle ‘Anagnorisis’ that the reader is offered a second one, in the form of the grandmother’s painted message, affixed above the old grandfather’s head:
I wonder if this saying is a Katherine Mansfield original. It sounds like a poem that was commonly passed around, but I can’t say either way.
This story is about the inevitable passing of time — the hurtling towards death. When Katherine Mansfield wrote “The Voyage”, she had well and truly faced her own mortality. She would die just a few years later. The passing of time must have felt acute.
The umbrella is important when making sense of the ending.
The umbrella is a repeated symbol throughout “The Voyage”, which technically makes it a motif. Fenella’s grandmother lets Fenella take care of her swan-necked, probably expensive umbrella. At first it seems a burden to Fenella as it is big and awkward (too big for her to manage — just like the notion of death). Fenella focuses on it during the trip, almost as a way of avoiding anxiety. At one point she prevents it from falling over at the same moment her grandmother does.
When they have arrived on the island, Grandma does not even have to say the word or Fenella can confirm she has performed her duty:
“You’ve got my—”
‘Yes, Grandma.’ Fenella showed it to her.”
The umbrella comes to symbolize Fenella’s new sense of responsibility, a process which has been accelerated because of the death of her mother. It surprises her grandfather that Fenella arrives carrying his wife’s precious novelty umbrella.
“Ugh!” said grandpa. “Her little nose is as cold as a button. What’s that she’s holding? Her grandma’s umbrella?”
We have learned, along with the grandfather, that little Fenella has grown up a little — enough to be trusted with a precious umbrella, and enough to cope with the tragic death of her mother. She’s going to be okay.
“Miss Brill” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1920, three years before she died. The emotional valence of “Miss Brill” is similar to that in “Bliss“. In both stories, a young woman starts off happy but then an unwelcome Anagnorisis sends her plunging into a downcast mood. In both stories, the reader must do a little work to understand what, exactly, she has realised.
What [Mansfield] does so brilliantly in her writing is to capture the mood of a moment, the feelings that go with some particular event.
In a letter, Mansfield compared her story “Miss Brill” to a piece of music, demonstrating to us how carefully she chose each word: ‘I chose not only the length of every sentence, but even the sound of every sentence. I chose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her.’
Connection To Katherine Mansfield’s Own Life
“Miss Brill” is a story about loneliness in a city. There’s something ironic about cities — that you can be chronically lonely even while surrounded by people.
Stories about people who are in some way on the move and have mislaid their roots are so numerous that to express this category as a fraction would be impossible. […] Katherine Mansfield the expatriate colonial, the doubly uprooted, had come on the scene with a talent precisely fitted to the rootless age of solitude in cities, constant movement and dreams of travel.
Anthony Alpers, 1984
Another of Mansfield’s stories about a woman alone in a city is “Pictures“. Ada Moss could almost be Miss Brill but a theatrical, older version.
Miss Brill and Me
My boss used to call me ‘Miss Brill’. This was the early 2000s and I was a young high school English teacher. One of my three sets of clothing was a zip up sweater with fur collar, a knee-length skirt, fishnet stockings and shiny black heels with a buckle strap. Pale face, bright lips. I wasn’t consciously emulating a character from the Year 10 short story syllabus, but there you go.
Students had another name for me. Around that time the live action Scooby Doo movies came out. Even my friends told me they were shocked at how much I resembled ‘Velma Dinkley’ as played by Linda Cardellini. That’s when I stopped wearing the orangey red sweater. However, I didn’t mind looking like Miss Brill.
Let it be known that my fur collar was wholly synthetic. But I’m just old enough to remember when men really did give their women fox furs as romantic gifts. My grandmother’s second husband was into that kind of thing, and though I never saw Nana actually wear her dead fox — by then the fashion was well-and-truly over — its beautiful orange fur lay dead and curled up on one of her spare beds. That’s the bed I was required to sleep in when I visited for holidays. The enduring memories of sleeping over at Nana’s: She wouldn’t let me use the main bathroom (for fear I’d mess it up), the sheets were tucked in so firmly that you woke up stiff as a board, and touching that scary fox fur, which looked for all the world like an emaciated sleeping animal, head intact. Furs have a distinctive smell about them, too — nothing animal about it — it’s probably the chemicals used in the process of preservation. That smell is the smell of death to me.
There’s nothing like the skin of a dead mammal to remind a child of death, and I believe the fox fur in this story foreshadows Miss Brill’s Anagnorisis, which is of the Heidegger’s Being-toward-death variety: Miss Brill sees herself as elderly for the first time ever.
What Happens In “Miss Brill”?
A young woman called Miss Brill visits the French Public Gardens on a chilly fine Sunday. She’s wearing a fur animal draped around her neck, after having taken it out of its box, where she probably stored it for summer. The eyes seem sad to her, though of course it’s Miss Brill herself who feels sad. (Pathetic fallacy.) She sits on a seat she considers her special seat.
At the park, Miss Brill surveys the scene around her:
There’s a band in a rotunda, playing as if there’s no audience.
She notices what people are wearing, and whether or not the clothing is new.
Miss Brill doesn’t seem to have a deep understanding of music because she hasn’t the words to describe it, but she appreciates ‘the little “flutey” bit’.
Two characters share her seat: an old man and woman, together but not speaking. As an adept voyeur, Miss Brill would love to listen in on anything they have to say.
There’s a flash back to the previous Sunday, showing that Miss Brill is a creature of habit and comes here at the same time each week. She remembers an Englishman and his wife and describes their clothes. She’s a noticer of fashion. Miss Brill reveals herself to be a judgemental snob as well as a voyeur. Their conversation had been about spectacles, a narrative (and actual) symbol of middle-age. Miss Brill had grown inwardly impatient with the woman, who kept making excuses for why she couldn’t wear glasses.
Bored by the elderly couple with nothing to say, she turns her attention to the antics of the children, and the mothers who remind her of hens with their chicks.
Miss Brill considers the elderly people sitting on the benches odd. She can’t identify with them (even though she’s sitting on the very same bench, also silent).
She thinks instead of the children, who juxtapose with the elderly people.
Eventually a young couple join Miss Brill to replace the elderly couple on the seat. The young man is trying to cajole his beau into something — into kissing him, probably. Miss Brill overhears the young man disparagingly refer to herself as ‘old’, wishing she’d go away. The young woman describes Miss Brill’s fur as reminiscent of ‘fried whiting’, which isn’t in itself a particular insult, but means Miss Brill has become an object of ridicule. She’s now also on the receiving end of her own trick of noticing what other people are wearing, then comparing them to other things for her own amusement.
Miss Brill normally buys a honey-cake at the baker’s on her way home from sitting in the garden but today she does not.
At home, she takes off her fur animal and puts it in the box. She imagines she hears ‘something’ crying.
SYMBOL WEB OF “MISS BRILL”
SYMBOLISM OF SEASON
We can infer that this story takes place in autumn. Autumn is well-understood to symbolise late middle age, before the winter which precedes death. Mansfield hints at the season — to say it directly would feel a little too on the nose. We know because of the sunny chill in the air and because of the moth powder, which indicates the fur has been in long storage. Then we are told about the yellow leaves, with emphasis on the sky — the Heavens — arena of death:
Behind the rotunda the slender trees with yellow leaves down drooping, and through them just a line of sea, and beyond the blue sky with gold-veined clouds.
To have something literally dead hanging around one’s neck is no better reminder of one’s own impending death. But that’s not how a fashionable young woman would have seen it back in 1920. This is before animal rights activists did their work in educating the general public on all the very good reasons to avoid wearing fur. At the beginning of this story Miss Brill doesn’t see her fur as a dead creature at all. She sees it as a fashion item, even as she describes its eyes and its nose. But by the end of the story she can no longer manage that. The animal fur now has an emotion; the dead fur feels nothing — this is how Miss Brill feels.
Miss Brill’s foil (proxy) character also wears fur — an ermine (stoat) toque.
The young woman who appears at the end with her beau describes Miss Brill’s fur as ‘fried whiting’, which is presumably not the look Miss Brill was going for. She’s now being compared to food rather than described as a beautiful ‘young lady’.
The spectacles are an obvious symbol for middle-age, and the older woman’s vain refusal to accept her own entrance into that phase of life. But as Marina Warner has said, glasses are one of those things which can mean two opposite things in a story:
Like the absurd figure of the learned ass in popular comic lore, Mother Goose often dons spectacles; in her bird shape, with glasses perched on her beak, she presides before the blackboard in children’s books like Chest Loomis’s Mother Goose Tales.
Spectacles carry a double meaning: in medieval painting, the rabbi at Jesus’ circumcision sometimes wears them, and Saint Anne, too, lays them down in the crease of her Bible. But the learned can be fools, as in Swift’s kingdom of Laputa, were the scholars all wear spectacles and see nothing. And fools, on the other hand, can be wise.
Marina Warner, From The Beast To The Blonde
Like the colour yellow in “Bedrock” and blackberries in “Heart songs“, both by Annie Proulx, Mansfield’s glasses in “Miss Brill” carry double, contradictory meaning. Such items are invaluable to a short story writer because they can be absolutely milked for deeper meaning.
The double meaning of glasses: Unless one dons spectacles, admitting one’s own middle age, one will never have the ‘foresight’ to see one needs them in the first place.
Critic Mieke Bal has called Miss Brill a “Sunday Wanderer” archetype. The Sunday Wanderer is a highly sensitive individual who enjoys observing their surroundings. There are overlaps with the Flaneur. Like a literary flaneur, the Sunday Wanderer is a focaliser. These highly observant characters are great tools for when the author wants to appear to step right out of the picture. The story doesn’t need an unseen narrator adding extra information when the character is as observant as any good author.
When reading a story about a Sunday Wanderer, the reader is invited to wander alongside.
But Miss Brill can’t get inside other characters’ heads. She is limited to what she can observe, and imagine. She can only imagine their motivations. ‘She glanced, sideways, at the old couple. Perhaps they would go soon.’ What Miss Brill imagines says more about her than about the characters she describes.
Like Miss Brill, the reader Sunday Wanderer will be required to fill in the gaps. Here’s how I fill in the gaps:
Miss Brill is so caught up on noticing fashions — ephemeral by their nature — that she has thus far failed to see how quickly the seasons of fashion pass. By extension she hasn’t seen how quickly her own life will pass. Until she understands the ephemeral nature of her own life, she will fail to make the most of it.
[“Miss Brill”] is about an elderly lady who’s obviously English. She’s teaching in France.It’s a job that she absolutely hates and it’s one of her days off and she goes off to a park to just enjoy watching people. And what Katherine Mansfield makes so clear is that Miss Brill has very few friends, she’s very much a woman on her own. And her position is so vulnerable, because the teaching work will run out, she’s having to cope with very little money, she obviously has no security in her life, and that comes through very strongly indeed in the story.
As the story progressed, I had a realisation that Miss Brill — though ‘Miss’ and not ‘Mrs’ (the only two titles available to women in 1920) — was not as young as her childlike voice, with its onomatopoeic turn of phrase and frequent exclamation points. She speaks of the ‘young girls’ with their ‘two young soldiers’ as if they are still children, yet they’re obviously of dating age.
To be old, female and single is a dangerous state in 1920. Women in this position were likely to fall into poverty as they grew older. Even if she worked her whole life, women did not have pay equality. A woman teacher was paid on the assumption that she was earning pocket money until a man came along to turn her into a mother.
Miss Brill wants to do the same thing every Sunday and be entertained by those around her. She hopes interesting people will enter her orbit and carry out amusing, inconsequential conversations so that she might listen in and complete their narratives in her own head.
Unfortunately for Miss Brill, if she’s going to wait around for voyeuristic opportunities, she’s going to overhear conversations she’d rather not. One of these conversations will lead her to an epiphany she’d rather not have.
Miss Brill’s weekly date with herself is to sit in the public gardens on her ‘special’ bench and wait for people to join her on the other end of it. She pretends to be listening to the band, though she has no real appreciation of music. (Rather than listening to the music, she’s imagining there is no audience at all.)
The Battle scene takes place not between the main character (Miss Brill) and an opponent she encounters along her journey. Mansfield does something slightly different: The Battle happens between Miss Brill’s proxy and the man who blows smoke in her face—a blatant and insulting form of rejection.
The day was so charming—didn’t he agree? And wouldn’t he, perhaps?… But he shook his head, lighted a cigarette, slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face, and even while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on. The ermine toque was alone; she smiled more brightly than ever.
“Miss Brill” … employs ironic narrative juxtaposition, contrasting Miss Brill’s preoccupation with a detached narrator’s perspective. Miss Brill’s search for knowledge is involuntary and, for better or worse, she is momentarily forced to quit her shell of self-delusion. The narrator first elevates the character to the pinnacle of comfortable delusion, by means of fantasies, dreams or distorted visions and then throws him/her into deep despair. The narrator, extra-diegetic and detached, leaves Miss Brill heart-broken at the end.
Mansfield often follows this formula of ironic narrational parallax. It is in the narrative juxtaposition of perspectives that Mansfield’s basically Impressionist achievement lies. The method may be seen as the fundamental source of Mansfield’s irony. Mansfield’s view of reality is ephemeral and evanescent, constantly shifting its meaning and continually defying precise definition.
Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism, Julia van Gunsteren
I notice as I examine the structure of short stories as opposed to films and picture books and any other kind of story, that the Anagnorisis phase is the most fully fleshed out. When it comes to short stories, it’s all about the Anagnorisis.
But what is Miss Brill’s realisation? The women who just had smoke blown into her face ‘smiles more brightly than ever’ — and Miss Brill recognise this for what it is — repression. Mansfield was very interested in repression. You can see it clearly in other short stories such as “The Fly” and “Bliss”.
Miss Brill’s youthful narcissism—regardless of her age in years— affects her view of her surroundings to the point where she thinks the world bends to fit her own emotions at any given time:
But even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly, and the drum beat, “The Brute! The Brute!” over and over.
Miss Brill won’t lose her youthful narcissism, but she’s just lost her feeling of youth.
Not immediately, however.
At first she stays sitting there on the bench, trying to enjoy the day as she had before, only with avid determination to enjoy herself no matter what:
Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play.
She’s also trying to convince herself that this ‘play’ playing out before her is completely separate from herself, as actors are separate from their audience. She’s earlier described the band inversely to how she describes this woman in the ermine toque — as no different from audience members, as if they were playing in their own living rooms. Oh but now Miss Brill is determined to draw a strong line between herself and what she sees around her. Why’s that?
Because she doesn’t want to admit that she is old and alone like the woman who just had smoke blown into her face. Then she tries to convince herself that she’s important, a cast member of a play that happens every Sunday in the gardens. She’s not some nobody, dammit.
She thinks that this is her Anagnorisis. In contrast to her repressed Anagnorisis, she’s very conscious of this one:
How strange she’d never thought of it like that before!
But even consciously, Miss Brill knows she hasn’t filled in the details of her fantasy about the characters in the garden:
And Miss Brill’s eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, we understand, she thought— though what they understood she didn’t know.
This phase is followed by the real Anagnorisis — that the young lovers see her as ‘old’ and laughable. But she refuses to dwell on that. She gets up and leaves, in a hurry to get home.
The trauma experienced by Miss Brill, Ma Parker or the caretaker in ‘The Canary’ is not the tragedy of the unspeakable, but of the inaudible. Something that should have been heard, then listened to, has not been heard: the speaking subject is irremediably returned to himself and the text to the reader’s response.
Voice and Affect in Katherine Mansfield’s Short Fictions, Anne Besnault-Levita
At home, Miss Brill feels she sits in a cupboard, just like all those old people whose home lives she has imagined. The fur animal, too, is put into a box. Along with the dead animal, her youth is put away.
Charles May interprets this moment as Miss Brill’s revelation, with the story ending there. We don’t see her New Situation:
The short story, standing alone, with no life before it or after it, can receive no … comforting merging of the extraordinary with the ordinary [like the novel can]. For example, we might hypothesise that after Miss Brill has been so emphatically made aware of her role in the park each Sunday, she will still go on with her life, but Katherine Mansfield’s story titled “Miss Brill” gives us no such comforting afterthought based on our confidence that “life goes on”, for it ends with the revelation.
Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis
Here is the transcript a 2010 interview between Ramona Koval (The Australian Book Show) and Susannah Fullerton, a Kiwi Katherine Mansfield specialist.
Alice Munro’s short story “Tricks” reminds me quite a lot of “Miss Brill”, and I like to think the symbolism of the fur is a nod to Katherine Mansfield.
From a writing point of view, “Bliss” is interesting for its struggle scene, in which the main character experiences purely positive emotions rather than the negative charge which normally goes hand-in-hand with the ‘Battle’ part of a story.
Likewise, the anagnorisis phase is not a SELF-revelation but a plot revelation (more commonly known as a ‘reveal’) which serves to prevent the main character from understanding something deeper about her own psychology. In this respect, “Bliss” is a similar story to Annie Proulx’s “In The Pit” (though in every other respect the stories are nothing alike).
It is possible to read this story many times at different levels and on each reading to notice a new detail. It did much to establish Katherine Mansfield’s reputation as a ‘modern’ writer. Although Virginia Woolf despised it, T.S. Eliot and others regarded it with considerable interest. There is clever satire in the grotesque caricature of the London/Garsington intelligentsia, yet there are moments of quite lyrical beauty and colour which impress themselves on the mind with vivid clarity. Through the character of Bertha, Katherine Mansfield explores the nature of the feminine friendship and female sexuality, both of which are recurring preoccupations in much of her work. Underneath the brittle sophistication the reader senses the underlying tension as it mounts to its disquieting climax.
Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer by Gillian Boddy
What Happens In “Bliss”?
Thirty-year-old Bertha Young is blissfully happy, preparing to spend the evening with bohemian, artsy friends who arrive for a dinner party at her house in London. At the end of the evening she catches sight of her husband and friend in the entrance hall and realises that the two are having an affair.
Connection To Mansfield’s Own Life
Mansfield wrote “Bliss” only one week after a haemorrhage which indicated the seriousness of her lungs.
I can’t imagine Mansfield’s state of mind at that time — surely not entirely blissful? Or perhaps Mansfield was experiencing some emotional ups to counterbalance the downs. She did write to her husband, John Middleton Murry, that her awareness of nature had heightened after her terminal diagnosis. Perhaps news of your own impending death can be enough to give you something akin to a psychedelic hit, alongside all the other emotions.
It is quite possible to achieve a state of bliss without chemical input. In his book How To Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan mentions breathing techniques and meditation as other ways of accessing this part of our brains. Apart from deliberate and focused efforts to achieve a state of bliss, bipolar disorders include manic states which present as the flip side of unbearable lows. The human brain has the capacity for extremes of emotion. Most of us coast along in the middle on an ordinary kind of day.
A scene starts in one place emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends embarrassed. Starts lovestruck, ends disgusted.
I am inclined to go a bit off-piste in my interpretation of this short story. (My unimaginative English lit tutor thought so.)
FTR, I don’t seriously think Bertha is high because she ingested something, but revisiting “Bliss” did leave me wondering: Did young New Zealand bohemians know about mushrooms in the early twentieth century? Though Mansfield grew up in New Zealand, this story is set in England. Were they used recreationally in England in the early 20th century?
Psychedelic mushrooms aren’t mentioned in New Zealand literature until almost 100 years after Mansfield’s birth, but obviously people knew about them long before mycologists were writing them down in books.
New Zealand has its own varieties of magic mushrooms endemic to New Zealand. I can’t easily find information on magic mushroom use among Māori populations prior to European arrival, but mushrooms were a small part of traditional Māori diet. (Wood ear was eaten by Māori people, who called it “hakeke”.) Surely at some point someone tried an hallucinogenic mushroom and discovered its powers by accident. That said, Māori didn’t really like mushrooms and ate them only when nothing else was about. (Unlike Chinese people, say, for whom mushroom is an important part of the diet.)
European New Zealanders didn’t seem to know much about magic mushrooms until the 1980s, after news of the psychedelic era in America had been widely disseminated. (In pre-Internet days these things took a while. Plus, New Zealand was always England focused rather than America focused until about then.)
Still, I’m left wondering, partly with facetious interest, if Mansfield ever went for a mushroom scavenge on Mt Vic. Wellington is said to be magic mushroom capital of New Zealand and would have been the perfect place for Bertha to experiment with psilocybin. This housewife seems high on something.
Okay, here’s my argument, though:
Colours seem to pop for Bertha. She notices how different objects match because of a shared hue: the fruit with the carpet, Eddie’s scarf with his socks. She’s seeing patterns where most people would not make note of such coincidence.
She’s noticing small details in the way of a child, as reported by users of psilocybin.
Michael Pollan describes an intense experience with a tree, and Bertha really has a thing for that pear tree.
Bertha is on a different emotional wavelength from her husband. Her husband wants to talk to her about time — about putting dinner off for an extra ten minutes — but Bertha seems to have lost her awareness of time passing until he calls, and his mention of it irritates her somewhat.
She sits up and feels ‘quite dizzy, quite drunk‘. (This indicates some kind of altered state doesn’t line up with a typical psilocybin experience, in which case the body feels heavy.)
Mrs Norman Knight seems to shapeshift into a ‘very intelligent monkey’ even after taking off her coat with monkey decorations on it.
The dialogue of Bertha’s guests is quite strange, made up of fragments rather than full thoughts, which may be how Bertha hears it: “I have had such a dreadful experience with a taxi-man; he was most sinister. I couldn’t get him to stop. The more I knocked and called the faster he went. And in the moonlight this bizarre figure with the flattened head crouching over the lit-tle wheel . . . “
If Bertha had been up on Mt Vic, I know who she was with earlier. Her wonderfully camp friend Eddie. Eddie has also lost all concept of time. “I saw myself driving through Eternity in a timeless taxi.”
She has to try hard not to laugh at something that’s not all that funny (‘Face’s funny little habit of tucking something down the front of her bodice–as if she kept a tiny, secret hoard of nuts there’.)
Mansfield’s creation of Bertha is in some ways a fictional recreation of herself. She is satirising the very same social set she herself was a part of — bohemian arty types sharing big (ridiculous) ideas for one-act plays (a ripe genre for making fun of), and decorating a room in absurdist fashion — ‘a fried-fish scheme’. The narration is what we’d now call ‘close third person’ — we see this dinner party through the viewpoint of Bertha and Bertha alone. If Bertha is making fun of her own bohemian friends, she’s feeling separated from them. You could describe her as being on her own planet. (Mansfield referred to her character of Bertha as ‘artist manqué‘, meaning an artist who has failed to live up to expectations. She and her friends seem drawn into Emperor’s-New-Clothes ridiculousness posing as art.)
“You’re of course, absolutely right about ‘Wangle’. He shall be resprinkled mit leichtern Fingern, and I’m with you about the commas. What I meant (I hope it don’t sound high falutin’) was Bertha not being an artist, was yet artist manqué enough to realise that those words and expressions were not and couldn’t be hers. They were, as it were, quoted by her, borrowed with… an eyebrow… yet she’d none of her own. But this, I agree, is not permissible. I can’t grant all that in my dear reader. It’s very exquisite of you to understand so nearly.”
Letter to Murry, March 14, 1921
She’s feeling this (wholly imagined) connectedness to Pearl Fulton. She’s lost some of her sense of ego.
But as Mansfield showed us in “A Windy Day”, adolescence can feel like that too. Hormones can do it. Bertha is a thirty-year-old housewife but she has not yet come of age. She has yet to experience sexual awakening. Her name is literal and symbolic: Bertha Young.
Bertha is likely bisexual, as was Mansfield. What she’s feeling towards Pearl seems simple erotic attraction, though Bertha is reading a whole lot of mystical meaning into it. A character such as Bertha wouldn’t have known the word or the concept ‘bisexual’. This is Bertha trying to make sense of her attractions.
Mansfield is known for her Freudian themes. At this point in her life especially, she’s interested in repression.
Up for debate: Did Bertha know that her husband was having an affair with her friend?
“How idiotic civilisation is. Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?”
Could Bertha have known all along about her husband’s affair with Pearl? Mansfield explores the psychology of repression in “The Fly”, written just before she wrote “Bliss”, in which an old man has developed techniques for avoiding any sort of thoughts about his only son killed in the war. When Bertha tells herself that her husband rushes after Pearl because he feels bad about some social sleight, this could be part of a bigger story she tells herself about Harry: How his meanness is really just him being funny, and he’s the sort of man one has to get to know. The irony is, Bertha herself doesn’t know her own husband.
The story works through symbolism, carefully selected detail and the clever unobtrusive fusing of the central character and narrator.
The elliptical narrative style of “Bliss” would support the view that Bertha can’t finish a full thought. The question is, why not? Oftentimes Bertha cannot finish her next sentence and allows herself to be distracted. Perhaps the reality of her life is too uncomfortable.
Take the first paragraphs. Bertha speaks as if observing herself from a distance. Her words are not her own. She thinks one thing then immediately edits herself, as if observing herself taking part in some drama. Her words are simply a collection of quotations, gleaned from elsewhere.
Much use is made of dots and dashes, throughout Mansfield’s work, but especially in this story. Bertha’s feelings are reproduced in breathless, repetitious sentences. The broken syntax — full of dashes and exclamation marks — make the language seem (faux-)spontaneous, like someone thinking out loud, or like someone doggedly determined to live in the moment (and therefore avoid putting uncomfortable pieces of evidence together… the husband late home, who arrives at the same time as Pearl…)
Symbolism and Imagery of “Bliss”
THE PEAR TREE
In Mansfield’s short stories, birds, trees, insects and objects are often introduced by means of a precise comparison e.g. the pear tree in “Bliss”: ‘At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky’.
What of the two cats? The beauty is somewhat diminished by the appearance of the cats — one is grey and pregnant, the other black, following like a shadow.
Some have said the pear tree is a phallic symbol. When both women look at the tree they’re both looking at Harry. I may have gone awol on a psilocybin interpretation, but I think this is a bit of a stretch. Almost everything can be phallic in literature.
The pear tree could be a symbol of nature’s indifference to human suffering.
Or the tallness of it may represent Bertha’s homosexual aspirations, realised suddenly to their fullest. The flowering of the tree could symbolise the flowering of her sexual feelings. ‘[Bertha] seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.’ Across literature, blossoms are a common symbol of sexual maturation and release. The flowering tree could be a symbol of Bertha’s life, and the image of the cat appears once more after Bertha realises her husband has been unfaithful.
Combine these possible meanings, the tree might represent masculinity after all — the tree is tall and assertive and represents the ‘masculine’ part of Bertha’s sexual desire.
Bertha herself isn’t quite sure about the significance of the tree, and the symbolism of the tree remains only vague to the reader.
The first mention of the pear in storytelling is in Homer’s (9th century BC) epic poem, The Odyssey.
You find pears, apples and figs throughout Christian iconography, probably as a metaphor for any kind of sacred tree. It frequently appears in connection with Christ’s love for humankind.
Paintings of pear were found in the ruins of Pompei.
Elsewhere in the world the pear means a wide variety of things. China: justice, longevity, purity, wisdom. Korea: grace, nobility, purity, comfort. Also good for female fertility, health, and sitting exams. The flower is meant to resemble the face of a beautiful woman. But the transience of petals is a metaphor for the sadness of departure. In many other parts of the world the pear symbolises the human heart, which it kind of resembles.
Pears need to be cross-pollinated. A lone pear tree won’t give you any fruit, or reach ‘its potential’.
People hasten fruit bearing by causing the tree damage — “punishing” them — driving iron pegs into the trunk and so on. Pear trees are therefore associated with pain.
Pears are associated with temptation. The Bible talks about an apple in the Garden of Eden, but actually the name of the fruit tree is not mentioned in the biblical text. 13th century illustrations suggest apples. Two hundred years later everyone thought it was an apple. But honestly, that fruit could just as easily have been an early variety of pear.
When did the pear make it to Europe? We don’t know exactly. It may have been independently domesticated or it could have been introduced by the Greeks who founded Marseille in 600 BC. Most likely, it was introduced by the Romans. Charlemagne gets the credit for establishing the first collection of pear in France. Charlemagne was the rules of the Franks in the ninth century — so, the early medieval period.
By the late 1500s pears were common in England. Shakespeare makes a few references to pears. He didn’t seem to like them much. Maybe the bard accidentally picked a stewing pear and tried eating it raw? Who knows. He certainly considered the pear phallic, kind of like how bananas are commonly considered today. ‘As crest-fallen as a dried Pear…I must have saffron to color the Warden pies… O, Romeo… thou a Poperin Pear.’ (A sexual euphemism — ‘pop her in’. (Another fruit I’ve never encountered, the medlar, was thought to resemble an ‘open arse’, actually referring to the vagina. The medlar is Persian, and closely related to the pear.)
Pears are closely associated with France. Pears were really popular from the 16th to 19th centuries, where many varieties were cultivated.
They fruit from May to December in the Northern Hemisphere, so are associated with that time of year.
Charles Dickens also used pears as sexual metaphor. From David Copperfield: ‘I suppose you have sometimes plucked a pear before it was ripe, Master Copperfield? I did that last night, but it’ll ripen yet! It only wants attending to. I can wait?’
‘Pyriform’ means ‘pear shaped’, but this refers to European pears. Asian pears are round and crisp (think of the nashi). Asian pears don’t need to be softened before eating.
Sun and Moon Imagery
Mansfield like sun and moons in her stories, and even named one story “Sun and Moon”. In “Bliss”, the earlier imagery for Bertha’s happiness is symbolised by a series of sun images. Later in the story, the sun image is linked to the moon (via a candle metaphor). This suggests prelapsarian innocence – i.e. before the world is supposed to have turned to shit. (Lapsarian refers to the Fall of Man — a Calvinist idea.)
HEAT AND COLDNESS
Mansfield returns to images of hot and cold throughout “Bliss”, referring back to ‘that bright glowing place – that shower of little sparks coming from it’. As the story progresses, the metaphor of sun and sparks becomes a form of shorthand for Bertha’s state of mind, and perhaps of her eventual ‘seeing the light’.
Character webs become more interesting when opponents and allies are not who they at first appear to be. Bertha thinks Pearl is an ally, but it is eventually revealed that she is a firm romantic opponent. (As is her husband, Harry.)
Because Bertha is in a blissful mood, she’s not really in ‘planning’ mood. Matilda of “The Wind Blows” is similarly driven by her mood. Bertha flits from one blissful thing to the next, remaining deliberately in the moment. There’s nothing sequential or logical about her party planning, but we assume she made at least some of the arrangements. (I suppose cook was out back making the soufflés, though Bertha takes credit for ordering them.)
Underneath the brittle sophistication the reader senses the underlying tension as it mounts to its disquieting climax.
Which is the ‘big struggle’ scene in “Bliss”?
In a Mansfield short story, the big struggle scene is probably some emotionally charged moment. The big struggle scene in this story is the strong image of two women staring at the same pear tree. We don’t know this until later, but they’re looking at the same man. This scene is an interesting example of a ‘big struggle’ scene which contains the direct inverse of what we’d normally expect from a big struggle — Bertha is filled with utter joy. Not fear, not anger, nothing negative. Joy. But that joy has a certain big struggle-like rugged determination about it. She is determined for Pearl to be joined to her in spirit. This is reminiscent of your archetypal big struggle.
Perhaps Mansfield does a bit of a bait and switch when it comes to the anagnorisis (which is more of a plot revelation than a deeper understanding of Bertha’s own self). We might expect that by the end of this story Bertha will have come to understand her attraction to Pearl as sexual. The reader can clearly see this situation for what it is, yet Bertha cannot.
But no. She has no such anagnorisis. Her anagnorisis is cut-off short. Instead, her revelation is that her husband is in love with her friend (to whom she is also attracted). I put that very deliberately in parentheses.
This is especially bad timing for Bertha, whose sexual attraction for Pearl has prompted — for the first time ever — a sexual attraction for her own husband.
The abrupt ending leaves the reader wondering what will happen to Bertha now that she finally understands the irony of that bliss that earlier ‘she did not know what to do with’. Will she finally grow up— or is she trapped in this deceptive world of polite pretence?
While a plot-driven story would offer the satisfaction of narrative closure — a definite ending — nothing is finally resolved in “Bliss”. Not overtly, anyhow. We have to read the symbols.
Mansfield’s imagistic patterns are important in that they suggest various levels of meaning not always inherent in the action of the story, create ironic contrasts and support themes with rhetorical figures.
Julia van Gustaren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism
Certainly, Bertha is shattered and crestfallen. But Mansfield ends not with Bertha but with the pear tree, the story’s central image. The pear tree hasn’t changed at all, juxtaposing with Bertha’s extreme change in emotional valence.
On the surface level, “The Wind Blows” by Katherine Mansfield is a coming-of-age short story about an adolescent girl (Matilda) who wakes up one morning, nervous and tense. While the wind blows outside, she gets ready for her music lesson. Before she leaves she has a minor disagreement with her mother. She has her music lesson, goes home, meets her brother walks with him to the sea. They stand together and watch a ship in the water. Then she imagines a time in the future when she and her brother will be leaving their home on a ship like this one.
(The ship is carrying coal. Mansfield uses the word ‘coal hulk’. Interestingly, these ships used to be used as prisons, as well as for freight.)
On the metaphorical level, the wind is an extended metaphor for the feelings of adolescence. It’s not easy to tell whether Katherine Mansfield is empathetic to the tumultuous feelings of adolescence, or if she’s poking fun. She has written “The Wind Blows” in a melodramatic tone. Critics have called this story ‘the most purely symbolist of her stories to this date.. a highly sophisticated and modernist story…achieving new intensity’ (Claire Hanson and Andrew Gurr).
CONNECTIONS TO MANSFIELD’S OWN LIFE
In general, it pays not to conflate characters with their creators. But In Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer, Gillian Boddy provides good reasons why we might read Matilda with Katherine Mansfield herself:
Clearly based on the memories she had shared with Leslie during the summer of 1915, this story has a strange power. Matilda is K.M., she used the pseudonym Matilda Berry at this time, while Bogey was the family name for Leslie, which K.M. later transferred to Murry. It gives a hint, too, of the Trowell’s house in Buller Street which must have been central to her artistic development. This presumably led her to the choice of the music teacher’s name — Mr. Bullen. Could her remarkable memory have failed her by one letter, was the change deliberate, or was there perhaps an error in transcribing the story from her handwriting? Is Mr Bullen another composite figure, based on Mr Trowell and her piano teacher Mr Robert Parker?
Sadly, Mansfield’s brother Leslie died only a days after this story was published. Once you know that, the admonishment ‘don’t forget’ near the end of the story becomes darkly resonant.
SETTING OF “THE WIND BLOWS”
Katherine Mansfield grew up in the capital of New Zealand: Wellington. Central Wellington. The family later moved out to Karori, which is still Wellington.
Anyone who has lived in Wellington will recognise immediately the relentless wind that drives inexorably through the story; not for nothing is K.M.’s birthplace nicknamed ‘Windy Wellington’. It is also, with the sea, a dominant symbol in this story about a girl’s transition into the adult world.
Unless you’ve been to Wellington on a windy day, it’s hard to imagine HOW windy Wellington is.
Wellington in New Zealand is ranked as the world’s windiest city.
The older houses make a lot of rattling noise, which soon blends into white noise as you adjust. If you dare hang washing outside on the line, it’ll dry just fine, but you’ll be untangling it before bringing it in. In exposed areas, trees grow sideways. Dreadlocks are a very sensible hairstyle. Riding a pushbike? Come on. You might as well just walk. Wear well-fitting hats with strings and toggles. Don’t try badminton with the gymnasium window ajar. Fancy skirts? Make them long and heavy or stick to the trusty trouser.
This is the weather Katherine Mansfield grew up with. I’ve no doubt that after she grew older and left New Zealand entirely, windy days would have reminded her of her childhood. (I bet Mansfield would’ve worn her hair in dreadlocks, too, had they been a thing back for white Kiwi girls at the turn of the 20th century. She seems that kind of bohemian.)
In storytelling, when authors make a big thing out of the weather, linking it to emotions of their characters, it’s called pathetic fallacy. When characters are sad it just so happens to be raining outside, that kind of thing.
When authors use the weather and connect it to human emotion, they very often write the environment as if it were alive. Super common. You might want to check out this post: How Can Setting Be Character?
The pull quotes relevant from “The Wind Blows”:
It is only the wind shaking the house, rattling the windows, banging a piece of iron on the roof and making her bed tremble.
This sentence (from the opening paragraph) reminds me of a creepy-ass poem my parents used to chant when I was a toddler and wouldn’t jump straight into bed at the first request.
Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon, Up stairs an’ doon stairs in his nicht-gown, Tirlin’ at the window, crying at the lock, “Are the weans in their bed, for it’s now ten o’clock?”
(Except I’m fifth generation New Zealander. It wasn’t said in that awesome Scottish accent.)
I’m confident Katherine Mansfield would’ve known that poem, too, along with various other stories of bugaboos who were meant to come and get you if you didn’t do exactly as you were told, “im-me-diately”. (See what I did there?) Funnily enough, Matilda calls her little brother ‘Bogey’, which is a term used to describe creatures that come in the night. (These days in New Zealand it usually refers to that grossity plucked from the nostril. In real life, we do know that Mansfield called John Murry — her husband — the nickname of Bogey.) The character of Matilda is a fantasist type, imo. I’m reminded of the character played by Emily Blunt in My Summer of Love. That entire film has a Katherine Mansfield vibe, come to think of it.
The-girl-before-her has just started playing MacDowell’s ‘To An Iceberg’. There’s no such song — Katherine Mansfield changed the title slightly. American composer Edward MacDowell was a favourite of hers. The song is probably “From A Wandering Iceberg”. https://youtu.be/54I0k9vVrPM
Matilda misquotes poetry by Shelly. ‘I bring fresh flowers to the leaves and showers’ is based on the opening line of “The Cloud”. Why the misquotation? Matilda doesn’t have a great memory for poetry.
SMALLER SPACES WITHIN THE STORY
All the trees and bushes beat about her.
… outside Mr Bullen’s gate she can hear the sea sob: “Ah!… Ah!… Ah-h!”
The cry appears to come from within Matilda. (This juxtaposes with Mr Bullen’s drawing room, which is quiet — a haven.)
It’s the bed that is frightening. There it lies, sound asleep… stockings knotted up on the quilt like a coil of snakes
Where is the asphalt zig-zag mentioned in the story?
‘They cannot walk fast enough. Their heads bent, their legs just touching, they stride like one eager person through the tow, down the asphalt zigzag where the fennel grows wild, and on to the esplanade. It is dusky – just getting dusky. The wind is so strong that they have to fight their way through it, rocking like two old drunkards. All the poor little pohutukawas on the esplanade are bent to the ground.’
Each new scene includes a sentence or two which makes it seem alive.
The wind is so strong that they have to fight their way through it, rocking like two old drunkards. All the poor little pahutukawas on the esplanade are bent to the ground.
This story was written before Maori spelling was standardised. Now: ‘pohutakawa’ (a native New Zealand tree with fiery red flowers)
Mansfield has set her story in autumn, partly because this is a windy month. Partly because things are changing. We often view childhood as ‘summery’. We like to imagine a yellow hue cast over childhood memories. Autumn would therefore mark the end of childhood — an in-between state. Matilda feels ‘everything is ugly’. Self-confidence is not exactly at an all-time high during adolescence. It takes time to get used to the image in the mirror.
“The Wind Blows” is a snapshot of historical racism of a kind which only recently mutated into something more covert. My own grandmother used the phrase ‘Chinaman’ (to refer to anyone with an Asian face), and she’d say, “I’m not your little black boy!” by way of reminding us kids that we should be doing for ourselves. (The implication being: if she were a little black boy, she’d happily slave away.)
Contemporary Wellingtonians won’t likely recognise the Wellington of this story:
The carts rattle by, swinging from side to side; two Chinamen lollop along under their wooden yokes with the straining vegetable baskets – their pigtails and blue blouses fly out in the wind.
No one dresses like that anymore.
In waves, in clouds, in big round whirls the dust comes stinging, and with it little bits of straw and chaff and manure. […] through the town, down the asphalt zigzag where the fennel grows wild, and on to the esplanade
The roads are not sealed and wild vegetation grows where everything is now turned to concrete.
She wears an ‘ulster’ — a Victorian working daytime overcoat, with a cape and sleeves.
Tenerife work refers to handmade lace from the Canary Islands.
NARRATION OF “THE WIND BLOWS”
“The Wind Blows” has a single focaliser — Matilda. This aligns the reader to Matilda. Everything we experience is through Matilda’s senses.
The narration offers no definitive commentary on the specific situation of the focalising character, Matilda. We don’t know what came before or what will happen after. Instead, events of a single day give readers an insight into Matilda’s personality and into her complicated relationship within the family. Mansfield shows us Matilda’s state of mind by presenting selected concrete detail rather than by depicting the mind of the character. Chekhov also wrote like this. There’s a Latin phrase sometimes used to describe these characters who have no backstory: in statu nascendi (in the state of being born).
To the reader, it feels like Matilda is placed in a series of random situations. ‘Slice of life’ stories are often written like this. The ‘random’ slices create an unsettling mosaic but these slices are bound together by a single symbol: The wind.
LANGUAGE OF “THE WIND BLOWS”
What’s with the repetition of ‘wind’?
The repetition of a single word “wind” in “The Wind Blows” (five times compounded as “The wind — the wind,” functions not only to reinforce, as though physiologically, the reader’s sense of the intensity and persistence of a Wellington windstorm but also as a sotr of mantra for the central character, a formulaic verbal utterance that here at once invokes change and mediates against it, producing tension.
Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form by William Herbert New
Mansfield juxtaposes lyrical details against base, realistic details such as the three-legged dog, the burned porridge and the dust that came ‘stinging and with it little bits of straw and chaff and manure’.
Some of the details make the environment seem literally alive. There’s the roaring sound from the trees in the gardens, the piece of paper flying like a lost kite.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WIND BLOWS”
[“The Wind Blows”] is a sharp contrast to “The Woman At The Store”; some readers complain ‘but it’s not a story, nothing happens.’ It is a story of a different kind, oblique, episodic, with its shift in time level, and the move into interior monologue at the beginning of the second part.
In common with many children’s picture books, “The Wind Blows” is the story a childlike character and begins with her waking up and ends in the evening. (Unlike in a picture book, we don’t see Matilda tucked into bed.) There is a particular symbolism attached to stories that take place over 12 hours.
The desire in this particular story is not a burning, surface one. Characters often don’t know what it is they want. Especially young characters. Knowing what you want is in itself a skill.
Matilda of “The Wind Blows” is a character going about her daily life, one small desire soon replaced by another. But under that surface, Matilda’s desires are strong; she is driven by hormones and angst.
Matilda’s main opponent is her mother. Mothers often bear the brunt. Mansfield has used contemporary language of the time: “Go to hell,” which lends “The Wind Blows” a contemporary feel. In this story, notice how Matilda is never near her mother.
Note that Mansfield manages to portray tension without resorting to the exclamation mark, which would cheapen the prose. The verb ‘shouts’ does the work of punctuation.
There’s also Marie Swainson, who is a vague irritation to Matilda. That said, Mansfield has done her usual trick (seen also in “The Garden Party”) of presenting the two girls as equals by giving them names that begin with the same letter. That’s not how Matilda sees it — she mocks Marie’s shortening of ‘chrysanthemum’ and wishes she had more time alone with the music teacher — Marie intrudes upon her alone-time.
Stories require human opposition to work, but some commentators have said that the wind itself serves as an opponent in “The Wind Blows”. It seems to be working against Matilda in a ghostly kind of way. It tears her ‘best little Teneriff-work teacloth’ and tries to lift her skirts. The wind bangs a piece of iron on the roof and makes her bed tremble. It causes her to wake up abruptly and ‘dreadfully’.
Matilda herself has no plans for her day, which is in keeping with how the story ends. (She loses childhood and doesn’t have plans for what comes next.)
In a story where the main character has no plans, they are carried along by other people’s plans. Her music lesson is something she does out of habit. It’s even Bogey who suggests their walk along the esplanade. Matilda isn’t exactly the proactive type. She’s more of a mooning type. Matilda’s lack of plans are in keeping with the mood of the story — she is a ship (see below) being carried along by the tide of life.
In stories of this style, the big struggle section is often entirely symbolic. In “The Wind Blows”, Mansfield’s description of the dangerous sea is a proxy for a big fight scene. Pick out a few words from these paragraphs, and you could easily transplant them into an actual big struggle scene:
They cannot walk fast enough. (As if chased by something.)
(fennel) grows wild
drunkards (which are actually flowers, not exactly dangerous people out on the street)
waves ‘breaking’, Bogey’s voice ‘breaking’
thump (onomatopoeia of the waves)
‘the inside of her mouth tastes wet and cold’ (as if something terrible just happened)
It’s the light that makes her look so awfully beautiful and mysterious… They are on board leaning over the rail arm in arm.
” … Who are they?”
” … Brother and sister.”
Matilda imagines she and Bogey on board the ship; in fact, they ‘are’ the ship. Nothing will stop these children from ploughing through the rough seas of adolescence into adulthood, not even the ‘wind’ – the turbulent emotions every adolescent must steam through.
“Look, Bogey, there’s the town. Doesn’t it look small?”
There’s a particular type of Anagnorisis seen in some stories — even in stories for children — in which the main character says goodbye to childhood. I say ‘even’ in stories for children, because a child audience can’t possibly understand it fully. Children are super smart and understand a whole lot of things, but this is the one thing I can think of in which children and adults are distinct as audience members.
When Matilda says, “How many years ago!” we know that Matilda feels she is no longer a child. She says goodbye to the ‘little island’ (the ship), and she is saying goodbye to childhood.
A ‘saying goodbye to childhood’ scene is utilised to great effect in Toy Story 3, when Andy tells Woody what he thinks of him. Until this moment Woody has never known. “He’s been my pal as long as I can remember…” https://youtu.be/zvQjbrJquFs
“The thing that makes Woody special is that he’ll never give up on you, ever. Do you think you can take care of him for me?” Woody understands that everything he always wanted to be, he was. Then the viewpoint switches to Andy. Andy is trying one last time to keep hold of his childhood when he grabs Woody back from the little girl. This is the last time he’ll ever play with Woody. What does that do to the audience? We all realise we’ve either lost our childhood or we’re losing it.
Children don’t cry at this Toy Story 3. This is an adult ending that was designed for both children and adults. From a child’s perspective, children get their own ending, which is happy: Woody gets to hang out with his friends. They’re together! For children, Toy Story 3 is happy from beginning to end. Children under about 13 don’t have any concern for Andy’s feelings — they’re identifying with the toys. There is no Anagnorisis for the child audience. This scene is so sad because most adults didn’t know when we were saying goodbye to our childhood. In hindsight, it seems one moment we were children, the next we were adults. This scene allows us to weep for the loss of our own childhood.
In Peter Pan, Wendy says goodbye to her childhood when she says goodbye to Peter (who represents childhood). https://youtu.be/uCt-36PRHLM
Other stories with resonant ‘saying goodbye to childhood’ anagnorisis scenes: A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck (which is the saddest thing I’ve read in my life), Winnie the Poohand Boyhood, the film by Richard Linklater.
I expect the full emotional impact of the Anagnorisis scene in Mansfield’s “The Wind Blows” would be felt (if not understood) by a post-adolescent readership.
Although we’re talking about a ship on a sea, there’s a bit of river symbolismgoing on here. A body of water represents the inevitable passing of time, sweeping us along with it, as we get older and older, no turning back.
Now the dark stretches a wing over the tumbling water. They can’t see those two any more. Good-bye, good-bye. Don’t forget… But the ship is gone, now.
The wind – the wind.
The ending is only suggestive and left open to interpretation. It’s really not important what happened between the scene on the shore and the final scene on the boat or how they got there. This ending really only makes sense when you think of the disappearing ship as disappearing childhood. Think of this ending as Matilda’s change in perspective. She feels alienated from other characters.
The final ‘the wind — the wind’ reminds me of ‘Tumbleweeds’ (which is a more modern trope, riffing on old Western movies, and spoofed subsequently by pop culture.)
If Mansfield were writing today, she might have ended with ‘Tumbleweed’ instead. Okay, maybe not, but I interpret that ending as, ‘Childhood was gone now, but nothing had appeared to replace it, yet.’
Matilda has a crush on her married music teacher (well, I guess he was married, since he wears a ring), but he’s way too old for her. Romantically, and in every other way, Matilda is stuck in teen limbo for a good while yet, unable to see how her adult life can get started.
Notice how Mansfield frames the main story: She begins by describing a whole newspaper wagging in the air like a lost kite. With that simple imagery she ties something from the boring adult world (a newspaper) to something from childhood (a kite). The childhood kite ends up ‘spiked on a pine tree’. Childhood has been killed, basically.
WRITE YOUR OWN
A few years back I wrote my own retelling of “The Wind Blows”. I had spent an entire week immersed in Katherine Mansfield, and the story flowed easily. (Not all of them do.)
“The Wind Blows” is 1623 words. I recommend you make yours about that length, too.
What season is your story set?
The story starts in the morning and ends around evening sometime.
Everything that happens throughout the day causes some kind of strong emotion. Each emotion juxtaposes with the emotion that came before — positive, negative, positive, negative. There’s no external influence on these emotions — they seem random, and that’s the point.
You don’t have to use wind as pathetic fallacy. You might use something else instead as a metaphor for tumult: a ride at a theme park, a hairdryer, a flooded creek… Or you could use pathetic fallacy ironically. Pick a sweltering hot day and juxtapose that against the up-and-down emotions of adolescence.
Mansfield uses the girl’s mother as her main opponent, but you could pick someone else. A teacher, perhaps. A best friend. A sibling, auntie.
Perhaps your character is the mooning type, in which case other characters will carry them along in their plans.
The Battle scene will be a proxy battle — a dangerous description of something rather than an actually dangerous something.
The anagnorisis — in keeping with this story — may be that ‘childhood has ended’. Or you might substitute with something else.
Like Mansfield, don’t waste time on ‘transitions’, getting your character from place to place. Mansfield whips Matilda out of her music lesson and transplants her straight into her own bedroom. The transition is ‘The wind — the wind’.
Mansfield has opened her story with a very particular sentence construction. She closes in this way, too. Try doing the same, see if it works. Even better, write imagery to open which reflects the Anagnorisis. Mansfield used the kite spiked on the tree to foreshadow the end of childhood.