Katherine Mansfield wrote “Prelude” in 1916 then revised it the following year. “Prelude” is the first in a trilogy of interlinked short stories. The other stories starring the Burnell family are “At the Bay” and “The Doll’s House“. Although “The Doll’s House” is populated by the same characters, the themes and motifs of “At The Bay” are so closely aligned to “Prelude” that these two stories might be considered a diptych. “New Dresses” is thought to have explored an earlier version of the Burnell family dynamics.
Commentaries on this story fall into two main categories:
- Over multiple viewpoints we are shown that Kezia still has the future before her. (Sometimes Beryl is thought to have the future before her.) But Linda, in contrast, has no future at all. In this reading, Mrs Fairfield is seen as a warm and encouraging grandmother. In this reading we can find numerous examples of preludes: The family’s move is a prelude to a new kind of suburban living, the children’s prelude to adolescence, Beryl’s prelude to spinsterhood, Mrs Fairfield’s prelude to death. Unfortunately Linda gets no prelude. She’s done. This explains why she’s a little down, I guess.
- In the feminist reading, Mansfield uses imagery to reveal the power struggle between men and women. Kezia is all caged up. Linda is trapped within marriage, but going through an hysterical rebellion. Stanley exerts dominion over not just the house he bought, but also wants to expand to buying a pew at church etc.
For me, “Prelude” is chiefly about all the various ways in which people live in their own fantasy worlds. Each of the characters in this story has a different relationship with reality, whether it’s make-believe games or pranks played by children, a romantic fantasy played out by a young woman, the slightly crazed imaginings of a ‘desperate housewife’, or the delusions of grandeur enjoyed by the man of a busy household.
Read “Prelude” online at The Katherine Mansfield Society.
Plotwise, “Prelude“, features the Burnell family, who are moving from the city of Wellington into the nearby country. Mansfield’s own family made a similar move when she was a child, perhaps to escape a bacterial infection which was killing lots of people in central Wellington in the late 1800s. She probably drew on memories of that time. Mansfield called her house in central Wellington ‘a horrid little piggy house’. It was small and plain compared to the house they moved into. (If you visit this original house in Wellington today, you may be surprised at how small it is by modern standards.)
The story is not of an individual character but of an entire cast. Imagine the story as a stained glass window:
[Mansfield’s] intention is not to focus the material in a certain single character and thus achieve unity of vision. She centers the material upon all characters and thus obtains a number of visions which exist not in a hierarchy but in an anarchy. The very sectioning of the stories indicates the author’s intentions of avoiding characterisation. Each section is a piece of coloured glass, and all the pieces exist together not in subordination but in juxtaposition. Out of each piece comes a shaft of light, the point of view of a character.
— Yuan-Shu Yen
Mansfield’s earlier version of “Prelude” was called “The Aloe”. An aloe (which flowers only once every 100 years) makes a symbolic appearance in this short story. Mansfield liked symbolic trees. A beech tree is symbolic in “The Escape” and the pear tree is symbolic in “Bliss“.
The aloe plant has a tall, thick, swollen stem with long, sharp thorns.
Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots. The curving leaves seemed to be hiding something; the blind stem cut into the air as if no wind could ever shake it.
In this story the aloe has been said to symbolise:
- Separate things merging together: past and present, Kezia and Linda.
- Linda’s sexual fears
- Thorns represent the destructive powers of sex and the dominant role fulfilled by the male head of household
- Power (for Linda) to escape (corresponding with money for Beryl)
In her revision, Mansfield also made her plot less ‘obvious’, leaning more heavily on symbolism to suggest and, in short, turned the story into something far more muted than before. Between revisions she had lost her brother in the war. In the revision, Linda is now pregnant with a male child. Some readers have speculated that this is perhaps in honour of Mansfield’s deceased brother.
What Happens In “Prelude”
Continue reading “Prelude by Katherine Mansfield”