Katherine Mansfield’s Influences

Virginia and Katherine

THE INFLUENCES OF PLACE AND ERA

  • Katherine Mansfield grew up in middle class Wellington, New Zealand and moved to Europe as a young adult to finish her education in London.
  • Some of her stories are influenced by her experiences in England, Belgium and Bavaria (In a German Pension).
  • Her first stories were accepted by The Age but Mansfield grew tired of the sort of story they expected from her. At this time she met John Middleton Murry, who encouraged her to write something different. She became Murry’s partner and they later married.
  • New Zealand influenced her writing, and was the setting in some of her last, and best, works. ‘…if the truth were known I have a perfect passion for the island where I was born. …just as on those mornings white milky mists rise and uncover some beauty, then smother it again and then again disclose it, I tried to lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again…’
  • Mansfield was concerned with nationality in her early stories but later switched to a focus on modernist aesthetics and techniques. Her most New Zealand stories are the “Prelude” trilogy and “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped“. Her early stories seem to be from the perspective of a white female New Zealander. Of course she wrote her last and best stories about New Zealand.
  • In fact, setting seems more important in Mansfield’s German stories than in her New Zealand ones. For example, the mention of sauerkraut in “Germans At Meat” place the story in a particular place. But in the New Zealand stories, replacement of a particularly New Zealand detail (e.g. a type of tree) wouldn’t affect the story as a whole. “The Wind Blows” is set in windy Wellington, but could be set in many English speaking places. If no one knew Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealander, she wouldn’t be considered A New Zealand Writer.
  • Reading Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, New Zealand feels like an imprisonment, a place of confinement, especially for female characters. New Zealand was a young colony in Mansfield’s time. Any new colony is a hugely patriarchal one — all about domination, exploring and dominion over others. Europe wasn’t much better for women of course, but isolation led to a very constricted type of monotony for young women like Katherine Mansfield growing up in New Zealand.
  • Her final year of life, 1922, was spent in Switzerland.



THE INFLUENCE OF THE THEATRE

  • Mansfield was supported financially by her father but never had quite enough. Apart from writing, she also acted as an extra in early movies. The theatre is the subject of her short story “Pictures“.
  • Today’s readers are different from Mansfield’s contemporaries — we have all seen a lot of TV and movies and rarely realise how influenced we are by conventions of the screen. We are highly literate in reading screen narrative compared to early 20th century readers who had seen few moving pictures. But because of her experience in the theatre, Mansfield learned far earlier than most all about the single take, juxtapositions, abrupt openings, quick dissolves and the clarity that cutting can impose. Mansfield’s translation of the language of cinema onto the page antedated that of most Modernist writers. These cinematic techniques are partly what make Mansfield’s short stories feel so contemporary compared to many short stories from around the same era. (For more on that, read Sarah Sandley’s essay on Mansfield and cinema from 2011 and Cinema and the Imagination in Katherine Mansfield’s Writing by M. Ascari.)
  • Mansfield was really interested in Charlie Chaplin and starts talking about him in her letters from 1918. She named one of her cats after him. Chaplin’s talent for hyper-mimesis and self-parody contrasted with the commercial side of film acting. “Je ne parle pas francais” (written 1918) is the best example of self-parody produced by Mansfield, who grew critical of cinema as the emblem of consumerist mass culture. Note that this is the year she was really into Chaplin.

THE INFLUENCE OF ILL HEALTH

  • Plagued by illness all her adult life, death is a major theme. Her parents were told when Mansfield was a child that tuberculosis would probably see the end of her.
  • Facing early death from a young age, Mansfield located herself not only in the present but in the past and future.
  • Mansfield’s medical treatment was expensive and in her last two years she was faced with the task of making money quickly. She spent a lot more time writing book reviews. She’d write 2-3 a week when Murry was editor of the Athenaeum.
  • Because Mansfield knew she was short on time, she made the decision not to write the following: novels, problem stories and ‘nothing that is not simple, open’.
  • In “Psychology”, the playwright character appreciates the ease of breathing. Mansfield always had lung issues, and it’s likely she really did appreciate the otherwise invisible act of easy breathing, whenever it was afforded to her.

THE INFLUENCE OF FRIENDS

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

THE INFLUENCE OF HER BROTHER’S DEATH

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

THE INFLUENCE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS

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

LITERARY INFLUENCES AND THOUGHTS ABOUT WRITING

  • As a child she read fey fairy tales and fables.
  • Mansfield’s stories are strewn with Biblical references. “His Sister’s Keeper” (1909) refers to Genesis 4, 9: “Am I my brother’s keeper? In “Psychology” the playwright thinks of the Book of Genesis while offering cake to her man friend. In “Something Childish But Very Natural” she creates a version of Eden when describing two very young lovers’ paradise and mention of the apple tree. (The girl’s name is Edna >> Eden.) And then snakes appear at the end. “Marriage a la Mode” gives us a missing Noah’s Ark (missing because the house of the ‘new Isabel’ is filled with a parody of Bohemian poets and artists, in which the ark is the symbol of happy childhood.
  • She read Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. She despised the former, but enjoyed the latter upon re-reading. ‘Little in his [Joyce’s] writing is art.’
  • She felt the poems in the Oxford Book of English Verse were generally poor, except for Shakespeare and Marvell and ‘just a handful of others’.
  • She thought lots of novels – ‘pastime novels’ – demanded little of the reader, rehashing the same old stories and settings, failing to challenge the reader.
  • She believed detail for the sake of detail was no good. She believed anyone could describe detail and that writers could only be set apart from the rest of the population by saying something about the greater mysteries of life. There must be an illumination.
  • Mansfield was influenced heavily by Chekhov, quoting him in her letters. She considered herself the English Chekhov. She admired his knowledge and truth. She particularly enjoyed “The Steppe”. Some commentators have said she plagiarised Chekhov’s “Sleepy” when she wrote “The Child-Who-Was-Tired”. Mansfield owes a lot to Chekhov, but her style is her own. For instance, Mansfield made more heavy use of symbolism than Chekhov did.
  • Chekhov showed her that she was quite justified in writing stories of such uneven length. She realised that some of her writing failed to fit neatly into short stories, sketches, impressions or tales. Her longer works have been called novellas; Mansfield herself did not ever categorise her own form of writing. She felt hers were different from other short pieces.
  • Mansfield read D.H. Lawrence’s writing though there was much she didn’t like about it. But she wrote ‘he is the only writer living whom I really profoundly care for. It seems to me whatever he writes, no matter how much one may ‘disagree’, is important.’
  • She also read Dorothy Richardson, and thought they had no plot and no depth.
  • She thought Bunin, Maupassant, Joyce and Proust did not achieve greatness.
  • Mansfield believed that writers who wrote with ‘purpose’ were little more than preachers, and less than artists. (She perhaps meant didacticism.)
  • Influenced by Dostoevsky, Mansfield believed that plot should arise naturally from situation and characters; that events should be seen rather than shown off. The climax should give a sense of inevitability. The atmosphere gives the story continuity. In other words, she believed stories should be character driven.
  • Mansfield believed that the weather was important in reflecting the inner-life of characters in a story and was surprised at how little this connection was explored by other writers, except in its most obvious form (happy because the sun is shining, perturbed because the wind is blowing etc.). A story such as “Pictures” suggests Mansfield herself was highly influenced by the sensory input of her surroundings.

  • Katherine Mansfield grew up in middle class Wellington, New Zealand and moved to Europe as a young adult to finish her education in London.
  • Some of her stories are influenced by her experiences in England, Belgium and Bavaria (In a German Pension).
  • Her first stories were accepted by The Age but Mansfield grew tired of the sort of story they expected from her. At this time she met John Middleton Murry, who encouraged her to write something different. She became Murry’s partner and they later married.
  • New Zealand influenced her writing, and was the setting in some of her last, and best, works. ‘…if the truth were known I have a perfect passion for the island where I was born. …just as on those mornings white milky mists rise and uncover some beauty, then smother it again and then again disclose it, I tried to lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again…’
  • Mansfield was concerned with nationality in her early stories but later switched to a focus on modernist aesthetics and techniques. Her most New Zealand stories are the “Prelude” trilogy and “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped“. Her early stories seem to be from the perspective of a white female New Zealander. Of course she wrote her last and best stories about New Zealand.
  • In fact, setting seems more important in Mansfield’s German stories than in her New Zealand ones. For example, the mention of sauerkraut in “Germans At Meat” place the story in a particular place. But in the New Zealand stories, replacement of a particularly New Zealand detail (e.g. a type of tree) wouldn’t affect the story as a whole. “The Wind Blows” is set in windy Wellington, but could be set in many English speaking places. If no one knew Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealander, she wouldn’t be considered A New Zealand Writer.
  • Reading Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, New Zealand feels like an imprisonment, a place of confinement, especially for female characters. New Zealand was a young colony in Mansfield’s time. Any new colony is a hugely patriarchal one — all about domination, exploring and dominion over others. Europe wasn’t much better for women of course, but isolation led to a very constricted type of monotony for young women like Katherine Mansfield growing up in New Zealand.
  • Her final year of life, 1922, was spent in Switzerland.



THE INFLUENCE OF THE THEATRE

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

THE INFLUENCE OF ILL HEALTH

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

THE INFLUENCE OF FRIENDS

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

THE INFLUENCE OF HER BROTHER’S DEATH

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

THE INFLUENCE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS

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

LITERARY INFLUENCES AND THOUGHTS ABOUT WRITING

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

Writing Without Backstory: In statu nascendi

Walter Langley - The New Arrival

In statu nascendi is a Latin phrase and means “in a state of being born”.

When a story begins in medias res (in the middle of things) and the character is given no backstory, we may say the character is presented to us in statu nascendi.

Modernist writers started this trend. You’ll see it in Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. A character’s backstory is kept right off the page. To the reader, it seems as if they have just been born. 

Even more significantly, it seems this way to the narrator, as well. All our impressions of this character come from these particular events in the limited time scale of this particular story, with no flash backs, no flash forwards, and with no commentary about how they got here, or how everything turned out 20 years later.

In statu nascendi characterisation is the preferred mode for the contemporary short story reader, who expects brevity and conciseness. This zero-backstory mode of characterisation is best explained if we look at what stories typically came before.

A good example is the fairy tale “Rapunzel”, as the Grimm brothers wrote it. Before the story gets to the story of Rapunzel herself, the reader is given numerous paragraphs of back story. Before we can understand Rapunzel as a character, storytellers of the 1700s and 1800s believed narratees would need to know all about the girl’s parents and how they met.

There’s a not-so-hidden ideology in stories that begin with a character’s ancestry: The importance of bloodline. Modern storytellers don’t necessarily believe a character’s bloodline says anything useful about them. A modern view: people are products of our environment. Paint the environment and you’ve painted a person.

There are other advantages to this form of characterisation.

ADVANTAGES TO WRITING WITHOUT BACKSTORY

  1. Brevity
  2. A mood of spontaneity
  3. If a character has little backstory, they become more universal. The character could be almost anyone, including you, the reader. 
  4. Backstory always slows down narrative drive. Leaving it out avoids that pitfall, opening an aperture for more imagery and symbolism. 

SEE HOW IT’S DONE IN THE LYRICAL SHORT STORY

Header painting: Walter Langley – The New Arrival

How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped by Katherine Mansfield

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

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

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

STORYWORLD OF “HOW PEARL BUTTON WAS KIDNAPPED”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism by Julia van Gunsteren

STORY STRUCTURE OF “HOW PEARL BUTTON WAS KIDNAPPED”

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

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

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

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

SHORTCOMING

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

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

DESIRE

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

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

OPPONENT

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

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

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

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

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

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

PLAN

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

BIG STRUGGLE

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

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

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

ANAGNORISIS

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

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

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

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

NEW SITUATION

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

COMPARE

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

Header painting: George Vicat Cole – Lannacombe Bay, Start Point in the distance

See Saw by Katherine Mansfield

See Saw by Frederick Morgan

“See Saw” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1919. The movement of a playground see saw shapes the story, balancing age against youth. Like “The Voyage” and “Sun and Moon“, “See Saw” juxtaposes children and adults. This story also juxtaposes flawed humans against the beauty of nature.

STORYWORLD OF “SEE SAW”

TIME

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

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

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

NATURE

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

SEASON

Spring.

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

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

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

— Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism

STORY STRUCTURE OF “SEE SAW”

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

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

Edward Atkinson Hornel - The Seesaw 1905
Edward Atkinson Hornel – The Seesaw 1905

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

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

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

The ‘totter’ takes over:

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

The see-saw moves again:

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

The see-saw moves again:

  • In a single sentence, the old couple get up and waddle away. (Babies also waddle, because of their napkins.)

SHORTCOMING

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

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

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

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

CHILDREN PLAYING MAKE-BELIEVE

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

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

DESIRE

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

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

OPPONENT

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

The old people sit companionably but not exactly contentedly.

SETTING AS OPPOSITION

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

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

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

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

PLAN

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

BIG STRUGGLE

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

ANAGNORISIS

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

NEW SITUATION

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

Header painting: See Saw by Frederick Morgan