Parties in Art and Fiction

Elenore Abbot (1875–1935) balcony party

Parties provide an excellent setting for getting people together. And when people are together this creates conflict, the backbone of any story.

Like other high-stress, socially critical events such as competitions and staged performances, parties also often happen at the climax of a story. Events leading up to the party garner suspense due to the ticking clock.

Kameeka is confident that today she will finally beat her rival, Jamara, and become the Hula-Hoopin Queen of 139th Street. But then Mama reminds her that today is their neighbor Miz Adeline s birthday, and Kameeka has a ton of chores to do to get ready for the party they are hosting.

Whenever I did creative writing exercises with high school students in English class, I knew it was no good asking them to write about autobiographical events which had recently happened. My own English professor at teachers’ college had told us that people need at least seven years of reflection before writing about our own lives well. Since these kids were about 13 and 14, I asked them to remember a time from when they were seven or younger. I didn’t ask them to discuss their memories with their classmates as part of the drafting process because I wanted them to come up with their own memories, but after a few years of doing this I finally learned something else — the vast, vast majority of kids will write about birthday parties and injuries. I got so sick of reading about stitches and broken bones that I asked them not to write about injuries. I also learned that there’s nothing inhrently interesting about a birthday party.

However, birthday parties are important to young people, and of all the memories we make during childhood, parties are some of the most resonant. Not surprising, then, that parties feature large in children’s stories.

Where's my date, Charlie Dye (1906-1972), balloons party
Where’s my date, Charlie Dye (1906-1972).

Apart from bringing people together, promising conflict, there is another useful storytelling function for the tea party, demonstrated in picture books such as Pettson and Findus by Sven Nordqvist and the Mercy Watson series by Kate diCamillo. These stories have carnivalesque elements, and an inherent problem with the carnivalesque plot is that the hijinks must at some point wrap up. The tea party makes for an excellent conclusion to a fun, hygge children’s story. Typically, the small community sits down together and shares food. No matter what just happened, all is well with the world. In some long-running series, the sit-down food party concludes every single story.

Five O'Clock Tea, by American painter Mary Cassatt (1880). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Five O’Clock Tea, by American painter Mary Cassatt (1880). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

WHAT’S GOING ON IN THE WORLD OUTSIDE THE PARTY?

I always ask people caught in conflicts the same question: “Why did it take you so long to leave?” Or “Why didn’t you leave when you had the chance?” The answer is nearly always the same: because we never thought it would happen.

I remember summer afternoons in Damascus in 2012, standing on my hotel balcony watching a massive rave below me: partiers were dancing around a pool, beers in hand, rap blaring. On the edge of the city, bombs were falling — I could see the plumes of smoke in the distance. The pool party was an attempt to deny the inevitable and freeze time: a desperate, defiant last chance at normality.

America Shows Troubling Warning Signs of a Slide Into Civil War by Janine Di Giovanni, October 2020

Food, in general, is important in children’s literature.

Frederick Daniel Hardy - The First Birthday Party
Frederick Daniel Hardy – The First Birthday Party

DRESS UP PARTIES

This watercolour illustration of a fancy dress party is by Carl Larsson.
This watercolour illustration of a fancy dress party is by Carl Larsson.

TEA PARTIES

Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987), 1956 tea party
Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987), 1956 tea party
There are many beautiful tea scenes in the latest film adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel Emma (2020)
There are many beautiful tea scenes in the latest film adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma (2020)

THE BARN DANCE

Haugtussedans, 1903, Theodor Kittelsen
Haugtussedans, 1903, Theodor Kittelsen
An Unexpected Party -The Hobbit  Brothers Hildebrant 1977
An Unexpected Party -The Hobbit Brothers Hildebrant 1977

THE DINNER PARTY

CHARLES DANA GIBSON New Cartoons  dinner portrait
CHARLES DANA GIBSON New Cartoons

THE NIGHT PARTY

THE FUN PARTY SUBVERTED

Norman Rockwell after party kitchen
Norman Rockwell
MARTHA SAWYERS 'THANKS GIVING 1947 Collier’s Magazine
MARTHA SAWYERS ‘THANKS GIVING 1947 Collier’s Magazine
Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) 1943 after party
Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) 1943
November 26, 1949 Thanksgiving TV
November 26, 1949 Thanksgiving TV
Doggie Buffet cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine, January 5, 1957 By Dick Sargent, American illustrator
Doggie Buffet cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine, January 5, 1957 By Dick Sargent, American illustrator
Spanish Life Magazine Kodak
Spanish Life Magazine Kodak
Cicely Mary Barker (1895 - 1973) the party
Cicely Mary Barker (1895 – 1973) the party
Arthur Sarnoff New Year party
Arthur Sarnoff New Year party
Ben Kimberly Prins (1902 - 1980) 1955 'Party After Snowfall' illustration for The Saturday Evening Post
Ben Kimberly Prins (1902 – 1980) 1955 ‘Party After Snowfall’ illustration for The Saturday Evening Post
The Rabbits’ Christmas Party The Arrival Beatrix Potter 1892
Bear Party 1951 William Pène du Bois
Bear Party 1951 William Pène du Bois
A 19th century print depicting a Laughing Gas (Nitrous Oxide) party
A 19th century print depicting a Laughing Gas (Nitrous Oxide) party
Edwin Georgi (1896-1964) party
Edwin Georgi (1896-1964) party

Mrs. Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Header painting: Elenore Abbot (1875–1935)

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Pettson and Findus Pancake Pie by Sven Nordqvist

Pancake Pie (1984) is a Swedish picture book written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist, and is the first in the Pettson and Findus series starring a man and his cat who live together on a rustic farm, along with many little creatures who make the setting seem alive.

What is a pancake pie? Is it just… a pancake? I’m reminded of a certain song about a big pizza pie (actually just a pizza), which is much improved after the moray meme came out.

The Pettson and Findus books have been adapted for children’s TV. The Pancake Pie book became Pancake Pudding in the adaptation. I’ve not heard of a pancake pudding, but it does look more like a storybook cake, and I can see it works better on the screen. The storytellers don’t really want the audience to be stuck, as I am, on the question of what the food is. The food is not central to the story.

This is likely why Swedish Pannkakstårtan was first translated as Pancake Pie in 1985 but later as The Birthday Cake in 1999

SETTING OF FINDUS AND PETTSON

Max and Marla Are Having A Picnic
Contrast with Max and Marla, another human/animal duo who go off on adventures, sometimes by bike. The owl doesn’t talk in this one, so if you find Pettson’s cat a bit irritating, you may prefer the silent, stoic owl.
  1. PERIOD — Findus and Pettson live on a storybook farm which is clearly Scandinavian, if you are at all familiar with with a Scandinavian farm looks like, with the open rectangular arrangement of the farm buildings.
  2. DURATION — This particular story takes place over a day. It’s all done and dusted in time for a sit-down afternoon tea outside.
  3. LOCATION — rural Sweden
  4. ARENA — The whole story takes place between the farm and the nearby village where it is possible to buy anything you don’t have at home, in this case flour.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — The Swedish farm buildings, the village shops, the well (which looks unlike your archetypal storybook well — this one must be based on a Swedish well.
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS — pastures around the farm, hills in the distance
  7. WEATHER — The Pettson and Findus stories span all the seasons. Some of them take place when it’s snowing; this one happens in a temperate season, perhaps summer.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Pettson’s bicycle is important to his characterisation. I really love this guy, with his pedal power and his cat. If he drove a car he’d be a different sort of guy altogether.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — In the hierarchy of human struggles, this is an unlikely, fantasy, carnivalesque struggle in which the goal is simple; to bake a birthday cake. It’s not even a high stakes birthday given that the birthday person celebrates birthdays three times a year, just because.
  10. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — In the TV adaptation, Findus is annoyed that Pettson seems to have forgotten one of his superfluous birthdays. This story is also about how annoying things happen and there’s no point apportioning blame for these things. Rather, we have no choice but to get on and deal with them if we want to achieve our goal.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PANCAKE PIE

PARATEXT

Translators over the years have had a bit of a job deciding on how to translate this series into English. The paper below makes for an interesting case study into how publishers try something then later change their minds.

From Pettson and Findus to Festus and Mercury… and Back Again: A Comparison of Four Translations of Sven Nordqvist’s Picture Books

The book title Pancake Pie is also translated as Pancakes For Findus (which I admit makes more sense). The title is probably modelled on Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClusky.

Pancakes for Findus is the first story in the adventures of farmer Pettson and his cat Findus. Pettson wants to bake a birthday cake for Findus, who has three birthdays a year. But how will they get the eggs with the bull in the way?
Findus and Pettson live in a ramshackle cottage in the country, with a henhouse, workshop, and woodshed. Their fascinating, magical world is inhabited by tiny creatures who move Pettson’s things about when he isn’t looking.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

We know from other books in the series that Pettson is probably a widower and his neighbours find him a little odd. The cat comes across to the reader like a proxy child. For storytelling purposes we can consider Findus a child ranging between the ages of 5 and 10, depending on what the situation calls for.

Pettson wears glasses as part of his character design. This shows how he is oblivious to the small creatures around him who are alive. Another character with the exact same trope is Muriel of Courage the Cowardly Dog. In both cases the pet can see all the opponents but the human occupant sees nothing. In Muriel’s case she fails to see some pretty dire baddies, but the setting of the Pettson and Findus stories is more utopian. The creatures are mischievous and sometimes cranky, but never evil.

The co-star Findus has all the shortcomings typical of a small child, and as in any comedic series, he never grows up. He continues to be self-centred and petulent, in a lovable way. I I find the TV version of Findus unlikeable, and I think it’s mainly to do with the English dub of his voice, which is irritating. Voicing animals is always difficult.

Another example of this exact difficulty: ‘Dog’ of Footrot Flats by Murray Ball. New Zealanders were already in love with Dog from the newspaper comic strips, and the makers of the 1980s Footrot Flats film had a hell of a time settling on how Dog’s voice should sound. I have a Border collie myself these days and I think they got it right.

The creators of the 1980s Garfield animations also got Garfield right, but as a kid I didn’t think so. I was shocked to find that Garfield had a lazy adult male voice when I had expected something more like… the Findus voice. More ‘miowy’, more aimed at kids. Now I’m an adult I can see Garfield’s voice is correct, and that as a kid I had been far too generous in my interpretation of that cat’s character.

DESIRE

Self-centred Findus wants three birthdays per year and Pettson wants to oblige his cat. However, this kind of self-absorption is only briefly critiqued, and only in the TV adaptation, in which a hen clucks at the extravagance of three birthdays per year. The young reader is not encouraged to side with the judgy hen though, so the idea of three birthdays per year is a carnivalesque bit of fun and also wish fulfilment. What kid wouldn’t want three birthdays per year?

On a deeper level, Findus wants to be the centre of attention with luxuries foisted upon him.

On the most surface level, Pettson and Findus want to celebrate the day by baking something and eating it as a treat, whether we call it a pancake pie or a pancake pudding or whatever.

OPPONENT

The storyworld itself stands between Pettson getting flour, or not. But ‘things going wrong in the world’ doesn’t usually make for a satisfying opposition, so literally populating the arena with tiny creatures, each with their own agenda, is a masterful way to make a setting come alive. Pettson doesn’t simply get a hole in his bicycle tyre; a little creature bites a hole in it.

This is literally how people of yore saw the world. We only need look into earlier versions of fairytales such as The Elves and the Shoemaker to know this. That tale’s reason for existence is to warn people against fraternising with small creatures and spirits in the home, so clearly many people thought they actually existed!

We might as well consider these little creatures fairies. They don’t look like the 21st century conception of a fairy — small, butterfly-like femme coded creatures influenced by Disney’s Tinkerbell. Fairies can refer to any creature who lives in the world around us, and in our living spaces. Earlier humans imagined fairies absolutely everywhere. (Modern audiences get the feeling we now understand Earth and seem more concerned with populating space… we call them aliens though, not fairies.)

This page layout beautifully expresses the flow of events from fishing a key out of the well, to fixing a tyre to riding to town to the goal of enjoying pancake pie for Findus. Notice how each image blends into the one below, creating a clear visual sequence for the reader.
This image reminds me very much of The Tomten. I haven’t even read The Tomten yet, but I still recognise the imagery of a Scandinavian character peering in through a window.

The neighbour who ambles by right as Pettson is washing his pants in a bucket also functions as an ‘observer opponent’. I’ve seen these scenes in other children’s stories, recently in Bluey, in which the father is playing a ridiculous game with his daughter when a dressed-up judgy poodle walks by and drags him with side-eye. She hasn’t got the memo that this small snippet is part of a game.

Audiences seem to love this gag — in which a main character is caught in the most humiliating part of a plot when someone happens to amble by. A funny moment now becomes comedically humiliating with the addition of an intradiegetic audience member. Funny how that works.

In such scenes, is it not humiliating enough that we, the audience, are watching? No, not if the fourth wall remains intact. Also, we are in possession of the complete story. We know how the character got into that position. Humour derives from the fact that the passerby is in audience inferior position. The joke is sort of actually on them, for failing to understand the whole scenario.

PLAN

Pancake Pie is basically a There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly cumulative plot, except for one major difference: In the fly story, the old lady’s self-formulated plan is ridiculous. She herself is ridiculous. Perhaps for this reason I have never found that old lady an empathetic character. I couldn’t care less whether she lives or dies (and both endings exist in the world).

In the case of the empathetic Pettson, the scenarios are ridiculous (thanks to the fairies) but his plans are quite sensible, given the world of the story. Key falls down the well? Get a long stick and fish it out. Pants covered in egg? Take them off and wash them in a bucket.

It’s not Pettson who is eccentric; it’s his farm. Pettson is a misunderstood widower.

Another beautiful sequence of events illustrated on a single page. These pages are excellent examples of Continuous Narrative Art. This describes art which gives clues about the sequence of events, without making use of frames. In a Western picture book, the reader’s eyes are trained to move from top to bottom, left to right.

Honestly, I couldn’t follow the Plan part of the plot sequence on first reading. if you’d quizzed me immediately after for comprehension I would not have been able to tell you how Pettson goes from looking for flour to being chased by a bull in a field. But that doesn’t matter. We enjoy the spectacle and don’t mind the sequence.

That said, the sequence must make sense for the story to work, and it does if you’re paying attention, with a clear path from A to B to Z. Lucky for me, someone else wrote the sequence down in a humorous consumer review:

If Pettson, P, is to make a pancake pie, then P must buy flour.

If P is to buy flour, then P must cycle to town.

If P is to use a cycle C, then C’s tires must be intact.

If P is to make C’s tires intact, then P must obtain a cycle repair kit R.

If P is to obtain R, then P must have the key to the toolshed K.

If K is in the well W, then P must have a fishing rod F.

If F is on the roof, then P must have a ladder L.

If L is in the bull B’s field, then P must scare away B.

If P’s neighbor N had known all of the above, then N wouldn’t necessarily have thought P had lost his wits when he saw him playing Jussi Björling records for B on P’s wind-up phonograph.

That’s logic. What do they teach them in schools these days?

Goodreads

THE BIG STRUGGLE

This story might align more closely to the carnivalesque picture book story structure if it weren’t for the bull sequence.

The animals in this story span a broad section of the ‘animal-ness continuum’, with Findus basically human (a child), and the hens who are middle-aged gossipy women archetypes and also this bull who is nothing more than an actual bull.

The bull is a Minotaur opponent (more literally than most Minotaur opponents, which can come in any shape or form and most have nothing to do with actual bulls).

That curtain tied around Findus’ ankle is very handy to the illustrator as a framing device which double as indicating the flow, leading the eye in the correct direction. As an accomplished adult reader you probably take this skill for granted. Younger, emerging readers need help with this.

The story climaxes at the bull fight. Although the ridiculous events around baking a simple pancake pie build into something more and more ridiculous, the level of ridiculousness is not enough to ‘finish off the story’, which must be finished somehow. So Nordqvist ends it with an actual battle scene, complete with danger of death and a chase.

Note the way Nordqvist depicts the movement. I suspect this is influenced by photography, specifically long exposure photography. I’m thinking of all those shots of highways on dusk, in which the headlights look like one long stream on the road of moving cars, or car singular.

ANAGNORISIS

Findus and Pettson have no major epiphany, because this story was all about spectacle (for the reader). They realise that when they have their hands on the flour that they can sit down to enjoy an afternoon tea of pancake pie.

NEW SITUATION

Though the desire for food is mostly the McGuffin of this particular story, Pancake Pie is an excellent example of a children’s book where all is well when the main characters sit down to enjoy food. A number of series work like this, including the more recent Mercy Watson picture books by Kate DiCamillo and Chris Van Dusen. Those stories end when Mercy sits down with everyone to enjoy hot buttered toast.

Food is very important in children’s stories.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Findus learns nothing. I fully expect him to wrap Pettson around his little dew claw in further stories of the same series.

RESONANCE

This story established the intriguing world of Pettson and Findus. I fell in love with Pettson immediately. For me the farmer is the sympathetic character, though for children I expect the cat will be relatable. In this way, the series achieves a dual audience.

Worlds populated by tiny creatures endure. The Pettson and Findus books were just a small part of that. The golden age of fairy and goblin stories may seem to have passed, but look at the Hilda series, recently adapted by Netflix, for a similar utopian world populated by tiny creatures who each have their own agenda but who pose no significant threat to the main, human characters.

PIES IN STORYTELLING

MORE MEN AND THEIR CATS

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Sun and Moon by Katherine Mansfield

SUN AND MOON

“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.

Read the story at The Katherine Mansfield Society website.

LISTEN to Sun and Moon by Katherine Mansfield AUDIO BOOK

Lucien Davis — Except on Business
Lucien Davis — Except on Business

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.
James Hayllar - Miss Lily's Return from the Ball
James Hayllar – Miss Lily’s Return from the Ball

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.

J. C.Leyendecker c 1932

STORY STRUCTURE OF “SUN AND MOON”

NARRATION

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?
Norman Rockwell – Little Girl Looking Downstairs at Christmas Party – 1964

SHORTCOMING

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”.)

DESIRE

There is no strong, obvious desire line from Sun in this story. Because he is so young, he doesn’t really know what it is he wants.

By the end of the story we know that what he wants is for things to stay amazing, whole and intact. With a crowd of drunk adults around, this is never going to happen…

OPPONENT

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.

PLAN

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.

Saturday Evening Post cover - November 1961
Saturday Evening Post cover – November 1961

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is the part where Sun cries. He’s an overtired child, of course, but that’s only a surface level reading.

He’s crying for another reason…

ANAGNORISIS

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.

NEW SITUATION

The children are sent to bed and tomorrow their lives will continue as usual — we extrapolate. Sun may not even remember the incident, but he will remember the lesson: That all good things must end.

Bliss by Katherine Mansfield

George Sheridan Knowles - The Duet

“Bliss” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield and one of Mansfield’s last. “Bliss” is offered as an example of a ‘lyrical’ short story.

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.

William Bouguereau – The Little Marauder 1900

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 Mushroom Diversion

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.

Derwent Lees Pear Tree in Blossom 1913
Derwent Lees Pear Tree in Blossom 1913

Freudian Stuff

Mansfield is known for her Freudian themes. At this point in her life especially, she’s interested in repression.

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.

NARRATION

The story works through symbolism, carefully selected detail and the clever unobtrusive fusing of the central character and narrator.

Gillian Boddy

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
Vincent Van Gogh Stil Life with pears, 1887-1888. Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden
Vincent Van Gogh Stil Life with pears, 1887-1888. Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden

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’.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BLISS”

SHORTCOMING

Anthony Alpers, who wrote The Life of Katherine Mansfield, believed the women in this story are humanised whereas the man are types.

Bertha is young, naive and perhaps repressing the reality that her husband and friend are in love.

DESIRE

Bertha wants to enjoy a dinner party surrounded by interesting friends, and by one friend in particular — a beguiling young woman.

OPPONENT

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.)

PLAN

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.)

BIG STRUGGLE

Underneath the brittle sophistication the reader senses the underlying tension as it mounts to its disquieting climax.

Gillian Boddy

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.

ANAGNORISIS

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.

NEW SITUATION

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.

Header painting: George Sheridan Knowles – The Duet