City Kids, Country Kids in Children’s Literature

children playing hopscotch in an alleyway

Read enough children’s literature and you’ll be left in no doubt: The city is bad for children. Take them out to the country, which is utopian, pristine and a veritable fantasy landscape.

There was once an old woman who left the city to get away from all the noise and confusion. Out in the country she found a small house by a creek with a big shade tree in the back yard.

Duck Cakes For Sale, 1989

This ideology is a specifically white ideology (the ideology of publishing and children’s books):

White people love to be outside.  But not everyone knows that another thing they like to do is make people feel bad for wanting to watch sports on TV or play video games.  While it would be easy to get angry at white people for this, remember it is hard wired in their head that the greatest thing a person can do in their free time is to hike/walk/bike outdoors.

Stuff White People Like: Making you feel bad about not going outside


Naomi Hamer sums it up like this:

New York City. Los Angeles. London. Paris. Toronto. Distinct experiences of urban life in major European and North American cities have inspired countless works of literature, film, and art, as well as, musical compositions and television programs for both children and adults. Diverse images of “the city” in art and literature offer a range of literal and metaphoric implications: the city as metaphor for modernization;

  • the Old World European city as romantic or nostalgic setting
  • the futuristic city as cautionary comment on technology
  • the city as centre of consumer and corporate culture
  • the city as a symbol of anonymous and empty (post)modern life
  • the city as emblem of the disrupted relationship between humans and nature
  • the city as a site for criminalization, drug use, prostitution, gang violence and poverty.

In the context of this artistic and literary commentary over the last century, the image of the city has also become an integral and dynamic element in children’s literature.


Do you live in a small town? I do. Ours numbers about 17,000 people. We think of it as a small country area, but that was more than enough to comprise a ‘provincial centre’ in the 1700s.

By 1700, urban areas with five thousand or more persons comprised some 15 percent of England’s population of five million inhabitants, a proportion slightly above the norm for Western Europe as a whole. The country’s metropolis, London, boasted a citizenry of 575,000 dwarfing provincial centres with between twelve and thirty thousand inhabitants apiece. By then, large-scale urbanization had already transformed much of continental Europe, from the Italian peninsula to southern Scandinavia. Most cities and towns resembled a rabbit warren of narrow streets and alleys — cramped, crooked, and dark. Upper facades, by projecting over streets below, obstructed light from both sun and moon. Already by the 1600s, buildings in Amsterdam towered four stories high. Not until the eighteenth century would linear thoroughfares of ample breadth set the standard in urban design.

A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close



[The] symbolic significance of the city is better understood in contrast with the “non-city” which surrounds it. The city versus nature contrast is one of the major symbolic contrasts in story forms for the city is the greatest overall symbol of mankind. Raymond Williams in The Country And The City notes that the country offers “the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue.” On the other hand, the city:

“…has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition: on the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance and limitation. A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times.”

Symbolism of Place
City in a story for adults
The symbolism on this novel for adults is clear: cities have a dark, sinister underside. Can you imagine if the top half of this bookcover were a pastoral scene?

Many 20th century children’s books are written with the ideology that children should be outside, self-governed, exploring, free and unencumbered by the rules of the city. Sometimes when I’m reading classic children’s books I hear the voice of my seventy-something-year-old friend, and I wonder what Edith Nesbit and Enid Blyton would say if they saw the way children are playing together today?

Eva Ibbotson was aware of this well-understood dichotomy evident throughout British children’s literature in particular. In her middle grade novel The Beasts of Clawstone Castle, the adventures begin when two children are sent from a nice part of London to stay for the summer in a castle in the country. The parents decide to go to America, but there’s that pesky matter of the children:

“We can’t possibly leave them,” said Mr Hamilton.

“And we can’t possibly take them along,” said Mrs Hamilton.

“So we’ll have to refuse.”


But the Americans had offered a lot of money and the car was making terrible noises and bills were dropping through the letter box in droves.

“Unless we send them to the country. They ought to be in the country,” said Mrs Hamilton. “It’s where children ought to be.

Cities themselves have a public relations problem in children’s literature. In adolescent fantasy the city often symbolises a threat. The city is the dangerous world of adults, who often succumb to temptation in cities. Often, the city is symbolically equivalent to an ocean, where inhabitants are under constant threat from bigger creatures.


Let’s take a look at what the septuagenarians in our lives were reading as children, and again, no doubt, to their own children. Is this ‘country kids are superior to urban kids’ ideology seen in children’s books published today?

Town Mouse Country Mouse in which the town equals the city

What did Aesop think of the town versus country? Here’s the thing about Aesop’s fables, which applies equally to religious texts: The reader brings their own values to the text rather than the other way around. Each age of readers has interpreted these fables according to their own existing worldview.

Was Aesop criticising sophisticated city folk, or did he just happen to situate the proud mouse in the town, and the humble mouse in the country?

Aesop’s Fables are still published today as picture books for children — often cheaply produced.


Johnny Town-Mouse is Beatrix Potter’s retelling of the Aesop Fable. Potter wrote this story in a scramble as she was busy dealing with jobs on her new farm. Her publisher was telling her to provide them with a new story.

Despite the utter busyness involved in farm life, it’s clear from a cursory glance at Potter’s illustrations which of the two environments she preferred. Her censure of town mice (children) is clear from the dialogue below:

Timmy Willie longed to be at home in his peaceful nest in a sunny bank. The food disagreed with him; the noise prevented him from sleeping. In a few days he grew so thin that Johnny Town-mouse noticed it, and questioned him. He listened to Timmy Willie’s story and inquired about the garden. “It sounds rather a dull place? What do you do when it rains?”


E. Nesbit was particularly clear on her views of child-rearing in London:

London is like prison for children, especially if their relations are not rich.

Of course there are the shops and the theatres, and Maskelyne and Cook’s, and things, but if your people are rather poor you don’t get taken to the theatres, and you can’t buy things out of the shops; and London has none of those nice things that children may play with without hurting the things or themselves – such as trees and sand and woods and waters. And nearly everything in London is the wrong sort of shape – all straight lines and flat streets, instead of being all sorts of odd shapes, like things are in the country. Trees are all different, as you know, and I am sure some tiresome person must have told you that there are no two blades of grass exactly alike. But in streets, where the blades of grass don’t grow, everything is like everything else. This is why so many children who live in towns are so extremely naughty. They do not know what is the matter with them, and no more do their fathers and mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, tutors, governesses, and nurses; but I know. And so do you now. Children in the country are naughty sometimes, too, but that is for quite different reasons.

Five Children and It

In the Edwardian era it was thought not only that the countryside itself was better, but also that people who came from the country were better… at least, if you needed their services as staff:

Children, particularly girls, also made up a significant proportion of the lower posts in a large household and the higher up the social scale the employer, the more cachet was awarded to the positions in the house. Young girls would be looking for a post in a good home from the age of twelve or thirteen, and in some cases they started as young as ten. And while many of these came from the city slums, employers often preferred to take the children of rural families, who were considered to be more conscientious and hard-working than those from the cities.

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney


Enid Blyton was another author of the view that country kids are wholesome whereas city kids are corrupt. At the beginning of The Enchanted Wood, Jo, Bessie and Fanny move from the city to the country, where they are immediately absorbed and influenced by the natural landscape. In the later books they are visited first by Dick and next by Connie. Both of these children, being from the city, are therefore separate from the landscape and problematic. Blyton is particularly harsh on Connie, and punishes the character for her interest in pretty clothes by covering her in water out of Dame Wash-a-lot’s soapy old washing water. Country kids — pure and unadulterated — do not care about their clothes, wearing them only for practical reasons.

Connie Wet Folk Faraway Tree is from the city

Blyton’s love of the country comes through most clearly in her Cherry Tree Farm books, in which children from the city have their lives dramatically improved after moving to an idyllic farm of the kind you’re likely to see on margarine lids. I absolutely loved this idyll as a child reader.


Many historical and contemporary classics of children’s literature rely on an escape from the city in order for protagonists to experience an alternate fantasy or natural world; however, increasingly in modern children’s novels and picture books, the city itself has innately magical and fantastical qualities or becomes the site for a (quasi)-fantastical realm. Mary Beaty remarks in her reflection on the child protagonists of Manhattan: “urban children somehow form private lives in the midst of the moil of policemen, tradesmen, traffic and trams” … Rather than running away to a natural realm, child protagonists in these texts exist within their own imaginative spheres in the core of the city where they live and play. In their depiction of these imaginative spheres, many of these novels and picture books exemplify an enchanted or magic realism in their child’s-eye-view perspectives of the city.

Naomi Hamer

As noted above, in modern children’s literature you won’t easily find the clearcut disparaging of the city.

A problem faced by children’s authors writing in a modern setting is that there is little legitimate room for adventure. One solution is to take the children into ‘the wild’, where they can undergo the requisite maturity without the interference of adults.

On the other hand, the city itself can be turned into a symbolic wilderness, and there’s nothing stopping modern authors from doing just that. Cities, after all, can be just as terrifying as jungles and forests.

  • Spider-man (New York) and other superhero stories such as Jessica Jones and Batman
  • Fish Tank (Essex)
  • Blade Runner (L.A.)

Or cities can be symbolic forests:

  • Ghostbusters
  • Harriet The Spy

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk recaptures something of the country/city divide. Set in West Pennsylvania in 1043, a city girl arrives from the country. This girl is more sophisticated and meaner than the country kids, who have only just got electricity, for instance. Living in a small town, Annabelle — the main character — must learn some city-like sophistication. She must learn to lie.

Don’t forget, too, that the suburbs can just as terrifying, especially as they are ‘snail under the leaf settings‘, rotten just beneath the surface.

Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan Cover

In picture books for younger readers we have examples such as Olivia by Ian Falconer. Olivia lives in New York, which you might expect to be a stifling place for children, and I’m sure it can be if money is tight. But Olivia is taken out to museums and ballet performances as well as to parks and to the seaside. It’s hard to argue that city kid Olivia is at all psychologically bereft for having been brought up in the city.

You’ll still find plenty of ‘storybook farms‘, but these exist alongside more realistic depictions of rural life, such as the Australian picture book Two Summers, which is about drought.


Interestingly, the message is often the direct opposite in stories for adults. Take the 2016 indie American film Little Boxes starring Melanie Lynskey and Nelsan Ellis. This is an academic, woke, left-leaning couple who move from New York to a small, predominantly white town in Washington State when Lynskey’s character achieves tenure as a professor at the local university. They make quite a few social mistakes, highlighting the small-town insecurities of the people who live there. Overall, the message is that small town folk are equally small-minded.

Amanda Craig makes a comment on the English country/city divide when speaking of her novel The Lie Of The Land:

The divorcing couple in your new novel move to Devon together because they can’t afford to buy separate homes in London. Where did that idea come from?
My husband and I bought this bolthole in Devon and it was a revelation. As a result, this book is absolutely not about people moving to the country and having a lovely time. It’s about the difficult aspects of living in the countryside as well as its beauty, and how it’s really not helped by the metropolitan elite.

In the novel’s tension between city and country, your heart seems to be with the countryside…
My heart is perpetually divided between the two. I still live in London and I completely rejoice in its energy and multiculturalism and optimism, but I think there’s this community – many of them the people who stunned half the electorate by voting for Brexit – who are very angry. They’re people who are not racist, they’re not stupid. They’re good people and they have justifiable complaints that have not been listened to.

Do you think Londoners are out of touch with the rest of the country?
I think some Londoners view the countryside as a kind of toytown. There’s this fantasy that everything’s incredibly pretty and it’s not a place where people do serious work, and this could not be further from the truth. They’re real people with real problems and real talents and they’re utterly neglected by the powerbrokers in the capital.

The Guardian


Header photo by Ludomił

Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by diCamillo and Van Dusen

If you’re looking for a chapter book to bridge the gap between beautifully illustrated picturebooks and pictureless novels, the Mercy Watson series is a great option, because the illustrations are just as enticing as any found in a high-production picture book.



1960s American suburbia.

Children’s authors and illustrators seem to love this era — in hindsight it feels so safe, with the housewives cheerfully putting on endless spreads of food. For every happy housewife we probably had a Eugenia and a Baby, sisters forced to live together because there was no pay equality, a dearth of husbands after the world wars, and no freedom for a full life outside the confines of marriage. However! This image of suburbia, illustrated in bright, sunny pastel colours by Chris Van Dusen, is a genuine utopia. You’ll find nothing rotten in the basements here. This is a parody of the era, in which everything can be fixed with hot buttered toast.

The pink cadillac convertible seems to be a 1959 model. This is an iconic car that you would’ve seen in the movie Grease. And Elvis had one. 

Pink Cadillac
the pink cadillac from Pink Cadillac

The breakfast spread prepared by Mrs Watson includes a coconut bunny cake, from Betty Crocker. In sum, this is a Betty Crocker (General Mills) version of utopia.

picture edition published 1956
picture edition published 1956




Mercy is a hedonist who enjoys good food and simple things in life, such as driving at high speed with the wind in her ears. But, like Mr Watson, she needs adventure outside the domesticity of a suburban house.


Mercy wants to drive the convertible.


Mr Watson is in love with his convertible and won’t let her drive it.

Mr Watson’s opponent is the policeman who wants to give him a ticket for speeding, and for letting a pig drive a car.

Baby’s opponent is her older sister, who has babied her her whole life. This relationship is well-understood simply from the fact that her name is Baby.


Since Mercy is an impulsive pig, and simply plonks herself on Mr Watson’s lap when she wants a go at the wheel, diCamillo created a personified Mercy in the form of the old maid Baby, from next door. Henpecked by her elderly older sister, Eugenia, Baby craves freedom and adventure herself, so she plans to stowaway in the back seat one Saturday so she can go on a ride in the convertible with Mr Watson and the pig.


When Mercy takes over the wheel we have a high-speed chase scene. It ends with Mercy flying into the air and landing hard on the ground.


Mr Watson gives Mercy a lecture about pigs driving. “Mercy sighed. She was glad the ride was over. She felt a tiny bit dizzy. And a little bit dazed. She wanted, very much, to go home.” Mercy has had enough adventure, for one day at least. But because this is a series, we don’t want Mercy to stop having adventures altogether!

Baby, perhaps for the first time in her life, saves the day by stepping in and taking action. “Hooray!” said Baby. “She is fine!” But I’m sure she’s pleased at the discovery of her own cool headedness, too.


After Mrs Watson offers Officer Tomilello hot buttered toast he decides not to issue any tickets. The pig and the policeman look at each other as if they are now firm friends.

Eugenia has softened just a little towards Baby and admits that the toast has been ‘expertly buttered’, and so they stay for supper at the neighbours’.



There are 4 main types of animals found in children’s literature:

  1. Those portraying animals in their natural environment and only partially allowing them human-like abilities
  2. Those portraying anthropomorphic animals–talking, wearing clothes, thinking and behaving like humans–in separate communities, with or without contact with humans
  3. Those portraying anthropomorphic animals living among humans, as friends or intelligent pets
  4. Those which are humanized or semi-humanized


One enduring problems with pigs as characters is that many humans eat pig meat. A Saturday morning feast for Kate diCamillo’s semi-humanized pig, Mercy Watson, does not include bacon and eggs.

Chapter One of Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo
Chapter One of Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo

Charlotte’s Web is a different matter. From the first chapter the young reader is keenly aware that the lovable pig is for it.


If the story is a funny one, it’s highly likely that at some stage the pig character will end up airborne, making use of the English idiomatic expression: “And pigs might fly!”

Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride_600x846


There are a number of dual audience jokes going on in this book but one of them is the ‘pig = policeman’. You can often tell when a policeman is going to be kind/lenient in a children’s book — he’ll be plump. (Another example is the policeman in Make Way For Ducklings, who has an enormous pot belly and a pocket full of peanuts.) Like Mercy, the policeman here can be won over with hot buttered toast. On the final page we see a mirror image of the pair — the policeman’s blue uniform reflects off Mercy’s ears, and Mercy’s plate is blue. They both have the same rosy cheeks. These are kindred spirits.

Mercy and the Other Pig

Broadchurch Pilot Episode TV Writing


Broadchurch is a TV murder mystery in which a village is a miniature for society. As one reviewer points out, “the death which happens at the beginning incites all sorts of unexpected human behaviour, with repercussions all around the town. Initially the show seems to be making the banal point that the residents of this bucolic town are not what they appear at first glance. But they are not what they appear at second glance either.”

Genre: Broadchurch takes the classic buddy detective template (she’s by the book, he plays by his own rules) and gives the procedural depth by showing the emotional aftermath of an unspeakable crime (drama).

Anagnorisis: This comes later in the series, no doubt. For now we see the set up. Ellie has compared herself to the more experienced Met guy and realised she may not have what it takes after all for the job she so wanted. She has probably overestimated her own abilities as a detective because she hasn’t been significantly challenged.

Ghost — Alec Hardy has a ghost which may or may not ever be revealed to us (it never was in Casablanca, in which we never really learn why the hero left America). But it’s only hinted at. (Later we’ll learn he’s hiding a serious health condition.) But Ellie on the other hand, has been living in a kind of paradise world, symbolised by her returning straight from holiday. In a paradise world, a ghost is not possible.

Ellie’s inciting incident: A friend of her son has been murdered. The inciting incident connects Ellie’s need with her desire: She needs recognition and she desires to help her friends to achieve justice by finding out the truth. This is a good place to put the inciting incident, because Ellie just thinks she’s had the worst day ever, not getting the job she wanted, but then that pales into insignificance when the murdered boy is found. This plunges her into the most harrowing career challenge of her life. (Another character asks if she’s ever done a murder case before — she says no.)


broadchurch looking out to sea

The town of Broadchurch in Wessex, England, is bracing itself for an annual influx of holiday tourists. This is a quaint village right next to the sea. The sort of place where even police officers can enjoy ice creams while in uniform.

broachurch icecreams pier

The Sea

A walk along a clifftop leads to a steep drop onto the beach, which is the scene of the crime, and sets up this town’s relationship to the sea: 

The oceanic nature of the setting is echoed in the camera movement as the pilot episode opens. The very first shot is of a choppy ocean. Next we have a camera ‘swimming’ around the neighbourhood, zooming in on various houses, panning across rooms, as if all of this town is underground and we’re seeing it as a fish. The oceanic colour scheme is even used in Danny’s mother’s room, which is painted out in an oceanic theme. This colour blue is seen again in the grandmother’s shirt, in Danny’s lunchbox (which he is not there to collect.)

The fish movement camera is used again as Danny’s father walks along the main street. He’s talking about mundane things with friends and acquaintances, but the music tells us something terrible has happened. Who is following him? (Us.) Much use is made of juxtaposition, as his exchanges are cheerful and they’re talking about everyday things. We see a poster for the Broadchurch Fair, presumably a weekly, light, fun-filled event.

Broadchurch is an ‘snail under the leaf setting’. This village appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster.

Character desire is clearly established in the first episode.

Ellie Miller comes back from holiday giving out souvenirs when she is called into her boss’s office and told she hasn’t got ‘the job’. She wants a promotion from detective sergeant to detective inspector. The job has gone to a man. Ellie wants recognition and respect and career advancement. We know this from the very first scene. Compared to solving your first murder mystery, this is a fairly low-level goal, as initial desires should be. Psychological shortcoming: We get the sense that while Ellie may be ready for promotion in her small town, she is not sufficiently in control of her own emotions to do a good job. She needs to be paired with her opposite in order to learn. Ellie wishes to be called Ellie rather than Miller — a symbolic difference in how each detective approaches the job. Ellie can’t work without putting her personality into it. Ellie is a motherly figure, asking for ‘all the gossip’, giving out presents like stuffed toys and lipgloss.

Alec Hardy — Hardy’s reasons for relocation are kept from us for now, but we know that he has been shifted from the Met to avoid the consequences of some kind of scandal to do with a previous, high-profile murder case. Moral shortcoming: Hardy has no people skills whatsoever, bossing people around to get the job done. But the audience will forgive him for this, as he is very good at his job and cares deeply about finding the truth. No doubt Hardy and Miller will each learn from the other. Alec Hardy will be a fake-opponent, and we can see that from the beginning because his skills and shortcomings line up so nicely with those of Ellie.

Alec and Ellie are almost like the mirror image of each other. Normally in a set up the audience gets a very clear picture of the main character’s psychological shortcoming as well as their moral shortcoming, but here Ellie’s psychological shortcoming is highlighted whereas with Alec we get his moral shortcoming.

Beth Latimer — the murdered boy’s mother. We see her in her natural environment, getting her family off to school for the day — she wants her daughter to attend a school event even though the daughter is trying to pull a sickie. Then her desire changes suddenly when she is told her son hasn’t turned up at school (he was supposed to be spending the night somewhere else) and she is hellbent on finding out where he is. Then she is hellbent on finding out whose is the dead body on the beach. In follow-up episodes we can predict that she will be equally hell bent on finding out the truth. Beth is a bit of a ‘rule breaker’, jumping over the boundary police line in a panic over her son. (If a character can’t do that then, when?) The audience wants to see her do just that.

Olly Stevens is introduced in his work office — he is a young journalist who has just been turned down from the last of the big newspapers and now he’s stuck here in this tiny town working on non-event stories. Olly wants excitement, and he needs to prove himself somehow to get his foot in the door of a major paper. Moral shortcoming: He needs to start respecting other people’s privacy. He leaks the name of the murdered boy to the press even though his police officer aunt has told him not to.

Trendy young vicar — Moral shortcoming: using the death of a boy to spread the word of God.

Ally/Allies — Ellie’s main ally is a fake opponent, the new guy from the Met. Her husband is her emotional support. She is friends with people on the staff, though her boss has things she is not telling her, as evidenced by a secret conversation with Hardy while they eat ice cream on the pier.

Opponent — We don’t yet know who the main opponent is, but it looks like it’s going to be a web of people, including her own son, who deletes files from his C-drive as soon as his mother tells him his friend has been found dead. In the village we’ve also briefly met a creepy newsagent and a middle-aged misanthrope who is always lurking off to the side.

Mystery — Ellie must first uncover her opponents THEN defeat them. As far as she’s concerned, the whole town is on her side. In the detective genre there must be a mystery to compensate for the missing opponent because these stories deliberately withhold the opponent until the end. So we need something to replace it: the mystery of who murdered the boy. In a different genre, this would be when the opponent is introduced.

Fake-ally opponent — We have the strong sense that Ellie is not yet aware of the extent of hidden allegiances and deceptions going on in this town (helped with the symbolism of the sea). Her son may fit into this category, even if he’s too young and naive to be deliberately oppositional. Ellie’s boss may be a fake ally — in this genre the boss often ends up making things difficult for the spunky underling. Since fake-ally opponents are usually revealed after the main opponent (or mystery) has been revealed, we’re likely to find out what the allegiances and alliances really are in the next few episodes.

Reveals — Reveals are things the hero learns as the story progresses, and each reveal is supposed to be more significant than the last. Since this is a TV series there will be significant reveals much later on, but there will be minor reveals right the way through. Ellie’s first reveal: She hasn’t got the job of DI. But the guy from the Met who botched that other murder did get it, and she’s going to have to work with him. This is great, because the best reveals are about the main character’s opponent. Ellie’s second reveal: That the death of the boy is suspicious. Ellie’s decision: Her decision to solve the murder with her new boss will help her to gain the respect she craves, which means her new desire is a ‘bend’ of the original desire rather than a completely new one, which is perfect. (A river changing course.)

Plan — The new DI speaks clearly to the family and to the camera — he promises to find the killer. Ellie is along for the ride with him. There are bound to be problems along the way, with the audience wondering how these two can possibly solve such a difficult mystery. They’ll have to change strategy several times along the way.

Opponent’s plan — we already see the son hiding information that may be helpful to Ellie. But we don’t yet know what else is going on behind the scenes.

Drive — this will come in subsequent episodes. For now, Ellie is in reactive mode, looking stunned.

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

Auguste Toulmouche - Vanity 1889

In March 1907 Katherine Mansfield’s mother, Annie Beauchamp, held a garden party at their residence, 75 Tinakori Road, Wellington, New Zealand. On the same day, a poverty-stricken neighbour was killed in a street accident.

In 1921, on her 32nd birthday, Katherine Mansfield finished “The Garden Party”. She had taken a month to recover from her previous story, “At the Bay“. She felt that “The Garden Party” was better than “At The Bay”, “but that is not good enough, either…”

Commentators have said that “The Garden Party” is one of Mansfield’s ‘cry against corruption’ stories. These stories convey outrage at a society with great inequalities, and where the privileged ignore the injustice, getting on with their own lucky lives in a self-imposed bubble.

“The Garden Party” is like Mansfield’s other Sheridan stories — keenly interested in human relationships and the impact of local conditions on the developing personalities of young people. These stories are also about how the present affects the past and the future. Mansfield doesn’t give us all that much information about the socio-economic status of the Sheridans, but critics have looked at the Burnells in comparison to the Sheridans and concluded that the Sheridans are a middle-class family on the rise.

The Sheridans employ household servants — a cook, a gardener. Then there’s the marquee man, the florist, Godber’s man and carter. What must it be like to live with servants in your home at such close range? I’ve worked previously as a cleaner. I wasn’t cleaning houses, but academic offices (while I was a student myself). Something weird happens when you encounter the person whose private space you clean — they ignore you. Some people are very friendly, but others would like to pretend you don’t exist. For some it is supremely uncomfortable to think someone comes in and does your dirty work. When you’re the person who cleans up, you know what’s in the bins, you know where crumbs are dropped, you know all sorts of things without even meaning to. Since the Sheridans are on the rise, the parents probably didn’t grow up with servants, or this many. They’ll have developed the skill of of being both mindful and careless of ‘the working-class gaze’. Especially so in their more intimate moments, for example when Laura expresses affection for her mother. “Don’t do that — here’s the man.”


Mrs Sheridan holds a party, which she leaves to her teenage children to organise. This will mark their entry into the world. However, the story is not about the party itself but rather the lead-up and the aftermath, when the upper class Sheridan family learns that a man has been killed down below. Laura thinks to offer solace by taking his bereaved wife some of the leftovers. She goes to the house down below and is overcome with a feeling of hopelessness, inappropriateness and perhaps some greater understanding of the nature of life and death.

“The Garden Party” is much more a story than the other shorts involving the Burnell family. Here, events are used to carry the meaning; “Prelude” and “At the Bay” are more explorations of milieu (setting), where a series of keen observations about seemingly insignificant details add up to form a lasting impression and offer a deeper message.


‘Uncanny’ means strange, mysterious or difficult to explain. Laura is unable to explain her reaction at the end, so the entire visit remains uncanny:

Through Laura, the story confronts us with the everyday, simultaneous, uncanny intimacy and alienation inherent in class relations in the upper-middle-class household at the turn of the century. Through a series of uncanny parallels, “The Garden Party” collapses the distance between Laura and the working class. As it does, it confronts us with questions about what it means to stare the Other in the face — as Laura stares into the swollen, grief-stricken face of Scott’s window — and to realise that the Other is at the core of the self.

Rebecca Thorndike-Breeze, Katherine Mansfield and Psychology
George Inness - The Old Veteran
George Inness – The Old Veteran



Early white settlers to New Zealander liked to think they’d left British class distinctions behind them when migrating to the new country. My own white ancestors emigrated early — on one of the first four ships to Canterbury, in fact. Two brothers arrived as banister makers. They were able to buy up vast tracts of land on a tradesman’s wage (land which was gone by the time it got to me — I’m no heiress). In Ireland they’d been farm hands. Cases like these gave the impression that New Zealand was a land of opportunity, but class was never just about money. In the Wellington of “The Garden Party” class mobility is difficult. I can’t imagine the bereft Mrs Scott ever developing — or wanting to develop — the requisite upper-middle class ladies’ taste in hats and floral frou-frou.


The rhythm of the story conveys a sense of constant movement in and out of private spaces, all the while remaining largely within the intimate sphere of the home. Thus, the narrative insists upon the troubling proximity and interpenetration of the Sheridan home and the ‘poky little holes’ of the lane, which are an obvious abject ‘Not me. Not that’ to the Sheridans’ lovely home. In response to Laure’s cry, ‘But we can’t possibly have a garden party with a man dead just outside the front gate,’ the narrator archly responds:

That really was extravagant, for the little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all.

This passage of ostensible narrative self-contradiction underscores the simultaneous intimacy and alienation between the classes. At first, the cottages and the Sheridans’ front gate are safely insulated by a ‘steep’ rise’ and a ‘broad road’; but then again, they are ‘far too near’. This oxymoron tensely signifies simultaneous feelings of social distance and physical intimacy, and contributes to the extimate picture of this neighbourhood.

Even in the most luminous moments of homely domesticity, something uncanny moves through the Sheridan house. Early in the story, Laura takes a brief rest from party preparations and feels the energy of the house:

She was still listening. All the doors in the house seemed to be open. The house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices. The green baize door that led to the kitchen regions swung open and shut with a muffled thud. And now there came a long, chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors. But the air! If you stopped to notice, was the air always like this? Little faint winds were playing chase, in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She could have kissed it.

Here Mansfield creates one of her classic moments of suspension in everyday luminosity. But she also weaves in the uncanny presence of invisible workers, who make much of the energy of the scene possible. Laura feels as though all the doors lie open, and thus boundaries between rooms — between family spaces and working spaces, like ‘the kitchen regions’ — become thoroughly permeable. Disembodied steps and voices bring the house to life. These could be the Sheridan’s but they just as likely belong to servants, like Sadie and Hans. The latter, we learn, turns out to be the implied agent of the passive construction, ‘it was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors’. But in this scene, the piano seems to move itself.

The lively buzz of the party preparations take on a ghostlier quality when read alongside the story’s later description of the lane’s cottages. Their ‘low hum’, ‘flicker[s] of light and ‘crab-like’ shadows moving across the windows parallel the Sheridan’s buzz of activity. ‘Darling little spots’ of sunlight, and ‘Little faint winds […] playing chase in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors’. At home, Laura loves the tiny sun spots; in the lane, the flickering lights and crab-like shadows make the cottages ghoulish and fill her with dread. Laura’s suspended moment in her home is thoroughly permeated with the Other of the working class — the inhabitants of the abject lane.

Rebecca Thorndike-Breeze, Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

Mansfield presents this deeper message by building an atmosphere of fun and frivolity before presenting the characters with an awful situation. The ostentatious nature of the party is emphasised with our attention drawn to the comfortable circumstances of The Sheridans: large house, tennis court, spacious garden, hilltop view, lily lawn, green baize door.

Mary Hayllar - The Lawn Tennis Season 1881
Mary Hayllar – The Lawn Tennis Season 1881

Conspicuously absent from “The Garden Party”: any mention of The Great War. Mansfield’s own brother was killed early in this war during a training exercise. However, The Great War is very much symbolically present in this story. Thsi was the war that spawned new anxieties in the upper and middle classes.

When close reading a story for setting, pay attention to altitude. Where altitude is mentioned, it’s probably symbolic.

The house KM imagines is her bigger childhood house in Thorndon, Wellington, at 75 Tinakori Road. The Beauchamp family moved back to town when Kathleen was 9 and a half.

Also within this setting, we see a comparison between the Sheridans and the underlings – we see them interact with each other and the different reactions of the family to their social inferiors.

Mansfield would have been aware of the symbolic significance of garden parties as metaphor in literature at the time:

Although Mansfield’s The Garden Party was published in 1922, the metaphor of the garden party is a trope of the Edwardian Era, which lasted from 1901-1910. This is seen in children’s literature such as The Wind In The Willows — a classic example of the utopia which is nonetheless surrounded by political unrest.

Edwardian Culture: Beyond the Garden Party
Edith Hayllar - A Summer Shower
Edith Hayllar – A Summer Shower


Growing up involves some uncomfortable truths.

The party is the children’s first time to prove their new-found maturity. Their mother is ‘determined to leave everything to the children this year’. Laura is torn between her own feelings and the dominance of her mother, who never really does relinquish control of the party, ordering masses of lilies on a whim.

Laura does not reject the life she is a part of; rather, she has understood something about it — she reaches a more serious maturity than her mother and older sisters have reached.

People are able to insulate themselves somewhat from class distinctions.

Criticism of the social values of bourgeois society is the most obvious, basic theme, with the upper-class Sheridan family living at the top of the hill and the lower-class in their ‘poky little holes’, ‘little cottages just below’. KM herself must have been keenly aware of class distinctions as she was the daughter of a self-made man, living in upper-class New Zealand society. This theme is also important in The Doll’s House.

The upper-class is symbolised by sheer extravagance. The sandwiches each have flags (fifteen kinds). There is a hired band, cream puffs and masses of canna lilies. Each member of the family has power over the cook, the maids and the men putting up the marquee.

[In my own illustrated short story Midnight Feast, this is also a theme. Growing up in New Zealand, I have been heavily influenced by Katherine Mansfield!]
Scene from Midnight Feast showing class distinction
Scene from Midnight Feast showing class distinction


The family is no longer the Burnells but The Sheridans, who reflected Mansfield’s family during her own teenage years. Unlike the Burnells, the family does not live within its own microcosm of the world but is fully participant in the wider social world of town.


The name Laura is a Latin baby name. In Latin the meaning of the name Laura is: Laurel tree or sweet bay tree (symbols of honour and victory).

This is Laura’s story. Main characters are linked inextricably to the setting, and perhaps Mansfield chose a ‘plant’ name for Laura for that reason? See also: How can a setting be a character?

Although there are some general, impersonal passages and several scenes without her, we see this setting through Laura’s eyes. We observe others how she sees them, especially their response to her own behaviour.

Mrs Sheridan

Mrs Sheridan is comfortable with her social status and at ease with ordering others about. We see this clearly in her attitude towards the cook. She is teaching her children to see the world from her own elevated by short-sighted perspective. Mrs Sheridan doesn’t want her children to be socially aware. We see this when she tries to divert Laura’s attention with the talk of the new hat. 

Mrs Sheridan is in charge of all the food, and might be compared to some kind of goddess of fertility.


Meg ‘could not possibly go and supervise the men’.


Jose, too, has absorbed the attitudes of her mother re class distinctions.


Laura and Laurie are similar in their outlook on life, symbolised by their similar names. It is only natural that Laurie understands Laura’s reaction to the grieving family without Laura needing to put her feelings into words because Laurie is the only other person in this world who could possibly understand her inner conflict. 

Horace Henry Cauty - The Tennis Match
Horace Henry Cauty – The Tennis Match


Laura’s Hat

By placing the hat upon Laura’s head, Mrs Sheridan claims her to the upper-class — superiority and indifference. Compare the passing of the hat to the passing of a crown (or similar talisman: sword, coat, cloak, cape, teacher’s pen etc.) in many other kinds of stories — generally flipped, in that a downtrodden, underprivileged character eventually earns a crown. That’s how most traditional stories go. Here, Laura doesn’t have to do much to get it, and when she does get it, she seems to realise that she hasn’t really earned it. 

‘Forgive my hat.’

Nor is she entirely comfortable in her class. Nevertheless, she does wear the hat, just as she takes part in her upper class, privileged lifestyle.

Birds and Flight

Mansfield uses the metaphor of birds and flight as a strategy to show how the Sheridans insulate themselves from the lower classes. Jose is a “butterfly”. Mrs. Sheridan’s voice “floats” and Laura must “skim over the lawn, up the path, up the steps” to reach her. They are all perched high on an aerie up a “steep rise” from the cottages below. But Laura is a fledgling. Her mother steps back and encourages her to flit around in her preparations for the party, but Laura’s wings aren’t quite experienced enough—she “flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall,” then sighed, so that even a workman “smiled down at her.”

How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

That’s why Laura describes her fellow party-goers as ‘birds’. (Describing women as birds is also a well-worn trope throughout literature, which doesn’t mean it can’t ever be done.)

This bird symbol running right through the story also explains the significance of the man down below whose house front is studded all over with minute bird cages. Those cages are a threat to the upper-class people on the hill.

In children’s fantasy, the flight is often literal flying.

The Garden As (Apparent) Utopia

Those with Biblical knowledge may see the perfect weather and beautiful garden described in the first paragraph as the Garden of Eden. Failing that, KM has at least set up the garden as a kind of utopia. (For more on utopias, specifically in children’s literature, see here.)

Whenever you come across a utopia such as this in literature, ask yourself who’s in charge. In a genuine utopia there is a community, and everyone in that community is able to grow in their own way, supported by others. But the world of The Garden Party is not like that at all, and Laura has realised it by the story’s end.

See also: Utopian Children’s Literature

Allusion to Persephone?

If the garden is an snail under the leaf setting, this sets us up to regard the cottages down below as Hades/hell — the classical underworld. We might then regard Laura as Persephone. If Laura is Persephone, Mrs Sheridan is Demeter. As evidence for the comparison, here’s the list from Thomas C. Foster:

  • fertility-goddess mother, who is the match-maker (people arrive at the party in couples)
  • beautiful daughter
  • kidnap and seduction by god of underworld
  • permanent winter
  • pomegrante-seed monkey business
  • six-month growing season
  • happy parties all round
  • they live on an ‘Olympian’ height
  • the broad road into the cottages is kind of like the River Styx, which you have to cross to get into Hades (roads are often like rivers in literature, when the city/suburbs are a symbol of the forest/plains)
  • When Laura returns from ‘the underworld’ she has basically become her mother. In Greek mythology, there is often no difference between mother and daughter.

The myth of Persephone is also about a young woman arriving into adulthood. This involves facing death and understanding it. The myth involves the tasting of the fruit. (The story of Eve in the Garden of Eden also makes use of fruit, and how tasting it gives you unwelcome but adult knowledge.)

Darkness and Shadow as Death

Mansfield does a great job describing the darkness and shadow of the township below. There are many examples in the text e.g. the large dog ‘running like a shadow’.



At the beginning of the story, Laura is still a child. She doesn’t fully understand what is happening; her reaction to the workman’s death is a mixture of instinct, upbringing and egotism. She sees the workman’s death in an emotional way, torn between her own instinctive feelings and the powerful dominance of her mother and older sisters.

Compared to the others in her family, Laura is the least inward looking. Her youth is also what saves her from a completely insular view, in which she doesn’t even see other classes. Being still a child, and not fully aware of the power of class distinctions and her own place within the social structure, Laura acts as a bridge between the upper and lower classes. She decides ‘it’s all the fault… of these absurd class distinctions’. Unlike Mrs Sheridan, she sees the workmen as individual people, indeed, as attractive ones.

But at the beginning of the story she mistakenly thinks she has more in common with working class people than she really does. The workman’s love of lavender is so cute and striking to Laura that she thinks if workmen like lavender I like lavender, then I must be ‘just like a work-girl’. She can’t see further than a very basic shared humanity (an enjoyment of sensory pleasures). It’s notable that she’d never before considered that enjoying the smell of flowers is a human thing rather than a class/gender thing.

In other words, the working class Other influences Laura’s subjectivity.


At first Laura simply wants to enjoy the party. But something happens to change that — now she wants to do something good for less fortunate people nearby.


The other members of Laura’s family are completely insular and who Laura might have become, had she not ventured down to see the carter’s dead body.


Laura doesn’t know what to do but she does the one thing she can: She will take food to the grieving widow.


The Battle takes place right before the Anagnorisis. The trip to the bereft widow’s house is the big struggle scene in this story. An accident has just taken place, which may have been dramatised in a different story, but here we are shown the aftermath, in which the Battle is different depending on the focalising character (in this case the rich girl from up on the hill).


In 1920 Mansfield wrote the following in a letter:

This man drew a design of the flower bed on the gravel, & then after telling me the names of the flowers he described them. In trying to describe the scene — c’est — un — parrr-fum — & then he threw back his head put his thumb & forefinger to his nose — took a long breath & suddenly exploded it in a kind of AAAHHH, almost staggering backwards — overcome — almost fainting. To think the man cares like that — responds — laughs like he does and snips off a rosebud for you while he talks. Then I think of poor busmen & tube men and the ugliness of wet dark London. It’s wrong. People who are at all sensitive ought not to live there.

Letter written 13 October 1920, description of an exchange she had with a ‘jardinier who comes here le vendredi’.

What has this letter got to do with “The Garden Party“? Commentators believe this letter anticipates two interactions between characters in the fictional world of the short story:

  1. Only the tall fellow was left. He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender.
  2. The interaction between Laura and Scott the carter’s body, which lines up with ‘the poor busmen & tubemen’ in the letter.

When upper middle class Laura is invited ‘to her horror’ deeper and deeper into the ‘disgusting and sordid’ setting of the working classes she confronts working class reality and its unhomely abjection. She also knows that this is part of her own reality. She’s not as separated from it as she previously thought.

The epiphanic moment happens when Laura reads Mrs Scott’s ‘terrible’ face and bewildered expression and imagines the new widow’s inner experience. In that instant Laura recognises herself as ‘the stranger standing in the kitchen with a basket’. Laura experiences herself as the uncanny (unheimlich). She simultaneously experiences Mrs Scott as the abject (and distances herself with ‘Not me, not that’.) At this moment, self and Other confront each other.

Mansfield achieves the effect of letting the reader see both characters on both sides. Laura seems to realise that she is unable to experience the Scott family’s pain in any primary kind of way. This level of pain is inaccessible to her. She realises she has trespassed on the community of feeling inside the widow’s home.

The word ‘extimacy‘ is useful at this point. You’ll know the word ‘intimacy’. Intimacy is Freudian; Jacques Lacan came up with extimacy. Extimacy describes the sharing of experiences or thoughts usually considered private. (Personal bloggers in the age of the Internet are engaging in extimacy.) For Lacan extimacy expresses “the opposition between inside and outside, between container and contained.” In “The Garden Party”, Laura and Mrs Scott confront their extimacy in Mrs Scott’s kitchen. This is terrifying, probably to both of them, though our focalising character is Laura.

Laura realises she is not just like a work-girl at all. But what is she recoiling from when she’s down in the lane? She’s recoiling from the squalor, of course. But she’s also recoiling from the feeling of being perceived as an alien. She wishes to subdue her feelings of abjection.


Laura knows class distinctions exist and that they are ‘absurd’. Throughout the story she is shown to have egalitarian politics. But because of her upper-middle class sheltered existence, she is as yet unable to move into a deeper understanding of class. Over the course of the day of the Garden Party, Laura has tried to imagine a moment when class and gender divisions ceased to matter but in the end she’s unable to sustain this idealistic vision.

When the carter dies, Laura feels empathy for another human, and the frivolity of their party is exposed. But after she has her eyes opened to these true class distinctions, she is able to take her mother’s lead and return to the safety of the grand house on the hill. Just because she now knows the truth doesn’t mean she can do anything meaningful and long-lasting about entrenched income inequalities.

NCEA ENGLISH 1.4 Example Essay


AUTHOR: Katherine Mansfield

TITLES OF SHORT STORIES: The Voyage and The Garden Party

An interesting idea that Katherine Mansfield dealt with in two stories, “The Voyage” and “The Garden Party“, is the transition from childhood to adulthood.  In both stories, Mansfield makes use of symbols to let readers know that growth has taken place.

The Voyage” is about a young girl, Fenella, who is being taken to Picton to live with her grandparents.  As the story progresses it is revealed that this is because her mother has died, and we presume her father is unable to care for her alone.  The death of a parent is in itself a time for children to grow up suddenly, and Fenella’s ‘journey’ to the South Island on the Picton Ferry is symbolic of this period of growth.

Within the symbolic journey is a symbolic umbrella, which comes to represent Fenella’s transition into the next phase of her maturity.  Fenella’s grandmother, who accompanies her on this journey, allows her to look after the precious ‘swan-necked umbrella’.  At first, the grandmother feels she must remind Fenella to be careful with the umbrella, being careful not to poke it into the railings of the ferry and break it.  Later on in the journey, however, when Fenella and her grandmother leave the ship, Grandmother is about to remind Fenella about the umbrella, but does not need to, saying only:

“You’ve got my –”

“Yes grandma”.  Fenella showed (the umbrella) to her.

This demonstrates that Fenella has now grown up to the extent that she need not be reminded about looking after precious things.

In the same story, darkness is contrasted with light to symbolise childlike ignorance versus the knowledge and understanding that accompanies adulthood.  Images of light are used repeatedly in the first half of the story.  For example, as Fenella and her grandmother walk to the ship, everything is dark except for a shining lamp.  The solitary shining lamp highlights the darkness.  On board the ship, it is revealed that the grandmother is dressed all in black; likewise, the men on the deck are hiding in the shadows.  In contrast, as the ship sails into Picton, images of light prevail.  “The cold pale sky was the same colour as the cold pale sea”.  As Fenella is walking up the path to her grandparents’ house, she notices the path of ‘round white pebbles’.  These images of light contrast with the initial images of darkness to indicate that Fenella can ‘see the light at the end of the tunnel’; that she has grown up sufficiently to get on with life despite the death of her mother and that she has moved into the next phase of her life.  This is interesting because Mansfield’s view of life and death is ultimately a positive one, despite the overall negative view created in European culture.

The Garden Party” also deals with the interesting issue of growing up, as Mrs Sheridan has decided to let her children organise their first garden party all by themselves.  Unlike Fenella in “The Voyage”, though, Laura’s journey to independence is not as clear and definite; she flits between feeling very grown up and suddenly losing confidence.  When the workmen arrive to put up the marquee, for instance, she begins to address them in an authoritative manner, but suddenly feels that this is too affected, and “stammered like a little girl”.  This demonstrates the difficulty Laura initially feels in taking on adult responsibilities.

The real test for Laura comes later, when she is forced to make her own mind up on a moral issue.  When the news arrives that a man from down in the cottages has been killed, Laura feels that the party must be cancelled out of respect for the family.  Until her father and brother arrive home, however, she is forced to stand alone in this opinion.  She decides to compromise by putting the incident out of her mind until the party is over, then taking it more to heart when the fun is over.  At the conclusion of the story, when Laurie, her more mature older brother meets her in the village below Laura says, “Isn’t life-“ and does not finish the sentence.  She does not need to, as Laurie understands her.  This demonstrates that the younger sister has now joined her older brother (whose names are symbolically similar) in the increased understanding of life that comes from making one’s own decisions and contemplating death. This increased empathy with a more mature individual is an interesting one to consider, as it affects all of us as we grow older.

Both of these short stories deal with the fascinating theme of growth in two individuals who are confronted with the issue of death.  Mansfield’s skilful use of symbolism and imagery help the readers to plot the growth of her central characters for themselves.  This is interesting because the idea of growth and development is relevant to all human beings.

[750 words]

Header illustration: Auguste Toulmouche – Vanity 1889