On the surface level, “The Wind Blows” by Katherine Mansfield is a coming-of-age short story about an adolescent girl (Matilda) who wakes up one morning, nervous and tense. While the wind blows outside, she gets ready for her music lesson. Before she leaves she has a minor disagreement with her mother. She has her music lesson, goes home, meets her brother walks with him to the sea. They stand together and watch a ship in the water. Then she imagines a time in the future when she and her brother will be leaving their home on a ship like this one.
(The ship is carrying coal. Mansfield uses the word ‘coal hulk’. Interestingly, these ships used to be used as prisons, as well as for freight.)
On the metaphorical level, the wind is an extended metaphor for the feelings of adolescence. It’s not easy to tell whether Katherine Mansfield is empathetic to the tumultuous feelings of adolescence, or if she’s poking fun. She has written “The Wind Blows” in a melodramatic tone. Critics have called this story ‘the most purely symbolist of her stories to this date.. a highly sophisticated and modernist story…achieving new intensity’ (Claire Hanson and Andrew Gurr).
CONNECTIONS TO MANSFIELD’S OWN LIFE
In general, it pays not to conflate characters with their creators. But In Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer, Gillian Boddy provides good reasons why we might read Matilda with Katherine Mansfield herself:
Clearly based on the memories she had shared with Leslie during the summer of 1915, this story has a strange power. Matilda is K.M., she used the pseudonym Matilda Berry at this time, while Bogey was the family name for Leslie, which K.M. later transferred to Murry. It gives a hint, too, of the Trowell’s house in Buller Street which must have been central to her artistic development. This presumably led her to the choice of the music teacher’s name — Mr. Bullen. Could her remarkable memory have failed her by one letter, was the change deliberate, or was there perhaps an error in transcribing the story from her handwriting? Is Mr Bullen another composite figure, based on Mr Trowell and her piano teacher Mr Robert Parker?
— Gillian Boddy
Sadly, Mansfield’s brother Leslie died only a days after this story was published. Once you know that, the admonishment ‘don’t forget’ near the end of the story becomes darkly resonant.
STORYWORLD OF “THE WIND BLOWS”
Katherine Mansfield grew up in the capital of New Zealand: Wellington. Central Wellington. The family later moved out to Karori, which is still Wellington.
Anyone who has lived in Wellington will recognise immediately the relentless wind that drives inexorably through the story; not for nothing is K.M.’s birthplace nicknamed ‘Windy Wellington’. It is also, with the sea, a dominant symbol in this story about a girl’s transition into the adult world.
— Gillian Boddy
Unless you’ve been to Wellington on a windy day, it’s hard to imagine HOW windy Wellington is.
Wellington in New Zealand is ranked as the world’s windiest city.
The older houses make a lot of rattling noise, which soon blends into white noise as you adjust. If you dare hang washing outside on the line, it’ll dry just fine, but you’ll be untangling it before bringing it in. In exposed areas, trees grow sideways. Dreadlocks are a very sensible hairstyle. Riding a pushbike? Come on. You might as well just walk. Wear well-fitting hats with strings and toggles. Don’t try badminton with the gymnasium window ajar. Fancy skirts? Make them long and heavy or stick to the trusty trouser.
This is the weather Katherine Mansfield grew up with. I’ve no doubt that after she grew older and left New Zealand entirely, windy days would have reminded her of her childhood. (I bet Mansfield would’ve worn her hair in dreadlocks, too, had they been a thing back for white Kiwi girls at the turn of the 20th century. She seems that kind of bohemian.)
In storytelling, when authors make a big thing out of the weather, linking it to emotions of their characters, it’s called pathetic fallacy. When characters are sad it just so happens to be raining outside, that kind of thing.
When authors use the weather and connect it to human emotion, they very often write the environment as if it were alive. Super common. You might want to check out this post: How Can Setting Be Character?
The pull quotes relevant from “The Wind Blows”:
It is only the wind shaking the house, rattling the windows, banging a piece of iron on the roof and making her bed tremble.
This sentence (from the opening paragraph) reminds me of a creepy-ass poem my parents used to chant when I was a toddler and wouldn’t jump straight into bed at the first request.
Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon, Up stairs an’ doon stairs in his nicht-gown, Tirlin’ at the window, crying at the lock, “Are the weans in their bed, for it’s now ten o’clock?”
(Except I’m fifth generation New Zealander. It wasn’t said in that awesome Scottish accent.)
I’m confident Katherine Mansfield would’ve known that poem, too, along with various other stories of bugaboos who were meant to come and get you if you didn’t do exactly as you were told, “im-me-diately”. (See what I did there?) Funnily enough, Matilda calls her little brother ‘Bogey’, which is a term used to describe creatures that come in the night. (These days in New Zealand it usually refers to that grossity plucked from the nostril. In real life, we do know that Mansfield called John Murry — her husband — the nickname of Bogey.) The character of Matilda is a fantasist type, imo. I’m reminded of the character played by Emily Blunt in My Summer of Love. That entire film has a Katherine Mansfield vibe, come to think of it.
The-girl-before-her has just started playing MacDowell’s ‘To An Iceberg’. There’s no such song — Katherine Mansfield changed the title slightly. American composer Edward MacDowell was a favourite of hers. The song is probably “From A Wandering Iceberg”.
Matilda misquotes poetry by Shelly. ‘I bring fresh flowers to the leaves and showers’ is based on the opening line of “The Cloud”. Why the misquotation? Matilda doesn’t have a great memory for poetry.
SMALLER SPACES WITHIN THE STORY
All the trees and bushes beat about her.
… outside Mr Bullen’s gate she can hear the sea sob: “Ah!… Ah!… Ah-h!”
The cry appears to come from within Matilda. (This juxtaposes with Mr Bullen’s drawing room, which is quiet — a haven.)
It’s the bed that is frightening. There it lies, sound asleep… stockings knotted up on the quilt like a coil of snakes
Where is the asphalt zig-zag mentioned in the story?
‘They cannot walk fast enough. Their heads bent, their legs just touching, they stride like one eager person through the tow, down the asphalt zigzag where the fennel grows wild, and on to the esplanade. It is dusky – just getting dusky. The wind is so strong that they have to fight their way through it, rocking like two old drunkards. All the poor little pohutukawas on the esplanade are bent to the ground.’
The esplanade is now Thorndon Quay. There is no longer fennel growing here. If you’d like to see some photos, see this post at the Wellington Steps blog.
BRINGING THE SETTING TO LIFE
Each new scene includes a sentence or two which makes it seem alive.
The wind is so strong that they have to fight their way through it, rocking like two old drunkards. All the poor little pahutukawas on the esplanade are bent to the ground.
This story was written before Maori spelling was standardised. Now: ‘pohutakawa’ (a native New Zealand tree with fiery red flowers)
Mansfield has set her story in autumn, partly because this is a windy month. Partly because things are changing. We often view childhood as ‘summery’. We like to imagine a yellow hue cast over childhood memories. Autumn would therefore mark the end of childhood — an in-between state. Matilda feels ‘everything is ugly’. Self-confidence is not exactly at an all-time high during adolescence. It takes time to get used to the image in the mirror.
“The Wind Blows” is a snapshot of historical racism of a kind which only recently mutated into something more covert. My own grandmother used the phrase ‘Chinaman’ (to refer to anyone with an Asian face), and she’d say, “I’m not your little black boy!” by way of reminding us kids that we should be doing for ourselves. (The implication being: if she were a little black boy, she’d happily slave away.)
Contemporary Wellingtonians won’t likely recognise the Wellington of this story:
The carts rattle by, swinging from side to side; two Chinamen lollop along under their wooden yokes with the straining vegetable baskets – their pigtails and blue blouses fly out in the wind.
No one dresses like that anymore.
In waves, in clouds, in big round whirls the dust comes stinging, and with it little bits of straw and chaff and manure. […] through the town, down the asphalt zigzag where the fennel grows wild, and on to the esplanade
The roads are not sealed and wild vegetation grows where everything is now turned to concrete.
She wears an ‘ulster’ — a Victorian working daytime overcoat, with a cape and sleeves.
Tenerife work refers to handmade lace from the Canary Islands.
LANGUAGE OF “THE WIND BLOWS”
What’s with the repetition of ‘wind’?
The repetition of a single word “wind” in “The Wind Blows” (five times compounded as “The wind — the wind,” functions not only to reinforce, as though physiologically, the reader’s sense of the intensity and persistence of a Wellington windstorm but also as a sotr of mantra for the central character, a formulaic verbal utterance that here at once invokes change and mediates against it, producing tension.
— Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form by William Herbert New
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WIND BLOWS”
[“The Wind Blows”] is a sharp contrast to “The Woman At The Store”; some readers complain ‘but it’s not a story, nothing happens.’ It is a story of a different kind, oblique, episodic, with its shift in time level, and the move into interior monologue at the beginning of the second part.
— Gillian Boddy
In common with many children’s picture books, “The Wind Blows” is the story a childlike character and begins with her waking up and ends in the evening. (Unlike in a picture book, we don’t see Matilda tucked into bed.) There is a particular symbolism attached to stories that take place over 12 hours.
Matilda, whose name we don’t actually know until her mother calls her, is hormonal. Over the course of one day, she is at the mercy of her up-and-down emotions.
The desire in this particular story is not a burning, surface one. Characters often don’t know what it is they want. Especially young characters. Knowing what you want is in itself a skill.
Matilda of “The Wind Blows” is a character going about her daily life, one small desire soon replaced by another. But under that surface, Matilda’s desires are strong; she is driven by hormones and angst.
Matilda’s main opponent is her mother. Mothers often bear the brunt. Mansfield has used contemporary language of the time: “Go to hell,” which lends “The Wind Blows” a contemporary feel.
Note that Mansfield manages to portray tension without resorting to the exclamation mark, which would cheapen the prose. The verb ‘shouts’ does the work of punctuation.
There’s also Marie Swainson, who is a vague irritation to Matilda. That said, Mansfield has done her usual trick (seen also in “The Garden Party”) of presenting the two girls as equals by giving them names that begin with the same letter. That’s not how Matilda sees it — she mocks Marie’s shortening of ‘chrysanthemum’ and wishes she had more time alone with the music teacher — Marie intrudes upon her alone-time.
Matilda herself has no plans for her day, which is in keeping with how the story ends. (She loses childhood and doesn’t have plans for what comes next.)
In a story where the main character has no plans, they are carried along by other people’s plans. Her music lesson is something she does out of habit. It’s even Bogey who suggests their walk along the esplanade. Matilda isn’t exactly the proactive type. She’s more of a mooning type. Matilda’s lack of plans are in keeping with the mood of the story — she is a ship (see below) being carried along by the tide of life.
In stories of this style, the Battle is often entirely symbolic. In “The Wind Blows”, Mansfield’s description of the dangerous sea is a proxy for a big fight scene. Pick out a few words from these paragraphs, and you could easily transplant them into an actual battle scene:
- They cannot walk fast enough. (As if chased by something.)
- zigzag (road)
- (fennel) grows wild
- strong (wind)
- drunkards (which are actually flowers, not exactly dangerous people out on the street)
- waves ‘breaking’, Bogey’s voice ‘breaking’
- thump (onomatopoeia of the waves)
- ‘the inside of her mouth tastes wet and cold’ (as if something terrible just happened)
It’s the light that makes her look so awfully beautiful and mysterious… They are on board leaning over the rail arm in arm.
” … Who are they?”
” … Brother and sister.”
Matilda imagines she and Bogey on board the ship; in fact, they ‘are’ the ship. Nothing will stop these children from ploughing through the rough seas of adolescence into adulthood, not even the ‘wind’ – the turbulent emotions every adolescent must steam through.
“Look, Bogey, there’s the town. Doesn’t it look small?”
There’s a particular type of Self-revelation seen in some stories — even in stories for children — in which the main character says goodbye to childhood. I say ‘even’ in stories for children, because a child audience can’t possibly understand it fully. Children are super smart and understand a whole lot of things, but this is the one thing I can think of in which children and adults are distinct as audience members.
When Matilda says, “How many years ago!” we know that Matilda feels she is no longer a child. She says goodbye to the ‘little island’ (the ship), and she is saying goodbye to childhood.
A ‘saying goodbye to childhood’ scene is utilised to great effect in Toy Story 3, when Andy tells Woody what he thinks of him. Until this moment Woody has never known. “He’s been my pal as long as I can remember…”
“The thing that makes Woody special is that he’ll never give up on you, ever. Do you think you can take care of him for me?” Woody understands that everything he always wanted to be, he was. Then the viewpoint switches to Andy. Andy is trying one last time to keep hold of his childhood when he grabs Woody back from the little girl. This is the last time he’ll ever play with Woody. What does that do to the audience? We all realise we’ve either lost our childhood or we’re losing it.
Children don’t cry at this Toy Story 3. This is an adult ending that was designed for both children and adults. From a child’s perspective, children get their own ending, which is happy: Woody gets to hang out with his friends. They’re together! For children, Toy Story 3 is happy from beginning to end. Children under about 13 don’t have any concern for Andy’s feelings — they’re identifying with the toys. There is no Self-revelation for the child audience. This scene is so sad because most adults didn’t know when we were saying goodbye to our childhood. In hindsight, it seems one moment we were children, the next we were adults. This scene allows us to weep for the loss of our own childhood.
In Peter Pan, Wendy says goodbye to her childhood when she says goodbye to Peter (who represents childhood).
Other stories with resonant ‘saying goodbye to childhood’ self-revelation scenes: A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck (which is the saddest thing I’ve read in my life), Winnie the Pooh and Boyhood, the film by Richard Linklater.
I expect the full emotional impact of the Self-revelation scene in Mansfield’s “The Wind Blows” would be felt (if not understood) by a post-adolescent readership.
Although we’re talking about a ship on a sea, there’s a bit of river symbolism going on here. A body of water represents the inevitable passing of time, sweeping us along with it, as we get older and older, no turning back.
God, this is depressing.
Now the dark stretches a wing over the tumbling water. They can’t see those two any more. Good-bye, good-bye. Don’t forget… But the ship is gone, now.
The wind – the wind.
The ending really only makes sense when you think of the disappearing ship as disappearing childhood.
The final ‘the wind — the wind’ reminds me of ‘Tumbleweeds’ (which is a more modern trope, riffing on old Western movies, and spoofed subsequently by pop culture.)
If Mansfield were writing today, she might have ended with ‘Tumbleweed’ instead. Okay, maybe not, but I interpret that ending as, ‘Childhood was gone now, but nothing had appeared to replace it, yet.’
Matilda has a crush on her married music teacher (well, I guess he was married, since he wears a ring), but he’s way too old for her. Romantically, and in every other way, Matilda is stuck in teen limbo for a good while yet, unable to see how her adult life can get started.
Notice how Mansfield frames the main story: She begins by describing a whole newspaper wagging in the air like a lost kite. With that simple imagery she ties something from the boring adult world (a newspaper) to something from childhood (a kite). The childhood kite ends up ‘spiked on a pine tree’. Childhood has been killed, basically.
WRITE YOUR OWN
A few years back I wrote my own retelling of “The Wind Blows”. I had spent an entire week immersed in Katherine Mansfield, and the story flowed easily. (Not all of them do.)
- “The Wind Blows” is 1623 words. I recommend you make yours about that length, too.
- What season is your story set?
- The story starts in the morning and ends around evening sometime.
- Everything that happens throughout the day causes some kind of strong emotion. Each emotion juxtaposes with the emotion that came before — positive, negative, positive, negative. There’s no external influence on these emotions — they seem random, and that’s the point.
- You don’t have to use wind as pathetic fallacy. You might use something else instead as a metaphor for tumult: a ride at a theme park, a hairdryer, a flooded creek… Or you could use pathetic fallacy ironically. Pick a sweltering hot day and juxtapose that against the up-and-down emotions of adolescence.
- Mansfield uses the girl’s mother as her main opponent, but you could pick someone else. A teacher, perhaps. A best friend. A sibling, auntie.
- Perhaps your character is the mooning type, in which case other characters will carry them along in their plans.
- The Battle scene will be a proxy battle — a dangerous description of something rather than an actually dangerous something.
- The self-revelation — in keeping with this story — may be that ‘childhood has ended’. Or you might substitute with something else.
- Like Mansfield, don’t waste time on ‘transitions’, getting your character from place to place. Mansfield whips Matilda out of her music lesson and transplants her straight into her own bedroom. The transition is ‘The wind — the wind’.
- Mansfield has opened her story with a very particular sentence construction. She closes in this way, too. Try doing the same, see if it works. Even better, write imagery to open which reflects the Self-revelation. Mansfield used the kite spiked on the tree to foreshadow the end of childhood.