Mansfield borrowed from those who came before her and we may do the same. In fact, it’s inevitable. It pays to know our own influences… if only so we don’t mimic them too closely.
Overall, Mansfield was a modernist writer. And of the modernist writers, she was at the highly aesthetic and visual end of the spectrum. She wasn’t big into verisimilitude.
Mansfield was also an Impressionist writer and wrote lyrical short stories (rather than ‘plotted’ ones).
Mansfield sought to subvert convention, sometimes even while appearing to use it. How does one subvert convention? See here. What exactly did Mansfield subvert? She had a distaste for bourgeois life. She hated the stuffier sides of Victorian and Edwardian life. Mansfield also targeted the (German) greedy preoccupation with food.
REJECTION OF DOMESTICITY
In earlier stories she rejected a stuffy, stereotyped ideal of domesticity. Other things she despised: man-chasing, admiration for numbers of babies, the work-a-day aspects of marriage.
There’s a confessional tone to Mansfield’s stories. We all have a public, private and secret self. The stories feel confessional because Mansfield spends a lot of time on the secret self — the self which is barely understood by the characters themselves let alone by anyone near to them.
When writers allow readers insight into a character’s secret self we tend to understand, judge, forgive and then sympathise with the confessor. Letting readers inside a character’s mind is one way to create likeable (sympathetic) characters.
MANSFIELD AND FAMILY
She wasn’t a big fan of the family unit. Some of her fictional families received the gross, satirical treatment. Others are presented directly and harshly (“The Child-Who-Was-Tired“). That said, the family in “A Picnic” receives more favourable treatment. The Burnell family are presented harshly but not satirically.
Related to her Fear of Engulfment, Mansfield liked to explore the theme of retaining your individuality. Characters seem terrified of losing themselves, of being subsumed by the roles expected of them. They desire individuality. Stories show that there are many pitfalls in love. Take the emotional variability in “The Swing of the Pendulum“, “Psychology“, “Taking The Veil” and “The Singing Lesson“.
Mansfield had no time for sycophancy or chauvinism. (To use contemporary language, she was woke. But if she was feminist, she was a pretty lazy one.)
SPANNING THE LIFETIME
She wrote of childhood joys, of adolescent pleasures and pains, of adult aspirations and frustrations, and of the memories and final knowledge of the aged.
DEMOGRAPHIC BREAKDOWN OF CHARACTERS
Importantly, Modernist writers like Mansfield don’t define characters by their age, life circumstance or physical appearance, but rather by their ‘voice’. This voice stands in for the self, whether this voice is conveyed via direct or free indirect speech.
As characters Mansfield chose children exploring the world alone, children reacting to adults, lonely or isolated women in a hostile world, overbearing businessmen, fathers.
Many of Mansfield’s characters are in the early years of life, in some kind of transition. The transition might be from the infant’s purely affective sensory world to the adult’s world, where emotion and thought are entwined. The child is often learning how to contend with or express emotion. Children have a physical reaction before realising what happened. (“The Little Girl“, “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped“)
To convey her characters’ constricted view of the world, Mansfield used isolation, delusion, cognitive restrictions, fantasies, hallucinations, dreams and fears as well as the difficulties of apprehensive youth.
It is often difficult to pinpoint an exact theme in her work, though a story like “The Doll’s House” is said to be accessible because of its clear theme and message.
One of her recurring themes is Proustian — to do with the shift and flux of time. No human relationship remains unchanged. At the moment of its consummation the relationship is being altered, lost until it is reanimated from the past.
MANSFIELD AND CHILDREN
Mansfield afforded legitimacy to the emotional lives of children, with the idea that children feel as keenly as adults. She was ahead of her time in this. Early psychologists grouped infants with ‘primitive peoples’. Civilised intellects were considered of a higher order, and privileged in literature as well.
Mansfield is therefore well-known for depicting the world of the child.
MANSFIELD AS CHILDLIKE
Bear in mind, there’s a long, long history of men conflating women and children, lumping the two groups together, both in need of protection. So there’s a feminist issue at play here.
Mansfield’s own husband (also her editor) said himself that there is a “peculiar quality to her work” and mentioned “a type of purity”. He used the words “natural” and “spontaneous” — coincidentally, also words we commonly use to describe children.
In 1971 a critic called Marvin Magalaner published a book about Katherine Mansfield and said that she examines her subjects “with the wide-open, uncomplicated gaze of a child”. (Perhaps he meant this as a compliment, but I’d challenge anyone to find great male writers described by critics in this way.)
Benevolent sexism aside, was there anything inherent to Mansfield’s work which led male critics and editors towards the “childlike” description’? Yes, I believe they were talking about Mansfield’s ground-breakingly Modernist way of writing in statu nascendi (without backstory). After all, children are also said to live in the moment. The “Great Writers” are far more likely to place the reader firmly in history, and let’s say “History” with a capital H. When writers use certain techniques (such as The Overview Effect and go three generations back to place characters in a story (both techniques notable in the short stories of a completely different kind of writer such as Annie Proulx), it’s tempting to think these historically-weighted stories carry more weight in general. (If you think this, you’ve been played. It is no easier to write a lyrical short story in statu nascendi, keeping readers right there in the moment.)
Also, critics consider Mansfield’s last work her most significant, and after 1915 there is no bitterness or criticism in her work. Mansfield started to portray young characters sympathetically, sometimes with humour (“Her First Ball“, “The Voyage“, “At The Bay“, “The Garden Party“, “The Doll’s House“, “The Young Girl“, “Taking The Veil“). These particular qualities will also be construed as childlike when woman writers display them.
One of Mansfield’s major themes is the theme of illusion, and of the faulty interpretation of an experience. Illusion is central to Literary Impressionist fiction. This particular theme is hard to talk about in Mansfield’s work because it is so pervasive. Every character exists somewhere on the Continuum of Imaginative Powers, whether they’re indulging in fantasy or are deluded by accident.
Mansfield kept playing with the titles of her stories. She found it difficult to settle on a title.
For this reason it pays not to read too much into the significance of a Mansfield title. Just because “Prelude” was originally named “The Aloe” doesn’t necessarily mean the aloe is the central symbol. “The Man Without A Temperament” was earlier named “The Exile” and “The Doll’s House” was earlier named “The Washerwoman’s Children”.
A setting frequently leads to the final choice of a title. Or Mansfield might use the name of the main character. But also, an ironic twist in a main character’s perception of reality may also serve as a title.
HOW TO NARRATE LIKE MANSFIELD
MODERNISM AND CHEKHOV
Mansfield is known as the one of the first to bring Modernist short stories to the West and is a pioneer in interior monologue. She took her cues from Chekhov (who was Russian). She’s even said to have plagiarised one of Chekhov’s stories. She read early English translations of his work. Biographers don’t know if she first encountered Chekhov in Wellington. She may have, because she loved to spend many hours at the Wellington library. Or she may have read him later in England. In any case, he was clearly influential.
(If you want to narrate like Katherine Mansfield, you’re also narrating like Chekhov, and many other stylists who came after.)
SIMULTANEOUS INTERIORITY AND EXTERIORITY
Some critics have been confused because Mansfield is able to put the narrative camera both inside and outside the characters’ heads. The characters speak for themselves in their own voices but Mansfield’s narrator also steps in. Mansfield maintains an imaginative and linguistic distance from her characters.
Because of this style of narration, her work is frequently described as ‘inimitable’. (So good or unusual as to be impossible to copy; unique.)
THE MONOLOGIC STORIES
Monologic: relating to or in the form of a monologue.
Mansfield’s monologic stories:
- “The Canary“
- “The Lady’s Maid“
- “Late At Night“
- “The Black Cap“
THE CONVERSATIONAL/DIALOGUE STORIES
SHIFTING POINTS OF VIEW
Mansfield generally makes use of shifting viewpoints, never settling on one character in particular. Because the ‘camera’ never settles, we expect her to shift viewpoints. That means you can’t settle in one head for too long. “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House” are examples of this. Other stories remain with a single character, in close third person narration. Examples are “The Tiredness of Rosabel” (until the final sentence, considered by some to be a writing mistake), “Miss Brill” and “The Wind Blows“.
But even when Mansfield writes in third person, her narrators sometimes have a voice which erases any boundary between the written and spoken word. Mansfield’s theatre experience probably had something to do with this ability.
To finish off a story, Mansfield sometimes switches point of view to that of another character who hasn’t had much airtime until now. (“The Escape“, “The Doll’s House”) This is a parallactic technique.
Mansfield’s characters frequently ‘try on’ a voice. One example is Laura in “The Garden Party” trying to sound like her mother as she’s addressing the workmen in their garden. She’s unable to sustain this voice and slips back into her own. Mansfield had her characters ‘impersonate’ as part of a distinctively Modernist wish to convey that there is no such thing as objectivity. Everything is subjective. This is one tool she used to probe the entire nature of selfhood.
We might also use the word ‘theatrical’ to describe the impersonations of certain characters. Sometimes, characters go off on one. They seem to wax lyrical, as if turning on a stage to their audience, throwing their arms in the air and delivering a monologue.
Aren’t those just the signs, the traces of my feeling? The bright green streaks made by someone who walks over the dewy grass? Not the feeling itself. And as I think that a mournful, glorious voice begins to sing in my bosom. Yes, perhaps that is nearer what I mean. What a voice! What power! What velvety softness! Marvellous!“A Married Man’s Story”
Beryl in “Prelude” is old enough to have full awareness of this impersonating, theatrical tendency in herself. She chastises herself as ‘silly and spiteful and vain’. She feels she is ‘always acting a part. I’m never my real self for a moment’.
There is a gap between characters’ inner selves and their socially constructed selves. (Japanese people have everyday well-known words to describe this: omote and ura.
This gap is exemplified beautifully in one of Mansfield’s poems:
“The Gulf”, 1916
A Gulf of silence separates us from each other.
I stand at one side of the gulf, you at the other.
I cannot see you or hear you, yet know that you are there.
Often I call you by your childish name
And pretend that the echo to my crying is your voice.
How can we bridge the gulf? Never by speech or touch.
Once I thought we might fill it quite up with tears.
Now I want to shatter it with our laughter.
Then there’s the famous passage from Mansfield’s journal:
Is it not possible that the rage for confession, autobiography, especially for memories of earliest childhood, is explained by our persistent yet mysterious belief in a self which is continuous and permanent; which, untouched by all we acquire and all we shed, pushes a green spear through the dead leaves and through the mould, thrusts a scaled bud through years of darkness until one day, the light discovers it and shakes the flower free and – we are alive – we are flowering for our moment upon the earth
A technique called ‘narrative irony’ is present in Mansfield’s work right from “In a Cafe“, written at the age of 19. See also “In A German Pension“. Characters in her stories often continue to believe certain things even though experience tells them they shouldn’t. For example, a character describes something as ‘it seems’. Or the narrator might present wrong interpretations without any judgement.
Mansfield often uses ironic narrational (or narrative) parallax. This is partly what makes Mansfield an Impressionist writer. This is also what makes her work ironic. Because of this technique, Mansfield’s view of reality feels ephemeral, evanescent, and is constantly shifting in meaning. Sometimes you get to the end of a story and find the entire thing defies precise definition (e.g. “A Garden Party“).
MANSFIELD AND LITERARY IMPRESSIONISM
Parallax is a part of a wider movement known as Literary Impressionism, in which a (homodiegetic) narrator tells a story which is fragmentary, seemingly objective, dramatic and indirectly suggestive, as well as parallactic. Characters are conditioned by their environment and prone to distortion and misinterpretation.
Unreliable, in other words. But not because they’re being deliberately deceitful. These characters don’t quite understand themselves or their relationship to their world. Mansfield’s depiction on the page is how the character genuinely perceives reality.
The central issues of Literary Impressionism are ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is happening now?’ It is up to the reader to piece together fragments and come to our own conclusion about who this person is and what’s happening in the story. The character can’t see the full picture because they are stuck within the setting.
Characters are usually unable to comprehend much beyond their own personal world, however beautiful the natural surroundings and its ‘Stimmung’ (mood), and however strong the impulse to resist a passive outlook upon life.
A character’s view of life is subjective, solipsistic, tentative and qualified by preoccupation.
Other words often used to describe the Impressionistic aspect of Mansfield:
Characters are reflected in each other’s thoughts. They’d hardly recognise themselves as they are presented, coloured and changed by different points of view. (A feature of parallax in fiction.) For example, in “Prelude“, Stanley is seen by his wife by turns as a turkey or a Newfoundland dog. This is not how Stanley sees himself. The reader is left to make up our own minds.
The constantly shifting perspective gives the reader a series of shocks, as one perspective shifts to another. (Look for windows and mirrors in stories with shifting perspectives. “Prelude” is a great example. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf is another.
IN THE MOMENT
The narrator in Mansfield’s stories is often perceptive but has no prior knowledge of characters or of the situation or the meaning of events. The in medias res beginning of many of her stories allows for no extra information.
As mentioned above, the narrator attempts to capture impressions in statu nascendi (literally: in a state of being born). This kind of narrator depicts the outer world not as it is, but as it appears. This view comes via the senses rather than the intellect.
ADJECTIVES AND ADVERBS
Because Mansfield is capturing impressions, her characters off much commentary on: appearance, size, age, voice. This will require a healthy number of adjectives and adverbs (commonly seen as a feminine feature of writing).
SETTINGS OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD
Mansfield created fictional impressions of real life around her. She gave her themes a fictional expression that attempted to define reality as viewed by one or more central characters.
Though Mansfield expressed disdain for her home country of New Zealand, as she approached death, her thoughts returned to her homeland and her last, most accomplished stories are all set in and around Wellington.
Some of her settings are ambiguous, such as “A Dill Pickle”, which is almost certainly London, but set in a cosmopolitan cafe which could be many places.
Mansfield lived in France and is now buried there. A number of her stories are set in France.
Others are set in Germany. Her collection In A German Pension is set in Germany, though Mansfield later said she didn’t like those stories.
Mansfield wrote contemporary tales, which means they’re all set in the late 1800s, early 1900s.
World War One (and events leading up to it) makes an appearance in some of her stories, if only to underscore how unimportant world events are to her characters, who must go on with their own small lives regardless. (“A Dill Pickle”, “The Fly”.)
Mansfield knew how a well-to-do, moneyed household worked. Her New Zealand natal family went by that exact description, and because English immigrants were still very English in their custom, she knew how that class of English people lived, too. Bertha of “Bliss” is presumably English born, but she’s no more English in character than the young fictional women who grew up in New Zealand.
Critics talk about ‘the snail underneath the leaf’ in Mansfield’s worlds, referring to the corruption of the world or ‘The Ugliness of Leaf’, which exists just below the surface. The ‘snail under the leaf’ theme also has a more general aspect in its emphasis on the evil of the universe, the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity. In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing. ‘The snail underneath the leaf’ is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.
Mansfield liked to juxtapose life with death. From early 1920 onwards the death theme is either directly or indirectly present in many of her stories.
Related to this, time is brief. After 1917 Mansfield’s stories show nostalgia for New Zealand. Enough time had elapsed to allow her to look back on her childhood with fond memories, though while actually living there she felt stifled. She seems sorrowful to be separated from it and also feels joy and remembers its beauty.
What does it all mean? This is another question Mansfield asks over and over again, starting with a more satirical view that there is no point. Later she blends this theme with the beauty of nature. (There may be no point apart from living in the moment and enjoying life’s beauty.) When this is done she’s often describing trees e.g. “Bliss“, “The Escape“, “Weak Heart“, “Prelude“, “At The Bay“.
Mansfield’s symbol web often involves whirling, clusters, chains and patterns and these groups evoke a variety of effects.
Reliable data are difficult to find in Mansfield’s short stories and reliable interpretations of data are even more rare. Her reality is elusive, shifting and impenetrable.
What is Mansfield’s relationship to nature? Nature is seen as a beautiful and serene phenomenon amid the calamities of human strife. It juxtaposes the corruption of human action. Nature is often used to evoke a special atmosphere in order to create an Impressionistic Stimmung (mood).
Katherine Mansfield is often called a modernist writer. The modernist movement happened from about 1900 until mid 20th century. One feature of modernist stories: the slightly unusual treatment of time. Critics have talked about ‘the temporal unconscious’. This refers to how time manifests itself subliminally in literary works. In the antipodes (including New Zealand), it worked slightly differently.
The modernist works that came from New Zealand and Australia and surrounds have been called ‘micromodernism’ (by Tim Armstrong). It’s to do with the sense of distance we have, growing up so far away from the imaginative ‘home land’, which back then, was England.
HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR STORY
Quotidian describes the ‘everyday’. (Quotidian is pretty much the opposite of defamiliarized.)
In Mansfield’s short stories, tiny, quotidian moments make for sufficient plot:
- Being late for a train then losing your parasol off the cart (“The Escape“)
- Going home after work to fantasise about a brief encounter you had with another young woman’s beau (“The Tiredness of Rosabel“)
- Sitting on a park bench at the gardens, voyeuristically listening in to other people’s conversations (“Miss Brill”)
- Riding the Picton Ferry with your grandmother, in charge of looking after her umbrella (“The Voyage”)
- Preparing for a party (“Bliss”, “The Garden Party”, “Sun and Moon”)
- Killing an irritating fly in your office after a former employee drops in with some news (“The Fly”)
- Showing two classmates your new doll’s house even though those girls aren’t allowed in the yard (“The Doll’s House“)
IMAGERY OVER PLOT
However ambiguous Mansfield’s stories seem after a first reading, they’ll make sense to the careful reader after a second read-through.
That’s because symbolism is king. We understand a Mansfield short story after considering the imagistic pattern, or what some might call a symbol web. Like an Impressionist painting, it’s necessary to stand back and squint (think) a bit.
In common with writers like Joseph Conrad and Annie Proulx, Mansfield’s stories are about ‘delayed decoding‘. That’s a fancy way of saying the reader doesn’t know what’s happening until later, and often not until after a second read.
Establish the mood (Stimmung) first, and then focus on the psychology of the characters. Some of your stories will require a cast of characters who are all equal as ‘main’ characters, because the themes are about the problems in a community:
Families, especially those with lots of money, are nicely dysfunctional for narrative purposes (“Prelude“)
Isolated women such as Beryl of the “Prelude” trilogy, “Miss Brill” and Rosabel from “The Tiredness of Rosabel“. These women tend to be fantasists, escaping regularly into their own fantasy worlds to compensate for lack of affection in real life. Many of the female characters don’t speak, or do not respond to speech. It’s as though they’re silenced by the power of the voices around them. But we shouldn’t read these women as conventionally ‘weak’. When these characters avoid words as the ‘natural’ medium of communication they not only circumvent the limits of conventional ‘meaning’ but also implicitly question the conventional association between male speech and authority (exemplified by the verbose Stanley from “At The Bay“.)
Overbearing businessmen fathers are plentiful (“The Fly”, the Comical Stanley Burnell from the “Prelude” trilogy).
There are numerous adolescents or women young beyond their years (“The Wind Blows”, “The Tiredness of Rosabel“). Mansfield’s young women often fell into two rough categories: Pretentious, modern young women and naive young women (e.g. “At Lehmann’s”, “The Governess“.)
In stories which include children, there’s a division between the adults and the children, with emphasis on how the adults’ behaviour is affecting the children as easily influenced little people, with reader empathy lying firmly with the children. We also realise these children will turn out exactly like their parents.
Mansfield tended to write absent, disinterested mothers. Maternal love is depicted negatively, especially when compared to the love children show for their grandmothers. Linda Burnell from the Prelude trilogy is uninterested in her children. She seems more interested in taking material goods to the new house in “Prelude” than in taking all of her children and helping them settle in. “We shall simply have to leave them. That is all. We shall simply have to cast them off…”
And where there are young children there is often an elderly character who Mansfield aligns them with. (“The Voyage”, “Sun and Moon”.) This has the effect of making the reader view a lifetime as a package all at once, and a life in terms of snapshots in a photo album, rather than viewing the very old and the very young as completely different creatures.
Older women tend to live with their younger, extended families and although they play an important role in the household, they are without much power. (“New Dresses,” the “Prelude” trilogy)
Young women have been taught that the most important thing about them is the way they look. They’ll probably love the way they look, aesthetically, when trying on a new hat in the mirror, but judge others harshly for their imperfections, especially imperfections of skin. This will lead some readers to conclude narcissism, but we are reminded that narcissism is borne of deep insecurity.
A common shortcoming of many Mansfield characters is that they absolutely love party preparation and even the parties themselves, but that after party clean up period (even though there are usually maids to do it) tends to remind them of death and decay. They can’t bear the flip side of carefully managed perfection. (“The Garden Party“, “Sun and Moon“)
Many of Mansfield’s characters have trouble with the falseness, ostentation and the sterility of modern life — especially characters from the upper classes.
Though Mansfield isn’t well known as a ground-breaking feminist writer, women in her stories are often at a disadvantage due to gender roles of the time. (“New Dresses“, “Her First Ball”, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”.) “A Dill Pickle” is an obvious display of white male privilege, and the tough decision a white woman must make — does she marry an ass and gain some social status, or does she continue life as a middle-aged single woman?
Mansfield created characters with shortcomings designed to explore ‘the irreconcilable cleavage between the rich potentialities of live and the inescapable brutalities of human experience which must evoke despair.’ – Berkman
In many of Mansfield’s stories she’ll compare a character to a bird at some point. She uses quite a wide range of birds, though. The Kelvey girls are chickens in “The Doll’s House“, to underscore the motherly nature of the older Kelvey girl. “The Birdcage” and “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day“ are the ultimate examples of a character as bird.
If you really want to immerse yourself in how Katherine Mansfield viewed people, you probably want to read Principles of Psychology by William James (brother of Henry James). James was what psychologists call a ‘vitalist’ (alongside Henri Bergson). James believed that behaviour influences emotion, whereas previously it was thought that a person’s emotion influences their behaviour.
We now know that it’s more of cycle than a cause and effect kind of thing. James also came up with the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, which describes modernist authors (a phrase which had entered literary criticism by 1918). Vitalism affected how modernist writers viewed ‘character’.
Beforehand, the self had been understood in terms of a single transcendent ego, but modernists put it to their readers that ‘self’ was not only multiple, but also mutable. The self is not one single, never-changing thing. We change from moment to moment, as situations change. (Bergson added to this theory by making a distinction between superficial personality and deeper consciousness, which is exactly how storytelling gurus tell writers to create characters today.)
This is partly what made Mansfield feel so modern at the time. She challenged the ideology of the one true self (which we still see in much children’s literature today, as in ‘Be yourself’ stories). What does it mean to be yourself?
Vitalism also probably encouraged Mansfield to question the nature of time. She does all sorts of interesting things with time in her stories. She achieves The Overview Effect in “Prelude” and links children to the elderly. She picks symbols (e.g. the aloe in “Prelude“) for their interesting relationships with time. According to Henri Bergson, these separate selves don’t begin and end (I guess the would make it dissociative identity disorder), but each personality extends into another. It’s impossible to respond in exactly the same way to a single thing twice in succession. That’s because you’ve already had one reaction, and that will inevitably influence all subsequent reactions. It’s impossible to remain the same person, even from moment to moment. This is why so often Mansfield’s characters seem to be high on something one moment — the next downcast. e.g. Beryl in “At The Bay“, first viewing herself as a ‘lovely, fascinating girl’, then ‘All that excitement and so on has a way of suddenly leaving you’. (She has become aware of a nearby ‘sorrowful bush’.)
Mansfield’s diaries and letters show that when she felt down she experienced this as a kind of tiredness, though she knew the difference between lack of sleep and low mood. Similarly, when Mansfield’s characters feel tired, it’s often because they feel low affect. e.g. in “Something Childish But Very Natural” thinks he’ll never again see the girl on the train and ‘felt very tired—he only wanted to sit down and shut his eyes—she was not coming—a forlorn relief breathed in the words.’
Mansfield writes adolescents whose feelings are subject to confusion and whose mental processes are at their most restless. She mixes childlike savagery and adolescent purity with idealism. Characters can be irresponsible and passive. (Yvonne of “A Little Episode“, Henry and Edna of “Something Childish But Very Natural“.)
Nearly every main character suffers from the reality-illusion-disparity problem due to limited experience. This affects both matters of fact and matters of judgement.
Illusion is especially evident in the stories about children, who are often playing out their own interpretation of adult behaviour. The children reveal the social pretensions of their parents through their imitative fantasy but also portray the common illusions of adult life.
Many characters are described from the outside only. Unless they become a narrative focus, interiority is barely sketched in. Many characters make only brief appearances. We barely know their names.
Characters must all have a conscious desire which connects to a deeper one. The conscious desires tend to be quite shallow, such as getting from point A to point B, or finding a hat suitable for a party, but the deeper desires include:
- To repress difficult emotions by focusing with determination on pleasant, surface things (“Bliss”, “The Fly”)
- To view oneself as a valued member of society (Miss Brill)
- To avoid dwelling on one’s own mortality (“The Fly”, “Miss Brill”, “The Garden Party”, “Her First Ball“, “Sun and Moon“)
- To pretend nice things will always be nice, and to deny the fact of entropy (“The Garden Party“, “Sun and Moon”)
- In true Freudian style, dreams (and daydreams) are significant insights into a character’s longing. They are supposed to tell us more about who characters really are, and their deeper, subconscious desires. When the husband in “The Escape“ slumps into a daydream, he wishes to be away from his marriage, at least for a little while. In “Prelude“, Linda dreams of birds.
Characters don’t necessarily even know who their opponents are. Opposition a Mansfield story is very low grade (compared to a war big struggle), but has devastating consequences for the main character.
Mother and daughter form opponents in “New Dresses“ to the point where the adults are causing their daughter serious psychological damage. And all because the mother wants her daughter to look clean and tidy and presentable.
Rich and poor make for natural opponents. Both rich and poor have already learned their place, even when the characters are children, as in “The Doll’s House“. No one’s trying to climb outside their designated social rank. They’re trying to live within it, as best they can. “The Tiredness of Rosabel“ is another example.
In stories about couples, lovers make for natural opponents, because they are in and out of love with each other at different times. (“Bliss“, “Prelude“) In the Prelude trilogy, Linda both loves and hates her husband at the same time.
THE TECHNIQUE OF COUNTERPOSING (JUXTAPOSING CHARACTERS)
Mansfield liked the technique of counterposing one character with another. In the same way, excited and searching Bertha is counterposed against the calm and contained Pearl Fulton in “Bliss“. Sabina is counterposed next to the pregnant woman in “At Lehmann’s“. In the “Prelude” trilogy Kezia is set next to Linda, Beryl and Mrs Fairfield.
This method of juxtaposing characters’ attitudes and moods give structural unity to stories.
The big struggles in Mansfield short stories are subtle and often entirely inside a character’s head. The kitchen girl in “Prelude“ regularly has arguments with her employers which take place only inside her head. Her witty (unsaid) comebacks make her feel much better.
Mansfield would often make use of the language of big struggle as proxy for an actual fight. “The Wind Blows” is an excellent example of that, in which the language of a fight is used to describe the adolescent brother and sister’s evening walk down to the seaside, where they will see the boat.
The experience of an epiphany is a key aspect of Modernist writing: Virginia Woolf and James Joyce also tried to articulate flashes of realisation, revelation, insight and understanding. Woolf described these as ‘moments of being’.
Epiphanies are experienced in many of Mansfield’s stories, although they do not necessarily lead to complete comprehension. I call these ‘half-epiphanies’. Rather there is awareness, intimation and possibly just a glimpse of something beyond a character’s everyday perceptions. Miss Brill thinks she’s realised something amazing as she sits on her park bench — that everyone is an important character in some kind of play. But her real realisation, though she doesn’t fully understand the reason behind her sudden downcast mood, is that she is old.
Some characters actively avoid seeing uncomfortable truths around them. Laura of “Her First Ball” is one example; William of “Marriage a la Mode” is another. (This has sometimes been called an ‘antiepiphany’.)
Quite often Mansfield refuses to express a character’s epiphany in words. The epiphany might actually take place in the ‘break’ between scenes (often divided by three asterisks).
Mansfield makes much use of symbolism and imagery in helping the reader to understand more about the character than the character knows about themselves. The fox fur in “Miss Brill” is a great example of that.
Mansfield’s stories are all about how no one has a full grip on ‘reality’. Everyone’s interpretation of reality is different.
Her stories tend to follow a regular pattern with the ‘positive’ theme dominant until the climax (the Battle, Big Struggle, whatever you want to call it). Then it comes into decisive conflict and is superseded by the negative theme. In other words, the story often takes a turn for the depressing at this point.
Although reality is elusive, shifting and impenetrable, it is at this point in the story when a character often experiences a moment of awareness. That said, there’s very little accurate ‘interpretation of reality’ in Mansfield’s stories, which on either side of the brief Anagnorisis are all about misinterpretation, distortion, misplaced emphasis and illusion.
Apperception is a dated word in psychology which indicates the mental process by which a person makes sense of an idea by assimilating it to the body of ideas he or she already possesses. Mansfield’s characters are often like this.
Nature images often help convey an epiphany.
Above, I explained how there is a gap between the inner self and the self one presents to the world. In some of Mansfield’s stories, the two selves fuse briefly at the moment of epiphany. Overall, though, Mansfield’s stories lead us to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a unified self. If they occasionally line up, it won’t be for long.
In the end, the individual is alone and insignificant. A quiet day’s end is rarely as peaceful as illusion suggests.
FREUD AND MANSFIELD
Some of Mansfield’s characters seem to have a revelation then we’re told they’ve forgotten all about it. This is partly why Mansfield’s work is referred to as ‘Freudian’, drawing upon Freud’s theories of suppression and repression. (“Her First Ball“, “The Doll’s House“)
This repression might be provoked by something trivial which causes some glimmer of hope. (“Daughters of the Late Colonel”)
Mansfield’s images often encapsulate the full impact of a short story, especially in a concluding or ironic paragraph.
IMAGERY & SYMBOLISM
There’s a lot of imagery! “At the Bay” is forty pages long, contains 101 comparisons and 88 metaphors. (It wasn’t me who counted.)
Sometimes images are a standalone metaphor. Other times she creates a complex imagistic pattern, combining several forms of imagery.
Mansfield varies the intensity of her images. She is able to weaken or enlarge a pictorial image. The narrator wants to leave a gap between a subjective impression and an objective presentation of the experience to be described and compared. This can leave the reader with a deliberately fostered feeling of vagueness, indirection or insufficiency. (e.g. something which is like longing, and yet it is not longing. Or regret — it is more like regret — “The Canary“.)
Some images have purely narrative function but other imagistic patterns indirectly emphasise a character-trait which the reader has seen via their dialogue and action.
Mansfield makes heavy use of pathetic fallacy. Whatever a character feels, everything around them will seem to feel like that, too. An aloe tree or a pear tree (“Bliss“) might make a character feel buoyantly happy, but for another character (“The Escape“), a beech tree will make him feel suffocated. (Nothing inherently to do with the tree.) Miss Brill feels sad and lonely, so her fur fox (or stoat, or whatever it is) also looks sad to her.
Hats in Mansfield’s stories are repeatedly associated with systems of authority. (This is not stated but unarticulated) e.g. “The Tiredness of Rosabel“. In “Something Childish But Very Natural“, Henry’s story begins with him becoming separated from his hat in a different train carriage. This seems to relieve him of inhibitions. In “The Garden Party” the images of hats are incorporated in the action of the story not only because people wore hats in those days and put a lot of thought into them, but also because they are related to moral values.
Mansfield frequently contrasts patterns of images to generate a thematic layer of meaning.
The 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.“Bliss”
Grown-up people are often compared with children and children with grown-ups. This reveals contrasting joyful or painful emotions.
Sad tones often dominate the scene. Sometimes these tones convey a feeling of claustrophobia. Characters might feel as if they are in prison or hospital, or like actors performing on a stage. To emphasise the acting symbol web, characters are often wearing (metaphorical) masks.
Mansfield sometimes personifies material objects. These objects share a character’s emotions in a fused emotional atmosphere.
When Mansfield compares people to animals, beasts, insects, water-creatures or birds, unpleasant emotions are revealed. Insects are helpless, snakes are cunning, spiders are hunting for prey. Rabbits are escaping. They all represent a cruel or suffering aspect of humankind.
Mansfield especially likes bird images. Bird comparisons comprise almost half of all the animal imagery. In some stories, birds represent freedom or happiness (because they fly and seem to sing joyfully). But this is not how Mansfield makes use of birds.
Acoustic images are important, too. Oftentimes, sounds are distant or muted.
Visual and acoustic imagery fuses in an almost synaesthesic way, creating a dreamlike atmosphere.
Characters themselves are either highly aware of these images or not so much — this places them within a scene and tells us how they relate to their setting.
MANSFIELD, COLOUR, IMPRESSIONISM AND POINTILLISM
Mansfield emphasised colour and related colour to character mood. Colour is used for more than simply describing something. Colour images fall into two basic categories:
- Images related to the visual experience of the character who sees it and
- images which express in colour the atmospheric mood or their mental state.
Some commentators have said that Mansfield’s technique of describing colour maps directly onto pointillism, in which artists use short brush strokes to create a lot of dots. Pointillists avoid blending, instead requiring the viewer to stand back in order to make out a scene. (Stand too close and all you’ll see are the dots.)
Examples of Pointillist painters: Georges Seurat and Paul Klee.
PAINTERLY QUALITY EXPRESSION EMOTION
There is a painterly quality to Mansfield’s prose. She uses purple, green and gentle colours such as mild yellows, greys, blues and variations of light. (Purple was pretty much ignored by artists until the Impressionist painters came along.)
One of Mansfield’s ways of expressing emotion: find a set of objects, a situation or a chain of events which convey the formula of the particular emotion.
Mansfield’s figurative language and images are often ironic, projecting a character’s wrong interpretation of events.
MANSFIELD AND REALISM
Here’s what she doesn’t do. In common with the Realists of the late 1800s, Mansfield avoided figurative language that would draw on spiritual and supernatural worlds for their meaning. She doesn’t refer to mythology either.
Mansfield often tries to arrest the reader’s attention through an unexpected, rare or even bizarre image, so that the impression will strike home. The image may create an illusion of objectivity, but the reader is nevertheless aware of the particular manner in which the illusion is created.
AT A LINE LEVEL
The value of language is one of the most pervasive motifs in Mansfield’s writing. She was clearly interested in words and sentences.
Mansfield creates meaningful silence in her stories. Silence is a form of communication in its own right. When her characters don’t speak or refuse to respond, this highlights other symbolic nuance. The reader is trusted to read the signs: irony, puns, negation, intertextual allusion, metaphor.
SPATIAL BREAKS (ASTERISKS)
She makes much use of spatial breaks (three asterisks) e.g. in “Die Einsame“, “In a Cafe“, “Old Cockatoo Curl“, (all found in Poetry and Critical Writings of Katherine Mansfield edited by Gerri Kimber), “Something Childish But Very Natural“, “An Indiscreet Journey“, “Six Years After” and in some of the German Pension sketches. These divisions affect the pacing of the stories, speeding the narrative up or slowing it down as required. Feel free to use the three dot ellipsis when ‘ending’ a sentence.
Mansfield repeats words, partly to make the rhythm of the prose work more like poetry.
Language is succinct, both at a sentence level and at a scene level. The prose is akin to lyric poetry with much thought given to prosody and scansion.
She often opens stories grounding us in time, telling us the season or the day of the week or the time.
There are many qualifying terms of uncertainty: ‘as if’, ‘in a kind of’, ‘rather like’ etc. This often indicates the illusion of proximity or a variable intensity. This is Mansfield stressing the deluding tricks of the eye. Visual phenomena are thereby presented as problematic.
An example of this can be found in “At The Bay“, in which Mansfield describes an early foggy morning at sea. She distorts proximity by merging the hills, the bungalows, the paddocks, the dew drops, the birds, the sea — distorted when seen from a distance.
Concatenation refers to the action of linking things together in a series, or the condition of being linked in such a way.
Little touches are placed side by side and concatenation prevails in Katherine Mansfield’s imagery. One of her methods is to heighten the pictorial atmosphere by accumulations of comparisons for the same object. (Another parallactic technique.)
The images are swollen and blown up by extra additions. ‘Every note was a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness.’ ‘How extraordinary shell-like we are as we are — little creatures, peering out of the sentry-box, ogling through our glass case at the entry, wan little servants, who never can say for certain, even, if the master is out or in’