When writing short stories you’ll want to develop your own style, not ape the style of anyone else. Nonetheless, I have collected a number of pointers from a short story great. 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.
HOW TO NARRATE LIKE MANSFIELD
Mansfield is known as the first to bring modernist short stories to the West. She took her cues from Chekhov (who was Russian). She read early English translations of his work.
(If you want to narrate like Katherine Mansfield, you’re also narrating like Chekhov, and many other stylists who came after.)
- Mansfield was a pioneer in interior monologue.
- 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“.
- 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.
- Mansfield wrote about a relatively narrow range of material: children exploring the world alone, children reacting to adults, lonely women in a hostile world.
- 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”)
STORYWORLDS OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD
- 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.
HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR STORY
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“)
However ambiguous Mansfield’s stories seem after a first reading, they’ll make sense to the careful reader after a second read-through. Symbolism is King. 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.
Get the mood first, and 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.
- Overbearing businessmen fathers (“The Fly”, the Comical Stanley Burnell from the “Prelude” trilogy)
- Adolescents or women young beyond their years (“The Wind Blows”, “The Tiredness of Rosabel”)
- 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.
- 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 main weakness 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 weaknesses 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” is the ultimate example 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.)
- 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 multiple personality 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’.)
Characters must all have a surface desire which connects to a deeper one. The surface 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 battle), 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.
- Sometimes the object of one’s affection doesn’t even know it. (“The Wind Blows”, “Bliss”.)
- An emotionally mature character is a natural opponent for an emotionally immature character. (For Mansfield, maturity has nothing to do with age in years.) (“New Dresses“, “The Fly”.)
- The battles in Mansfield short stories are very 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 battle 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. 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.
- Mansfield makes much use of symbolism 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.
- Some of Mansfield’s characters seem to have a revelation then we’re told they’ve forgotten all about it. This is 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”)
- Make 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.
- Feel free to use the three dot ellipsis when ‘ending’ a sentence.
- You may repeat words, to make the rhythm of the prose work more like poetry.