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All of the stories that belong to The Garden Party suggest that life needs to be examined and that everyone needs to pursue some sort of happiness, whether it be alone, in a relationship, or in practicing everyday rituals such as going to the park and listening to music. Each story presents a moment in which such happiness is either missing or attained, and together these tales reinforce the value of such moments by presenting them vividly and convincingly.
Katherine Mansfield revolutionized the short story genre by ending the predominant reliance upon traditional plot structure, instead relying more on a specific moment in time, expressed through image patterns. By doing this, Mansfield carried the short story genre away from formalistic structuring and helped to establish its credibility as a literary form.
A feminist, Mansfield often juxtaposes the roles of men and women with an intention to bring their differences and similarities to light. Her story centers on female protagonists and the roles they play in family and social structures. These female characters differ in both age and class, ranging between the ages of six and sixty-five years and belonging to lower-, middle-, and upper-class social groups. For example, in “The Garden Party,” the collection’s title story, the female protagonist is approximately sixteen and is a member of aristocratic society, whereas in “Life of Ma Parker,” the title character, a maid, belongs to the lower class and is perhaps fifty.
Not only does Mansfield like to juxtapose differences in class and in age, but she also likes to position fictional elements against one another. Characters, settings, and themes are juxtaposed in her short fiction. In “The Garden Party” two classes are juxtaposed: On one hand there is the affluent and aristocratic Sheridan family celebrating the new flowers in bloom, and on the other hand there is the poor family, less than two miles away from the Sheridan estate, that has just suffered the father’s untimely death.
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The meaning of this story is very closely intertwined with Mansfield's reasons for writing it. In this story she seems to explore the issue of class and how class consciousness is conveyed and taught. This is shown primarily through the character of Laura, who, as the preparations for the party are being made, thinks class distinctions are something that she does not feel "not a bit, not an atom." However, during the course of the story, when she hears about the neighbour who has died and she tries to get her mother to call off the garden party, and is seduced by the hat that she is given to wear, she is being schooled to adopt the mannerisms and prejudices of her class, part of which is to regard the working class as being less important. When she goes to visit the body of Mr Scott, she experiences something of an epiphany when she sees just how frivolous her concerns about the party were:
What did garden parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy... happy... All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
Note how the imagined contentness of the dead body contrasts strongly with Laura's own feelings of restlessness and class angst. She, when confronted with the dead body of Mr Scott, feels incredibly guilty for her unnecessary concerns with the garden party, expressed in the "baskets and lace frocks" that have dominated so much of Laura's attention. The story brilliantly ends with the reader being unsure about what Laura is going to do with the truth she has realised. The story therefore concerns primarily the issues of class and how this is something that becomes second nature to people.
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