Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Although written four years later, “At the Bay” was conceived as a continuation of “Prelude.” Like the earlier story, “At the Bay” is organized around time in all of its various aspects, the design of the story functioning symbolically as part of the overall meaning that derives from the integration of themes. The story begins at the moment the sun rises over Crescent Bay and concludes on the evening of the same day.
The meticulous record of that day in terms of time and the household routines of the Burnell family provides a summary of the action of the story, the careful delineation of sequential time causing plot to become symbolic action. Stanley, the first to arise, goes to the beach to swim in the bay, but he finds his brother-in-law, Jonathan Trout, there before him. After his swim, Stanley returns to the cottage and dresses while breakfast is being prepared by Beryl and Mrs. Fairchild. Stanley allows twenty-five minutes to have breakfast with them and the children. Linda remains in bed. After much frenzied activity, Stanley leaves for work, and the children are sent out to play. The women relax with another cup of tea. At exactly eleven o’clock, they all go to the beach—except Linda, who sits in the garden while the new baby sleeps. The children play at the beach with their cousins, Rags and Pip, and Beryl, despite her mother’s disapproval, leaves the family group to swim with Mrs. Harry Kember.
After lunch, Mrs. Fairchild and the children take an afternoon rest. Beryl washes her hair and then goes out to play bridge with Mrs. Kember. Alice, the servant girl, has the...
(The entire section is 662 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Mansfield set two longer short stories in her native New Zealand: “Prelude” and “At the Bay.” In both, she drew extensively upon details of her own extended family and employed an unusual structure peculiarly her own.
“At the Bay” is composed of thirteen short episodes in which a number of lives intertwine. Readers are set down in an unidentified place among unidentified characters. Soon it becomes clear that the story takes place in a settlement of families living in separate houses at the side of a bay. What is known of Mansfield’s life makes readers assume that this is Wellington Bay in New Zealand, but they must guess at the characters’ relationships. That the reader must work to discover these things is part of the story, a result of Mansfield’s narrative technique. Most of the characters are relatives of Kezia, who most resembles a young Katherine Mansfield. They are Kezia, a young girl, about seven years old; Stanley Burnell, her father; Linda Burnell, her mother; Isabel, her older sister; Lottie, her younger sister; her baby brother; aunt Beryl, Linda’s sister; Uncle Jonathan Trout, and Pip and Rags, his sons; Mrs. Fairfield, Kezia’s grandmother, Linda and Beryl’s mother; Alice, a servant; Mrs. Stubbs, Alice’s friend; and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Kember.
Each episode is separate. They are not usually joined by obvious transitions, but the reader gradually senses that “At the Bay” has a kind of unity. The same characters appear and unexpectedly reappear. The story lasts for a complete day, from early morning until late at night. Most important, the characters live in a web of delicate interrelationships, some of which satisfy, some of which do not. The life of almost every character shows a variation on a central theme: To live is to yearn for something more and only occasionally to be calm and happy. Characters yearn most strongly for what is seldom possible. Each must face moments in which his or her hopes are thwarted.
The first and last episodes frame the story with descriptions of nature. Both provide descriptions of the bay, the sea and the waves, and the plants and the buildings on the shoreline. The first episode sets the scene as a peaceful but vibrant place that waits for what the day will bring. At the beginning, the only moving beings are some sheep, a sheep dog, and a shepherd. They enter and leave. In the very brief last episode, no living thing appears. The concluding episode is more obviously symbolic.
The day opens with Stanley Burnell jumping into the bay for an invigorating swim. He is the most masculine force in the story, a competitive man who proudly thinks that he is the first in the water. Stanley finds, however, that another man, Jonathan Trout, has beaten him to it. Trout is as good a swimmer as Stanley, more imaginative and less impatient. No wonder Stanley is irritated and leaves. Trout muses on the encounter: Poor Stanley makes work out of pleasure, he thinks. The episode ends with a suggestion that Trout is in poor health. Mansfield begins her story with its only adult males, each of whom is severely limited.
Mansfield is at her best in...
(The entire section is 1289 words.)