Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One of the characteristic devices used by Katherine Mansfield in her fiction is the disruption of normal time sense. Often within a sequence of events defined in terms of clock time, Mansfield provides knowledge of another time, one not bound by ordinary rules of motion and space but rather existing apart from perception or the record of time passing. Thus, immediately at the beginning of “At the Bay,” when Jonathan calls out to Stanley, the reader experiences a dislocation from normal sequential time. Jonathan’s voice is totally unexpected as it booms over the water and thus destroys the normal time sequence, which has been carefully built up. Time doubles back; other doors are opened; another character has emerged and made his way to the water to join Stanley. The time in which this has happened is unexperienced by a reader because the author has not provided necessary sense data to fill in the interval.

Another, and more striking, example of the disruption of the normal time sense, when time is stripped of its ordinal and metrical qualities, occurs in the scene with Linda in the garden under the manuka tree. In the garden there is an abrupt shift of geographical place that ignores the ordinary relationships of distance, time, and motion. Without transition in the narrative, Linda is seen as a child leaning against her father’s knee. The reader’s imagination accomplishes the sudden movement into past time because Linda’s does, but simultaneously the reader is led to experience events that never took place, that existed only in Linda’s imagination. As a result of this manipulation of time, the reader experiences a release from normal sequential time perception. The ordinal and metrical limitations are destroyed, and when they cease to exist, so do the boundaries that separate the real from the unreal and life from death.

Mansfield’s role in the development of the short story was profound. Concentrating on a single moment in time, eliminating a strongly plotted action fine, and using imagery and metaphor to expand the moment and give it significance beyond itself, Mansfield helped move the short story away from the formulaic, shaping it as an art form whose aesthetic value was sufficient to place it beside the other and older literary genres.