Study Guide

The Garden Party

by Katherine Mansfield

The Garden Party Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“The Garden Party” may be Mansfield’s most famous story. It is exceptional and typical at the same time. Laura, a vibrant young woman, is the central character. The story also depicts a worldly older woman (Laura’s mother), a sophisticated social gathering (the party itself), some moderately dense males, and a disturbing event to which they all react differently. The action of the story, more conventionally straightforward than that of “At the Bay,” is also typical of Mansfield. It leads both Laura and the reader to an epiphany—an enigmatic moment of revelation that, in this story, is comic and overwhelming at the same time.

Unlike “At the Bay,” where Mansfield took readers into many minds, readers live through this story in only one. Laura appears to be about sixteen, a young woman on the edge of adulthood. Not only do readers hear her talk, they listen in on her thoughts. She is a bit afraid of the men who put up the tent for the party but enjoys hearing their good-natured banter. Readers sense her joy at being alive when she reacts ecstatically to the spots of light the sun makes on an inkpot. Mansfield brings the reader close to Laura in another typical way. Even the opening description of the day and the flowers seems to be in a character’s mind, not the storyteller’s. To many readers, that mind soon becomes Laura’s.

The opening scenes all suggest a wealthy, normal, and happy family. Laura appears to supervise the tent, but is not allowed to decide where it should be placed. Her sisters strike sophisticated poses; one sings a gruesome song and flashes a big smile. Laura’s mother protests that she will leave the arrangements to her children but organizes the party anyway, providing expensive flowers, a band, and dainty sandwiches. As usual, Mansfield suggests moments of happiness with telling details and evocative descriptions.

Then comes the news that turns Laura’s day around: A man has been killed in an accident, a man who lived in a lower-class cottage almost next to their home. Laura’s instinctive reaction is that the party must be stopped, since the man’s family might hear the band playing. Her sisters and her mother argue with her. She does not change her mind until she sees herself in a mirror—a lovely girl with a spectacular black hat trimmed with gold daisies—and until her brother Laurie compliments her. The party goes ahead, a typically exciting, shallow Mansfield party. Guests compliment Laura, especially on her hat. When the party is over, her mother tries to make amends by filling a basket with party leftovers and sending Laura with it to the dead man’s cottage.

The journey at dusk is frightening. Laura walks into a different world, a lower-class world of grieving, ill-dressed, unsophisticated people. At the dead man’s house, she gives the widow her basket. She is led against her wishes to the bedroom where the corpse has been laid out. Laura, however, is not horrified, but sees the corpse as merely sleeping. She sees death as something calm and even beautiful, something far removed from her silly afternoon. “Forgive my hat,” she says. She has had an epiphany. Her reply is woefully inadequate, but the reader has been shown a character’s moment of understanding and growth. The reader has had an epiphany as well, though it is not the same as Laura’s.

The story ends ambiguously. Laura heads home and meets her brother. She tries to say something but cannot find the words. She thinks he understands, but whether he does is left unclear. As usual, Mansfield does not push her case too far.

The Garden Party Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A busy, happy mood prevails in the morning. The day, the lawns, and the gardens—particularly the roses—are perfect. During breakfast, Mrs. Sheridan asks her youngest daughter, Laura, to go outside and give directions to the men who will erect a canvas shelter for a garden party. Although Laura’s little mission is successful, she questions herself several times. After rushing out, she feels awkward holding her bread-and-butter, and her formal “good morning” to the men sounds inappropriate. One of the men bluntly questions the location that Laura suggests for the marquee. Then she feels embarrassed for having mentioned that a band will play at the party. Happily, the assured manner of the tallest workman relaxes Laura; he speaks for the group and decides where the marquee should go. When he pinches a sprig of lavender and sniffs it, any concerns that Laura might have about her behavior vanish. In fact, she wishes that men of her own class were as nice as this man.

Laura understands that the awkwardness of this little encounter has resulted from “absurd class distinctions.” As she watches the men work, she momentarily feels that she herself is “just like a work-girl.” After she runs back into the house for a phone call, however, she forgets about the workmen as she savors all that she sees and hears. This time a florist interrupts her reverie; the frighteningly alive pink canna lilies that he delivers make Laura ecstatic. No sooner has she kissed her mother in gratitude than her sisters and little brother command her and her mother to come to the piano that they have just moved to listen to Laura’s sister Meg sing “This Life Is Weary.” Although the song laments life’s burdens and the imminence of death, Meg wears a “brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile.”

Preparations for the party continue throughout the household. The cook requests flags to identify the kinds of sandwiches that she is readying. Another delivery man arrives with irresistible cream puffs—which Sadie, the family maid, insists that the children sample. As the children lick their sticky fingers, unpleasant news arrives: A man named Scott from a nearby poor neighborhood has just died in an accident. Like the Sheridans, his family has five children.

When Laura hears this news, she insists that the garden party should be canceled. However, her sister Jose argues with her. Laura appeals to their mother, but Mrs. Sheridan’s first reaction to the tragedy is simply relief that the man did not die on their property. Mrs. Sheridan overcomes Laura’s objections to continuing with the party by giving her a beautiful hat. Laura remains unsure about what she should do, but when she sees herself in her new hat, her astonishment quiets her objections about the party. By the time lunch is over and the guests arrive, Laura is content to be praised for her beauty, and she no longer mentions the accident.

The party is successful. Afterward, when Mr. Sheridan mentions Scott’s fatal accident, his wife decides to send the leftover sandwiches to the man’s grieving family. Laura delivers the basket, feeling painfully out of place in the poor neighborhood. She wants simply to leave the basket at the Scotts’ house but instead is taken before the grieving widow. Confused and awkward, Laura tries to leave but accidentally walks into the room where the dead man lies.

The resulting encounter with the dead man confuses Laura even more. She finds the poor man’s unmarred face to be “wonderful, beautiful” and “happy.” Feeling compelled to cry, she asks him to forgive her hat. After departing unseen, she meets her older brother Laurie, who comforts her. She starts to say, “Isn’t life . . . ” but cannot finish.

The Garden Party Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

This collection of short fiction contains the following stories: “At the Bay,” “The Garden Party,” “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” “Mr. and Mrs. Dove,” “The Young Girl,” “Life of Ma Parker,” “Marriage à la Mode,” “The Voyage,” “Miss Brill,” “Her First Ball,” “The Singing Lesson,” “The Stranger,” “Bank Holiday,” “An Ideal Family,” and “The Lady’s Maid.”

The Garden Party 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.

A feminist, Mansfield juxtaposes the roles of men and women in “At the Bay.” She uses the character of Linda to address the idea that women need more than a husband and children to fulfill their lives. The story’s narrative depicts Linda’s growing realization that there is more to life than wifely and motherly duties. Increasingly evident within the story is her desire to take an active role in her own life.

Mansfield is a master of utilizing and implementing many literary techniques. A striking use of metaphor is apparent in Mansfield’s short fiction. Her stories also tend to operate by means of the implied rather than the direct. Furthermore, she uses a voice that is influenced by the characters, experiments with point of view, employs the use of natural elements, and begins stories in medias res.

Mansfield uses voice to present a character accurately. If a character is a young woman or an adolescent, for example, voice conveys the character’s young or adolescent feelings. If the narrator speaks from the consciousness of a young child, the words are short, to the point, and not complicated, like the language and speech patterns of an actual child. Thus does narrative voice help to give the reader a realistic impression of the character.

Mansfield also experiments with point of view. She uses first and third person viewpoints, standard to short fiction, yet she has also created a point of view peculiarly her own that seemingly derives from her gift of impersonation. Her early mimicking of family and acquaintances carries over in her fiction to her use of a multipersonal perspective. Writing from a multipersonal point of view also allows Mansfield to give readers an extended sense of time, in both a historical and an immediate sense. This point of view also allows Mansfield to extend the viewpoint of a story from that of a single character to that of an entire group. In “The Garden Party,” the beginning viewpoint is that of Laura Sheridan; however, at the end of the story, the viewpoint has shifted to be inclusive of the entire family.

The use of natural elements is an essential component of Mansfield’s narrative craft. She believes that natural elements, such as air, sea, and gardens, help to create one’s existence. In “Bank Holiday,” for example, the use of the wind is important. The characters are pushed by the wind and do not realize the role played by the wind in moving them to their ultimate destination. Another use of natural elements is in “The Voyage.” During the night, the young girl Fenella is taken by sea from a place that is familiar to her and emerges in a new place at the beginning of a new day.

Another characteristic device used by Mansfield is beginning stories in medias res, for example, in “The Voyage” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” In “The Voyage,” Fenella is whisked away from her father, and readers do not understand why until near the end of the story. Similarly, when “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” begins, the father has died and the daughters are indecisive as to how to behave. These in medias res beginnings emphasize endings in a way that typical plot structure does not.

Not only are Mansfield’s short stories characterized by female protagonists, each story addresses a social or psychological issue, including class, loneliness, or despair. “Miss Brill,” “The Voyage,” “Life of Ma Parker,” and “The Lady’s Maid” are representations of different women’s existences and their varying relationships with those around them. In “Miss Brill,” for example, Mansfield brings to the reader’s consciousness the struggle between the young and the old. Miss Brill is elderly and alone, so she is forced to become “an actress” in the lives of those around her. She is no more than an observer in the conversations and lives of others who are also in the park, and at the end of the story she is compelled to realize this. The mean and hurtful words of the young couple she encounters force her to recognize that she is an outsider and unappreciated. Upon her return home, Miss Brill begins returning her fur stole to its box and then seems to hear the fox whimpering. In actuality, Mansfield suggests that it is Miss Brill herself who is crying because she is not only alone but also without hope of ever being more than “an actress” in the lives of others.

Both female protagonists in “The Lady’s Maid” and “Life of Ma Parker” exemplify women who have an undying commitment to those who surround them. Ellen in “The Lady’s Maid” has previously declined a marriage proposal she received as a young girl in order to fulfill her obligation to her “lady.” Ellen wants to marry but realizes unselfishly that it will not be such a good idea to leave alone a lady who cannot adequately take care of herself. Along with Ellen, Ma Parker also demonstrates a sense of commitment. She never once sheds a tear or thinks of herself when her husband dies of consumption or when seven of her thirteen children die. She exemplifies strength and a strong commitment to others. Eventually, she realizes that she needs to release her pent-up emotions and begin healing from the pain she has experienced over the years.

Other themes and issues brought forth by Mansfield in The Garden Party include those of suffering, loneliness, abandonment, denial of self-fulfillment, and, most important, death’s effect on human consciousness.

The effect of death on human consciousness is the thread that connects most of the stories. According to Saralyn R. Daly, death is relevant to the human condition: “In each instance the characters are affected by a death, but it becomes clear that death is not central in the author’s mind.” In “The Stranger” and “Marriage à la Mode,” the death that occurs is not of a human being but of a relationship. In both stories, the bond between husband and wife falls apart for one reason or another. In “The Stranger,” the relationship deteriorates because Janey Hammond has emotionally shut herself off from her husband. In “Marriage à la Mode,” the relationship falls apart because there is a communication gap between William and Isabel. In the early years of their marriage William is content and Isabel is not. They decide to move to appease her, and then the roles are reversed: William is unhappy and Isabel is ecstatic. Their relationship falls apart because they have failed to express their feelings to each other. What each of these stories suggests is that death comes in all forms and is capable of affecting everything and everyone. In many of Mansfield’s stories, relationships die because people fail to acknowledge the needs of others.

To Mansfield, death is the beginning of a self-awakening process. In “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” the father’s death leads the sisters to the discovery of how desperate their lives have been up to that point. As a result of the colonel’s death, the sisters realize that they have been excluded from others and are lonely for companionship. After their father’s death they are not able to communicate or socialize independently. Everything has been organized and dictated to them by their father, and now there is no one to tell them what to do.

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.

The Garden Party Summary

Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden Party" opens with frantic preparations being made for an afternoon garden party. The main...

(The entire section is 863 words.)