Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Of the many people who appear in Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party,” the central character is clearly Laura Sheridan—who begins the day in excited anticipation of the party and ends it moved and baffled by death. Through the day she grows increasingly conscious of the consequences of her social position. As she admires the men erecting the marquee, she regards herself as a “work-girl”; however, one senses that something is wrong. The moment that she goes back inside the house, she becomes absorbed in a conversation about party dresses and forgets the workmen. Later, when she carries sandwiches to the Scotts’ house, her party dress marks her as an outsider in the working-class neighborhood, and her discomfort in the company of the widow and her sister is extreme.
Laura’s “artistic” nature allows her to sympathize with the working class, but her “practical” sister Jose calls such feelings “extravagant,” and her mother finds them amusing. Just as the Sheridan children believe that entering the working-class streets would expose them to disease and foul language, the family steers the maturing Laura toward views that they consider proper. The hat that Mrs. Sheridan gives Laura is part of this training. Initially, when Mrs. Sheridan tells Laura that the hat is “made for you,” Laura cannot imagine herself in it. Black, with gold daisies and a black ribbon, the hat probably seems too adult to Laura. However, her own beauty...
(The entire section is 433 words.)
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Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden-Party" is built on the contrast between families from two social strata: the wealthy, upper-class Sheridans, who live in a spacious house with a large, well-tended garden; and the Scotts, their working-class neighbors in the next lane, who live in a "little mean" dwelling with an ugly garden patch filled with "nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans." Both families have been caught in characteristic moments: the Sheridans are giving a large afternoon party requiring careful attention to superficial details of arrangement and decoration; the working-class family has been struck by the sudden, accidental death of the father, the breadwinner for a family of seven.
The main theme of the story grows out of this contrast. Laura, one of the Sheridan daughters, has been given the job of supervising the last-minute arrangements for the garden party. When she accidentally learns from a workman of the tragedy in the next lane, she thinks the party should be cancelled, but no one else in the family agrees. After the party, Mrs. Sheridan has "one of her brilliant ideas," that they give the party leftovers to the Scotts, who will find them useful in their hour of need. Laura is assigned to deliver the food, and the story ends with Laura's encounter with grief and death. As Laura enters the crowded lane where the Scotts live, she feels that she is the object of attention of all the neighbors. The only clear...
(The entire section is 278 words.)
Innocence and Experience
"The Garden Party" traces the psychological and moral growth of Laura Sheridan. The story presents her adolescent confusion regarding the social values of her family and her awakening to a more mature perception of reality after her exposure to poverty and death at the carter's cottage.
Laura's self-consciousness regarding her own youth and inexperience is evident whenever she encounters members of the working class. When sent to supervise the workers who have come to set up the marquee, she regards them as "impressive" because they carry their tools and work in shirt sleeves. In her initial dealings with them, she attempts to play the role of her mother—the adult—but soon loses her composure: "Laura wished now that she had not got her bread and butter, but there was no place to put it and she couldn't throw it away. She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little shortsighted as she came up to [the workers]." Copying her mother's voice, Laura says greets the workmen but soon feels that she sounds "affected'' and is ashamed.
This lack of assurance affects her at various moments in the narrative, particularly when she is called upon to make adult responses to events which are outside her childhood environment and experience. Her initial idealization of the workmen's natural camaraderie changes to feelings of unease and discomfort when she sees the real conditions of the working-class...
(The entire section is 696 words.)