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 and maturity startle her when she sees herself wearing it in a mirror. Although this moment might be regarded as a coming-of-age, in Laura’s case social conditioning is also important. For, in giving her daughter the hat, Mrs. Sheridan has distracted Laura from her conscience, teaching her—without words—that one’s appearance should take precedence. When Laura comes face-to-face with the dead man, it is significant that she asks him to “forgive my hat.”
Laura is still affected by all that has happened; she realizes that the hat represents the upper-class indifference that she has been taught, and which poorer persons—like the workmen erecting the marquee—would find objectionable. When she leaves the Scott house, these same class values—which she tries to dismiss as “absurd”—greet her in the person of her brother Laurie. Laurie tries to shield her from the pain of her experience by calling it “awful.” Laura, however, cannot even complete a sentence; she begins, “Isn’t life . . . ” Whether she will become contained by the views of her class remains to be seen. At the least, she realizes that her concerns about the party have been self-centered.