Katherine Mansfield’s themes are not hard to discover. In 1918, she set herself the tasks of communicating the exhilarating delicacy and peacefulness of the world’s beauty and also of crying out against “corruption.” A reader will soon make his or her own list of themes: the yearnings, complexities, and misunderstandings of love; loneliness, particularly of independent women; the superficiality of much of modern life; the erosions of time and forgetfulness; the beauty and indifferent power of the natural world, especially plant life and the sea. Her exact meanings are not so easily pinned down, for her tone is complex: She mixes witty satire and shattering emotional reversals. Moreover, she uses dialogue and indirect speech extensively, and she does not often seem to speak directly in her own voice; the reader is not sure exactly who is speaking. It is vital for readers to understand that Mansfield (like Chekhov, to whom she is often compared) does not conceal a hidden “message” in her stories. If a story appears to point in many directions, not all of which are logically consistent, that is the way Mansfield feels the whole truth is most honestly communicated. This essay suggests some of the ways these stories may be read.
The action of her stories (again, like Chekhov’s) does not surge powerfully forward. Often her stories are designed, by means of quick changes in time and by surprise turns, to lead the reader to unexpected moments of illumination or epiphanies. Her stories are economical, edited so that there is usually not one unnecessary or insignificant word. She can be witty if she chooses, but more often her stories provide arresting descriptions and startling metaphors, which evoke shifting states of happiness, yearning, or despair.
“In a Café”
Mansfield’s stories often evoke the complexities of the conversational give-and-take between women and men and the unexpected courses that passion can take. An early story, “In a Café,” portrays a youthful “new woman” and her male acquaintance, a musician. They flirt as they discuss life, art, and the future. Before he leaves, he asks the girl for her violets, but once outside he drops them because he must keep his hands warm for performing. The young woman is totally happy until she sees the violets on the sidewalk. The reader knows that her love has been crushed, but, new woman that she is, she kicks the flowers and goes her way laughing.
“Epilogue II” (also known as “Violet”) is more complex. At a pension in France, where the acidly worldly narrator is recovering from an attack of nerves, she reports a long conversation with an exasperating woman named Violet, who in turns tells of a conversation she has had with a man named Arthur. Violet says that, after a few dances, Arthur asked her if she believed in Pan and kissed her. It was her first adult kiss, and they immediately became engaged. The narrator can hardly believe what Violet tells her and is repelled by how easily the naïve Violet and Arthur have found each other. The story (a conversation within a conversation) ends with the narrator thinking that she herself might be too sophisticated. (In this story, Mansfield has imported a piece of conversation from real life. Sometime before she wrote “Epilogue II,” she startled a man by asking him if he believed in Pan.)
In “Psychology,” Mansfield dissects the ebb and flow of attraction between two older artists, culminating in a moment of potential, a moment which, because of their agonizing self-consciousness, they miss. This story shows both minds, but readers are left with the woman and with another characteristically unexpected psychological twist. An older female acquaintance brings her flowers—violets again. This spontaneous gift revitalizes the woman, and with renewed hope she begins an intense letter to the man who has left her. Readers may guess that their next meeting will be no more satisfying than their last.
“Je Ne Parle Pas Français”
Mansfield often portrays more complex and ambiguous sexual and psychological relationships and, as usual, constructs her story to lead her reader in roundabout ways into unexpected territory. Though she often takes readers briefly into male minds, the story “Je Ne Parle Pas Français” has one of her rare male narrators. Raoul Duqette, a grubby Parisian writer, pimp, and gigolo, tells of an Englishman, Dick Harmon, and the woman nicknamed “Mouse,” whom he brings to Paris. Not all critics agree on whom the story concerns. Although the reader learns much about the English couple’s tortured relationship (Dick leaves Mouse because he cannot betray his mother, and Mouse knows she cannot return to England), many readers think that the story centers on the Frenchman. Incapable of deep emotion, Raoul spies on those with fuller lives than his own; he despises women, is sexually attracted to Dick, and is able to recognize only dimly the suffering that he has witnessed. At the end, he revels in Mouse’s sorrow and imagines selling a girl like her to an old lecher.
The triangle in “Bliss” is different, and again, Mansfield mixes her tones. Bertha seems childishly happy in her marriage, her home, her child, and her arty friends. She gives a marvelous party in which sophisticated guests make inane, decadent conversation. Meanwhile, Bertha finds herself physically attracted to one of her guests, the cool Miss Fulton, and thinks that she detects Miss Fulton giving her a signal. Together in the garden, they contemplate a lovely, flowering pear tree, and Bertha senses that they understand each other intuitively. Again Mansfield surprises the reader. Bertha transfers her feelings for Miss Fulton to her husband; for the first time, she really desires him. When she overhears him making an assignation with Miss Fulton, however, her life is shattered. In “Bliss,” as elsewhere, Mansfield’s brilliant and precise descriptions of the nonhuman world are always evocative. Although sometimes nature simply reveals an unsympathetic force, allied to human passions but beyond human control, some natural features demand to be interpreted as symbols, such as the phallic pear tree in this story. Phallic it is, but it may be feminine as well, for Bertha identifies with it. The story is read, however, and the pear tree cannot be explained simply. Neither can the reader’s final reaction: Is Bertha trapped in an evil world? Is she a free adult at last?
“The Lost Battle”
Mansfield also explores the problems of lonely women, often by showing the reader their inmost trains of thought. In “The Lost Battle,” a woman traveling alone is escorted to her room in a French hotel by an overbearing man who makes demeaning and insinuating remarks: A bed in a small room will be enough for her, he implies. She asserts herself and demands a better room, one with a table on which to write. She wins her struggle and is happy with her new room—its size, the view from its windows, and its sturdy table. When she overtips the boy who delivers her bags, however, her joy somehow leaves her. In a convincing but mysterious moment typical of Mansfield’s stories, the woman’s bravery collapses in self-consciousness, memory, tears, and desire.
Perhaps Mansfield’s best-known version of the lonely woman is the central character of “Miss Brill.” The reader follows Miss Brill’s thoughts as she arrives at the public gardens. The first faint chill of fall and the noise of the band signal that a new season has begun. Miss Brill’s sympathetic interest extends to the various sorts of people in the park; the reader senses an older, precise woman who yearns that happiness and gentleness will come for herself and others. Even some unpleasantries fail to shake Miss Brill’s enjoyment, as she rejoices that everyone there is performing in some wonderful, happy play. Her illusions, however, are shattered by two insensitive young lovers who simply wish that the fussy old woman would move. Again the reader is taken into a lonely woman’s mind as she undergoes a psychic shock.
“The Daughters of the Late Colonel”
In “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” the shock is muffled, and the reader does not enter the two sisters’ minds so deeply so soon. The story at first appears to center on the familiar Mansfield theme of male domination. The sisters seem to react alike to the death of their domineering father. They are still under his spell. Mansfield shows her dry wit as their hesitant and ineffectual efforts to assert themselves with the nurse and their maid are pathetic and hilarious at the same time. Even sisters, however, may be alone. Not only have they lost their father and are without prospects of marriage, but also they differ so much in temperament that they will never...
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