Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
An aging, lonely woman living in Paris and maintaining herself by teaching English is the subject of this character portrait by Katherine Mansfield. Miss Brill’s life is one of shabby gentility and pretense; this impression commences in the opening paragraph as she lovingly takes an old-fashioned fox fur out of its box for her usual Sunday outing to the gardens. Looking forward to the new Season, she is, however, distracted by a peculiarly ominous feeling that seems to be in the air and for which she does not know how to account—“like the chill from a glass of iced water before you sip.” Maternally caressing the fur, she looks into its “dim little eyes,” hearing its fearful question: “What has been happening to me?” With this question, the narrator submerges the point of view into the psyche of Miss Brill, and the reader beholds her pathetic attempt to build a fantasy life to protect her from the harsh facts of her existence. Like the insidious illness that seems to be creeping to life inside her, Miss Brill is abruptly forced to confront the reality that her imagination seeks to escape: She is growing old and lonely in her exile, and the world is an unfriendly place for such people.
Occupying her “special seat,” Miss Brill gives only partial attention to the band music, for it is obvious that her main interest in coming to the park each week is to participate in the lives of people around her—in fact, she prides herself on her ability to eavesdrop on the conversations of those nearby without seeming to do so. This is her escape from a dreary existence—a dark little room “like a cupboard” in a rooming house from which she emerges four afternoons a week to read to an invalid and cadaverous old man until he falls asleep in his garden.
At first, an elderly couple share her seat but prove uninteresting. Miss Brill recalls last Sunday’s old Englishman and his complaining wife, whom Miss Brill had wanted “to shake”—presumably because the wife scorns the companionship Miss Brill lacks in her life. Soon, however, she turns her attention toward the crowd of passersby: raucous children, an old beggar who sells flowers from a tray, and laughing young girls in bright colors who pair off with soldiers. Hovering just beyond the...
(The entire section is 931 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“Miss Brill” brings to life one of Mansfield’s many lonely women, and the reader lives through this story in the main character’s mind without the author’s making any obvious comment. As the story opens, it is a Sunday afternoon in the autumn; a chill is in the air. In her room, Miss Brill, a lonely English teacher, prepares to go as usual to the Public Gardens in what appears to be a French city. She happily unpacks the fur she will wear for the first time this season, a piece that includes the head of a small animal, perhaps a fox. Miss Brill strikes the reader as imaginative, for she pretends she hears what the dead animal is thinking after being in storage for many months. She then feels a tinge of sadness. In her introductory paragraph, Mansfield’s details evoke the fragility of Miss Brill’s happiness.
At the Gardens, Miss Brill listens to the band play and watches the people. It is her idea of bliss. Though she yearns to talk to them, she must be content to listen. An old couple disappoints her, for they are silent; last week she heard a memorable conversation about eyeglasses—memorable to her, but trivial to the reader. Then Miss Brill takes her first step away from the superficiality of the afternoon. She reflects that most of the people she sees at the Gardens are old and strange. She hopes for their happiness.
In a surprise ending typical of the author, Mansfield then includes two very short paragraphs. The first points beyond the...
(The entire section is 608 words.)