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 threshold of a conscious reflection is the knowledge that all the people who meet in the Jardins Publique Sunday after Sunday, occupying the same benches and chairs, are nearly all old and look as though they, too, have just come from the same dingy little rooms.
As if the thought were too painful for close scrutiny, Miss Brill focuses on the crowd once again, and this time she notices a woman wearing a shabby ermine toque approach a dignified, elderly gentleman. Miss Brill’s sudden, intense identification with the woman blurs her literal point of view: “Now everything, her hair, her face, even her eyes, was the same color as the shabby ermine, and her hand, in its cleaned glove, lifted to dab her lips, was a tiny yellowish paw.” Immediately, Miss Brill projects a fantasy aura around the pair; next, however, she sees the man rebuff the woman, crudely blowing cigarette smoke in her face. The woman—whom Miss Brill has come to identify by her toque—covers her humiliation by smiling brightly and retreats out of Miss Brill’s sight. As usual, whenever a painful thought comes too close, Miss Brill turns her attention outward to the sights and sounds around her.
Now, however, a new perception has been awakened in her as a result of this slightly sordid encounter, and it fills Miss Brill with elation: “Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all!” She conceives of life as all theater and playacting, and she herself as a participant—one of life’s actresses, no longer a mere eavesdropper and spectator. The premonitions that tugged at her spirits at the beginning of the story are dispelled by this vision; she even imagines a future dialogue with the old man to whom she reads, in which she pronounces herself an actress.
Like the ominous leaf drifting from nowhere out of the sky, a warning chill fills her with sadness and presages the story’s denouement. A young, well-dressed couple appear nearby; inescapably, Miss Brill prepares to overhear, first having assigned them their romantic roles as hero and heroine fresh from his father’s yacht. Their dialogue overwhelms Miss Brill with its blatant cruelty:“No, not now,” said the girl. “Not here, I can’t.” “But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?” asked the boy. “Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?”
The youth continues to importune her, but the girl breaks off in a fit of giggling, derisive laughter—at Miss Brill’s fur, which to the girl looks like “a fried whiting.”
The narrator then summarizes Miss Brill’s return home, commenting only that she bypasses her usual stop at the baker’s for a slice of honeycake. Back in her room, mortified like the woman in the shabby toque, she hurriedly replaces her fur in its box without looking at it; as the full shock of her rejection strikes, the narrator concludes the story in a manner reminiscent of the opening: “But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.”