Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Mansfield’s influence on the structure of the short story is comparable to that of her more famous contemporary James Joyce on the novel. Crucial to each is a sense that point of view must be controlled from within the character and that the elusiveness of life’s meaning can be captured through an epiphanic moment. Here, mental access has been restricted to Miss Brill, but mere selective omniscience cannot account for the artfulness of the technique. The manipulation of time is important because the story tends toward the exploration of a few moments in a character’s life.
These highly compressed moments, therefore, reveal psychological time instead of clock-time, and they are everywhere marked by Miss Brill’s colloquialisms and features of her private language. Mixed with this language, however, is the narrator’s phraseology (narrated monologue), so that even the most neutral observations are reinforced by a kind of lyric intensity: “And sometimes a tiny staggerer came suddenly rocking into the open from under the trees, stopped, stared, as suddenly sat down ’flop,’ until its small high-stepping mother, like a young hen, rushed scolding to its rescue.” It is this rich mixture of interior monologue, narrated monologue, and narrator summary that enables the reader to perceive the very reality Miss Brill seeks to deny in her fantasies.
Like Joyce, Mansfield rejected an intrusive commentary, allowing the reader to form a...
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Europe between the Wars
In the 1920s, Europe was rebuilding after World War I, the most destructive and deadly war in history. As the economy grew, spurred on by the advances in medicine and technology gained during the war, a newfound era of wealth and cultural growth permeated many Western European countries. France especially, became a haven for expatriate artists and writers from England and the United States drawn to its affordable living conditions. The values of the "Jazz Age" spread to the continent, where the dismantling of strict Victorian protocol resulted in the rise of controversial art like Expressionism and Surrealism and explicit literature from writers like James Joyce.
''Miss Brill" is set during this tumultuous time period, when the sight of an older, single woman wearing an outdated fur stole represented a genteel world forever obliterated by the atrocities of trench warfare, the promise of air travel, and the cynicism generated by the millions of casualties in the war. Like others of her day, Miss Brill is a foreigner living in France, but she is alienated from the thriving community of artists and writers who formed the "moveable feast" in Paris during the 1920s. Instead, Miss Brill has a...
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"Miss Brill" presents the interior monologue of a woman on a Sunday trip to the park whose pleasant illusions are shattered when reality infringes on her thoughts.
"Miss Brill" is set in the "Jardins Publiques," the French term for "public garden," or park. Miss Brill, through her name and the indication that she tutors students in English, is revealed to be a non-native of France and, thus, an outsider from the start. These factual references reinforce her emotional isolation, which she attempts to overcome by pretending that she is a cast member in a stage production. The pleasant weather, its crispness perfect for her fur collar, echoes Miss Brill's good mood as she sits in the garden listening to the band and watching the people. When her illusion of understanding with the others in the park is shattered by the comments of the young couple, however, Miss Brill retreats to her "little dark room—her room like a cupboard." This change of setting highlights the main character's abrupt change in mood.
The primary symbol in "Miss Brill" is the main character's fur stole. It assumes various lifelike traits, echoing the traits that characterize Miss Brill herself. She has "taken it out of its box that afternoon," just as Miss Brill has left her "room like a cupboard" for a walk in the park. It is given other human qualities: its nose "wasn't at all firm"; and Miss Brill imagines its...
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Compare and Contrast
1920s: Few professions other than nursing and teaching are deemed socially acceptable for women who must support themselves.
Today: College graduates are as likely to be female as male, and a majority of women are employed in the workforce and in virtually every profession.
1920s: One's social rank can be determined from one's clothing. Gentlemen wear hats, ladies gloves, and fur denotes a position of some social standing. Women, with few exceptions, always wear dresses or skirts.
Today: Social conventions regarding dress are relaxed. Hats and gloves are uncommon in many circles, and pants are a staple of most women's wardrobes. Many believe fur to be a symbol not of status but rather an indication of cruelty and conspicuous consumption.
1920s: Common forms of recreation include reading, going to the theater, and gathering in public places such as parks or pubs. People often dress up to appear in public.
Today: 98 percent of all households in the United States own televisions. Other forms of mass communication, including the telephone, radio, and the personal computers, have infringed on the time spent socializing with others in a public sphere. In suburban areas, the most crowded space is often the...
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Topics for Further Study
- Explain how the narration of the story can be both third person and stream-of-consciousness. How would the story be different if it had been written m first person? Do you think it would have been as successful?
- If the story was written today, where might it take place and how might Miss Brill be dressed?
- Mansfield stated that "one writes (one reason why is) because one does care so passionately that one must show it—one must declare one's love." Miss Brill is a character who desperately seeks love, but is incapable of giving or receiving it. What events in the story illustrate this?
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What Do I Read Next?
- Mansfield's "Bliss," written in 1918 is another story of a woman's struggle with dissatisfaction and alienation. Bertha is young, married, and a new mother. Her husband is successful, and a nurse helps her with her new baby. A joyous dinner party, with its liveliness and opportunity for interpersonal penetration and imagination, only serves to heighten Bertha's isolation when it ends and she is left once again with a comparatively empty house.
- Kathenne Anne Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" (1929) concerns a dying woman's final thoughts. Written in the stream-of-consciousness style, Granny Weatherall's interior monologue is notable for what it contains as well as for what is left unspoken.
- A more intimate biography of Katherine Mansfield is provided by LM (Ida Constance Baker) in her 1971 memoir Katherine Mansfield: The Memories of LM. LM was Mansfield's close friend and assistant. The book was published in 1971 by Michael Joseph Ltd. and reprinted in 1985 by Virago Press.
- Virginia Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall," first published in 1917, also uses a stream-of-consciousness narrative style like "Miss Brill." A woman contemplates a mark on the wall, imagining what it might be. In the course of her thoughts, her mind wanders over a variety of subjects.
- "Araby" by James...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Mansfield, Katherine. The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, edited by J. Middleton Murry. Knopf, 1930.
Fullbrook, Kate. Katherine Mansfield. Indiana University Press, 1986. Biography of the writer's life.
Koblet, J. F. Katherine Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne, 1990. Critical analysis of Mansfield's stories.
Nathan, Rhoda B. Katherine Mansfield. Continuum Publishing Company, 1988. Biography of the writer's life.
Pilditch, Jan. The Critical Response to Katherine Mansfield. Greenwood Press, 1996. Collection of reprinted criticism on Mansfield's works.
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