Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Characteristically, Mansfield imports a term from her native New Zealand for effect: “brill” is a common fish without culinary or commercial value. However, clearly, Miss Brill is not a figure of contempt; her self-deception is a very human response to what she feels is becoming an intolerable reality; moreover, her apprehension of something at work inside her, alternately numbing and tingling, explains her displaced feelings and her need to fantasize.
Mansfield herself knew well the plight of a woman on her own living in exile: The last years of her life were a frenetic search for health on the Continent. The pleurisy that afflicted her in 1917 was later aggravated into tuberculosis; she died at the age of thirty-four near Fontainebleau, France, in 1923, when a coughing fit ruptured blood vessels.
In addition to the theme of exile, there is Miss Brill’s achingly human need to belong. The narrator’s adroit mediation between what Miss Brill literally sees and what her imagination invents accounts for her somewhat hysterical attempt to participate in life as more than a spectator. It is equally obvious, however, that to retreat into a fantasy world is merely to delay truth; Miss Brill’s shrill efforts to coerce others into her fantasy, such as the man and woman who meet in the gardens, becomes a way for her to participate in life without risking her emotions. What may in fact have been a man rejecting a prostitute’s solicitation becomes the basis for a rendezvous, until Miss Brill’s sense of identification with the woman in the toque reminds her too much of herself in the outward signs of aging and the losing struggle with poverty.
Finally, chastened by the snarling young man and the young woman’s mockery, Miss Brill is left without any defense other than the false sense of buoyancy she has conjured to protect her from reality. Alone in her room, she is unable to deceive herself, nor can she yet accept full knowledge of her condition. Still detached from her feelings, Miss Brill thinks that she hears the fox weeping. Mansfield’s husband—the author and editor John Middleton Murry—has said that Mansfield’s obsession for truth dominates her later, more mature stories, of which “Miss Brill” is an example.