Analyze the characterization of Josephine and Constantia in "The Daughters of the Late Colonel."

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both daughters in the Mansfield short story reflect the challenging condition of being tethered to the present. Both women lived in the complete shadow of the dominant father.  To be able to envision a world outside of this control is a critical element in both girls' characterizations. Being consumed with small details regarding settling their father's estate, or what to do with the body, or how to turn the doorknob to his room are elements that take away from the much larger task of forming their identity in a post- father life.  Being inextricably bound to this present tense is a significant part of the sisters' characterization.

Constantia's characterization reflects this condition.  Her characterization is one where she is a bit stronger than her sister.  However, she still finds herself immersed in the excruciating minutiae of what is as opposed to what can or should be.  Dying of the dressing- gowns, worrying about what Kate would say, and wondering how mice live are all parts of her initial introduction to the reader.  She focuses on these small details of existence to avoid contemplating larger and more identity formative issues.  Josephine is much the same way, as she focuses on whether she should pay Nurse Andrews, worrying about who would be the first one to go inside the colonel's room, or following her sister.  

Both characterizations are meant to show how fear can cripple the individual's ability to envision something transformative and powerful.  Neither woman is able to rise above the condition of what is.  They are characterized as present tense creatures.  This aspect of existence is crippling, limiting their ability to grow and envision a life after their father.  The ability to envision life as it might be, as the Buddha that sits almost as an example of what can be, is something that highlights the sisters' characterization of being crippled:

Constantia lifted her big, cold hands as if to catch them, and then her hands fell again. She walked over to the mantelpiece to her favourite Buddha. And the stone and gilt image, whose smile always gave her such a queer feeling, almost a pain and yet a pleasant pain, seemed to-day to be more than smiling. He knew something; he had a secret. "I know something that you don't know," said her Buddha. Oh, what was it, what could it be? And yet she had always felt there was . . . something.

This ability to sense "something" more than what exists in front of them is an elusive quality for the girls.  It is no different than the sunlight that catches the Indian carpet or the fleeting sound of the music. It is almost captured in the sisters' talking to one another at the end, only to be interrupted by the pangs of the mundane. Mansfield's characterization of Josephine and Constantia reflect how individuals trapped in the present slowly close off the potential of transformation and what might be.  When both of the forget what they were going to say, it reflects how being chained to the present has limited their capacity to envision "something."

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The Daughters of the Late Colonel

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