illustration of Laura wearing her mothers hat and holding a basket with a shadowy figure behind her

The Garden Party: And Other Stories

by Katherine Mansfield

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Explain the characteristics of Laura in "The Garden Party."

The characteristics of Laura in "The Garden Party" skewer middle-class pretensions of wanting to be sympathetic to and in solidarity with the lower classes. Laura is romantic, impulsive, self-centered, shallow, emotional, and deludes herself. As a typical example of a middle-class person, she put her needs, whims, and desires first.

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Laura is romantic, impulsive, shallow, self-centered, and easily caught up in the emotions of the moment to the point of deluding herself.

For example, in the course of few minutes, Laura moves from wondering if is disrespectful of a workman to use slang with her:

Laura's upbringing made her wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye.

She further speaks of wanting to wipe away

these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn't feel them. Not a bit, not an atom.

Of course, almost immediately she shows she does feel class distinctions:

Just to prove ... how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl.

Laura's seeming perception of class changes comically based on the impulse of the moment, but is at its core condescending and self serving. When a workman makes what she considers a romantic gesture in smelling a sprig of lavender, challenging her class-based stereotypes of workers as coarse and crude, she thinks:

Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn't she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper?

Laura's seeming good-heartedness shows when she wants to cancel the garden party because a worker has been killed. But circumstances again show that her understanding of or caring for the working class is only skin deep. As soon as her mother gives her a beautiful bonnet to wear to the garden party, that is enough to allow her to decide her objections are "extravagant" and that she will think about the widow and his children "after the party's over."

When she goes to the workman's cottage after the party, she begins to feel uncomfortable about arriving in her expensive new bonnet. She feels people looking at her, has to face the grieving widow, and only wants to get away. However, when she sees the dead body of the workman laid out, she again romanticizes the incident, imposing her own, self-serving interpretation on it:

All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.

The death of the workman becomes all about her: "I am content." Her character critiques a middle-class (what in the US we would call the upper-class) tendency to say it want to feel in romantic solidarity with the lower classes, but at the same time not if it interferes with their own pleasures or sense of superiority in any way.

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This excellent short story by Katherine Mansfield focuses on the thoughts and feelings of Laura Sheridan and the way that we see her develop during the action of the plot. Clearly, Mansfield presents Laura as an innocent and somewhat naive young lady who during the story is shown to find problematic the class consciousness of her family and her own understanding of social class. This is most clearly seen when Laura finds out about the death of Scott, and Laura is horrified and wants to call off the party:

"Jose!" she said, horrified, "however are we going to stop everything?"

As the story progresses, Mansfield skilfully reveals how Laura's feelings oscillate between tremendous sympathy and empathy for Mr. Scott and his family and her class consciousness and vanity. Note how when she goes to her mother to try and persuade her to cancel the party, her mother distracts her successfully with the new hat, which works because when Laura looks at herself in the hat she wants the opportunity to wear it and does not mention cancelling the party again:

There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies and  along black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children and the body being carried intot he house. But it all seemed blurred unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I'll remember it again after the party's over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan...

Note here how the promise of wearing the hat and showing it off at the party dispels her feelings of horror at the death of Mr. Scott. For her, wearing the new hat and looking good becomes more important than her feelings of sympathy. By the end of the story, however, we see that she has tried to reach out to the Scott family, taking a basket of leftovers, but interestingly it remains bafflingly ambiguous what precisely Laura has gained from the experience. Some argue that her contemplation of the corpse of Mr. Scott shows the impartial and ephemeral nature of her life, and that she goes away from the experience a maturer and wiser person.

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