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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How does Katherine Mansfield depict the distinction between upper class and lower class people in "The Garden Party"?

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The story illustrates the sharp power differential between the English social classes. The Sheridans live in a fine house, have servants, and can afford to spend money on beautiful clothes, hats, and such frivolities as a large number of lilies from the florist shop:

There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.

For the Sheridans, life is a gracious and beautiful experience. The lower-class people, in contrast, live in shabby homes:

. . . the little cottages were in a lane to the bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans . . .

The Sheridan children are forbidden to go there when young, for fear they would hear "revolting language" and pick up diseases. The neighborhood of poor people's houses is described as "disgusting and sordid."

More pointedly, when the Sheridans' neighbor, the lower-class Mr. Scott, is killed in an accident, the family does not value his death enough to cancel their garden party. He doesn't matter to them against the beautiful weather and all their lovely plans for a good time, despite Laura's sense that postponing the party would be the decent and respectful thing to do.

Later, after the party, the family feels it is acceptable to send over a basket of party leftovers, something we can be sure they would never do should one of their own class die. Mrs. Sheridan is also patronizing about it, imagining how thrilled the family will be to get their leavings.

Laura delivers the basket and tries to tell herself a story that the young Mr. Jones is happier now, at peace, but the grief over the situation breaks through, and she has to acknowledge his humanity and death as the great leveler.

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One of the main issues "The Garden Party" explores is the differences between the social classes. Laura, the main character, and her family, the Sheridans, represent the upper class. The family of the man who died, who live down the hill from the Sheridans, represents the lower class, as does the workman who comes to set up the marquee for the party. Mansfield depicts the differences between the classes with dialogue, especially slang; with numerous symbols; and with Laura's reactions.

In the beginning of the story, Laura is instructing a workman about where to place the marquee. He tells her

"you want to put it somewhere it'll give you a bang slap in the eye, if you follow me."

His use of such slang gives Laura pause. When she visits the home of the dead man, the woman there says,

"You'd like a look at 'im, wouldn't you? ... Don't be afraid, my lass. ... 'e looks a picture."

This lower class dialect shows how distinct the family is from Laura's. Laura's brother uses upper class modern slang, saying things like, "you might just give a squiz at my coat," "ra-ther," "dash off to the telephone, old girl," "what an absolutely topping hat," and "isn't it, darling?" 

The story is replete with symbols of the upper class lifestyle of the Sheridans: the party itself, the marquee, the band, the arum lilies, the fancy sandwiches, and Laura's hat. These are all things that are way beyond the reach of the people who live at the bottom of the hill, the hill itself also representing the social class distinction. In contrast, the poor family's home is marked by a "wretched little kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp."

Finally, Laura's attitude toward the different social classes shows that she is aware of the wide gap between herself and her neighbors. She seems embarrassed when talking to the workman, wondering what he is thinking about their ostentatious party. She wants her family to cancel the party in deference to the bereaved family, but her mother and siblings find that ludicrous. As the story progresses, Laura regains her comfort with her social class, basking in the praise she receives and the delight of the event. At the end, she is more impressed by death, something experienced equally by all classes, than she is by her thoughts of the social hierarchy. 

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