How is the theme of discovery explored in the novel The Garden Party?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Discovery is at the epicenter of "The Garden Party." As a literary work under the genre of bildungsroman, its main purpose is to analyze or follow the development of the main character, including the search for identity (Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms). Therefore, "The Garden Party," although a short story, still follows the structure of this type of novel, and the main character is confounded with the limitations of her knowledge of the world, and of herself, while still making discoveries about herself and the world. 

To a modern reader devoid of the rigors of the society where "The Garden Party" takes place, the story would appear odd. It starts with a social gathering where Laura, a girl from the upper class who has always been shielded from social reality, is asked to take charge of the customary garden party that her mother always puts together.

As part of this "endeavor", Laura has to explore things she has never done before, such as giving orders to "the help", using her mother's voice to sound firm, and even engaging in actual discourse with people whom otherwise she would have never been in contact with. 

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.

The second thing she discovers is that she feels at-ease talking to the working men, in fact, she is so relaxed that she even takes a bite of her bread and butter in front of them, which would have been a high society no-no prior to this experience of hers. 

Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and 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.

Just as she has discovered this untapped aspect of her personality, Laura undergoes other small situations where she is able to distinguish the different roles of the women in her family, albeit if all occurs within the situation of the garden party.

It is in part 9 where Laura has the epiphany that will mark her life, as she learns of the death of Scott, the carter, which Cook has announced. 

"But we can't possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate."

Those are the marking words that identify that Laura has, indeed, discovered a side of her that would have never awoken had it not been for this event and her participation in it. While Jose told her that it was "absurd" to cancel anything on account of the death of a carter, Laura did feel the need for it, as she realized that death comes to us all, poor or rich, garden party or not. 

It all leads to the moment when Laura sees the face of the dead man and finds an expression in it that showed her that, far away from the garden parties, away from society, and away from the world, there is a place where we are all alike, and peaceful, and content. This leads Laura to break into tears and conclude in her own, limited way, that everything is "beautiful."

Basically, in one small instance, Laura goes from discovering her worth as a female (even if it is within the confines of a party), and she realizes that she may be far from the strcture under which she has been raised as a high society woman. She discovers that death hits us all, that social class and division are not divinely imposed, but a part of reality, and that death may or may not entail the end of everything. 

Altogether, they are strong things to take in over the course of just one day, particularly for someone of the class and status of Laura; these were women not entirely required to do much but be decorative. However, this is a time in history where women would surface as strong and intelligent individuals who will demand their rights and will forever make history. The discoveries of Laura are small steps in the paving of the way to assert the rights of many women of her generation. 

Read the study guide:
The Garden Party: And Other Stories

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