How is the theme of social/political change on the individual addressed in The Daughters of the Late Colonel?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Katherine Mansfield's short story, "The Daughters of the Late Colonel" was published in 1920, but the two sisters it focuses upon, Constantia and Josephine, do not seem to have literally experienced any of the great political and social changes wrought upon women by the First World War. In this era, the idea of women as independent entities, rather than simply adjuncts to their fathers or husbands, began to be readily accepted, given that so many communities now found themselves without men to perform the day-to-day tasks and indeed, to marry the women. The daughters of the colonel in this story represent an illustration of how difficult independence of that sort could seem to women from an earlier time: women who, like the sisters, had been brought up to believe that their father was the be-all and end-all of life, and who could not fathom making their own decisions or continuing to live without him.

Even in death, the idea of displeasing their father sets panic into the heart of the two girls. The main characters are not described as very distinct characters: "their minds went on thinking," Mansfield tells us, as if they were of one mind. We do see more often into the head of Josephine, who tends to reject reality by imagining what is not there. She has childish concerns, such as whether a rat she hears scratching might find anything—this being the sort of thing with which she had previously had to be concerned in a household context. She wonders whether her father might be locked inside the bureau when the two girls come to empty it out, and her sister supports her in her delusion. Indeed, one of the only "bold" acts Constantia ever takes in her life is when she "turned the key" in the bureau as if to keep the Colonel locked inside, active only in her active denial of her new reality. The two sisters do not want to believe that they must face a brave new world, nor can they accept the effect of this significant change on their individual lives. Having been always defined as "the daughters of the Colonel," as the title of the story implies, the idea of having to redefine themselves—particularly in the context of a new social context—is terrifying to them.

Toward the end of the story, we do see the women beginning to learn some authority of their own, but it is clear that it is very difficult for them. Unable even to tell the cook, Kate, whether they want fish "fried or boiled," they struggle to come to the decision that they should let the woman go and "manage our own food." As members of a very particular kind of middle class household, the idea even of "eggs in various forms" is exciting to the women: they have, presumably, always had servants, but this was an era when the idea of household servants, too, was dying out. In deciding to reject Kate, they would be rejecting their old life too, but in the end, they cannot do it. They "postpone."

The women have never married; they do not know even how one might go about marrying a man, and this is clearly the only way out of their situation they have ever been able to imagine. The end of the story finds them still stagnant and confused by the shift in their lives occasioned by their father's death, unable even to decide who will speak next. Ultimately they both forget what it was they had to say, and the implication is that their strange limbo will continue.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial