Miss Brill Questions and Answers
by Katherine Mansfield

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Identify and explain three literary devices used in Katherine Mansfield's short story "Miss Brill."

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Stephanie Gregg eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Katherine Mansfield is renowned for her stories of lonely women, and Miss Brill is probably one of the most well-known. This is a story of little action but of deep character development; Mansfield thus relies heavily on descriptive words and phrases to help the reader see and feel what the protagonist experiences.

This descriptive language begins right away with the use of several metaphors, similes in particular. Miss Brill describes the sky as 

"like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques"

and the night air as 

"like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip"

and the conductor of the band as behaving

"like a rooster about to crow."

Similes are the most common, easily recognized literary devices; they compare two dissimilar things with a single connecting word. This story is told in the third person limited from Miss Brill's cheerful and optimistic point of view. Given that she is an English teacher, it is interesting that she would see life through a series of simple comparisons. This tells the reader that perhaps she has a simple and somewhat narrow idea of what the world is and should be. These first similes at the beginning of the story are bright and positive; they contrast sharply with the final one Miss Brill uses in the last paragraph:

". . . went into the little dark room—her room like a cupboard . . ."

This, of course, is after her outlook has been dramatically changed by the rude young couple in the park.

The second dominant literary device that shouts to the reader immediately is the personification in the opening paragraph. Miss Brill remembers taking out her fox-fur stole that afternoon:

"What has been happening to me?" said the sad little eyes.

She seems to see her fur as an extension of herself. She takes extravagant care of it and believes it to be a point of pride. This question, though, that she projects on this object that she cherishes can tell the reader much about the protagonist. Is it the fur enclosed in its box that Miss Brill believes has been "sad," or Miss Brill herself, who is so often enclosed in her room alone? Again in the final paragraph, Miss Brill projects her own feelings onto the fur when she puts it away after coming home from the park:

"But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying."

Finally, the transformation of Miss Brill hinges on Mansfield's use of symbolism. The entire parade of humanity at the park, from the band to the passersby, all symbolize a surrogate family for Miss Brill. She joined with the crowd for what she believed was a singular purpose—enjoying the music and the company—much the way a congregation joins together for worship. For this reason, the young couple who bitterly reject her presence shatter the world Miss Brill has created.

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