Miss Brill Summary

Please give a brief plot summary of the short story "Miss Brill" by Katherine Mansfield.

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The protagonist (main character) of Katherine Mansfield's short story "Miss Brill" is, not surprisingly, an old woman named Miss Brill. As her name implies, Miss Brill is a rather proper old English woman who now lives in France; she spends her time teaching English to students and reading the paper to "an old invalid gentleman" who generally sleeps through the reading. 

She does not have much of a life--except on Sundays. This is the day Miss Brill comes to life. She puts on her fur, which is as quaint and antique as she is, and goes to the park to watch people.

Miss Brill is one of the regulars at the park and has a distinct routine. She sits on a bench, watching and listening to everything around her.

Only two people shared her "special" seat: a fine old man in a velvet coat, his hands clasped over a huge carved walking-stick, and a big old woman, sitting upright, with a roll of knitting on her embroidered apron. They did not speak. This was disappointing, for Miss Brill always looked forward to the conversation. She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn't listen, at sitting in other people's lives just for a minute while they talked round her.

It is a rather sad existence, but Miss Brill is content, even rather happy, with this routine. In fact, she sees the entire experience as a performance.

Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play. 

After the old people leave her bench, two young lovers come and sit there; unfortunately, they are the cause of a distressing discovery by Miss Brill. They speak carelessly and refer to her as "that stupid old thing,"suggesting that she should keep "her silly old mug at home." When she hears these things, Miss Brill, who was once excited about coming here each week to watch a play, suddenly realizes she is one of the actors, a tragic figure in the play of life. 

Part of Miss Brill's routine has always been to stop at a bakery and treat herself to a slice of almond cake. 

Sometimes there was an almond in her slice, sometimes not. It made a great difference. If there was an almond it was like carrying home a tiny present–a surprise–something that might very well not have been there. She hurried on the almond Sundays and struck the match for the kettle in quite a dashing way.

Today, though, she does not even stop at the bakery. Miss Brill goes straight home and sits in her dark room; she puts her fur back in its box and imagines she hears it crying. Nothing will ever be the same for Miss Brill.