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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The story centers upon the difference between the world of the Sheridans and that of the Scotts. Laura, the young lady in the story, struggles toward young adulthood as she discovers the world of the settlement of the common folk down the road. What does Laura discover on her visit to the deceased man's family? What is she now aware of that may enable her to step out of the confines of the upper class protected environment into which she was born? Do you think that she will regress back into the protected, privileged world or will she continue to expand her horizons so that her life is not just one garden party? Find the descriptions of the world of the Sheridans and the descriptions at the world of the Scotts. How do these descriptions reflect the status of the two families? While at the Scotts', why does Laura ask them to forgive her hat? Read a bit about Katherine Mansfield and see if you can relate her life experiences to the subjects that she deals with in this story. Explain what you find and cite source of information.

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Although before the garden party began Laura was feeling great empathy toward the family of the dead man, after the party she is reluctant to take the basket of sandwiches to them. She is still basking in the "most successful" afternoon where she was complimented and praised, and "she had no room for anything else." Her own world is upper class, and the story is replete with symbols of the Sheridans' wealth: they live atop the hill; they hire a band; flowers are in the garden and flowers arrive from the florist; ten kinds of sandwiches with the crusts trimmed away show that they themselves are the upper crust of society. Laura's hat is the ultimate symbol of the ostentatious frivolity; Laurie's vacuous compliment, "What an absolutely topping hat!" encapsulates the emptiness of their way of life: aren't all hats "topping?"

In contrast, the neighborhood where the Scotts live shows their lower socioeconomic status: It is at the bottom of the hill and depicted as dark, smoky, and cramped. People wear practical clothing and seem to overflow their "mean little cottages." 

Laura is embarrassed making her way to the dead man's home knowing that her clothing and hat set her apart. Inside the Scotts' cottage she is ushered into the room where the corpse lies on the bed. Her reaction is that he is "wonderful, beautiful" and a "marvel." She believes the look on his face says, "This is just as it should be. I am content." He is no longer in a state to be concerned about garden parties one way or another.

This epiphany that the dead man has surpassed the cares of this life is somewhat ambiguous. Does it mean Laura will live as if there is more to life than garden parties, or will she continue to enjoy her advantages, knowing that in the end, all will arrive at the same state of glorious peace? Readers might hope that Laura will return to the ideals of fighting class distinctions that she displayed at the beginning of the story, but the ending of the story gives little reason to hope that will be the case. Her "loud childish sob" and request that the women "forgive my hat" shows that she is still hopelessly wrapped up in what people think of her rather than in trying to lend any comfort to the grieving relatives of the dead man. Although she is crying when she meets Laurie, she says, "It was simply marvelous," and then tries to explain her epiphany by saying, "Isn't life—" Just as Laurie has been able to convince her before to drop her sentimentality for the lower classes by complimenting her hat, chances are he will have the same effect on her here when he says, in his rich and privileged dialect, "Isn't it, darling?"

Katherine Mansfield's maternal grandmother's home was the model for the Sheridans' home in this story. You can read more about her life at the link below.

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