Katherine Mansfield’s 1920 short story “Miss Brill” is about loneliness and self-delusion, and about the fragility of one so isolated yet yearning to be a part of the world around her. Mansfield’s protagonist is a single woman, probably middle-aged or a little older, obviously employed as a teacher (her “English pupils”) who, in an earlier time (i.e., the time frame in which “Miss Brill” was published) would have been referred to as a “spinster.” She clearly relishes the thought of interacting with other people, but for unspecified reasons, lacks the innate ability to assimilate into the broader society in which she lives. Miss Brill compensates for her inability to form human relationships by fantasizing about a make-believe world, specifically, a play for which she is the audience.
An early indication of Miss Brill’s (she is not given a first name, symbolizing both her anonymity and her formal, infinitely dignified manner) social isolation is her relationship to a prized inanimate object, her fur, which substitutes for human companionship:
“Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again. She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth-powder, given ita good brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes. ‘What has been happening to me?’ said the sad little eyes. . .Little rogue! . . .She could have taken it off and laid it on her lap and stroked it.”
Children routinely invest their stuffed animals with nonexistent emotions, but Miss Brill is no child; she is a lonely alienated individual who transfers her emotions to her fur, which is clearly of a type no longer in vogue (although it was common at the time Mansfield’s story was published) and which included the head of the dead animal from which the fur wrap was fashioned. She clearly has a routine of spending Sunday afternoons at the park (“there were a number of people out this afternoon, far more than last Sunday”; “Other people sat on the benches and green chairs, but they were nearly always the same, Sunday after Sunday . . .”) and routinely sits on a bench listening to music from the band, the themes of which she imagines punctuate her own emotional state at any given moment (“ . . .there came a little ‘flutey’ bit – very pretty! – a little chain of bright drops”), while observing mankind pass her by. She clearly enjoys listening in other peoples’ conversations, a substitute for the absence of her own exchanges with a fellow human being (“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”), and possibly fantasizes about an encounter with a dignified gentleman, as she ‘watches’ another woman, representative of herself, including wearing fur, albeit on her head rather than around her shoulders, have a brief exchange with this gentleman, who shows no interest:
“She rather thought they were going to meet that afternoon. . .The day was so charming – didn’t he agree? And wouldn’t he, perhaps? . . .But he shook his head, lighted a cigarette, slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face, and even while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on. The ermine toque was alone; she smiled more brightly than ever. But even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly, and the drum beat, ‘The Brute! TheBrute! over and over.”
Miss Brill’s loneliness is a constant theme throughout this brief tale, and even her mental manipulations of her surroundings -- “It was like a play. It was exactly like a play” – cannot erase her own internalized sense of alienation: “No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance after all.”
The rude comments by the boy and girl directed at Miss Brill (“Why does she come here at all – who wants her?”; “It’s her fu-ur which is so funny,” giggled the girl. “It’s exactly like a fried whiting.”) are particularly cruel given this character’s already nonexistent self-esteem. Upset by the comments, she forgoes her usual stop at the bakery for a slice of honey-cake, a little treat to which she awards herself, goes directly home to her “little dark room – her room like a cupboard,” and puts the fur back in its box, convinced that, as she closes the box, “she thought she heard something crying,” a further manifestation of her transference regarding the fur stole, its substitution for human companionship, and its symbolic role in illuminating the emptiness in her life.
In conclusion, then, the central ideas of “Miss Brill” are loneliness and self-delusion.