What does Miss Brill mean when "[she] didn't know whether to admire that or not!" in the story "Miss Brill" by Katherine Mansfield? 

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Katherine Mansfield wrote many of her stories about the woman who finds herself alone.  “Miss Brill” epitomizes this kind of story.  In order to understand the intricacies of the story, the reader needs to look closely at the protagonist’s life.  Miss Brill is a middle-aged English teacher who has few outlets in her life.  Although Miss Brill would not admit it, she longs to have companionship.

Told through the third person point of view, the narration is limited omniscient point of view.  Miss Brill’s thoughts move the story forward in the form of stream of consciousness.  The tone of the story is hopeful until the end when Miss Brill’s feelings are hurt by some uncouth foolish teenagers.

Miss Brill makes little money.  Everything that she holds dear has come from another life time.  Living in France in a small town, Miss Brill looks forward to the Sunday band concerts and outings to the park.  She observes people and listens to their conversations.

It is obvious that Miss Brill is a fastidious person.  She worries about what she will wear to the park.  One of her most prized possessions is a fox fur which still has the head of the fox on it. 

When Miss Brill comments on people,  she always includes some kind of adjective or description that denotes something important to her about the person.  For example, she is positive that the band leader has a new coat.  The older gentleman that shares her bench has a velvet coat and a huge carved walking stick. 

One of the things that does is  to listen to conversations but act as though she is not listening. It was as though she was sitting in someone’s life for a minute. Miss Brill really never engages in actual conversation.  She takes part in their lives by listening to what the people say to each other and living vicariously through their more interesting experiences.

The woman and the flowers

One of the people she notices today walking through the park is a beautiful woman who held a bouquet of violets.  The woman drops the violets.  A little boy picks up the bouquet and hands it back to the woman. She took them from him and then threw them away “as if they’d been poisoned.”   Miss Brill is confused by the woman’s actions.  Putting herself in the place of the woman, Miss Brill would have been thrilled to have been given the beautiful bouquet. She was dissatisfied by the woman’s rejection of the bouquet. In her thoughts, Miss Brill is unsure why the woman through the flowers away: she dropped them, the boy touched them, or she meant to get rid of them.  

A young teenage couple sits down on the bench with Miss Brill. They are obviously wealthy because of their clothes and they have just come in from his father’s yacht. Miss Brill decides to listen to them.  Both the boy and girl make rude remarks about the main character. The boy says that she is a stupid old thing and the girl makes fun of her beloved fur. 

‘But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?’ asked the boy.  ‘Why does she come here at all—who wants her?’

Miss Brill quickly heads for home. 

Normally, Miss Brill would have stopped for pastry.  Today, she is too hurt to stop.  Her little dark apartment has become a haven for her.  She places her beloved fox fur in its box. She thinks that she hears a cry from it.  Actually, it is Miss Brill who does the crying. 

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