What is the function of the em-dash in Katherine Mansfield's story "Miss Brill"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An em-dash is a form of punctuation that separates parts of a sentence that are closely related though one part is not essential to the meaning of the base sentence. In other words, em-dashes are used to indicate closely related information that offers clarification or elaboration but which is not part of the meaning of the essential sentence.

In "Miss Brill," Mansfield uses em-dashes quite liberally. Let's examine an example.

Although it was so brilliantly fine--the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques-- Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur.

The first sentence of the story includes em-dashes. First, let's isolate the base sentence that Mansfield means to convey. The base sentence is: "Although it was so brilliantly fine, Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur." What Mansfield chooses to do with this base sentence is to add closely related information to elaborate upon the sky, which is part of the setting.

The effect of this em-dash inclusion is that the closely related information elaborates on the setting to emphasize the importance of its physical characteristics. In addition, the reader may then infer that the setting has an important role, perhaps it may have symbolic significance to the meaning of the story, as, in this case, it does. Another example of em-dash use is:

they looked as though they'd just come from dark little rooms or even--even cupboards!

Briefly, here the em-dash introduces closely related information, but it is in the form of a revelation in Miss Brill's thoughts, which are reported to us as stream of consciousness thoughts by the limited third person narrator. Thus the em-dash introduces Miss Brill's own thoughts to the reader.