What is so important about and what are the significance of each of the settings in "Miss Brill"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While in one respect there is a separation of the settings of Miss Brill's little dark "cupboard" of a room and the public park, the Jardin Publique, there is also an intermingling of these scenes in the mind of Miss Brill that she initially fails to recognize until reality breaks her fantasy and the sad setting of her room overrides her impressionistic one. As the narrative opens, Miss Brill has left her room for the park, wearing her fur necklet, a small mink, perhaps, with "sad dark eyes." She is glad that she has worn it as there is a little chill in the air as she enters the park, her theatre of life, where she watches the interplay of people and lives vicariously through them. It is with setting that Mansfield's prose provides the reader with an objective view of where Miss Brill is, while at the same time it paints the subjective view of Miss Brill as she views her surroundings. 

As a voyeur, Miss Brill watches and listens at the concert to those who have also come to the park for the concert. And while she sits in her "special" seat, Miss Brill experiences impressions of sound and sight: 

He [the conductor] scraped with his foot and flapped his arms like a rooster about to crow...the bandsmen ...blew out their cheeks and glared at the music. Now there came a little "flutey" bit--very pretty!--a little chain of bright drops.

Ironically, as she watches the old couple sitting near her, Miss Brill is annoyed with their petty conversation and their stillness. That she does not perceive herself objectively becomes evident when Miss Brill watches these and other older people:

They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they'd just come from dark little rooms or even--even cupboards!

An impressionistic picture of old age is then presented as Miss Brill looks behind the rotunda at the

slender trees with yellow leaves down drooping, and through them just a line of sea, and beyond the blue sky with gold-veined clouds.

Miss Brill watches other people: a woman with "an ermine toque" and a gentleman in gray, who cruelly blows smoke from his cigarette into her face.  To Miss Brill the drum beat sounds, "The Brute! the Brute!" Even though she feels a slight chill to the air, Miss Brill is not prepared for what happens to her. Just at the moment her eyes fill with tears over the music that is so beautiful, so moving, and she feels as though the "other members of the company" understand, "though what they understood she didn't know," a boy and girl sit where the old couple have been. Miss Brill imagines that this beautifully dressed couple are "a hero and a heroine, just arrived from his father's yacht," an impression that shapes itself into a shocking reality. For as they sit on the bench and see Miss Brill, "still soundlessly singing, still with that trembling smile," who turns to listen to them, the boy angrily whispers,

"Why does she come here at all--who wants her? Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home."

Her subjective view is shattered, and Miss Brill hurries home, not stopping at the bakery as is her custom on Sunday. In her "little dark room like a cupboard," she sits for a long time until she finally puts away the necklet. Confined now in her isolation and exile, Miss Brill feels no more the promise of the Sunday concerts, but only her terrible alienation. As she replaces the lid on the box, she imagines that "she hears something crying" when it is herself. The petty, confining, alienated life is all that Miss Brill now has as the magic and personal impressions of the setting of the Jardin Publique are lost.