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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What is an important theme in “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield?

An important theme in “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield is death as the great leveler. Although the upper-crust Laura is initially separated from her working-class neighbors, the experience of seeing one of them dead momentarily brings them together, breaking down class barriers.

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Death is the great leveler. Whoever we are, wherever we live, however much money we have or don’t have, we will one day leave this earth behind. In death, there are no class distinctions, no artificial differences between race, gender, and class. Death is the ultimate, perhaps the only true, democracy.

The notion of death as the great leveler is much in evidence in Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.” Here, the death of one of Laura’s working-class neighbors momentarily serves to break down the class barriers between them. What had been thought to be an insuperable barrier between Laura’s upper-crust family and her down-at-heel neighbors has shown to be wholly artificial and therefore capable of being broken down by a shared experience, the experience of death.

To be sure, Laura’s experience of her neighbor’s death might not be the same as that of the dead man’s family, but it does nonetheless serve to establish some kind of connection between them, something that had never previously existed. The ending of the story is deliberately ambiguous, but there can be no doubt that Laura's been changed forever by this strange encounter with a corpse.

On this reading, death recalls us, however briefly, to what is really important in human existence, as opposed to the trivialities in which Laura and her family habitually indulge.

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Perhaps the biggest theme in the story “The Garden Party” is the idea of identity and perspective. Laura goes though several phases with regards to the identity she feels in the story and the perspective from which she sees things.

Laura begins the story relating amicably to the caterers and servants who are setting up the garden party. In fact, she is much more relaxed with them and relates very well with them.

However, when the guests arrive, she blends in, changing personas so as to fit with the partygoers. She acts carelessly towards the caterers and becomes an entirely different person—that is, until she hears about the death of one of the working class individuals. She is shocked and chagrined, ashamed of the revelry when the deceased man could never have enjoyed that luxury and wouldn’t have wanted it because of its unnecessary nature.

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The major theme in the story "Garden Party" is the idea of identity and belonging. Laura is struggling between being a working class individual and trying to fit in with the upper class people she is socializing with. While the caterers and servers are setting up everything for the garden party, she enjoys their company and is pleased to be around them greatly. She identifies with their struggles and their working class mentality.

Later on, however, she has a crisis of identity. The worker's death startles her, especially as she has become comfortable around the attendants of the party and has started to revel in the frivolity and wastefulness of the party. Suddenly, she is confronted by the death of a man who had never cared for that sort of thing and had struggled to work and make a wage. She is led at the end of the story to question her own identity and motives in life.

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An important theme in Mansfield's "The Garden Party" centers on individual identity.

One theme in Mansfield's short story concerns the formation of individual identity. Laura displays this theme throughout the narrative. At the story's outset, she seems comfortable with people from the working class. She finds the workers setting up the garden party to be "extraordinarily nice," preferring their company to the "silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper." Upon hearing of the worker's death, she finds it offensive to have the garden party. She is "astonished" at the banal reactions of Jose and her mother. Laura believes the party should be cancelled because of her identification with the working class.  

As the story progresses, Laura's working-class identity is not as evident. Laura is hesitant about taking the basket to the deceased worker's family, asking her mother if it is "a good idea." Laura is visibly uncomfortable when she visits the mourning family. She calls out for God's help and apologizes for her hat. As Laura stares at the worker's corpse, she struggles with even larger issues of identity:

What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy. . . happy. . . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.

When she arrives back, readers are not sure what Laura's identity is. She "stammers" in a statement that might articulate thoughts about life. Like Laura's identity, that statement is muddled.

What Laura believes and how she will go about living her life are central questions at the end of "The Garden Party." They attest to the importance of the theme of identity in Mansfield's short story.

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