What nationality is Miss Brill in Katherine Mansfield's short story? What is the setting of the story? Why is it important?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Katherine Mansfield was born and raised in New Zealand but moved to England at the age of 19, and the central character in her short story "Miss Brill" can be presumed to be from Great Britain, although she could just as easily be from any of the other English-speaking nations, such as the author's native New Zealand or the United States. She does seem, however, decidedly English, but she is living in France. The setting of "Miss Brill" is primarily the central square of an unnamed French town or city. Mansfield specifies the Jardins Publiques, which translates simply as "public gardens," which could refer to an area like the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, but could also apply to any number of other public gardens or parks in France. The other center of activity in "Miss Brill" is her apartment, a "little dark room" to which the titular figure retreats in defeat and sadness at the story's end. A bench, Miss Brill's favorite, at the public garden, however, is the main setting. From the bench there is a view of the bandstand.

The setting of "Miss Brill" is important because it allows for a dramatic contrast between the scale of human activity that takes place in this public area and the isolation and loneliness of the story's protagonist. The gardens are a vibrant, colorful area in which little children play, a band performs, and young and old couples alike share space and time. It also allows for a description of the protagonist's perspective and how Miss Brill observes the world around her. Note, for instance, the following passage, in which the narrator describes Miss Brill's regular Sunday pastime, people-watching while sitting on the bench:

"Other people sat on the benches and green chairs, but they were nearly always the same, Sunday after Sunday, and--Miss Brill had often noticed--there was something funny about nearly all of them. 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!"

This passage is important. It illuminates Miss Brill's perspective. She silently observes others, oblivious to the fact, as will be revealed, that she herself is equally observed and found wanting. Miss Brill is a sad, lonely figure, and, it turns out, an anachronism--a character from an earlier, perhaps more genteel era. That is why Mansfield placed so much emphasis on the old fur Miss Brill takes out of a box and lovingly tends and puts on before going outside. The Jardins Publique may once have been a welcome environment to someone of Miss Brill's ilk, but no more. Time has passed her by.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Miss Brill seems to be an English woman who now lives in France and teaches English. At one point, she references her "English pupils" and considers telling them what she does on Sundays. 

The story is set in France, and the action takes place at Miss Brill's home as well as the Jardins Publiques (or the public gardens, a large park). The story begins in her apartment, and then she walks to the park on a brisk and bright Sunday morning.

These facts are important because they help us understand that Miss Brill is very much alone. She clearly worries that no one would miss her if she disappeared, and this is why the fantasy of being in a play is so attractive to her. Believing that she plays a role allows her to think that she would be missed if she didn't show up one day. Miss Brill doesn't fit in at the most basic cultural level—she's a foreigner—and this undercurrent of alienation helps us to understand just how completely untethered by relationships she is. It helps us see why she creates a fantasy world in which she becomes important.