What are the representations of gender in Katherine Mansfield's "Bliss"?

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accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The main female character who is represented in this story is Bertha Young. Katherine Mansfield, using the third-person limited point of view, tells the story from her perspective, and thus we are able to gain an insight into her thoughts, feelings, motivations and frustrations. As we are presented with her character at the start, it is clear that she is experiencing a period of happiness and "bliss," in spite of her age:

Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoops, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at--nothing--at nothing, simply.

She resents the fact that she feels unable to express her "bliss" without being labelled by society as being drunk, and possibly arrested for it. Note how this feeling of happiness causes her to see the world through rose-tinted spectacles. During the dinner party, for example, she seems to find joy in everything. Bertha herself seems to make the pear tree a symbol of herself and of her friendship with Pearl:

At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn't help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a faded petal.

However, in spite of this image of perfection that Bertha thinks symbolises her life, there are hints in the text that there are issues in her life. Her nanny clearly dominates her daughter, restricting her time with her, and also her marriage is shown to lack passion, although repeatedly Bertha stresses that they are "good pals."

At the end of the story, Bertha experiences a rude awakening as she is forced to confront her husband's duplicity in his affair with Pearl. After witnessing Harry kiss Pearl Fulton, and Bertha's cry of despair and uncertainty of what is to happen next, the last sentence of the story returns to the pear tree:

But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.

This highly interesting symbol perhaps represents the way that appearances can be deceiving, and that under the so-called "perfect" exterior lie a whole host of varying emotions that are not acceptable to be revealed. Bertha at the end of this story is a woman who has had her "bliss" punctured, perhaps irrevocably, by the reality of human nature, and thus perhaps can be said to be forced to become more mature and experienced about life, love and her marriage.

koolicarlo's profile pic

koolicarlo | (Level 1) eNoter

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This short story explores Bertha's own questioning of her sexuality. You have a weak relationship between husband and wife (Bertha and Harry), and Bertha's "(possibly) sexual interest in Pearl. This is then reinforced in her sexual awakening with her husband ("desire") which could be seen as a form of transference (having repressed desires for Pearl, they manifest in a sexual desire for her husband)? So questioning of sexuality in a socially oppressive society (female subordination).  

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