The Garden Party: And Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

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What is the symbolism of the hats in "The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield?

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Hats symbolize the gulf between the Sheridans, the affluent middle class family giving the garden party, and the working class people they hire and who live in poverty nearby them. Hats represent the world of pleasures and luxuries that attract Laura and her cohort and distract their attention from the poor.

In this story, the death of a workman who lives nearby occurs on the day of the family's garden party. Laura, a daughter who had previously felt there is no difference between the classes, wants the family to cancel the party out of deference to the dead man. Her mother pooh-poohs that idea as "extravagant," saying there's no need to inconvenience themselves and nobody would expect it. She distracts Laura by giving her her own hat. But Laura is still resisting carrying on with the party--until she sees herself in the mirror, wearing the hat: 

"I don't understand," said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom. There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw...

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