What are the themes for the story "Bliss" by Katherine Mansfield? Do they include marriage and adultery?

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Katherine Mansfield is known for her short stories, and "Bliss," written in 1918, is an excellent example of her style and themes. There is not one clear main theme; rather, it hints at some, explores others in more depth, and leaves some questions unanswered (as seen specifically in the penultimate line, “Oh, what is going to happen now?”).

Marriage and adultery are certainly key topics in this work. Through a series of moments and interactions we learn about Bertha’s marriage to her husband, Harry. We also get some insight into the marriage of “The Norman Knights,” one of the couples at the dinner party Bertha and Harry are hosting, the main event of the story’s plot. We learn that Bertha has never really felt attracted to her husband, but she still wants to find ways to connect with him, as seen in her telephone call when she wants to say something but doesn’t really know what or how: “What had she to say? She’d nothing to say. She only wanted to get in touch with him for a moment.”

An extension of this theme is the discussion of desire, hope, and disappointment. While these are connected to the theme of marriage, they are explored more generally too. Bertha’s bliss seems to grow out of her feelings of desire—most obviously, as the story develops, the desire she feels toward her new friend Miss Fulton, and the growing desire she feels for her husband as a result of her feelings of bliss. A sense of expectation infuses her day with excitement and emotion—a feeling that things are going to happen that makes her “want to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement.” The story appears to argue that the desire she is feeling has a positive effect overall for Bertha’s sense of well-being and connection to the world around her: “Oh, why did she feel so tender towards the whole world tonight? Everything was good—was right. All that happened seemed to fill again her brimming cup of bliss.” While she acknowledges the absurdity of her extreme emotions —“I'm absurd. Absurd!”—she also wishes it were possible to express her happiness to the world without being thought badly of.

Given that her bliss seems to grow out of her desire, and specifically her desire for Miss Fulton, this too is an important theme of the story—the contrast between the expectations of how a woman should behave and how she wants to behave. Although lesbianism is not directly referenced, the story undoubtedly explores same-sex desire. The story considers what is deemed to be appropriate behavior and customs, including the roles of women in their home and in society, and contrasts them with Bertha’s inner world of hopes and desires. Bertha considers civilization to be “idiotic,” presumably because of the limits it puts on her.

There is a sense that Bertha is undergoing a time of personal growth and change, another theme of this story. Her feelings toward her husband are changing, her understanding of desire is changing, and it becomes clear at the end of the story that the nature of her marriage may be changing. With this change and transformation comes initially excitement and hope, but also disappointment and frustration.

Disappointment is a key theme that is only clearly referenced at the end of the story, when Bertha witnesses an intimate moment between her husband and Pearl Fulton. It is possible, though, to see how this theme is foreshadowed previously, such as in the disappointment of witnessing Nanny with the baby leaving Bertha feeling excluded.

Another theme explored throughout the story is the subject of modernity, both as a literary movement and in terms of what it means to be modern—this is applied to diverse topics like literature, the arts, and relationships. Aesthetics and understanding of beauty are referenced through the visual imagery and discussion of poetry. Some of the sense of questioning opened up by the ending of the story can be applied to this theme, as it makes the reader consider the future and the changing nature of attitudes and society.

As such, there are multiple themes: what constitutes bliss and how it can be shared with the world, aesthetics, women’s emotions and how their expression is controlled, passion and desire and how it is felt and expressed, homoerotic desire, relationships, friendships, the arts, modern life, the structure of contemporary society and the roles within it, the inner emotional world, and as suggested in the question, marriage and adultery.

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