Prelude; and At the Bay

by Katherine Mansfield

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In what way does Kathrine Mansfield use language, structure, and imagery to generate effect and significance in "Prelude" (specifically with regard to the aloe plant)?

Mansfield uses language, structure, and imagery to generate effect and significance in her short story "Prelude" with regard to the aloe plant (in particular; there are other examples of symbolism and metaphor that could be used here.) The aloe is a central symbol in Mansfield's story. It is a thorny plant that seems ominous at first, but which Linda comes to like more than anything else. In the end, though, she finds herself bitter about it: "she put her hand on her mother's arm and they walked down the steps, round the island and on to the main drive that led to the front gates.

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Katherine Mansfield's short story "Prelude" was published in one of the writer's short story collections in 1920. But that wasn't the story's first publication: in 1918, it was released under a different title with Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press. The title was "The Aloe."

The original title hints at the significance of the aloe plant in this narrative. The aloe, covered with thorns, is a central symbol. 

First, let's establish a bit of context for this plant. "Prelude' is about a family moving from one house to another, and the experience that four central female characters (Linda, the lady of the house; Beryl, her unmarried sister; Mrs. Fairfield, the sisters' elderly mother; and Kezia, Linda's young daughter) have during this transition. The house is spacious and beautiful, as are the gardens outside. There's an aloe plant there that's particularly interesting to some of the characters. Let's look at Kezia's initial interaction with the plant:

Nothing grew on the top except one huge plant with thick, grey-green, thorny leaves, and out of the middle there sprang up a tall stout stem. Some of the leaves of the plant were so old that they curled up in the air no longer; they turned back, they were split and broken; some of them lay flat and withered on the ground.

Whatever could it be? She had never seen anything like it before. She stood and stared. And then she saw her mother coming down the path.

"Mother, what is it?" asked Kezia.

Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots. The curving leaves seemed to be hiding something; the blind stem cut into the air as if no wind could ever shake it.

"That is an aloe, Kezia," said her mother.

"Does it ever have any flowers?"

"Yes, Kezia," and Linda smiled down at her, and half shut her eyes. "Once every hundred years."

Mansfield's language here, in the initial description of the aloe, is clipped and foreboding. Words and phrases like "thick," "thorny," "split and broken," and "flat and withered" seem ominous: what kind of foreshadowing might she be experimenting with here? (One of the themes of the story is the cycle of life, the passage of time, and the experience of several generations of women in the same family.) That the tree, to Linda, seems to have "claws instead of roots" only reinforces the idea that this tree is a symbol of danger or death.

Linda's language in the last sentence of this passage indicates both hope (yes, the aloe will flower) and melancholy (but only once every century.) It's worth noting that many literary critics and academics interpret that Linda is pregnant in this short story; that idea is only suggested, not explicitly stated.

Despite the dark initial encounter with the aloe, the same plant continues to fascinate Linda. Later, she's in the garden with her mother:

"I have been looking at the aloe," said Mrs. Fairfield. "I believe it is going to flower this year. Look at the top there. Are those buds, or is it only an effect of light?"

As they stood on the steps, the high grassy bank on which the aloe rested rose up like a wave, and the aloe seemed to ride upon it like a ship with the oars lifted. Bright moonlight hung upon the lifted oars like water, and on the green wave glittered the dew.

"Do you feel it, too," said Linda, and she spoke to her mother with the special voice that women use at night to each other as though they spoke in their sleep or from some hollow cave–"Don't you feel that it is coming towards us?"

She dreamed that she was caught up out of the cold water into the ship with the lifted oars and the budding mast. Now the oars fell striking quickly, quickly. They rowed far away over the top of the garden trees, the paddocks and the dark bush beyond. Ah, she heard herself cry: "Faster! Faster!" to those who were rowing.

How much more real this dream was than that they should go back to the house where the sleeping children lay and where Stanley and Beryl played cribbage.

"I believe those are buds," said she. "Let us go down into the garden, mother. I like that aloe. I like it more than anything here. And I am sure I shall remember it long after I've forgotten all the other things."

She put her hand on her mother's arm and they walked down the steps, round the island and on to the main drive that led to the front gates.

Looking at it from below she could see the long sharp thorns that edged the aloe leaves, and at the sight of them her heart grew hard. . . . She particularly liked the long sharp thorns. . . . Nobody would dare to come near the ship or to follow after.

"Not even my Newfoundland dog," thought she, "that I'm so fond of in the daytime."

Here, Mansfield uses imagery and structure to great effect. For reasons that we, as readers, can't quite understand yet, Linda is greatly intrigued by the aloe. She seems to find the plant both compelling and fear-inducing. There's contradiction in her experience of the plant ("I like that aloe" seems at odds with "her heart grow hard.")

Mansfield also plays with structure here, particularly with repetition. "Long sharp thorns" is a phrase she repeats twice in the same paragraph.

Also note the author's use of the ellipsis: it's as if her thoughts are not complete, as if she is trailing off while thinking about the aloe and what it signifies. There's some abiguity to Linda's complicated feelings about the plant, and we, as readers, are also left with questions about exactly what the aloe (and the story) means.

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