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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1289

Mansfield set two longer short stories in her native New Zealand: “Prelude” and “At the Bay.” In both, she drew extensively upon details of her own extended family and employed an unusual structure peculiarly her own.

“At the Bay” is composed of thirteen short episodes in which a number of lives intertwine. Readers are set down in an unidentified place among unidentified characters. Soon it becomes clear that the story takes place in a settlement of families living in separate houses at the side of a bay. What is known of Mansfield’s life makes readers assume that this is Wellington Bay in New Zealand, but they must guess at the characters’ relationships. That the reader must work to discover these things is part of the story, a result of Mansfield’s narrative technique. Most of the characters are relatives of Kezia, who most resembles a young Katherine Mansfield. They are Kezia, a young girl, about seven years old; Stanley Burnell, her father; Linda Burnell, her mother; Isabel, her older sister; Lottie, her younger sister; her baby brother; aunt Beryl, Linda’s sister; Uncle Jonathan Trout, and Pip and Rags, his sons; Mrs. Fairfield, Kezia’s grandmother, Linda and Beryl’s mother; Alice, a servant; Mrs. Stubbs, Alice’s friend; and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Kember.

Each episode is separate. They are not usually joined by obvious transitions, but the reader gradually senses that “At the Bay” has a kind of unity. The same characters appear and unexpectedly reappear. The story lasts for a complete day, from early morning until late at night. Most important, the characters live in a web of delicate interrelationships, some of which satisfy, some of which do not. The life of almost every character shows a variation on a central theme: To live is to yearn for something more and only occasionally to be calm and happy. Characters yearn most strongly for what is seldom possible. Each must face moments in which his or her hopes are thwarted.

The first and last episodes frame the story with descriptions of nature. Both provide descriptions of the bay, the sea and the waves, and the plants and the buildings on the shoreline. The first episode sets the scene as a peaceful but vibrant place that waits for what the day will bring. At the beginning, the only moving beings are some sheep, a sheep dog, and a shepherd. They enter and leave. In the very brief last episode, no living thing appears. The concluding episode is more obviously symbolic.

The day opens with Stanley Burnell jumping into the bay for an invigorating swim. He is the most masculine force in the story, a competitive man who proudly thinks that he is the first in the water. Stanley finds, however, that another man, Jonathan Trout, has beaten him to it. Trout is as good a swimmer as Stanley, more imaginative and less impatient. No wonder Stanley is irritated and leaves. Trout muses on the encounter: Poor Stanley makes work out of pleasure, he thinks. The episode ends with a suggestion that Trout is in poor health. Mansfield begins her story with its only adult males, each of whom is severely limited.

Mansfield is at her best in evoking many different lives at the same time. Episode three depicts the Burnell household while Stanley gets ready to leave for work. Stanley is the center of attention. He questions, accuses, blusters, and irritably orders everybody about. The man of the house is leaving for work, and everyone must know it. Just as he leaves, he notes that his sister-in-law Beryl, though attentive, has her mind elsewhere.

The reader has suspected all along that Beryl has some private secret. The other women have their secrets as well: The child Kezia has her own way of eating porridge, Isabel is consciously full of virtue, Mrs. Fairfield privately responds to the beauty of the sun’s illuminations, Linda’s mind is miles away, and Alice is critical of men in general. Beryl believes that the women have a kind of communion after Stanley is gone—the wonderful day will be theirs. Her mother and sister do not seem to share this feeling so ecstatically.

Succeeding episodes show the various strands of the story belonging to the children, the servant Alice, Mrs. Fairfield, Beryl, and Linda. By constructing her narrative in parallel stories, Mansfield insists on the separateness of the individual minds and on the problems they have in communicating. By having characters cross from strand to strand and by showing parallels in their lives, Mansfield implies that people’s lives have many things in common.

The following exchange, involving children, illustrates the beginning of power struggles based on gender. As usual on a fine morning, the Burnell girls go to the beach, where they play with their male cousins, the Trouts. Later, they regroup for a childish card game. The girls bicker; the whole group is dominated by Pip, the oldest Trout boy. In another scene, sexual tensions are the point of Alice’s visit to Mrs. Stubbs, a storekeeper, who frightens Alice by saying that she prefers being without a man. A third exchange describes how Kezia confronts death when she spends her siesta with her grandmother. Mrs. Fairfield has the wisdom of age; though her heart still aches for her dead son, she is resigned to the fact that he is dead. When Mrs. Fairfield tells the girl of this, Kezia rebels. Kezia will not die, and she demands a promise that her grandmother will not die either.

Linda is Mansfield’s most enigmatic figure. She strikes everyone as listless, vague, and detached. She seems to be past yearning, much as her mother was. The reader often lives in her private thoughts, though she touches the lives of three males. With Jonathan, her brother-in-law, she listens sympathetically though distantly to his complaints about his weakness and his fate. Her attitude toward Stanley is more complex. She remembers transferring her affections from her adored father to Stanley—loyal, loving, tongue-tied, uncomplicated, sincere Stanley. She loves him but resents having to support his ego as one would that of a big child. Her listlessness appears to be the result of her children. She dreads having more and does not love the ones she has. Then, in a moment in the middle of the story, she looks down at her baby boy. For a moment, she may love him. The moment is over, and she is alone again.

Beryl is younger than Linda, in years and in experience. (Perhaps the sisters and their mother show three stages in women’s lives.) The young Beryl is secretive with Stanley, impatient with Kezia at breakfast, and vibrant with hope in the morning. Her crisis begins when she meets the ominous Mrs. Harry Kember at the beach. Mrs. Kember is married to an extremely handsome man ten years her junior. She is rich. Her body is long and narrow. She smokes and plays bridge. She talks like a man. When Beryl disrobes before putting on her bathing suit, Mrs. Harry Kember teases her about her beauty. Beryl is startled and feels “poisoned,” but she is fascinated as well.

That night when everyone else is asleep, the aroused Beryl imagines a perfect lover. As she blissfully fantasizes, she hears a noise outside her window. It is Harry Kember himself. Although she is persuaded to come outside, she is terrified and revolted when she sees the smile on his face, a kind of smile she has never seen before. When she breaks from his embrace, he is puzzled and angry. Beryl, like Linda, and before that her mother, finds that sexual love is not what she had imagined.

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