Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519
“Bliss” begins with Bertha, a young wealthy woman married to Harry Young, in a state of bliss. As usual, Mansfield can evoke the wonders of being alive. The spring afternoon is brilliant, the fruit has arrived for her to arrange, her lovely baby seems happy with her nanny, some sophisticated friends are coming to dinner, and her house looks beautiful. Bertha sees herself in the mirror, and she thinks that something wonderful is about to happen.
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Things are not quite so nice as they seem. Once again, the details tell the story. The nanny bosses Bertha around. Bertha herself is a bit childish. Harry will be late; when he does arrive, he makes an abrasive remark. One guest, Miss Fulton, is mysterious, as are some cats prowling around in the garden. A tree, however, bodes well, a tree described with Mansfield’s customary evocativeness. Bertha sees “the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.”
The guests arrive, and Mansfield shows her ability to satirize the social world of poets and painters. One guest wears a dress that shows a procession of monkeys; married couples call each other by silly names; a languid homosexual playwright has had a bad experience with his taxi driver. Harry, Bertha’s down-to-earth husband, forms a contrast, as does the cool Miss Fulton, who arrives dressed all in silver.
Up until now, the story’s action has seemed haphazard, and the reader has been given few clues as to what may happen. Then Mansfield delivers her surprise, a series of events that may have shocked her original readers. Bertha touches Miss Fulton’s arm and feels a “fire of bliss”; a look passes between them. Through the inane dinner conversation, Bertha wonders at her experience. She waits for “a sign” from Miss Fulton with little idea of what such a sign would mean.
Its meaning soon becomes more clear. Miss Fulton seems to give a sign, and they go to the garden and gaze at the pear tree that Bertha views as a symbol of her openness and vulnerability. What exactly does it suggest now? No matter what, to Bertha the women achieve a perfect, wordless understanding. Again Mansfield is ambiguous. What have they understood? Something feminine? Something about desire? Has Miss Fulton really participated in this experience, or is Bertha imagining their communion, their epiphany?
Mansfield has more surprises. As the guests prepare to leave, Bertha’s feelings take a new twist: “For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband.” Not many writers can dramatize so effectively how a young women’s homoerotic feelings could so quickly shift to heterosexual ones. Then Bertha’s bliss is shattered. She glimpses Miss Fulton and her husband intimately whispering together, arranging for a rendezvous. Bertha is left alone, wondering what will become of her life. Mansfield does not ask the reader to draw a conclusion. Is he or she to understand that Bertha is trapped in an evil world? That her happy, childish life is over? Or that she is a free adult at last?