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Last Updated January 29, 2024.

“Bliss” is a short story by New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield, first published in 1918 in the English Review. It follows Bertha Young, a thirty-year-old mother overcome with expectant bliss the day she hosts a small dinner party. Though Bertha is unsure exactly what she expects, she feels something wonderful will happen soon.

On her walk home, Bertha finds herself giddy with excitement. While she wishes to act out these feelings, she knows that social mores prevent her from doing so. She questions the point of having a body if she is not permitted to use it as she desires.

Bertha checks on the newly delivered fruits at home and arranges them on the dining table to bring out the room’s colors. The resulting scene enthralls her. However, she dismisses this upswell of emotion as hysteria and heads for the nursery.

In the nursery, she watches enviously as the Nanny feeds her infant daughter. Again, she questions the point of having something she is not allowed to enjoy, like birthing a child, only for it to be reared by another woman. Insisting on feeding the child herself, she is once more filled with bliss as she admires its beauty. However, she remains unsure how to express these feelings. The Nanny notifies Bertha that she is wanted on the telephone and seizes back the child as if it were her own.

On the phone, Bertha’s husband, Harry, informs her that he will come home late. For a moment, Bertha wishes she could share her feelings with her husband but decides not to.

While cleaning up in the drawing room, Bertha observes the garden through the window. Seeing a tall and beautiful pear tree in bloom leaves a deep impression on her. Even as she tries to calm herself down and presses her hands to her eyes, the image of the tree perseveres in her mind as a “symbol of her own life.” She seems to have everything: a loving husband, a child, a house, money, and friends.

One by one, the expected party arrives: Mr. and Mrs. Norman Knights, the young poet Eddie Warren, and her husband, Harry. Also included in her guests is Pearl Fulton, a beautiful woman Bertha had met at the club. Bertha believes she shares an unspoken connection with Miss Fulton, one waiting to be uncovered.

As the group eats dinner and discusses the theater, Harry ravenously feasts on “the white flesh of the lobster.” Meanwhile, Bertha continues to imagine an exclusive, shared feeling with Miss Fulton. She feels able to instantly read Miss Fulton’s mind. This rare and special connection leads Bertha to expect Miss Fulton to give some kind of “sign.”

Eventually, Miss Fulton “gives the sign” when she asks if they have a garden. Bertha pulls the curtains apart, and the two share a rapt moment, admiring the pear tree illuminated by the moon.

Convinced by his behavior that Harry dislikes Miss Fulton, Bertha chides her husband and plans to explain the special connection she shares with her. However, the thought of being alone in bed with him causes her to panic. She immediately starts playing the piano. Spiraling from these confused feelings, she wonders if the bliss she had been feeling all day leads her to Harry. This would mark the first time she ever felt desire for her husband.

At the end of the party, the Norman Knights leave, and Harry insists on escorting Miss Fulton out. Bertha and Eddie remain in the drawing room and talk about poetry. From her position, Bertha glimpses a private moment down the hall...

(This entire section contains 662 words.)

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between Miss Fulton and her husband. By reading their lips, she realizes that they’re having an affair.

Miss Fulton says goodbye to Bertha and again compliments her on her pear tree. Eddie leaves, and Harry cleans up for the evening. The story ends with Bertha, uncertain about the future, going to the windows and observing the flowering pear tree.

Summary

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“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.

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?

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