Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 722

The story ‘‘Bliss’’ was first published in The English Review in 1920. Later that year, it became the title story for Mansfield’s second collection, Bliss, and Other Stories. The story (and the volume) helped solidify Mansfield’s reputation as an important contemporary writer.

Many early reviewers lauded the collection and Mansfield’s unique narrative voice. Conrad Aiken, in a review for Freeman, called Mansfield ‘‘brilliant’’ and remarked upon her ‘‘infinitely inquisitive sensibility.’’ Several reviewers drew a parallel between Mansfield’s work and that of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov. Aiken noted this similarity but also countered any claims that Mansfield ‘‘borrowed’’ from Chekhov: ‘‘One has not read a page of Miss Mansfield’s book before one has said ‘Chekhov’; but one has not read two pages before Chekhov is forgotten.’’

Malcolm Cowley also commented on the resemblance to Chekhov. He deemed the collection to be a ‘‘voyage of adventure’’ filled with Mansfield’s ‘‘own experiments and successful experiments.’’

Many reviewers paid particular attention to ‘‘Bliss.’’ The anonymous reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement maintained, ‘‘it is all beauty till the end; beauty so deeply known and so discerningly expressed that that special condition of springtime exaltation seems here finally and fully held.’’ The review ended with this positive judgment: ‘‘Miss Mansfield, with the air of dispassionately reporting, is making all the while her own world. In other words, she is an artist in fiction.’’

A reviewer for The Athenaeum contended that despite the ‘‘shock and disillusionment, . . . [and] seemingly wanton destruction of faith, vision, or happiness,’’ in stories such as ‘‘Bliss,’’ readers ‘‘are left believing . . . in human virtue and integrity.’’

Yet some critics focused on the story’s cruel or disagreeable aspects. A reviewer for the Spectator countered these accusations early on: ‘‘That is not to say that they [‘‘Bliss’’ and ‘‘Je ne parle pas francais’’] are cheerful stories; they are anything but that; they have not, however, that element of trivial discomfort so dominant in modern fiction.’’ This reviewer also acknowledged, however, that both stories would likely ‘‘shock some people by their outspokenness on some subjects usually left alone.’’ The reviewer continued, ‘‘but surely the only real test for ‘book ethics’ is whether they will . . . be likely to do good or harm. Judged by this standard, we cannot imagine anyone objecting to Miss Mansfield’s book.’’

Succeeding generations of critics and readers also singled out ‘‘Bliss’’ as one of Mansfield’s finer stories. In 1934, the poet T. S. Eliot, in his After Strange Gods, put forth the story as an example of the modern mood. While early reviewers and critics tended to focus on literary and stylistic aspects of the story—as well as how it reflected contemporary society—as the years have passed, critics have broadened their scope of inquiry.

For instance, recent criticism of the story has explored Bertha’s sexual desire (both for Harry and Pearl Fulton), which earlier critics disregarded. In addition to Bertha’s sexuality, commentators hold differing views of many key facets of the story, such as their analysis of Bertha’s personality, why Bertha experiences feelings of bliss, and what these feelings actually mean to her.

It is also interesting to note the way specific criticism has changed since the publication of ‘‘Bliss.’’ The review in Athaeneum referred to one of Mansfield’s ‘‘finest pieces of characterization’’ of ‘‘‘ordinary’ people’’ such as ‘‘the vigorous Harry.’’ Most contemporary critics, however, find Harry to be crass, aggressive, and crude.

When a number of Mansfield’s books, journals, and letters were reprinted in the 1980s, reviewers again discussed the story. Katherine Dieckmann, in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, responded to Murry’s assertion that Mansfield’s stories were ‘‘read and loved by innumerable simple people,’’ and not the academics or critics. She contended: ‘‘Bosh. Read Mansfield’s story ‘‘Bliss’’ and it’s immediately apparent how deeply connected she was to this cultured world—both critical of it and quite willingly a part of it. . . . The upshot of ‘‘Bliss’’ is that these social animals eat away at your soul.’’

Recent critics, however, contend there is much more to the story than simply Mansfield’s effective use of satire. In fact, commentators laud the effective and unusual use of symbolism and imagery on multiple levels, the deft psychological portrait of Bertha, and Mansfield’s evocation of mood in the story.

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