When a writer’s meanings are intentionally ambiguous, the reader can almost always depend on the techniques used to express those meanings to be clear. As an artist, Mansfield is an impressionist; as impressionist painters offer a single image charged with emotion, she focuses on a single image, Bertha standing with Pearl communing with the pear tree, and a single emotion, bliss. The image is sharpened, the emotion is intensified, by the controlled use of two major devices: point of view and a style that evolves most naturally out of it.
The point of view is third-person, central intelligence; that is, all elements of the story are to be taken by the reader as having been filtered through Bertha’s perceptions. As Bertha responds emotionally, imaginatively, and to a lesser extent intellectually, the reader receives her psychological impressions, expressed in the third person by the author in a style carefully controlled, paragraph by paragraph, to suit Bertha, on this particular day, at each instant. The reader should anticipate that Bertha’s perceptions, like those of all human beings, are likely to be in error, to be flawed, or distorted, especially considering the fact that on this day a single powerful emotion is sweeping her along through the hours: bliss.
The surprise ending is one of those literary devices most often open to abuse or misinterpretation. Commercial writers use this device to stimulate a transitory thrill. The serious writer knows that a surprise ending may generate numerous misleading, distorting ambiguities. “Bliss” is an example of an unusually ambiguous story; Mansfield chose a point of view that by its nature must rely on the technical devices of context and implication to convey its meanings. Mansfield seems to intend much of the ambiguity as a device for stimulating the reader’s own imagination.
When the reader comes, with Bertha, to the surprise ending, Mansfield provides a dramatic demonstration of how Bertha’s perceptions have been flawed. Having chosen the point of view most effective for her purposes, Mansfield cannot tell the reader what actually happened between Harry and Pearl; she does, however, use various devices to prepare the reader’s emotions, imagination, and intellect to reevaluate, retroactively (in a second reading) all of Bertha’s assumptions, preconceptions, and perceptions. For readers who believe that the Harry-Pearl scene must have had a negative effect on Bertha’s bliss, the surprise ending generates ambiguities that allow for several interpretations. The reader may perceive in a rush a pattern of already implied ironies. For example, Bertha is certain that Pearl shares her blissfulness, but it is with Harry that Pearl shares bliss; when Pearl, who is like the pear tree, says, “Your lovely pear tree,” at the end, the irony is that Pearl is no longer lovely in Bertha’s eyes.
Given her decision to filter everything through Bertha’s consciousness as a way of developing a series of misperceptions, Mansfield must employ several other devices to lead the reader toward various possible, supportable interpretations of Bertha’s character. It is implied, through Bertha’s actions, that she is childlike, as when she forgets her key, “as usual.” The theater motif also implies Bertha’s childlike quality; her guests remind her of “a play by Tchekof.” Mansfield uses the device of comic contrast to stress the serious elements: Tomato soup provides comic contrast to the lovely pear tree. Some readers will see Bertha’s baby “in another woman’s arms” as an early parallel to her husband in another woman’s arms. The pear tree is the central, symbolic image of the story, charged with implications. Images of fire contrasted with cold, of clothes, and of color enhance the central image. Appropriately,...
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in a story focusing on bliss, Mansfield’s style activates all of the reader’s senses.
Post-World War I Art In the aftermath of the devastation of World War I, artists expressed their shock at the horrors of war and their disillusionment with modern society. Art that emerged in the post-war period showed a marked departure from past forms as artists rejected traditional ways of expressing their ideas. For instance, James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) experimented with a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Poets often abandoned traditional rhyme and meter. Playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht saw the theater more as a classroom than as a place of performance. In his plays, characters would step out of their roles and directly address the audience.
The Bloomsbury Group In the 1910s, and 1920s, London was a hubbub of literary and artistic activity. At the center of this activity was the Bloomsbury group, one of London’s foremost intellectual and artistic circles. Members of this group rejected conventional ideas on religious, artistic, social, and sexual matters. Bloomsbury members included writer Virginia Woolf, painter Vanessa Bell, novelist and essayist E. M. Forster, art critic Roger Fry, and economist John Maynard Keynes. Attendees at the regular Thursday night meetings included such British literary luminaries as George Bernard Shaw and William Yeats.
In 1917, Leonard Woolf established the Hogarth Press, which went on to publish Sigmund Freud’s works in English, T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and Mansfield’s short stories, among other pieces. The Bloomsbury group also set up the Omega Workshop, which lasted from 1913 to 1919. At the workshop, painters applied their ideas of abstraction and decorated ordinary objects, such as screens and chairs, in what today would be called modern design. Through their artistic work and ideas, the members of the Bloomsbury group were influential practitioners of twentieth-century modernism.
The British Economy In 1920, Britain headed into a cycle of economic depressions, which were to last until World War II. Unemployment quickly reached 1.5 million, where it remained for most of the decade. A government committee was appointed to find remedies for this depressed economic situation; unfortunately, some of the remedies the committee recommended were ignored in light of pressure from other economic interests. As a result, the situation did not significantly improve throughout the decade.
The Modern British Woman World War I had forced many women to join the ranks of male workers. At the outset of the war, the British government actively set out to recruit women as men went to war. Millions of British women entered government departments, factories, and private offices. They worked in many capacities, from clerical jobs to manufacturing.
Such increased employment and economic opportunities were important factors in women’s emancipation. By 1918 the Franchise Act gave all women over the age of twenty-eight the right to vote (all men over the age of twenty-one were given this right by the same law). Soon the first British female sat in the House of Commons. However, women did not have equal voting rights as men until 1928, when the Representation of the People Act, known as the ‘‘flapper act,’’ was passed.
As in the United States, young British women used fashion to reflect their changing status in society: shorter skirts and bobbed hair became the rage amongst young women in both countries. Despite these advances, most married women remained dependent on their husbands, and working women were paid less than men for equal labor. Women were not promoted to positions of power, such as judges, corporate CEOs, or managers.
Some women publicly decried this inequality. Beatrice Hastings wrote feminist articles published in the New Age in which she frankly discussed such topics as the sexual subjection of women to their husbands or the refusal of British universities to grant degrees to women. Laws passed in 1919 and 1923 also gave women rights equal to those of men in cases of divorce.
Modern British Society British society underwent significant changes in the 1910s and 1920s. By 1914 the discrepancies between the lifestyles of the rich and poor were far less evident. Fewer people had servants, poorer people had access to the same goods as the wealthy, and middle-class society came to hold greater political power. More people owned homes that had the comforts of electricity and modern plumbing. The workweek was reduced in 1918 from 56 hours to 48 hours. Working-class people also saw improvements as new forms of recreation—particularly dance halls and talking films—enhanced their leisure hours.
Point of View and Narration The story is told from a third person, limited point of view. This means that readers are privy to only Bertha’s perspective. In ‘‘Bliss,’’ all events are filtered through Bertha, and her overexcited way of viewing the world forms the story’s narrative technique. That the narration is studded with questions, interjections, and exclamations only emphasizes Bertha’s perspective.
Bertha’s emphatic and constant reassurances of how happy she is also serves to emphasize the fact that she may be hiding something from herself. Clearly, she is not truly as content with her life as she claims to be. The facts presented by the narrative reinforce this idea. For instance, Bertha spends very little time with her child. Her lack of meaningful activity also demonstrates the hollowness of her life. When she draws up a list of all the things she has—money, a nice house, modern friends—she ends with the pathetic inclusion of a ‘‘wonderful little dressmaker’’ and ‘‘their new cook [who] made the superb omelettes.’’ Bertha’s narration demonstrates the incompleteness of her life, though she cannot acknowledge it.
Satire Satire is the use of humor, wit, or ridicule to criticize human nature and societal institutions. Indirect satire, as found in ‘‘Bliss,’’ relies upon the ridiculous behavior of characters to make its point. Bertha describes her friends as ‘‘modern’’ and ‘‘thrilling’’ people, yet they are presented as ridiculous figures. Mrs. Knight resembles some kind of monkey, wearing a dress reminiscent of banana peels. The most notable characteristic of Eddie Warren, who appears to be a writer, is his white socks and his affected way of speaking.
Although these people aspire to be sophisticated and artistic, their conversation reveals how little regard they truly have for an aesthetic sense of beauty. Mrs. Knight, an interior decorator, wants to design the room of a client’s home around a fishand- chip motif. The poems and pieces of literature enjoyed by Eddie Warren border on the grotesque. Truly, Bertha’s friends seem to have no idea of true artistry; instead, they wrap themselves up in what they believe to be fashionable talk about artistic ideas.
It is also clear that the group is more about talk and less about creating art. She thinks ‘‘what a decorative group they made, how they seemed to set one another off.’’ In Bertha’s mind, as in the group itself, the image of oneself as an artistic person is more important than actually being one.
Symbolism The most important and complicated symbol in ‘‘Bliss’’ is the pear tree: it represents different people at different times throughout the story. First and foremost, it represents Bertha because she believes that ‘‘its wide open blossoms [are] as symbol of her own life.’’ When Bertha first notices the tree, she is intent on pursuing the belief that her life is full and rich, open to wondrous possibilities.
Later on in the story the pear represents Pearl Fulton. Like the pear tree, Pearl, dressed in silver, emits a shimmery, ethereal glow. Thus both Pearl and Bertha—who are actually rivals—are connected to each other by association with the pear tree.
However, the pear tree also takes on a masculine identity in its phallic description: ‘‘it seemed, like the flame of a candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller’’ under the gaze of the women. In this manifestation, the pear tree can be seen as representing Harry, who further unites the two women.
In addition, the pear tree seems to be reaching toward the moon, which previously had been identi- fied with Pearl. Thus Harry’s sexual desire, which Bertha now wants for herself, is clarified as reaching toward Pearl, not Bertha.
This story reveals Mansfield's mastery of several techniques. There is no conventional narrator. The story moves freely back and forth between interior monologue and dramatic scene. By the final page, Mansfield can create a dramatic scene and depend upon the reader to imagine its impact on Bertha without the use of interior monologue. Thus, as if in the same instant at which it occurs, the reader hears the trivial conversation Bertha is having with Eddie Warren, catches the brief exchange between Pearl and Harry that Bertha sees, and witnesses the change in Bertha's state of mind. The scene has the impact of a moment of theater conveyed in the form of the short story.
1920s: Between 1910 and 1920, the number of divorces in Britain tripled, from about 600 to 1,700. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 made it easier for a wife to obtain a divorce. This legislation allowed a woman to divorce her husband without having to prove cruelty or desertion in addition to adultery.
Today: With the advent of the Divorce Reform Act, which passed in 1971, divorce could be obtained by either party without grounds. Like in the United States, divorce is common in modernday Great Britain.
1920s: By 1918, as part of the Franchise Act, British women over the age of twenty-eight had the right to vote. Yet it was not until 1928, with the passage of the Representation of the People Act, that women were given equal rights in terms of voting.
Today: For a few decades, several women have held important political positions in Great Britain. The most powerful of these women was Margaret Thatcher, who served as the country’s prime minister from 1979 to 1990.
1920s: About ten percent of British people own their own homes.
Today: Approximately two-thirds of British people own their own homes. Owner-occupied homes are the most prevalent form of housing.
1920s: At the beginning of the decade, women make up about thirty percent of the British workforce. This number drops as Britain undergoes an economic crisis later in the decade.
Today: Women make up more than 44 percent of the British workforce.
When Mansfield wrote "The Little Governess," James Joyce, A. E. Coppard, and D. H. Lawrence were developing their own techniques in short fiction. Although their stories were quite different, together their efforts transformed the English short story, creating what T. O. Beachcroft called "the Chekhov kind of short story." Chekhov is an important antecedent for Mansfield. One of the best stories from her early period, "The Child-Who-Was-Tired," is a reworking of a Chekhov story, and in her journals she wrote admiringly of the Russian author.
Sources Aiken, Conrad, Review of Bliss, and Other Stories, Freeman, May 11, 1921, p. 210.
Cowly, Malcolm, Review of The Garden Party, and Other Stories, Dial, August, 1922, pp. 230–32.
Dieckmann, Katherine, ‘‘Body English: The Short, Sexy Life of Katherine Mansfield,’’ The Village Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1988, p. 27.
Hanson, Claire, and Andrew Gurr, Katherine Mansfield, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.
Kobler, J. F., Katherine Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction, Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1990.
Magalaner, Marvin, The Fiction of Katherine Mansfield, Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
Review of Bliss, and Other Stories, Athenaeum, January 21, 1921, p. 67.
Review of Bliss, and Other Stories, Spectator, January 15, 1921, p. 83.
Review of Bliss, and Other Stories, Times Literary Supplement, December 16, 1920, p. 855.
Further Reading Berkman, Sylvia, Katherine Mansfield, A Critical Study, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1951. A thematic and stylistic analysis of Mansfield’s stories.
Boddy, Gillian, Katherine Mansfield: The Woman and the Writer, Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books, 1988. An overview of Mansfield’s life, including numerous photographs and the major short stories.
Daly, Saralyn R., Katherine Mansfield, Revised Edition, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994. An overview of Mansfield’s writings.
Mansfield, Katherine, The Journal of Katherine Mansfield, edited by John Middleton Murry, Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1983. Selections from Mansfield’s journals edited by her husband.
———, Selected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Selected letters written by Mansfield.
———, Selections, Critical Writings of Katherine Mansfield, edited by Clare Hanson, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Mansfield’s non-fiction writing, including essays and book reviews.
Tomalin, Claire, Katherine Mansfield, A Secret Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. A biography of Mansfield.