In Katherine Mansfield's "Bliss," what does the pear tree symbolize for Bertha Young?

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Early in Katherine Mansfield's short story "Bliss," Bertha, in her state of bliss that she cannot explain, sees her blooming pear tree in her garden and sees it as a "symbol of her own life." From there she continues to recite all of the superficial things in her life that can make one happy: youth, marriage, friends, wealth, books, music, "a wonderful little dressmaker," a superb cook, and travel plans abroad. Since she has a shallow understanding of her life, little does she know the truth of what she says; the pear tree does indeed symbolize her life, but in a deep, complex way she has yet to and may not ever understand.

Mansfield chose the pear blossom very intentionally for its rich, deep, complex meaning. In Greek mythology, the pear was considered the sacred fruit of the goddesses Hera, Aphrodite, and Pomona. Two of the most symbolically interesting goddesses are Hera and Aphrodite.

Hera was the wife and sister of Zeus and the goddess of women and marriage. Hence, on one level, the pear blossom, which will soon bear the fruit of the pear, symbolizes Bertha's society's expected role for her as a woman and and wife to her husband. Interestingly, Bertha's pear tree is currently only covered with blossoms, yet those blossoms have the potential to manifest into plenty of rich, ripe pears symbolic of her marriage. Towards the end of the story, Bertha begins to see that manifestation herself when she suddenly, "for the very first time in her life ... desired her husband." It is at this point in the story when she relates her feeling of bliss to being in love with and desiring her husband. Yet, just prior to this moment, she had had much more complicated feelings. Additionally, Hera is known for her jealousy of Zeus's lovers, another complex feeling Bertha has by the end of the story and symbolized by the pear.

Aphrodite, who also considers the pear sacred, is goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and childbearing. To Bertha, Pearl Fulton represents Aphrodite because she is beautiful and mysterious. Bertha feels she has fallen in love with Pearl, "as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them"; however, what she means when she thinks of herself as being in love is not something she is completely sure of since she also says she and her husband are as "much in love as ever." The word love to Bertha seems to represent a feeling of genuine admiration rather than an erotic feeling, at least until this moment of bliss. Hence, the pear, in connection to Aphrodite, symbolizes the beauty Bertha finds in Pearl, the immense pleasure Bertha has in being in Pearl's company, and sexual feelings for Pearl and beautiful women in general that may be beginning to manifest in Bertha. Interestingly, Hera is extremely jealous of Aphrodite because Paris voted her the most beautiful, and Bertha feels this same jealousy of Pearl's beauty by the end of the story. Therefore, the rich, complex symbol of the pear blossom not only represents Bertha's role and feelings as a wife but also her budding feelings for the same sex and the jealousy she feels that it is her husband who has won Pearl, not herself.

Aside from Greek mythology, the Victorians saw the pear blossom as a symbol to communicate secret, sexual thoughts that were inappropriate to express in polite society. Interestingly, Bertha's blooming feelings for Pearl are not feelings accepted by her society. Therefore, the pear blossoms further symbolize her complex life by showing she is trapped between two worlds, the role society expects of her as a wife and the role she is beginning to want to fill as a homosexual lover. Yet, when her hopes of fulfilling a role as a lover are dashed because she realizes Pearl is her husband's lover, she looks and sees that the tree is just the same as it has been all night. This is because her role decreed by society as a dutiful wife who can feel desire for her husband has not changed.

In sum, the pear tree is a complex symbol that certainly does symbolize Bertha's complex life. It symbolizes her role as a wife, her newfound sexual desires for her husband, the role she is beginning to want to fill as the homosexual lover of Pearl, her jealousy of Pearl who has won her husband's love, and even her jealousy of her husband who has won Pearl's love. Furthermore, the complications of her life reflect the social constraints she notes all throughout the story—she is unsure of exactly how she wants to express herself because society does not leave her at liberty to truly decide for herself.

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The pear tree represents transformation and change or the lack thereof. Bertha is on her way to transforming into a sexual being, but this change is arrested suddenly when she witnesses her spouse kissing another woman. She comes to the realization that she can no longer ignore problems and see her life as perfect. She rushes to the window and realizes that the pear tree is ‘‘as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.’’ This is symbolic of Bertha's inability to complete her transformation. She and the tree will remain exactly the same. 

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