Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660

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As an observer of human behavior, Katherine Mansfield is a psychological realist who analyzes impressionistically a single moment in her characters’ lives. Bertha’s moment of bliss makes her want, for a moment, to touch her husband. Later, she has a “miraculous” moment when she is certain Pearl feels what she feels. The time setting for the story is only a few hours—a moment in Bertha’s life but one prefigured in her past, and one that presages her future. Bertha’s moment of bliss produces another, inseparable, key moment: her “strange . . . terrifying” realization that she desires her husband.

Complex possibilities make a single interpretation of this story indefensible. An interesting possibility is to read “Bliss” solely as an expression of Bertha’s moment of bliss from start to finish; from neither Bertha, from whose point of view the reader experiences the elements of the story, nor the author does the reader receive clear, literal expressions of Bertha’s having negative feelings about the scene between Harry and Pearl at the end. Mansfield’s intentionally ambiguous story raises many possibilities but no one to the exclusion of all others. Several questions arise. Why is Bertha “overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss” on this particular day? Is it by cruel chance that on the same day she will, ironically, discover her husband’s bliss with another woman? Would she have been able to sustain the feeling of bliss alone that night when, “for the first time,” she desired him? Would the rushes of bliss cease tomorrow as suddenly as they had struck her today? Mansfield seems to insist that Bertha, and the reader, remain subject to the contingencies of each new day.

The reader follows Bertha’s unconscious use of several psychological devices: Instead of expressing her feelings, she, as is her habit, represses them; instead of acting on her feelings, she projects them onto other people, especially Pearl; instead of authenticating her own identity, she excessively identifies with Pearl, whom she imagines is her opposite. Does bliss overwhelm her on the particular day because of her subconscious anticipation of seeing and intensely identifying with Pearl, her ideal, sensual self? The only different, new element in her life on this day is Pearl. Faulty or not (considering her discovery at the end), Bertha’s perception that she has guessed Pearl’s mood, instantly, exactly, is a clear example of the way she projects her own mood onto another person. That projection is most powerful as she stands close to Pearl at the window admiring the pear tree. Having so perfectly identified with Pearl for a moment (as the pear tree’s blossoms are perfect only for a moment), Bertha feels, for a moment, desire for her husband. Scrutiny of this psychological process raises the possibility that Bertha, frightened of her “terrible” desire for Harry, projects onto Pearl and Harry the natural consummation of her own feelings by misperceiving the significance of their gestures in the hall at the end of the story. Perhaps the distance between Bertha and Harry and Pearl contributes to the misconception. Bertha’s perceptions and emotions throughout the evening would predispose her to project impulsively onto the scene what she believes, or only imagines, she sees.

Mansfield then shows the reader how—even in a moment, or a series of moments clustered in a brief time—faulty human perceptions generate rare, romantic emotions that, given the nature of their stimulus, may be doomed to shatter against reality in disillusionment. Feelings such as “absolute bliss,” even when one willfully tries to sustain them, as Bertha does, are rare and fleeting, but, as Eddie the poet tells her just after her observation of the Harry-Pearl scene, mundane “tomato soup is dreadfully eternal.” Nevertheless, such moments as Bertha’s moment of bliss have their own psychological reality and intensity before external reality does its work on them, and Mansfield seems to regard those moments with awe and wonder.

Social Concerns / Themes

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The story "Bliss" introduces Bertha Young, a thirty-year-old, well-to-do woman who apparently has everything she could possibly want, but who lives a shallow existence in a world of showy pretense. Although Mansfield's main aim is to reveal Bertha's delusions, she also satirizes Bertha's arty upper-middle-class set.

Bertha is eager to discover the source of her bliss, a deep burning sensation inside her body that she can just barely suppress. This bliss appears to be an essentially adolescent feeling, a desire "to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at — nothing — at nothing, simply." Throughout the story, it keeps welling up in little bursts of laughter as if it would escape. But there is a discrepancy between Bertha's emotion and its apparent causes. In many Mansfield stories, the reader observes characters either misjudging external stimuli ("The Young Governess") or interpreting the stimuli in highly idiosyncratic ways ("Prelude"). This story is different; here the main character appears to be suppressing her true feelings.

According to Saralyn R. Daly, "what Bertha tells herself and the responses she makes to stimuli within the story are in conflict." Thus, Bertha feels maternal delight in claiming her rights as a mother from the nurse and feeding her baby herself, but the scene that Mansfield describes is at odds with what the character asserts about it. Similarly, Bertha later claims to have shared a moment of emotional communion with one of her dinner guests, Pearl Fulton, when there is no evidence that anything has occurred on Miss Fulton's part. At the very end of the story, she observes her husband arranging a rendezvous with Pearl Fulton, and her bliss evaporates instantly. When she finally asks, "Oh, what is going to happen now?" a reader may see that as a question she has been avoiding throughout the story.

What Bertha is suppressing is open to various interpretations. On the surface, it would appear to be a knowledge of her husband's affair with her friend, but there are other levels of meaning. In particular, her rambling thoughts reveal aspects of her own sexuality that she has not fully recognized. When Pearl Fulton is introduced, the reader learns that when she and Bertha first met, "Bertha had fallen in love with her, as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them." Later, after her supposed moment of communion with Pearl, Bertha feels desire for her husband for the first time in her life when "something strange and almost terrifying" darts into her mind: she thinks of their being "alone together in the dark room — the warm bed," and she recalls how cold she has been in the past. In this reading of the story, what has so long been suppressed is not knowledge of her husband's affair but knowledge of what Kate Fullbrook calls her "sexual need." At this moment of discovery, the ill-defined feeling of bliss turns into an "ardent" longing for her husband, only to be replaced almost instantly by despair as she discovers that Harry Young has found consolation elsewhere.

Themes

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Marriage and Adultery
The themes of marriage and adultery are central to ‘‘Bliss.’’ Bertha believes (or makes herself believe) she has a fulfilling, complete marriage. Although she characterizes her husband as a good pal, she still contends they are as much in love as they ever were.

The climactic event of the story—Bertha’s realization of Harry’s affair with Pearl—proves that her husband does not share his wife’s contentment. As Harry’s affair demonstrates, he is not happy with the lack of passion in their marriage. Harry’s actions reveal his duplicitous nature: not only has Harry been hiding the affair from his wife, he also pretends to dislike Pearl in order to cover it up. The risk that Harry takes in kissing Pearl in his own home, as well as his method of hiding his true feelings, indicate the likelihood that he and Pearl share a very strong connection.

Change and Transformation
Change and transformation are subtle themes in the story. Bertha’s extreme sense of bliss, along with her new feelings of desire for her husband, show that she is undergoing a profound change in her life. She wonders if the feeling of bliss that she had all day was actually leading up to her increased attraction to her husband. At the end of the story, she wants nothing more than for the guests to leave so she can be alone with Harry.

Bertha’s transformation into a sexual being is abruptly halted when she sees her husband kissing Pearl Fulton. She realizes that she can no longer look at her world as perfect, nor can she move forward to a new relationship with Harry. When she runs to the window to look at the pear tree she finds that it is ‘‘as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.’’ This is a clear sign that the change Bertha has undergone will be brought to an abrupt halt, for the pear tree—which is seen to represent Bertha— remains exactly the same.

Modernity
The concept of modernity is an important aspect of the story. Bertha constantly characterizes the elements of her life—her relationship with her husband and her friends, for instance—as being thoroughly modern. However, Bertha’s view of modernity would seem to be a liking for things that are shallow, superficial, and duplicitous. She has rationalized her poor sexual relationship with her husband as ‘‘being modern’’ because they are such good pals. Thus, in Bertha’s mind, a modern marriage needn’t be based on love or attraction but simply on the bonds that would make two people friends.

Her view of the modern marriage hurts her relationship with Harry as he experiences dissatisfaction at the state of their relationship. Even Bertha and Harry’s philosophy of raising children is perceived as modern. Bertha seems to spend little time with her daughter, instead entrusting her to a jealous nanny; moreover, Harry claims to have no interest in his daughter.

Bertha’s friends are also considered thoroughly modern—but they appear utterly ridiculous. Mrs. Knight is described as a cross between a giant monkey and a banana peel. Her modern ideas for decorating—including french fries embroidered on the curtains and chairbacks shaped like frying pans— seem distasteful and ugly. Plays and poems mentioned by the guests seem dismal and pseudointellectual, and the satire reaches a high point in Eddie Warren’s lauding of a poem that begins, ‘‘Why Must it Always be Tomato Soup?’’ The guests and their interests, rather than seeming ‘‘modern’’ and ‘‘thrilling,’’ seem merely excessive and absurd.

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