Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660
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...
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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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603
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.