Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Like many of the stories of Katherine Mansfield and of her major influence, Anton Chekhov, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” deals with the theme of captivity. Josephine and Constantia have been imprisoned in a world with two objectives: to avoid displeasing a testy old father and to stay out of his way. Their lives, then, have been directed toward negatives rather than toward positives. Over the years, they have become imprisoned not only in their father’s house but also in their own passivity. The causes of their condition are touched on in the story: their mother’s death, their father’s habit of command and unconcern for their social life, and their own timidity. After his death, the sisters are still imprisoned by their habitual responses of fear and obedience, which make decisions impossible for them.

However, throughout the story there are impulses toward freedom. The very fact that the imaginations of the sisters are not dead, that they can summon forth the runner moving toward Benny, that they can respond to the sunshine and the barrel organ, that Constantia has yearned in the moonlight and by the sea, suggests that they may be able to escape from their prison, now that their father is dead and they are still alive.

The final section, however, makes it clear that there will be no escape. The sisters cannot even confess their impulses to each other. When they repress their impulses to speak of the future, the sun is symbolically covered by a cloud, and it is clear that captivity has conquered.