“The Garden Party” may be Mansfield’s most famous story. It is exceptional and typical at the same time. Laura, a vibrant young woman, is the central character. The story also depicts a worldly older woman (Laura’s mother), a sophisticated social gathering (the party itself), some moderately dense males, and a disturbing event to which they all react differently. The action of the story, more conventionally straightforward than that of “At the Bay,” is also typical of Mansfield. It leads both Laura and the reader to an epiphany—an enigmatic moment of revelation that, in this story, is comic and overwhelming at the same time.
Unlike “At the Bay,” where Mansfield took readers into many minds, readers live through this story in only one. Laura appears to be about sixteen, a young woman on the edge of adulthood. Not only do readers hear her talk, they listen in on her thoughts. She is a bit afraid of the men who put up the tent for the party but enjoys hearing their good-natured banter. Readers sense her joy at being alive when she reacts ecstatically to the spots of light the sun makes on an inkpot. Mansfield brings the reader close to Laura in another typical way. Even the opening description of the day and the flowers seems to be in a character’s mind, not the storyteller’s. To many readers, that mind soon becomes Laura’s.
The opening scenes all suggest a wealthy, normal, and happy family. Laura appears to supervise the tent, but is not allowed to decide where it should be placed. Her sisters strike sophisticated poses; one sings a gruesome song and flashes a big smile. Laura’s mother protests that she will leave the arrangements to her children but organizes the party anyway, providing expensive flowers, a band, and dainty sandwiches. As usual, Mansfield suggests moments of happiness with telling details and evocative descriptions.
Then comes the news that turns Laura’s day around: A man has been killed in an accident, a man who lived in a lower-class cottage almost next to their home. Laura’s instinctive reaction is that the party must be stopped, since the man’s family might hear the band playing. Her sisters and her mother argue with her. She does not change her mind until she sees herself in a mirror—a lovely girl with a spectacular black hat trimmed with gold daisies—and until her brother Laurie compliments her. The party goes ahead, a typically exciting, shallow Mansfield party. Guests compliment Laura, especially on her hat. When the party is over, her mother tries to make amends by filling a basket with party leftovers and sending Laura with it to the dead man’s cottage.
The journey at dusk is frightening. Laura walks into a different world, a lower-class world of grieving, ill-dressed, unsophisticated people. At the dead man’s house, she gives the widow her basket. She is led against her wishes to the bedroom where the corpse has been laid out. Laura, however, is not horrified, but sees the corpse as merely sleeping. She sees death as something calm and even beautiful, something far removed from her silly afternoon. “Forgive my hat,” she says. She has had an epiphany. Her reply is woefully inadequate, but the reader has been shown a character’s moment of understanding and growth. The reader has had an epiphany as well, though it is not the same as Laura’s.
The story ends ambiguously. Laura heads home and meets her brother. She tries to say something but cannot find the words. She thinks he understands, but whether he does is left unclear. As usual, Mansfield does not push her case too far.
A busy, happy mood prevails in the morning. The day, the lawns, and the gardens—particularly the roses—are perfect. During breakfast, Mrs. Sheridan asks her youngest daughter, Laura, to go outside and give directions to the men who will erect a canvas shelter for a garden party. Although Laura’s little mission is successful, she questions herself several times. After rushing out, she feels awkward holding her bread-and-butter, and her formal “good morning” to the men sounds inappropriate. One of the men bluntly questions the location that Laura suggests for the marquee. Then she feels embarrassed for having mentioned that a band will play at the party. Happily, the assured manner of the tallest workman relaxes Laura; he speaks for the group and decides where the marquee should go. When he pinches a sprig of lavender and sniffs it, any concerns that Laura might have about her behavior vanish. In fact, she wishes that men of her own class were as nice as this man.
Laura understands that the awkwardness of this little encounter has resulted from “absurd class distinctions.” As she watches the men work, she momentarily feels that she herself is “just like a work-girl.” After she runs back into the house for a phone call, however, she forgets about the workmen as she savors all that she sees and hears. This time a florist interrupts her reverie; the frighteningly alive pink canna lilies that he delivers make Laura ecstatic. No sooner has she kissed her mother in gratitude than her sisters and little brother command her and her mother to come to the piano that they have just moved to listen to Laura’s sister Meg sing “This Life Is Weary.” Although the song laments life’s burdens and the imminence of death, Meg wears a “brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile.”
Preparations for the party continue throughout the household. The cook requests flags to identify the kinds of sandwiches that she is readying. Another delivery man arrives with irresistible cream puffs—which Sadie, the family maid, insists that the children sample. As the children lick their sticky fingers, unpleasant news arrives: A man named Scott from a nearby poor neighborhood has just died in an accident. Like the Sheridans, his family has five children.
When Laura hears this news, she insists that the garden party should be canceled. However, her sister Jose argues with her. Laura appeals to their mother, but Mrs. Sheridan’s first reaction to the tragedy is simply relief that the man did not die on their property. Mrs. Sheridan overcomes Laura’s objections to continuing with the party by giving her a beautiful hat. Laura remains unsure about what she should do, but when she sees herself in her new hat, her astonishment quiets her objections about the party. By the time lunch is over and the guests arrive, Laura is content to be praised for her beauty, and she no longer mentions the accident.
The party is successful. Afterward, when Mr. Sheridan mentions Scott’s fatal accident, his wife decides to send the leftover sandwiches to the man’s grieving family. Laura delivers the basket, feeling painfully out of place in the poor neighborhood. She wants simply to leave the basket at the Scotts’ house but instead is taken before the grieving widow. Confused and awkward, Laura tries to leave but accidentally walks into the room where the dead man lies.
The resulting encounter with the dead man confuses Laura even more. She finds the poor man’s unmarred face to be “wonderful, beautiful” and “happy.” Feeling compelled to cry, she asks him to forgive her hat. After departing unseen, she meets her older brother Laurie, who comforts her. She starts to say, “Isn’t life . . . ” but cannot finish.