illustration of Laura wearing her mothers hat and holding a basket with a shadowy figure behind her

The Garden Party: And Other Stories

by Katherine Mansfield

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Overview of "The Garden Party"

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2133

Most criticism of Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden Party" concentrates on the story as a truncated bildungsroman—a story of the growth and maturity of a young idealistic character. Critics such as Daniel S. Taylor in "Crashing the Garden Party: A Dream, A Wakening," for example, see Laura's initiation as a passage from the "dream world of her parents and social class to the real world of the Sheridan's neighboring working-class." As Taylor notes, describing the symbolic significance of the garden party, "The garden party epitomizes the dream world of the Sheridan women, a world whose underlying principle is the editing and rearranging of reality for the comfort and pleasure of its inhabitants. Its war is with the real world, whose central and final truth is death." Similarly, Clare Hansen and Andrew Gurr, in "The Stories: Sierre and Paris," discuss Laura's evolution into adulthood as taking place in the context of a gulf between rich and poor—a gulf that is indicated by the Mansfield's oppositional descriptions of the world of the Sheridans and the world of their less fortunate neighbors:

Words such as "perfect," "delicious," "beautiful," "splendor," "radiant," "exquisite," "brilliant," "rapturous," "charming," "delightful," "stunning," convey the outward beauty of the Sheridan's life ... In striking contrast are words describing the working people and Saunders lane: "haggard," "mean," "poverty stricken," "revolting," "disgusting," "sordid," "crablike," "wretched."

Given that "The Garden Party" was written in 1922 at the height of Marxist movements across Europe and Russia—which, among other things, attempted to understand class structure and identity—it is necessary to explore the way in which "The Garden Party" presents a picture of class interdependence. Specifically, "The Garden Party" is interesting to investigate for the way it portrays families like the Sheridans as being dependent for their class—identity on their always nearby working—class neighbors. Thus, rather than conceptualizing the worlds of the Sheridans and the worlds of the Scotts as diametric opposites whose paths seldom cross, this essay will explore the way in which "The Garden Party" presents the two worlds as always meeting and clashing—defining one and the other through their continual juxtaposition.

"The Garden Party" is structured around the preparations for an early afternoon garden party. The sense of the Sheridans as inhabiting a dreamlike world is set out in the very first lines when the narrator comments on the ideal weather conditions for the garden party. "And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud." The family, and particularly its female members, seem to derive their life-force from the carefree atmosphere in which they live. In the story's first scene, Meg, one of Laura's sisters, is seen sipping coffee, hair washed, wrapped in a green turban. Jose, another sister, is simply described as a butterfly who always "came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket."

Mansfield, however, does not allow this sense of early morning luxuriance to go uninterrupted. Immediately, those upon whom the Sheridan sisters' luxury depends burst in upon this scene of lazy breakfast-taking. Their entrance is signaled by a break in the narrator's description of the garden and weather: "Breakfast was not yet over before the men came to put up the marquee." The now down-to-earth tone of this sentence connotes linguistically a clash between the lives of the Sheridan sisters and the men who must come at dawn to put up the marquee for the party. This interruption is further signaled when Laura, the main character who throughout the story attempts to bridge personally these two ever-present worlds, runs out to meet the workmen with breakfast—the signifier of her "Sheridan" life—in hand. Significantly, Laura feels embarrassed still holding the bread and butter when she comes to meet the workmen: "Laura wished now that she had not got the bread-and-butter, but there was nowhere to put it and she couldn't possibly throw it away."

The reason for this awkwardness is precisely that the bread and butter, the piece of Sheridan life which she has taken with her, defines her to the workmen as not one of them but as opposite from them, and upper class. Laura attempts to mediate that duality by playing both roles—taking a big workman-like bite from her slice of refined Sheridan life while thinking of the "absurdity of class distinctions."

While Laura is exulting in her camaraderie with the workmen, one of them catches her attention. He seems somewhat apart from his compatriot—he does not share the general frivolity, and functions to once again remind Laura of their difference. Discussing the placement of the marquee, Laura remarks that there will be a band playing at the party. To this the workman replies, "H'm, going to have a band, are you?" After this remark, Laura notices that this workman "was pale," and with a "haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis court." At this very moment, however, of a sense of mutual alienation, the workman picks and smells a sprig of lavender from the garden. Witnessing this, Laura feels their differences evaporate and "wonder(s) at him for caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender." Once again, then, a moment of antimony, of unmediated difference of "two worlds," is mediated by an action, this time on the part of one of the workmen rather than Laura.

This sense of similar class identities is shortlived, however, as the narrative continues with the continued clashing and jarring of the two worlds. In fact, during the rest of the story there is never a moment where Saunders Lane is forgotten. Even at the dreamiest point in the Sheridan world, Saunders Lane is suggested in some way or another. For example, after Laura has met the workmen, she settles down for a moment and listens to the sound of the house. As she listens she finds that the house is an airy delight, "every door seemed open . . . And the house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices." Even this momentary enjoyment of the house's heavenly comfort is interrupted by Saunders Lane. The interruption comes in the form of "a long chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors." Although we are told that Meg and Jose are involved in moving the piano, it is the servant Hans's physical labor that Laura undoubtedly overhears.

A more humorous (if not satirical) moment of potential mediation between the two worlds of the story is Jose's absurd song with which she tests her voice. Jose has been earlier described as a "butterfly"—a girl of cream-puffs and linen dresses, and of course garden parties. Yet, the song that she sings is decidedly not of this type: "This life is Wee-ary, / A Tear—A Sigh. / A Love that Chan-ges / This life is Wee-ary." Rather than the expected moment of unity between the Sheridan house and Saunders Lane, the absurd pairing of an emotionally calloused character like Jose with a song of sorrow and desperation serves instead to remind the reader that it is precisely the weariness of others that makes possible Jose's butterfly-like existence. This antithesis of expression and experience is punctuated by Jose's actions at the close of the song,

But at the word "goodbye", and although the piano sounded more desperate than ever, her face broke into a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile, 'Aren't I in good voice, Mummy?'

This mismatch of expression and character is underscored by the fact that this song is preceded by Jose giving orders to the servant, Hans, to rearrange the tables and to sweep the rug.

The garden party is itself not fully described in the story. We are only privy to certain snatches of conversation—and these tell us that it has been a success, with Laura the center of much attention because of her black hat. Before the garden party, Laura's mother, Mrs. Sheridan, had distracted Laura from thinking about the dead laborer and her wish to cancel the garden party by enticing her with a black hat. Laura had at first resisted this appeal to her vanity, but once she leaves her mother's bedroom, she catches a glimpse of herself in the hat in her bedroom mirror. What she sees startles her, and serves to obliterate the image of the dead laborer.

There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long velvet black ribbon. Never had she imaged she could look like that. . . . Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed so blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper.

The hat thus functions at this moment to reinforce more than ever the division between the world of the Sheridans and the world of the Scotts. Suffused with vanity as a result of the hat's charm, Laura forgets the tragedy down the hill, and more than ever desires to continue with the garden party. Even when confronted with her brother, Laurie— the family member with whom she is most emotionally intimate—Laura decides not to tell him of Scott once he has complemented her on her hat.

Ironically, the hat—after the garden party—is a catalyst for a moment of understanding/connection between Laura's world and the world of the Scotts. After the party, Laura's mother suggests that Laura take a basket of party scraps down to Scott's widow. At first, Laura questions the appropriateness of this gesture, but is soon convinced. Mrs. Sheridan also insists that Laura "run down just as [she is]"- in party dress and hat. Arriving at Saunders Lane, Laura soon feels awkward because of the way in which she is dressed. This awkwardness, I would argue, signals a moment of insight for Laura into the lives of the workers who live on this lane. She is disturbed because of the brightness of her frock and the extravagance of the famous hat: "how her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat!" Noting the difference between her dress and that of the laborers—tweed capped men and shawled women—Laura realizes the life absent of carefree happiness that the inhabitants of Saunders Lane must endure. A bright frock and an extravagant hat have no home here. Like the bread and butter episode, this piece of Sheridan life reveals to her the almost unsurmountable disjuncture between her life and the lives of these workers.

The hat also functions to create another moment of insight for Laura when she is alone with the body of the laborer. When Laura enters the Scott home, she is immediately confronted with the sorrow-ravaged face of the laborer's widow. Although Laura tries to escape as soon as it is possible, the widow's sister insists that she view the now-peaceful body of Mr. Scott. Laura is soon overwhelmed by the peacefulness of the expression on the laborer's face; particularly she is overcome by the remoteness of his appearance. "He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane." Laura feels that she can not leave Scott without saying something that would indicate the affect that he has had on her—"She gave out a loud, childish sob . . . 'Forgive my hat,' she said."

Although her plea is undoubtedly comical and absurd, it also carries within it a significant moment of understanding. As we have seen, the hat has heretofore functioned as a prime signifier of the division between the two worlds—earlier, the hat had caused Laura to forget the tragedy just down the hill. By apologizing for her hat, Laura is also apologizing for what it represents—class snobbery, selfishness, and the almost unsurmountable psychological and social division between the world of the laborers and the world of the Sheridans. The hat, then, here facilitates a moment of connection—of class similarity—through its very significance as a symbol of division and antimony. The story concludes with Laura meeting her brother, Laurie, in Saunders Lane. Her demeanor with him indicates that she has been touched by the universality of death and life—both know neither class borders nor garden parties.

Source: Jennifer Rich, "Overview of 'The Garden Party,'" in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Rich is an instructor of literature, composition, and gender issues at Marymount Manhattan College.

Irony in "The Garden Party"

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1402

All of the writing on Katherine Mansfield's most anthologized story recognizes or implies that "The Garden Party" is a fable of initiation. The general interpretation argues that Laura goes from her Edenic world to one in which death exists, and that archetypically she loses her innocence, thereby acquiring knowledge and reaching a point of initiation. Laura has a great discovery, true; but because of her inability to make any kind of statement about it that would serve to clarify its meaning, critics disagree on whether she will go on to learn more about life and death or whether she will retreat into the sanctuary of the garden world. Much of the disagreement can be resolved, I believe, by a close examination of the irony—which has been largely ignored—and the function and effect of that irony upon the events of the story. Also, "The Garden Party" contains two types of initiation, a fact mostly overlooked, and the initiations are not compatible, as the details of the story make evident.

Irony is the keynote. The central character of "The Garden Party," Laura Sheridan, is protected from the exigencies of life and is unable to view reality (even death) except through the rose-tinted glasses provided by a delicate and insulated existence. Laura's world is a world of parties and flowers, a pristine world of radiant, bright canna lilies and roses, a precious and exclusive world. Laura's sister, Jose, is early described as a butterfly—and what creature is more delicate than a butterfly? That Jose chooses to sing a song about a weary life, obviously something she is unacquainted with, has to be ironic: in the Sheridan family, weariness and sorrow are merely lyrics to be mocked.

Mansfield's exquisite use of imagery is as telling as her irony. For example, the flower imagery throughout the story serves to keep the reader reminded of the delicacy of Laura's world. The flowers are splendid, beautiful, and—what is not stated—short-lived. Laura, too, is beautiful, radiant, flower-like. But even the afternoon is likened to a flower: "And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed." Laura, her vision attuned to the superficial, can see only the beauty and not the dying of the flower, and she cannot see that, in many ways, she is very much like a flower herself.

The symbolism of Laura's hat as well as her name (from laurel, the victory crown) is apparent. Marvin Magalaner adroitly sums up the significance of both: "When the mother thus presents her daughter with her own party hat in typical coronation fashion, she is symbolically transferring to Laura the Sheridan heritage of snobbery, restricted social views, narrowness of vision—the garden party syndrome." Surely this is the case, although Laura may not be aware of it. Hence here is an initiation that is true and subtle.

But the strong irony of this story results from the contrast between the way Laura sees herself and the way the reader is led to see her. Laura has very little—if any—insight, a fact made manifest throughout "The Garden Party." Her dealings with the workmen illustrate her lack of awareness: she sees them as "extraordinarily nice,'' apparently not realizing that their "niceness" is more than likely due to their roles as subordinates, mere hirelings. Laura does not even seem to realize that what to her is a delightful party is simply toil to the workmen. Self-absorbed and narcissistic, she takes the superficial at face value because both she and her perceptions lack depth. "She felt just like a work-girl" is stingingly ironic because the reader knows that Laura has absolutely no concept of the life of a work-girl, just as she has no idea of what lies behind the friendly veneer of the workmen. For her to imagine that she would "get on much better with men like these" rather than the "silly boys" who come to her parties is an indication of how little general comprehension and self-understanding she possesses.

The other obvious contrast in the story is between the gaiety on the top of the hill and the sorrow below. The death of a man intrudes upon Laura's affected sensibilities and she discusses the possibility of canceling the party, but, as we suspected, her conscience is easily assuaged (and by the symbolic hat, a distraction that serves to fix Laura permanently in her world). Nothing, positively nothing, is permitted to spoil the party; even the weather is described as "ideal"—a "perfect day for a garden-party."

In the Sheridan world, suffering and misery cannot take precedence over well-ordered but mundane social functions, and will not be allowed to interfere. Consequently, Laura, with uncommon self-centeredness, blots out the death of a common man until a more convenient time: "I'll remember it again after the party's over, she decided." But even then, for her to realize that she is actually going to the house of the dead man is difficult because "kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything else." Unmistakably she has room for little else than parties, and the closer she comes to the house of the dead man the more she realizes her mistake, for here is a reality she does not want to face: it is so much easier to commiserate from the top of the hill—and then to go on with one's fun. When she actually views the dead man, she can see him only as she sees death, as something remote, far, far away. (In addition, she has no more understanding of why she is there than does the dead man's wife.) Death is so removed from Laura's insular life that it is unreal; it cannot really be experienced, much less coped with, so she sees it as she sees everything else, as something marvelous and beautiful. Just as Laura is unable to pierce the facade of the workmen, she is equally unable to see beyond the face of death, the stark reality of which is transformed into dream, and she sees the dead man as sleeping, happy, content.

Any initiation into the mystery of life and death is incomplete, whereas the installation of Laura into the Sheridan tradition is certain. That Katherine Mansfield could present two types of initiation, one profound and the other shallow, is a tribute to her consummate skill: the fact that the protagonist opts for the shallow in no way detracts from her art but serves to increase the poignancy of her tale and to mark its realism.

Laura is not without sensitivity, but her sensitivity is subordinated to the comforts and trappings of the Sheridan way of life. She is young and inexperienced, and she has been shielded from the harsher aspects of existence. Even after facing the reality of death, however, she is unable to view it realistically and transforms it into a dream, into something wonderful and happy, something that will fit into the tableau of her resplendent world. The ironic tone has been too clearly established for the reader to take Laura's encounter as profoundly affecting. In this regard, "The Garden Party" asserts itself as not just another story of the loss of innocence, but an alteration of a mythic pattern.

The intimations of mortality are only vaguely perceived, and the story closes on a final note of irony: Laura apparently thinks that she has discovered something new about life, not an awesome truth, but something deep and ineffable, something she attempts to explain to her brother, but cannot. Unlike the emperor Augustus, who would sometimes say to his Senate, "Words fail me, my Lords; nothing I can utter could possibly indicate the depth of my feelings," Laura seems more confused than moved, and her inability to articulate her feelings to her brother is a result of her failure to understand, her inability to grasp the full significance of what she has witnessed. "No matter. He quite understood." That is, he understood as much as Laura. They both will in all likelihood remain in the refuge of their bright house on the hill and continue giving expensive, gay parties and toying with the surface of things until the petals of their own lives are closed.

Source: Ben Satterfield, "Irony in 'The Garden Party,'" in Ball State University Forum, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 68-70.

The Stories 1921-22: Sierre and Paris

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1879

Into her narrative Katherine Mansfield weaves a series of contrasts and parallels which unobtrusively carry forward her theme at the same time as they unify the different elements of the story. "The Garden Party" is a great story and a complex one because in it . . . we are presented simultaneously with several distinct yet interlocking levels of meaning. There is the social meaning provided by the real-life framework; the emotional and psychological overtones of the events in which Laura plays a central part; and the broader, philosophical significance of the total experience Katherine Mansfield lays before us.

The fact that the rich can avoid (or attempt to avoid) the unpleasant realities of human existence, even summon up beauty and elegance at will, is conveyed in the very first paragraph of the story. This opening paragraph is redolent of the fullness and richness of life, indeed of birth, since the rose bushes are bowed down as if "visited by archangels" in the night. At the same time, there is an unreal, artificial quality to this beauty which the personification of the roses underlines. And so the scene is set for the contrast which is integral to the patterning of the narrative: the contrast between the essentially artificial, almost unreal world of the Sheridans and the quite different but real world of the Scotts. While the Sheridans' money brings them life in its fullness, the Scotts' lack of money confers on them only hardship and death.

The world of the Scotts dominates the ending of the story, the world of the Sheridans the first part. Rich and poor alike have their social rituals, and the ritual being celebrated by the Sheridans is the garden party, which at once allows them to display their wealth and fulfill the obligations of hospitality. Convention governs the attitudes, the behaviour and even the voices of the Sheridan women. Laura's conscious attempt to copy her mother's voice, followed by her realisation that she sounds "so fearfully affected," indicates the artificiality of the Sheridan manner of talking. Laura, who despises "stupid conventions," cannot act a role; but her mother and sisters do. Jose, for example, delights in the artificial. She loves "giving orders to the servants" and making them feel that "they were taking part in some drama." Emotion is something she simulates but does not feel. Practising her song, "This Life is Wee-ary, / Hope comes to Die," Jose sings of a tragic feeling only to break into a "brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile." Behaviour is learned, not something spontaneous, in this sheltered world of wealth; and the Sheridan reaction to events taking place outside the family circle is dictated by what is expected. Thus Laura's instinctive feeling that the garden party should be cancelled because a death is being mourned nearby is rejected by her mother and sister in virtually identical words. Jose tells Laura, "nobody expects us to," and this is echoed by Mrs Sheridan: "People like that don't expect sacrifices from us."

It is principally through Laura's perceptions that we glimpse the quite different world of the workmen. The distinguishing characteristic of these ordinary people is their naturalness and spontaneity. Whereas feelings are assumed, disguised, or restrained by the Sheridan women, they are expressed freely by the working class. Instinctively, Laura is attracted to the warmth and friendliness of the working men who come to erect the marquee; and the sensitivity shown by the man who smells a sprig of lavender makes her compare these men and the boys of her own social class. "How many men that she knew would have done such a thing," she thinks. "Why couldn't she have workmen for friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper?" Laura is searching for an identity of her own when she inwardly voices her dislike of the "absurd class distinctions" and "stupid conventions" which pervade the Sheridan world and prevent her from having friendships with such men. She tries to legitimise her attraction to the workmen by pretending to be "just like a work-girl." But the class barriers cannot be broken down, and it is with her brother, Laurie, that she shares her own warmth. "Suddenly she couldn't stop herself. She ran at Laurie and gave him a small, quick squeeze." Responding in a "warm, boyish voice," Laurie echoes the warm voices of the workmen.

Tension in the story is generated by the underlying conflict between Laura, who cannot fully accept the artificial Sheridan conventions, and her mother. Because she is close to the natural world, the girl empathises with the feelings of the working people who are themselves part of that world. With Laurie, Laura had explored the forbidden territory where "washerwomen lived in the lane. . . . It was disgusting and sordid. . . . But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything." If Laura is something of a rebel, out of tune with her mother and sisters because she needs to include knowledge of the real, outside world in her perception of life, she is also set apart because she is "the artistic one." So long as her imagination functions usefully in the context of the Sheridan life-style, all is well. But when she imaginatively experiences the horror of the working man's death and, forgetting the distinctions between the different social worlds, wants to stop the garden party, she is condemned as "extravagant."

Laura's inner division is central to the working out of "The Garden Party." On the one hand her naturalness draws her to find out about life as it is lived outside the confines of the Sheridan household; on the other her artistic temperament causes her not only to respond to beauty but to cast over it a special imaginative colouring. The world of illusion is as precious to her, although for different reasons, as it is to her mother and sisters. It seems to be Laura who feels that roses "understood that [they] are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties," who registers the noise of the piano being moved as a "long, chuckling, absurd sound," who imagines that "little faint winds were playing chase" and that "two tiny spots of sun . . . [were] playing too." Knowingly, Mrs Sheridan appeals to the imaginative side of her daughter's personality when she cleverly distracts the girl by placing her own hat on her head. "I have never seen you look such a picture," she says admiringly. As Laura gazes at her own beauty in the mirror and decides to forget the death until after the party, the attractions of illusion triumph over the demands of reality. And for the duration of the party, illusion holds sway.

But the magical perfection of the garden party, indeed the whole story, is enclosed within a philosophic framework which reminds us that everything has its opposite. There is a hint of birth in the opening paragraph; in the final section death asserts its presence. In contrast to the frivolous party given by the Sheridans, the gathering at the Scotts' is for the funeral rite of death. Instead of the artificial drama enjoyed by Jose, a real-life drama must be endured in Saunders Lane. And, while sadness and deeply-felt emotion are kept at bay by the Sheridan women, the dead man's wife mourns, her face "puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips."

Emphasising the gulf between the rich and the poor is the descriptive language of the story. Words such as "perfect," "delicious," "beautiful," "splendour," "radiant," "exquisite," "brilliant," "rapturous," "charming," "delightful," "stunning," convey the outward beauty of the Sheridans' life—and its artificiality. In striking contrast are words describing the working people and Saunders Lane: "haggard," "mean," "poverty-stricken," "revolting," "disgusting," "sordid," "crablike," "wretched." In the domain of the Sheridans, mutability can be warded off so long as the outwardly beautiful appearance of things is preserved. This unattainable ideal of permanence, or stasis, is symbolised by the word "picture." In their ordered perfection, the garden, the roses and the canna lilies resemble pictures. When Mrs. Sheridan places her hat on Laura's head and says, "I have never seen you look such a picture," she is in effect framing the young girl's beauty, giving it the semblance of permanence. There is a different kind of picture which Laura briefly visualises: that of the poor woman in the lane and her dead husband. "But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper."

Laura is the central character in "The Garden Party" from whose point of view the story is essentially told; and it is she who bridges the contrasting worlds of the Sheridans and the Scotts. Her personal dilemma is that she must reconcile a sympathetic understanding of the poor, and an awareness of reality, with an imaginative attachment to the almost unreal, magical beauty which sweetens the lives of the rich. Her ordeal comes at the end of the story when she must physically cross the boundaries between her house and Saunders Lane, and in doing so face up to that other, ‘‘blurred, unreal’’ picture. When she enters the cottage of the dead man, the story comes full circle. Just as she had done previously, the girl empathises emotionally with the working people and echoes their grief with a sob. Earlier in the day, her emotional identification with the workmen had been deflected towards her brother: again, it is Laurie who "put his arm round her shoulder. 'Don't cry,' he said in his warm, loving voice." Laurie, whose warmth links him with the workmen, helps his sister emotionally to transcend the barriers between the classes. The unchanging love of brother and sister, moreover, makes bearable the cruelty of life, the heartlessness of human beings, the "Love that Changes" of Jose's song, and the knowledge of mutability; of the inevitable ending of a "perfect afternoon," and the ending of life.

But the crucial philosophical problem in "The Garden Party," the problem that Laura shares with all sensitive human beings, is how to encounter ugliness and death yet retain a personal vision of beauty and hope. In this closing scene, Katherine Mansfield contrives an answer. She brings together the contrasting pictures of beauty and ugliness in a picture whose beauty appears truly permanent, "a marvel." The sister-in-law of the dead man tells Laura that "he looks a picture"; and Laura, the artistic one, agrees that he is indeed "wonderful, beautiful." Imaginatively, she is able to forget the suffering inflicted by his death and think only that, "while they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane." In her writing, Katherine Mansfield, too, has come full circle. Nothing, in her youthful stories, tempered a young girl's initiation into the harshness of adult life. At the ending of "The Garden Party" she allows Laura to retain her illusions. If we are left with the uneasy feeling that she has let her character off too lightly, we nevertheless accept the emotional rightness of the ending. For there is a sense in which Katherine Mansfield has granted us, too, a reprieve; has assuaged both our guilt about social inequalities and our haunting anxiety about death.

Source: Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr, "The Stories 1921-22: Sierre and Paris," in Katherine Mansfield, St. Martin's Press, 1981, pp. 95-139.

The Unresolved Conflict in "The Garden Party"

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1984

The most frequently anthologized of Katherine Mansfield's works, "The Garden Party" has long enjoyed a reputation for near-perfection in the art of the short story. Its characters are deftly drawn with quick Chekhovian strokes; its action moves along at a vigorous pace; its central situation, richly textured, suggests both antecedence and aftermath; its dialogue, especially the internal debate, is psychologically apt and convincing. And yet, for all its undeniable strength and beauty, "The Garden Party," often leaves readers with a feeling of dissatisfaction, a vague sense that the story somehow does not realize its potential. The difficulty, I think, is a structural one: the conflict has a dual nature, only part of which is resolved effectively.

"The Garden Party" is a story concerning the most common form of character development, if not the easiest to portray: the process of growing up. Viewing the changing reaction of the protagonist to an incident that threatens to upset an upper class social occasion, one is aware that throughout the whole story there is a groping toward maturity, and that at the end Laura is indeed more mature than she is at the opening. The incident is the accidental death of a relatively unknown man, but for Laura it brings the first real consciousness of the phenomenon of death. Shocked at first, she comes eventually to see life and death in a new perspective in which death is not as unlovely as she had imagined. One aspect of the conflict, then, and seemingly the more important one, is the struggle between fear of and acceptance of death. That death is different from what she had anticipated, that it is beautiful in one respect is the new awareness, and this, climaxing a story about a young person, can be considered a maturing experience.

But there is another aspect of the conflict that immediately engages the attention of the reader, one which is less fundamental but surely not unimportant: the clash of basic social attitudes represented by Laura and by her mother. This adds a dimension of irony to the story, for on the surface Laura attempts to ape her mother socially by taking charge of the arrangements for the party; she even affects the mannerisms of Mrs. Sheridan, "copying her mother's voice" when she first addresses the workmen and trying "to look severe and even a bit shortsighted" as she comes up to them. Beneath such trivia, however, there is a profound difference. The sensitivity of Laura for the suffering of others is set over against the callousness of Mrs. Sheridan, and the two attitudes struggle for dominance in the child's mind. What she strongly feels to be right is pronounced wrong by the person she imitates, and Laura wavers and is understandably perplexed. Open hostility between the two forces breaks out over the propriety or impropriety of going ahead with plans for the party after it is learned that a near neighbor has been killed. Laura insists that the noisy affair—a band has been employed for the event—must be cancelled. The mother, at first amused ("She refused to take Laura seriously"), finally loses all patience with her daughter. Mrs. Sheridan implies that Laura is being immature and calls her "child" in the argument that ensues. Here, then, is another criterion for maturity, one in the realm of human rather than cosmic considerations.

Whether it is maturity that is involved or something else, the reader, from the opening paragraphs, identifies himself with Laura, is sympathetic toward her point of view, and is himself antagonized by the values of Mrs. Sheridan. This is true even before the accidental death of Scott, a carter, brings the issue to a crisis. When, for example, Laura realizes that laborers are really fine people after all and remarks, in the internal dialogue, on their "friendliness" and on the "stupid conventions" that have kept her from seeing this before, the reader is less amused at the ingenuousness of her observations than annoyed at the parents responsible for a social orientation that would make necessary such an elementary discovery. It is even more true when mother and daughter argue, and the reader's passive agreement with Laura's humane stand turns into empathic support. Mrs. Sheridan is hopelessly alienated from the reader, and everything she says makes her appear worse. In an attempt to soften the incontrovertible fact that one of the indigent cottagers is dead, she remarks, with heartless logic, "'I can't understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes.'" In refutation of Laura's statement that the party should be postponed out of deference to the bereaved survivors, she says, "'People like that don't expect sacrifices from us.'" It is with no surprise that we learn that the Sheridan children have been brought up to scorn the cottages of the laborers:

They were the greatest possible eyesores, and they had no right to be in that neighborhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens, and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans' chimneys.

The Sheridans, who see this rural slum adjacent to their estate as "disgusting and sordid," apparently never make any effort to alleviate the condition of the wretches living there, or even to extend moral support to them. Laura, on the other hand, overcoming the snobbery of her upbringing, is acutely concerned about their feelings.

A resolution of this second aspect of the conflict seems to be suggested obliquely by the use made of hats—hats in general, and one hat in particular. Hats are used functionally in the plot and acquire symbolic value within the framework of the story as they come to represent the whole social milieu of the Sheridan class with its leisure, its conspicuous consumption, and its caste distinctions. In an opening scene, "Father and Laurie stood brushing their hats ready to go to the office." Immediately after this mention of male headwear, Mrs. Sheridan tells Laura to ask Kitty Maitland, with whom Laura is talking on the telephone, to be sure "'to wear to the party that sweet hat she had on last Sunday.'" When Laura is badly upset by the death of the carter, Mrs. Sheridan diverts her attention from the tragedy by giving her a bright jewel from her glittering social world, a "black hat trimmed with gold daisies and a long black velvet ribbon." Laura is thus enticed, for the time being, from her better feelings. One last spark of humane concern flares up that afternoon when Laura encounters her brother Laurie, home from work now. Perhaps Laurie, who of all the family is the only one who even begins to understand Laura, will agree with her on the undesirability of going on with the party. In her confused state she relies on Laurie to provide an ethical touchstone for testing the validity of her opinion.

She wanted to tell him. If Laurie agreed with the others, then it was bound to be all right. And she followed him into the hall.


"Hallo!" He was half-way upstairs, but when he turned round and saw Laura, he suddenly puffed out his cheeks and goggled his eyes at her. "My word, Laura! You look stunning," said Laurie. "What an absolutely topping hat!"

Laura said faintly "Is it?" and smiled up at Laurie, and didn't tell him after all.

Her last resistance overcome now, the spell of society is upon her, and Laura does not escape its influence throughout the ritual of the party.

She is the official hostess, according to plan, thus assuming the position the mother would ordinarily have held, welcoming guests, helping them solicitously to refreshments, and receiving their compliments—for her hat. Finally, the party over and the guests departed, the Sheridans sit down to rest, and Mr. Sheridan contributes to the conversation what he mistakenly thinks will be news to the family: the information about the carter's death. His wife, secretly exasperated at the necessity for renewing a debate she had thought won, rallies with "one of her brilliant ideas." Still completely unmoved by the plight of the widow and her five children, Mrs. Sheridan realizes that now Laura will have to be placated on the issue, and so she suggests that they gather up a basketful of the left-overs from the party and send them to the grieving family, much as one might pick out scraps for a pet sow that had hurt its foot. Laura, quite appropriately, is appalled to think that this is the best they can do for people in trouble, but she goes along with her mother's suggestion, the only concession she has been able to gain. She starts for the cottage of the deceased with the basket, and only when it is too late to turn back realizes how inappropriate is her hat, which by now has become an emblem of the mother and her hard-shelled world. "If only it was another hat!" she admonishes herself. Then comes the incident in the Scott cottage, during which Laura sees something quite peaceful and serene in death. But, significantly, the only thing she says to the dead man is "'Forgive my hat.'" She has not, it seems, succumbed permanently to the enchantment of her mother's world after all.

Here at the climax of the story, then, a decisive stage has been reached in the respective struggles between two sets of opposing forces: 1) youthful fear of death vs. some kind of acceptance of death, and 2) Laura's social attitude vs. her mother's. There is no doubt about the resolution of the first issue:

There lay a young man fast asleep. . . . He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. . . . All is well, said that sleeping face.

About the second part of the conflict, however; there is considerable doubt, for the problem is suddenly dropped, and no further reference is made to it. Does Laura now switch to her mother's view of the matter, and does she now feel that her previous concern about the cotter's family was as unwarranted as the fear of death that accompanied it? Or has her plea "Forgive my hat" indicated her irrevocable commitment to a position opposed to that of Mrs. Sheridan? If so, will she not now have to reorient her feelings toward her family? We never find out, for no hint of an answer to this dilemma is to be found in the conclusion.

To make matters still more vague at the end, in comes Laurie, who she thinks will understand her. He had failed to sense her difficulty before the party, however, when she had depended on him to do so, for he too had made the social genuflection to the sanctity of the hat. Now Laura hopes that he will grasp intuitively the feelings she is unable to articulate. But does he? The scene at the cottage was "wonderful, beautiful. . . . this marvel" to her, but Laurie seems to think that it must have been otherwise. "'Was it awful?'" he asks. And then a moment later when she says, "'Isn't life . . .'" (mysterious, or surprising, or something else), he answers, "'Isn't it, darling?'" Does he really understand what she is talking about? One wonders. One wonders whether he even understands the significance of the death to her; one is morally certain that he never suspects the inner turmoil she has undergone in defending to herself, as well as to the family, her benevolent sensibility.

Source: Warren S. Walker, "The Unresolved Conflict in 'The Garden Party,'" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. III, No. 4, Winter, 1957, pp. 354-58.

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Critical Overview


The Garden Party, Katherine Mansfield