Overview of "The Garden Party"
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 entire section is 2133 words.)