"The Garden Party" Mansfield, Katherine
(Born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp; also wrote under the pseudonym Boris Petrovsky) New Zealand short story writer, critic, and poet.
The following entry presents criticism of Mansfield's short story "The Garden Party," first published in 1922 in The Garden Party, and Other Stories. See also, "The Fly" Criticism and Katherine Mansfield Criticism.
During her brief career Mansfield helped shape the modern short story form with her innovative literary style. In such influential stories as "The Garden Party," "Bliss," and "Prelude," Mansfield perfected her meticulous craft, examining the human condition in restrained and deceptively everyday prose. Her avowed intention was to intensify "the so-called small things so that everything is significant." In "The Garden Party," for example, the description of sunbeams playing on an inkwell is the kind of detailed observation that lends an almost hallucinatory visual acuity to this celebrated tale. In her attention to the "the so-called small things," Mansfield was in the forefront of those writers who treated ordinary life rather than momentous events, and, according to H. E. Bates, many followed her "in squeezing the significance out of the apparently commonplace, trivial behavior of their fellow men." Working on the fringes of British Modernism, Mansfield developed the use of stream-of-consciousness technique, earning the admiration—and rivalry—of a contemporary, Virginia Woolf. Like Woolf, Mansfield emphasized the importance of incident over conventional narrative, and thus, in "The Garden Party" Laura's impressions dictate the shape of a story drawn from Mansfield's own childhood memories.
Plot and Major Characters
Set in colonial New Zealand, "The Garden Party" falls into two clearly differentiated parts. Most of the story concerns the preparations and aftermath of a garden party, ostensibly organized by Laura, Meg, and Jose, the daughters of the privileged Sheridan family. As dawn breaks, Laura goes into the Sheridan's exquisite garden to inspect the proposed site for the marquee. Her encounter with three workers hired to raise the tent is awkward and confused, as she finds herself torn between snobbery and her developing sense of moral responsibility. Back at the house preparations continue: a florist delivers several trays of pink lilies; Mrs. Sheridan fusses over the sandwiches; and Meg rehearses a comically inappropriate song. A delivery man brings an order of delectable cream puffs—and news of the accidental death of a local carter, a nearby neighbor of the Sheridans. Laura immediately proposes the cancellation of the party, much to the amusement, and then irritation, of Jose and Mrs. Sheridan. Neither sees any need to consider the feelings of their impoverished neighbors. Ultimately Laura herself is distracted from compassion by her mother's spur-of-the-moment gift of a pretty black hat decorated with gold daisies. Startled by the sudden revelation of her own beauty, she slips effortlessly into the role of party hostess, promising to remember the tragic accident later. The garden party passes in a blur of pleasure, and a delightful afternoon slowly ends. As the Sheridans gather under the deserted marquee, Laura's father re-introduces the subject of the dead carter. To Laura's discomfort, Mrs. Sheridan brightly suggests that her daughter bring some party leftovers to the grieving widow. Laden with cream puffs and still dressed in her party clothes, Laura self-consciously crosses the broad road which divides the Sheridan's property from the mean, cramped dwellings of the poor. Down a narrow, dark lane she finds the carter's home and is led by the widow's sister to view the body. Alone with the dead man, Laura is unexpectedly overwhelmed by the peaceful beauty of the corpse and absurdly sobs, "Forgive my hat." Outside the house she meets her brother Laurie, with whom she shares a special empathy. She struggles to convey the feelings that she just experienced, but is at a loss for words.
The central theme of "The Garden Party" is commonly perceived to be the contrast between life and death. The Sheridan's garden is a place of thoughtless pleasure and burgeoning energy, where young people resemble brilliant butterflies and arum lilies bloom with an almost frightening vitality. In contrast, the home of the dead carter is dark and oppressive, guarded by an aged crone and surrounded by a shadowy crowd. Mansfield deliberately exaggerates the difference between these two locations in order to emphasize her theme. That life and death are part of the same continuum is suggested by the temporal structure of the story, which begins at dawn and ends in a gathering dusk. As many critics have noted, Laura's journey to visit the bereaved family has strong mythic overtones and resembles the tale of Proserpina, a goddess who was abducted by Hades into the underworld. Laura's moment of epiphany testifies to a kind of knowledge unavailable in the sunny world of the garden party. In this way, her journey also has the quality of an initiation rite, in which a naive young girl achieves emotional and moral maturity.
Much of the critical discussion about "The Garden Party" has centered on the story's structure. Sparking considerable debate, Warren S. Walker contended that the conclusion of "The Garden Party" is flawed by Laura's ambiguous response to the carter's corpse. Robert Murray Davis, Donald S. Taylor, and Adam J. Sorkin have all responded to Walker's misgivings, arguing that the story's central oppositions (life and death, dream and reality, youth and maturity, beauty and ugliness) result in artistic unity and satisfying thematic tension. Another commentator, Ben Satterfield, found the ambiguity of "The Garden Party" consistent with the irony that he detected throughout the story. In recent years attention has centered on such issues as the characterization of Laura and the author's representation of social classes. From the perspective of psychoanalysis, feminist critics, such as Kate Fullbrook and Mary Burgan, have interpreted "The Garden Party" as the story of a young girl's attempt to establish her own identity.