The Garden Party: And Other Stories The Garden Party, Katherine Mansfield - Essay

Katherine Mansfield


(Short Story Criticism)

"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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Warren S. Walker (essay date 1957-58)

(Short Story Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, Walker finds the conclusion of "The Garden Party" ambiguous.]

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 upperclass 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 short-sighted" 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 empathie 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...

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Donald S. Taylor (essay date 1958-59)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Crashing the Garden Party: A Dream—A Wakening," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. IV, No. 4, Winter, 1958-59, pp. 361-62.

[In the following essay, Taylor examines the pattern of dream and reality in "The Garden Party. "]

Laura states the conflict in "The Garden Party" and reveals her instinctive loyalties when she says to her unsympathetic sister Jose, "But we can't possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate." 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,...

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Daniel A. Weiss (essay date 1958-59)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Crashing the Garden Party: The Garden Party of Proserpina," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. IV, No. 4, Winter, 1958-59, pp. 363-64.

[In the following essay, Weiss views Mansfield's "The Garden Party" as a tale of mythic initiation.]

Can "The Garden Party" get along without resolving Laura's social attitude? It can, if one accepts the premise that the class differences in the story are a subordinate component of the primary theme—Laura's discovery of death, and its coextensiveness with life.

I have no wish to still the lively music of Katherine Mansfield's style into some measured archetypal cadence, but much in the story, dealing as it does...

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Don W. Kleine (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Garden Party': A Portrait of the Artist," in Criticism, Vol. V, No. 4, Fall, 1963, pp. 360-71.

[In the following essay, Kleine discusses Laura's imaginative shaping of experience in "The Garden Party. " ]

"The Garden Party" is generally, and with justice, regarded as one of the most nearly flawless short stories in the language. Young Laura Sheridan's discovery of death in life is itself discovered with poetic truth and technical purity, and Miss Mansfield's work deserves the small, enduring place it has won in the history of modern fiction. Writes the author less than year before her own death:

And yes, that is what I...

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Robert Murray Davis (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Unity of The Garden Party,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. II, No. 1, Fall, 1964, pp. 61-5.

[In the following essay, Davis reveals symbolic and narrative consistency in "The Garden Party. "]

In view of Katherine Mansfield's statement that the meaning of "The Garden Party" is "the diversity of life, and how we fit in everything, Death included," one would expect the structure and symbols of the story to be at the same time complex and finally resolvable into a unity. However, Warren S. Walker's "The Unresolved Conflict in The Garden Party'" began a trend in which either the complexity or the unity is exaggerated. One way of avoiding this distortion is...

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Nariman Hormasji (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield," in Katherine Mansfield: An Appraisal, Collins, 1967, pp. 106-16.

[In the following excerpt, Hormasji studies the influence of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov on Mansfield and compares "The Garden Party" to Chekhov's story "After the Theater."]

Whatever Mr [John Middleton] Murry might have said to the contrary, Katherine Mansfield, the chief exponent and craftsman of the short story, was the first English woman to be influenced by the works of Anton Chekhov. The modern English short story would not have developed out of the Wellsian fantasy. It would have remained in the hot-house of Kipling and the wooden boxes of Hardy. In...

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Anders Iversen (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Reading of Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party,'" in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 23, 1968, pp. 5-34.

[In the following essay, Iversen offers a comprehensive account of mythological, structural, and autobiographical aspects of "The Garden Party. "]

There is a short story "Two Worlds" ("To Verdener") by the Danish writer I. P. Jacobsen (1847-85). Its imagery offers points of similarity with Katherine Mansfield's story "The Garden Party", and though I do not postulate any influence from I. P. Jacobsen on Katherine Mansfield, yet a glance at Jacobsen's story will help to bring out the main theme of "The Garden Party".

The scene of "Two Worlds" is...

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Marvin Magalaner (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Legacy of Fiction," in The Fiction of Katherine Mansfield, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971, pp. 74-119.

[In the following excerpt, Magalaner views "The Garden Party" as an attempt to reconcile dream and reality .]

One of the stories on which Katherine Mansfield's reputation as an artist chiefly rests is "The Garden Party," which she completed on October 14, 1921. Aside from its merits as fiction, it provides an opportunity for its author to be at once her satirical earlier self, the gentle recorder of her New Zealand childhood, and the new, transfigured personality whose view of life is complex, warm, and utterly philosophical. Without...

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Adam J. Sorkin (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Katherine Mansfield's 'The Garden Party': Style and Social Occasion," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol.. XXIV, No. 3, Autumn, 1978, pp. 439-55.

[In the following essay, Sorkin sees a creative tension between realism and symbolism in "The Garden Party. "]

Attending the Sheridan's garden party with Katherine Mansfield and her protagonist Laura, we are at once escorted into a richly textured and vividly suggestive world. This is the universe of the author's sensibility, her strong sensitivity and playful delight in imagery which are shared with her receptive, fanciful young heroine. The opening paragraph of the story is as much an exposition of mood and method as...

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Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE; "The Stories 1921-22: Sierre and Paris," in Katherine Mansfield, St. Martin's Press, 1981, pp. 95-139.

[In the following excerpt, Hanson and Gurr place "The Garden Party" in the context of Mansfield's stories about the Sheridan family.]

The Bumells of 'At the Bay' and 'The Doll's House' are an extended family group who appear mostly in domestic situations. Kezia is small and just beginning to open her eyes on the possibilities of the world which the adults, Linda and Beryl especially, foreshadow in their own problems. All the Burnell stories are about discovery and the growth of that kind of awareness which belongs with the intense, singular perspective of the...

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C. A. Hankin (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Haunted by Death," in Katherine Mansfield and Her Confessional Stories, St. Martin's Press, 1983, pp. 235-47.

[In the following excerpt, Hankin examines the subject of social class in "The Garden Party. "]

In the months following her brother's death, Katherine Mansfield had dedicated the remainder of her life to recreating and immortalising both him and the world they had shared. 'The next book will be yours and mine', she had promised in February 1916. No longer 'concerned with the same appearance of things', her writing would be 'changed utterly' in form. It would be changed because writing had become an almost religious mission, and changed because she at...

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Hubert Zapf (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Time and Space in Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party,'" in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 40, No. 1, 1985, pp. 44-54.

[In the following essay, Zapf analyzes the structure of "The Garden Party." ]

It has generally been noted in Mansfield criticism that "The Garden Party" must be regarded not only as her most popular but also as one of her most skilfully constructed stories. Her literary technique has often been compared to that of Chekov, implying a reduced importance of the plot and a shifting of the centre of interest from the dramatic presentation of extraordinary events and unique occurrences to the illumination of inconspicuous, seemingly insignificant...

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Kate Fullbrook (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Late Fiction," in Katherine Mansfield, The Harvester Press, 1986, pp. 86-128.

[In the following excerpt, Fullbrook offers a feminist account of Laura's struggle to establish identity.]

As in 'Bliss', Katherine Mansfield sets up a situation [in 'The Garden Party'] in which a woman is suddenly displaced from a frenetic social whirl that supposedly defines the totality of her being. The Sheridans in the story are a variant of the Burnells [in 'The Doll's House']; the setting is New Zealand and the characters prototypical colonials.

The Sheridan children, all young adults, are giving a party. The excited, happy narrative sees what they see in the...

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Barbara Currier Bell (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Non-Identical Twins: Nature in The Garden Party' and The Grave,'" in The Comparatist, Vol. XII, May, 1988, pp. 58-66.

[In the following essay, Bell finds significant differences between the views of nature in "The Garden Party" and Katherine Anne Porter's story "The Grave."]

From certain points of view "The Garden Party" and "The Grave" are so alike as to be all too easily confused. Even their authors can be mistaken for each other. Katherine Mansfield and Katherine Anne Porter, besides having similar names, led circumstantially similar lives. Their careers overlapped in time, although Mansfield died young; they shared relatively privileged backgrounds; they...

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Rhoda B. Nathan (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The New Zealand Cycle: A Bildungsroman," in Katherine Mansfield, Continuum, 1988, pp. 13-50.

[In the following excerpt, Nathan views "The Garden Party" as a tale of moral and artistic maturation.]

[In "The Garden Party"], as in "The Doll's House," the community is mixed, and the grand houses are uncomfortably adjacent to the hovels of washerwomen, carters, tenant farmers, and the other assorted rural poor who are a fixture of the countryside. In "The Garden Party" the family is somewhat more insulated from the harsh facts of poverty because the poor live a good distance below the large house on the hill. If their children attend the same public school as the...

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J. F. Kobler (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stories of Young Girls," in Katherine Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1990, pp. 76-86.

[In the following excerpt, Kobler emphasizes the limitations of Laura's moment of insight in "The Garden Party."]

As forced thoughts of her own inevitable death momentarily intrude on Leila's happiness in "Her First Ball," so, too, does a real death slightly upset the Sheridan family's garden party and result in the exposure of Laura Sheridan to death in such a highly dramatic and personal way that most readers leave "The Garden Party" believing that young Laura has been permanently affected and will not so easily be able to return to the dance of...

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Mary Burgan (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "They discuss only the food': Body Images," in Illness, Gender, and Writing: The Case of Katherine Mansfield, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, pp. 21-39.

[In the following excerpt, Burgan provides autobiographical and psychoanalytic interpretations of the body imagery of "The Garden Party.]

The reality of Mansfield's own alienation from her family . .. was, for one thing, founded upon the humiliation dealt by maternal disfavor that centered on her physique. A witness recalled Annie Beauchamp's chilly emphasis on Mansfield's weight as she distributed her greetings to the family after one of her travels: "Finally it was to Kathleen she spoke first, for...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. New York: The Viking Press, 1980, 466 p.

Views Mansfield's life and works in the context of early British Modernism.

Crone, Nora. A Portrait of Katherine Mansfield. Ilfracombe, England: Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., 1985, 348 p.

Presents a standard account of Mansfield's life from her New Zealand childhood to her death at Fontainebleu.

Gordon, Ian A. Katherine Mansfield. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1954, 36 p.

Concise discussion of Mansfield's life and works.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Katherine Mansfield: A...

(The entire section is 462 words.)