Warren S. Walker (essay date 1957-58)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1994
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 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.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 971
"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.
Donald S. Taylor (essay date 1958-59)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019
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, whose central and final truth is death. In the course of the story Laura wakes to reality from the dream to which her sex, her class, and particularly her mother, custodian of the dream, would confine her.
The story's first paragraph introduces the dream. The Sheridans order nature—lawns are mowed and swept and flowers bloom on schedule in delineated beds. In this garden, Mrs. Sheridan plans to give her daughters the illusion of maturity, thus keeping them within the dream. "I'm determined to leave everything to you children this year." And yet her disposing hand is everywhere—ordering lilies, planning the food, deciding what people shall wear. At the end of the story she tries still to keep up the illusion. "Why," she asks, "will you children insist on giving parties?"
Throughout the first half of the story Laura is quite caught up in this charming dream, which reaches its apotheosis in the delightfully arranged garden party. "Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who are happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes." Within this dream the sorrows of the real world are the stuff of prettily melancholy songs: "This Life is Wee-ary, / A Tear—a Sigh. / A Love that Chan-ges, /. . . . And then . . . Goodbye!" And yet Jose's empty song holds the key to the story: "A Dream—a Wakening."
Early in the story occurs a mock engagement between the two worlds. Workmen come to put up the marquee and Laura finds them "extraordinarily nice" and decides that only "absurd class distinctions" separate her from them. Thus is introduced the social conflict which Mr. Walker finds unresolved, but the treatment here is largely comic. The first genuine attack from the real world penetrates the great house, significantly enough, through a back door. A delivery man tells of the accidental death of a carter, a resident of the gloomy lane of working-class cottages just below the Sheridan's house. Laura immediately insists that the party be cancelled, but Jose defends the dream. "You won't bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental,' she said softly." Laura is enraged at the comforting falsehood so slyly introduced and goes to her mother. In Mrs. Sheridan's reaction the conflict is again epitomized:
"Mother, a man's been killed," began Laura.
"Not in the garden?" interrupted her mother.
Mrs. Sheridan's strategy in this scene is to pretend to be amused with Laura, then to reason with her, finally to bribe her with one of her own hats. Laura is angry at first, but a charming glimpse in the mirror persuades her that she has been extravagant. Temporarily, at least, she accepts her mother's view with her mother's hat.
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 blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I'll remember it again after the party's over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan. . . .
Thus, reality, within the dream, becomes unreal. After the shocked awakening, the sleeper has been persuaded to return to the pleasant dream, which can exorcize insistent reality by incorporating it.
After the "most successful party," reality again asserts itself, this time through the father, who mentions the death. Mrs. Sheridan fidgets at her husband's tactlessness, but counterattacks brilliantly—Laura shall carry a basket of party scraps to the widow. The charity which suffereth not and is kind is, for Mrs. Sheridan, the only possible link between her dream and reality. Though there is danger in this strategy—Laura may see the dead man—Mrs. Sheridan decides that forbidding this sight would be poor tactics: ". . . better not put such ideas into the child's head."
Laura departs through the garden gates, but she cannot shake off the dream. ". . . it seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything else." But she crosses the road, finds the dark cottage, and is brought, almost against her will, to the deathbed. And there, quite suddenly, she moves from the darkness of the lane into the light of truth. Death is the real dream. "He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him. .. . He was wonderful, beautiful." Laura understands now that she had, earlier, let herself be bribed from this truth. When she sobs, "Forgive my hat," she rejects at last the meaningless dream of the garden party and stands now on the threshold of the real world, sinister at first, but now transmuted into beauty by the dream of death.
As for the story's social implications, we note that in the ugly lane lived "a man whose housefront was studded all over with minute bird-cages." Are the cottages (where "men hung over the palings") to the Sheridan house what these cages are to his house? And Laura is expected in the lane, much as though the party scraps are the rich's necessary acknowledgment that it is the inescapable reality of the poor which supports their dream. But both this possible social statement and Mr. Walker's clash of social attitudes are subordinate to the larger struggle within Laura. And for her the dream world of the garden party flies before death, the real dream, the final fact which gives beauty and significance to man's real life on earth.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462
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 Biography. New York: New Directions, 1978, 306 p.
A literary account of Mansfield's life, with special attention to her relationships with D. H. Lawrence and John Middleton Murry.
Daly, Saralyn R. 'Trains of Thought." In her Katherine Mansfield, pp. 91-3. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
Comments on "The Garden Party" in the context of other Mansfield stories about children.
Kaplan, Sydney Janet. Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991, 233 p.
Examines Mansfield's role in the development of British Modernism, with brief reference to "The Garden Party."
Kleine, Don W. "An Eden for Insiders: Katherine Mansfield's New Zealand." College English XXVII, No. 3 (December 1965): 201-09.
Discusses the motif of the Young Girl in Mansfield's fiction, with reference to "The Garden Party."
Morrow, Patrick D. "The Garden Party." In his Katherine Mansfield's Fiction, pp. 74-6. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.
Focuses on the contrast between life and death in 'The Garden Party."
Nathan, Rhoda B., ed. Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1993, 236 p.
Various essays included here contain references to "The Garden Party."
Robinson, Roger, ed. Katherine Mansfield: In from the Margins. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994, 209 p.
A collection of recent revisionary critical essays on Mansfield, with scattered references to "The Garden Party."
Rohrberger, Mary H. "Point of View." In her The Art of Katherine Mansfield, pp. 73-95. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1977.
Discusses point of view in Mansfield's fiction. Rohrberger considers "The Garden Party" to be one of the stories written from the "multipersonal view," in which "the narrator hovers just outside the consciousness of the characters, shifting from one to another and sometimes to a composite consciousness, causing the reader to become familiar not only with a central character or characters but also with a host of minor characters. This method, of course, enlarges the scope of the stories."
Van Gunsteren, Julia. "Narrative Methods: Restriction in Parallax." In her Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism, pp. 96-100. Atlanta: Rodopi B. V., 1990.
Argues that Laura is effectively the narrator of "The Garden Party."
Additional coverage of Mansfield's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 134; DISCovering Authors;, Short Story Criticism, Vol. 9; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 8, 39; and World Literature Criticism.
Daniel A. Weiss (essay date 1958-59)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067
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 with a primordial theme, lends it the quality of a myth, the initiation of a novice into mysteries.
There is, to begin with, the element of election. Laura's older sister is outside the mysteries. She knows the facts of life and death, but, in Shelley's words, she cannot "imagine" what she "knows." Laura qualifies in her novitiate because she is the "artistic one." Her sensibilities are at work in anticipation of her ordeal, prefiguring her vision, when she realizes that the workingmen are "extraordinarily nice," and that class distinctions are "absurd."
Laura's thoughts on class distinctions would write her off (along with her creator) as an unconscious snob rather than a sensitive neophyte, if it were not for the fact that "The Garden Party" is dealing with life and death in the classical mode, as entities, with local habitations and names, a geography as absolute as the garden of Proserpina and the mouth of Pluto's underworld. The garden, especially with a party going, is all life without death—and the cottages are all death, without life. What prevents these equivalences from being distasteful is that the story uses social attitudes and class distinctions, garden parties and cottages, as a sociological pun upon the natures of life and death. They are presentations in Laura's initiation. The lower classes represent—by being "lower," by living "in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the [Sheridan] house," by providing Laura with her first vision of death itself—the land of the dead.
Laura exploits the pun when she denies her sense of class distinctions early in the story. In life democracy is the great leveller; in death it is Death. Her unconscious acknowledgment of this second fact leads her in her initiation to commit what might be called the judicious error. She proposes an impossible conundrum. How can life and death be simultaneously? Death has come into the world. How can life continue? Call off the party.
Her sister's rejection of the proposal is based, not on a more perfect knowledge, but upon ignorance. Jose knows nothing; even the song she sings about Life is an expression of thoughtless banalities. Laura's mother, while she also rejects Laura's impossible plea, injects another quality into her reply. She speaks from a knowledge, perhaps from a memory of an almost forgotten initiation into the same mystery. She answers Laura's question.
"If someone had died there normally—and I can't understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn't we?"
Laura had to say "yes" to that, but she felt it was all wrong.
Death, then, can be simultaneously with life. But now that Death has been allowed another question arises: what is Death like? what does it ask of Life? Mrs. Sheridan does not answer these questions. Instead she gives Laura her beautiful hat, whose first property is its ability to reconcile Laura to the garden party.
The last step in Laura's initiation is accomplished at the instigation of Mrs. Sheridan at the end of the party at the going down of the sun. Carrying a basket of broken breads (the lilies are rejected at the last moment; flowers grow on the earth, not under it) Laura makes her descent into Avernus, past Cerberus and across the "broad road" that divides her world from this one like a river.
A moment before this her mother has enclosed in an ellipsis the very heart of the mystery that Laura is about to encounter. "And Laura!"—her mother followed her out of the marquee—"don't on any account—" Finished, the sentence must read, "Don't on any account look at the dead man!" It is like Demeter's warning her daughter that she must not eat anything in the land of the dead. Mrs. Sheridan anticipates the culmination of Laura's search, the answer to her questions, and with the answer the end of Laura's innocence.
At the door of the dead man's house Laura breathes a prayer, "Help me, God," and enters. And at last, by a second judicious error, a wrong turning, she is face to face with the mystery. Life and death are coextensive dreams. She and the young man are peers in equally felicitous, classless states, mutually and benignly indifferent to one another. Her acknowledgment of this truth reveals the second property of the mother's hat. It is talismanic. Not only did it reconcile Laura to life in the presence of death; it allows her, like the magical garments of mythical heroes, to intrude in the land of the dead. "Forgive my hat" is in effect to say "Forgive me for being alive." Or, to speculate on the fascination the young man holds for her (Proserpina did become the queen of the dead), Laura is saying, "I love you, but I am committed to life now."
On her return she tries to communicate her new knowledge to her older brother. She cannot voice it, but he understands. He has also been initiated. Had they not both been there already, equipped with the insatiable curiosity of children who will not rest until they betray their sense of immortality, and with it their childhoods? "Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went."
"The Garden Party'" s appointed task is to leave Laura at this pristine moment, on the other side of her childhood. To ask whether she will become ultimately like her mother or "reorient her feelings toward her family," is like asking what finally happened to Snow-White or Catskin. It is asking for another story.
Don W. Kleine (essay date 1963)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4532
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 tried to convey in "The Garden Party." The diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. That is bewildering for a person of Laura's age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn't like that. We haven't the ordering of it. Laura says, "But all these things must not happen at once." And Life answers, "Why not? How are they divided from each other?" And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.
If there is beauty in that inevitability, there is lasting pertinence in Katherine Mansfield's sensitive portrayal of Laura's young bewilderment before the mystery, and her final acceptance.
While it would accord with many readers' understanding of "The Garden Party," Miss Mansfield's statement seems nevertheless, on closer inspection, a little misleading. Is it, after all, her story's primary effect to convey a sense of "the diversity of life?" Does she really show how "we try to fit in everything?" Rather, if one would be accurate, the story conveys Laura's realization of life's diversity; it shows how she finally fits in everything. To be sure, the young girl's perception of the oneness of happy parties and tragic deaths is true to our adult awarenesses; and thus it appears natural for a reader to subordinate the youthful perceiver to her perception. Yet the fact remains that—in the story—the perception is Laura's alone. To overlook this fact is, I think, to overlook not only the dramatic structure of "The Garden Party," but also its total symbolic meaning. Miss Mansfield's artistic intention is even more complex than her statement would indicate. Her heroine is not a mere function of an ultimate issue. In revealing that issue she too is reciprocally revealed, and quite as ultimately. That reciprocity is, to my view, a central though secret subject of "The Garden Party," and a key to the work's persisting veracity and power.
If Laura's dramatic role appears deceptively modest, so does the story itself. Its seemingly commercial surface polish, and lightness of tone, almost belie its poignance and narrow profoundity. During much of the piece, Miss Mansfield's attitude toward her materials seems so airy as to be hardly serious. Before the workmen who set up a marquee for the party, Laura poses hopefully, trying to be everything at once. She blushes, she scowls; she invokes class distinctions and almost in the same mental breath damns "stupid conventions"; she wills a childish piece of bread-and-butter out of her hand and moments later takes "a big bite . . . just like a work-girl." It is a dreadful tableau of everyone's adolescence; yet, colored with Miss Mansfield's amused affection, it impresses one as straightforwardly comic and nothing more. Laura's mother too, flighty and forgetful, but much more efficient than she seems, resembles a stock character in a family magazine, or a situation comedy. She cannot read her own writing: "'It looks like mice. It can't be mice, can it?"' At times the author's wit appears broad to the point of frivolity. Laura and her sister Jose, "too grown-up to really care" about cream puffs, are two minutes later "licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream." Lightheartedly, Miss Mansfield notes a profusion of domestic trifles: a girl sips coffee with her freshly-washed hair in a green towel; two men brush their hats and hurry off to work; women chatter of egg and olive sandwiches, broken meringue shells and black hats trimmed with gold daisies. The narrative is stunningly deft, often charming, always authentic. But hardly, up to the point when Laura hears of the poor neighbor's death, does it resemble the stuff of serious fiction.
What accounts for this apparent levity of touch? Remarks Sylvia Berkman in her incisive critical biography: "'The Garden Party' juxtaposes social gaiety and sudden death to reveal the bewildering shock a young girl suffers at the knowledge that in life such incongruities can coexist." Miss Berkman's observation, like those of the story's other commentators, implicitly exalts Laura's discovery over Laura herself. Clearly the bright, almost frivolous tone with which Miss Mansfield depicts the preparations for the party does afford sharp contrast with "sudden death" in the poor neighbor's cottage. But why does the author dwell at such length on the preparations, and so briefly on the social gaiety itself? Most obviously, she does so in order to develop Laura's joyous expectations toward a "bewildering shock"; less obviously, to develop an ample sense of a woman's world. The woman to whom the world belongs is Laura's mother. In Mrs. Sheridan's world, the tradesmen are always punctual, the daisy plants shine on signal from the gardener, and the husbands and sons who make it all possible glide in the background like discreet ghosts. Nothing really can be serious in a house filled, like the Sheridans', with tinkling pianos, canna lilies and cream puffs. The tragic accident, in short, is juxtaposed not merely with the social gaiety of the garden party but, more pointedly, with Mrs. Sheridan's safe unserious way of life.
When Laura reads "All is well" in a dead workman's face, her discovery and inner acceptance effect her passage out of the mother's snug, evasive world, and into the larger adult world. The story's most recent interpreters, Donald Taylor and Daniel Weiss, have both noted this fact. They differ, however, as to the medium through which she undergoes her maturing release. Mr. Taylor sees this medium as a metaphorical awakening from the "dream" the mother has spun about her children, an awakening presaged by Jose's earlier song ("'A dream—a Wo-kening"'). Mr. Weiss sees the medium as myth: in the last part of the story a series of ritual accidents draw the acolyte into ultimate mysteries. The text, of course, sustains both readings, since any discovery is a sort of awakening, and since Miss Mansfield's heroine obviously does get initiated. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Weiss seek the story's meaning outside of Laura, however, and neither reading provides the work with a principle of cumulative dramatic revelation.
A more profitable strategy, it seems to me, would be to seek the story's meaning in terms of the medium through which all its events are concretely defined: the ardent, entranced sensibility of the young girl herself. Despite its abruptness, Laura's discovery of unity between the vulnerable living and their inviolable dead is an imaginative perception. She is not awakened to womanhood wholly from without, as by an alarm clock. Rather, examination of the text reveals that her own consciousness has been inexorably ticking toward just such an "accident" from the beginning of the story. It reveals, too, that she is not a purely passive acolyte of ritual mystery (though sensitivity does fit her to receive the secret); throughout the story she is progressively refined for that mystery by an increasingly bitter inner debate. In a very real sense, Laura earns her adulthood.
When she figuratively exorcises childhood by apologizing to the dead man for her festive party hat, the act is intrinsically moral, not only as an assertion of human solidarity, but also because it projects her beyond her mother's way of life. For it is not fanciful to remark that in the story Mrs. Sheridan's "dream" is meant to be, quite literally, immoral. To exist in it one must deny death and, in denying death, Laura's mother denies life, experience, to her young daughters. She has substituted for life a smoothly-tailored Good Life. To coin a fairly accurate metaphor: she presides, as a benevolent Acrasia, over a sexless Bower of Bliss, a realm of matronly artifice designed solely for the delight and safety of its enthralled inhabitants. (The pathetic blankness of this Acrasia is cloaked in lovable muddle, but the reader has already seen her, gone rather dead behind the eyes, glaring from a thousand society pages.) An aspect of Mrs. Sheridan's life-denying immorality is her cultivated indifference to the savage social basis on which her world rests. Mrs. Sheridan sees the neighboring cottagers as "poor creatures," whose surprising ability to "keep alive in those poky little holes" is more impudent than admirable; indeed, the adulthood which Laura earns is partly identified with transcending class barriers, and the childhood she escapes is partly identified with staying inside them.
To arraign social differences is not Katherine Mansfield's primary intention, however, for the workmen and the Sheridans' servants are always rendered either as faceless or as functions of Laura's attitude toward them. Rather, the story's focus—and central dramatic impulse—is the young girl's secret struggle to grow up. Laura, who suspects it no more than the rest of her family, is only a nominal citizen of the Bower of Bliss. Unlike her smug sister Jose, she is a healthy child, impatient for adulthood, for experience. But something sets her apart from other healthy children as much as from her unhealthy sister. Laura is "the artistic one," and the healthy child's hunger for experience becomes with her the hunger not just for an adult role, but for imaginative rapport with adult experience, and for the moral selfhood which such rapport can achieve. It is appropriate, then, that the story's events should be conveyed exclusively through Laura's own naive impressions, since only thus can Miss Mansfield objectify her character's movement toward self-fulfillment.
Mrs. Sheridan lets her daughters play hostess at a garden party which she covertly monitors to the last detail. To "the artistic one" whose sensibility is forthwith ignited, the party does seem, for a time, a truly important experience: her imagination makes it so. Inasmuch as Laura feels that by playing hostess one automatically becomes a grown-up, she is deluded; the particular party on the Sheridan lawn is only another childhood diversion. Yet insofar as Laura senses in the party a harbinger of adult experience, she is not deluded at all; her delight in the party predicts the fusion of parties and deaths at the end, predicts her own self-realization.
It is hard to grow up out of Mrs. Sheridan's world. Jose, though older than Laura, has not yet done so, and probably never will. To win the adulthood of which she senses an augury in the party, Laura must overcome the childhood within her, and also strive outwardly with her mother and sister. The two-fold struggle involves the young girl's very identity as a human being. On neither level can she define the struggle or its stakes.
Indeed, Laura's childlike unawareness conceals from a reader her importance to the story's total meaning: by definition, such innocence cannot define itself. She lacks social authority; things happen to her. Yet, while it is true that Laura is outwardly passive to events, it is also true that her pristine sensibilities continually qualify and shape events. Her inner struggle, for all her unawareness, accounts in large part for the story's poignance, style and structure. Only in terms of this implicit struggle, I believe, can the explicit action of the whole story be adequately explained. The flying rhythms of Miss Mansfield's prose reflect not only Laura's impulse to fly to experience, but to fly from it as well. Throughout the narrative this opposition is identified with her age: she is a child-adult. The action moves in accord with Laura's inner debate until, in an imaginative resolution, she gains herself.
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud.
As Laura gazes out the window during breakfast, her ecstatic view of the garden, the unclouded sky, is also, implicitly, a perception of life's wondrous possibilities. But the perception is fragmentary. The garden, like Laura's youth, is too perfect, too well tended. She must be proved. So when the workmen come with the marquee it is fitting that she is the one who goes forth to meet them on the garden path. Her success in this first encounter with real experience outside her mother's world is a qualified one. Laura's problem lies in not knowing who she is. Childishly encumbered with a piece of breadand-butter, she practices adult faces:
She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little bit shortsighted as she came up to them.
But there is only one adult face in her repertory: "'Good morning,' she said, copying her mother's voice." Unlike her mother and sister, Laura cannot comfortably wear the affected mask of social superiority; so momentarily she reverts to childhood:
But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl . . .
Then, impulsively, she would share her excitement with the workmen: "How very nice workmen were! And what a beautiful morning!" But she cannot do that either: "She mustn't mention the morning; she must be businesslike. The marquee." There is more of her mother in her than she suspects; she begins to wonder if her friends are "quite respectful."
For the moment, in fact, her pursuit of experience seems baffled. The workmen are strangers after all:
"H'm, going to have a band are you?" said another of the workmen. He was pale. He had a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court. What was he thinking?
A glance at the nearby karaka trees suggests the illusory alternative of an isolation which will secure her release from childhood, yet avoid adult commitment:
They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour.
Instantly this fancy is dispelled when one of the workmen sniffs a flower, and "she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that." Laura has unexpectedly gained the clue to this entire encounter; ardent receptivity like hers transcends class barriers; she is sharing the pleasures of her garden. But, falsifying this clue which anticipates her communion with the dead man, she rushes to a romantic fallacy: "Why couldn't she have workmen for friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper?" Though she exults in this inverse snobbery, it actually confirms her childhood.
Laura had flown to the lawn in hope of adult connection, but her attempt was premature. Betrayed by inexperience, the thrust toward experience falters. Laura's imaginative impulse toward the larger world outside her family has been made evident (she would share the morning with workmen). But the conflict between that impulse and her mother's world, reflected in Laura's own reactions, has been made equally evident.
Now she is recalled to the house, her joy in the party enhanced by the fancied victory on the garden path. She tries to impart it to her brother Laurie, a sympathetic intermediary between their mother's hothouse and the outside world, but he is in a hurry and cannot listen. Her feeling persists after Laurie has gone. The very sounds of the house echo her delight. A thudding door, a flutter of wind, a spot of sunlight on an inkpot possess unutterable promise. Two trays of canna lilies arrive; Mrs. Sheridan has ordered them secretly:
Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.
The "frighteningly alive" flowers hint that, for all Laura's delight, real experience still lies ahead.
She joins Jose, who has been directing the re-arrangement of the drawing-room.
Jose loved giving orders to the servants, and they loved obeying her. She always made them feel they were taking part in some drama.
A strategist like her mother, Jose's attitude toward life is essentially theatrical and, like her mother's, immorally shallow. Her thespianism stems from a defect, not an excess, of imagination. Jose believes people (especially servants) are a game you play and, despite her undeniable skill at the game, she cannot respect people, since to play the game at all you must make them into dolls. In the story, she is Laura's anti-type. Her bogus rapture is a counterpart of Laura's real rapture:
"I have never seen such exquisite sandwiches," said Jose's rapturous voice. "How many kinds did you say there were, cook? Fifteen?"
Jose does not believe in her mother's garden party. Unlike Laura, Jose is not innocent, because to her all experiences are equally unreal. But neither, for the same reason, will she ever be adult. Predictably, then, Jose is wholly consecrated to the upper middle-class Good Life. She expresses the reality which it denies in a silly refrain:
"This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
And then . . . Good-bye!"
Muffled, as if heard in a womb, outer reality in Jose's song is distorted, made innocuous: her face mocks the words she sings.
That real life which Jose had mocked now appears at the kitchen door. A delivery man tells that a young carter from the cottages below the Sheridans' house has been killed in an accident. For Laura the shock is profound. The garden, seen through a window, suggested life's radiant possibilities, not life's single certainty. And simply because she had felt the impending party so intensely up to now, Laura for the time being suspends belief in it:
"But we can't possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate."
In effect, she has decided that she cannot live with death, that she cannot live and die. Yet Laura's abrupt relinquishment of what had seemed adulthood has drawn her a stage closer to it: for the first time, she detects a contradiction at the heart of reality. The imaginative insight is simultaneously a moral one:
"And just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman," said Laura.
Instantly it flings her against an immoral status quo. Appropriately, the initial defender of the status quo is Jose, Laura's anti-type:
"You won't bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental," she said softly.
Jose views the contradiction of death in life unimaginatively, and so to her there is no contradiction at all: ". . . Don't be so extravagant." Jose is right, for the wrong reason. Laura is wrong, for the right reason.
Childishly, she flies to Mrs. Sheridan for support.
"Mother, a man's been killed," began Laura
"Not in the garden?" interrupted her mother.
"Oh, what a fright you gave me!" Mrs. Sheridan sighed with relief.
To Laura, there really is a corpse in the garden:
"Of course, we can't have our party, can we?" she pleaded.
"The band and everybody arriving. They'd hear us, mother; they're nearly neighbors!"
But for her mother there is no such thing as a neighbor:
"You are being very absurd, Laura," she said coldly.
"People like that don't expect sacrifices from us."
Childhood itself has suddenly turned on Laura, and for the moment there is nowhere left to go—except to her bedroom, remarking significantly, "'I don't understand.'"
Mrs. Sheridan had tried to placate her daughter with sham adulthood: her own charming hat, in which Laura looks "'such a picture."' A chance glimpse in the mirror confirms her mother's compliment. The grown-up hat falsely appeases Laura's yearning for experience, and enables her to halfwillingly will suspension of disbelief in the garden party:
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 blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I'll remember it again after the party's over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan.
It is another lapse into childhood (the hat, like Jose's song, blurs the fact of death); yet Laura has learned too much to permanently forget the picture of the widow. Indeed, when Laurie arrives just before the party, "She wanted to tell him. If Laurie agreed with the others, then it was bound to be all right." But she cannot resist his distracting admiration of her hat, and she "didn't tell him after all."
The party begins, and magically it seems to fulfill all expectations.
Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn. They were like bright birds that had alighted on the Sheridans' garden for this one afternoon, on their way to—where? Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who are all happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes.
Like the bright birds, Laura herself is bound for a strange place, her journey certified by the entranced sensibility which has been predicting it since morning. Intimations that this passage will be intrinsically moral persist even during the party:
She ran to her father and begged him. "Daddy darling, can't the band have something to drink?"
Just a few lines earlier, the band had appeared to a friend of Laura's in a different light:
"My dear!" trilled Kitty Maitland, "aren't they too like frogs for words? You ought to have arranged them round the pond with the conductor in the middle on a leaf."
Like Jose or Mrs. Sheridan, Kitty sees the poor as subhuman objects.
"And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed." The bright and frightening lilies start Laura at last on her errand of discovery. When the final guests have gone, her father reopens the subject which he had promised herself to remember. Now, however, she doesn't "want to be teased about it." The intervening hours have sufficed to show that stopping the party would indeed have been "extravagant." Mrs. Sheridan, who had hoped the subject closed for good, "fidgeted with her cup"; but then she has "one of her brilliant ideas." Laura will go with the party leftovers. The impertinent condescension of such charity is evident to Laura alone:
Again, how curious, she seemed to be different from them all. To take scraps from their party. Would the poor woman really like that?
But go she must, the lilies added to the food because "'people of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.'" At the last moment the flowers are called back lest they ruin her dress, and Mrs. Sheridan tells her daughter "'don't on any account—'"; she leaves unfinished the warning not to look at the body in the cottage.
As Laura passes out of the garden into the dusk, it seems that she should have left behind not only the lilies, but also her happiness:
Here she was going down the hill to somewhere a man lay dead, and she couldn't realize it. Why couldn't she? She stopped a minute. And it seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything else.
Laura still cannot reconcile the garden party to death, or realize that the impulsive sympathy toward the workmen on the lawn, and the skirmish with her mother and sister, were themselves symptoms of the party inside her.
Once she literally crosses "the broad road" which divides the Sheridans' estate from the working class lane, childhood dreads, hidden before, are awakened: "A big dog ran by like a shadow." The lane, with its vital and disorderly poverty, seems ominously "dark." Almost at the carter's door she wonders if it is too late to turn back. But the house is reached. The widow's sister, a sinister "little woman in black," meets Laura at the door. In the kitchen they confront the widow herself. Terrible with grief, she glares blindly at her visitor. Laura presents the basket. Then, muddled with pity and shame, she exits into the dead man's room, pursued by the sister:
"Don't be afraid, my lass . . . 'e looks a picture. There's nothing to show."
The picture is not blurred like one in the newspaper:
His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all these things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane.
Laura, at last fully awake, can abandon herself to a dream of her own, the dream death makes of life. The intuition instantly draws her beyond class and childhood. Yet she must make a final amends for blunders perpetrated on the way to this moment. So, with a "loud childish sob," she exclaims, '"Forgive my hat,'" and rushes into the night. There she meets Laurie, and tries to impart what she has learned.
"It was simply marvelous. But, Laurie—"
She stopped, she looked at her brother.
"Isn't life," she stammered, "isn't life—"
But what life was she couldn't explain.
It is noteworthy that Laura's naive and fervent receptivity should be associated with extreme youth; at the end of the story she is ready for adult life, but she has not yet begun to live it. Yet the childlike freshness and spontaneity of Laura's responses, despite their limitations, have enabled her to sense, albeit vaguely, the manifold opportunities of existence. Gifted in vision, she is qualified, both because of and in spite of her youth, to discover what her mother and sister have always known, yet never known. The true subject of "The Garden Party," then, is not only the ultimate reality we perceive but, equally, the way an artistic one perceives it. Laura, a sensitive young romantic, is the appropriate heroine of what might be termed an educational romance in miniature, a parable of innocence as discovery.
In short, to subordinate the heroine of "The Garden Party" to her discovery is to miss the story's central meaning. Laura is not merely "a young girl." Rather, she is The Young Girl, a prototypical figure in many of Katherine Mansfield's stories. But nowhere is this figure so consummately realized as in "The Garden Party." A main reason for the work's continuing vitality is Laura who, as the story recedes, persists in the memory as the symbol of a certain state of heart:
She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little bit short-sighted as she came up to them.
Her exit from childhood, a first death poetically associated with the last, is true to a reader's experience because Laura herself is. She contains the party.
Robert Murray Davis (essay date 1964)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1997
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 to examine carefully the symbols and images of the story and their place in the basic pattern. By this means, one can perceive both the diversity and unity that Mansfield mentioned, can place the conflict within Laura alone and thus see its unity, and can restore Laura to her proper place as a character with whom the reader sympathizes because she doubts her mother's values at the same time that he recognizes her inability, until the very end of the story, to distinguish between sensitivity and sentimentality.
The incidents of "The Garden Party" repeat in varying degrees of complexity one basic situation as a framework for the symbols, parallels, and contrasts. At the core of most scenes is Laura's attempt first to deal with other people or with experience on a mature level in a style—whether verbal or physical—learned from her mother; then her loss of confidence in that style; and finally her retreat to childish responses. The first challenge, dealing with the workmen come to erect the marquee, establishes this situation most clearly: "'Good morning,' she said, copying her mother's voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl, 'Oh—er—have you come—is it about the marquee?"' She attempts briefly to maintain the adult role, avoiding mention of the morning's beauty because "she must be business-like" and wondering, because of her upbringing, "whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye." But with her admission that "she did quite follow him" comes a release from the stiffness of the adult role she has learned from her mother. She is now free to wonder what the workmen are thinking; in the pre-sexual curiosity of childhood, she can contrast the workman's sensitivity to the lavender sprig with the silliness of her dancing partners; and, taking a bite of the piece of bread and butter which had spoiled her portrayal of a mature woman, she is able to feel "just like a work-girl," matey and comfortable with the workmen.
It is as a child that Laura hugs her brother, speaks on the telephone, and, with a child's impulsive sentimentality, responds to the "darling little spots" of sunlight, "Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She could have kissed it." But it is as a girl on the verge of physical and emotional maturity that she responds to the lilies:
Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.
"O-oh, Sadie!" said Laura, and the sound was like a little moan. She crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.
These flowers are also the basis of Laura's renewed contact with her mother. At the beginning of the story, Mrs. Sheridan's garden is full of roses: "You could not help feeling that they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing." It is with this view of flowers as socially useful that the workman's spontaneous appreciation of the lavender is contrasted. Now, confronted with the lilies that her mother has bought on impulse and her mother's admission that she is not logical, that is, not wholly governed by her conventional views, Laura accepts her mother on a deeper level. In the first episode, she tried on her mother's verbal style and physical mannerisms like a little girl scuffling along in mother's high heels; now she has discovered a shared enthusiasm, a sympathy, so that she is not merely imitating but becoming.
When Laura and Jose learn of the accident, their ensuing quarrel about canceling the party descends to childish irrelevance.
[Jose] looked at her sister, just as she used to when they were little and fighting together. "You won't bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental," she said softly.
"Drunk! Who said he was drunk?" Laura turned furiously on Jose. She said, just as they had used to say on those occasions, "I'm going straight up to tell mother."
Laura's attack on Jose's irrelevance, an excuse for not sympathizing with the dead man, masks the weakness in strict logic of her own position: drunk or not, the workman cannot be brought back to life by sentimentality, true sympathy, or anything else. But although her inarticulateness and appeal to authority are childish, her sympathy is not, even though she cannot defend it vocally.
In her confrontation with her mother, Laura is also rendered speechless by her mother's logic: hearing about the death is itself accidental and should therefore make no difference; furthermore, Laura's prating about sympathy is itself unsympathetic, Mrs. Sheridan implies, to the only people that matter. Having made sympathy seem childish, Mrs. Sheridan bestows on Laura the hat which temporarily reconciles her to the party and to the social, logical view of life. Walker identifies the hat as a symbol of "the spell of society" and notes that its immediate effect is to block communication with Laurie. Further examination reveals an even more complex set of meanings. For one thing, it presents Laura with a new life-style: as a "charming girl" Laura is bemused by the hat because it represents not merely social position or rank—which she need not accept at her mother's valuation, though she does not yet know it—but also her transformation from child to woman, a condition she cannot avoid. Therefore, the hat is difficult for her to reject because it meets her own needs and even, as the scene with the lilies shows, her latent desires. Yet the style is for her unsatisfactory; though she "looks a picture" (a key phrase), it is the picture of a woman in her mother's image; and it is to this altered version of his sister rather than to the sensitive child—who despite her hat and her new role still needs sympathetic human contact—that Laurie responds.
Laura's acceptance of the role imposed by her mother persists until she begins to descend the hill into the darkening lane of cottages. In the darkness, dressed in white lace and "the big hat with the velvet streamer," she feels cut off from the "dark people" around her. A second reference to the hat ribbon, which Laura nervously tosses over her shoulder, underlines the contrast between the encounter with the workman in the golden haze of the morning—"His smile was so easy, so friendly that Laura recovered."—and that with the dark people in the lane, when a woman's queer smile and reply disconcert her. As in the morning episode, where she felt like a work-girl, she wishes to assume a disguise, "to be covered up in anything, one of those women's shawls even," but she can no longer dismiss class distinctions because here she is different.
Critics have assumed that Laura's response to seeing the dead workman indicates a new maturity or an accession of knowledge. That this is by no means certain is clear when we examine the language of the episode in the context of the whole story. When Em's sister leads Laura towards the body, she reassures Laura with the words "'e looks a picture. There's nothing to show." The language recalls Mrs. Sheridan's use of "picture" to describe Laura and Laura's thoughts, after seeing herself in the hat, "of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper." Even if one does not accept the argument that the term "picture" has become synonymous with "untrustworthy, unreal, artificial," the description of Laura's response to the body indicates that she is once again retreating from the real world:
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all these things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy . . . happy. .. . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
The insistent repetition and sentimental metaphors indicate the childishness of her thoughts, and the detail about the pillow, combined with Em's sister's "There's nothing to show" and the earlier description of the head injury as the cause of death, is sufficient evidence that Laura is once more attempting to retreat, to escape harsh reality through childishness, this time through a sentimentality that, ignoring or incapable of seeing the injury, projects into the corpse the girl's own desire to escape the complexity and ambiguity of life. For it should be noted that just as the thought of the worker's wife and children fades as Laura looks at herself in the mirror, so here the view of "this marvel [that] had come to the lane" blots out for Laura her glimpse of the wife: "Her face puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked terrible."
Yet Laura has in a way matured, in a way reconciled herself to her situation and to life. When she says, with "a loud childish sob," "Forgive my hat," she becomes more mature than her mother and Jose ever can be. She has earlier feared and retreated from her mother's kind of maturity—the only kind she knows—because it insists upon a view of life that carefully restricts sympathy and almost precludes it. Yet her own childish position, impulsive and thoughtless, cannot suffice because it cannot endure. It is in subconscious recognition of these facts that she says "Forgive my hat." Not "the hat," as it had been when she first entered the dark lane, but "my hat."
In accepting the hat—it is "a black hat trimmed with gold daisies"—she accepts intuitively its symbolic components: the blackness representing the fact of death and suffering and division of humanity which in the morning she had rejected; the gold the beauty that there is in life, in light, even in garden parties where one can "be with people who are all happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes"; the flowers not the roses or the arum lilies that are socially impressive, but the daisies that had been displaced (as unworthy the company of roses?) at the story's beginning, which like the canna lilies symbolize necessary and instinctive maturing. The way lies open for her to accept maturity without accepting her mother's version of it.
All of this is, of course, implicit, for at the end of the story she stammers, as she had after her first attempt to play an adult role. This time, however, she is not ashamed, but awed, and her recognition of the complexity of experience is her first step towards maturity.
Nariman Hormasji (essay date 1967)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1957
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 other words, it would never have become earthbound.
From a combination of Chekhov's example and her own genius, Katherine Mansfield anticipated the emancipation of the short story. She took it out of the hands of the nineteenth century writers.
In which particular year of her life Miss Mansfield began to read Chekhov, it is difficult to say. "As for Chekhov, translations of his tales began to appear in the 1890s, and as early as 1909, Arnold Bennett was writing about him enthusiastically in the New Age." It is likely that Miss Mansfield had read his tales before the Garnett translations. In 1910 "The Child Who Was Tired" was published in the New Age and its intimate relationship to Chekhov shows that she was already, in that year, under his influence.
No artist feels genuine love and admiration for another artist unless there are elements of his own temperament and sensibility that attract him. Throughout her short life she went on accumulating impressionistic scenes in Chekhov's manner and, at times, recording them in her Journal and Scrapbook. Whenever an occasion arose, she withdrew them from the stock, made use of "random details, casual incidents, unconscious gestures and remarks".
Though there are obvious resemblances to her master's treatment, theme, situation and tone, she lacked his depth of wisdom and his comprehensive understanding of human nature. Having no aptitude for understanding man in his social environment and man's relation to nature, her studies often remained superficial. Hence we find often in her stories such flaws as sentimentality, parochialism, and preciosity.
As a physician, Chekhov came in contact with women in the grip of passions, in the pain of separation and disease, of the crises of life; men with intent to commit murders and subject to the pressure of neuroses and mental strain. He saw humanity in a seething cauldron of pain and sorrow, rarely in joy and ecstasy, more often in the final stage of disintegration. "I have reasons for believing that the training a medical student has to go through is to a writer's benefit," he wrote. "He acquires knowledge of human nature which is invaluable. He sees it at its best and at its worst. When people are ill, when they are afraid, they discard the mask which they wear in health. The doctor sees them as they really are, selfish, hard, grasping, cowardly; but brave too, generous, kindly and good. He is tolerant of their frailties, awed by their virtues."
How could Katherine Mansfield have come into similar contact with ailing humanity? When she might have had the chance, she was practically confined to bed, or in voluntary exile and self-sought seclusion. In her stories, therefore, she could rarely scratch beneath the skin; she never saw blood coming out of any human body except her own. What a tragedy it was that she should confine herself to the ordinary visions of humanity in the ordinary crises of life! She had so few contacts with different kinds of people that she had no opportunities for enlarging the sphere of her observation.
Yet there was one thing in common between Katherine Mansfield and Chekhov. It was this: In their art they "tend to fasten upon certain moments, certain moods, certain apparently trivial incidents as possessing a special significance—moments that he knows will reveal not the stereotyped but the unique personality" [Dorothy Brewster and Angus Burrell, Modern Fiction, 1934].
There is no doubt that she was nearer to Chekhov in technique than to any other writer. "Their sensitiveness of perception is similar, their grasp of significant detail, their sense of quiet pattern, and their insistence on poetic quality of simple homely familiarities" [E. O'Brien, Dictionary of National Biography, 1922-1930, 1937].
Katherine Mansfield, like A. E. Coppard, was then remarkable for imbibing the Russian influences in her work and consequently transmitting those influences to the next generation of writers. As Somerset Maugham has pointed out, if the technique of modern short-story writers of today differs from that of the masters of the nineteenth century, it is to a great extent the result of her influence.
Let us compare Chekhov's "After the Theatre" with Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party".
In the portrayal of Laura, Katherine Mansfield excels her acknowledged master. Chekhov's Nadya, quivering with joie de vivre and with her body emotionally moved by physical love, exhibits the characteristics of a young woman in love. She has all the subtleties of youth, all the imagination of a young woman in love, all the capacity to feel the warmth of love. Though she lacks depth of maturity and wisdom, she is not incapable of forming a judgment about the stupidity of an irresponsive love. With the sudden dawn of the realisation, she stops writing a letter to her lover which had begun with the words, "I love you" . . . ending with, "my God, how interesting, how fascinating men are!" As a susceptible girl she sinks into a reverie, bringing forth irrelevant images of her mother and rural surroundings.
Katherine Mansfield's Laura has similar characteristics and capacities for feeling the joy of the world, but her mind is more complex and given to philosophising. She goes to the length of questioning the wisdom of God in creating the world.
Like Nadya, she falls into a reverie and is soon disturbed.
"'Laura, Laura, where are you? Telephone, Laura!' a voice cried from the house. 'Coming.' Away she skimmed, over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the veranda and into the porch. . . ."
This is not Laura alone; millions of girls of her age in any part of the world behave, talk, and romp exactly as she does.
When her brother Laurie asks her to see if his coat needs pressing, she says, "I will" and "suddenly she couldn't stop herself. She ran at Laurie and gave him a small, quick squeeze. 'Oh I do love parties, don't you?' gasped Laura."
Thus immense joy fills her with yearning. Emotions quiver on her lips and her heart is bursting with joy at the preparation of the garden party.
"The house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices." The piano is being moved. "Little faint winds were playing chase in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too."
Godber's cream puffs were brought in and looking at them, Laura says, "Don't they carry one back to all one's parties?"
In a flash she is carried back to the days of her childhood. As she is not alone, she is pulled back and within a few seconds Laura and Jose "were found licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look. . . ."
Death intrudes upon her inner sanctuary where a few moments ago all was joy. Someone had died of an accident.
"Dead!" Laura stared at Godber's man.
"Dead when they picked him up," said Godber's man with relish. "They were taking the body home as I came up here."
She thinks of stopping the party and reminds her mother, "The band and everybody arriving. They'd hear us, mother; they are nearly neighbours!'"
In her heart of hearts she felt it was wrong to have a party.
"Mother, isn't it really terribly heartless of us?"
"You are being very absurd, Laura," she said coldly. "People like that don't expect sacrifices from us . . ."
These little phrases bring out delicate shades of character.
The party is nearly over. Katherine Mansfield writes: "And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed."
Her mother sends Laura with a basket of food to the stricken family.
On that late afternoon, Laura was led into the room where lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. 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. Happy . . . happy . . . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
Thus it is shown that for Laura death does not create feelings of terror but makes her wonder what life is. She is unable to explain the philosophical meaning of life and death. Yet she understands well that the demarcation line between the two is thin and that death walks hand in hand with life.
The juxtaposition of the grace of living and the disgrace of existing, of living joy and mocking death, of opulence and poverty, of laughter on the one hand with dishes sprawling into the dustbins and of tears shed and unshed going to waste on a face that once laughed is the highlight of "The Garden Party".
One among many human beings was destined to feel the contrast; the only one who was sensitive to her surroundings and who had any love for the dead and the bereaved. That one was Laura. To have accepted such maladjustments in existence was Laura's destiny. Though they were near to one another physically, Laura was a thousand miles apart emotionally, intellectually, socially, from the dead young man: one was on the highest rung of the social ladder, the other at the bottom; though they were strangers to one another, Laura felt bound to the young man by a new awareness of their common humanity, which death had revealed to her.
Miss Mansfield discovered for herself that to live, her art had to be distinctive and not imitative; that the stories which she wrote had to be governed by principles she herself evolved. Her gradual development of critical taste is reflected in her letters. She had enough strength to detach herself from any extraneous influence. For her immediate English predecessors and contemporaries, she had no use. But it is clear that she sharpened her poetic sensibility by reading Shakespeare and Keats.
Some critics have accused her of triviality—a charge which she herself recognised in her Journal. But few have been prepared to endorse this self-criticism, impressive though it is. Such an analysis arose not so much out of modesty as out of dissatisfaction with her own achievement. It was honest and searching and directed wholly towards improving her style, her technique and her means of transmitting her vision.
It was her high sense of literary values, her deep honesty and her concept of her ultimate goal that made her self-conscious about her "trivial" achievement. Endowed as she was with a critical sense, she anticipated that some day critics would find fault with her stories. Hence she would not permit the reprinting of her earlier stories; hence she stopped writing when she found no more inspiration, when she was drifting in strange waters she could not chart.
Anders Iversen (essay date 1968)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11602
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 laid in a poor village on the river Salzach. The story opens with a telling meiosis: "The Salzach is not a cheerful river, and there is a little village on its eastern bank which is very dreary, very poor, and strangely quiet." A sick and lonely woman from the village tries to transfer, by means of magic, her illness to a healthy young woman passing by in a boat with a group of friends. The magic does not work, and a year later the poor suffering woman drowns herself just as the other woman happens to be passing by a second time; she is now on her honeymoon. The two women belong to different worlds, and not even magic suffices to bridge the gulf between them.
What is of importance here is the way in which I. P. Jacobsen describes the two worlds. The houses of the village are "like a miserable flock of stunted beggars", their "black, dull window panes" scowling spitefully at "the happier houses" belonging to the othsr world, beyond the river, in a green plain stretching far away into the golden haze. The poor houses, huddling together, are shrouded in "oppressive gloom and silence", the only sound being the inexorable murmur of the slow, languid, "strangely absent-minded" river.
The sick woman is in keeping with this world of misery: her figure is "weak, emaciated", her hand "almost transparent", her face "waxen", her eyes "despairing" and anxious, her mouth "tired", her smile "strangely feeble-minded". "For long, long years she had been suffering from a painful disease, from which she never obtained any relief.
The party of travellers in the boat belong to the other world, the rich world across the river. The sunlight, golden and glittering, is focused upstream on the river around the boat, which "seemed to be sailing on a mirror of gold". The young woman at the helm looks the very picture of youthful strength and happiness. She and her companions are unaware of the existence of the sick woman and her world. The boat is a self-contained world, floating past. The carefree, flippant attitude of its passengers is indicated by the snatches of talk overheard: "happiness" and "blessedness" are words bandied about in the game of polished conversation; though, on the occasion of the second passing, there are hints of the inconstancy of happiness. It is the theme of a sentimental but beautiful song sung by the bride: her present happiness is enhanced by the memory of how she had yearned for such happiness. She proposes a toast:
I drink to Happiness before it was mine,
To the poverty of mere hoping,
I drink to dreams!
The main point of the story is the contrast between the two worlds: one described in words signifying brilliant colours, happy noises, motion, active enjoyment; the other in words conveying the ideas of darkness, drabness, silence, decay, and suffering. One is life, the other death.
In "The Garden Party" we find much the same contrast. Katherine Mansfield creates two worlds, juxtaposing and opposing the Garden (life) and the lane (death). But Katherine Mansfield's starting-point is that of the rich world, and her story differs from I. P. Jacobsen's also in that some sort of contact is established between the two worlds.
"The Garden Party" can be read on several levels: as a social comedy with satirical sketches of Mrs. Sheridan, etc., developing into a serious discussion of the relations between two social classes (the author sympathizing with the underdog); as a penetrating psychological study; as a pattern of archetypal images (the Garden of Eden; the journey to the nether world); and like most of Katherine Mansfield's stories it can be read for its autobiographical interest. The various planes, of course, are not like watertight compartments; they intersect. Yet it is worth while to keep them in mind as the analysis progresses.
The social comedy is obvious from the outset. The preponderantly feminine world of the Sheridans is an enclave, almost isolated from the outside world. In the garden one may conveniently forget that there is a world outside, until some day, perhaps, one is rudely awakened. In an early poem (1912) Katherine Mansfield writes:
There was a child once.
He came to play in my garden;
- - -
I led him down each secret path,
Showing him the hiding-place of all my treasures.
- - - - - On tiptoe we walked among the deepest shades;
We bathed in the shadow pools beneath the trees,
Pretending we were under the sea.
Once—near the boundary of the garden—
We heard steps passing along the World-road;
Oh, how frightened we were!
I whispered: "Have you ever walked along the road?"
He nodded, and we shook the tears from our eyes . . .
Mrs. Sheridan and her daughters move and have their being in a world of sunshine, wealth, and ease, prattling about dresses, hats, and hair-dos, with no major practical problems—all except Laura ("the artistic one"), who has a questioning mind ("how curious, she seemed to be different from them all"). She is the only one who reaches out beyond that world. (Her father and brother do not really count, as they are only briefly in the Garden, and very partially of it.)
When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot [in the lane with the mean little cottages]—But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.
One is reminded of Katherine Mansfield's own quest for "experience". She was, says William Orton (in The Last Romantic), "one of the few people in whom the 'thirst for experience' is a genuine thing, indicating a genuine need."
The Garden, as Katherine Mansfield describes it, is a place of brilliant colours, gay noises ("tinkling spoons, laughter"), birdlike movements. The weather is "ideal", the day "perfect", "windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold." There is an abundance of nature everywhere, and amid such plenty a heightened sense of being alive. The Garden of the Sheridans is like the Garden of Eden.
Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds [of roses], had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.
. . . . .
And [the karaka trees] were so lovely, with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit. They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour.
There is a primeval quality about the Garden: everything is in its prime ("a perfect morning" "in early summer"). The freshness and splendour of this world are reminiscent of what Katherine Mansfield says about her native New Zealand: "in the early morning there I always remember feeling that this little island has dipped back into the dark blue sea during the night only to rise again at gleam of day, all hung with bright spangles and glittering drops" [The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Vols. I & II, 1928].
As if this natural abundance was not enough, Mrs. Sheridan has ordered more flowers from the florist's. Characteristically, what is a wild extravagance (not "logical") and looks like a mistake, only serves to make perfection more perfect: "—a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost alive on bright crimson stems". A profusion of canna lilies, "another whole tray", is carried in. Passing the shop the day before, Mrs. Sheridan had "suddenly thought for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies. The garden-party will be a good excuse". Here they are, a "blaze of lilies" just inside the front door. And we may note in passing that the door "that led to the kitchen regions" is a green baize door. Verdure surrounds the Sheridans on all sides.
In such a world young girls do not walk; they rather fly: "Away Laura flew"; "Away she skimmed, over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the veranda and into the porch"; and Jose is called "the butterfly". They are brightly coloured birds: Kitty Maitland is to wear a white dress, and Laura's frock "shone". And there are other birds of the same feather. The guests at the garden party "were like bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans' garden for this one afternoon, on their way to—where?" We remain on the wing with Mrs. Sheridan's voice which "floated down the stairs", and with Kitty's: she "trilled". Even the cream puffs "look beautifully light and feathery."
Everything, indeed, seems airy, alive, astir.
[The canna lilies were] almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems. "O-oh, Sadie!" said Laura, and the sound was like a little moan. She crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.
. . . . .
All the doors in the house seemed to be open. The house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices. The green baize door swung open and shut with a muffled thud. But the air! If you stopped to notice, was the air always like this? Little faint winds were playing chase in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She [Laura] could have kissed it.
Logic being a mundane quality, "a logical mother" is not called for in the Garden. Mistakes do not matter. They are remedied at once (the flags for the sandwiches), or turn out to be not mistakes at all but means to make things even more perfect (the canna lilies). The garden is 'out of the world', so to speak; beyond the bounds of time and space. It is appropriate that Mrs. Sheridan should seem to be no older than her daughters. Change and death (i.e. time) are unheard of in the Garden except as something happening to strange creatures outside, or as empty words to be sung with "a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile".
One may venture to carry the Paradise image further. GOD-ber's man comes as an angel of death. Acting through cook he tempts Laura and Jose to eat of the forbidden cream puffs. That eating is the moment of supreme happiness: "two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream". But it is followed immediately by a disturbing new knowledge of good and evil. It upsets Laura, not Jose, who remains innocent in more than one sense of the word. "Something had happened"; and Godber's man tells them about the accident in which a young man, Scott, from one of the neighbouring cottages, had been killed that morning.
Laura senses that the Scott family are "nearly neighbours", and that it would be "terribly heartless" not to stop the garden party. But against the lack of understanding of Jose and her mother she cannot yet prevail. She is tempted (her mother popping a big black hat on her and making her a present of it) to forget about the poor man's death for the time being ("I'll remember it again after the party's over, she decided"). That is her sin of omission.
The hat charms not only herself, but also her brother Laurie, and evokes many compliments at the party: she looks "striking", "quite Spanish", etc. Tinged with a knowledge of death, her beauty is more interesting, more dramatic. It is heightened, as it were, by means of the black hat (symbol of sin).
Between the Garden and the outside world there is just enough contact for Laura to be conscious of its existence and for the others to ignore it.
The first confrontation of the two worlds is when the workmen come to put up the marquee. It is left to Laura, "the artistic one", to deal with them, because the others are in various degrees of Paradisiacal undress. The workmen look like friendly lumbering animals, bears perhaps ("we won't bite"). Laura is conscious of the difference and distance between them and herself, but too self-conscious to be quite sure how to address them. She begins by speaking condescendingly to them, but fails. The workmen, however, are "so easy, so friendly", so "nice" that she at once "recovered". She realizes, or thinks she realizes, the absurdity of class distinctions, which are as in-olved (with loops, etc.) as the syntax in which they are described:
It's all the fault, she decided, as the tall fellow drew something on the back of an envelope, something that was to be looped up or left to hang, of these absurd class distinctions.
Then she rushes into generalization, sentimentalizing workmen:
Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn't she have workmen for friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.
From being less than ordinary human beings they have now become more than human.
If this is a wrong view Laura at least errs on the generous side, unlike her mother and sister. The idea of another species inhabiting the world outside is more or less explicit in Jose's words about "a drunken workman" and about the "absurdity" and "extravagance" of Laura's suggestion that they should stop the garden party; and also in Mrs. Sheridan's words:
"Mother, a man's been killed," began Laura.
"Not in the garden?" interrupted her mother.
"Oh, what a fright you gave me!" Mrs. Sheridan sighed with relief---
"But listen, mother Of course, we can't have our party, can we?" she pleaded.
"But, my dear child, use your common sense. It's only by accident we've heard of it. If someone had died there normally—and I can't understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn't we?"
The same note is struck, unwittingly, by Kitty, when she says about the "green-coated" band: "aren't they too like frogs for words?"
Sympathy and tact, as the words occur and recur in Mrs. Sheridan's and Jose's vocabulary, only apply to people of their own class:
"You are being very absurd, Laura. People like that don't expect sacrifices from us. And it's not very sympathetic to spoil everybody's enjoyment as you're doing now."
Mrs. Sheridan can pretend that she does not like parties, and a moment later she will blame Laura for having suggested that they should put off the party. She considers it "very tactless" of her husband to mention the fatal accident. Perhaps the least attractive side of her character, her callous egoism, is adequately summed up in her "brilliant" idea of sending the crumbs from her own rich table down to the widow.
To Jose and Mrs. Sheridan Laura's behaviour must no doubt appear absurd and extravagant. Laura's sympathy is extravagant in the precise etymological sense of the word: it wanders beyond the bounds of the garden. For Laura the day is a crisis and a turning-point. One period of her life is drawing to a close with the knell sounding the end of the party: "And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed".
When Laura sets out on her descent into the world of the dark lane, the archetypal element becomes more marked. She is entering a place which is in every respect the opposite of the Garden. It is dark, drab, silent, with slowmoving forms; a realm of shades.
The colours are all dark. The houses are "painted a chocolate brown". They are "in deep shade". The lane is "smoky and dark", and the very smoke coming out of the chimneys is "poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans' chimneys". Only "a flicker of light" is seen in some of the houses. Inside Mrs. Scott's house the passage is "gloomy", and there is "a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp".
The people, appropriately, are as dark and sombre as their surroundings Mrs. Scott's sister is dressed in black, and outside the house there is "a dark knot of people". One may notice the contrast between this group of people (who stop talking and draw aside as Laura approaches) and the gaily rotating couples at the garden party.
Here "down below in the hollow" everything is so "quiet" after the afternoon with its "kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter". Only "a low hum" is heard from "the mean little cottages". We are told that "children swarmed", and that they "played in the doorways", but on the occasion of Laura's visit they are very quiet children. We scarcely hear them, if at all. If the lane is rich in offspring, it seems to be poor in everything else. The houses are repeatedly called "little mean dwellings", or "those poky little holes". They are "the greatest possible eyesore". It is a "disgusting and sordid" world.
There are gardens, or rather "garden patches", but how unlike the Sheridans' garden! There is no superabundance of nature here: no flowers, "nothing but cabbage stalks" and "tomato cans". Nor is there any birdlike movement, no flying or skimming, though birds there are—namely "sick hens"—and bird-cages: one "house-front was studded all over with minute bird-cages". One old woman has to use a crutch, and shadows are seen to move "crab-like" across windows. The creatures who "hurry by" or "hang over the palings" are not the bright birds of the garden party, but people with dirty jobs like sweeps and a cobbler and washerwomen.
They have no surplus energy for flirtation and compliments. Indeed, their world is almost sexless. Women wear "shawls and men's tweed caps", and men are seen hanging "over the palings", literally and figuratively, but are otherwise conspicuous by their absence. Like the Garden, this is a predominantly feminine world: the men are on the sidelines only. (For a similarly devitalized atmosphere, see Katherine Mansfield's description of the inmates of the pension L'Hermitage, at Mentone, who "looked exactly as though they were risen from the dead--- They are still sexless, and blow their noses in a neuter fashion—neither male nor female blows", Letters ).
No wonder that the language used in the lane should sound "revolting" to delicate Sheridan ears; and it is in keeping with the otherness of this lower world that we do not find bright and brisk names like Kitty and Jose, but only the name Em, an almost inarticulate sound, like a plaintive noise, not a name so much as an anonym.
Time and change and death, however, are stark realities here. There are old and decrepit people: "an old, old woman with a crutch sat in a chair". And some people look ugly, e.g. the widow sitting in her kitchen at the fire: "Her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked terrible. She seemed as though she couldn't understand why Laura was there".
This confrontation in the "wretched little low kitchen" is another of the many well-balanced contrasts of the story. It should be compared with the kitchen scene in the Sheridans' house: the culmination of happiness, followed by the knowledge of death, but death by hearsay only, something that Laura could decide to forget till the party was over, because "it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper"—unlike the present face-to-face encounter.
From the kitchen Laura proceeds to the bedroom, without wanting to, without knowing where she is going or why. Since she entered the lane, there has been something inevitable about her progress: she seems to have been caught up in some slippery machinery that carries her along. The people are not figures in the round, but shadows rather, almost parts of the machinery: the "dark knot of people" outside Mrs. Scott's house "parted", as Laura approached. "It was as though she was expected as though they had known she was coming here". One of the women smiles "queerly", and Mrs. Scott's sister, who acts as cicerone in the House of Death, does not answer Laura's questions (she "seemed not to have heard her"). She leads her on, with her "oily voice" and "oily smile". Later her voice "sounded fond and sly".
Laura has, indeed, ventured outside her own world, and not only in social terms. Like Aeneas she is "walking in the darkness, with the shadows round her and night's loneliness above her, through a substanceless Empire" (see W. F. Jackson Knight's translation of the Aeneid in the Penguin Classics, 1964). This Empire is situated "at the very bottom of a steep rise", and its houses are "in a lane to themselves". To get there one has to cross "a broad road", which "gleamed white", while "down below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade". As if to remind us whither Laura is bound "a big dog ran by like a shadow".
As Laura makes her way into this world of crab-like scuttling and listless hanging-about, dusk and darkness close in on her. The passage becomes narrower and narrower, the claustrophobic feeling more and more intense. From the narrow lane she passes through a gate and "up the tiny path", invoking God ("She actually said, 'Help me, God'") as she walks up to the house. There she is "shut in the [gloomy] passage", and next finds herself in "a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp". The confrontation here with the "terrible" face of grief, with which there is no communicating, marks the penultimate stage of her ordeal. She is momentarily back in the passage, and then walks "straight through into the bedroom", the chamber of Death.
As it turns out, the final confrontation here, which is the real goal of her journey, is not terrible or "awful", but "wonderful, beautiful", "simply marvellous". Death is young and beautiful; '"e looks a picture":
Laura, deeply moved by the peacefulness and beauty of death, responds with a silent echoing of the young man's "message": an acceptance of death. "Happy . . . happy . . . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content".
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again.--- He was given up to his dream.--- He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy . . . happy . . .
On top of such an experience Laura's "Forgive my hat" may seem pathetically weak, but it is psychologically true that she cannot boil down what she has just gone through to a neat formula, and take her leave with a quotable envoy, just as, a few minutes later, she gropes in vain for words to express to Laurie what life is. It is worth noting, too, that "Forgive my hat" is a more pregnant remark than may at first sight appear from the context (an apology for the tactlessness of wearing such a hat and dress). It was the hat that had tempted her to forget about the young man's death earlier in the day. If it is true that she has experienced a break-through into a fuller understanding of life, her words may be interpreted: "Forgive the insensitiveness of my old self."
Now that her task is accomplished, Laura is strong enough to walk by herself: "this time she didn't wait for Em's sister. She found her way out ". Laurie meets her half-way: he is closer to her than any of the other Sheridans and instinctively understands her. She returns to her own world, a sadder and a wiser girl, but also strangely happy. She has escaped out of the narrowness of Paradise into the fullness and richness and sadness of mortal life.
What has happened to Laura can be summarized thus: She leaves her own people to walk in the valley of the shadow of death; after a narrow passage through the nether world she returns to the upper world, but changed, reborn as it were.
This pattern of images I take to be a symbol of her growing-up. Not that she was a child in the morning and is now an adult, but she has taken a decisive step on the road—the broad World-road—leading through experience to maturity. The Garden thus comes to represent the paradise of childhood and innocence, and the Two-Worlds imagery is a means of making the psychic process of growing-up more manifest, of giving it a local habitation and a name.
The two worlds of the garden and the lane may be taken as an instance of the Paradise-Hades archetype, as it is discussed in Maud Bodkin's Archetypal Patterns in Poetry. (I am concerned here only with archetypes as patterns of images found in imaginative literature, not with the Jungian implications of the archetypes, their mode of existence, etc.) The Paradise-Hades pattern can be considered in its spatial aspect, as was done above, but also in a temporal aspect as the Rebirth archetype (including "the night journey"); or if the two archetypes are not identical, they are at least closely related.
This brings us to the idea of initiation. Maud Bodkin calls attention to the parallels between the underworld journey of Aeneas and the initiation rites of mystery cults. And it may be suggested that Laura's journey in "The Garden Party" can be profitably regarded as a rite of initiation, not into a mystery cult but into the adult world.
To throw light on this initiation one can turn from Miss Bodkin to another "pattern-monger", Arnold van Gennep, who in his Rites de passage (1908) studied the rites pertaining to man's transition from one age group or status to another (birth, initiation, marriage, etc.), and found a typical pattern recurring in all the so-called rites of passage. Such transition is very often symbolized by means of "a territorial passage" as of a man passing from his own country or territory into another country, wavering for a certain length of time between two worlds (van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, translated by M. B. Vizedom and G. L. Caffee, 1960).
In the chapter dealing with initiation rites van Gennep dwells particularly on rites at puberty, distinguishing between physical puberty and social puberty, and concentrating on the latter to the exclusion of the former, which he finds unimportant from his point of view. If we narrow down the field of vision even further, focusing on the psychological aspect of puberty, we shall find van Gennep's pattern illustrated in "The Garden Party". It is even possible to apply his subdivisions of the category of rites of passage to Laura's career through the story. The rites of passage, according to van Gennep, can be subdivided into rites of separation, transition rites, and rites of incorporation, though the "three subcategories are not developed to the same extent by all peoples or in every ceremonial pattern". Laura's altercations with her mother and Jose before and after the party would constitute the separation rites, her visit to the lane the transition rites, and the first stage of the incorporation (into a new group) would be marked by Laurie's coming to meet her at the corner of the lane.
Several of Katherine Mansfield's stories are about girls at the age of puberty, who are faced with such "facts of life" as death, birth, and sexual maturity. A case in point is Sabina, the very young and naïve servant girl in "At Lehmann's" (from In a German Pension). She is confronted at once with the mystery of birth and the first stirrings of love: her mistress, fat ugly Frau Lehmann, is in labour upstairs, while a young man, who frequents the café, makes love to Sabina downstairs. "At Lehmann's" is an early and somewhat crude story, but it catches vividly the period of transition between childhood and adult age ("Look here," [the young man said to Sabina], "are you a child, or are you playing at being one?"), with its puzzled and puzzling realization that birth and death and love, beauty and ugliness, somehow all exist side by side.
One of the salient features of the experience of adolescence seems to be a new awareness of time. One is at the beginning of everything, and it suddenly occurs to one that what has a beginning must also have an end. Hence alternating feelings of self-congratulation and self-pity (sometimes pity for others). This is felt by the young couple in "Honeymoon" (from The Doves' Nest), though they are presumably a few years older than Laura and Sabina. Listening to and old man's singing, she, Fanny, thinks: "Is life like this too? There are people like this. There is suffering. Had she and George the right to be so happy? Wasn't it cruel? But George had been feeling differently from Fanny. The poor old boy's voice was funny in a way, but, God, how it made you realise what a terrific thing it was to be at the beginning of everything, as they were, he and Fanny!"
Another illustration of this theme will be found in "Her First Ball", in the same collection as, and in some respects a companion piece to, "The Garden Party". Leila, an 18-year-old country-cousin of the Sheridans', accompanies Meg, Jose, Laura, and Laurie to a ball. She can hardly contain her expectation. Everything seems to be dancing along, and there is the same birdlike motion as in "The Garden Party". To Leila it all seems heavenly, "simply heavenly!" "Her first ball! She was only at the beginning of everything". But in this heavenly harmony there is a jarring note. One of her partners is quite unlike the others: old fat, bald; "he ought to have been on the stage with the fathers and mothers". Dancing with him is "more like walking than dancing". His words are also sadly different from the usual teen-age ball-room conversation. For one thing, he has "been doing this kind of thing for the last thirty years", and for another his purpose seems to be to force Leila to look ahead a similar span of years.
"Of course," he said, "you can't hope to last anything like as long as that. No-o, long before that you'll be sitting up there on the stage, looking on, in your nice black velvet. And these pretty arms will have turned into little short fat ones--- And your heart will ache, ache--- because no one wants to kiss you now."
This soft-voiced parading of the disillusioning realities of time, change, and death before Leila in her moment of bliss gives her pause:
Was it—could it all be true? It sounded terribly true. Was this first ball only the beginning of her last ball, after all? At that the music seemed to change; it sounded sad, sad; it rose upon a great sigh. Oh, how quickly things changed! Why didn't happiness last for ever? For ever wasn't a bit too long.
"I want to stop," she said in a breathless voice.--- [She tried] to smile. But deep inside her a little girl threw her pinafore over the head and sobbed. Why had he spoiled it all?
However, on this occasion, "a soft melting, ravishing tune, and a young man with curly hair"—her partner for the next dance—prove stronger than the fat man's intimations of mortality: "In one minute, in one turn, her feet glided, glided. The lights, the azaleas, the dresses, the pink faces, the velvet chairs, all became one beautiful flying wheel." And when later she bumps into the fat man, she does not even recognise him again.
It will probably be granted that Laura in "The Garden Party" receives a less fleeting impression of the reality of time and change than does Leila, and also that "The Garden Party" is richer in tone and significance than the other "teen-age" stories. The heroine is a young girl, and the problem she grapples with is typical of adolescence, but the "moral" of the story, the solution Laura is moving towards, is of universal application, and it can lead to a discussion of Katherine Mansfield's mature philosophy of life.
The moral, in brief, is this: we must accept everything, death included; and there is beauty in such acceptance. Katherine Mansfield herself says as much in a letter to William Gerhardi (March 13, 1922):
---that is what I tried to convey in "The Garden Party". The diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. That is bewildering for a person of Laura's age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn't like that. We haven't the ordering of it. Laura says, "But all these things must not happen at once." And Life answers, "Why not? How are they divided from each other." And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.
The idea of acceptance is often mentioned in her letters, as a principle or a confession of faith, sometimes as a cri de cœur. Beauty and ugliness exist side by side, but one can reach the point where one accepts ugliness and feels that it no longer mars beauty; indeed, there would be no beauty in the usual sense without ugliness. Suffering, too, must be accepted, "bodily suffering such as I've known for three years", she writes in October, 1920. It has changed everything, but she dwells not on what has been taken away but rather on what has been added: "there is something added. Everything has its shadow. Is it right to resist such suffering? Do you know I feel it has been an immense privilege. Yes, in spite of all". Only the writer who has "—in the profoundest sense of the word—accepted life" can create worthwhile literature, and life is relationship, not fastidious isolation. In a letter of March 1, 1921, she warns an unnamed correspondent against blaming parents too much! "We all had parents." And she goes on:
One is NEVER free until one has done blaming somebody or praising somebody for what is bad and good in one. Don't think I underestimate the enormous power parents can have. I don't. But like everything else in life—I mean all suffering, however great—we have to get over it—to cease from harking back to it—to grin and bear it and to hide the wounds. More than that, and far more true is we have to find the gift in it. We can't afford to waste such an expenditure of feeling; we have to learn from it—and we do, I most deeply believe, come to be thankful for it. By saying we can't afford to . . . waste . . . feeling! I sound odious and cynical. I don't feel it. What I mean is. Everything must be accepted.
Such is the "philosophy" upon which "The Garden Party" is based. Part of it, as also suggested by Middleton Murry (Katherine Mansfield and Other Literary Studies, 1959), is summed up in Keats's "Beauty is truth, truth beauty", if we dare to disregard the warnings of Cleanth Brooks (The Well Wrought Urn) and others against detaching this ambiguous statement from its dramatic context. The philosophy, as here distilled from letters, remains vague, which is not surprising, but perhaps enough quotations have been given to hint at its tenor and give some definition to even such a saying as the following: "It seems to me that the secret of life is to accept life" (Letters II). Katherine Mansfield's philosophy grew out of her experiences, and she did not use words like accept glibly.
All these ideas, of course, are not explicit in Laura's words or thoughts, but as I interpret the story they are there implicitly. Laura wins through to accepting death and the ugliness and suffering she has been confronted with as inevitably part of life. She cannot formulate this experience in words, and has the good sense not to take refuge in inadequate words. And it is worth remembering that earlier, before her visit to the lane, her "absurd" uneasiness had found expression in "extravagant" sympathy, whereas the Song of Innocence here may be said, a little fancifully perhaps, to be the "dreadfully unsympathetic" "This Life is Wee-ary".
It is no more strange that archetypal elements should appear in Katherine Mansfield's work than in the work of contemporaries like Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Eliot, and Joyce. She was steeped in English literature from Chaucer to Joyce and Eliot, her special favourites being her "divine Shakespeare" and the Romantic poets. She also kept her weather eye open, watching the intellectual currents of her own time closely and critically, and one need not have been a student of Jung at this early stage to come across archetypes. Indeed, such ideas may have come "natural" to her, or been absorbed from her early reading. In several of her early poems (from the years 1909-11) there are personifications of the heavenly bodies and the forces of nature, and she often tries her hand at a little myth-making.
But it is remarkable that for once it is possible to locate Paradise and Hell. Paradise is to be found, not, as was once surmised, in a fabled country of the Orient, nor on some western Isles of the Blest, but in the South Seas, in Thorndon, a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand, at 75 Tinakori Road to be precise; and Hell, or Hades, awkwardly, is on a neighbouring piece of ground. Tinakori Road, on which more than one of Katherine Mansfield's childhood homes were situated, ran down the hill, towards Lambton Quay and the windy Esplanade (cf. "The Wind Blows" in Bliss). The topography offered dramatic contrasts here. Close to the road there was a deep rift, a gorge cutting towards the harbour.
No. 75, to which the family moved when Katherine was in her tenth year, is described, in her Journal as a big, whitepainted house, standing high and dry, hidden away in a wildish garden, which sloped away in terraces down to a stone wall. Unfortunately, the neighbourhood was very mixed. It was "a little trying to have one's own washerwoman living next door", and "beyond her 'hovel', as Mother called it" there lived other strange creatures. And then to descend into the pit: "just opposite our house there was a paling fence, and below the paling fence in a hollow, squeezed in almost under the fold of a huge gorsecovered hill, was Saunder's Lane" [Journal of Katherine Mansfield, 1936].
Little manipulation or landscaping was necessary to make this locality into the scene of "The Garden Party". A Tinacori Road setting is found in other stories, even—somewhat incongruously—with German names in "A Birthday" (from In a German Pension) with the house overlooking a windswept gully like the one behind No. 11 Tinakori Road, the house in which Katherine Mansfield was born. Her childhood surroundings gave her all the components needed for the setting of "The Garden Party", from the green baize door, which "swung to with a 'woof " to "an endless family of halfcastes who appeared to have planted their garden with empty jam tins and old saucepans and black iron kettles without lids"; and the most precious gift of all was the Garden, one among several luxuriant gardens in her life and her stories.
"The Garden Party" belongs to what might be called the Beauchamp cycle of Katherine Mansfield's work, the group of stories in which she took her own family, the Beauchamps, as the models of many characters, recreating aspects of her childhood world with fond precision and a vividness that often seems magical. In some stories the whole family come alive, and it could be argued that a knowledge of Katherine Mansfield's biography, though extrinsic, adds something of value to the appreciation of stories like "Prelude" and "At the Bay". It would also be possible to study autobiographical elements in "The Garden Party" and find the source of many incidents and characters in her own life. Such study, besides throwing light on the author at work, might help to elucidate the intimacy between Laura and Laurie, the fictional counterparts of Katherine Mansfield and her beloved brother Leslie (cf. again "The Wind Blows"), but otherwise it would add little to an understanding of "The Garden Party", less, at any rate, than to the understanding of some of her other stories.
Her purpose in writing "The Garden Party" seems to have been, not primarily to recall and re-create a day in the life of her family, as in "At the Bay", but rather to focus on a dramatic moment in a young girl's life, and in so doing to illustrate, almost to discuss, an "idea". The story may be less "simple, open" than the stories she proposed to write after her brother's death, though it is not a "problem story" in the nineteenth-century sense of the term. The "idea", to be clearly presented, calls for a unity of action not found in episodic stories like "Prelude" and "At the Bay", and this explains why she was more selective in the use she made of her own family as models for "The Garden Party". (I realize that with Katherine Mansfield the characters and scenes undoubtedly came before the "ideas", but I am not retracing the process of writing the story here.)
What is particularly admirable in "The Garden Party" from a technical point of view is the way in which the story moves at once on several planes; how it holds together, containing both intimacy and universality, both 75 Tinakori Road and Paradise, with their annexes. This is done with great economy and without straining, and it is worth while to examine the technique in some detail.
The unity of the story is preserved through the use of several devices, chief among which is the keeping of Laura at, or very close to, the centre of consciousness throughout the story. The point de vue is important in most of Katherine Mansfield's stories. They contain little straightforward narrative, objective description, or authorial comment. In her best stories nearly everything is seen and registered through the eyes of the characters, but not, except in a few cases like "The Lady's Maid" (in The Garden Party), the eyes or stream-of-consciousness of any one character. The stories unfold by means of a technique of hovering consciousness, that is to say a consciousness hovering above the story and alighting now in one, now in another character. This method can be studied in "At the Bay".
That story describes a day in the life of the Burnell family in a summer colony at the bay, beginning early in the morning and ending late at light. As the consciousness or point of view shifts through the story, the reader moves into each of the characters in turn, seeing with his or her eyes, sometimes even through the eyes of a dog or a cat. In a few descriptive passages—occurring at the hours when one notices and marks the passage of time: at dawn, noon, sunset—it may be difficult to decide who is the bearer of the consciousness at a given moment. Thus the opening, with "the whole of Crescent Bay" emerging out of the misty dawn, cannot very well have been observed by anybody except an omniscient author, unless one wants to postulate a collective "Bay" or Burnell consciousness awake and at work even while all the Burnells and their neighbours are still asleep. (Some of the observations, but not all, might be ascribed to the shepherd driving a flock of sheep past the colony.) Again, there is a certain ambiguity at the end of the day when we have a feline registration of nightfall: "She [the Burnells' cat Florrie] looked content, as though she had been waiting for this moment all day. Thank goodness, it's getting late,' said Florrie. Thank goodness, the long day is over.' Her greengage eyes opened". Florrie's thinking aloud here may be explained as an extrapolation of Linda's thoughts: the point of view seems to be Linda's both before and after the interlude with Florrie.
But apart from these ambiguous passages, where it sometimes is hard to tell whether we are inside this or that character, or whether perhaps the author interferes unobtrusively with a little stage-managing, it is fairly easy to decide in which character the consciousness of the story has for the moment alighted. In section II it moves from Stanley Burnell to Jonathan Trout. In section III we go in to breakfast with Stanley, and the point of view veers between him and Beryl; then on to old Mrs. Fairfield (Grandma) and Kezia; and back to Stanley and Beryl—all within less than four pages. Towards the end of the section Beryl's consciousness (her feeling of relief at having the man out of the house is shared by the other women and by the children) merges with old Mrs. Fairfield's and even the servant girl Alice's into a kind of collective female viewpoint.
Sometimes we move by fine gradations from the consciousness of one of the characters (or the author) into that of another, so that it may be impossible to say precisely when the shift is made. At other times one can locate the exact place where the points of view overlap or interlock, ["Yes, she was thankful", "It was the old woman's turn to consider", and "But no, Beryl was unfair"]. . . . In these cases one consciousness answers another, entering into a conversation that runs smoothly throughout the story.
The advantages of this method of shifting points of view are obvious: it makes the narrative both supple and subtle; the story moves along with great ease. But there is also the danger of vagueness and a certain sameness of diction; the writing may become, not only fluent, but fluid and diffuse. If that danger is avoided in "At the Bay", it is not only because Katherine Mansfield handles the method with consummate skill, but also because the theme of the story—a day in the life of the Burnell family—makes it relatively unimportant whether the point of view is Linda's or Stanley's or Kezia's or Beryl's. There are differences of age, temperament, and outlook between them, but they all move within one frame of reference. Thus one can perhaps accept, in a somewhat modified form, the idea of a collective Burnell consciousness.
But the method of hovering consciousness, if carried to the same extreme as in "At the Bay", would have been disastrous in "The Garden Party", because there the tension between the generations is potentially and actually greater (the children are grown up or fast growing up). Laura and her mother have no common frame of reference; they are worlds apart.
Throughout "The Garden Party" Laura is on the stage, and the point of view is hers except for two or three short passages, and even there she is a participant in the dialogue. The first nine pages offer no difficulties; the drawing-room scene, with Jose giving orders for the moving of the furniture, can easily have been overheard by Laura from the hall. . . . [However], with the long paragraph beginning "That really was extravagant, for the little cottages were in a lane to themselves", the point of view becomes Jose's; but since this is in the middle of the heated discussion between Laura and Jose, the shift signifies no more than a carrying on of the conversation without speeches, as it were, for a few lines.
In the description of the lane, as it is mentally surveyed by Jose, there is nothing that would not have been familiar to Laura, who may be supposed to share, to a great extent, her sister's view of it. The two of them must have picked up many of Mrs. Sheridan's opinions and prejudices, and for all Laura's sentimentalizing of workmen she is also the girl who would try to look "a little bit short-sighted" at them, and "wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye". She is without the harshness and narrowness that characterize Jose and Mrs. Sheridan, but there is no reason to postulate a revaluation of all values in her social universe. At any rate, before the end of the paragraph we are looking through Laura's eyes once again, as she and Laurie "on their prowls" sometimes walked through the lane, and the shifting of the point of view from Jose to Laura is scarcely perceptible. Thus, if for a dozen lines Laura is not the centre of consciousness, at least she is not far away.
The same is true . . . [when], in the course of the family reunion after the party, the point of view veers and backs for a few seconds between Laura and her mother. Mr. Sheridan has mentioned the "beastly accident", and "An awkward little silence fell. Mrs. Sheridan fidgeted with her cup. Really, it was very tactless of father . . .". Mrs. Sheridan's unspoken thought ("very tactless", etc.) could have been inferred by Laura from her general knowledge of her mother and from watching her on this occasion, but it is natural to take Mrs. Sheridan as the bearer of the consciousness of the story here, as also in the following paragraph, where she has "one of her brilliant ideas". It must be gratifying to Mrs. Sheridan to have such ideas, but the word "brilliant" is ambivalent in that an ironical light is thrown back on it by Laura's next speech: "But, mother, do you really think it's a good idea?" It may be justifiable, then, to say that both points of view, Mrs. Sheridan's and Laura's, are present in the sentence "She had one of her brilliant ideas".
By the middle of the page Laura is again the centre of consciousness, and she remains so to the end of the story, except for the few seconds when her mother sends her off on her pilgrimage. Mrs. Sheridan follows her out of the marquee to stress the importance of the warning: "don't on any account—", and the reader may supply the missing words (presumably: "go in and see the dead man"), but Laura, though she is very perceptive, could not! Mrs. Sheridan stops herself short: "No, better not put such ideas into the child's head! 'Nothing! Run along'." This seems to me to be the only place where we are clearly beyond Laura's ken. The sentence "No, better not put such ideas into the child's head!" is the only "remark" in the story that Laura could have neither overheard nor inferred. But since the consciousness of the story does alight for some moments in Jose and Mrs. Sheridan, we, too, had better stop short before we consign to limbo a remark that does not square with our own pedantic measure of consistency.
One more sentence deserves brief notice: "And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed". This I take as a piece of discreet authorital timekeeping, to be compared with several (longer) passages in "At the Bay".
The relative singleness of vision helps to keep the disparate elements of the story together. With Laura we move easily from the surface level with its wealth of detail and feminine fluency (e.g. the telephone conversation) to deeper levels with their few simple configurations (archetypes) and the limit of words ("Isn't life—").
Another device used to unify the story is the carefully balanced system of parallels and contrasts. Many contrasts have been noted between the two worlds and their inhabitants, and contrast is also a principle of composition, the way in which scene follows scene. Thus immediately after Laura has "felt just like a work-girl", she is absorbed in the safely upper-class telephone conversation with Kitty; and a little later the blissful moments of eating the cream puffs are followed at once by the news of the "horrible accident". Attention was drawn above to the parallels (and contrasts) between the two kitchen scenes, and it is worth comparing also the postmortem of the party (the Sheridans gathered in the marquee with the leftovers from the party) with another post-mortem: the grief of the Scott family. The party is the culmination of the day, until Laura finds that while they were giving their noisy party, a "marvel had come to the lane".
Moving from the larger units of scenes to the smallest units, the individual words, we find basically the same system of parallels and contrasts. Many words and phrases echo through the story. It is not surprising to find two "layers" of adjectives to describe the two worlds; on the one hand, words like perfect, ideal, happy/happiness, success(ful); on the other hand, words like horrible, dreadful, terrible, awful; and finally the blessing of the other world with words like wonderful, beautiful, marvel(lous). More remarkable are the changes rung on a number of key words and phrases: look a picture, brilliant, absurd, extravagant, (un) sympathetic.
"The Garden Party" naturally falls into three parts:
I Before the party: 11 1/2 pages
II The party: 3/5 of a page
III After the party: 4 1/2 pages
The party, in other words, may be regarded as the dividing line between parts I and III, between two worlds.
That the first part should take up two-thirds of the whole story is reasonable enough, since it includes the setting of the scene and the introduction of the dramatis personae and the "problem", besides taking the action through the first crisis on to a point of relative calm: the party. The noisy party, "the fray", actually marks a point of peace and calm, the suspension of hostilities between Laura and her mother and sister for the time being. After the party the scenes are shorter and full of drama, and with the last part of the story comprising less than one-third of the whole, the story never drags.
"The Garden Party" affords good illustrations of the economy and tidiness that characterize Katherine Mansfield's art. The very first word carries the reader in medias res: "And after all the weather was ideal", and he is soon swept along at a brisk pace. There are quick transitions from scene to scene. . . . [We] are wafted along with Laura ("over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the veranda and into the porch") from the workmen to the telephone, and [later] there is a lightning movement from the kitchen regions to Mrs. Sheridan's room. We are there almost before we know where we are! Jose and Laura are having their hot dispute just outside the green baize door, and Laura says:
"I'm going straight up to tell mother."
"Do, dear," cooed Jose.
"Mother, can I come into your room?" Laura turned the big glass-door knob.
"Of course, child."
The writing of the flags for the sandwiches serves the compositorial purpose of sending Laura off to the important kitchen scene, but the little scene with Mrs. Sheridan ordering everybody about and trying in vain to make out her own handwriting, is also an impressionistic atmosphere piece in its own right: it paints vividly both the busy preparations of the household for the party, and the at once comical and exasperating helplessness of the mistress of the house. The actual writing of the flags is deftly telescoped in the description: "cream-cheese and lemon-curd" and one or two more items: enough for us to feel that we have been present at the whole process of hunting for the envelope and shooing away the mice.
The same economy is apparent in the telephone conversation. The right details are selected both to set the tone of the feminine Sheridan world and to add something to the characterization of Laura and Kitty and Mrs. Sheridan. It should also be noted how few words suffice to demonstrate the relationship between Laura and Laurie, who are seen together only in two or three short scenes. An impulsive gesture, and "Laurie's warm, boyish voice" saying, "Dash off to the telephone, old girl"; and a dumb show with a dozen words thrown in—this is enough to establish their intimacy so that the reader is prepared for their wordless understanding in the last scene.
It is this power of choosing the telling details which makes it possible for Katherine Mansfield to fill her canvas, without overcrowding it, with a surprising number of characters. Without counting the guests at the party, the hired waiters and the band, and the dead man's neighbours, we can discern about twenty people in "The Garden Party". Several of them are very minor dramatis personae, it is true, but even some of the dumb, or all but dumb, characters have a certain individuality, though seen only for a few seconds. A case in point is "good little Hans", who appears briefly on two occasions. Sadie is seen going about her work in the proper self-effacing maid-servant manner, whereas cook is described rather more fully: she "did not look at all terrifying", she "smiled broadly", and her short speeches, said "in her comfortable voice", are sprinkled with "my girl" (to Sadie) and "my dears" (to Laura and Jose). Thus briefed one can appreciate the snapshot of the group .. . :
Something had happened.
"Tuk-tuk-tuk," clucked cook like an agitated hen. Sadie had her hand clapped to her cheek as though she had toothache. Hans's face was screwed up in the effort to understand. Only Godber's man seemed to be enjoying himself; it was his story.
The four workmen constitute another group. One of them is tall and lanky, another "a little fat chap". The portrait of the tall workman is memorable, but no more is heard or seen of the little chap, and the contrast in physique between them is less important than the contrast between the "easy", "friendly", "extraordinarily nice" tall fellow with his blue eyes (the positive aspect of the Workman) and the third workman (who represents the negative aspect): "He was pale. He had a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court. What was he thinking?" Perhaps he was thinking too much. The fourth workman is never even mentioned as an individual, but he also serves, namely to indicate the golden mean or grey average of the group. To keep the workmen as a group in their place, to prevent them from blossoming out too much, it is appropriate that one or two of them should not be too conspicuous.
The same balance is found in the group of the three sisters: Laura represents the positive value, Jose the negative value, and Meg is an absolutely neutral quantity, a foil to the other two. Of Meg we learn only one thing: she "had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek"; of the inside of her head, her character, etc.—not a word! But there is a good reason for this. To have had Meg mixed up in the quarrel would only have blurred the outlines. As it is, there is a neat pairing of the antagonists: Laura seconded by Laurie versus Mrs. Sheridan and Jose.
Every reader of "The Garden Party" probably feels the genuineness of the atmosphere of the party. Katherine Mansfield has measured the temperature and the pressure, and conveys her findings to the reader by means of a little description and some snatches of conversation: a few compliments ("Darling Laura, how well you look!"), kindnesses ("Won't you have an ice?"), and then the goodbyes ("Never a more delightful---").
The party is a conveniently limited field to go botanizing in. Strolling about with the couples, bending to flowers, perhaps we can pick up a few syntactic specimens from the one paragraph of description, the eight lines which are not devoted to the bits of conversation just referred to.
The first two lines contain three unlinked main clauses, or simple sentences, all with the verb in the simple past tense. They describe (and demonstrate) how the garden is rather suddenly invaded by crowds of people, by sounds of music, and by the busy activity of waiting on the guests ("Soon after that people began coming in streams. The band struck up; the hired waiters ran from the house to the marquee.").
In the next two lines we seem to stand back a few steps to look more leisurely at the guests moving about the garden ("Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn."). We have got used to the music and talk, indeed in this sentence and the following one we are not aware of any sounds at all. The more leisurely tempo is due to the succession of present participles, while the absence of any conjunction (not a single little talkative and) makes the syntax rather formalized; this, however, goes well with the somewhat artificial movements of the strolling couples: bending, greeting, moving on—almost like mechanical toys.
In the next sentence the guests are said to be "like bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans' garden for this one afternoon, on their way to—where?" With this Whither-goest-thou question, which is a favourite motif in Katherine Mansfield's work, we rise for a moment above the party. We are briefly reminded of the problems worrying Laura (and Katherine Mansfield), but are not allowed to start on a metaphysical flight. In the last two lines were are back again in the middle of the throng of guests ("Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who are all happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes."). The most characteristic feature of this sentence is the string of infinitives, also without any connecting links. They excellently suggest the conventional, sometimes forced, cordiality of such parties, just as the tautology of the happiness of being with people who are happy may sum up a great deal of the conversation.
Thus in eight lines there are three conspicuous examples of asyndeton. It is obvious that the syntax helps to suggest the crowding of people at the party; it is a real get-together. It becomes even more obvious if, for contrast, one turns to the scenes between Laura and Laurie and studies the correspondence between the syntax and the relaxed intimacy there.
Katherine Mansfield "adored the English language". "People have never explored the lovely medium of prose. It is a hidden country still—I feel that so profoundly"(Letters). She herself helped to explore the resources of the language, creating "a kind of special prose" (Journal), and her mastery of English prose is the firm foundation of her stories. She would struggle with the language until it had the precision, the buoyancy, and evocative character she desired. Nothing was too small to claim attention: the choosing and placing of every single word, the minutiae of punctuation. In this as in other respects she was very much the craftsman, and took a keen intellectual interest in the craft of writing. She was not all imagination but had her fair share of cool reason. She knew that "the sub-conscious element" in an artist's work, his inspiration, is "a sort of divine flower to all his terrific hard gardening".
Some of the effects she gets in her stories came no doubt to her unconsciously, as flowers to her terrific hard gardening, but generally she seems to have been well aware of what she was doing and how she was gaining her effects. The sentence about the perfect afternoon which slowly ripened, slowly faded, has been mentioned twice already . . ., but it will not be amiss to have the author's own comment on it:
And the reason why I used the 'florid' image was that I was writing about a garden party. It seemed natural, then, that the day should close like a flower. People had been looking at flowers all the afternoon, you see.
She had a passion, not only for flowers and gardens, but also for technique: "I have a passion for making the thing into a whole if you know what I mean. Out of technique is born real style, I believe. There are no short cuts". And she knew true delight and value in detail: "Do you, too, feel an infinite delight and value in detail—not for the sake of detail but for the life in the life of it"( Letters I).
It is not to be expected that an artist should be a reliable judge of his own work, and Katherine Mansfield is no exception despite her technical know-how. The impressions she jotted down immediately upon finishing some of her best stories sometimes reflect the fatigue following a spell of hard work rather than the achievement of the finished product. Still, it is worth taking into account what she had to say about "The Garden Party".
While she was writing "At the Bay", she was completely "possessed" by that "very long seaweedy story"( Letters II), and it took her nearly a month to "recover" from it. "But now I am not at all sure about that story. It seems to me it's a little 'wispy'—not what it might have been. The G.P. ["The Garden Party", which she had just finished] is better. But that is not good enough, either . . ."( Journal; the entry dated October 16, 1921). Three days earlier she had written: "Oh, I am in the middle of a nice story", and at the end of the manuscript of "The Garden Party": "This is a moderately successful story, and that's all. It's somehow, in the episode at the lane, scamped" (ibid.).
Was she thinking of the sudden fluency of Laura's thoughts at the sight of the dead man? That crucial passage cannot truly be described as scamped but perhaps after Laura's dreamlike progress through the nether world on might be surprised that her state of mind manifests itself so readily. However, the "eloquence" of her thinking can be explained by the sudden relief after long anxiety. Her pent-up emotion, released at one stroke, issues forth in a flow of emotional words ("wonderful", "beautiful", "marvel", "happy"), first breathlessly (short, isolated sentences), then in longer rhythms.
If the passage is less compelling than the rest of the story, the reason is rather that here Katherine Mansfield does not follow the advice she gave Arnold Gibbons, a young writer who had sent some stories to her. She advised him to express himself "more indirectly"( Letters II): "how are we going to convey these overtones, half tones, quarter tones, these hesitations, doubts, beginnings, if we go at them directly?" Perhaps the "moral" of "The Garden Party" becomes too apparent in the paragraph we are discussing. It finds a better, because more indirect, expression in the few words that are exchanged between Laura and Laurie when he comes to meet her, and in their pauses and silences.
Whether this passage is felt as a slight blemish or not, "The Garden Party" remains one of Katherine Mansfield's finest stories. It can be taken as a good example of the happy balance between mind and soul which she was always aiming at; a precarious balance, as she knew too well, but a prerequisite of great art.
It seems to me that what one aims at is to work with one's mind and one's soul together. By soul I mean that 'thing' that makes the mind really important. I always picture it like this. My mind is a very complicated, capable instrument. But the interior is dark. It can work in the dark and throw off all kinds of things. But behind that instrument like a very steady gentle light is the soul. And it's only when the soul irradiates the mind that what one does matters . . . What I aim at is that state of mind when I feel my soul and my mind are one. It's awfully, terribly difficult to get at.
Katherine Mansfield's demands on art and on behalf of art were equally exacting. But then, she knew that "Good work takes upon itself a Life—bad work has death in it" (Letters). In the end, perhaps, such optimism as is found in "The Garden Party" derives less from Laura's revelation than from the quality inherent in a finished work of art.
Marvin Magalaner (essay date 1971)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2954
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 self-consciousness, she writes to William Gerhardi in 1922 that she has tried to express in the story
the diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. That is bewildering for a person of Laura's age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn't like that. We haven't the ordering of it. Laura says, "But all these things must not happen at once." And Life answers, "Why not? How are they divided from each other?" And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.
Perhaps it is unfortunate that critics of "The Garden Party" have dwelt so extensively on this excerpt from Mansfield's letter, for they have generally tended to see the story almost exclusively as a reconciliation of Death and Life: that is, the parenthetical "Death included" has been read as though it were "Death especially." Rather, the attempt is equally to reconcile reality and the dream, innocence and experience, and, with great concern, levels of society. That Mansfield could even hope to carry out so ambitious an enterprise within the limitations of the short story is testimony to the increasing self-confidence that she felt during the last year of her life.
The story itself seems simple, childishly unsophisticated, even obvious, but this view proves untenable. The narrative involves preparations for a garden party—Laura's first grown-up affair; a glimpse of the party itself; and the aftermath which describes an impulsive attempt to give the party leftovers to the bereaved family of an accident victim. Mansfield's "selective camera" centers upon Laura, a young and well-meaning girl trying to establish her own values in a world carefully arranged for her by the women in her family: her mother Mrs. Sheridan and her two older sisters. The camera follows Laura as she adopts the ways of her mother in talking to the workmen or to her friend Kitty; as she helps with the sandwiches; and as she confronts the insensitivity of her elders to the death which has happened nearby. The reader notes her wavering allegiance to the attitude of the family and, on the other hand, to her instinctive youthful sense of proportion and good taste that assumes the cancellation of the party out of respect for the other family's grief. The devices employed to divert Laura from her independent point of view and to set her firmly once again in the Sheridan orbit are described. The story ends with her visit to the home of the dead man bearing the party leftovers and with her enchantment with the appearance of death as she views the body. Her final "Isn't life .. . isn't life" represents not nearly as ambiguous and inconclusive an ending as has been charged to the author, but a deeper look at the story is necessary to demonstrate this.
Mansfield's choice of a garden party as the focus of action and attitude is obviously meaningful. No less than Joyce, who praised Ibsen for using "never a superfluous word or phrase," Katherine Mansfield insists on the inevitability of all elements in a successful story. (Her remarks on the writing of "Miss Brill" are particularly relevant here.) Clearly, a garden party offered the author a many-faceted symbol. Thus it may represent the Sheridan way of life: showy, superficial, upper class, ephemeral (almost before final preparations are made for the affair comes a description of its aftermath), and with little more substance than the cream puffs that are served. In a wider sense, the garden party is life itself, the brief moment men enjoy between cradle and grave. Perhaps this is why Mansfield required a party in the garden rather than in the drawing room of the Sheridan home. For a garden implies nature and natural development, a developing and growing into maturity, and, inevitably too, a withering and dying. It is no accident either than Laura's own name has associations with a growing plant or that, when the florist delivers a profusion of lilies to augment the attractions of the garden flowers, Laura "felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast."
Employment of the garden as a symbol of life, of natural growth and development, permits Mansfield to play upon the perversion of the natural too—whether with respect to nature or to man. Thus, in the first paragraph of the story, before the reader is introduced specifically to any character or to details of plot, the point of view of the opening description suggests the unnaturalness of what is to occur in a "natural" setting. Probably at Mrs. Sheridan's suggestion, the gardener has been "mowing the lawns and sweeping them" until the grass "seemed to shine." This attempt to "methodize" nature and bring it under control is implicit also in the line: "They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered if [italics mine], in which climatic conditions are reduced to a matter of commercial transaction. Further, perhaps the height of perversity is reached in the turn of mind which conceives of roses blooming precisely in time for the party because they are the flowers most likely to "impress people at gardenparties" and the roses know it. The horror is that the point of view here must be attributed to the young and innocent Laura, though the reader quickly senses that the hands guiding the strings are the hands of the mother. Similarly, later in the story young Kitty Maitland's plans for the "greencoated band" bespeak the insensitivity of the older generation: "Aren't they too like frogs for words? You ought to have arranged them round the pond with the conductor in the middle on a leaf."
This afternoon affair is Laura's coming-out party—the first social occasion on which she is to play an adult role. It is, as others have pointed out, her initiation into the mature world. If she has hitherto been merely a bud on the parent stem, on this day she will have her opportunity to blossom. The question is, of course, whether she will grow into a simple, natural flower or whether, like her mother, she is doomed to artificiality, insensitivity, and falseness. The restricted view of the world that she and her sisters have been permitted by their mother has already made inroads into her spontaneity and natural freshness, as the first paragraph abundantly proves. Without a dramatic widening of horizons to force a reevaluation of basic elements, Laura's path, following in the footsteps of Meg and Jose and her mother, is clearly predictable.
Death makes the difference and, at least temporarily, forces Laura to see in the older women in her family the crystallized and hardened views which in herself are still vague and indefinite imitations of adult models. The most final of all human activities makes her own growth and development less certain than it was that morning. Knowledge of death means an end to innocence but it also heralds the possibility of a new kind of life. The death of Scott the carter postpones maybe forever the death of the heart in Laura—a death already suffered by the other Sheridan women.
Yet if the death itself and the subsequent reactions to it of the Sheridans can accomplish this new healthy growth for Laura, why does Mansfield bother to include the last section of the story? Is it necessary for Laura to see a corpse in order for the meaning of the day's lesson to sink in? Or can Mansfield not resist the emotional value of a child's confrontation with the physical presence of death? The answers to these questions require examination of the story from another point of view.
On the day of the party, Laura loses her innocence and her parent-fostered narrowness in more ways than one. The development of her attitude toward class distinction accelerates as the day advances, further widening the gap between her and the other Sheridan women. The progress of the development is put by Mansfield in terms of Laura's increasing difficulty in generalizing about the working-class group of whose lives she knows almost nothing as the story opens. Subtly, Mansfield encourages the reader to accept Laura's stereotyped impression of the workmen who have come to put up the marquee:
Four men in their shirt-sleeves stood grouped together on the garden path. They carried staves . . . and they had big tool-bags slung on their backs. They looked impressive.
Through the repetition of "they," through the monotony of sentence structure and word order, and through her underlining of the fact that these shirtsleeved men were "grouped together," Mansfield reinforces the generalization almost schematically, as though picturing on a social studies graph the distribution of laborers in the locality. And, though Laura welcomes contact with this rarely encountered group, she embraces the generalization enthusiastically. If a workman has nice eyes, the corollary is "How very nice workmen were" [italics mine]. When an individual workman uses slang in conversing with her, she wonders whether such talk is quite respectful of a workman. When one smells a sprig of lavender, she approves of all workmen at the expense of all "the silly boys" of her own class at dances. And when in the garden she takes a bite of breadand-butter, she feels "just like a work-girl."
Death, the Great Leveller, succeeds in making Laura wary of generalizations. Suddenly the girl who in the garden that morning could react only on that level discovers that in her elders' resort to generalization is a method of avoiding unpleasant confrontations, mental or physical—and her natural honesty is shocked into an awareness of the immorality of the process. To her sister's "You won't bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental," she counters, "Drunk! Who said he was drunk?". She is similarly outraged when her mother speaks nebulously of not understanding how "they" keep alive "in those poky little holes."
But to Laura, if not to her family, a dead workman cannot be generalized away. In bringing the news of the accident, Godber's man has been deliberately particular. Though the dead man is hardly a character in the story, the protagonist and the reader are given his name, his profession, the nature of the accident, the name of the street on which it occurred, the location of the wound, his marital status, and the number of his children. Such detailed categorization is essential to the breaking down in Laura of the vague barrier between class and class. Now it is easier to see why Laura must make the post-party trip to Scott's cottage and look upon the carter not as just another dead workman to be subtracted from census statistics, but as an individual being. It becomes clear why Laura must ask the woman who opens the door at Scott's home whether she is Mrs. Scott and why she must discover that the woman is not. Identities count now, even among workpeople.
The final step in Laura's development on this day is her reaction to the dead Scott. He now transcends class. As Laura had lived in a different world from workmen hitherto, Scott inhabits a dream realm which removes him, in a sense, from his own former slum world and from her world too. His is the classless world of death to which Mrs. Sheridan and Mrs. Scott and Jose and Laura—everyone—must eventually come. It is no wonder that Laura's response to this new "marvel" should be a tearful, "Forgive my hat."
Hats had dominated the story as one image followed another from the beginning: the turban Meg wears, Laurie and his father brushing their hats, the carelessly worn hats of the workmen, Kitty Maitland's hat, and finally the hat of Laura's mother, hastily "popped" on her head by Mrs. Sheridan to make Laura forget the dead man and her opposition to holding the garden party. 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. It is not surprising that when Laura first sees herself in a mirror wearing the hat, she hardly recognizes "this charming girl" who stares back at her. Certainly the hat is, as her mother tells her, "made for" her, but she is not at all sure that she wishes to acquire her rightful legacy. In the presence of Scott, the realization of the discrepancy between what the hat indicates and what Laura in her own dawning maturity is tending toward evokes the involuntary cry. Laura has had her vision.
As several critics have shown, Mansfield has prepared the reader for this epiphany through earlier introducing the "This Life is Weary" song, whose tragic burden evokes only a "brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile" from the singer herself. The final line, "A Dream—a Wa-kening," is echoed in the description of Scott at the end of the story: "He was dreaming. Never wake him up again." In a sense, Laura has through contact with death wakened from her dream-life, the existence of garden parties and Sheridan exclusivity. And Scott has, in her eyes, awakened through death to a life infinitely more desirable than that of the Sheridans. Both have a knowledge that puts them above class.
It is almost as though Katherine Mansfield dangles obscurely before the reader the dim symbol of another garden—a false Eden this time—a dream world of artificial delight and false security. The inhabitants of this fools' paradise tend the garden, "order" the appropriate weather, and regard themselves as the center of the universe. Only when Laura is expelled from the garden does she trade innocence for knowledge. Now she can see death in the world and "all our woe," unwarned not to resist by the "archangels" who Mansfield tells us had visited the garden on the evening before the party. Yet the confrontation with death is to the awakened Laura not only not frightening: it is positively an ecstatic experience. For her protagonist at least, Mansfield has been able to demonstrate that life and death may indeed coexist and that their common existence in one world may be beautiful.
The final scene with Laurie appears much less ambiguous than critics have allowed. The fairylike Laura who had, before the fact of death entered her life, dealt with life largely in terms of comfortable generalizations, finds herself speechless now to sum up the complexity that the deeper view affords. When she stammers, "Isn't life—?" the generalizing predicate adjective will not come, for no single word can encompass it. It would not matter, in this regard, whether the question were completed by "good" or "bad," "ugly" or "beautiful," "sad" or "happy." What matters is that no one word suffices in a world that encompasses, though it may not always reconcile, all of them.
The unspoken communication here between Laura and Laurie is interesting. Laurie "quite understood" although she "couldn't explain." Mansfield chooses to associate brother and sister closely not only in their ages ostensibly, but in Laurie's sympathy for his sister's point of view and his apparent humanity when contrasted with the female Sheridans' coldness. Furthermore, by calling them Laura and Laurie, the author establishes an obvious similarity. It may be that they are intended to be male and female aspects of the same personality and that, therefore, their reactions would be identical. It is not necessary, though it is possible, to believe with one critic that Laurie had earlier been initiated into knowledge of death and thus can empathize with the new initiate.
Katherine Mansfield considered "The Garden Party" "moderately successful," but had reservations about the quality of the ending. She had worked on parts of it during a period of at least five months, as her Scrapbook shows, though the episode given there in an earlier form survives in "The Garden Party" as the song "This Life is Weary" and as very little else. Called "By Moonlight" in the Scrapbook, the episode of the song is treated discursively for over three pages as the focal point for a view of the Sheridans: "Mother," "Father," Meg, Laura, Laurie, and Francie (the Jose of the later story). Since there is no garden party and no dead man in the sketch, the significance of the song is considerably less, its employment being confined to pointing up attitudes of those who hear it. "Mother" especially is revealed as she deplores the trend toward the "tragic" and the "depressing" in contemporary lyrics. She states her preference for "songs about primroses and cheerful normal birds and .. . [ellipsis marks Mansfield's] and spring and so on." Thus the morbid and the lower class are excluded from her world here as they will be later in the "Garden party" story. As for Meg, she finds the song "fascinating." But to the reader, the fascination is in seeing how Mansfield surrounds the song with meaning in the later version as she is unable to do a few weeks earlier.
Adam J. Sorkin (essay date 1978)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7041
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 of time and place. Its initial words—"And after all . . ."—thrust us not in medias res but in the middle of a feeling, a relieved, satisfied expectation that the first requirement for an exceptional day has been fulfilled. The shining garden and the perfect morning weather, the sympathetic roses and the helpful archangels suggest an impressionistic concentration, an emotional intensity, and a psychological particularity that take us to the heart of the author's method in "The Garden Party," one of Mansfield's most highly respected and widely anthologized works.
Throughout the story, Mansfield renders mimetic detail through a highly emotional, sensuous style, subtly manipulating both point of view narration and authorial diction. Inherent in the rendering of Laura's day from morning to evening, and of the unanticipated intrusion of a fatal accident into it, is what is most clearly understood as an aesthetic duality. The story develops within a tension, a dynamic balance and slowly developing shift of emphasis between two modes: the social and realistic, relying on concrete verisimilitude and representative typicality, on manners, morals, and material actuality; and the symbolic and lyrical, a tendency towards stylization deriving from verbal play and imagistic evocation. One of the story's major effects is a give-and-take between these two strains of artistic emphasis which are, as well, complementary perceptual emphases in apprehending the world. This duality, which functions as a doubleness in the aesthetic context of any given element in the story, ultimately creates the story's particular sense of unity, a unity of effect, standing behind and shaping the story's rich complexity, indeed evoking it as a consistent and controlled impression.
This impression of texture and multiplicity is important. "The Garden Party" achieves its power as fiction by eliciting for us a sense of a complex, especially an emotionally and morally complex world and then portraying, through Laura, how a sensitive and appealing human personality apprehends and faces both the richness and the stark realities of human life. Katherine Mansfield herself wrote that what she "tried to convey" in the story was "the diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included." How we try: the concern with unifying life's intricacies into a mature comprehension is underscored. The comment pertains most directly to Laura's bewilderment and her attempt to accept life's inevitabilities, particularly change and mortality. But it also pertains to the artistic means by which Mansfield assimilates and shapes her material. The method by which the author of "The Garden Party" herself tries to fit in everything and unite the diverse strands of her technique is primarily through her style as it enfolds and transforms the social realism and circumstantial specificity of the story.
This transformation of social occasion by means of active stylistic mediation between reader and fictional world has often been seen less as an effective unifying device than as a divisive ambivalence of effect. The sophisticated verbal artistry of the author is one of her most immediate attractions for us and has repeatedly been admired as an isolated beauty rather than (as I am suggesting) an integral component of her method as a whole. In consequence, it has been the story's thoroughly realistic basis, its fabric of involvement with social attitudes, class differences, and economic actualities—which is often seen as its social theme—that has troubled its admirers most. Mansfield's social theme in isolation is, critically speaking, the other side of the coin to her poetical style taken in isolation. The problem is a telling one. A unified reading of the story must, however, begin with the realistic social representation that lies beneath and informs the verbal surface of the story.
If far less immediately compelling than the story's verbal brilliance and imagistic overlay and if in no sense an explicit theme (the story is neither the portrait of a rich young lady nor an analysis of New Zealand character, for instance), the social aspects of "The Garden Party" are, nonetheless, fundamental to Mansfield's method in three important ways.
For one thing, Mansfield's socio-economic consciousness is a determinant of her selection and concrete embodiment of her narrative material. The characterization and outlook of the central character, Laura Sheridan, are class based in Mansfield's conception; Laura takes life for us first as a recognizable class type. Whatever her personal psychological makeup, the heroine is definitively the privileged daughter of her monied class. The basis of Mansfield's conception of Laura is expressive in such attitudes as her self-consciousness with the workmen and such important clusters of emotions and symbolic objects as the fascination and deep-seated fear intermingled in her view of the alien, nearby cottage district. Similarly, it is often through conspicuously fetishistic objects and social institutions, as in her excess of delight at the new hat or the expensive party, that she expresses herself and articulates her desires and values. Moreover, the most crucial actions—first Laura's anticipation of her wealthy family's garden party and wholehearted delight in its extravagance and then her intense reaction to the death of the poor worker—are deeply involved with social and economic realities. Thus despite the generalized, abstract qualities of Laura's final perceptions about life and the beauty of death and despite her creator's poetic effects and metaphorical emphases, we must recognize as basic the story's unflagging realistic precision.
The story is involved with society and class in a second crucial sense in that it can be said to begin in what we accept, by and large, as a traditional modality of social realism. The reader watches a domestic social comedy in a woman's world as Laura contends with the workmen about the marquee and talks to a girl friend on the telephone, appreciates her mother's expensive caprice of buying a profusion of canna lilies and hears her sisters practice a song, helps her mother label the fifteen kinds of sandwiches ("Egg and. .. . It looks like mice. It can't be mice, can it?"), and goes with her sister Jose to help "pacify cook" who sneaks them each a cream puff. This beginning of the story's development in social realism is all the more evident if we momentarily ignore the breathless tonality and impressionism of its opening paragraph, which in any event are quickly modulated and soon seem part of the mild comedy when we discover them to be a young girl's gush of overexcitement. The story ends, however, in the artistic realm hinted at by the emotionalism of the opening which of course we cannot ignore, a realm defined more by authorial stylization and symbolic suggestiveness than external lifelikeness.
The realistic treatment of social and economic actuality also enters into the story's basic conception in a third major way: as an essential constituent of its structure. The upper class garden party focuses the social and psychological realism as a primary emphasis in the plot and is itself informed by what the realistic method achieves. One view of the story's architecture arranges the action, in echo of the work's underlying aesthetic doubleness, around dual poles, the first of which is the Sheridans' party. Although it is not the culmination of the action, the party provides a deceptive climax that is in the foreground of two thirds of the story and then acts as a fulcrum in the development, turning thematic concern from human social artificialities, which it expresses, towards deeper psychological and symbolic realities, which it contains through Laura's recognition of the transitoriness of the illusory, albeit intense, pleasures of worldly delight. For much of the story, Laura's conscious hope is the simple expectation of a rich, sheltered young girl for a successful afternoon, but about the fashionable party also coalesce Laura's attempts to grow up socially and her naive but instinctively right placing of value on social occasions, on the rituals of human community. Thus the story leads up to the fashionable party but continues beyond it, pushing it to the background (and with it, social illusions of human conviviality which represent real human needs and desires that we actualize in our lives through such institutions as garden parties).
It is, therefore, no accident that the party to which we are invited by the author is given considerable stress in the story's development and its structure, but our attendance at it seems surprisingly brief, consisting of highly selective summary and hinting snatches of conversation. The plot finally brings Laura, going to the dead carter Scott's house on a social errand of artificial charity, to the story's second structural pole and its climax: as an isolated individual, she comes to a knowledge much more deeply disturbing and also fundamentally asocial. This is the theme of (as Mansfield's letter capitalized it) Death, the story's deep interest in Laura's worried fascination with the simultaneity of life and death and her efforts to come to terms with the mixed aspects of existence. This second architectural focus provides the dramatic and emotional climax of the story's denouement and thus underlies the ending's casualness with realistic social actuality while it raises the pitch of our involvement to its most intense and serious level. What we had thought at first was the dramatic crisis, the party, an event threatened by the suspenseful counteraction of the carter's death and Laura's worries, itself turns out to be a mistaken emphasis on the reader's and the heroine's part. The celebration of life and social community becomes a relatively superficial—which is not to say unimportant—attitude and, with exceptional economy on Mansfield's part, a device of narrative retardation in the development of the work's most powerful revelation.
But social concerns and the story's concrete specification of the external world in terms of implicit social and economic categories are in no way abandoned. If the dramatic crux of the party turns out to be a mistake in emphasis, it is not because it is an unimportant event; rather, it reveals an incomplete perception of life. The story's in-olvement with social and economic actualities, which is not a theme but is basic to all aspects of it, is finally problematic only if we assume such realities must take a realistic expression. As we shall see in detail, the author's transmutation of her story from primarily social, mimetic art to something more like a symbolic fairy tale involves the social material and its necessary configurations. The social and economic realities of Laura's world enter forcefully not just into the characterization and the external givens of the action as social narrative but also into the imaginative conception of the plot as structure of signification. Within the verbal artifice of the author, social reality informs the story at a primary narrative level, that of plot itself. Mansfield's style, then, as it were encircles, seems to enclose the story on the outside (her side and our side) of the action. At the story's center is Laura, to whose social and physical reality as the imaginative focus of the concrete world within that circle we shall now turn.
Mansfield's reader is fundamentally drawn into the story by a susceptibility to Laura's attraction. If early detached by the mild social satire of the Sheridan household and the gentle comedy of Laura's ingenuous problems of propriety and deportment in relation to workers and cream puffs, the reader nevertheless remains committed and indeed grows in emotional closeness to her throughout her day. On a very human level, Laura's youth, sensitivity, vivaciousness, imagination, even her innocent girlish flightiness as well as her childlike irresponsibility and classreinforced insouciance win her a sympathetic understanding, a loyal if somewhat bemused affection. Sheltered physically by her family and morally and psychologically by her mother's spiritual myopia, insulated by her social status, she is seriously limited to her protected girlhood in a domestic world. Yet she is also atypical of her family and more admirable, "the artistic one," "different from them all" as she herself senses. Moreover, the action of the story presents an intrinsically meaningful twentieth-century occasion, a ritually significant moment in our culture: the modern, well-to-do, well-brought-up girl's first important steps towards adult maturity. This is an event deceptively customary and, therefore, barely stressed by Mansfield's dramatically restrained presentation. Mansfield's reticence about the thematic and conceptual importance of Laura's initiation is reinforced by her rendering the experience through Laura's limited center of consciousness. But the importance is, of course, implicit in the author's very choice of dramatic material. The action, Laura's growth, is hardly ordinary as well as ominously symbolic in its content of gain and loss commingled.
Thus if understated, the significance of the action is crucial nonetheless. Furthermore, the sense of a ritual passage into adulthood extends past the party to its experiential culmination in Laura's further initiation, frighteningly in the background until the party and then fatefully in the foreground after it, as the story builds to its climax. Laura's initiation into knowledge of death is neither social nor cultural but a universal occurrence in the life of the individual. These thematic elements intrinsic in the plot draw forth the concern of the involved reader, who anticipates the crisis of the ending as soon as the party is over. The inevitability of Laura's viewing the dead carter's body, figuratively the occasion of her new, disturbing perception of the nature of human life, is foreseen from Mrs. Sheridan's unstated warning, an ellipsis which the reader (but not the heroine) is put in the position of filling in:
"And, Laura!"—her mother followed her out of the marquee—"don't on any account "
No, better not put such ideas into the child's head! "Nothing! Run along."
To the lighthearted girl we meet at the beginning of the story, the child who loves parties, skims across lawns, and, though "far too grownup to really care about such things," relishes with an "absorbed inward look" of satisfaction the trifling naughtiness of eating cream puffs "so soon after breakfast," life is a garden party. Laura's is the world of the Sheridans' wealthy illusion, all the green world money can buy, a pastoral world of weather as "ideal" as if "they had ordered it," of manicured and swept lawns, of gardeners, servants, workers, and cooks, an organized life in which even roses seem to understand their status ("the only flowers that impress people") and bloom by the sacred magic of visitations "by archangels." Lilies appear in profusion at the door by Mrs. Sheridan's whim: "I suddenly thought for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies," she explains to Laura, yet it is clear that neither the occurrence nor the sense of the purchase of power over nature is unusual to their household. Indeed the Sheridans, especially Laura's mother, seem to confuse status and reality, class and morality, money and life. Mrs. Sheridan callously complains to Laura about the poor laborers who live in the district—the "eyesore"—in the nether-region below the Sheridan eminence: she "can't understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes." Later she fixes a basket of what seems to Laura "scraps from their party" in order to be "sympathetic" to the dead laborer's widow: perceiving that the leftovers are "going to be wasted," she decides to "send that poor creature some of this perfectly good food. . . . What a point to have it all ready prepared." Before the garden party, when Laura wonders if it weren't "really terribly heartless" of the Sheridans to have the party with the dead man's family so near, her mother answers her—most fittingly—with a new hat. The story catalogues for us the salient advantages of wealth: the florist's lilies and Godber's cream puffs; the made-to-order marquees and charming grown-up new hats; the parties and "perfect" afternoons with the "kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass" that together fill Laura "somehow inside her" so that "She had no room for anything else"; and the means of casually having charity and fellow-feeling "all ready prepared" to load into a basket. The material objects privileged to Laura's class speak in the story directly to, and through, the heroine's feelings. In the face of the powerful appeal of such things, the image of the widow and her children with her dead husband's body seems to Laura "blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper."
It is wealth's particular psychological effect to blur poverty and death and likewise to distance and ritualize mortality until it seems unusual news from elsewhere, certainly (as is the case) from outside the false paradise of the garden. Yet Laura is not "heartless." If anything, she is oversensitive, perhaps because of death's foreignness; most of us would agree in calling her "extravagant," as accused by her family, in her overreaction to the death. We do not stop parties because someone within hearing, otherwise unknown to us, has accidentally been killed. Mrs. Sheridan's knowledge of life, or at least of its customs, is more proper, despite her lack of feeling; we may recognize her "common sense," as she calls it, while despising its tone: "People like that don't expect sacrifices from us." Indeed, part of what Laura is trying to grow up to learn in the story is precisely the assurance and social poise of her mother. That her daughters learn this, in fact, is implicitly the reason that Mrs. Sheridan has her girls play at arranging the party. "I'm determined to leave everything to you children this year," she tells them near the beginning of the story, although later, when the lilies arrive and Laura accuses her of interfering, Mrs. Sheridan asks, "My darling child, you wouldn't like a logical mother, would you?" Her impulsiveness is within comfortable bounds, however. Ironically, had Laura her mother's social knowledge, she would never have gone into the Scotts' house or viewed the body. Her naïveté and indeed her shelteredness conspire with her emotional directness, her keen curiosity and sensitivity, to grant her important experiences that change and enrich her. Adult savoir faire insulates and protects; Laura is specially privileged in her ingenuousness. In any case, neither social experience nor carelessness about logic and morality are finally a substitute for real humanity. Laura, in her sense of distance from her mother and her sister Jose, is coming to recognize this. She is literally extravagant, then, in where she is going: outside of class domesticities and family world-views, indeed to deeper symbolic realms.
Laura's internal experience in the story is manifold: she senses she is growing up socially and physically, psychologically and morally. Early in the day, when the men arrive to put up the marquee, she puts on her mother's mannerisms in an attempt to be grown-up, unfearful, businesslike. Yet she romanticizes the workers—"how extraordinarily nice workmen were"—when the tall one sniffs the lavender, and she pretends to be "just like a work-girl" as she bites her bread-and-butter. She believes she would get on with them as friends, concluding (the formulaic phrases suggest the inverted snobbery and false sophistication; the arching, drooping, delayed syntax ironically undercuts her assertion): "It's all the fault, she decided, as the tall fellow drew something on the back of an envelope, something that was to be looped up or left to hang, of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn't feel them. Not a bit, not an atom. . . ." Later she hears of the carter Scott's accident from Godber's delivery man while on her way to look again at the "awfully nice" workmen.
Moreover just as the reality of death enters the house with the cream puffs (appropriately through the back door, we might add), the subjective reality, the warming flush of growing up to physical womanhood, arrives with the lilies: "wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive" to her, a "blaze" to which she crouches "as if to warm herself," Laura "felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast." Soon afterward, Laura sees herself anew, suddenly a "charming girl." When her mother wins Laura's docility by giving her her own new hat, Laura accidentally passes a mirror: "Never had she imagined she could look like that." Even to her mother, she is changed: "I have never seen you look such a picture." The black hat trimmed with gold daisies is perhaps emblematic of the youthful flowering of vitality and maturity in Laura, her soon-to-be-gained perception of life and death commingled, a natural growth of light and festive brightness against the dark background, the black of life's sufferings and death's mysteries. But the hat is also an expensive and fashionable contrast to the shawls of the women of the lane. Its daisies are gold. In the story's opening paragraph, the gardeners had only recently removed the daisy plants from "the dark flat rosettes" of the garden, as it were (it turns out) to this very hat. Ultimately, it is as if a newly grown-up Laura is putting on her social heritage with this hat from her mother, a hat whose expensiveness denotes life and spiritual vitality in the cultural idiom of her family. No wonder, later, when viewing the dead man, she immediately exclaims, "Forgive my hat." If we feel then that her instincts are good, her heart in the right place, it is because she has been created to win our sympathy. It would be blindness not to see as well that this sympathy is partially based on social admiration for her class and her particular type. She is positively as sensitive and receptive an individual as, given the right human material, wealth—class—can create.
Laura's psychological and moral growth are interconnected with her new perception of death, to which, as if to the end of a quest, she finally comes after her late afternoon journey to the anonymous lower class world down the hill below the Sheridans' house. Her growing up in the story is a bittersweet experience. Death, she learns, is ordinary, concurrent with life and parties, and extraordinary, final, a magic (or reality) beneath and beyond class, money, and dreams. Her awe at this discovery, her inability to articulate her response, is a measure of her family self-deception, the corollary of wealth's illusion, as well as a sign of the intensity of her reaction. She discovers what she had instinctively felt earlier; as she goes on a mission of charity to the proletarian regions of death, she realizes that money and advantages, parties, clothes, and cream puffs, are not life, nor what is more important about it. She reacts to this intuitively gained knowledge ecstatically, as a deeply liberating experience. Here at the end of the story, for a second time alone with a worker (the scene is parallel to the conversation about the marquee in the beginning), she still romanticizes: the dead worker is a "marvel" of serenity, a "wonderful" token of the world's Tightness. Yet her reaction simultaneously indicates how far she has come towards accepting her shared humanity and mortality and towards gaining maturity, as well as how far she has to go. To idealize is to accept, rather than reject; as a stereotyped mode of meeting experience, if no less a cliché, her reaction is a contrast to her mother's scorn and her family's distaste for the working class and their lives and houses and unpastoral "garden patches" of "cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans." Laura's response to the dead man is likewise a pointed contrast to the banal, sentimental song which Jose rehearses, looking "mournfully and enigmatically," before the party:
This Life is Wee-ary,
Hope comes to Die.
A Dream—a Wa-kening.
Laura accepts death as enigmatic, a kind of dreaming from which there is no awakening, yet which in part is an awakening to contentment, to repose, to the metaphysical order and Tightness of life. In her drive to accept and assimilate life, including life's struggles and doubts, she apprehends death as something that is consoling and beautiful and moving rather than abstractly mournful, the content of a drawing-room song sung by a singer beaming with "dreadfully unsympathetic" pride.
Laura's journey takes place as it is "growing dusky." As she descends out of the garden to "the hollow" where "the little cottages were in deep shade," the story most emphatically shifts to the intensely suggestive mode that we have noted is the work's stratagem for transforming sharply observed detail into narrative interiority and symbolism. Laura's outward journey, no less specific and concrete in its strikingly forceful details than the events of the opening sections of the story, is now foremost a metaphor for an inward progress, a movement shared indeed by both Laura and the closely sympathetic reader. This process of deepening perception, of approaching the depths of the psyche where our sense of self is inseparable from our sense of our mortal limitation, is parallel to Laura's quest for a grown-up, experiential knowledge of human life, the immediate object of which is the cottage where death lives. Both the symbolic psychological process and the pattern of narrative action are deeply threatening, and it is as an omen of fear for reader and heroine alike that, on the way to the quiet, dark, smoky region, "a big dog ran by like a shadow." In contrast to the Sheridan Eden of wealth and leisure, out of the harshness and drabness of the workers' lives Mansfield creates a geography of death. This alien region asserts itself as a concrete physical actuality—their squalid, chocolate brown houses and mean, scraggly gardens are truly sordid—and in that we see it from without, from Laura's unsympathetic point of view, also an illusory, socially scornful, snobbish perception of working class realities. Laura's imagination views the lower class district at the foot of the hill as literally a lower world, the land of the dead. To us this district of death-in-life complements Laura's youthfulness and there is a Tightness about the ritual inexorability with which Laura approaches Mrs. Scott's house, walks through the "dark knot of people" who part "as though she was expected," questions the woman with the queer smile so unlike the easy, friendly smiles of the workmen at the beginning, enters despite herself (invoking God's protection), and—by an accident that is no accident at all in terms of plot impetus and symbolic schematism—turns into the bedroom where the body lies.
The whole movement of the story impels Laura from the bright, broad lawns of the opening out of the garden gates to the dingy, narrow lane, then to the "tiny path" to the Scotts' door, and finally to the narrower, claustrophobic "gloomy passage" inside the house, through the "wretched little low kitchen" with its smoky lamp and the woman before the fire, her face "swollen" and "terrible," and to the dead laborer. "Don't be afraid, my lass, . . ." the widow's sister tells Laura, "'e looks a picture," an ironic echo of Mrs. Sheridan's admiring compliment to her daughter in her new hat and also of Laura's inability, after catching sight of herself in the mirror, to realize the Scotts clearly save as an indistinct news photo. Here Laura's view is scathingly real, "a bang slap in the eye" far more jarring to her "upbringing" than the tall workman's colloquialism; this is the story's climactic scene. Life and death are united dramatically; Laura comes to the dead man. "You'd like a look at 'im, wouldn't you?" Em's sister asks. It seems almost impertinent to observe that the basic conceptualization of life is a rich, pretty, sensual young woman and of death, a poor worker whom she views as a handsome, remote, dreaming man. Seeing the dead worker transformed into a beautiful marvel, no longer does Laura play at being work-girl. Perhaps she is overawed by death, the great leveler of classes, but we should not be: it is the laborer who dies, and it is the sheltered, leisure class girl who imagines him as "happy." Then Laura, fearful of poverty's deathly regions and further repelled by the mourning rituals of the poor, quickly flees "those dark people."
The imagistic overtones, however, vibrate not with economics and sociology, but with Mansfield's conjoining of mythic allusion, religious miracle, and fairy tale magic. Like the roses of the opening paragraph, this worker, too, has been visited by the supernatural, the angelic—an angel of death. Mrs. Scott's sister uncovers the body, and we hear, in a passage of highly emotional interior monologue, Laura's unusual sensibility:
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did gardenparties 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. Happy . . . happy. .. . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
The scene is in strong contrast to the fearful ugliness, drabness, and tawdriness surrounding it. Laura's abstract vision of contentment amidst death and the gathering of mourners—both are counterpointed against the life and convivial gaiety of the afternoon's party—is an intuitive acceptance of much that is basic to the human situation. No reaction is commensurate with such knowledge.
There is unspoken recognition of this depth in the heroine's sensitivity to social occasion, her constrained realization in the paragraph immediately following that she must speak to him and "had to" cry. Mansfield's instincts in this paragraph are unerring. In Laura's act of humility, despite the clumsiness of her words, "Forgive my hat," and in the similar consistency of her expression of personal sympathy, her "loud childish sob," Laura rises to her experience as best she can with inarticulate reliance on social ritual, on symbolic gesture—a response comparable in kind to her creator's emphasis on verbal gestures, the mythic and symbolic elements foregrounded here at the end of the story. We admire Laura for what we would like to believe she intends.
But just as the party is summarized rapidly and thus effectively placed for us in the story's structure, so, too, is Laura's development placed by her nearly bathetic immediate reaction, an impression given us directly by the verbal surface as the paragraph begins: "But all the same. . . ." Likewise, Laura's childish cry is an explicit indication, along with her social awkwardness, that she develops only to the brink of transition to adulthood, which of course is no sudden metamorphosis in anyone. But her girlishness is now counterbalanced by her capacity to assimilate the experience at least through the simple acceptance of deeper realities and so to make her own way. Mansfield embeds this in the scene. "She found her way out" of the house—as with our sense of the initiation into experience, we see one of its results, a barely suggested composure, conceptualized in the dramatically understated action. Though there is a hint of terror, Laura no longer blunders wrongly. Fleeing the darkness, she then meets her brother Laurie on the way home as he steps from shadow. She is crying. "It was simply marvellous," she tells him, moved by her mixed bewilderment and fright, recognition and ecstacy. She "looked at her brother"—the contrast to her looking at the body is explicit in both word and image: "'Isn't life,' she stammered, 'isn't life ' But what life was she couldn't explain."
Laura's first reaction when she meets her brother is far less ambiguous, however; "She took his arm, she pressed up against him." Earlier Mansfield describes the party as a gathering of "bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans' garden for this one afternoon, on their way to—where? Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who all are happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes." Though the sensibility here may be Laura's, the voice is detached from the point of view in its brisk, set-piece qualities (most evident in the scene as a whole) and its summary diction as well as its implicit vantage point as that of a literally distant, outside onlooker who is able to see patterns of people coming "in streams" and compose the couples "wherever you looked . . . strolling, bending, . . . greeting, moving on over the lawn" into the imagistic grouping of the flock of splendid birds. The image, technically Laura's, is exotic and powerful in itself and is reinforced by the authorial presence. Having sensed death, then, and despite having seen in it a calm beauty, Laura grasps life, which is no exotic passage and, if a brief flight on the way to—ah, death, is all the more important as something to feel, to touch, to press against. The generalized qualities of Laura's final impressions of life and death are in her phrasing, not her actions. The experience turns almost to a sensual one for Laura, who, as we see when she playfully bites her mother's ear in appreciation for the lilies, is a creature of touch. The emotional impact of Laura's experience is complex, haunting, and enigmatic.
Just as the carter's widow (who "seemed as though she couldn't understand.. . . What did it mean?"), but without the personal cost, Laura has discovered death's mystery: which is the reality? the happiness to press against others in life's garden of earthly delights? the happiness to be given up to death's detachment and contentment? Or are these dreams beside life's poverty, a death-in-life, or illusions deriving from wealth's confusing morality of warmth and shelter that obscure death's blind finality? The enigma is also life's mystery, our flight on our "way to—where?" In its deep structure the story is ultimately a garden party of gestures and images, a gathering of some of the bewilderments and consolations of life's diversity, ambiguity, perplexity, and contradiction.
Laura's growth, one that the reader perhaps comes to perceive and understand better than the heroine, is an inward maturation. It is a shadowy and only vaguely discriminated development towards adulthood, as indistinct but, we feel, as inevitable as the nightfall soon to follow the dusk that pervades the final scenes of the story. This nascent maturity in Laura, however, is the conclusion of a plot heavily freighted with Katherine Mansfield's verbal poetry and emotional power. Her style, we observed, functions to raise the dramatic events and the characters above their realistic socio-economic being—the external dimension of literature, its mimetic context—into that special realm definitive of literature's inner mechanisms of evocative, myth-making, symbolizing power. In "The Garden Party," this process is created as much by authorial mediation as by anything else. It is a literary stylization of experience that translates material to an intense level of the stylization of human emotion and desire, a realm of significant metaphor and also of unnaturalistic detail and fairy tale magic.
The story's world abounds with supernatural and animistic details. This world's things suddenly play unexpected roles. Angels visit roses. Flowers understand people. Daisies move from gardens to hats. People order the weather. Laura skims and flies across her parents' lawns like a fairy child. A dog passes Laura like a nightmare as she starts out on her errand with the basket of goodies and, strangely, she seems expected at the Scotts'. There are talismans and omens, a witch-like creature and a magic hat, impossible foreknowledge and unavoidable fate. Much like Daphne, who became a laurel, that tree's namesake Laura assumes the lilies into herself; like Proserpine, she descends from a world of flowers to the world of death and returns from it (though unlike Demeter's daughter, she returns by her own powers). We view a garden and witness a departure from it, learn of a knowledge (death) that commences with a temptation (cream puffs, a temptation frightening in its human banality). Various more or less magical transmutations pervade the story: for instance, the plausible, life to death; half-plausible (metaphoric), death to miraculous beauty; and implausible (petty, comic, and mock pastoral), a green-coated band to frogs. For Laura, too, the experience is one of metamorphoses: of herself, a girl becoming a woman, and of her self-perception and perception of life. Finally, then, the combination of Laura's sensibility and Mansfield's authorial presence in the emotionally charged language of the story infuses the reader's experience with significances that transcend the surface dramatic actuality.
The authorial overlay, in its allusiveness, its suggestion of significant patterns implicit in the story's world, invites us to extrapolate further symbolic meanings. It is difficult to make the interpretive leap without at the same time feeling we are allegorizing a story that is solidly grounded in the experiences of a character and her social reality. Nonetheless, the plot of "The Garden Party" can also be seen as fairy tale, modern literary myth. Laura, the heroine, is rich and beautiful, the daughter of royal wealth if without royal rank. No charming, deserving lover appears for her at the party, her ball, but soon afterward she meets her prince. He is "wonderful, beautiful," but in an inversion of the sleeping beauty motif, it is he who is in a death-like trance. Laura herself, sensitive and receptive, is fully awakened to the stark realities of life by his presence: he is, in fact, dead. Ironically, Laura's prince is a lower class worker who has been killed in an industrial mishap, a carter who is the hapless victim of a machine; his steed shied at a traction engine, and he was killed.
We observed earlier that Mansfield does not altogether leave behind the social realities of the story's world as she raises its pitch of symbolic intensity. Instead, the social forces and economic necessities play a powerful determinant role in the structure of the fable, just as they influenced the characterization of its heroine. Like garden parties and modern short stories, fairy tale plots are implicitly social occasions. The realities of money and class in "The Garden Party," which concomitantly remains a fundamentally character-based, concretely realistic story and, therefore, resists too thorough a dissolution into the metaphorical and archetypal, also take the form of a pervasive irony in the plot, one that is inherent in its outcome. In short, the fairy princess cannot marry her prince because of his class. Thus there is no love story or only an abstract one—Laura in love with life—and the prince is dead when Laura meets him. He is beyond the real world, a sleeping beauty who indeed is idealized precisely as such by Laura's imagination. Furthermore, the difficult moral and psychological maturity toward which Laura has been struggling would be irrelevantly rewarded by a marriage, even were the match perfect in social or personal terms. Laura's ritual trial is an individual one, expressive of an age that believes preeminently in human potentiality, in uniqueness, self-sufficiency, and inner growth, in a sense in unlimited personal possibilities and concomitantly unattainable fulfillments that are, must be (since their range is without definition), just beyond the end of any endeavor. In this perspective, the fairy tale is a fully modern one. Its plot ironies are the result of twentieth-century social and economic exigencies; and its plot structure, a process of growth begun, the completion of which is beyond the end of the story (if at all possible in an ideal sense), is symptomatic of twentieth-century uncertainties. The story formally accepts and unites these elements in the same way that Laura's "All is well" accepts her new, mixed knowledge of life.
Finally, in uniting its various strains of perception and experience, the story as story implicitly throws its emphasis on what values are immanent in the life it realizes. Laura's sensitivity, her receptivity, and emotional vitality, her just blossoming physical beauty, and her shelteredness and nurtured ingenuousness, in short, the full mixture of her characteristics as personal individual and social-economic type—all these appealing qualities which Mansfield grants her heroine are held inextricably together by the achieved solidity, the rendered validity of her presence in the story. There is no way to separate the elements of Mansfield's fundamentally dual imaginative conception of her protagonist. This very conceptualization in another sense defines why the story, in precisely the way that we have seen, informs its simple plot pattern of a young girl's first important steps towards adult maturity. Poised dialectically between the narrative world of vivid realistic clarity and specificity—the social and economic actuality of human life—and a symbolic, internalized world of metaphorical perception implicit in human reactions to everyday reality, Laura synthesizes the story's modalities and its dual emphases at the very most basic level. In the inseparability of these social and personal, aesthetic and perceptual patterns, that Laura is rich means that she is better than anyone outside her class, and that she is imaginative, sensitive, and receptive means that she is better than anyone in it. Similarly, the lyrical and symbolic technique that transforms the harsher realities of poor workers and human impermanence during this day of Laura's awakening to life and death is finally of much greater appeal than the diurnalities which it absorbs. The open-ended conclusion, emotionally effective and thematically appropriate, is indeed the only conceivable closing for the story as character-centered modern short story, as fairy tale pattern, and as radically ambiguous lyrical structure. The conceptualization of Laura is nothing other than the stylized human correlative of the story's essential unity as richly complex and deeply moving construction of conjoined dualities—intensive symbolic signification and mimetic representation, lyricism and narration, style and social occasion.
Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr (essay date 1981)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3495
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 small child. For the later stage of growth, the stage of adolescent self-consciousness and its social adjustments, Katherine Mansfield invented another family, the Sheridans.
Like the Burnells, the Sheridans are a Wellington family who live in Tinakori Road, the place from which in "Prelude" we see the Burnells moving to live in Karori. There is no grandmother and no small child in the Sheridan family, only the two parents with three adolescent girls and a younger boy. Katherine Mansfield had spent the years from five to ten in Karori, and moved back to Tinakori Road where she was born, in 1898, to a new house, much larger than her birthplace, the house displayed with some precision in 'The Garden-Party'.
She had more difficulty with the Sheridan stories than the Burnell stories. They lacked the impetus of the Karori concept, the idea of knitting all the Burnell stories into a discontinuous but cohesive novel. The process of discovery which is basic to both cycles was more straightforward in the Burnell group, since the focus was on objects or incidents seen as isolated phenomena in the present moment of the child's wide-eyed perspective. The Sheridan stories are more concerned with human relationships, the impact of local conditions on the developing personality and how the present affects the past and future. In a letter written in March 1922 Katherine Mansfield described the Sheridan preoccupations as 'the diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included'. The Burnell stories deal with involuntary change and development, while the Sheridan stories are concerned with conscious change.
Partly as a result of this difficulty she completed little of the projected Sheridan cycle. Ian Gordon includes sixteen pieces, dated between 1915 and 1922, in the Sheridan stories printed in Undiscovered Country, including 'Maata' and 'The Wind Blows'. But only the last five seem to have been designed specifically as a Sheridan cycle. A fragment called 'A Dance' which appears in the Journal, tentatively dated 1920, was reconstructed as the first Sheridan story, 'Her First Ball', in July 1921. 'By Moonlight', which was never finished, was written in September 1921, and the only major Sheridan story, 'The Garden-Party', in October 1921. A further piece, called The Sheridans', was begun in May 1922 probably with the idea of developing the stories into a complete cycle on the Karori model for publication in The Sphere. Nothing else was set down, however, before she gave up writing altogether.
Of this group only 'The Garden-Party' is a masterpiece. There was no pillar to provide underpinning of the kind that "Prelude" gave to the Burnell cycle. Katherine Mansfield wrote in the manuscript of 'Her First Ball' that it was only playing on the borders of the sea (the sea of adolescent discovery), and a month later she wrote of 'By Moonlight', giving as her reason for abandoning it that 'This isn't bad, but at the same time it's not good. It's too easy.' So to take up the Sheridan family again for 'The Garden-Party' was a risk and a challenge.
It was a challenge partly because the subject, an adolescent encounter with death, demanded a more orthodox narrative structure than 'At the Bay' or 'The Daughters of the Late Colonel'. The 'Garden-Party' is told as a single character's story in a straightforwardly sequential narrative. It is not divided into scenes or sections or 'cells' and Laura, the central figure, is the consciousness through which everything is observed throughout the day's events. This tighter unity was necessary because the story is more narrowly than the Burnell stories an account of adolescent discovery, and of Laura's recognition, through confrontation with death, of the distance which is beginning to develop between her and her family.
The development of Laura's differences from her family is shown in a number of ways. Her growth as an adolescent is implied, for instance, in the affinity she feels for the men of the story as much as it is shown by her divergence from her mother and sisters. Her father and her brother both respond to the news of the death down the lane more sympathetically and therefore more as Laura does than any of the female Sheridans. Laura feels a precise affinity with her brother at the end of the story, the same kind of affinity that she tells herself she feels for the workmen in her garden at the beginning. The dead man's widow and sister-in-law make little impression on her, for all their swollen faces, compared with the peaceful sleep of the dead man. Laura's world is beginning to stretch beyond the narrowly feminine confines of family and garden.
At the outset of the story her distance from her mother and sisters is only a matter of inclination. She is sent to tell the workmen where to erect the marquee because 'you're the artistic one'. In the middle, when news of the death down the lane is first delivered, the fact that she reacts in the opposite way to her sister and her mother is linked to her sense of comradeship with her brother.
When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot [down the lane] because of the revolting language and of what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.
Near the end, after Laura's first impulse to stop the party because of the death has been diverted by her mother's diplomacy, and the party has gone its delightful course, Laura is drawn into her mother's belated impulse to send a basket of party left-overs to the dead man's family, but now feels much more distinctly alone.
Again, how curious, she seemed to be different from them all. To take scraps from their party. Would the poor woman really like that?
Her journey down the dark lane among the dark people with the incongruous relic of the day is an adventure she takes on her own, out of her family's protection. It is her first real voyage of discovery. It is an encounter with a world which has been hitherto a male preserve, where knowledge of death is a necessary part of reality.
Mrs Sheridan will have nothing to do with such adventures. Although she uses the party as a ritual of initiation into adulthood for her children ('I'm determined to leave everything to you children this year'), her vision of the adult world does not extend beyond the garden.
'Mother, a man's been killed,' began Laura.
'Not in the garden?' interrupted her mother.
'Oh, what a fright you gave me!' Mrs Sheridan sighed with relief, and took off the big hat and held it on her knees.
She is an adroitly diplomatic stage-manager, allowing her children to think they are in complete control of the party, redirecting Laura by means of the beautiful hat into what she sees as the normal channel of adolescent conduct, with enough success to ensure that Laura is standing 'side by side' with her on the porch to farewell the guests after the party has ended. Only the male reminder of the death down the lane, what Mrs Sheridan feels to be her husband's distinctly tactless remark, renews her distance from her daughter. She is the perfect mother for childhood and the sheltered butterfly life of the Sheridan house and garden. Laura's divergence from her signals a departure from childhood.
The distance is also marked by that feature of the story which has troubled so many commentators, the element of social class. New Zealand critics tend to feel it is overstated, a British intrusion on their classless society. Other critics feel it is overstated because the contrast with the elegiac beauties of the garden party inside the Sheridan gates is melodramatised. Both kinds of objection put too high a priority on external realism and see the social setting in terms of its independent existence, not in relation to Laura and her growth which is the focus for the whole story.
Laura herself of course calls the social element 'these absurd class distinctions', and refuses to recognise them. To her mother they are second nature. She does not like having to deal with the lower classes. Laura is sent in her place to negotiate with the workmen over the placing of the marquee, Jose is sent to be diplomatic with the cook, and Laura is dispatched with the basket to the dead carter's family. Mrs Sheridan keeps her distance from workmen just as she enjoins her children to keep away from their cottages in the dark lane. But Laura ventures among the workmen just as she had ventured with her brother among the cottages. She rejects her mother's aversion because *one must go everywhere'. She feels initially a warmth for the workmen with the marquee in an unconsciously patronising manner which is only a small shift away from her mother's aloofness. She is in a different world from them.
'H'm, going to have a band, are you?' said another of the workmen. He was pale. He had a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court. What was he thinking?
'Only a very small band,' said Laura gently. Perhaps he wouldn't mind so much if the band was quite small.
The dark eyes do not belong with bands and parties and all the attendant brightness.
Laura's sister Jose is more like her mother: 'Jose loved giving orders to the servants, and they loved obeying her. She always made them feel they were taking part in some drama.' But Laura, the artistic one, has begun her journey in a different direction.
Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn't she have workmen for friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.
It is a direction which culminates in her visit to the dead carter, a visit which measures not only her distance from her family but the leap she has been forced to make from her own childish assumptions about nice workmen.
This kind of measurement is the basic feature of the story and the prime reason for its more orthodox narrative structure. Laura makes a single journey through the events of the day in sequence, concluding with the real journey she goes on out of her garden and down the dark lane. The structure follows that sequence in time and with the cohesion of the single viewpoint. It is a mildly comic paradox that this sequential structure should have produced the chief complaints about the story, its disunity. The contrast between the glorious perfections of the party and the misery of the dead man's home has produced several protests about the violence of the disjunction. And yet the whole story is built on it. The transition from bright morning to dark evening and the related patterns of contrast are the essential accompaniments to Laura's process of discovery.
The contrasts are numerous and exact. The transition of time from the morning's discoveries through the afternoon party to the evening's discoveries is gradual, but the details at either end form a pattern of sharp contrasts. The Sheridans' garden, with its roses, its lily-lawn, its tennis-court and the grove of karaka trees, contrasts with the cottages.
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 cream puffs bought for the garden party appear before and after. Before, they are sampled with guilty delight by Laura and Jose; after, they are scraps loaded into the basket for the poor: 'All those sandwiches, cakes, puffs, all uneaten, all going to be wasted.' And lilies, the pink cannas which are delivered on the morning of the party like the cream puffs, and the arum lilies, the white funeral flower, which are only withdrawn from the gift of leftovers because they would stain Laura's frock, likewise appear before and after. Cream puffs and lilies are first delivered to the bright Sheridan property by the workers, the baker's man and the florist, and then are delivered by Laura to the dark property of the workers as leftovers. The 'blaze' of canna lilies and the bright cream puffs, together with all the main images of light, the morning, the colourful garden, are transmuted into images of dark, the 'deep shade' of the lane, the 'dark knot' of people at the garden gate where the dead body is housed, the 'gloom' of the cottage and in the end Laurie stepping out of the shadows. In the first part of the story people are all coming into the light, entering the glories of the Sheridan garden bringing gifts for the party. In the second half Laura goes out of the brightness on an antithetical journey carrying gifts from the party into the darkness of the lane.
Two images in particular stand out in this pattern of contrasts, and link the imagery explicitly with the central subject, the encounter with death. The beautiful hat with which Mrs Sheridan distracts Laura's mind before the party, is black, a 'black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon'. Like the lilies, it makes a dazzling show for the party, but like the white arum lilies which Mrs Sheridan wants Laura to take down the lane it is also a version of the trappings conventionally taken to funerals. Laura does not recognise it as such. The hat belongs with the party, and therefore is an embarrassment when she hurries down the lane with the basket of cream puffs.
How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat!
Finally she is taken to view the body. Dazed by its stillness she is forced to apologise to it for her misconceived symbol.
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. 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. Happy . . . happy .. . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn't go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.
'Forgive my hat,' she said.
The hat is her cream puff, the relic of gaiety she carries with her from the party. When she had shut the gates of the Sheridan garden behind her, she was filled with the party: 'It seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her.' Now it is outside her, incongruously shining on her head, the device intended to shine in the very process of giving her shade from the brightness. And for this display of childish pleasures she must now apologise.
The other and even more direct contrast linking the party with death is Jose's song.
Pom! Ta-ta-ta Tee-ta! The piano burst out so passionately that Jose's face changed. She clasped her hands. She looked mournfully and enigmatically at her mother and Laura as they came in.
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
And then . . . Good-bye!
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?' she beamed.
This Life is Wee-ary,
Hope comes to Die.
A Dream—a Wa-kening.
In the middle of the preparations for the party the song seems merely ludicrous. The reality, with its explicit echo in Laura's reaction to the sight of the body ('He was dreaming. Never wake him up again'), is a contrast which measures Laura's advance in awareness over Jose, while at the same time marking her desperate romanticising of the corpse. She views the body as if she were in a fairy tale. The dead carter is a sleeping prince whom she has braved many terrors to reach. And when she sees him she sees his stillness as a peaceful sleep from which he must never be awoken. Instead of the sleeping princess to be roused with a kiss there is a sleeping prince to be left in peace. He is happy. All is well. He suffers none of the pains of life and parties and incongruous hats. So she can return from the darkness with the bright image from its centre, the magical awakening hers alone, and her magical brother's.
Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. 'Don't cry,' he said in his warm, loving voice. 'Was it awful?'
'No,' sobbed Laura. 'It was simply marvellous. But, Laurie—' she stopped, she looked at her brother. 'Isn't life,' she stammered, 'isn't life—' But what life was she couldn't explain. No matter. He quite understood.
'Isn't it, darling?' said Laurie.
And there the story ends. It is a cycle of growth. The roses open their petals for the morning of the party; the afternoon 'slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed'. At the end the corpse lies like a closed flower in the night, and Laura feels she has seen life through its full cycle of blossoming and closure.
Laura's learning process in the course of the day is radical, though it is also far from complete. The ending, the inexpressible discovery about life, marks her encounter with the fact of death rather than her assimilation of its full significance. The positiveness she voices to Laurie at the conclusion is in its immature confidence, and the assurance that Laurie 'quite understood', a signal of the distances her journey still has to cover. Death is still more melodramatic to her than real. Her sleeping prince is marvellous because he reveals the completion of the cycle of life blossoming rather than the finality of death as a denial of life. Some such thought may have been in Katherine Mansfield's own mind when she wrote at the end of her manuscript, 'This is a moderately successful story, and that's all. It's somehow, in the episode at the lane, scamped.' Life is stronger in 'The Garden-Party' than death. Those critics who approve it for its elegiac evocation of the beautiful life shy away from the dark side of the pattern of contrasts and from the transition between light and dark. But since Laura does not leave the Sheridan property for the lane until more than four-fifths of the way through the story they can claim some support for their view, both in the space given to the one over the other, and in the author's own verdict.
It is, however, a quantitative assertion which underrates the central function of Laura herself, and the gradual nature of the process which takes her away from the world of Mrs Sheridan's values. Laura is a chrysalis—Jose has already emerged as a butterfly like her mother ('Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket')—and the story rests on the brief intrusion of death into the butterfly world. Laura's own emergence is only beginning. The garden party is a growth point, and it is rightly portrayed as a brilliant, idyllic setting for the incipient butterfly. The final emphasis on Laura's emergence from her protective cocoon cannot cancel the idyllic glories of the butterfly world of the Sheridan garden. But the butterfly garden is also incomplete without the recognition that it can hatch creatures possessing a greater sense of engagement with life than the butterflies.
C. A. Hankin (essay date 1983)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2715
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 last had someone to write to and for: 'It is the idea . . . that I do not write alone. That in every word I write and every place I visit I carry you with me.'
In fact, it was not until her own death was imminent that the sister finally made good her promise. For, with the exception of 'The Aloe', revised as 'Prelude', Katherine Mansfield wrote almost nothing between 1916 and 1921 which centred either on her brother or their life at home in New Zealand. In the period generally reckoned as the most fruitful of her life, however, between July 1921 and February 1922, she wrote the group of stories based on her memories of New Zealand which at once fulfilled her vow and established her literary reputation. In over half of them the idea of death is of crucial importance, and in over half Katherine Mansfield included, virtually for the first time, a character who was modelled on her brother. Leslie Beauchamp appears as the baby boy in 'At the Bay', as Leila's cousin Laurie in 'Her First Ball', as the favoured son 'Harold' in 'An Ideal Family', as Laura's brother Laurie in 'The Garden Party' and as the boss's dead soldier son in 'The Fly'
Katherine Mansfield completed 'At the Bay' in September 1921. A month later she wrote the story for which she is probably best known, 'The Garden Party'. A journal entry dated March 1916 indicates that the genesis of this work lay in the trains of thought and recollection which had preoccupied her in the months following Leslie's death. 'Tinakori Road was not fashionable; it was very mixed', Katherine wrote about the Wellington neighbourhood in which she had lived. 'There was no doubt that the land would become extremely valuable, as Father said. . . . But it was a little trying to have one's own washerwoman living next door . . . and further along there lived an endless family of half-castes . . . and below .. . in a hollow . . . was Saunders Lane.'
Hardly bothering to change names, Katherine Mansfield recreates in 'The Garden Party' the physical location of her late girlhood: the 'big, white-painted square house', the lily-pond in the garden, and Saunders Lane, the street which was a direct continuation of the Beauchamp's front path. In this street there actually did live a carrier named Scott who had a fatal accident; next door to the Beauchamps was Kitty Marchant (called Kitty Maitland in the story); and Godbers was a well-known Wellington catering firm. This much of 'The Garden Party' and certain characteristics of the Beauchamp family, Katherine Mansfield drew from life. One important alteration is the change made in the age of the brother. Leslie Beauchamp was six years younger than Katherine: in the narrative he is transformed into Laurie and made to appear so close in age and sensibility to Laura that, as the name suggests, he might almost be her twin.
'The Garden Party' and 'The Fly' are Katherine Mansfield's most anthologised stories, and dozens of interpretative articles have been written about them. It is a tribute to the complexity and appeal of these works that critics continue to be fascinated by their meaning and form. Most commentators have concentrated upon the philosophical significance of 'The Garden Party'. They have variously discussed it from the mythic point of view, seeing echoes of the Garden of Eden as well as the Classical myth of Demeter and Persephone; they have seen it as a story of initiation from youth into adulthood; they have examined the thematic juxtapositions of innocence and experience, of beauty and ugliness, of life and death. But, while they have noted, too, the work's social implications, they have not seen that these are central to an understanding of 'The Garden Party'.
Katherine Mansfield's journal entry suggests that her initial idea for the story developed out of the close proximity she had observed between the houses of the rich and the poor. The paradox that she presents us with is that, in spite of this physical closeness, the two social groups inhabit quite distinct and separate worlds. Laura's progress in the course of the narrative may be the philosophical one from innocence to experience; but in a very real sense it is the girl's instinctive attempt to find out for herself the extent and validity of the differences separating people like the Sheridans from people like the Scotts. The idea of class distinction, then, provides the thematic framework for 'The Garden Party' as well as informing its verbal structure and patterning.
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, as in 'At the Bay', 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 fulfil 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 friv-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', 'crab-like', '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 emphathises 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 ' 'e 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 Tightness 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.
Hubert Zapf (essay date 1985)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3855
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 episodes, i.e. from the direct, action-centred surface of the text to a more indirectly organised subsurface of meaningful connections and connotations. This detail-orientated, highly suggestive style has been associated with an "impressionist" dimension in her writing, which again indicates nothing else than that the data of sensory experience are assembled in such a way that their coherence is only gradually and indirectly to be discovered in the apparently random sequence of perceptions and observations.
In spite of the general tribute to the artistic achievement of "The Garden Party," however, the problem of its structural unity has been one of the recurring themes of criticism ever since Warren S. Walker questioned this unity in his well-known article, "The Unresolved Conflict in 'The Garden Party."' Walker maintained that the social level of the story, i.e. the "clash of social attitudes," is insufficiently connected with the existential level, i.e. Laura's encounter with death. In answer to Walker's challenge, various attempts have been made to defend the structural coherence of the text. I do not propose to take up this question directly here, nor do I aim at an overall interpretation. Instead, I should like to examine two elements of the story's formal structure, time and space, elements which have been discussed sporadically in different contexts but, to my knowledge, have not yet been dealt with as separate aspects, although they can be shown to contribute substantially to the subsurface coherence of the text. Specifically, they illuminate the dialectic nature of the story's composition and are employed by the author not only to support, but actually to embody an essential part of the story's theme.
The temporal frame of "The Garden Party" has clear symbolic connotations. The story takes place in early summer, at a time when the roses are in full bloom, i.e. at the height of the life cycle of the year. And it takes one single day of narrated time to be completed. Ranging from dawn to dusk, from the morning to the evening of that day, the story's action symbolically performs, on a smaller scale, the whole cycle from birth to death within the seasonal climax of the year. In this, the symbolic time frame resembles the situation of Laura and the other characters who, celebrating a magnificent, life-throbbing garden party, are confronted simultaneously with the death of a workman from the nearby village. And while the party itself takes place in broad daylight, Laura's encounter with death at the end of the story occurs, suggestively, in the dusk—twilight, of course, representing a highly symbolic state of ambiguity, of transition between day and night, life and death.
The age of the characters corresponds to this pattern. First of all, people of all ages appear in the story. But age does not seem important during the party, except that the events are coloured by Laura's youthful perspective. Although children seem to dominate the scene, they are children imitating the roles of adults. The party is neither organized by the children (but by Mrs. Sheridan), nor especially for the children, but is a semi-official social occasion with primarily adult guests of unspecified ages. Age is, however, specifically accentuated at the end of the story. After Laura leaves the scene of the party and walks down to the village, she meets an "old, old woman with a crutch" who is sitting beside the gate of the dead workman's house Laura is about to enter. As in the opposition of morning to evening defining the time span of the story's events, the life cycle is embodied here in the opposition of the two female characters, confronting, at this crucial point in the story, youth with old age. The age of the dead worker, who was married and had five little children, lies between these two opposite stages of life. It is not an old man who dies but a man in the prime of his life, underlining the story's theme of the implicit presence of death in the midst of life.
As to the actual handling of time in the narrative process, two major phases can be distinguished. The first phase, comprising the party preparations from morning till lunchtime, takes up about 11½ of the 16½ pages of the story and thus the longest stretch of 'narrative time,' in which we are told the events of half a day of 'narrated time.' The party itself requires only about half a page of narrative time to summarise the events of the whole afternoon; it is presented in a very general, transitory sort of manner, being disposed of in a few passing remarks. What follows is the aftermath, the "postmortem" of the party, leading to Laura's visit to the dead man's house. This second major phase of the story takes up about 4½ pages, i.e. about one third of the story's narrative time but not more than a few minutes of narrated time.
What can we conclude from this formal observation? First of all, that "The Garden Party" is in fact not about the garden party itself but about the time before and after the party. Or, to put it another way, the party becomes an insignificant episode, a quantité négligeable in the greater flux of time in which it is situated. Its temporal presence seems to dissolve between expectation and retrospection, between past and future; it gains no real importance or substance in itself. Secondly, the lengthening of narrative time in reference to narrated time in the second phase creates the impression of time being drawn out or slowed down in comparison with the first phase—a significant change in the story's time rhythm, emphasising the increased importance and different quality of the related experience as the story approaches its existential climax.
Indeed, if we take a closer look at the story, we discover that the narrative pace, corresponding to the different nature of the narrated events, is quite different in the two phases. The morning's events are not related in the sense of a coherent, continual temporal process but of an irregular succession of moments in time passing by as if in high speed, of a series of snapshots of various scenes drawn in a few quick, incomplete strokes and following upon each other with interruptions and time lapses of varying lengths—note the repeated use of phrases such as "Breakfast was not over yet before," "Already the men had," "And now," "And the moment after," "And now," "But at that moment," "But now," "Now, Laura," etc. The action here is characterised by hectic movement, sudden changes of scene, place, and character—although remaining always within the region of the house—, creating the impression of quick, incessant, feverishly busy motion as we witness the party preparations. There is a conspicuous accumulation of words denoting accelerated motion in the first phase of the story. In the scene, for example, where Laura is called away from the workmen to the telephone, exchanges a few rapid words with Laurie on the way, and afterwards talks alternately to her friend Kitty on the telephone and to her mother upstairs, we find, within about ¾ of a page: "skimmed," "very fast," "ran," "quick," "gasp," "dash," "one moment," "flung," "quickly." Or witness the sense of hectic acceleration conveyed by Mrs. Sheridan's way of organising the party:
"Now, Laura," said her mother quickly. "Come with me into the smokingroom . . . Meg, go upstairs this minute and take that wet thing off your head. Jose, run and finish dressing this instant . . . And—and, Jose, pacify cook if you do go into the kitchen, will you?"
Even when the news of the workman's death arrives, it is soon absorbed into the time-consuming pace and superficial sensationalism of the party preparations: while Godber's man "wasn't going to have his story snatched from under his very nose," relishing the opportunity to impress the others with the news, Laura's initial shock—-she relates the accident "breathless, half-choking" to her mother—quickly dissolves when she sees herself in the mirror with her new black hat. She decides to postpone further thoughts on the matter till after the party; there is no 'time' for them now, and death becomes as unreal in the artificial context of the party activities as anything else that threatens their social success.
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 blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I'll remember it again after the party's over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan . . .
The images of the mirror and the newspaper nicely illustrate how reality is turned upside down here: the insubstantial self-duplication in the mirror supersedes the substantial reality of death, which is at the same time reduced to its unreal duplication in the newspaper. The thought of death becomes one "moment" only in the quick, hectic succession of moments which characterises the party activities: It is the effect of feverish movement, of breathtaking mobility, i.e. of swift, but essentially superficial change that is created in this first phase of the story.
What is emphasised in this use of time, ironically, is the transitoriness of these activities, reintroducing the central theme of the transitoriness of life on the temporal level of the story even as it is eliminated from the consciousness of the characters. Time, indeed, is shown to gain obsessive importance in the world of the garden party, an importance inversely proportionate to the attempt to exclude the reality of time—as manifested in the death in the village—from its one-dimensional, organised happiness. The temporal structure thus implies an ironic undercutting of this attempt, illuminating the illusionary quality of the garden party, and in this respect, it assumes a function similar to the other means of ironic undercutting and foreshadowing in the first part of the story, e.g. the ambiguous meaning of the lilies that are brought to the party, Jose's song, the black hats and black clothes.
In contrast to the accelerated pace of the first phase, the second phase of the story—the time after the party—shows a gradual deceleration of the narrative pace. The first sign of this gradual arrest of mobility is the family's sitting down at one of the tables after the guests have left. The death of the workman is mentioned again, whereupon "an awkward little silence fell", a significant counterpoint to the noisy atmosphere of the party preparations. Briefly, the quick, erratic motion of the first phase revives once more on a smaller scale when Mrs. Sheridan "suddenly" has another one of her "brilliant ideas," namely, to send Laura with a basket full of leftovers from the party down to the family of the dead man: she "jumped up," while Laura, if only after some hesitation, "ran for the basket" which is "heaped by her mother." But the upstrung, unnatural quality of this motion is gradually transformed into a more concentrated, almost magical sort of motion when Laura leaves the house. Twilight is setting in, the sharp contours of the party scene dissolve. And although the hectic pace of the party is, in a way, still going on inside of Laura, she is confronted with an altogether different, tranquil mood outside which increasingly takes hold of her as she descends into the valley, slowing down her motion the nearer she comes to the house of the dead man. When she sees the cottages from above, which "were in deep shade," she already senses the different dimension of time she is about to enter: "How quiet it seemed after the afternoon." Torn between her still vivid memory of the party and the uncertain expectation of her new, strange experience, she "stopped a minute." Her movement, quickening once again as she "bent her head and hurried on", becomes still more arrested when she arrives at her destination.
This was the house. It must be. A dark knot of people stood outside. Beside the gate an old, old woman with a crutch sat in a chair, watching. She had her feet on a newspaper. The voices stopped as Laura drew near. The group parted. It was as though she was expected, as though they had known she was coming here.
In contrast to the vocabulary denoting quick, active motion, dominant in the first part of the story, we have here an accumulation of words designating passivity and immobility on the side of the group apparently expecting Laura: "was," "stood," "sat," "watching," "had," "stopped." And on Laura's side the vocabulary designates hesitation and compulsively slowed down motion: she "drew near," and, afterwards, she "walked up," "knocked," "followed," "found herself in . . . ," "was . . . standing," "walked," "came". The wife of the dead worker, to whom Laura is led as if with irresistible force by her sister, is sitting before a fire. There is a nightmarish slowness to the behaviour and communication of the two old women, doors seem to open by themselves, until Laura finally stands before the workman's deathbed, losing herself in the strangely beautiful sight of the dead man. All movement is arrested now. It is as if time itself, for a moment, has come to a standstill.
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. 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. Happy . . . happy .. . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
Thus the story moves from the feverish, artificial activism of the garden party, from which death is apparently excluded, to the transcendent tranquillity of the death scene which, paradoxically becomes the medium for Laura's insight into life. The flux of time seems totally arrested in this crucial moment as Laura is confronted, in the shape of the dead man, with a deeper reality that encompasses both life and death. There is, significantly, no mention in the text that the dusk which sets in when Laura begins her walk changes to darkness during her visit; thus we get an impression in the final scene of continual twilight as some sort of timeless, half-real, half-mythical state of arrest which embodies the contradictory sides of human existence. And although afterwards, when Laura leaves the house, Laurie tells her that "Mother was getting anxious," confronting her anew with the temporal pressure, the tension and restlessness of the party scene, she does not hurry back, but now goes at her own pace, still full of her new experience.
If the technique of temporal acceleration in the first part of the story reminds one of the time-lapse camera in film, the technique of temporal deceleration in the second part could be compared with the slow-motion camera; gradually adopted toward the end, it concentrates on the scene of Laura's encounter with the dead man.
The spatial structure of "The Garden Party," parallel to the two phases of the temporal structure, is built around two poles, representing the two opposing worlds that are confronted and, in the figure of Laura, momentarily connected in the action of the story. Indeed, as has often been noted, the spatial opposition between the magnificent house of the Sheridans with its attributes of wealth and luxury and the shabby cottages of the workmen already carries part of the story's theme. The Sheridans' house and garden represent an upper-class world which is not, as Jens Iversen suggests, a perfect, paradisiacal scene "beyond the bounds of time and space" but an imperfect, ostentatious pseudo-paradise where nature is ordered and "methodized," being turned into a place where "flowers bloom on schedule in delineated beds." The garden's function is to be impressive, like the marquee for the party which is as conspicuous as to give the viewer a "bang-slap in the eye." In contrast, the sight of the "little mean dwellings" of the workmen represents to those looking down on them from the house "the greatest possible eyesore." The village appears as a counter-world, a taboo-zone which embodies everything that is suppressed, feared, despised in, and shut out from the world of the Sheridans.
When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and of what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on the prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.
There are overtones of class arrogance and of sexual repression as well as of a general abhorrence of the more unpleasant, negative manifestations of life in this attitude. Since, however, it is from that very region that the Sheridans' wealth comes—from the labour of the villagers—this suppression appears as a suppression of the reality itself on which their superior life-style—and, thus, their magnificent house—is built.
The sharp spatial opposition of above and below, of an upper and a lower sphere which visually enforces the sense of social difference—the cottages "were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house"—again contains some hidden irony. For beyond the overt sociological connotation it also implies the opposition of superficial vs. deeper levels of consciousness and existence, thus undermining the self-appointed superiority of the upper sphere even as it seems to emphasise it: The two worlds are not, as the Sheridans' ideology has it, mutually exclusive, but dialectically interrelated. Although their separation is objectified in the "broad road" that "ran between"—while they are connected only by an inconspicuous lane—, there is, at the same time, a strong visual connection in that the one is always confronted with the sight of the other. For as the village is clearly seen from above, appearing, to the taste of the Sheridans, "far too near", the house, we can conclude, is likewise clearly seen from below. There is also an acoustic connection, the band playing at the party is as loud as to be heard down in the cottages, illustrating once more the showy predominance of the party scene and its indifference to the quite opposite, mournful scene in the village.
With the two poles of the story's setting, two different kinds of movements in space are correlated. If we try to follow these movements in the first part of the story we get, in correspondence to the hectic, accelerated pace on the temporal level, an impression of chaotic disconnectedness, of a simultaneity of different aims and directions. There is a constant moving about of the people as well as of the objects connected with the party (the marquee, the piano, the tables, etc.). The reader is taken in all possible directions at the same time: between the various rooms, between upstairs and downstairs, between the house and the garden. What is thereby created is no sense of spatial unity but of a labyrinth of different rooms, levels, and directions. But importantly, all of these movements are confined to the domain of the house and thus, although suggesting a multitude of spatial possibilities, are in fact limited to the narrow sphere which is defined by the social implications of the garden party.
Again, as with the deceleration and growing continuity in time, the story gains a clear aim and direction in space in the second phase. The chaotic variety of simultaneous, disconnected movements in the first phase is concentrated here into one single dominating movement, that of Laura going down from the house to the cottage of the dead man. Following this downward line, Laura transcends the narrow limitations of the house and symbolically transgresses the borderline between the two worlds. "The road gleamed white, and down below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade." The party world accompanies her into this 'underworld' in the shape of her conspicuously shining lace frock and extravagant black hat (which, though on a more superficial level, mirror in their colours once again the story's central opposition), keeping up the visual contrast between the two worlds as they are being connected. "How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat!" But the force connecting them has become stronger now than the force that separates them. Although Laura wants to turn back, i.e. withdraw into separation, there appears to be no resistance possible any more to the manifestation of this connection, this existential synthesis. It all seems to happen by itself, without conscious effort or active will; it is as if space itself has become the active force of the movement, leading Laura into the timeless moment of her initiation. Instead of the aimless, self-centred circulus-vitiosus-pattem of the first phase, then, we have in the second phase a clear, irresistible line of spatial movement and direction, symbolically linking the two worlds in Laura's 'transcendent' experience.
If we return from here to the initial question of the relationship between the social and the existential theme of "The Garden Party"—which is mainly the question of the relationship of the story's two parts—, analysis of the time-space-structure shows that the two aspects are not to be separated from each other but dialectically interrelated. The social theme of the first part is conveyed in such a way that the temporal-spatial form implies an ironic comment on the content, undermining the self-centred, pseudo-paradisiacal exclusiveness of the party scene, and implicitly relating it to the more general anthropological reality from which it tries to dissociate itself. Thus the first part structurally prepares the way and defines the conditions for the existential experience of the second part. At the same time the latter, transcending the temporal obsessions and spatial limitations of the party scene, and confronting us with precisely that dimension of authentic human reality which is shown to be excluded from the social world of the garden party, contains a fundamental criticism of the premises on which this world is based.
Kate Fullbrook (essay date 1986)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1779
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 terms that they see it—their fine house on a hill, bustling in preparation for the party, full of good things to eat, lovely things to wear, wonderful, expensive flowers to enjoy. The background is crammed with people to order about; the servants 'loved obeying'; friendly workmen swarm in the garden putting up a marquee; deliveries are made from shops; a band has been hired to put the finishing touches on the pleasures of the afternoon. The confident description is soaked in the values of middle-class authority as the genteel bourgeoisie prepares to play and enjoys every minute of the preparation. The pleasures at hand are both material and aesthetic, and even the perfect weather seems to endorse everything the Sheridans stand for. But the narration, insidiously, also undercuts its own exuberance with irony. Here, for example, is one of the daughters, Jose, practising for the display of her musical talents at the party:
Pom! Ta-ta-ta Tee-ta! The piano burst out so passionately that Jose's face changed. She clasped her hands. She looked mournfully and enigmatically at her mother and Laura as they came in.
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
And then . . . Good-bye!
But at the word 'Good-bye,' 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?' she beamed.
Katherine Mansfield mocks Jose's 'female accomplishments' in the same ironic manner and for the same reasons as Jane Austen does in Pride and Prejudice. Just as Mary bored the company in 1813, displaying her vanity rather than her love for music, so Jose produces the same eminently false effect in 'The Garden Party' of 1921. It is something of a shock to recognise the same device working so effectively in this twentieth-century story. Katherine Mansfield's attack on the inadequacy of the education of 'the daughters of educated men' is deepened by the story's account of the suffering taking place in the workmen's cottages just below the Sheridans' privileged hill. The false sentiment of Jose's song echoes the emotional disaster near at hand. The worker's world, which 'mummy' does not fully recognise (though the story emphasises the fact that she and her children live by and through their control of that world), is the scene of a casual tragedy. A workman has been killed in an accident; the news arrives during the preparations for the party. And the question of what is to be done in response to the news arises for only one character.
The character is Laura, a vaguely mutinous Sheridan daughter who, in the course of the story, acts as an intermediary between the two worlds—that of privilege and gaiety, and that of hardship, death and sorrow—and in the process is forced, if only momentarily, into the role of outsider.
We see Laura first in that most typical of middle-class occupations—romantic identification with an idealised working class. Laura, 'who loved having to arrange things', is assigned to direct the workmen who erect the marquee. Actually she directs nothing; the workmen know their job and choose the best site for the marquee in spite of her alternative suggestions. Laura's class loyalties vie with her sense of adventure; as she deals with the men their ease finally overcomes her slightly wounded dignity when they do not treat her with the deference afforded to a middle-class matron. Looking over the plan the foreman has hastily drawn, Laura dips her toe into rebellion:
Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn't she have workmen for friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper .. . It's all the fault, she decided .. . of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn't feel them. Not a bit, not an atom . . . Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite out of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl.
This is, of course, transparent affectation, but it is also a potentially significant masquerade, small as the gesture of taking a bite of bread-and-butter might be. What the significance might be is suggested when the news of the death reaches the Sheridans. Laura, still influenced by her thoughts about the workmen, wants to stop the party, but her mother simply cuts her off:
'You are being very absurd, Laura,' she said coldly. 'People like that don't expect sacrifices from us. And it's not very sympathetic to spoil everyone's enjoyment as you're doing now.'
'I don't understand,' said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom.
Several truths of unequal significance operate in this passage. Death cannot be conquered by stopping a party. Pleasure is rare enough to deserve protection. The workers do not have any expectations. And Laura really does have no idea what she is doing. (That her mother damns herself and her class goes without saying, but at the same time any life that paused with every death would soon be un--veable).
Laura's knowledge of the workmen is almost nonexistent. Their lane was forbidden territory in her childhood and since she has 'grown up' she has only walked through it once with her brother (and alter ego), Laurie. On the walk she sees the lane as 'disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything.' Laura in no way connects herself with the lane. But this distanced social voyeurism turns into something very immediate with the news of the death, and just for a moment, at the centre of the story, Laura steps outside her class and circumstances into a confrontation with the equality of all humanity in the face of mortality. What Laura 'sees' at this point is far more important than what she has 'seen' during her educational tour of a working-class habitat. For a moment, the social vocabulary of her tribe fills Laura with disgust.
But only for a moment. What draws Laura back from the isolation of her response to death is another confrontation, this time with her own face framed by a lovely hat that itself is the image of the pleasures of life that only youth and privilege provide. What she sees in a mirror, walking away from her mother, is her identity:
the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies and a long black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped that her mother was right.
It is an extraordinary moment of conscience callousing over, with the lovely black hat repeating the colour of death. Katherine Mansfield's characteristic attention to detail allows her to conflate conscience and consciousness, beauty and vanity, bodily and mental satisfaction as Laura's politics turn on a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Giving up her chance for a public display of her beauty would be sacrificial; Laura slips easily back into the frivolity of the garden-party. On the next page she is afraid of being 'teased' about even thinking of making her egalitarian gesture.
Since Laura's class complacency is safe and the party is over, Mrs Sheridan gives her daughter a lesson in 'proper' charity. She sends her to the dead man's cottage with scraps from the party. In her stunning hat, her mind filled with the delights of the party, Laura self-consciously walks into the cottage with her basket and into the ceremonies of death. The two social rituals—the celebrations of the rich family, and the solemnity of death for the poor one—stress the discontinuity of experience. The man's wife, huddled like some primitive wounded thing by the fire, looks up at Laura, 'Her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked terrible'. Laura, ashamed and embarrassed, blunders into the room with the dead man, and as the corpse is exhibited to her with tender, ritualistic pride, her response remains in the aesthetic mode of the party: 'he was wonderful, beautiful', a 'marvel', much better, in fact, in terms of beauty than her hat for which she now blurts out an excuse. The reader must recall the earlier significance of the hat and all that it has meant for Laura's conscience to understand the meaning of that apology. The story ends with Laura's confusion as she tries to express her feelings to Laurie and the meaning she has drawn from this encounter with death.
'The Garden-Party' is radically inconclusive. It is especially interesting in its portrayal of simultaneous but opposing goods, and in its treatment of the confusion of motivations and principles in life as opposed to the clarity of abstract ideas. Katherine Mansfield stressed this aspect of the story in a letter to William Gerhardi:
And yes, that is what I tried to convey in 'The Garden Party.' The diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. That is bewildering for a person of Laura's age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn't like that. We haven't the ordering of it.
Katherine Mansfield's writing does, however, impose an order. It rejects the one that Laura accepts when she allows her aesthetic and class assumptions to dominate her at the moment when another kind of response was available to her. Laura only tastes the solitude that is the main diet of the women in many other stories, but the easiness with which a character can be thrust from full membership of a community to absolute exile in an instant, and the way in which such exile depends upon individual consciousness, underscores Katherine Mansfield's insistence on the fragility of identity.
Barbara Currier Bell (essay date 1988)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3384
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 came from outlands to the centers of culture after breaking with their families; they had unstable relationships with men; they traveled widely; they gave steady outputs of fiction but received unsteady inputs of acclaim. Mansfield was British, Porter, American; yet they can frequently be found mentioned together, as if they were literary sisters or cousins. Porter undoubtedly furthered that opinion by her admiration for Mansfield's talent. Still, I am not aware that a detailed comparison has been made between any two stories by these writers, and have found none between two stories that are among their works most often discussed as individuals: "The Garden Party" and "The Grave." Indeed, no work by either author has been accorded much attention along the particular thematic lines that "The Garden Party" and "The Grave" seem to me to invite so especially.
Briefly summarized, "The Garden Party" is about the experiences of a young girl, Laura, on the day her family is giving a garden party. During the preparations, she learns that an accident has just happened in which a young man who lived in a lane for poor working people at the bottom of the hill from her "big house" has been killed. She wants to stop the party out of sympathy, but her mother and sister persuade her that she's "being absurd." The party itself takes up only a few lines of the story. The climax comes after the party, when Laura's mother suggests she take a basket of leftovers and some flowers down the hill to the dead man's family. Laura does so, is invited into the cottage to view the body, feels at first acutely uncomfortable in the poor surroundings, then strangely comforted by the peaceful look on the dead man's face, and leaves crying. At the end, she tries to explain to her brother that she has learned something important about life, but cannot find the words.
"The Grave" is a "framed" story, actually a memory about her childhood as experienced vividly by an adult woman, Miranda, during a trip to a marketplace in a strange city. She remembers how she and her brother Paul went one day to play in some abandoned graves at their family cemetery and found there an engraved wedding ring and a coffin ornament, a silver dove, which they kept as treasures. On the way home, Paul shot a rabbit, and, skinning the carcass, the children discovered it was pregnant. Both were moved and troubled by the sight of the unborn rabbits, and an understanding about life began to grow in Miranda, but Paul swore her to secrecy, and she did not reach a full emotional integration of the day's events until her memory, twenty years later.
Both of these stories appeared at about the same time: "The Garden Party" in 1922 and 'The Grave" in 1935. Both are less than 5000 words and seem brilliantly simple, condensed. Both have young female protagonists of about the same ages and the same sensitivities, (in both cases, an autobiographical character), and in both stories, this main character is paired with an older brother who plays a supportive role. Both draw on the Christian myth of the Fall. The main plot event matches in the stories: it is the experience of a death, a death that is relatively anonymous and that happens in otherwise undisturbing, one might say "innocent," circumstances. Correspondingly, the themes match. Both stories express a recognition of "the meaning of life"; both of the protagonists grow up.
Despite their extensive similarities, however, the stories leave the reader with strikingly different feelings and contain different messages about the meaning of life. The key to these differences lies in the different senses of nature the two stories convey—with nature to be understood most concretely as the natural environment; more generally as the natural world, or the opposite of human society; and most abstractly as the forces beyond human control that underlie all of organic life.
"And after all the weather was ideal." The first sentence of "The Garden Party" establishes a placid natural environment which, the reader soon comes to see, is also domesticated. The lawns are mowed, the flowers welltended. It almost seems too perfect, this setting, as if the natural world were unnatural, and indeed the imagery seems at the least anthropomorphic: at the most sacramental. The rosebushes are said "to [bow] down as though they had been visited by archangels"; the karaka trees are imagined proudly to "lift their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of splendour"; and the most dominant forms of nature in the story are canna-lilies, associated more with greenhouses and altars than with the great outdoors.
While the first pages of "The Garden Party" are occupied with the natural setting, they are the only ones. Just as workmen bring a marquee to hide the karaka trees, human beings, along with their shelter, dress and food, dominate the scene as the story proceeds. Laura at one point sees a workman smelling a sprig of lavender and respects him for that, but for the most part the natural surroundings are of limited importance.
Contrasting with the controlled and limited appearance of the natural environment in "The Garden Party" is that in "The Grave." The heat is burning on the day that Miranda and Paul go out to play, and the garden where the reader sees the two—also the family cemetery—is wild. It is "neglected," its rose bushes "tangled," its grass "uncropped." The children are unkempt themselves, and plainly more used to living outdoors than in. They are compared with animals. Then, the death on which the story centers is that of an animal. The skinning and gutting of the rabbit are given in precise detail. At other points in the story, too, material aspects of nature become important and are realistically described. Overall, the natural surroundings dominate setting and plot more consistently in "The Grave" than in "The Garden Party"; they are less stylized; and they are more extreme.
Nature in the sense of the natural world as opposed to human society is also presented differently by the two stories. Garden parties are social events. In the Mansfield story, society predominates over nature. Its description of social relationships starts with those in the large, unified, upperclass family, moves outwards to enclose the family's servants, next surrounds the family's guests, and finally extends to the working-class people living at the bottom of the hill. All of these groups are well-rooted in their place and in society. This is to say not that society is harmonious, but only that the social world is where the action is. Thematically, social class becomes an important issue, and the importance of society is represented by, among other methods, frequent and sensitive dialogue. At the story's end, the feeling of social cohesion is underlined by the closeness between brother and sister, whose names are analogues.
In "The Grave," the natural world dominates. Its title suggests as much, for death is one of the main forces of nature. The story scarcely even shows society. The family is the only social unit that figures importantly, but it is isolated. For instance, the extended family is rootless, as the opening paragraph establishes.
The grandfather, dead for more than thirty years, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow. She removed his bones first to Louisiana and then to Texas as if she had set out to find her own burial place, knowing well she would never return to the places she had left. In Texas she set up a small cemetery in a corner of her first farm, and as the family connection grew, and oddments of relations came over from Kentucky to settle, it contained at last about twenty graves. After the grandmother's death, part of her land was to be sold for the benefit of certain of her children, and the cemetery happened to lie in the part set aside for sale. It was necessary to take up the bodies and bury them again in the family plot in the big new public cemetery, where the grandmother had been buried.
Also, the nuclear family in the story is fragmented because it is motherless and set apart from the local community: the children's father is relatively poor and seems scandalous to his neighbors and gossipy crones. At the end of the story the family even has disappeared, for Miranda is all alone in a strange city. With one or two exceptions, no social issues are brought up by the story, and although Miranda is said to have a "powerful social sense," it gets nowhere near the exercise that Laura's does. The thematic absence of society in "The Grave" is mirrored* formally by the story's having very little dialogue. After all, the operative characters number only two. The relatively empty social stage of "The Grave" forces the reader to become more aware of the natural world by contrast.
Nature in the sense of forces underlying life appears severally in both stories, and may be analyzed to show the deepest meanings, the deepest differences. For a start, let us take a relatively simple example of nature in this sense, namely sex. "The Garden Party" does not emphasize the raw power of sex. The paragraphs above illustrating how Mansfield depicts nature perhaps have already said as much. Part of Laura's experience in the story is her growing awareness of her sexuality, but that takes polite forms. For instance, she, like all the males and females in the story, follows gender stereotypes important to society. Males earn money, whether commuting to the city, carrying heavy loads, or driving carts, while females uphold social order, whether giving garden parties, cooking, or presiding at wakes. One way of interpreting Laura's day is to say it involves her growing ability to recognize and accept the responsibilities of the female role. For another instance, the main representative of Laura's emergent sexuality is her new hat: looking at it, the other characters and Laura herself remark on how pretty its wearer has become, and the message gets across without drawing attention downward to the lower areas of the body that are really at stake. If so in "The Garden Party," sex is secondary and social.
In "The Grave," on the other hand, sex is primary and natural. The wedding ring is the first hint. Of course, weddings in general can be as social as garden parties or hats, but the wedding ring Miranda and Paul find is connected directly to nature. On one level, Miranda's reactions to the ring are rather characteristic of Laura—"she wanted to go back to the farmhouse, take a good cold bath, dust herself with plenty [of her sister's] violet talcum powder,... put on the thinnest, most becoming dress she owned, with a big sash, and sit in a wicker chair under the trees": these are inspired by her attention to the decorativeness of the ring and to its being made of gold. At a deeper level, the one tapped by the flashback, however, the ring establishes an entirely different context for Miranda's sexuality than Laura's hat does for hers. It comes out of a wild, natural setting and is engraved with "intricate flowers and leaves." Flowers and leaves are age-old signs of fertility; they connote the physical coupling decreed by nature more than the legal, moral or spiritual vows decreed by society.
Still, the most important and primitive emphasis on sex comes through Miranda and Paul's discovery of the unborn rabbits, which are symbols of fertility. Reproduction is here seen as carnally as possible, and its strong impact is conveyed not only in Miranda's agitation on the spot, but in the overall structure of the story, which parallels the Freudian pattern of repression and recall, a process wholly associated with primitive sexual material. Miranda's thoughts at the moment she sees the babies, moreover, are in the context of a situation where the social sex roles so prominent for Laura have been explicitly suspended, since Miranda dresses and acts like a boy. The sugar-plums of sash and social stereotype disappear. It is hard, almost savage, for Miranda to see that she is, will be like the pregnant rabbit. That sex belongs more to the world of nature than to society is made explicit in the last scene, where the candy rabbits triggering Miranda's memory are connected with "raw flesh and wilting flowers."
The subject of sex opens into the further meanings of nature in these two stories and a final understanding of what each seems to express as "the meaning of life." Both are the same in showing that the meaning of life is bound up with the meaning of death: the point is obvious, but great literature often brings the obvious home, and the stories show with force and poignancy that these two most basic natural conditions are connected inseparably. "The Garden Party" and "The Grave" differ, however, in their versions of what exactly the connection is.
"The Garden Party" shows the connection to be paradoxical: it is a juxtaposition that is a juncture. When Laura goes down the hill she sees death quietly, modestly, even beautifully co-existing with life and at the same time interrupting life, just as the lower-class characters in the story quietly, modestly, even peacefully co-exist with the gentry on the hill, at the same time challenging their privilege. The "justice" of death in life or of upper-class dominance over the poor is not particularly at issue. Stressed instead is the surprising fact of the situation. One wellknown expression of the puzzle appears in a letter Katherine Mansfield wrote to a friend:
. . . that is what I tried to convey in "The Garden Party". The diversity of life and how we try to fit-in everything. Death included. That is bewildering for a person of Laura's age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn't like that. We haven't the ordering of it. Laura says, 'But all these things must not happen at once.' And Life answers, 'Why not? How are they divided from each other?' And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.
Life/Death. The life-death connection in "The Garden Party" has a static and symmetrical yet vulnerable quality much like that between marriage partners or the opposite poles of a magnetic field. Such is the feeling of unstable pairedness at the root of nature for which "The Garden Party" finds words, even though Laura does not.
"The Grave" presents a view of life and death that may at first appear to be like the one in "The Garden Party," but is not. In "The Grave," the connection between life and death is dynamic. Instead of life and death being ever-present with each other, one becomes the other: the two are separate phases of the same process. Life is death: nature is not paradoxical but unified.
Consider what Laura and Miranda learn from what they see. Laura learns the necessity of accepting death in life, accepts its paradoxical sense. The nonparadoxical parts of her life, functions within society, seem all the more significant by comparison. Miranda learns the necessity of playing her part in the life-death cycle and, for her, natural functions become all the more significant. There is a feeling of ceremony in "The Garden Party," a feeling of biology in "The Grave."
Certainly, the tone of "The Grave" reflects more suffering. An interesting confirmation about the way the two stories treat nature may be found in the extent to which each employs Christian symbolism. Both rely on the Garden of Eden parallel to help convey their female characters' movement from innocence to knowledge. "The Garden Party" establishes this metaphor in its title and its early sacramental imagery, already quoted, not to mention its plot, while "The Grave" establishes it less directly in the title but similarly through initial descriptions of the scene and also its plot. "The Grave," however, carries the symbolism much farther. The theme of sexuality, for instance, follows the Christian track in "The Grave" but not in "The Garden Party." Also, the silver dove Miranda and Paul find is a Christian symbol and assumes a great deal of importance at the end. Detailed interpretations of Christian meaning in "The Grave" have already appeared, however, and need not be repeated here. The relevance to this essay of Porter's greater attention to the Christian message is simply that Christianity is consistent with the view of nature presented in "The Grave" but inconsistent with that presented in "The Garden Party." The Christian message is nothing if not dynamic: death redeems life; corruption and sin are the tragic necessities of life's general immortality. The Christian message is violent, too, like the wasteful lust and carnage of "The Grave," like the wasteful lust and carnage of nature. By contrast, "The Garden Party," with its climax in the peaceful expression of the young man lying dead, counters nature's power, seeming to speak for a religion of contemplation.
So striking and revealing are the differences between "The Garden Party" and "The Grave" in terms of their views of nature that it is tempting to conclude this essay along the lines of the standard comparative theory on the subject. Briefly, the conventional wisdom about differences in American and British literature regarding nature starts out observing that American writers spend a great deal of time describing or thinking about nature, that they tend to display or consider it in extreme forms, and that they deem it more important than society. Then, the typical American identity is seen as formed against a natural backdrop, and a typical story line for American literature is said to be the retreat to nature for purification or enlightenment. (Sometimes this retreat is more of an assault, as D. H. Lawrence argued in Studies in Classic American Literature.) These ideas have been the subjects of books and articles too numerous and familiar to list here, but two comments out of a multitude may be regarded as summary.
. . .the American, or at least the American artist, cherishes in his innermost being the impulse to reject completely the gospel of civilization, in order to guard with resolution the savagery of his heart. [Perry Miller, "Nature and the National Ego," in Errand into the Wilderness, 1956]
The individual in America has usually taken his start outside society; and the action to be imitated may just as well be his strenuous efforts to stay outside as his tactics for getting inside; and if he does get inside, it makes a difference whether he is walking into a trap or discovering: the setting in which to realize his own freedom. [R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam, 1955]
The reason theory gives for these features of American literature is the literal or figurative lay of the land in America. The British sense of nature, by inference, is regarded roughly as the opposite of the American.
Certainly, what has been shown here about "The Garden Party" and "The Grave" is that they support all the comparative theory's particulars. They are its ideal examples—so ideal that they could be taught as a mini-introduction to nature in British and American literature. That conclusion alone, however, could seem a tautology. More interesting than the two stories' agreement with the theory is the captivating fact that their relevance to the theory hardly comes clear at all until they are paired. A "twin study" in literary criticism, then, may be as revealing as it has proved to be in psychology.
Rhoda B. Nathan (essay date 1988)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2084
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 children of the affluent families, the Sheridans would not know, because unlike the Burnells [of "The Doll's House"], who were obliged to attend the same school as the dreadfully common little Kelveys, they were beyond grade-school age. The girls are nearly grown up, and the single son is already apprenticed into his father's business.
"The Garden Party" could be called "The Doll's House," part 2. It is very much an enchanted kingdom, and, until the climax of the story, its inhabitants are entirely engaged in play, or in this case, playacting. Their artifice is so natural to their station, their expectations, and customs, that the reader is gulled into empathy by the very charm of their lives. It is not until ugliness intrudes and provokes some uncharming reactions that one is aware of just how much falseness is embedded in their nature.
The story begins on a charmed note: "And after all the weather was ideal." One of Mansfield's great narrative gifts is her ability to set a tone, plunge the reader into the heart of the event, and at the same time imply that the action has been building for a great while. After the heady title, "The Garden Party," with its implications of ethereal and lighthearted entertainment, Mansfield has the wit to begin her tale with the conjunction "and." All the anxiety and prayer preliminary to the lawn party are implicit in that "And after all," which phrase miraculously dissipates them. "Ideal" is the perfect description for the jumbled impressions in the next pages. Blue skies, gold haze, red roses, deep velvet lawns, and the "broad gleaming leaves" of the karaka trees with their "clusters of yellow fruit" dominate this bourgeois Eden. A marquee raised for the band is taken for granted; pots of pink canna lilies are banked by the florist in careless profusion outside the porch doors, although the house is blessed with a lily lawn of its own; cream puffs and fancy sandwiches appear as if by magic from the town caterer and the capable hands of the resident cook. The servants are praised, the cook for her dependable calm, and "good little Hans" for his manly efforts to move the grand piano.
These are charming people. They are not whipped into a vulgar frenzy of delight by the bounty that pours forth from their cornucopia. They are used to it. Mrs. Sheridan justifies her extravagance of the purchased lilies by declaring to her only sensitive daughter: "For once in my life I thought I would have enough lilies," while still another flat is brought in. So relaxed is she in her idleness that she is charming even when she forgets the only task she is required to complete—to write the names of the sandwiches on their decorative little flags. Her two eldest daughters are equally unruffled. Jose, "the butterfly," exotic in a Japanese kimono that unfits her to do anything by way of preparation for the party, moves placidly to the piano to rehearse a "tragic" ballad, just in case she should be called upon to perform. When she finishes her rendition, a piece with the lugubrious title "This World Is Weary," her smooth face breaks into a "brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile." Knowing Mansfield's propensity for irony, one may be sure that this insignificant episode will have reverberations later on. No gesture in this economical narrative is irrelevant to its outcome.
The adolescent Laura Sheridan, a grown-up Kezia, and the "artistic" one in the family, is as guilty of playacting as her philistine mother and sisters at the outset. Having no experience of life apart from the shelter of her community, she mimics those role models familiar to her. When inviting her friend Kitty to lunch, she coos in her socially adept mother's voice. When sent out to supervise the laborers who have come to put up the marquee, she takes a big bite of her bread and butter just like a real "working girl." More sensitive than the others, she falls naturally into the rhythms of those she wishes to please. Romanticizing the workmen, she is enchanted by their lingo, the way they call each other "matey" so democratically. She finds herself wishing she could have them for friends instead of the "silly" boys at dancing school. But her highmindedness is still untested; she could go either way.
Laura is at a particularly impressionable and formative stage of adolescence. Even in her sentimentalizing of the working class she betrays the heightened sensitivity that will soon mark her as an outsider in her own family. She finds herself apologizing for the luxury and excess of the party to a particularly pale and worn laborer; it will only be a very small band, she assures him, suddenly uneasy. Her guilt is in marked contrast to her friend's cavalier allusion to the musicians as "frogs" in their little green coats. She is moved by the sight of a workman inhaling a sprig of lavender from the vast lawn, and indulges in a reverie of a better world in which there are no "absurd" class distinctions. She has more trouble giving orders than her imperious sisters. Although she is still pretending at this stage of the story, there is a hint of her special quality at the very beginning. "You're the artistic one," her sister tells her, and Laura's reactions to her immediate environment document her shrewd observation. She "notices" things: the quality of the very air on the morning of the party; the "tiny spots of sun" playing on the household ornaments; the dark blue of the workman's eyes that contrast so with his pallor. It is Laura's gift of noticing that will change her life in just a few hours.
An accident, casually reported and overheard, alters the focus of the story and leads to a rite of initiation for the immature Laura. The crisis takes place offstage, as in Greek tragedy. An unfortunate event that just might mar the cloudless day is circulated through the servants' quarters. A young carter who lives in a hovel down the lane has been killed in a collision. The news is conveyed through the man who has brought the cream puffs from the caterer—a fitting irony carried by the perfect symbol of frivolity—and is disregarded by all the Sheridans save Laura, who insists the party be canceled in respect for the dead man. Argumentative and seemingly intractable, she is finally seduced by her clever mother with a bribe of a large straw hat to wear to the party. "I have never seen you look such a picture," her manipulative mother assures her. Laura, catching a glimpse of her enchanting reflection, showing her pretty face haloed in the decorative hat, is deflected from her austere purpose. Her conscience slumbers for the rest of the glorious golden afternoon.
Laura's party hat is the leitmotif for the remainder of the narrative. It is the vehicle for her false values, and it becomes the vehicle for her true self, even for her salvation. Mansfield is careful to describe the hat in all its seductive detail. It is large and round and ornamented with a wreath of artificial gold daisies, finished off with a streamer of black velvet ribbon. It is notable for its extravagance, reminding us that her sister had scolded her for her "extravagance" in insisting that the party be canceled. Laura's mother is cast as the serpent in the garden, tempting the young Eve into forgetting her higher purpose. The artificial gold daisies are appropriate to the artificial values Mrs. Sheridan is holding out to her corruptible daughter. It is noteworthy that Mansfield has prepared us for the false daisies—and the false values—at the beginning, when she describes the velvet lawn denuded of its real daisy plants, which have been dug up to make room for party paraphernalia. Those humble real flowers have been discarded for the false daisies on the seductive hat.
When the long perfect day has "ripened" and drawn to a close, Laura is dispatched by her inventive mother with a basket of party goodies for the bereaved widow and orphans. Congratulating herself on her "brilliant" idea, Mrs. Sheridan is barely restrained from sending an armload of lilies as well on the grounds that "people like that are so impressed with arum lilies." Laura, laden with party scraps, again feels "different" from the others. A sense of vulgarity haunts her, but, pliant as ever, she does as she is bidden. She is desperately self-conscious in her gleaming dress and huge festive headgear.
In the monograph The Art of Katherine Mansfield, Mary Rohrberger concludes that Laura has not learned much from her descent into the depths. She claims that Laura has "idealized death" as she has "romanticized" everything else in her short life. That she is still wearing the hat when she returns from her unhappy mission is, in Rohrberger's judgment, indisputable evidence that she is going back to her privileged world. If that were all, then her analysis would be unassailable. But she neglects the most significant aspect of Laura's education. The hat, which had been a symbol of vanity and shallowness at the beginning, has now become an emblem of penance. Laura must wear it as she would a hair shirt. Gazing at the dead young man dreaming his eternal dream, Laura sobs, "Forgive my hat." She then wears it home as she has done all afternoon, bringing the leitmotif to its proper thematic conclusion. In a moral sense, the hat is the vehicle that has carried Laura from heedless girlhood to maturity, from her vague "artistic" sensibility that found its only outlet in choosing the most aesthetic spot for the party tent, to the true humanity that must underlie true art. Her remorse about her festive headgear is a burst of comprehension and agonized repentance for her sin of triviality. When the old crone in the hovel leads the hatted Laura to the unmarred corpse, assuring her that "'e looks a picture," she is unconsciously imitating the callous Mrs. Sheridan, who only a few hours earlier had assured Laura that she looked a "picture" in her party hat.
The hat has done its work. It is a changed Laura who attempts to define the meaning of life to her brother Laurie, who shares her name and her nature. No longer smug about life's verities and certitudes, Laura has given up playacting. She asks a tentative and inchoate question: "Isn't life . . . ? Isn't life . . . ?" Her brother, a male replica of her questing, merely repeats the question, emphasizing the "isn't" and thus rendering the question an unspoken affirmation. Laura requires no further confirmation of her lesson. She has been initiated into the mystery of life through exposure to death. The little girl who a few minutes earlier had been agonizing about the inappropriateness of leftover cream puffs to a mournful occasion has experienced an epiphany and has begun to understand the complex life outside her high protective gates.
This narrative leaves no loose ends. It turns out that life is indeed "weary," although people like Jose, the "butterfly," will go on singing about it and never comprehend its meaning. Laura has learned it, at second hand at least, from the puffy lips and swollen eyes of the young widow and the specter of the five orphaned tots. She has begun to realize that there are other "pictures" besides her young face framed in an enormous party hat. She has learned also that, in the words of the old woman in the dark shadow of the dead man's dwelling, there's nothing to be afraid of, and her morbidity and anguish may now be converted into creativity. The very inconclusiveness of her beloved brother's answer to her rhetorical question about life provides an open end for experiment and conclusion.
J. F. Kobler (essay date 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1602
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 life. Her closing assertion or question, "Isn't life—" (which her brother, Laurie, understands), can be seen to resemble Hopkins's equally tantalizing words about how the young girl of his poem can come, in some mysterious way, to know that humans are born for death: "Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / What heart heard of, ghost guessed".
Laura's mind cannot create the words for her to say aloud what truths about life this experience has brought to her, but Mansfield suggests that some spiritual connection between brother and sister does exist. As a matter of fact, some spiritual connection exists between Mansfield and many of her readers: We call it "The Garden Party," a story whose message about human life and death is perfectly clear until we try to capture all that it says in a sentence or even a whole bundle of sentences. Although we readers may feel good that Laura is able to "suffer" such an emotional encounter, just as we may feel good that we are able aesthetically to enjoy her suffering, we should not believe that Mansfield is saying Laura has learned some lifelong and life-changing lesson, anymore than we can possibly believe that we have accomplished anything major for ourselves in "feeling" the story. If Laura and we readers have experienced something resembling a Joycean epiphany, that fact alone is good, but we must be aware of the impending antiepiphany or simply the mundane quotidian that will inevitably follow. Neither Joyce nor Mansfield in the short stories, however, does more than create the epiphanies. Only in his novels does Joyce have the scope to reveal the ordinary life that a Laura Sheridan, Gabriel Conroy, or John Hammond faces up to the next day. Mansfield, unfortunately, was not able to complete a novel.
"The Garden-Party" is a superior story to "Her First Ball," at least in part, because the development of Laura's inherent ability to be affected by the experience begins early in the story. Admittedly, Leila's experience with the fat man at the ball in no way emotionally resembles Laura's encounter with the death of the carter; however, if we can project Leila's character into "The Garden Party," we can see, I believe, that she would not have been capable of going down the hill to the other house. Leila's ability to shrug off the fat man's words is more like Jose Sheridan's ability to say to Laura "You won't bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental" than it is like Laura's feeling that the garden party cannot go on. My contention is that the slightness of "Her First Ball" rests not just on the activity involved but also on the character taking part in it. Even if Mansfield had inserted a death into the ball, she could not have achieved what she attains in "The Garden Party" without major changes in Leila's character, to make her more nearly resemble Laura. Put another way, I am arguing that character, which reacts to and ultimately gives shape to the setting and meaning to the plot, is of greater significance than those other two factors, without which, of course, there may be no story. Leila and Laura define themselves through their actions, but what in them causes diverse actions remains the great mystery.
Laura Sheridan is apparently born with the same kind of inherent moral seismograph that Huckleberry Finn possesses. Whatever it is that causes Huck to help the slave Jim escape to freedom, thereby going against all the teachings of his religious, social, and political world, also causes Laura to want to stop the garden party upon news of the nearby death. Laura's similarity to Huck and her differences from her mother and sisters are developed from the beginning of the story, as Laura has "natural" reactions that go contrary to what her social and family environment says is right and proper. Laura's first reaction in the story is an environmentally induced guilty feeling that she should not appear before the workmen eating bread and butter, but she sets out to deal with them with the food naturally in her hand. Her first words to the workmen are "Good morning," in which she copies "her mother's voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed." Again, Laura's effort to use the "proper" voice in talking to workmen goes against something that she knows internally is right. One workman is not affected but has such an "easy" and "friendly" smile for Laura that she recovers her natural self. She knows from her social lessons that she "must be businesslike." When one of the workmen gives advice on where to erect a marquee, saying it should be put "somewhere where it'll give you a bang slap in the eye, if you follow me," Laura wonders because of her "upbringing" "whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye. But she did quite follow him."
Obviously, Laura has an easy, natural relationship with these men and is terribly uncomfortable trying to sustain the proper, inculcated one. This quality inherent in Laura's very being is established within the first two pages of the story and prepares the reader to accept as "right" her romantic and entirely impractical need (in her family's eyes) to do something about the dead man.
Mansfield, however, is as careful to keep Laura a believable human being, a mixture of the good and bad, as Mark Twain is to depict Huck, through Huck's own words, as a "real" fourteen-year-old. Huck can tell lies, when necessary, and rationalize his and Jim's need to steal food, and so Laura is pictured as going too far with her emotions in thinking that "she would get on much better" with a workman who takes a few seconds out to appreciate "the smell of lavender" than she does with the "silly boys" at the dances. Mansfield balances the account on Laura by causing her childishly "to take a big bite of her bread-andbutter" right in front of the workmen to demonstrate how she "despised stupid conventions." When Laura gives her brother "a small, quick squeeze" and gasps, "Oh, I do love parties, don't you?"she further demonstrates that she is still very young and very much a part of her society, whatever the nature of her built-in, sensitive moral seismograph.
Mansfield's point in developing, so successfully, a complex character in Laura is to show the contrast between the dogmatic self-righteousness and moral insularity of the comfortable rich and the open-minded girl on whom the facts of lives and deaths may still have some effect. As the author gives Laura a verisimilitude and a balance between being naive and understanding, so too, does she avoid piling sentimental notions on the heads of the poor carter's family down the hill. Their miserable physical existence does stand in stark contrast to the garden party of the Sheridans', but their confusion about life and death resembles Laura's. The widow of the dead man is described as not knowing why a strange girl is "standing in the kitchen with a basket," as wondering, "What was it all about?" But if Mansfield cannot in honesty credit the poor with knowing what life is all about and will not make Laura utter a platitude about it after her experience, she does develop in Mrs. Sheridan a character who has all the wrong answers about it: "People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies."
In this story Mansfield seems tacitly to forgive the poor because they are so busy just staying alive that they have no time to discover some other things that life can be; her censure is reserved for those who have apparently had money for such a short time that they have not even developed the sense of noblesse oblige that allegedly and traditionally accompanies the really rich. Mrs. Sheridan demonstrates her lack of it when she says to Laura, "People like that don't expect sacrifices from us."
But what is to be done? Nothing. Like her fellow fiction writer Chekhov, Mansfield knew that nothing is to be done about the human condition through art except to show honestly how it is and maybe sometimes to cry out against the corruption. On her way down to the dead man's house, Laura stops a moment to think about how she is so filled up with the "kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass" from the party that "she had no room for anything else." Clearly, she does have room for a great deal more, even if she thinks she does not. Mansfield's best stories, such as "The Garden Party," create a condition in which we readers have the opportunity to make room for some things from the world around us other than those that occupy our daily lives. What we do with them, of course, is our own business.
Mary Burgan (essay date 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3802
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 everyone to hear. 'Well, Kathleen,' she said, 'I see that you are as fat as ever.' And in my first glimpse of Kathleen I saw her eyes flash, and her face flush with anger as she turned away with a toss of her ringlets" [unpublished memoir by Marion C. Ruddick].
That body weight should have been a major issue between Katherine Mansfield and her mother refocused in latency and adolescence the oral issues of Mansfield's infancy. The demand of Annie Beauchamp that Mansfield control her weight was at variance with the daughter's positive self-identity gained through interaction with her grandmother—that intimate confirmation of bodily existence attained through being held and fed. In "Mary," a memoir of childhood published in Harper's Monthly Magazine in 1910, Mansfield proudly attributed her childish plumpness to her grandmother: "I was a strong, fat little child who burst my buttons and shot out of my skirts to grandmother's entire satisfaction." The dietary prohibitions of the mother denied the value of this "strong" identity by rejecting its manifestation in Mansfield's flesh. Furthermore, Annie Beauchamp's intolerance of her daughter's body seemed especially wounding because it contrasted sharply with her acceptance of the appetitive body of her husband. Accordingly, it was within this paradox of fleshiness forbidden for females while accepted for males that Mansfield's Oedipal crisis was transacted.
The mother's denial of Mansfield's body in latency superimposed upon this dichotomy [a] set of self-contradictions. Built upon the images of fat versus thin initiated in the psychic setting of mother/daughter antagonism, these contradictions designated body weight as a marker between the inner and the outer self. And so contending body images inform a string of associated oppositions in Mansfield's self-presentation—the self that belongs to the heavy father versus the self that belongs to the slight mother, the masculine self versus the feminine self, the spontaneous self versus the role-playing self, the loving self versus the rejecting self, and—finally and decisively—the healthy self versus the diseased self. Such a network of self-oppositions would be evoked in dialogue with a whole series of "mirror faces," recorded in Mansfield's journal and dramatized in many of her stories of confused young women.
The imagination of the obese body as a patriarchal construction is best seen in Mansfield's delineations of [her father] Harold Beauchamp—in her journal and letters and then fictionalized in a series of fathers in her stories. In most of her early descriptions, she emphasizes his stoutness, his hairiness, and his bulging eyes. The hair signals sexuality, and the gaze indicates a voracity not only for food but for control of his daughter's behavior. Sexuality and power are, moreover, inscribed in the father's orality—the feature of the male which most repelled Mansfield. The intensity of her adolescent formulation of this repulsion erupted in Mansfield's remarkable description of her parents' behavior on board the ship that returned her and her two elder sisters to New Zealand in 1906 at the conclusion of their three years at school in Queen's College in London:
They are worse than I had even expected. They are prying and curious, they are watchful and they discuss only the food. They quarrel between themselves in a hopelessly vulgar fashion. My Father spoke of my returning as damned rot, said look here, he wouldn't have me fooling around in dark corners with fellows. His hands, covered with long sandy hair, are absolutely cruel hands. A physically revolted feeling seizes me. He wants me to sit near. He watches me at meals, eats in the most abjectly, blatantly vulgar manner that is describable. He is like a constant offence, but I cannot escape from it, and it wraps me in its atmosphere. When I pass him the dishes at the table, or a book or get him a cushion, he refrains from thanking me. She is constantly suspicious, constantly overbearingly tyrannous. I watch him walking all the deck, his full hideous speckled trousers, his absurdly [illegible] cap. He is like a cat sometimes, I think—except that his eyes are not like a cat's eyes, they are so full, so frightfully offensive, when he is astonished or when he eats anything that pleases him, I think they must start from his head. He watches the dishes go round, anxious to see that he shall have a good share. I cannot be alone or in the company of women for half a minute—he is there, eyes fearful, attempting to appear unconcerned, pulling at his long drooping red-grey moustache with his hairy hands. Ugh!
[Journals of Katherine Mansfield, 1927]
Clearly at this stage of her young life, Mansfield had moved from the situation of a vulnerable, confused child like Pearl Button [in "How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped"] to that of the sharp diagnostician of body forms and their implications. The furtiveness of childhood sequestration in hapless chubbiness is exchanged for the aggressive self-definition of a late adolescence in reaction against the body conformations of her parents. The enmity centered on her father's fixation on feeding as a measure of control seems also a rejection of her mother's strictures against Mansfield's weight. The mother's service of this father's gluttony is here rendered as a vicious form of feminine hypocrisy: 'They discuss only the food."
According to classic Oedipal theory, the adolescent Mansfield should have transferred desire for her mother to her father, or (in Nancy Chodorow's influential version [presented in The Reproduction of Mothering, 1978]) she should have turned partially to the father as relief from her primary identification with the mother. Such accounts of the Oedipal resolution of gender presuppose, however, a conventional triadic mother/father/daughter field of psychic force; they feature the transfer of identifications in a romance of primary parent-child anxieties and affiliations. . . . Mansfield's Oedipal situation was more complicated—marked by the tenuousness of any pre-Oedipal identification with her mother. Moreover, she possesses a precocious awareness of her mother's revulsion against the father's sexuality which precluded her own competition for it; the seductiveness in the father upon which an Oedipal turn is supposed to be based was therefore negatively charged. Mansfield thus identifies the mother and father as combined in league against her. Annie Beauchamp is the phallic mother who appropriates her husband's power with a vengeance; even as she rejects his sexuality, she is the leading accomplice of the father's harsh law.
A late sketch in Mansfield's journal suggests the pathology of her mother's complicity in confusing Mansfield's self-image by rejecting the father and thereby trivializing herself as a creature of fathers. The mother presented a blank rather than a mirror that might reflect back to the daughter a usable identity. Mansfield remembers the vivacious Annie Beauchamp confiding the regrets of her life in an intimate moment; she explains that she had always wanted to be an explorer, adventuring through the "Rivers of China": "Then she said 'If Father hadn't died I should have travelled and then ten to one I shouldn't have married.' And she looked at me dreamily—looked through me, rather" [Journals of Katherine Mansfield, 1927]. Characteristically, here Mansfield sympathizes with the mother's sense of loss; the echo of refined slang in the phrase "ten to one" and the extravagant fantasy of the "Rivers of China" are both comic and endearing. But embedded in the sketch, it is clear—for the narrator goes back to notice accurately—the daughter has disappeared: "she looked . . . through me, rather." Thus, just as in her infancy Mansfield was left behind to make her mother's travels possible, so her adolescent presence is nullified by the mother's regrets about the limitations of having had children. Mansfield often sought to rationalize this kind of self-involvement by viewing her mother as the child and herself as the more knowledgeable parent, translating her mother's indifference into an attractively childish idiosyncracy. Charming and beautiful women did not need to grasp the kind of stable feminine identity which could mirror the daughter's self back to her in a collaboration of identity formation. Annie Beauchamp was absolved of this parental mandate by her sense of the injustice of her own feminine fate. Thus, rather than recognizing her child, she could "look through" her.
D. W. Winnicott's essay on the mirror stage in identity formation designates the mother's face as the child's first reflection: "When the average girl studies her face in the mirror she is reassuring herself that the mother-image is there and that the mother can see her and that the mother is en rapport with her" [Playing and Reality, 1989]. This insight may help to interpret the transaction recorded in Mansfield's memory: a mother who is unable to define her own life cannot assure her daughter of a self-image. The daughter's reaction to this lack may be the construction of a false self—created in compliance with the mother's depression or need. The daughter's inability to see her true self in the mother's mirror image and her tendency to try to make up for its blankness are often featured in the mirror episodes of Mansfield's fiction.
The challenge of sorting through the mirrored identities proffered to the adolescent girl by the mother within the confines of the bourgeois family is laid out most clearly in Mansfield's famous story "The Garden-Party." Here the autobiographical "Sheridan" family is defined as a locus of conspicuous consumption of food and of social power: indeed, the occasion of the story is its public celebration of itself with feasting. That story has had many interpreters, but none has been able to make a convincing explanation for the significance of the heroine's young brother, Laurie, who appears at the end of the story to help her make an inconclusive comment upon the meaning of her confrontation with "life." Reading the plot, however, as engaging Oedipal confusions that seek parental allegiances in dealing with the confusions of body imagery, it is possible to view Laura Sheridan's brother as the last-resort sibling accomplice in her negotiation of a new code of feeling beyond the narrow ethos of her family.
The story opens with Laura Sheridan's morning survey of the forthcoming garden party. As the "artistic" one of the family, she is given the job of deciding where the marquee should be placed on the lawn. Her mother has delegated all of the supervisory roles to her daughters, announcing: "I'm determined to leave everything to you children this year. Forget I am your mother. Treat me as an honoured guest." With the family power thus transferred, Laura selfconsciously approaches the workmen she is supposed to direct—unsure of her own gender and class status, idealizing their working-class camaraderie, and seeking to join it. Naive as she is, the only way she can show her fellow feeling is through the small gesture of taking a bite out of the piece of her breakfast bread and butter in their company: "Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her breadand-butter. . . . She felt just like a work-girl." Here, as in "How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped," eating is imagined as an activity of solidarity. But it is also an activity circumscribed by familial prohibition; in taking the bite, Laura has transgressed something.
Abundance of food within a circumscribed, though public, familial setting is a class signifier in the economy of the garden party. The menu includes fifteen kinds of sandwiches as well as the paradisal cream puffs mentioned earlier. These are not so much tokens of the mother's prodigality of nurture as they are tokens of the father's success and the family's ability to engage cooks and maids and workmen and delivery boys in service to it. It is in the kitchen, however, that the baker's man delivers news that a laborer who lived down the lane from the Sheridans' house has just been killed in an accident.
As yet not totally absorbed in the family's enclosed identity, Laura moves immediately to cancel the party. Her older sister responds with a proclamation of class isolation: "Of course we can't do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don't be so extravagant." Laura's next appeal is to her mother. But Mrs. Sheridan is as self-protective as the sister: "People like that don't expect sacrifices from us. And it's not very sympathetic to spoil everybody's enjoyment as you're doing now." In the process of rejecting her sensibility, both senior women in the family tempt Laura with an image of the family as so defined in its absolute identity that it is removed from judgment or blame by its distance from the working classes. Indeed, this distance is emphasized geographically by the steepness of the descent from the Sheridan mansion to the little cottages of the working people right below. And these "lower" people have been seen not only as totally separate from the privileged family but off-limits for the Sheridan children because of their low morals and their diseases—"the revolting language and . . . what they might catch."
One strategy of the women in distracting Laura from her anxiety about the tragedy in the lane is to quarantine her as "extravagant" or "absurd." But her departure from the family pattern has, in a manner of speaking, immunized her from such interdictions already. She has ventured into the lane with her brother earlier on the principle that "still one must go everywhere; one must see everything." Her artistic sensibility has been indulged in this infraction, as in the assignment of deciding about the marquee, but it is not so decisively valued that it can challenge the family's solidarity. Instead it marks Laura off as an eccentric who must be isolated or brought around.
Mrs. Sheridan's manner of bringing her daughter around involves changing the child's self-image by offering an alternative that embodies her own sense of the essential female self. This she does by ending the debate about canceling the garden party by giving Laura her own hat to wear. At first Laura can't "look at herself; she turn[s] aside." But after she goes into her own room, she has an encounter with her own mirror which transforms her from the authentic Laura of her original instincts into the Laura fabricated by her mother: "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 black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right." Laura attends the party in the trance of this new identity, deflected from any further impulse to question it. Even when she begins to confide in her brother, she is thwarted by his comment on her looks in the new hat. Laboring under the compliments of the guests, she does her best to minister to their wants by playing at being a woman—offering tea and ices and making sure that the members of the band get something to drink.
Laura's diminishing hold on her identity is maintained by care for sharing food with the guests, and so it seems appropriate to send her down the lane with a basket of leftover food when the question of the laborer's death arises after the party is over. Significantly, perhaps, it is the father who mentions the accident, bringing some news from the outside world into the enclosed family circle. And the mother, now somewhat abashed, at last takes action by gathering food for the widow and her children. Laura worries about the sensibilities of the poor family but is overwhelmed by her mother a second time and so delivers the basket of party food to the dead man's cottage. At the revelation of death itself, especially in the presence of the corpse of the young workman, Laura's fragile self is totally obliterated. She cannot think how to respond to the powerful negation and beauty of the man's dead body: "What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him: He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful." Unable to find anything to say to this vision of selflessness, Laura sobs out one sentence, "Forgive my hat," before she flees.
Her comment is at once trenchant and hopelessly confused. The episode leaves Laura with an indeterminate sense of herself and of how she fits into the scheme of human bodies that die. She has no authoritative guidance from her family, and so she turns to her brother, who has come to meet her in the lane. She wants to ask a question: "'Isn't life,' she stammered, 'isn't life—'." But Laura cannot complete the query, and Laurie is little help, merely echoing her question with a class accent: "'Isn't it, darling?' said Laurie." Thus "The Garden-Party" enacts an Oedipal and familial betrayal by substituting for Laura's best, real self a socially constructed reflection of uncaring femininity. As in the fairy tale, the young girl has been seduced by the mirror image offered by a false mother. And there is no male rescuer to wake her up from her sleep of appearances. . . .
[Mansfield's] sorting out of paternal and maternal bodies in terms of their external form, and her regular staging of eidetic confrontations in her stories of adolescent girls engage her sense of identity formation as involving a vital dialectic between a hidden, inner "real" self and the outer manifestations of false personae. This conflict between her often satirical unveiling of surface "subjects" and her celebration of the hidden self—perhaps available in its transcendent beauty only in death—can be framed in terms of the issues of identity which preoccupy current critical discourse. For the comforting notion of the purposive ego in search of a familiar "self," for example, Lacanian theory hypothesizes a more distanced and confused "construction" based on mirror reflections that structure the preconscious "I" as an always unstable site for the obscure movements of desire. The collection of psychic motions so created—so acted upon—Lacan calls the "subject." The possibility of any inner revelatory agency has no place in a theory that accents the subject's determined "misrecognition" of inner drives. Even in the early, maternal register of the imaginary, the instability of fragmentary images bars direct knowledge of the self.
The satirical strain in Katherine Mansfield's fiction illustrates her recognition of some of the features of subjectivity as modeled by Lacan: she is a connoisseur of constructed selves, especially of feminine selves that have been made up in the image of the social expectations instituted by patriarchy. As in "The Garden-Party," she frequently uses the encounter with mirrors to portray the ordeal of the self as it confronts a reflection that presents neither ontological reassurance nor psychological integration.
And as Mansfield frequently shows, the mirror image can emphasize the transparency of its own source—putting the empirical sensations of spatial stability and temporal sequence into terrifying disarray as the perceiver confronts the splitting of mirror images as an aspect of her inner split. Thus although Mansfield's insistence on self-discovery as the essential issue in her fiction is better understood in the light of the therapeutic (or adaptive) notions of the self such as Winnicott's, Lacan's formulations about the refracted and misrecognized formation of the subject in the "mirror stage" may illuminate Mansfield's satire.
Indeed, the bodily contrasts of thin versus fat in constituting identity contributed a kind of graveyard humor in Mansfield's imagination at times during her last years of illness when she fearfully watched her body dissipate in disease. Her diet had become a matter of excruciating concern, the intake of warm milk (which she seems to have despised) the main tonic prescribed to return her to health. Indeed, tuberculosis ravaged her breasts, the main feature of her femininity, and she wrote ruefully to a friend referring to a buxom governess, "I wish Mamselle could spare me a little tiny bit of her front. Mine has gone" She also maintained her caustic attitude about the absurdity of male health as reflected in body weight. She wrote to the same friend about John Middleton Murry's robust body during a bout of flu: "I shall have him photographed in his singlet soon, lying on a mat, you know, a-goo-gooing with REARED FROM BIRTH ON SUET PUDDINGS written underneath." Thus Mansfield's experience of the body colored her final battle with an emaciating disease. As the imagery of the gendered body of the thin mother and the plump father encroached upon her awareness of herself, however, she retained enough of the conviction of the essential fragmentariness of subjectivity to turn from the melodramatic and sentimental imagination of death to the macabre and tough-minded recognition of the somatic reality of her condition.
Mansfield finally addressed the issue of body weight as disease wryly in a surreal narrative of the deaths of two opposite children, sketched in a very late entry in her journal. The first child was a chubby figure who didn't want to think about things: "At last she became so adorably chubby, so ridiculously light-hearted, that she fell down the stairs, and they made her a heavenly funeral, and the most warming little grave you can imagine." The second was a thoughtful, "thin little girl" who "became so disgustingly thin, so preposterously wretched, that she fell up the stairs, and they threw her into the darkest, moistest little hole you can imagine." The plots of death by surfeit and death by emaciation pay grotesque tribute to the irony of Mansfield's fated "wasting" illness; though rich in the characteristic sensory evocations of death as warmth and embrace for the chubby child, death is terrifyingly claustrophobic for the thin one. This reenactment of the body-image fractures of her childhood thus manifests Mansfield's final rejection of the ideal of rational body control which so often drives anorectics to kill themselves with dieting. Instead, she plays on an ironic confrontation of the existential horror of dying through starvation with the serenity of plenitude, even in death. There could not be a more decisive rejection of her mother's preferred body image, nor a more playful acceptance of her own.