The Garden Party: And Other Stories Analysis
by Katherine Mansfield

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One can appreciate Mansfield’s craft by noting the various ways in which she balances the “class distinctions” with which Laura grapples. The perfectly maintained garden provides escape from the less appealing working-class neighborhood, but it is working people who provide its necessary labor. The family diverts itself with canna lilies, finger sandwiches, party dresses, and cream puffs, but their pleasures are repeatedly interrupted. Laura’s mind entertains the perspective of both classes. Although some writers would present ideas about class distinctions in the form of satire, Mansfield fashions “The Garden Party” to suggest—rather than to state—themes. There is such a fluid movement to the story—and such an upbeat mood—that a reader, like Laura herself, may almost be distracted from serious matters such as poverty and death.

Managing point of view is one of the techniques that Mansfield uses to plant her ironies. The happiness in the opening paragraph turns out to be part of the complacency of the upper class. Note the breathless wording: “Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds [of roses], have come out in a single night.” Such language has no place in the Scott house, where Mrs. Scott’s swollen red face cows Laura. The reader, therefore, learns to doubt some of the statements, and to consider from which character’s perspective they originate. One senses Jose’s practicality when she uses the word “extravagant” to dismiss Laura’s enthusiasm; likewise, one senses Mrs. Scott’s grief in the questions going through her mind as Laura faces her.

The technique known as “stream-of-consciousness” developed in the early twentieth century as a result of the influential psychological theories of such persons as Sigmund Freud and William James. Writers such as Mansfield use it to make words show the workings of the mind, rather than merely summarize a character’s thoughts. In “The Garden Party,” Mansfield mainly presents Laura’s mind at work, but one must be careful to notice shifts to other characters’ minds, as well as to the “mind” at work in passages such as the first paragraph, in which the Sheridan family—or the upper class—outlook appears. Finally, one admires Mansfield’s handling of detail. When Laura says that the marquee belongs on the lily-lawn, one workman “thrust[s] out his under-lip” and another frowns. These actions characterize the men and reveal what Laura notices. They are also part of the comic moment that culminates as a workman suggests a location that would be more “conspicuous”—that is, in keeping with the values of her class.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party" was written in 1922 during the period between the two world wars. In many ways it reflects the context of its creation. The 1920s saw enormous political and social disturbance throughout Europe. In the new Soviet Union, for example, the Marxist revolution was nearing completion. The Soviet Union's powerful leader, V. I. Lenin, had succeeded in wresting control from the Russian aristocracy and was establishing a system of agricultural collectivization in the rural parts of the Soviet Union. In parts of Europe, political groups were beginning to promote fascism—a philosophy that supports a government of unlimited power, often ruled by a dictator. These changes alarmed many and prompted people everywhere to discuss issues related to the class systems that existed during the period.

World War I and the political and social upheavals of the mid-war years had tangible effects on the arts and literature. Katherine Mansfield like many others in England and elsewhere, felt the impact of the war, as her beloved brother was killed. Other writers and artists were similarly affected by the psychological and cultural fallout of the war. In his 1922 poem The Waste Land, for example T. S. Eliot characterizes his sense of individual alienation and cultural uncertainty, having the poetic "I" of this poem...

(The entire section is 2,684 words.)