illustration of Laura wearing her mothers hat and holding a basket with a shadowy figure behind her

The Garden Party: And Other Stories

by Katherine Mansfield

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Style and Technique

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 326 words.)

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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 remark, "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." The fragments to which Eliot alludes are those bits of Western culture and the humanist tradition that may be used as shields against the new cultural disruption and uncertainty. In nonfiction, Oswald Spengler, a German historian, predicted the end of the hegemony of Western humanist values and culture in his now-classic work,The Decline of the West. Rather than a decline of the West, "The Garden Party" may be understood to depict the end of caste-ridden "garden party" civilization—the carefree gentility of pre-World War I Europe—in its representation of Laura Sheridan's struggle between the worlds of her parents and her working-class neighbors.

Literary Style

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Style Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden Party" employs a style that is distinctly modern in its use of impressionistic detail and stream-of-consciousness narrative method. These stylistic features also characterize the works of Virginia Woolf Dorothy Richardson, and other innovative writers of the 1920s and 1930s.

The narrative begins in "the middle of things"—in media res. The narrative voice describes the scene in a casual and immediate manner which at once establishes an intimacy with the reader—"And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for the garden party if they had ordered it." The almost confidential presentation of such objective facts establishes the narrative voice as the central consciousness of the story—one that perceives and interprets experience and that also, for most of the story, melds with the character of Laura. As the reader is made privy to authorial confidences and interpretation, an appeal is made to identify with Laura's and the narrator's point of view. The reader is drawn into this "central" consciousness gradually, gaining access to Laura's sensibility through constant access to her perception and emotional responses. Most often, the alternation between a third-person narrative voice and Laura's own perception is demonstrated in single sentences, the transition occurring without narrative markers. A prime example of this happens before Laura meets the workmen who are to put up the marquee: "Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread and butter. It's so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides she loved having to arrange things," or "His smile was so easy, so friendly, that Laura recovered. What nice eyes he had, small, but such a dark blue!"

This technique of focusing on the thoughts of a central consciousness is referred to by literary critics as stream of consciousness. Using this method to achieve a more truthful presentation of reality, Mansfield, like other modernists, saw it not as something independent of one's perceptions but rather as constituted by each individual's particular perceptions. In the "The Garden Party," for example, Laura's perceptions are immediately made available, frequently overwhelming what few realities reach the reader through a different source than the main character. At the start of her journey down to Saunders Lane, for example, her thoughts are filled with "the kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughters, and the smell of crushed grass"—memories of the party which at first obscure the actual journey down to the carter's cottage.

Appropriately, the linear narrative of the events surrounding the Sheridan garden party leads up to the climactic conflict of Laura's consciousness. Again, her perceptions at this climactic moment are articulated by the narrative voice, which almost speaks for her, moving from a third- to a first-person point of view. "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. . . . What did garden parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all of those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane."

Symbolism and Imagery Mansfield's descriptive language in this story presents a richly textured, suggestive world. Colors, shapes, and textures become a medium through which the scenes of the story acquire significance. The story begins with an impressionistic presentation of the interiors and gardens of the Sheridan home. The garden itself is presented as a space glowing with color and filled with the warmth of the roses, yellow karake fruits, and lilies. These fruits and flowers symbolize the mood of ethereal beauty that characterizes the Sheridan home. This sense of luminous calm is suggested perhaps most clearly by the following image: "And the perfect afternoon, slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed."

This scene of light and air visibly darkens as Laura leaves the brilliant garden to walk down the hill to the worker's cottages. The somber mood and lack of hope for the villagers is illustrated by the shade as Laura nears Saunders Lane. Similarly, the soft rustling breezes of the garden and the comfortable domestic chatter of the Sheridan house are replaced by silence and the ominous hum that Laura hears as she approaches the worker's neighborhood—"How quiet it seemed after the afternoon. . . . A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crablike, moved across the window."

The shadows intensify as Laura approaches the carter's cottage and is led through a "gloomy passage" by a "woman in black." Within the obscured interior of the cottage, Laura is exposed to death in the form of the young laborer, and the epiphany that she experiences as she looks upon the calm beauty of the dead face suggests a radiant revelation in this final setting.

Literary Techniques

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"The Garden-Party" belongs to Mansfield's last group of stories. A number of these stories are held together by plot, what critic Joanne Trautmann Banks calls "a line that moves softly to an end" — a story element that almost disappeared from stories in Mansfield's middle period. This story line controls the direction of the work rather than the particular point of view of any individual character. Laura does not dominate in the way that Bertha Young dominates "Bliss" or Raoul Duquette dominates "Je ne parle pas francais." Rather, early in the story we encounter a multitude of attitudes toward the afternoon festivities, one of which is Laura's. Even at the end of the story where Laura's point of view is dominant, the total picture of Laura's visit to the grieving family is as memorable as Laura's individual responses to the face of death.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: With the advent of the modernist movement, writers, artists, and musicians struggled to express the alienation they felt toward Western culture.

1990s: Cultural commentators are still drawing inspiration from the disconnection they perceive with their values and popular culture. A term "Generation X" has been coined to describe a whole generation of people that is thought to feel alienated from the rest of society.

1920s: Stalin establishes himself as dictator of the Soviet Union and proceeds to purge his people of dissent.

1990s: The Soviet Union has deteriorated into a debt-ridden Russian Republic. Democratic institutions are weak but existent.

1920s: Harold Ware demonstrates mechanized farming to the Soviets. He also takes volunteers and $150,000 of equipment and seed to a 15,000 acre demonstration farm near Moscow.

1990s: America helps Russia avert a food shortage by loaning it money to buy American grain. The grain, which would otherwise have been dumped, is being bought at a price higher than its current market value.

Literary Precedents

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Theocritus's XVth idyll serves as a literary precedent for the shape of "The Garden-Party." In that dramatic poem, two young women visit the festival of Adonis. Most of the dialogue concerns their sophisticated, superficial comments about their lives and about what they see in the crowded streets as they make their way to the festival. As T. O. Beachcroft notes, they are "foolish, yet endearing . . . put before us in all their human frailty with loving care." When the two Greek women arrive at the festival, they witness a performance of a mystical poem about Adonis which deeply moves them. After the performance, they are unable to articulate the experience they have had.

In "The Garden-Party," the presentation of the Sheridan family is at first characterized by bright, airy conversation as the various members of the household prepare for the party. The Sheridans appear both foolish and endearing as they go about their business. In the second part of the story, Laura is transported to a different order of experience when she enters the neighbors' lane and encounters the unveiled faces of grief and death. Taken by themselves, Laura's remarks to her brother when she returns from the dead worker's cottage appear completely inadequate to what she has witnessed. Nevertheless, because of their essentially dramatic form, both works leave the reader with the impression that something important, perhaps transcendent, has occurred.

Media Adaptations

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"The Garden Party" was adapted as a film in 1974. It is now available on video through AIMS Multimedia.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Fulbrook, Kate. "Late Fiction," in Katherine Mansfield, Harvester Press, 1986, pp. 86-128.

Hanson, Clare, and Andrew Gurr. "The Stories 1921-22: Sierre and Paris," in their Katherine Mansfield, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981, pp. 95-139.

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

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

Walker, Warren S. "The Unresolved Conflict in the 'The Garden Party,'" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. III, No. 4, Winter, 1957-58, pp. 354-58.

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

Further Reading Fulbrook, Kate. "Late Fiction," in Katherine Mansfield, Harvester Press, 1986, pp. 86-128. In this feminist critique, Fulbrook argues that Mansfield satirizes female ignorance in ‘‘The Garden Party,’’ and that she attacks the "inadequacy of education" that fosters such calloused social perceptions.

Iverson, Anders. "A Reading of Katherine Mansfield's 'The Garden Party,'" in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 23, 1968, pp. 5-34. Iversen looks at the symbolic and mythological structure of ‘‘The Garden Party.’’ He examines the way in which the story can be read as an allegory.

Taylor, Donald S. "Crashing the Garden Party, I: A Dream—A Wakening," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. IV, No. 4, Winter, 1958-59, pp. 361-62. Taylor views "The Garden Party" as a story of Laura Sheridan's awakening from the false dream-like world of her family and their garden parties to the world of labor, sorrow and death.

Weiss, Daniel A. "Crashing the Garden Party, II: The Garden Party of Proserpina," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. IV, No. 4, Winter, 1958-59, pp. 363-64. Weiss likens Laura's experience to archetypal myths about initiation and awakening. He particularly compares Laura's journey to the cottager's houses to Proserpina's journey out of Pluto's underworld.


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Bell, Barbara Currier. “Non-Identical Twins: Nature in ‘The Garden Party’ and ‘The Grave.’” The Comparatist 12 (May, 1988): 58-66. Examines the meaning of nature in both short stories. Provides insight into Mansfield’s use of nature in most of her short fiction.

Boddy, Gillian. Katherine Mansfield: The Woman and the Writer. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. An extensive biography of Mansfield. Discusses her life in the context of her writings and experiences.

Daly, Saralyn R. Katherine Mansfield. New York: Twayne, 1965. Chapter 6 is the most useful in terms of understanding themes and meanings; however the entire book lends insight into Mansfield as a writer.

Kaplan, Sydney Janet. Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Chapter 8 offers another tool for analysis of Mansfield’s characters. Stresses that a feminist approach is applicable to the interpretation of her works.

Rohrberger, Mary. The Art of Katherine Mansfield. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1977. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 are principally concerned with explaining the themes and techniques used in The Garden Party and Other Stories and other short stories. Extensive bibliographic notes and index.




Critical Essays