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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Analysis of themes, settings, and underlying issues in Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"

Summary:

"The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield explores themes such as class consciousness, the fragility of life, and the loss of innocence. Set in a wealthy family's garden, the story contrasts the opulence of the party with the nearby poverty-stricken neighborhood. The sudden death of a working-class neighbor forces protagonist Laura to confront social inequalities and her own sheltered existence, highlighting the stark divisions between social classes.

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How does the setting relate to the plot in Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"?

The setting of "The Garden Party" begins at Laura's home and shifts to the neighborhood and home of the dead man's widow. When the story opens in medias res (or res in medias), Laura is making preparations for a garden party and greeting workmen who have come to carry out the details of the arrangements. The house and garden are the elegant living places of the wealthy Sheridan family and connected to an accidental killing of a young carter who left a young widow behind him. It is this accidentally event that forms the main conflict of the story because Laura feels the moral impropriety of holding a party in the garden after a man lost his life. There is an implied shift of scene as the party seems to carry on without narratorial comment aside from scattered stream of consciousness remarks made by Laura that indicates the fulfillment of the party.

Later, the setting changes to the neighborhood and home of the young widow when Laura's mother insists that she remain in her party clothes and go to deliver a platter full of party leftovers to the home of the grieving young widow. Laura capitulates and goes on the journey down the lane to make the delivery while still in her garden party dress and black hat. The lane leads Laura to the cottage of the young man and his widow, which is surrounded by a mournful group of people through whom Laura makes her way. Inside the cottage, the setting reveals grieved characters and the body of the young man laid out looking peaceful and restful in death. While looking at the young man, Laura has a flash of enlightenment, an epiphany, and realizes how incongruous her presence is there amidst the trappings of luxury, arrogant life, and garden parties. She exclaims, "Forgive my hat," the symbol of all the incongruities, and leaves the cottage setting to reenter the lane where her brother meets her, having come after her to give her encouragement. They share the knowledge that life is an incongruence of having and not having as her brother says, "Isn't it, darling?"

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What is an important theme in Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"?

Death is the great leveler. Whoever we are, wherever we live, however much money we have or don’t have, we will one day leave this earth behind. In death, there are no class distinctions, no artificial differences between race, gender, and class. Death is the ultimate, perhaps the only true, democracy.

The notion of death as the great leveler is much in evidence in Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.” Here, the death of one of Laura’s working-class neighbors momentarily serves to break down the class barriers between them. What had been thought to be an insuperable barrier between Laura’s upper-crust family and her down-at-heel neighbors has shown to be wholly artificial and therefore capable of being broken down by a shared experience, the experience of death.

To be sure, Laura’s experience of her neighbor’s death might not be the same as that of the dead man’s family, but it does nonetheless serve to establish some kind of connection between them, something that had never previously existed. The ending of the story is deliberately ambiguous, but there can be no doubt that Laura's been changed forever by this strange encounter with a corpse.

On this reading, death recalls us, however briefly, to what is really important in human existence, as opposed to the trivialities in which Laura and her family habitually indulge.

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What is an important theme in Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"?

Perhaps the biggest theme in the story “The Garden Party” is the idea of identity and perspective. Laura goes though several phases with regards to the identity she feels in the story and the perspective from which she sees things.

Laura begins the story relating amicably to the caterers and servants who are setting up the garden party. In fact, she is much more relaxed with them and relates very well with them.

However, when the guests arrive, she blends in, changing personas so as to fit with the partygoers. She acts carelessly towards the caterers and becomes an entirely different person—that is, until she hears about the death of one of the working class individuals. She is shocked and chagrined, ashamed of the revelry when the deceased man could never have enjoyed that luxury and wouldn’t have wanted it because of its unnecessary nature.

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What is an important theme in Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"?

The major theme in the story "Garden Party" is the idea of identity and belonging. Laura is struggling between being a working class individual and trying to fit in with the upper class people she is socializing with. While the caterers and servers are setting up everything for the garden party, she enjoys their company and is pleased to be around them greatly. She identifies with their struggles and their working class mentality.

Later on, however, she has a crisis of identity. The worker's death startles her, especially as she has become comfortable around the attendants of the party and has started to revel in the frivolity and wastefulness of the party. Suddenly, she is confronted by the death of a man who had never cared for that sort of thing and had struggled to work and make a wage. She is led at the end of the story to question her own identity and motives in life.

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What is an important theme in Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"?

An important theme in Mansfield's "The Garden Party" centers on individual identity.

One theme in Mansfield's short story concerns the formation of individual identity. Laura displays this theme throughout the narrative. At the story's outset, she seems comfortable with people from the working class. She finds the workers setting up the garden party to be "extraordinarily nice," preferring their company to the "silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper." Upon hearing of the worker's death, she finds it offensive to have the garden party. She is "astonished" at the banal reactions of Jose and her mother. Laura believes the party should be cancelled because of her identification with the working class.  

As the story progresses, Laura's working-class identity is not as evident. Laura is hesitant about taking the basket to the deceased worker's family, asking her mother if it is "a good idea." Laura is visibly uncomfortable when she visits the mourning family. She calls out for God's help and apologizes for her hat. As Laura stares at the worker's corpse, she struggles with even larger issues of identity:

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.

When she arrives back, readers are not sure what Laura's identity is. She "stammers" in a statement that might articulate thoughts about life. Like Laura's identity, that statement is muddled.

What Laura believes and how she will go about living her life are central questions at the end of "The Garden Party." They attest to the importance of the theme of identity in Mansfield's short story.

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What is the meaning of the garden party in "The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield and how does it relate to the theme?

To answer this question, you need to relate the garden party in all of its frivolous glory to the death of Mr. Scott and Laura's visit to him at the end of the story. Let us just remember that when Laura hears about the death of Mr. Scott, she wants to call the garden party off, and her mother is only able to distract her by pointing out how beautiful she looks in a new hat. Vanity seduces Laura, causing her to forget about Mr. Scott and her moral objections to celebrating whilst nearby a family copes with the death of one of its members.

However, at the end of the story, Laura goes and visits the family and sees the body of Mr. Scott laid out on the table. Note what she thinks as she looks at him:

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 plahying, this marvel had come to the lane.

This quote stresses the superficial and meaningless nature of the garden party, as being based on "baskets and lace frocks," which completely blinds us to the "marvel" of life and death as represented in the corpse of Mr. Scott. Mansfield in this story therefore uses the garden party to point towards the way that society acts as something that prevents us from truly seeing and truly living, realising what life is all about.

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What is an important theme in Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"?

In “The Garden Party,” Katherine Mansfield conveys that class distinctions persist even beyond death and that a child’s first encounter with death can increase their awareness of such distinctions. In this coming-of-age story, the author shows how much a child can grow up in just one day, especially when a sudden tragedy clashes with a festive celebration. The protagonist, Laura, experiences a loss of innocence when her efforts to help the Scott family make her realize how large is the class-based distance between them. Mansfield also emphasizes how parents try to shape their children’s attitudes.

Laura is presented as a sensitive person whose upper-class status has not only protected her from life’s harsher side but also allowed her to imagine that she has much in common with working-class people. When she hears of Mr. Scott’s death, her sensitivity inspires her to want her family’s party canceled. Her mother refuses and tries to cheer Laura up with the gift of a hat. In turn, wearing the festive hat in a house in mourning makes the girl feel that her mother’s effort at charity, by giving the Scotts leftovers, is not really helping the grief-stricken family. Mansfield implies that this is the first occasion when Laura understands her class position can be an emotional burden.

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What does the theme "Innocence and Experience" signify in Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party?

Themes in literature allow writers to share their intended message with readers and help to create a structure and an intention. The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield follows Laura on her road of self-discovery. A moral dilemma faces an indulged and privileged Laura when the garden party which her wealthy mother is hosting must take place despite tragic circumstances facing the family's much poorer and socially inferior neighbors. Although Laura is inclined to think that the party should be cancelled out of respect for the loss of the family's unknown neighbor who has been tragically killed in a motor vehicle accident, Laura allows her fickle nature to get the better of her. She is persuaded that she looks too stylish in her outfit- and especially her hat- to cancel. The family will make up for their seemingly uncaring attitude later by sending Laura around to the house with a basket of food from the party, by way of apology if the noise in any way offended the mourners.  

One of the themes which therefore reveals itself in this story is the innocence and experience theme. Laura will learn during the build up to the party and certainly afterwards, how gaining experience can be humbling and she will realize how inadequate her excuses are and how her innocence and lack of experience reveal her ignorance and expose her as immature and frivolous with no real concerns. However, Laura learns from each of her experiences, from trying to manage the workmen at her home to wanting to cancel the party but being overruled and finally to meeting her neighbors and, despite her reluctance, to attending the dead man's bedside. Laura even recognizes how inappropriate her hat is as she says "Forgive my hat." Her new insight reveals that she is maturing and has the potential to be a far more well-rounded individual.

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What does the theme "Innocence and Experience" signify in Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party?

Innocence vs experience is a common theme in literature.  They are on opposite sides of the spectrum and as we move through life we begin to lose our innocence as we gain more experience.  To some, this means our obstacles, our suffering, our trials and tribulations may be painful, they may take away some of our sunny outlook on life, but they teach us valuable lessons.  Think Catcher in the Rye.  Holden Caufield is naive at the start of the novel.  He childishly looks down on others around him, but as he comes to terms with his own reality he starts to learn about his own role in the grand scheme of things.  In turn, he tries to preserve the innocence of others (which he cannot do for himself) by imagining himself as the catcher in a field of rye.  As children run dangerously close to the edge, he dreams he can catch them all and save them from the burden of growing up, of gaining experience.  It's not that innocence is always good and experience always bad, only that certain people (or characters) will perceive these two extremes in different lights.

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What issues are present in Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"?

Katherine Mansfield packs several issues worthy of contemplation into her short story "The Garden Party." The relationship between social classes, peer pressure and social status, standing for one's beliefs, family relationships, and the mystery of death all come into play as the story unfolds. First, the garden party is being put on by the Sheridans, who are wealthy and part of an upscale social class. Laura learns that a neighbor who lives down the hill from the Sheridans has died in a "horrible accident." She feels it would be insensitive to have the party now, but her family members see no connection between themselves and the death in a family who they don't associate with and who are of a much lower societal bracket. The family holds the party as planned, and afterward the mother awkwardly has Laura bring leftover sandwiches to the bereaved family. The contrast between the ways of life between the two families is an important issue raised in the story.

Laura feels very uncomfortable in the first part of the story; she feels it is wrong to celebrate so blatantly with no regard to their neighbor's troubles. But as the party goes forward, Laura's friends and family overwhelm her compunctions. The family doesn't feel they can disappoint their friends for someone they don't know. Laura believes at first that her older brother, whom she respects greatly, will support her point of view, but when he doesn't, she finds it impossible to stick with her initial beliefs. As Laura begins to get compliments on her looks and her hat, she succumbs to the pressure of her family and friends to immerse herself in the activities of their "upper crust" party. 

Still, after the party, Laura visits the home of the dead man, and his family invites her in. She had no intention of viewing the corpse, but the sister of the dead man's wife ushers her in, and Laura can hardly refuse. Laura has possibly never seen a dead person before, at least not one so young, and she is amazed at how beautiful and peaceful he seems. She tries to express her jumbled feelings to her brother, Laurie, by starting, "Isn't life--" but she cannot explain herself. Laurie agrees, but it is not at all clear that he truly understands what she wanted to express. The idea that life and death are inexpressible mysteries is the final issue of the story. 

In this story, through the character of Laura, readers grapple with issues of social class interactions, peer pressure and standing for what one believes in, family relationships, and the mysteries of life and death.

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