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

Start Free Trial

What are Laura's characteristics in "The Garden Party"?

Quick answer:

The characteristics of Laura in "The Garden Party" skewer middle-class pretensions of wanting to be sympathetic to and in solidarity with the lower classes. Laura is romantic, impulsive, self-centered, shallow, emotional, and deludes herself. As a typical example of a middle-class person, she put her needs, whims, and desires first.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Laura is romantic, impulsive, shallow, self-centered, and easily caught up in the emotions of the moment to the point of deluding herself.

For example, in the course of few minutes, Laura moves from wondering if is disrespectful of a workman to use slang with her:

Laura's upbringing made her wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye.

She further speaks of wanting to wipe away

these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn't feel them. Not a bit, not an atom.

Of course, almost immediately she shows she does feel class distinctions:

Just to prove ... how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl.

Laura's seeming perception of class changes comically based on the impulse of the moment, but is at its core condescending and self serving. When a workman makes what she considers a romantic gesture in smelling a sprig of lavender, challenging her class-based stereotypes of workers as coarse and crude, she thinks:

Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn't she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper?

Laura's seeming good-heartedness shows when she wants to cancel the garden party because a worker has been killed. But circumstances again show that her understanding of or caring for the working class is only skin deep. As soon as her mother gives her a beautiful bonnet to wear to the garden party, that is enough to allow her to decide her objections are "extravagant" and that she will think about the widow and his children "after the party's over."

When she goes to the workman's cottage after the party, she begins to feel uncomfortable about arriving in her expensive new bonnet. She feels people looking at her, has to face the grieving widow, and only wants to get away. However, when she sees the dead body of the workman laid out, she again romanticizes the incident, imposing her own, self-serving interpretation on it:

All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.

The death of the workman becomes all about her: "I am content." Her character critiques a middle-class (what in the US we would call the upper-class) tendency to say it want to feel in romantic solidarity with the lower classes, but at the same time not if it interferes with their own pleasures or sense of superiority in any way.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This excellent short story by Katherine Mansfield focuses on the thoughts and feelings of Laura Sheridan and the way that we see her develop during the action of the plot. Clearly, Mansfield presents Laura as an innocent and somewhat naive young lady who during the story is shown to find problematic the class consciousness of her family and her own understanding of social class. This is most clearly seen when Laura finds out about the death of Scott, and Laura is horrified and wants to call off the party:

"Jose!" she said, horrified, "however are we going to stop everything?"

As the story progresses, Mansfield skilfully reveals how Laura's feelings oscillate between tremendous sympathy and empathy for Mr. Scott and his family and her class consciousness and vanity. Note how when she goes to her mother to try and persuade her to cancel the party, her mother distracts her successfully with the new hat, which works because when Laura looks at herself in the hat she wants the opportunity to wear it and does not mention cancelling the party again:

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  along 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. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children and the body being carried intot he 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...

Note here how the promise of wearing the hat and showing it off at the party dispels her feelings of horror at the death of Mr. Scott. For her, wearing the new hat and looking good becomes more important than her feelings of sympathy. By the end of the story, however, we see that she has tried to reach out to the Scott family, taking a basket of leftovers, but interestingly it remains bafflingly ambiguous what precisely Laura has gained from the experience. Some argue that her contemplation of the corpse of Mr. Scott shows the impartial and ephemeral nature of her life, and that she goes away from the experience a maturer and wiser person.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How would you characterize Laura from Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"?

Laura Sheridan is difficult in two ways: As a character in the story, she makes the day of the garden party more difficult for her mother, and as a literary figure, she is difficult for readers to interpret and perhaps difficult to like. As the story opens, Laura is being very helpful and cooperative with the preparations for the party, helping to direct the workmen who are putting up the marquee and assisting with labeling the sandwiches. She displays great affection for her brother and mother. But when she learns of the accident that has killed a neighbor whom they didn't know, she immediately expects her family to "stop everything." Her sister Jose becomes "seriously annoyed" with her, and her mother loses patience with her as well, telling her she is "being very absurd" and that she is spoiling "everybody's enjoyment." After the party, Mrs. Sheridan agrees to extend kindness to the wife of the dead man by sending "that poor creature some of this perfectly good food." When Laura hesitates, her mother asks her what is wrong with her--she had previously insisted on showing sympathy and now she doesn't want to. Laura and her mother are at odds about the right way to deal with the bereaved family both before and after the party, making Laura a difficult daughter.

Readers also find Laura difficult to interpret and perhaps difficult to like. At the beginning, she seems enlightened, wanting to do away with class distinctions and to treat those who are below her socioeconomic class with the same dignity she would show others in her class. Readers begin to like Laura and agree with her. But when Laura allows the frivolity of the party and her own hat to sway her, readers find it more difficult to take Laura's side. Yet when she is thrust into the awkward position of visiting the home of the dead man, readers may feel more empathy for Laura even as they expect her to regain her former feelings toward her neighbors. Unfortunately, Laura's reaction to seeing the dead man does not seem to reawaken her former idealistic views. Instead she finds the dead man "wonderful, beautiful," and seems to revert to her childish, class-conscious ways by sniffing, "Forgive my hat." Although readers have high hopes for Laura, her reaction is difficult to interpret. As much as readers want to believe she has changed and given up her uppity attitudes, she gives them nothing to hang their hats on there. Her cryptic last words to Laurie, "Isn't life--" make Laura difficult to understand.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How would you characterize Laura from Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"?

Laura is a character that attempts to change in the story. Many stories center on a character's growth or change. The problem with this character is that the reader cannot ascertain that any change has occurred by the end of the story.

Laura is struggling with her ideas of class. The death of a neighbor of the working class makes Laura think that her family's garden party should be canceled out of respect to the neighbors. Yet, while Laura makes an attempt to convince her mother of this, she is easily swayed with the new hat her mother gives her.

Laura switches back and forth between having insight and empathy for the working class and retreating back into her family's elitist attitude. The end of the story does not give the reader a verifiable change in Laura's outlook.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on