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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Discussion Topic

Katherine Mansfield's depiction of class distinction and Laura's resistance to her class relations in "The Garden Party."

Summary:

Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party" explores class distinction through Laura's growing awareness and discomfort with her family's privileged position. Laura initially resists her class's attitudes, feeling empathy for the lower-class Scott family. However, her resistance wanes as she is drawn back into her own world, highlighting the complexities of social class and personal identity.

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How does Katherine Mansfield explore Laura's resistance to her class relations in "The Garden Party"?

A key theme of this excellent short story is that of class, and the way that Laura begins the story at least by trying to ignore class and pretending that it does not impact her. An important part of the beginning of the story is when she watches the workmen construct the marquee and Laura comments on how nice the workmen are and how they compare much more favourably to "the silly boys" with whom she dances from her own class. Note what she thinks:

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...

She even goes as far to imagine that she is a "work-girl" as she watches the men do their work. Of course, this feeling of companionship with the working class brings Laura into her conflict when she feels that the garden party must be cancelled because of the death of Mr. Scott, a working class man living very close to the garden. When she goes to her sister Jose and then to her mother, she is met with the inescapable reality of the way that class does matter and that it cannot be dreamed away. Consider how her mother responds to her:

"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 everybody's enjoyment as you're doing now."

Class is therefore a force that initially Laura tries to resist, but in the end is forced to acknowledge and respond to.

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How does Katherine Mansfield depict class distinction in "The Garden Party"?

The story illustrates the sharp power differential between the English social classes. The Sheridans live in a fine house, have servants, and can afford to spend money on beautiful clothes, hats, and such frivolities as a large number of lilies from the florist shop:

There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.

For the Sheridans, life is a gracious and beautiful experience. The lower-class people, in contrast, live in shabby homes:

. . . the little cottages were in a lane to the bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans . . .

The Sheridan children are forbidden to go there when young, for fear they would hear "revolting language" and pick up diseases. The neighborhood of poor people's houses is described as "disgusting and sordid."

More pointedly, when the Sheridans' neighbor, the lower-class Mr. Scott, is killed in an accident, the family does not value his death enough to cancel their garden party. He doesn't matter to them against the beautiful weather and all their lovely plans for a good time, despite Laura's sense that postponing the party would be the decent and respectful thing to do.

Later, after the party, the family feels it is acceptable to send over a basket of party leftovers, something we can be sure they would never do should one of their own class die. Mrs. Sheridan is also patronizing about it, imagining how thrilled the family will be to get their leavings.

Laura delivers the basket and tries to tell herself a story that the young Mr. Jones is happier now, at peace, but the grief over the situation breaks through, and she has to acknowledge his humanity and death as the great leveler.

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How does Katherine Mansfield depict class distinction in "The Garden Party"?

One of the main issues "The Garden Party" explores is the differences between the social classes. Laura, the main character, and her family, the Sheridans, represent the upper class. The family of the man who died, who live down the hill from the Sheridans, represents the lower class, as does the workman who comes to set up the marquee for the party. Mansfield depicts the differences between the classes with dialogue, especially slang; with numerous symbols; and with Laura's reactions.

In the beginning of the story, Laura is instructing a workman about where to place the marquee. He tells her

"you want to put it somewhere it'll give you a bang slap in the eye, if you follow me."

His use of such slang gives Laura pause. When she visits the home of the dead man, the woman there says,

"You'd like a look at 'im, wouldn't you? ... Don't be afraid, my lass. ... 'e looks a picture."

This lower class dialect shows how distinct the family is from Laura's. Laura's brother uses upper class modern slang, saying things like, "you might just give a squiz at my coat," "ra-ther," "dash off to the telephone, old girl," "what an absolutely topping hat," and "isn't it, darling?" 

The story is replete with symbols of the upper class lifestyle of the Sheridans: the party itself, the marquee, the band, the arum lilies, the fancy sandwiches, and Laura's hat. These are all things that are way beyond the reach of the people who live at the bottom of the hill, the hill itself also representing the social class distinction. In contrast, the poor family's home is marked by a "wretched little kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp."

Finally, Laura's attitude toward the different social classes shows that she is aware of the wide gap between herself and her neighbors. She seems embarrassed when talking to the workman, wondering what he is thinking about their ostentatious party. She wants her family to cancel the party in deference to the bereaved family, but her mother and siblings find that ludicrous. As the story progresses, Laura regains her comfort with her social class, basking in the praise she receives and the delight of the event. At the end, she is more impressed by death, something experienced equally by all classes, than she is by her thoughts of the social hierarchy. 

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