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

"The setting and significance of 'The Garden Party'."

Summary:

The setting of "The Garden Party" is the Sheridan family's luxurious home and garden in New Zealand, highlighting class distinctions. The significance lies in how the opulent setting contrasts with the nearby working-class neighborhood, emphasizing themes of social inequality and the protagonist Laura's awakening to these disparities.

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When does "The Garden Party" take place?

Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party" was published in 1922, but the story's Sheridan estate is based on Mansfield's childhood home in New Zealand. Given that she moved to London in 1903, the story is probably set around 1900—and surely before the First World War. The fashions, especially of hat Laura wears, seems pre-war:

her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon.

Also, the amount of spending money the Sheridans have almost certainly indicates the pre-World War I period, as does the number of servants. The text mentions the "green baize" door which typically separated the servant's quarters from the rest of the house, and there is no mention of the servant problem that became severe after the war ended. The story, therefore, can be set prior to 1914 in what people were already looking back at in the 1920s nostalgically as an opulent era, before inflation ate away people's wealth. However, the class system described would still have been in place.

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What does "The Garden Party" signify?

In “The Garden Party,” Mansfield presents us with a stark illustration of the enormous gap between rich and poor in early twentieth-century Britain. Although Laura and her family may live only a stone's throw from a poor neighborhood, they might as well inhabit the far side of the moon, such is the cultural and material gulf that separates them.

Even so, Laura seems to understand that such gaps, though large, are also highly superficial. Beneath the material and cultural differences to which we attach such significance, we are all fundamentally the same. Laura seems to realize this when she chats to the workmen helping to set up the eponymous garden party.

More importantly, she recognizes the fundamental unity that we all share when she sees the dead body of one of her poor neighbors. The man had been killed in an accident when his horse threw him to the ground.

When Laura goes around to leave a basket with her neighbors, she sees the man's body laid out in the bedroom. At that moment, she senses that the man is at rest, free from a world that contains such amusements as garden parties, baskets, and lace-frocks. Laura is unable to articulate her feelings, but if her previous interaction with the workmen is anything to go by, then she's once again realized that, under the skin, we're all just the same.

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What does "The Garden Party" signify?

"The Garden Party" signifies how vast the gulf is between the social classes in the Edwardian time period and how difficult it is to bridge the gap, even when the individuals in question live very close to each other.

When the story opens, the lead character, Laura Sheridan, speaks to the workers helping to set up for the afternoon's garden party and thinks how little difference there is between her and them. She dismisses class difference as exaggerated. Later, when a neighboring worker is killed, she wants her family to cancel the garden party out of respect for the dead man. Her family, however, does not think enough of a lower class man to imagine it would make sense to cancel a party because of him. In fact, Laura's family is affronted that poor families pollute their neighborhood by living so close:

A broad road ran between [the Sheridan's grand house and the poorer homes]. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighborhood at all.

Her mother talks Laura out of her stubborn insistence on cancelling the party, even though it is beautiful day and only a poor man who has been killed, by offering her a beautiful new hat to wear. Laura is so charmed by her own striking appearance that she wants to be seen at the party.

Afterwards, as compensation, Laura takes a basket of leftover pastries to the cottage of the dead man's family. She is embarrassed from the start, knowing it is tawdry to offer party leftovers to a family in grief. She is shocked and feels out of place as she approaches the cottage. She is ashamed of her new hat, which now seems hopelessly extravagant against the poverty around her. Once inside the cottage, with its small, poorly furnished rooms, she becomes even more uncomfortable:

Laura only wanted to get out, to get away.

Laura emerges from her experience with a new sense that the class chasm is not one that can be easily crossed but also confused about what it is exactly that she feels about it.

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What does "The Garden Party" signify?

"The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield is a wonderful, multi-layered story about a young girl who, after spending a wonderful day at a garden party, travels down the road to visit the home and family of young man who was killed on the street earlier that day.  The stark contrast between the two events serves to illustrate the theme of loss of innocence.

On the day of the party the young lady, Laura, is caught up in the preparations for the garden party and what hat she ought to wear.  Once she hears that a man has been killed down the way she immediately thinks they should cancel their party, but in reality, her world and the world of the poor worker couldn't be further away and her mother says, "don't be absurd...don't be so extravagant."  The mother is directly commenting on the youthful innocence of her daughter.  The party goes on as expected, but the idea of the dead man hasn't left Laura's mind.  She asks if she can bring a basket of food to the grieving family, and that short journey down the road brings her to a very mature understanding of life and death.  She is very uncomfortable in the dead man's home surrounded by his family members, but when she actually sees the peaceful look on the man's face as he lies in repose, she realizes there is a simple eloquence in death that everyone shares.  She tells her brother that the experience was "simply marvellous."  While this sounds a bit odd, it is a perfect expression of her growth and new-found maturity.  She sees into the complexity of life and the simplicity of death and she is a different person after this experience.

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What does "The Garden Party" signify?

The meaning of this story is very closely intertwined with Mansfield's reasons for writing it. In this story she seems to explore the issue of class and how class consciousness is conveyed and taught. This is shown primarily through the character of Laura, who, as the preparations for the party are being made, thinks class distinctions are something that she does not feel "not a bit, not an atom." However, during the course of the story, when she hears about the neighbour who has died and she tries to get her mother to call off the garden party, and is seduced by the hat that she is given to wear, she is being schooled to adopt the mannerisms and prejudices of her class, part of which is to regard the working class as being less important. When she goes to visit the body of Mr Scott, she experiences something of an epiphany when she sees just how frivolous her concerns about the party were:

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.

Note how the imagined contentness of the dead body contrasts strongly with Laura's own feelings of restlessness and class angst. She, when confronted with the dead body of Mr Scott, feels incredibly guilty for her unnecessary concerns with the garden party, expressed in the "baskets and lace frocks" that have dominated so much of Laura's attention. The story brilliantly ends with the reader being unsure about what Laura is going to do with the truth she has realised. The story therefore concerns primarily the issues of class and how this is something that becomes second nature to people.

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