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

Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Of the many people who appear in Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party,” the central character is clearly Laura Sheridan—who begins the day in excited anticipation of the party and ends it moved and baffled by death. Through the day she grows increasingly conscious of the consequences of her social position. As she admires the men erecting the marquee, she regards herself as a “work-girl”; however, one senses that something is wrong. The moment that she goes back inside the house, she becomes absorbed in a conversation about party dresses and forgets the workmen. Later, when she carries sandwiches to the Scotts’ house, her party dress marks her as an outsider in the working-class neighborhood, and her discomfort in the company of the widow and her sister is extreme.

Laura’s “artistic” nature allows her to sympathize with the working class, but her “practical” sister Jose calls such feelings “extravagant,” and her mother finds them amusing. Just as the Sheridan children believe that entering the working-class streets would expose them to disease and foul language, the family steers the maturing Laura toward views that they consider proper. The hat that Mrs. Sheridan gives Laura is part of this training. Initially, when Mrs. Sheridan tells Laura that the hat is “made for you,” Laura cannot imagine herself in it. Black, with gold daisies and a black ribbon, the hat probably seems too adult to Laura. However, her own beauty and maturity startle her when she sees herself wearing it in a mirror. Although this moment might be regarded as a coming-of-age, in Laura’s case social conditioning is also important. For, in giving her daughter the hat, Mrs. Sheridan has distracted Laura from her conscience, teaching her—without words—that one’s appearance should take precedence. When Laura comes face-to-face with the dead man, it is significant that she asks him to “forgive my hat.”

Laura is still affected by all that has happened; she realizes that the hat represents the upper-class indifference that she has been taught, and which poorer persons—like the workmen erecting the marquee—would find objectionable. When she leaves the Scott house, these same class values—which she tries to dismiss as “absurd”—greet her in the person of her brother Laurie. Laurie tries to shield her from the pain of her experience by calling it “awful.” Laura, however, cannot even complete a sentence; she begins, “Isn’t life . . . ” Whether she will become contained by the views of her class remains to be seen. At the least, she realizes that her concerns about the party have been self-centered.

Social Concerns / Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden-Party" is built on the contrast between families from two social strata: the wealthy, upper-class Sheridans, who live in a spacious house with a large, well-tended garden; and the Scotts, their working-class neighbors in the next lane, who live in a "little mean" dwelling with an ugly garden patch filled with "nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans." Both families have been caught in characteristic moments: the Sheridans are giving a large afternoon party requiring careful attention to superficial details of arrangement and decoration; the working-class family has been struck by the sudden, accidental death of the father, the breadwinner for a family of seven.

The main theme of the story grows out of this contrast. Laura, one of the Sheridan daughters, has been given the job of supervising the last-minute arrangements for the garden party. When she accidentally learns from a workman of the tragedy in the next lane, she thinks the party should be cancelled, but no one...

(This entire section contains 278 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also 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

else in the family agrees. After the party, Mrs. Sheridan has "one of her brilliant ideas," that they give the party leftovers to the Scotts, who will find them useful in their hour of need. Laura is assigned to deliver the food, and the story ends with Laura's encounter with grief and death. As Laura enters the crowded lane where the Scotts live, she feels that she is the object of attention of all the neighbors. The only clear images Laura sees are the swollen face of the grieving widow and the face of the departed Mr. Scott, who appears to be "sleeping so soundly, so deeply ... so remote, so peaceful.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Innocence and Experience
"The Garden Party" traces the psychological and moral growth of Laura Sheridan. The story presents her adolescent confusion regarding the social values of her family and her awakening to a more mature perception of reality after her exposure to poverty and death at the carter's cottage.

Laura's self-consciousness regarding her own youth and inexperience is evident whenever she encounters members of the working class. When sent to supervise the workers who have come to set up the marquee, she regards them as "impressive" because they carry their tools and work in shirt sleeves. In her initial dealings with them, she attempts to play the role of her mother—the adult—but soon loses her composure: "Laura wished now that she had not got her bread and butter, but there was no place to put it and she couldn't throw it away. She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little shortsighted as she came up to [the workers]." Copying her mother's voice, Laura says greets the workmen but soon feels that she sounds "affected'' and is ashamed.

This lack of assurance affects her at various moments in the narrative, particularly when she is called upon to make adult responses to events which are outside her childhood environment and experience. Her initial idealization of the workmen's natural camaraderie changes to feelings of unease and discomfort when she sees the real conditions of the working-class community—their poverty and their claustrophobic, dark kitchens. When she learns of the death of the carter and wants to cancel the party as an appropriate gesture, she is seduced by the hat her mother gives her and the privileged world the hat symbolizes. The sophistication of her more assured sisters and mother, who have no problem justifying the convenient pleasures of their lifestyle, contrasts sharply with Laura's awkward attempts to do the right thing by canceling the garden party.

Although Laura's responses are frequently childish, there are significant moments of growth in her character. She is always conscious, for example, of the limitations inherent in her class-conscious world and is open to alternate experiences even when she cannot always respond maturely to them. For example, she is genuinely concerned for the carter's widow. Her desire to cancel the garden party in order to spare the widow the sounds of revelry at her sad time is a sign of maturity in its consideration and empathy.

The theme of journey is used in this story to illustrate Laura's rite of passage from childishness to maturity. As the story progresses, Laura moves from the interiors of the Sheridan home, with its abundance of domestic detail, to the sunlit garden and, later, to a region beyond this enclosed and protective space of primary identity. This journey starts in gathering darkness as Laura crosses the road to where the lane becomes "smoky and dark." She enters the cottage, travels down a "narrow, dark passage" to the claustrophobic kitchen, past the grief-stricken widow with "swollen eyes and swollen lips," to look upon the calm beauty of the face of the dead carter at the culmination of the journey. At the end of the passage, Laura gains an insightful vision of life and death.

Dream and Reality
Illusion and reality are central themes in "The Garden Party." The world of the Sheridans is consistently characterized as part of a dream that suppresses and excludes the working-class world. The sorrows of the real world are present here only in the pretty song that Jose sings before the garden party.

Laura buys into these upper-class pretensions. When she endorses the rituals of the garden party, for example, the reality outside of the party seems to be an illusion to her: "She had a glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper." Even when Laura travels beyond the confines of the Sheridan garden, the dream continues as she carries the sensations of the party with her—"It seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her."