Katherine Mansfield World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4307

Mansfield once described in a letter two of the things that compelled her to write. One is the “joy” she felt when, in “some perfectly blissful way,” she is “at peace.” At that time, she said, “something delicate and lovely seems to open before my eyes, like a flower without thought of a frost.” Everywhere in her work she communicates the exhilarating delicacy of the world’s beauty: “A heavy dew had fallen. The grass was blue. Big drops hung on the bushes and just did not fall.”

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Her second motive is almost the opposite: “Not hate or destruction . . . but an extremely deep sense of hopelessness, of everything doomed to disaster, almost willfully, stupidly.” She summed up this second motive as “a cry against corruption . . . in the widest sense of the word.” Her story “Je ne parle pas Français” is such a cry. The central character is an amiable young Frenchman who seems to be a sympathetic friend to a young Englishman and his intended bride. The friend, however, reveals himself as a depraved, heartless hustler. More frightening is the central character of “The Fly.” He is a businessman who grieves when he thinks about his son who was killed in World War I. He appears to be an unpleasant man when he treats an old employee badly, but readers do not understand the full horror of the story until he sadistically tortures and kills a fly that has landed in his ink pot.

Not all of the hopelessness expressed in Mansfield’s stories is so rooted in corruption. Mansfield continually shows the yearnings, complexities, and misunderstandings of love; men and women spar at cross-purposes. Sometimes they fail to love because they are timid. Sometimes one person rejects another because he or she simply has more important goals to pursue. Sometimes the rejected person is sick or old. In one story, appropriately titled “Psychology,” two artists, a male and a female, are so painfully conscious of the ebb and flow of their relationship that it eventually fails. Finally, in some stories, individual yearnings are complicated by sexual confusions with homoerotic overtones.

Society, according to Mansfield, is corrupt and destructive. She is brilliant when she renders the vapid conversation of fashionable, artistic figures. They prattle on about the latest fashions or recite silly poems, while ignoring the drama of real feelings that is going on around them and destroying the lives of people better than they. She is equally brilliant in portraying the banalities of more common people. Even when her characters mean well, many of them cannot say anything that makes a difference.

Not all corruption involves blame. Mansfield’s work expresses the idea that life itself seems corrupt when one realizes how many people are failures. Failure is most vividly apparent in the life of a lonely person, often a woman, playing a guitar with no one to hear, looking out a hotel window, writing a letter, noticing the happiness of lovers or reflecting on what has gone wrong with her own relationships. Often in Mansfield’s stories, the reader senses the ultimate in corruption: the ceaseless erosions of time and forgetfulness. The natural world itself is not always consoling. Its beauty is sometimes frightening and ominous. Its power, especially the power of the sea, can be indifferent.

Mansfield’s style is economical; she has edited her prose so that there is seldom an unnecessary or insignificant word. Yet although she is noted for her precise descriptions, her exact meanings are not always easily understood. Her tone is complex; she mixes witty satire with shattering emotional reversals. Moreover, because she uses dialogue and indirect speech extensively and does not often seem to speak directly in her own voice, the reader is not always sure what to believe.

The action of her stories does not surge powerfully forward. People talk and think; they do not ride horses or shoot rifles. Their lives do not move toward climaxes that reveal something definite. Often her stories are designed, by means of quick changes in time and by surprise turns, to lead the reader to epiphanies, unexpected moments of illumination. It is vital for readers to understand that Mansfield does not conceal a hidden “message” in her stories. If a story appears to point in many directions, not all of which are logically consistent, that is the way Mansfield feels the whole truth is most honestly communicated. In this she resembles Chekhov.

Mansfield’s descriptive passages repay careful attention, for they are always significant. Her descriptions are always more than a mere record of what New Zealand or England was like. For example, in the short story “At the Bay” a young girl visits an empty house and finds, among other things, only “a lump of gritty yellow soap in one corner of the kitchen window sill.” That is not a very pretty picture. It suggests that the girl is unhappy to leave her home because it has been reduced to such ugly things. Mansfield has provided details that a girl would notice and that suggest what the girl is feeling. In this technique, she is among the innovators of her day. During the years she was writing, new poets such as T. S. Eliot tried to provide not statements about emotions but concrete details that would evoke a desired emotional response in the reader—a literary device called an objective correlative. Similarly, Mansfield does not usually state what her characters feel. She presents details that will make the reader feel what they feel.

Sometimes, however, at very important moments, Mansfield’s details become even more suggestive or symbolic. The sea is used to suggest the power of time. A girl’s party hat in a room with a corpse suggests frivolity. Often, Mansfield builds trees into symbols. Both the pear tree in “Bliss” and the aloe tree in “Prelude” must be considered both as natural details and as symbols. What they symbolize is not simply an arbitrary idea, such as hope or death. Each tree is different, and what it symbolizes can be understood only as each story is read.

As noted above, Mansfield’s finest stories are also characterized by epiphanies. That term, popularized by the Irish novelist James Joyce, refers to a sudden revelation triggered by an ordinary experience. In Mansfield’s stories, epiphanies happen to characters, but readers can also experience epiphanies when they are led to an unexpected moment, as when they realize that a silent, wretched little girl has remembered not how a snobbish woman has hurt her, but that she has seen a marvelous tiny lamp in a doll’s house.

“Miss Brill”

First published: 1920 (collected in The Garden Party, and Other Stories, 1922)

Type of work: Short story

The happiness of a middle-aged woman sitting in a park is shattered by a young couple’s unfeeling remarks.

“Miss Brill” brings to life one of Mansfield’s many lonely women, and the reader lives through this story in the main character’s mind without the author’s making any obvious comment. As the story opens, it is a Sunday afternoon in the autumn; a chill is in the air. In her room, Miss Brill, a lonely English teacher, prepares to go as usual to the Public Gardens in what appears to be a French city. She happily unpacks the fur she will wear for the first time this season, a piece that includes the head of a small animal, perhaps a fox. Miss Brill strikes the reader as imaginative, for she pretends she hears what the dead animal is thinking after being in storage for many months. She then feels a tinge of sadness. In her introductory paragraph, Mansfield’s details evoke the fragility of Miss Brill’s happiness.

At the Gardens, Miss Brill listens to the band play and watches the people. It is her idea of bliss. Though she yearns to talk to them, she must be content to listen. An old couple disappoints her, for they are silent; last week she heard a memorable conversation about eyeglasses—memorable to her, but trivial to the reader. Then Miss Brill takes her first step away from the superficiality of the afternoon. She reflects that most of the people she sees at the Gardens are old and strange. She hopes for their happiness.

In a surprise ending typical of the author, Mansfield then includes two very short paragraphs. The first points beyond the gardens to the sky and sea, as if to suggest that there is a wider world than what the reader has experienced so far. The second brings the reader back to the banality of the park, as it reproduces the sound of the band.

Miss Brill’s experience deepens. She does not simply listen; she imagines what the people she sees are saying. Mansfield employs dramatic irony when she hints that the woman who Miss Brill thinks is innocently chatting is actually a prostitute. Then Miss Brill stumbles on a kind of truth: They are all acting in a play. She (Miss Brill) is in the play too, with a role that she plays every week. Miss Brill has turned her understanding of how drama underlies public events into a consolation for her state. Even so, she knows all people are not happy. She has a vision of them all singing together.

Mansfield has artfully brought the reader to sympathize with Miss Brill as her love flows out to all she sees. Then comes a shock. A young couple, rich and in love, sit down on the end of her bench. They wonder aloud why she is sitting there, wonder who would possibly want her company, and compare her prized fur to a fried fish.

The reader has lived through the story within Miss Brill’s mind. Now Mansfield backs away and asks the reader to imagine what this shock is like. Miss Brill silently goes back to her lonely room. She says nothing. When she puts her prized fur piece away in its box, she imagines she hears a cry. Her imagination has projected her own sorrow. The dead, unfashionable fox has become a symbol to her of her own life, and a symbol to the reader as well.

“Miss Brill” is a typical Mansfield story in that it has little action. It dwells in the mind of a lonely person, as she deepens her understanding and receives a shock. The reader is drawn into sympathy with the brave, sad, central character.

“Bliss”

First published: 1920 (collected in Bliss, and Other Stories, 1920)

Type of work: Short story

After Bertha, a young wife, thinks that she has found a loving friend at a party, she discovers that her friend is being intimate with her (Bertha’s) husband.

“Bliss” begins with Bertha, a young wealthy woman married to Harry Young, in a state of bliss. As usual, Mansfield can evoke the wonders of being alive. The spring afternoon is brilliant, the fruit has arrived for her to arrange, her lovely baby seems happy with her nanny, some sophisticated friends are coming to dinner, and her house looks beautiful. Bertha sees herself in the mirror, and she thinks that something wonderful is about to happen.

Things are not quite so nice as they seem. Once again, the details tell the story. The nanny bosses Bertha around. Bertha herself is a bit childish. Harry will be late; when he does arrive, he makes an abrasive remark. One guest, Miss Fulton, is mysterious, as are some cats prowling around in the garden. A tree, however, bodes well, a tree described with Mansfield’s customary evocativeness. Bertha sees “the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.”

The guests arrive, and Mansfield shows her ability to satirize the social world of poets and painters. One guest wears a dress that shows a procession of monkeys; married couples call each other by silly names; a languid homosexual playwright has had a bad experience with his taxi driver. Harry, Bertha’s down-to-earth husband, forms a contrast, as does the cool Miss Fulton, who arrives dressed all in silver.

Up until now, the story’s action has seemed haphazard, and the reader has been given few clues as to what may happen. Then Mansfield delivers her surprise, a series of events that may have shocked her original readers. Bertha touches Miss Fulton’s arm and feels a “fire of bliss”; a look passes between them. Through the inane dinner conversation, Bertha wonders at her experience. She waits for “a sign” from Miss Fulton with little idea of what such a sign would mean.

Its meaning soon becomes more clear. Miss Fulton seems to give a sign, and they go to the garden and gaze at the pear tree that Bertha views as a symbol of her openness and vulnerability. What exactly does it suggest now? No matter what, to Bertha the women achieve a perfect, wordless understanding. Again Mansfield is ambiguous. What have they understood? Something feminine? Something about desire? Has Miss Fulton really participated in this experience, or is Bertha imagining their communion, their epiphany?

Mansfield has more surprises. As the guests prepare to leave, Bertha’s feelings take a new twist: “For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband.” Not many writers can dramatize so effectively how a young women’s homoerotic feelings could so quickly shift to heterosexual ones. Then Bertha’s bliss is shattered. She glimpses Miss Fulton and her husband intimately whispering together, arranging for a rendezvous. Bertha is left alone, wondering what will become of her life. Mansfield does not ask the reader to draw a conclusion. Is he or she to understand that Bertha is trapped in an evil world? That her happy, childish life is over? Or that she is a free adult at last?

“At the Bay”

First published: 1922 (collected in The Garden Party, and Other Stories, 1922)

Type of work: Short story

Many members of a family live through a day in which they face the realities of sex, love, indifference, failure, and death.

Mansfield set two longer short stories in her native New Zealand: “Prelude” and “At the Bay.” In both, she drew extensively upon details of her own extended family and employed an unusual structure peculiarly her own.

“At the Bay” is composed of thirteen short episodes in which a number of lives intertwine. Readers are set down in an unidentified place among unidentified characters. Soon it becomes clear that the story takes place in a settlement of families living in separate houses at the side of a bay. What is known of Mansfield’s life makes readers assume that this is Wellington Bay in New Zealand, but they must guess at the characters’ relationships. That the reader must work to discover these things is part of the story, a result of Mansfield’s narrative technique. Most of the characters are relatives of Kezia, who most resembles a young Katherine Mansfield. They are Kezia, a young girl, about seven years old; Stanley Burnell, her father; Linda Burnell, her mother; Isabel, her older sister; Lottie, her younger sister; her baby brother; aunt Beryl, Linda’s sister; Uncle Jonathan Trout, and Pip and Rags, his sons; Mrs. Fairfield, Kezia’s grandmother, Linda and Beryl’s mother; Alice, a servant; Mrs. Stubbs, Alice’s friend; and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Kember.

Each episode is separate. They are not usually joined by obvious transitions, but the reader gradually senses that “At the Bay” has a kind of unity. The same characters appear and unexpectedly reappear. The story lasts for a complete day, from early morning until late at night. Most important, the characters live in a web of delicate interrelationships, some of which satisfy, some of which do not. The life of almost every character shows a variation on a central theme: To live is to yearn for something more and only occasionally to be calm and happy. Characters yearn most strongly for what is seldom possible. Each must face moments in which his or her hopes are thwarted.

The first and last episodes frame the story with descriptions of nature. Both provide descriptions of the bay, the sea and the waves, and the plants and the buildings on the shoreline. The first episode sets the scene as a peaceful but vibrant place that waits for what the day will bring. At the beginning, the only moving beings are some sheep, a sheep dog, and a shepherd. They enter and leave. In the very brief last episode, no living thing appears. The concluding episode is more obviously symbolic.

The day opens with Stanley Burnell jumping into the bay for an invigorating swim. He is the most masculine force in the story, a competitive man who proudly thinks that he is the first in the water. Stanley finds, however, that another man, Jonathan Trout, has beaten him to it. Trout is as good a swimmer as Stanley, more imaginative and less impatient. No wonder Stanley is irritated and leaves. Trout muses on the encounter: Poor Stanley makes work out of pleasure, he thinks. The episode ends with a suggestion that Trout is in poor health. Mansfield begins her story with its only adult males, each of whom is severely limited.

Mansfield is at her best in evoking many different lives at the same time. Episode three depicts the Burnell household while Stanley gets ready to leave for work. Stanley is the center of attention. He questions, accuses, blusters, and irritably orders everybody about. The man of the house is leaving for work, and everyone must know it. Just as he leaves, he notes that his sister-in-law Beryl, though attentive, has her mind elsewhere.

The reader has suspected all along that Beryl has some private secret. The other women have their secrets as well: The child Kezia has her own way of eating porridge, Isabel is consciously full of virtue, Mrs. Fairfield privately responds to the beauty of the sun’s illuminations, Linda’s mind is miles away, and Alice is critical of men in general. Beryl believes that the women have a kind of communion after Stanley is gone—the wonderful day will be theirs. Her mother and sister do not seem to share this feeling so ecstatically.

Succeeding episodes show the various strands of the story belonging to the children, the servant Alice, Mrs. Fairfield, Beryl, and Linda. By constructing her narrative in parallel stories, Mansfield insists on the separateness of the individual minds and on the problems they have in communicating. By having characters cross from strand to strand and by showing parallels in their lives, Mansfield implies that people’s lives have many things in common.

The following exchange, involving children, illustrates the beginning of power struggles based on gender. As usual on a fine morning, the Burnell girls go to the beach, where they play with their male cousins, the Trouts. Later, they regroup for a childish card game. The girls bicker; the whole group is dominated by Pip, the oldest Trout boy. In another scene, sexual tensions are the point of Alice’s visit to Mrs. Stubbs, a storekeeper, who frightens Alice by saying that she prefers being without a man. A third exchange describes how Kezia confronts death when she spends her siesta with her grandmother. Mrs. Fairfield has the wisdom of age; though her heart still aches for her dead son, she is resigned to the fact that he is dead. When Mrs. Fairfield tells the girl of this, Kezia rebels. Kezia will not die, and she demands a promise that her grandmother will not die either.

Linda is Mansfield’s most enigmatic figure. She strikes everyone as listless, vague, and detached. She seems to be past yearning, much as her mother was. The reader often lives in her private thoughts, though she touches the lives of three males. With Jonathan, her brother-in-law, she listens sympathetically though distantly to his complaints about his weakness and his fate. Her attitude toward Stanley is more complex. She remembers transferring her affections from her adored father to Stanley—loyal, loving, tongue-tied, uncomplicated, sincere Stanley. She loves him but resents having to support his ego as one would that of a big child. Her listlessness appears to be the result of her children. She dreads having more and does not love the ones she has. Then, in a moment in the middle of the story, she looks down at her baby boy. For a moment, she may love him. The moment is over, and she is alone again.

Beryl is younger than Linda, in years and in experience. (Perhaps the sisters and their mother show three stages in women’s lives.) The young Beryl is secretive with Stanley, impatient with Kezia at breakfast, and vibrant with hope in the morning. Her crisis begins when she meets the ominous Mrs. Harry Kember at the beach. Mrs. Kember is married to an extremely handsome man ten years her junior. She is rich. Her body is long and narrow. She smokes and plays bridge. She talks like a man. When Beryl disrobes before putting on her bathing suit, Mrs. Harry Kember teases her about her beauty. Beryl is startled and feels “poisoned,” but she is fascinated as well.

That night when everyone else is asleep, the aroused Beryl imagines a perfect lover. As she blissfully fantasizes, she hears a noise outside her window. It is Harry Kember himself. Although she is persuaded to come outside, she is terrified and revolted when she sees the smile on his face, a kind of smile she has never seen before. When she breaks from his embrace, he is puzzled and angry. Beryl, like Linda, and before that her mother, finds that sexual love is not what she had imagined.

“The Garden Party”

First published: 1922 (collected in The Garden Party, and Other Stories, 1922)

Type of work: Short story

Laura enjoys a garden party, even though a man next door has died. She then visits his grieving widow, sees his corpse, and is greatly moved.

“The Garden Party” may be Mansfield’s most famous story. It is exceptional and typical at the same time. Laura, a vibrant young woman, is the central character. The story also depicts a worldly older woman (Laura’s mother), a sophisticated social gathering (the party itself), some moderately dense males, and a disturbing event to which they all react differently. The action of the story, more conventionally straightforward than that of “At the Bay,” is also typical of Mansfield. It leads both Laura and the reader to an epiphany—an enigmatic moment of revelation that, in this story, is comic and overwhelming at the same time.

Unlike “At the Bay,” where Mansfield took readers into many minds, readers live through this story in only one. Laura appears to be about sixteen, a young woman on the edge of adulthood. Not only do readers hear her talk, they listen in on her thoughts. She is a bit afraid of the men who put up the tent for the party but enjoys hearing their good-natured banter. Readers sense her joy at being alive when she reacts ecstatically to the spots of light the sun makes on an inkpot. Mansfield brings the reader close to Laura in another typical way. Even the opening description of the day and the flowers seems to be in a character’s mind, not the storyteller’s. To many readers, that mind soon becomes Laura’s.

The opening scenes all suggest a wealthy, normal, and happy family. Laura appears to supervise the tent, but is not allowed to decide where it should be placed. Her sisters strike sophisticated poses; one sings a gruesome song and flashes a big smile. Laura’s mother protests that she will leave the arrangements to her children but organizes the party anyway, providing expensive flowers, a band, and dainty sandwiches. As usual, Mansfield suggests moments of happiness with telling details and evocative descriptions.

Then comes the news that turns Laura’s day around: A man has been killed in an accident, a man who lived in a lower-class cottage almost next to their home. Laura’s instinctive reaction is that the party must be stopped, since the man’s family might hear the band playing. Her sisters and her mother argue with her. She does not change her mind until she sees herself in a mirror—a lovely girl with a spectacular black hat trimmed with gold daisies—and until her brother Laurie compliments her. The party goes ahead, a typically exciting, shallow Mansfield party. Guests compliment Laura, especially on her hat. When the party is over, her mother tries to make amends by filling a basket with party leftovers and sending Laura with it to the dead man’s cottage.

The journey at dusk is frightening. Laura walks into a different world, a lower-class world of grieving, ill-dressed, unsophisticated people. At the dead man’s house, she gives the widow her basket. She is led against her wishes to the bedroom where the corpse has been laid out. Laura, however, is not horrified, but sees the corpse as merely sleeping. She sees death as something calm and even beautiful, something far removed from her silly afternoon. “Forgive my hat,” she says. She has had an epiphany. Her reply is woefully inadequate, but the reader has been shown a character’s moment of understanding and growth. The reader has had an epiphany as well, though it is not the same as Laura’s.

The story ends ambiguously. Laura heads home and meets her brother. She tries to say something but cannot find the words. She thinks he understands, but whether he does is left unclear. As usual, Mansfield does not push her case too far.

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