Katherine Mansfield Katherine Mansfield World Literature Analysis

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Katherine Mansfield World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.”

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...

(The entire section is 4,307 words.)