Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6814
SOURCE: Trotter, David. “Analysing Literary Prose: The Relevance of Relevance Theory.” Lingua 87 (1992): 11-27.
[In the following essay, Trotter discusses Relevance Theory, a version of pragmatics, as applied to Mansfield's “A Cup of Tea” and James Joyce's Ulysses.]
From Aristotle to Roland Barthes and beyond, literary criticism has been based on a code model of communication. It has been preoccupied with the encoding and decoding of messages: sometimes in the name of hermeneutics, sometimes in the name of semiology, sometimes in the name of radical scepticism. Although the problem of inference—of what readers do with the output of decoding—confronts it at every turn, it lacks an inferential model of communication, and has therefore been reduced, more often than not, to piety or sociology. During the 1970s, a surge of interest in literary language led critics to Chomsky and Saussure, but not to Grice (Grice 1975). To this day, literary theory has barely acknowledged the existence of pragmatics (though see the suggestive critique of Saussure in Fabb 1988). If Grice got it right, the theorists are in for a rude awakening.
Literary theorists have hardly paid any attention at all to Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986). This seems to me a mistake. Relevance Theory is not only the most elegant version of pragmatics currently available, but the most uncompromising in its view that inference cannot be assimilated to a code model of communication. It asks questions which literary criticism has never been able to ask, let alone answer. Literature, in turn, presents an intriguing special case of the Relevance Theory axiom that communication is most effective when the costs of processing an utterance are minimized and its contextual effects maximized. Writers frequently raise the costs of processing their ‘utterances’, and promise in exchange a yet richer contextual effect. They do not so much abandon as complicate the principle of relevance. They offer different kinds of relevance. They prompt us to wonder what relevance is.
If the linguistic structure of an utterance ‘grossly underdetermines its interpretation’ (Wilson and Sperber 1988: 141), then literature might be defined as a form of communication more grossly underdetermined than most by linguistic structure: the grosser the better. Literature tests to the limit not our powers of encoding and decoding, but our powers of inference. To examine the relation between linguistic form and pragmatic interpretation in a literary text is to ask what makes literature special—and to test a theory which claims to explain that relation.
I have chosen to discuss two early twentieth-century writers, Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce, because, like their ‘Modernist’ contemporaries, they deliberately raised the stakes. At a time when writers were encouraged to make things easy for the reader, they made things difficult. They could do so because changes in the publishing and marketing of fiction had established a greater diversity of readerships. ‘While the new, unusual or experimental writer could not expect to establish himself any more easily under the new system than under the old’, Peter Keating concludes, ‘he would at least be able to make direct contact with the portion of the reading-public sympathetic to his work’ (1989: 405).
Some writers could even be said to have recruited a readership by the severity of the demands they made on it. George Meredith's novels might be too difficult for the ‘popular reader’, Arabella Shore wrote in 1879, but ‘the indirect expressions embody so much wit, or sense or fancy, that we love the work the more for the trouble it has given us’ (quoted in Keating 1989: 384). The literary agent J. B. Pinker managed to persuade Henry James that there were firms which would pay for the privilege of publishing a writer of the ‘better’—that is, the more difficult—sort. ‘If the pressure to achieve best-seller status was made more acute by the evolution of a truly mass audience’, Michael Anesko observes, ‘the same conditions eventually fostered the recognition that smaller, more discriminating publics existed in tandem with it and might be capable of supporting writers of distinction. Even if James's books didn't sell, his name added an indisputable aura of quality to a publisher's list’ (1985: 143).
What kind of trouble did such writers put their readers to? In processing an utterance, we first decode its linguistic structure (identify syntactic functions, etc.) and then combine the output of that decoding with an appropriate context in such a way as to produce an effect which could not have been produced by either operation alone. The context may include information which can be picked up from the physical environment, information stored in the hearer's short-term memory-store, and information stored in the mental encyclopaedia. ‘The idea is that there is a small immediately accessible context consisting of the most recently processed propositions, which forms the basis for the interpretation process, and this minimal context is then expanded by reference to earlier discourse, to encyclopaedic knowledge, or to sense perception. Each of these extensions of the context will, by hypothesis, be motivated by the desire to optimize the relevance of what has been said’ (Smith 1989: 75).
Writers have ways of making things more difficult. For example, a periodic sentence structure, which withholds the main constituent and requires that subordinate or dependent constituents be held in the mind until its belated appearance, places a considerable burden on the reader's short-term syntactic memory, and thus ‘achieves its effects at great cost’ (Leech and Short 1981: 225-228). Periodic sentence structure has always been a mainstay of the British prose tradition. One need look no further than the complexity of James's syntax for proof that Modernist writers did not hesitate to test their readers in this way.
Information picked up from the physical environment does not usually come into play in the interpretation of literature. Other contexts do, and the writer can to some extent determine their accessibility. A reader's interpretation of a passage in a novel will depend on his or her memory of what has been happening in the previous ten pages, or the previous hundred. Most writers exploit the former, a few insist on the latter. Joyce made extraordinary demands in this respect. In Ulysses, when Bloom takes leave of Molly at the beginning of the day, we do not witness what they say to each other. The details of this crucial conversation emerge bit by bit during the course of the novel, some being withheld until Molly's nocturnal monologue in ‘Penelope’, the concluding episode. It is up to us to cross-reference these bulletins, which no reader could possibly keep in mind, using the book as an information retrieval system.
Joyce's appeals to encyclopaedic memory are no less exacting. When Bloom begins to think about the phenomenon of parallax, in ‘Lestrygonians’, we must access, as Bloom himself does, the information stored in encyclopaedic memory at the conceptual address for ‘parallax’. We may well draw a blank; in which case, as faithful readers, we should consult a dictionary or an encyclopaedia, or a critical study in which the issue is explored (Kenner 1980: 73-75). Ulysses is of course a more punishing novel than most. But the interpretation of Modernist fiction (and poetry) quite often requires the retrieval of information from some pretty inaccessible contexts.
Modernist writers disturb or neutralise linguistic form in such a way that we are forced to access these relatively inaccessible contexts. Normally, the syntactic and phonological organization of an utterance affects the way it is processed and understood. Its ‘focus’—the surface constituent which receives the main stress—helps us to assess what it is about (Sperber and Wilson 1986: 202-217; Blakemore 1987: 97-104). Such information status is determined, not by the structure of the discourse, but by the speaker. Even so, there are, if not rules, then at least regularities. It is a courtesy to the listener to introduce old (given) information before the new information which represents the ‘focus’—the point—of the utterance (Greenbaum and Quirk 1990: 397-398). In Relevance Theory terms, ‘an optimally relevant utterance will have its effort-saving background implications made available by initial constituents, and its effect-carrying foreground implications made available by its final constituents’ (Sperber and Wilson 1987: 706). This allows the listener to construct a context as he or she processes the utterance, interpreting the new information in the context provided by the old. Modernist writers sometimes disguise or displace the focus of a sentence, thus forcibly extending the range of inferences necessary to understand what they are talking about.
3. ‘A CUP OF TEA’
The heroine of Katherine Mansfield's ‘A Cup of Tea’, Rosemary Fell, a thoroughly ‘modern’ young woman, visits an antique shop in Curzon Street, Mayfair. She likes the shop, and the shopman, because they repay her patronage with an unobtrusive but comforting deference. On this occasion, she is shown a little enamel box with a glaze so fine ‘it looked as though it had been baked in cream’. Hearing that it costs twenty-eight guineas, she decides not to purchase it at once, but asks the shopman to keep it for her.
But the shopman had already bowed as though keeping it for her was all any human being could ask. He would be willing, of course, to keep it for her for ever.
The discreet door shut with a click. She was outside on the step, gazing at the winter afternoon.
Leech and Short (1981: 126-131) quote this passage and then offer a stylistic analysis of what seems to them its most striking sentence: ‘The discreet door shut with a click’. They consider the sentences Mansfield might have written (e.g. ‘The door discreetly shut with a click’), and conclude that the sentence she chose creates its effect above all by transferring the shopman's chief attribute to the door he may or may not shut with a click. ‘The author makes it seem as if in this euphemistic world, tradesmen, dealers—men of the flesh—have refined themselves out of existence, and have imparted their qualities to the shop itself, its furniture and fittings, in a general ambience of discretion’ (p. 129).
The sentence is striking, of course, and for the reason Leech and Short suggest. But why exactly does it compel attention? I shall argue that it ‘leaps out’ of the surrounding passage because it constitutes a threshold, a disturbance of the stylistic norm established by the story's opening. Up until this moment, the story had developed a gossipy conversational style which clearly mimics the idiom and intonation of Rosemary's ‘set’, and moves fluently into and out of her consciousness. The remark about the door disturbs that style. It places Rosemary and her world with an accuracy, and a quiet irony, of which she herself would not have been capable. Its teasing metaphor (in what sense are doors discreet?) creates a complication. For the first time, we are asked to understand something about the heroine which she herself does not understand: for which she does not have the words. Is it possible to identify anything in the semantic or syntactic structure of the sentence which might have produced this change of emphasis?
‘The discreet door shut with a click’ (1) is a near-miss for ‘The door shut with a discreet click’ (2). (2) conveys very roughly the same meaning as (1), but it has a significantly different effect. It seems more natural. We can more readily associate discretion with clicks than with doors. (2), in short, could not be mistaken for a threshold. To grasp why (2) seems natural is to grasp why (1) compels extra attention. Let us imagine what happens as the reader processes the temporal sequencing of (2). On reaching ‘The door’, we access a range of possible referents. The range is immediately and unambiguously restricted by the definite article, which tells us that the identity of the door in question has already been established. We know that Rosemary Fell spends much of her time entering and leaving shops, and assume that she is in the habit of doing so by the door rather than the window. We know that she has just concluded a transaction, and can deduce that she will now leave the shop she is in. We have no trouble in identifying the door in question, since it is a part of our knowledge of the fictional world Mansfield has created. Indeed, it is so much a part of our knowledge that it can be of no interest in itself. It is not relevant in its own right. It contributes to the relevance of the sentence by allowing us access to a context (the behaviour of doors) which may turn out to be relevant. It raises a question in the reader's mind—‘What did the door do?’—the answer to which might well prove relevant. For example, if it turned out that the door had fallen off its hinges, we might begin to worry about the heroine's safety. ‘The door’ carries what Sperber and Wilson call a background implication, because its function is to reduce processing costs and to access a context which may carry effects.
As it happens, the door doesn't fall off its hinges. ‘The door shut …’. This, too, is a background implication. Our knowledge of doors tells us that they customarily open and shut, and it comes as no surprise to find this particular example in the process of doing so. Again, though, the background implication raises a relevant question: ‘In what manner did the door shut?’ There are several ways in which a door can shut, and the way it does so can tell us quite a lot about it, or about the state of mind of people passing through it. This door shuts ‘with a discreet click’. We have arrived at the focus of the sentence: a foreground implication which is relevant in its own right, and which maximizes the contextual effect. Our impression that the shop in Curzon Street is a discreet place frequented by discreet people has been significantly reinforced.
So much for what Mansfield might have written. What she did write produces a comparable, but considerably more powerful, effect. ‘The discreet door shut with a click’. The focus of the sentence is still its final constituent: the new information it has to give us concerns the manner in which the door shut. But it is harder to process. The initial constituent—‘The discreet door’—must be classed as a background implication. It raises a relevant question, provides access to a context. When we get to the end of the sentence, we already know that this is the kind of door which is likely to shut with a click rather than a bang. And yet that context is relatively large, relatively inaccessible. We have to rummage around in our encyclopaedic entry for ‘door’ until we discover ways in which a door might be considered discreet. The solution assumed by Leech and Short is that this door is discreet because it is operated by discreet people. But we should surely also consider the possibility that the door is discreet with reference to the street it opens onto: it is unobtrusive, perhaps, recessed, painted an unassuming colour. This interpretation doesn't contradict the one proposed by Leech and Short. But the multiplying of possible interpretations does increase, fractionally, the cost of processing the initial constituent. If the sentence was optimally relevant, we should be able to make up our minds immediately as to the door's discretion, before passing on to the verb phrase ‘shut with a click’. To the extent that we have to work at it, the implication does not fulfil its normal function.
There is another factor which needs to be taken into account. As we watch Rosemary hesitate over her little enamel box, we may possibly be reminded, in a vague sort of way, of the scene in The Golden Bowl (1904) where the Prince and Charlotte Stant visit a Bloomsbury antique shop (James 1966: 98-110). There, too, hovers an obliging shopman who is prepared to keep things for the right people, and who lovingly fingers the ‘discreet cluster’ of objects spread out on the counter. In that scene, discretion is, of course, of the essence. The Prince's fiancée, Maggie Verver, must not find out what they have been up to. It is possible, then, that the puzzling discretion of the door in Mansfield's story may encourage us to access the context provided by another scene, another fictional shop. That context, however, an ambitious, baroque novel about adultery, is a large and relatively inaccessible one. Unless we happen to know The Golden Bowl very well indeed, we will probably struggle to connect wimpish Rosemary Fell with James's high-toned lovers. Even so, the possibility of a connection may well strike us as relevant: as likely to enrich the story we are reading. For anyone prepared to recall the details of The Golden Bowl, the door's discretion becomes a context not only for the click which confirms it, but for the rest of the heroine's day. One might say that ‘The discreet door’ carries a foreground implication with regard to the sentence which contains it, since it is as relevant as the ‘click’, but a background implication with regard to the story as a whole. Or we could say that the focus of the sentence is the sentence as a whole, rather than any particular constituent: it's all equally new, equally relevant.
Either way, the sentence draws attention to itself. Its semantic ordering flouts the conventions of normal discourse, conventions which the story has hitherto adhered to. In Relevance Theory terms, it guarantees an increase in contextual effect, but only at the cost of an increase in the effort required to process it. In my terms, it constitutes a threshold. By withholding the kind of relevance we might have expected—a straightforward cumulative ‘filling in’ of a not unfamiliar fictional world—it invites us to exercise our powers of inference: to access more remote contexts in search of other kinds of relevance.
The proof of its status lies in the paragraph it initiates. Rosemary Fell finds herself in the street outside the shop. She has crossed a symbolic threshold, exchanging the security of the shop for the insecurity of the street. Dark thoughts assail her, followed shortly by a beggar, a young girl. Rosemary commits the first indiscretion of the day, perhaps of her life. She invites the girl home with her. Thereafter we are in a different story, a different world: a world where nothing can be taken for granted; a world which an allusion to The Golden Bowl may possibly have enabled us to recognize.
4. THE SCALE OF EXPRESSIVENESS
Ulysses is defined, to some extent, by its difficulty. Its puzzles and enigmas have set it apart from other works of fiction, and so guaranteed its uniqueness. I don't want to suggest that the conditions of its publication—the need to appeal to an elite readership—determined the way it was written. But I do think that those conditions encouraged Joyce to refine and complicate his style. Some evidence for this argument is provided by the way he raised the stakes between one book and the next. The title of A Portrait familiarises us in advance with its content: it is a Bildungsroman, a Kunstlerroman. The title of Ulysses is less accommodating. It tells us that we will have to read Homer in order to read Joyce. Joyce advised his aunt, Mrs Josephine Murray, to get hold of a translation of the Odyssey, or Lamb's simplified Adventures of Ulysses, and then read a critical essay which his publisher would send her, before she attempted his novel (1957: 193). He never hesitated to spell out the demands it would make on the reader.
Joyce's Homer, furthermore, was a Homer filtered through contemporary commentaries such as Victor Bérard's Les Phéniciens et l'Odyssée (1902-03). According to Bérard, the Odyssey was based on the Mediterranean voyages of Phoenician sailors. Its geography incorporates three distinct areas or theatres: the home island of Ithaca, off the Western coast of Greece; a southeast axis down through the Peloponnese to the Levant; and a northwest axis up through the Mediterranean to the Straits of Gibraltar. At the beginning of the poem, Telemachus moves along the southeastern axis, while Odysseus finds himself at the extreme limit of the northwestern axis, in Gibraltar. The action returns father and son to Ithaca from opposite directions.
Joyce used Stuart Gilbert to put into circulation this particular reading of Homer.
“Have you read Victor Bérard's Les Phéniciens et l'Odyssée?” Joyce asked me when I mentioned my reading of the Odyssey. (This interrogative method of suggestion was characteristic, as I soon came to learn.) I at once procured a copy of that bulky work, and found it fascinating reading.
(Gilbert 1952: 11)
The interrogative method of suggestion was a characteristically sly way to create readers. We might also note Gilbert's emphasis on the bulk of the context proposed. To read Ulysses is to pledge time and effort. If we do pledge the time and effort, we are rewarded by a new understanding of the movements of the main characters around Dublin. Traced on a map of the city (Hart and Knuth 1975), those movements can be seen to mirror the wanderings of Odysseus and Telemachus (Seidel 1976). The title of Joyce's book is itself a threshold. It makes manifest the author's intention to raise the stakes.
‘My work’, Joyce told Adolf Hoffmeister in 1930, ‘is a whole and cannot be divided by book titles … from Dubliners on it goes in a straight line of development. It is almost indivisible, only the scale of expressiveness and writing technique rises somewhat steeply’ (quoted in Coggrave 1991: 11). The thresholds which steepen that scale so dramatically are stylistic as well as titular. At each point on the curve, at each threshold, the cost increases. So it is also within each work. The expressiveness of Dubliners rises from the ‘scrupulous meanness’ of ‘The sisters’ to the lyricism of the ‘The dead’. In A Portrait, the style develops as Stephen develops. The curve on which the episodes of Ulysses are plotted rises even more steeply. My aim here is to examine a particular point on the curve, a particular threshold.
5. THE INITIAL STYLE
The words ‘End of the First Part of Ulysses’ appear on the last page of the Rosenbach fair copy of the ninth episode, ‘Scylla and Charybdis’, along with the date: New Year's Eve, 1918. If we add ‘Wandering Rocks’, as a kind of coda, we have, Hugh Kenner points out, ‘a ten-episode block, homogenous in its style and reasonably self-contained in its themes and actions’ (1980: 61). It would be as though two stories of the kind found in Dubliners, one about a stoical cuckold-to-be, the other about a young artist turned drifter, had been woven together for purposes of ironic counterpoint. I want to locate this ten-episode block on the rising curve of expressiveness and writing technique. On one hand, the threshold constituted by its title separates it from Joyce's earlier work, and from the standard contemporary novel. On the other, it is mild stuff by comparison with what follows.
Joyce himself referred to the style in which the first ten episodes are written as the ‘initial style’ (1957: 129). It combines dialogue, first-person present-tense interior monologue, and third-person past-tense narrative. Critics have treated it, productively, as a norm which the later episodes depart from and return to (e.g. Kelly 1988). It does seem deliberately, almost parodically, normative. The third-person narrative sentences conscientiously follow the subject-verb-object pattern of written English. As Buck Mulligan prepares to bathe, in ‘Telemachus’, an elderly man emerges from the sea.
He scrambled up^ by the stones^, water glistening on his pate^ and on its garland of grey hair^, water rilling over his chest^ and paunch^ and spilling jets out of his black sagging loincloth^.
(1984, I, p. 41)
This is an elegant example of loose sentence structure, in which the order of words follows the accumulation of ideas: the mark ^ indicates points of potential completion, at which the whole of what precedes could be recognised as a sentence. This kind of sentence makes things easy for the reader by reducing the amount of syntactic information that has to be stored in decoding. We decode each constituent as we come to it, keeping in mind only the immediately preceding grammatical context. The effect is of relaxation, informality, directness (Leech and Short 1981: 228-230).
In some respects, Ulysses is easy going, at first. Joyce seems to want to accommodate the reader. He keeps us fully informed, while at the same time lowering as far as he can the cost of processing that information. The elderly man disappears from the novel, but he leaves behind him a vivid impression. This is a world we can know intimately, it seems, with little effort. And yet Joyce does more than offer this informativeness as a professional courtesy. He exploits it. He tests it to the limit, provoking us to ask what might be the point of so much detail. When Bloom mourns, in ‘Hades’, loosely-structured sentences spell out the self-consciousness of a non-Catholic at a Catholic ceremony.
The mourners knelt^ here and there^ in prayingdesks.^ Mr Bloom stood behind^ near the font^ and, when all had knelt, dropped carefully his unfolded newspaper^ from his pocket^ and knelt his right knee upon it.^ He fitted his black hat gently on his left knee^ and, holding its brim, bent over piously.^
(I, p. 211)
Kenner captures the edginess of this passage when he speaks of ‘a seriatim accuracy of observation that hovers just this side of being malicious’ (p. 67). With the unimportant exception of two subordinate clauses (‘when all had knelt’, ‘holding its brim’), we decode each syntactic constituent of these sentences as we come to it. Because we absorb the details of the scene seriatim, we are not taxed in any way. Indeed, it's all too easy. Some presence or figure—Kenner, following David Hayman, calls it the Arranger—has gone out of its way not only to describe a man exhaustively, but to ensure that we assimilate as economically as possible every single detail of the description. It is hard not to attribute a motive—malice, say—to such accuracy. Sentences written in the initial style convey a vast amount of information with great efficiency. They are so scrupulous, and so efficient, that we can't help asking what it's all for. How much of the information is relevant? And relevant to what?
One thing an Arranger does is to tilt these gangling sentences towards periodic structure, and thus increase, marginally, the cost of interpretation. In a periodic sentence, dependent constituents—those, like adverbials, which cannot be interpreted in isolation—are often anticipatory: they must be held in the memory until the major constituent of which they are a part has been interpreted (Leech and Short 1981: 226). Adverbials play an increasingly important, and mischievous, role in the initial style. In ‘Calypso’, Bloom sets off to buy a kidney for his breakfast.
He approached Larry O'Rourke's. From the cellar grating floated up the flabby gush of porter. Through the open doorway the bar squirted out whiffs of ginger, teadust, biscuitmush.
(I, p. 113)
The adverbials of location (‘From the cellar grating’, ‘Through the open doorway’) have to be held in the memory until we discover exactly what will be done with them. Of course, it's only the tiniest of impositions. We may well know or guess that O'Rourke's is a pub, and not be surprised to hear that it is equipped with a cellar grating and a doorway. We might also adduce a rhetorical function for the periodic structure of the sentences. The suspense while we wait to interpret the adverbials might be thought to dramatise Bloom's apprehension, the sharpness of early morning smells. The deviation from a loose sentence structure is barely noticeable. However, it might prompt us to ask what exactly the narrator wishes us to notice about the scene. What is the focus of these sentences?
It might be that the adverbials, far from dramatising Bloom's apprehension, signify in their own right. As the initial constituent in their respective sentences, they provide a direct link between what has gone before and what is asserted in the main clause. They function as what some linguists would call the ‘theme’ of the sentence. They tell us what the sentence is ‘about’. It is possible to argue that thematisation varies according to genre: detective stories tend to thematise time adverbials, while travel brochures thematise adverbs of location (Brown and Yule 1983: 131-133). The initial style consistently thematises adverbials of location, especially in episodes like ‘Wandering Rocks’ which have Dublin, rather than individual characters, as their subject. Joyce did after all claim that if the city were to disappear, it could be reconstructed from his description of it (Budgen 1934: 69). One might argue that this deviation from loose sentence structure can be explained by a grammatical ‘rule’ (of thematisation).
Such a rule could not, however, cope with the opening sentence of ‘Lotoseaters’.
By lorries along sir John Rogerson's Quay Mr Bloom walked soberly, past Windmill lane, Leask's the linseed crusher's, the postal telegraph office.
(I, p. 141)
Nobody, I think, has ever claimed that this sentence, or the episode it introduces, or the novel as a whole, is ‘about’ lorries. By thematising these ostentatiously insignificant lorries, Joyce craftily varies the pattern. He surrounds the sedate verb phrase ‘Mr Bloom walked’ with such a thicket of adverbials that we can't really tell what he means us to notice. Rather, there is no grammatical rule which arranges the adverbials into an order of significance.
John Porter Houston, discussing the vital role played by adverbials in the initial style, concludes that they ‘serve, more than anything else, to vary word order and sentence shape’ (1989: 33). He admits that this variation cannot be explained by any grammatical rule. But his characterisation of its function in rhetorical rather than grammatical terms—‘solemnity, a striking rhythmic effect, or remoteness from any concern over easy communication’ (p. 22)—is too vague to be much of an improvement. He is quite right to speak of a pragmatic function (‘concern over easy communication’), but doesn't develop the insight. All grammatical descriptions of the language of Ulysses (e.g. Gottgried 1980) suffer from a similar vagueness. They admit that grammar won't explain everything, but have no terms for what it won't explain. We have reached the limits of the code model of communication.
If we are to understand the function of adverbials in the initial style, we must look not to their grammatical, rhetorical or semiotic coding, but to the inferences they support, and the principle which guides those inferences. Let us return to the opening sentence of ‘Lotoseaters’.
By lorries along sir John Rogerson's Quay Mr Bloom Walked soberly, past Windmill lane, Leask's the linseed crusher's, the postal telegraph office.
Most readers will probably have little difficulty with this sentence, despite the proliferation of adverbials. The concluding words of the preceding episode—‘Poor Dignam!’ (I, p. 139)—have reminded us that Bloom is due to attend a funeral. With that context in mind, we will, at a first reading, select the adverbial of manner (‘soberly’) as the focus of the sentence. Bloom's sobriety is relevant because it combines with what we already know to produce a contextual effect: to reinforce our assumptions about his state of mind. The place adverbials may distract us momentarily, but are quickly subordinated by the principle of relevance.
It should be noted, however, that a second, complementary criterion of relevance operates on the initial style: relevance to the character described, what matters to him or her at a particular moment. What matters to Bloom, at this moment, is not so much his sobriety as the telegraph office. ‘Could have given that address too’ (I, p. 141). He is on his way to collect a letter addressed to him at the Post Office in Westland Row: a letter which might just as well have been addressed to him at the telegraph office on the Quay. Bloom's preoccupation supervenes on, or mixes with, the preoccupation signalled by the conclusion of the previous episode. The initial style often works by such a layering of relevance.
At subsequent readings of the sentence, yet other preoccupations may supervene. If we have looked at a map of Dublin in the interim, we may want to know what Bloom is doing on Sir John Rogerson's Quay. He's headed for the Post Office in Westland Row. But the Quay is by no means in a straight line between Eccles Street, his point of departure, and Westland Row. He's taken a considerable detour to the east. Why?
‘Lotoseaters’ begins on the Quay, further to the east than Bloom needs to be, because in the equivalent Homeric episode Odysseus sails south through the Aegean from the coast of Thrace, and then southwest through the Mediterranean until he lands at Djerba, on the African coast, the land of the lotoseaters: according to Victor Bérard, that is (Seidel 1976: pp. 154-155, 177). Bloom's route takes him in a southwesterly direction from the Quay to Westland Row, and then to the baths in Leinster Street. With Odysseus's path through the Mediterranean in mind, rather than Bloom's sobriety, we may decide that the focus of the opening sentence of ‘Lotoseaters’ is in fact one of the adverbials of place: ‘by sir John Rogerson's quay’. That is the piece of information which now seems most relevant: which combines with a context created outside the book to produce a new understanding of Bloom.
The initial style stretches and complicates syntax—but never to the point where the code breaks down. None of its sentences are impossible to decode. The aim is not to deconstruct syntax, but to make more than one inference possible. The opening sentence of ‘Lotoseaters’ is crammed to bursting-point with adverbials: with different contexts in mind, we will select different adverbials as the focus of the sentence. The threshold constituted by the book's title, which brings into play the Homeric context, intervenes in the interpretation not only of incidents, but of particular sentences.
6. WANDERING INFERENCES
In ‘Wandering Rocks’, the ‘coda’ to Kenner's ten-episode Ulysses, Joyce subverted the premises of the initial style. For the first time, he described events and mannerisms of which the characters are not aware. For the first time, characters other than Stephen and Bloom are accorded interior monologues. A distinction emerges between what it is possible to infer about one type of character and what it is possible to infer about another.
Some characters, the ones who belong in a traditional novel, remain ‘characters’: figures about whose intentions there is only ever one inference to be made.
By the provost's wall came jauntily Blazes Boylan, stepping in tan shoes and socks with skyblue clocks to the refrain of My girl's a Yorkshire girl.
(I p. 545)
In this section of ‘Wandering Rocks’, various people greet the viceregal cavalcade, their exact location often thematised by the sentences which describe their various gestures. There can be no doubt, however, that the focus of the sentence which describes Boylan is ‘jauntily’. Boylan is all jauntiness, and forever jauntiness. He is one of the very few characters in the book whose motive and intention can be inferred from everything he says and does. The provost's wall is a mere backdrop to his jauntiness. ‘His hands in his jacket pockets forgot to salute but he offered to the three ladies the bold admiration of his eyes and the red flower between his lips’ (I, p. 545).
But what about Thomas Kernan, first presented by the same kind of sentence as presented Bloom in ‘Lotoseaters’?
From the sundial towards James's Gate walked Mr Kernan pleased with the order he had booked for Pulbrook Robertson boldly along James's street, past Shackleton's offices.
(I, p. 513)
His boldness seems at this moment the most important thing about him; the subsequent interior monologue mulls over his recent triumph. No Odyssean protocol is likely to attribute significance to his route. But by the time the cavalcade comes into view the boldness has subsided.
The viceroy was most cordially greeted on his way through the metropolis. At Bloody bridge Mr Thomas Kernan beyond the river greeted him vainly from afar.
(I, p. 541)
The sentence which describes Kernan's greeting stretches to include three adverbials of location, and one of manner. In Boylan's case, location is eclipsed by manner; here, manner (‘vainly’) becomes a feeble reflection, a mere consequence, of location (‘from afar’). Each constituent is easy enough to decode, and the effort required to store ‘At Bloody bridge’ and ‘beyond the river’ temporarily will trouble few readers. Yet it is hard to know what to make of it. About Boylan, only one inference is possible: that he means to cruise the viceroy's female companions. It is easy to know what to make of him. With Kernan, motive and intention slip from view. He means to greet the viceroy; but his location at a distance, so roundly insisted upon, means that he cannot have expected to succeed.
The progress of the cavalcade reveals just how hard it is, except in Boylan's case, to infer an intention from an act or a gesture. It also reveals how hard it is not to try to infer an intention. Even the Poddle River, hanging out ‘in fealty’ a ‘tongue’ of liquid sewage, finds itself included among the supplicants (I, p. 543). The viceroy, programmed to infer fealty, is still at it in the episode's wonderfully sly concluding sentence.
On Northumberland and Landsdowne roads His Excellency acknowledged punctually salutes from rare male walkers, the salute of two small schoolboys at the garden gate of the house said to have been admired by the late queen when visiting the Irish capital with her husband, the prince consort, in 1849, and the salute of Almidano Artifoni's sturdy trousers swallowed by a closing door.
(I, p. 547)
This sentence seems to deliver relevant information as efficiently as one could wish, up to and including an adverbial of manner (‘punctually’) which we are happy to identify as a likely focus, since it confirms our assumption that the viceroy takes his duties seriously. But with the business of reassurance safely out of the way, the sentence gains a second, and more mischievous, wind. The identification of the house outside which the schoolboys stand might conceivably be said to have some slight bearing on the viceroy's punctual response to salutes. But clearly the joke is on us, as we labour to make connections. A gap has opened between decoding and inference: between the ponderous but maddeningly feasible, maddeningly automatic decipherment of gossip about Queen Victoria, and the highly questionable relevance of the knowledge so laboriously produced.
In the later episodes of Ulysses, which are beyond the scope of this paper, we decode furiously, unremittingly, as though on a treadmill, but infer lamely: until ‘Ithaca’ and ‘Penelope’ redress the balance by providing, right at the death, a flood of information whose relevance cannot be doubted. Here, at the conclusion of ‘Wandering Rocks’, the conclusion of the initial style, the gap between decoding and inference, so characteristic of Ulysses, is confirmed by the viceroy's acknowledgement of an act which was not even intended as a gesture: Artifoni's sturdy trousers swallowed by a closing door.
Blakemore, Diane, 1987. Semantic constraints on relevance. Oxford: Blackwell.
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Budgen, Frank, 1934. James Joyce and the making of ‘Ulysses’. London: Grayson and Grayson.
Coggrave, John, 1991. Behind the squirtscreen. Times Literary Supplement, 5 April 1991, pp. 11-12.
Fabb, Nigel, 1988. Saussure and literary theory: From the perspective of linguistics. Critical Quarterly 30, 58-72.
Gilbert, Stuart, 1953. James Joyce's Ulysses (revised edition). London: Faber and Faber.
Gottfried, Roy K., 1980. The art of Joyce's syntax. London: Macmillan.
Greenbaum, Sidney and Randolph Quirk, 1990. A student's grammar of the English language. London: Longman.
Grice, H. P., 1975. Logic and conversation. In: P. Cole, J. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and semantics, Vol. 3: Speech acts, 41-58. New York: Academic Press.
Hart, Clive and Leo Knuth, 1975. A topographical guide to James Joyce's ‘Ulysses’. Colchester: A Wake Newslitter Press.
Houston, John Porter, 1989. Joyce and prose. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.
James, Henry, 1966. The golden bowl. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Joyce, James, 1957. Letters, ed. Stuart Gilbert. London: Faber and Faber.
Joyce, James, 1984. Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler, 3 volumes. New York: Garland Publishing.
Keating, Peter, 1989. The haunted study. A social history of the English novel, 1875-1914. London: Secker and Warburg.
Kelly, Dermot, 1988. Narrative strategies in Joyce's Ulysses. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press.
Kenner, Hugh, 1980. Ulysses. London: George Allen and Unwin.
Leech, Geoffrey and Michael Short, 1981. Style in fiction. London: Longman.
Mansfield, Katherine, 1983. Short stories. New York: Ecco Press.
Seidel, Michael, 1976. Epic Geography. James Joyce's Ulysses. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Smith, Neil, 1989. The twitter machine. Reflections on language. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson, 1986. Relevance. Communication and cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson, 1987. Precis of Relevance. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 10, 697-754.
Wilson, Deirdre and Dan Sperber, 1988, Representation and relevance. In: Ruth Kempson (ed.), Mental representations, 133-153. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 745
Katherine Mansfield 1888-1923
(Born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp) New Zealander short story writer, critic, and poet.
The following entry provides an overview of Mansfield's short fiction. See also The Garden Party Criticism and The Fly Criticism.
Mansfield is a central figure in the development of the modern short story. An early practitioner of stream-of-consciousness narration, she applied this technique to create stories based on the illumination of character rather than the development of plot. Her works, which treat such universal concerns as family and love relationships and the everyday experiences of childhood, are noted for their distinctive wit, psychological acuity, and perceptive characterization.
Mansfield was born into a prosperous family in Wellington, New Zealand, and attended school in England in her early teens. She returned home after completing her education but was thereafter dissatisfied with colonial life; at nineteen she persuaded her parents to allow her to return to England. She became pregnant shortly after leaving home and entered into a hasty marriage with George Bowden, a young musician, whom she left the next day. Her mother arranged for her removal to a German spa, where she miscarried. Mansfield returned to England after a period of recuperation, during which she wrote the short stories in her first collection, In a German Pension (1911). Between 1911 and 1915 Mansfield published short stories and book reviews in such magazines as Athenaeum, New Age, Open Window, and Rhythm. In 1912 she met editor and critic John Middleton Murry and was soon sharing the editorship of the Blue Review and Rhythm with him. The two began living together and married in 1918, when Bowden finally consented to a divorce. Never in vigorous health, Mansfield was severely weakened by tuberculosis in the early 1920s. Nonetheless, she worked almost continuously, writing until the last few months of her life. She died in 1923 at the age of thirty-four.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Offering satiric commentary on the attitudes and behavior of the German people, the stories of Mansfield's first collection, In a German Pension, focus on themes relating to sexual relationships, female subjugation, and childbearing. Critics have found that these stories—although less technically accomplished than Mansfield's later fiction—evince her characteristic wit and perception, in particular her effective portrayal of female psychology and the complexity of human emotion. Scholars have also noted the sense of estrangement and the intense desire for human connection inherent in these early works. Mansfield incorporated a wealth of material from her New Zealand childhood in her later stories, collected in Bliss (1921) and The Garden Party (1922). These volumes include her oft-discussed and highly regarded stories “Prelude,” “Bliss,” “Miss Brill,” “The Garden Party,” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” Considered among the finest short stories in the English language, these later works display some of Mansfield's most successful innovations with avant-garde narration, including the interior monologue, stream of consciousness, and shifting perspectives. They also demonstrate Mansfield's ability to extract beauty and vitality from mundane experience, showcase the poetic qualities of her prose, and illustrate her extensive use of symbolism and imagery. In addition to highlighting Mansfield's narrative technique in these tales, critics have focused on her representations of the intricate balances within family dynamics; her depictions of love relationships from both female and male points of view; and her portrayals of children, which are considered especially insightful.
Mansfield is one of the few authors to attain prominence exclusively for short stories, and her works remain among the most widely read in world literature. Early assessments of Mansfield were based largely on the romanticized image presented by Murry in extensively edited volumes of her private papers, as well as in reminiscences and critical commentary that he published after her death. This idealized representation of Mansfield, termed the “cult of Katherine,” is undergoing revision by modern biographers aided by new editions of her letters and journals. Recent critical studies of Mansfield's short fiction have provided feminist, socio-historical, and psychological interpretations. Critics have also explored stylistic aspects—such as her experimental literary techniques and poetic lyricism—and have investigated a myriad of influences on her life and work. Underlying themes of sexuality and homoeroticism have become another fertile topic of critical discussion. The success of Mansfield's writing established her as a major talent comparable to such contemporaries as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. A pioneer of the avant-garde in short fiction, Mansfield is credited with revolutionizing the short story form and creating a model for the modern short story in English.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5404
SOURCE: Boddy, Gillian. “From Notebook Draft to Published Story: ‘Late Spring’/‘This Flower.’” In Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield, edited by Rhoda B. Nathan, pp. 101-12. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1993.
[In the following essay, Boddy traces the differences between “Late Spring” and the posthumously published story “This Flower.”]
When Virginia Woolf reviewed the first edition of The Journal of Katherine Mansfield in the New York Herald Tribune she wrote:
It is not the quality of her writing or the degree of her fame that interest us in her diary, but the spectacle of a mind. … We feel that we are watching a mind which is alone with itself, a mind which has so little thought of an audience that it will make use of a shorthand of its own … or, as the mind in its loneliness starts to do, divide into two and talk to itself. Katherine Mansfield about Katherine Mansfield.1
Lytton Strachey's reaction to the Journal was that it was, “quite shocking and incomprehensible. I see Murry lets out that it was written for publication—which no doubt explains a good deal. But why that foul-mouthed, virulent, brazen-faced broomstick of a creature should have got herself up as a pad of rose-scented cotton wool is beyond me.”2
Before discussing some of the story drafts that are contained in the notebooks and loose-leaf papers of Katherine Mansfield, it is useful to look at the relationship between these and this published journal which was collated from this material.
After working through her many diaries, notebooks, and exercise books, Murry compiled The Journal of Katherine Mansfield in 1927. In 1939 he culled more material from the same sources to produce The Scrapbook of Katherine Mansfield, now out of print for some time. In 1954 he published an enlarged “Definitive Edition” of the Journal. This did not, however, include all the material from the Scrapbook, nor was it ‘definitive’ in the usual sense of including all available or relevant material.
Many who had been close to Mansfield (including D. H. Lawrence) regarded Murry's publication of these private papers and letters, as well as unfinished stories which she had not intended for public scrutiny, as posthumous exploitation, and unjustifiable betrayal. Murry's stated intention, however, was to demonstrate and establish what he described to Sydney Waterlow as “the uniqueness of her genius. Her infallible vision is something apart in this age of spoof. I don't think there's much chance of her being really recognised for what she is.”3
He had collected her private papers assiduously. Two weeks after Mansfield's death her sister Chaddie wrote to their older sister Vera, explaining that Murry intended to publish her unpublished stories, papers, and poems as soon as possible: “He says he has a most unique & fascinating collection which will make a tremendous stir. … Constable will take anything he can give them of K's they all think she is a genius & no modern woman like her.”4 She herself could also be seen to have provided some justification for his decision. In 1922, at the Chateau Belle Vue in Sierre, Switzerland, she had written him a letter, to be handed to him only after her death: “All my manuscripts I leave entirely to you to do what you like with. Go through them one day, dear love, and destroy all you do not use. Please destroy all letters you do not use. Please destroy all letters you do not wish to keep & all papers. You know my love of tidiness. Have a clean sweep Bogey, and leave all fair—will you?”5 In a will, written and witnessed a little later, she was more explicit: “I should like him to publish as little as possible and to tear up and burn as much as possible. He will understand that I desire to leave as few traces of my camping grounds as possible.”6
Far from tearing up or burning as she herself had done so often, Murry constructed a literary jigsaw. The ironic result is that we know much in intimate detail about the private life of a writer who assumed some 20 different names during her lifetime, who considered herself “a secretive creature to my last bones,”7 and had even advised Murry “don't lower your mask until you have another mask prepared beneath.”8
Virginia Woolf privately admitted that she was dismayed at reading the private fears of the friend she had considered so “inscrutable,” the writer whose work had been “the only writing I have ever been jealous of.”9 Publicly, no doubt thinking of her own diaries, so frank and caustic in their discussion of others, Virginia Woolf commented: “There is no literary gossip, no vanity; no jealousy.”10 Had she been able to read the notebooks and letters in her entirety, she might well have felt otherwise. In his edition of the Letters [The Letters of Katherine Mansfield], for example, Murry omitted several unflattering references both to Virginia and her sister Vanessa.
Murry himself took pains to point out the Journal and the Scrapbook were not two carefully kept volumes as such, but had been compiled by him from a number of sources: diaries, notebooks, story outlines, drafts for letters, jottings and fragments of all kinds. So while Mansfield may have described herself for her former editor Orage as “a selective camera,” this was probably an even truer description of Murry, his editorial selections being determined, of course, by his own attitude. For though he invented nothing and ordered and dated the material as well as he could, he too was an artist in his way and one with a particular image to project. As a result he found it necessary to give greater form and/or coherence to many passages (particularly the untidier ones) through paragraphing, through the occasional alteration of tense, and through tidying up the punctuation. Mansfield frequently omitted the apostrophe in her notebooks, used the ampersand often but inconsistently, and it is impossible at times to distinguish whether a punctuation is a full stop, comma, or dash. In general what Murry attempted to do was to give shape and sense to what was often an uninterrupted flow of words. Inevitably these alterations to the original created changes of emphasis and a loss of spontaneity.
Murry also omitted passages which he felt might reveal too much of the rebellious, restless side of her nature, while those who had known her were protected by the omission of their names. Sometimes he indicated such omissions by initials, a common convention, but of others there is no indication. So where a passage from the Wellington section of Murry's edition has: “I have been tediously foolish many times, but that is past,” the manuscript originally read: “I have been tediously foolish many times, especially with Oscar Fox and Siegfried Eichelbaum but that is past.”11 (The former was a handsome young cricketer, the latter one of the group of young men who regularly attended the same balls and parties as the Beauchamp girls. Described as “our local poet” for a debate at Victoria University College in April 1907, Eichelbaum later translated an article about her from a German paper and kept a dance programme initialed by the young Katherine Beauchamp on his office wall for many years.)
From Mansfield's long passage on “Suffering” written at the Isola Bella in Menton in 1920, Murry omitted such bitter comments as: “the knowledge that Jack wished me dead … the horrible vulgar letters of this woman … and his cruel insulting letter about ‘no physical attraction’ (!!) ‘I think she is in love with me’ and so on—were they necessary? He now claims his right not to suffer on my account any more.”12
On reading these notebooks one can only guess at the pain Murry must nevertheless have experienced when he first read them after her death; the frank disclosure of her experiences, thoughts, and feelings—many of them so well concealed during the ten years of their relationship. In a letter to the South African writer Sarah Gertrude Millin, he himself suggested that he might abandon the projected publications because of his own reactions of despair and depression. In some ways it is surprising that he did not omit more of the material: the descriptions of her feelings for Francis Carco while making love to Murry, for instance, or her frank comments about Murry's lack of consideration and understanding.
While it is possible from an emotional point of view to understand some of his editorial decisions, what is much less tenable is Murry's frequent failure to acknowledge omissions, apart from occasional notes that lines have been omitted because of illegibility. In other words, readers have generally assumed for some sixty years that they are reading the complete text of an entry for a particular day, when in fact much may have been left out that would alter the passage.
Therefore, although the 1954 edition described itself as “Definitive,” it was still highly selective, and to work out a systematic rationale for its omissions, other than the kinds already discussed, presents considerable difficulties.
Many of the numerous pages omitted were from early notebooks written during adolescence, so Murry may well have judged these to be of merely marginal interest. To many, however, they would be of substantial value in considering the development of her writing, thematically and stylistically, and particularly as further revelation of an enigmatic and complex personality. This entry, for instance:
She unpacked her box and then went into the sitting room. She was in a curious vague mood, wandering about the room, opening the piano, striking a chord and shutting it again, taking up the books from the table and putting them back, staring out of the window at the heavy grey rain and the poor draggled line of houses, then staring at her own reflection in the glass over the mantelpiece. She leant both her elbows on the mantelpiece, and spoke to the face. “Well” she said, “are you feeling better—less insufferably bored, less hideously foolish. And in a week's time you will be married to him.”13
The passage continues with the heroine questioning her intention to marry and the “exquisite respectability” she is forced to endure. While this certainly cannot be described as great literature, its handling of the theme of the woman's role, the characteristic habit of the central character talking to her mirror-face, and the stylistic feature of a series of present participles, all look forward to her mature work. The passage also has similarities to others in the published Journal and to the autobiographical fiction “Juliet.”
The many notebooks and loose pages that provided the basis for the Journal and Scrapbook contain numerous drafts of stories: some are unfinished, some apparently abandoned after a few pages, some begin with mere jottings that are then followed by a fuller account. Some she returns to several times but never completes. Mrs. Sheridan of the “The Garden Party” is the subject of several such false starts.
Some of these notebook drafts and notes have been published, for example “Juliet” in the Turnbull Library Record. Others were tidied up, typed, and published during her lifetime or shortly after her death.
Any student of Mansfield's writing would find it fascinating to compare these notebook drafts with the final published stories. Very often the alterations are minimal, the elimination of an adjective or adverb, a tighter grammatical construction, alterations to punctuation such as the elimination of exclamation marks. It is as if the story was already predetermined, even heard, in her head before being written on the page, and so requires little alteration. Often it is only in the last paragraphs that the alterations, emendations, and crossings out become more numerous. It seems at such times as if this writer who so detested “plotty”14 stories was searching to find thematic resolutions without too overt a conclusion. She endeavored instead to leave the story sufficiently open-ended for the reader's imagination to complete, believing “that the characters have a life of their own … that they ‘go on’ long after the book is finished.”15
At other times, the handwriting reveals much about the creative process. Je ne parle pas francais, for example, sprawls across the pages, the large letters looping the words together. Even with the printed text alongside the manuscript defies the reader's comprehension. It seems an urgent race against time, the writer's pen driven by the picture of that inner world she and her characters inhabit, an inner world that was clearly often more real than the external reality surrounding her.
Mansfield believed that writing was a process of selection, that “there must always be a sacrifice.” “Prelude,” published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1920, evolved from “The Aloe,” probably begun in Francis Carco's Paris apartment in 1914 and continued in 1916 in Bandol, in the south of France, after her brother's death. Vincent O'Sullivan's parallel edition of the two provides a fascinating comparison and a real insight into the writer's craft. The printed text of “Prelude” is almost thirty pages shorter than “The Aloe.”
The episodes Mansfield omits include a longer section with the Nathan children; a section set in the store on the journey to Karori, which is rather similar to the description in “The Women at the Store”; a lengthy description of Mrs. Fairfield and Linda; and Linda's reminiscences of her father and her meeting with Stanley Burnell. Part of this is reworked in “At the Bay,” and there is also a tongue-in-cheek description of a social given by the Liberal Ladies Political League that provides an entertaining comparison with “Her First Ball.” Also dropped in a lengthy account of Mrs. Fairfield, Beryl, Linda, and their sister Doady Trout (married to Jonathan of “At the Bay”), much of which reveals her frustration with married life, and the tensions between Beryl and Linda. Beryl's interior life is also far more clearly revealed though a hair-brushing scene shared with Nan Fry, which is clearly based on incidents in Mansfield's relationship with Ida Baker. Finally, whereas “Prelude” ends with Kezia stealing into Beryl's room with her dirty little calico cat, to play with Beryl's make-up, caught on that margin between childhood and womanhood, the unfinished original continues with a crossed-out section about Stanley. The effect of these excisions is to sharpen the focus on Linda and Kezia, and the central relationships of the story.
Similarly, the draft manuscript of “The Doll's House” includes an amusing passage describing the drunken Mr. Kelvey.
Mr Kelvie [sic] was the scandal of the neighbourhood. He drove a fish cart, when he was out of prison or out of hospital. For he was such a hopeless drunkard that the wonder is that he could sit in the cart at all—he never did for long. Horses have scent of the Devil's plan … & there he lay angry & swearing until the police could get to remove him.
Such omissions ensure that the focus remains on the Kelvey children, and Kezia. The crossing out of Wellington, in the opening sentence to replace it with the less specific, anonymous “town”—“When dear old Mrs Hay returned to town”16—indicates the writer's awareness of the dangers and limitations of autobiographical fiction. The effect is to change the localized setting to one of greater universality. The story's colonial location, with its raw clay banks and the paddocks, remains an integral element, but the plight of the Kelveys cannot be simply dismissed as a problem peculiar to Wellington, just as the significance of the lamp cannot be limited by time or place.
An even more significant alteration of just one word occurs in “The Fly,” written in Paris in 1922 shortly before Mansfield's death. Desperately ill, weak, worn out by massive doses of radiation therapy, disillusioned by the war and by her own relationships, Mansfield composed a tale that is surely the final indictment of so much that she despised. Perhaps it is she who is the fly, too exhausted to struggle any longer, finally crushed by an implacable, omnipotent fate. Perhaps the fly is Europe, destroyed by the juggernaut of war; perhaps it is her final denunciation of those men who, she believed, had so often failed to meet her needs, to understand or communicate their feelings. If so the Boss is the last in a long line of “pa-men,” which evolved from early characters such as Andreas Binzer in “A Birthday” to Stanley Burnell in “Prelude” and “At the Bay.” This feeling is increased when one sees that in the manuscript of “The Fly” among her papers in the Newberry Library, she had originally called that dominant, inarticulate, but manipulative central figure “the Manager.” This has been carefully crossed out throughout, and “the Boss” neatly superimposed. The Manager becomes the Boss: as with the shake of a child's kaleidoscope the whole story shifts, the shades of meaning are now subtly different. The tone has changed, the reader's mental picture of this man “who could not remember” alters slightly but significantly as it clicks into place. He now assumes the coarser boss-like characteristics of Mr. Wilberforce of the unfinished earlier “Juliet.”
Mr Wilberforce, a tall grey bearded man, with prominent blue eyes, large ungainly hands and inclining to stoutness. He was a general merchant, director of several companies, chairman of several societies, thoroughly commonplace and commercial.17
Far more dramatic and thought-provoking, however, are the differences between “Late Spring” and the posthumously published story “This Flower,” included by Murry in Something Childish and Other Stories.
A Journal entry indicates that “Late Spring” was begun in January 1920 at Ospedaletti. This was during a particularly difficult period just after Murry returned to London following a frustratingly unsuccessful Christmas visit. The Casetta Deerholm at Ospedaletti, which had seemed idyllic a few months before, had become unbearable; the sea below was no longer beautiful in the sunlight, and the dark waves now echoed her own blackness and despair. There was a postal strike and letters from England were displayed. Estranged from Ida Baker, her only companion, unhappy, ill, and isolated, she felt these were the worst days of her life.
On 11 January she wrote “The Man without a Temperament,” an extraordinarily polished piece of writing under any circumstances and, it seems, a bitter denunciation of Murry's inability to meet her needs. Like “Late Spring” and “This Flower,” it contains a doctor's diagnosis of a woman's state of health, and the resulting implications for her life's central relationship.
On that day Mansfield commented, “I thought of everything in my life, and it all came back so vividly—all is connected with this feeling that J. and I are no longer as we were. I love him but he rejects my living love.”18 The next day after posting the story to Murry, who was in fact flattered by it, she noted bleakly, “When will this cup pass from me? Oh, misery! I cannot sleep. I lie retracing my steps—going over all the old life before … the baby of Garnet's love.”19
The manuscript for “This Flower” is in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. It is written in a small exercise book which was begun on 17 December 1919, apparently the day after Murry's arrival at the Casetta, although his note disputes this. The passage on the preceding page is a further comment on the story's origin.
“Any children?” he asked, taking out his stethoscope as I struggled with my nightgown.
No, no children.
But what would he have said if I told him that until a few days ago I had had a little child, aged five and 3/4—of—indeterminate sex. For some days it was a boy. For two years now it had very often been a little girl …20
(This refers to the preceding passage in which she blames Murry for killing their love, which she describes as a “love child.”)
The page on which “This Flower” begins is headed “Hotspur. Henry IV. Act II Scene III.” The published version has some minor alterations from this manuscript, particularly in punctuation.
The Newberry Library manuscript in Chicago entitled “Late Spring” is the shorter and presumably earlier version; the pages are torn from another small exercise book. A Journal note of 5 January 1920 indicates that she was reading Henry IV and continues, “Started my story ‘Late Spring’. A cold bitter day. Worked on Tchehov all day and then at my story till 11 pm.”21 Not surprisingly, the manuscript begins with Hotspur's lines from Henry IV, which were later inscribed on her gravestone, and retained in “This Flower”: “But I tell you my lord fool, out of this nettle danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”
If she was drawing on her own experiences as an autobiographical basis, for this story, too, there are at least two possible past events that could have been central to her thinking during this period in which she was so bleakly “thinking of the past always.”
The first of these is described by Ida Baker in The Memories of LM and supported by Pierre Sichel in his biography of Modigliani. While at Bishop's Flat in 1910, Mansfield became involved with “a young man, hardly more than a boy … and very handsome. He brought her lovely presents … a tinypainted Russian village … At Christmas he brought a beautiful, tiny decorated tree.”22 (This incident is one of the pivotal memories in “A Dill Pickle,” published in the New Age in 1917 and revised for inclusion with “The Man without a Temperament” in Bliss.)
Soon after moving to Clovelly Mansions early in 1911, Mansfield apparently realized she was pregnant, and wrote repeatedly to the young man, now known to be Francis Heinemann, but without receiving a reply. In April 1911, when LM's father asked her to visit, she felt confident that Mansfield was positive about her expected child. Having opened a bank account to help with the baby, she sailed for Rhodesia and returned in September to find “no baby and a closed bank account. We never discussed the matter, obviously it had all been horrible. I am sure that Beatrice Hastings had been in some way responsible.”23 While others such as Antony Alpers doubt the veracity of this event, it could be that such events in the late spring of 1911 were part of her memories early in 1920. (It has also been suggested that Mansfield may have become pregnant by J. M. Kennedy of the New Age, with whom she was briefly involved.)
An earlier period would have provided similar memories. Pregnant by Garnet Trowell, and just married to George Bowden, she had been taken to Bad Worishofen by her mother early in 1909. When, where, and by whom her pregnancy had been diagnosed is not clear, but she had been certain of it by late April, and on this occasion, too, she knew she had been deserted by her lover. In June she miscarried.
Understandably, the stories that subsequently evolved from her German experience denounced the double standard that allowed men to enjoy sexual pleasures while the women suffered the consequences. “Late Spring”/“This Flower” is an attempt at a more sophisticated treatment of the theme.
Placed in the context of January 1920, the writing of “Late Spring”/“This Flower” is particularly interesting. It was clearly a time when—alone, depressed, and disillusioned with love—Mansfield was haunted by the past, a past she had often wished to dismiss simply as “experience” but which she acknowledged, contained “waste—destruction too.”24
Cherry Hankin has suggested that “the story … renamed ‘This Flower’ by Murry” reflects Mansfield's “desperate sense that her illness was destroying her relationship with Murry. The protagonist is a young woman who, similarly ill, enters into a pact with a sleazy doctor to conceal from her husband the truth about her fatal disease. The husband is only too anxious to be deceived.”25
A comparison of the two versions suggests a rather more complex situation and raises some interesting questions about Mansfield's intentions in the story and her ability to manipulate perspective, thus affecting the reader's response. It also provokes discussion about Mansfield's view of women and their place in society.
Before looking closely at the ideas and the ways they are conveyed in “Late Spring”/“This Flower,” it is interesting to see how the two versions differ, although the central subject, presumably the concealed diagnosis of an unmarried woman's pregnancy, is common to both. In “Late Spring” the story is constructed so that it is the doctor who wins our sympathy to some extent; he is the victim of the young couple who collude against him. It is he who feels the woman's voice is “untroubled”; the senses that he is being manipulated by this couple and wonders, “Why the hell had they knocked him up?” It is he who feels mocked by the barrel organ; it makes him feel like “a sick cat,” and it is he who escapes almost in a panic. In “This Flower” complete paragraphs remain unchanged, and yet the perspective is very different. It is the woman who has our compassion; she is now clearly the victim, and the men are now united in an unspoken age-old male conspiracy. Although she seems somehow removed, we empathize with her; she sees the doctor giving her “a strange leering look.” As she asks him to help her conceal the truth from her lover, we agree that he is an “odious little toad.” When the barrel organ begins to play outside, its sound mocks her—reminiscent of an early poem written late in 1908 during Mansfield's love affair with Garnet, when she described its sound as “the drunken, bestial hiccoughing voice of London.”26
Such a comparison raises a range of questions, many having to do with the story's narratology and perspective. Why, particularly in that situation, did she even consider manipulating the reader's responses in such a very different way in “Late Spring.”
Certainly Mansfield stated on several occasions that the writer was androgynous, that she herself was a writer first and a woman second, and early in her life she had several times declared herself to be “child woman more than half man.” Some early published work appeared under male noms de plume such as Julian Mark, and she also signed herself Karl Mansfield on at least one occasion. When we consider her use of a variety of narrative forms, direct and indirect, in constructing her stories and characters, her skill in providing multi-personal viewpoints and the constant shifts of perspective, “Late Spring” is perhaps not so surprising. Nor was this the only time she clearly endeavored to align the reader's sympathy with the male rather than the female.
Did she contemplate briefly making him one of those male characters, like the young lover in “Poison” or William in “Marriage à la mode” who are manipulated by women? Always in her writing she felt free to employ different voices, to construct stories and characters that provide a varied perspective. In Switzerland in 1921 she wrote of the relationship between lovers, “We are neither male nor female. We are a compound of both. I choose the male who will develop and expand the male in me; he chooses me to expand the female in him.”27 Perhaps something of this is reflected in such writing.
Certainly the constructs of gender, male and female, were not for her fixed terms. Although she clearly saw women as entrapped psychologically, biologically, and economically, and often presents them as such, she was not a polemicist and at times may seem inconsistent in her view.
In the margin of “Late Spring” Mansfield has written “Too much description!” but the changes in “This Flower” are far more than simple excisions for the sake of conciseness and stylistic improvement.
“This Flower” begins with an additional two paragraphs, which give greater depth and credence to the central female character. The setting of her room is described in a brief accumulation of detail that heightens the contrast with the doctor, a “strange little figure” with a “shady Bloomsbury address.”
The physical description of Roy included near the end of “Late Spring” is removed, but two important sections are added. In the first, his lover, watching the doctor he has obtained “squeezing and kneading his freshly washed hands,” remembers Roy saying, “My darling … we'd better have an absolutely unknown man just in case it's—well, what we don't either of us want it to be … Doctors do talk.” His characterization is further developed in a later change. Whereas “Late Spring” ends with Roy pulling Marina down into a deep chair, “This Flower” ends very differently. Roy leans against her shoulder “as though exhausted. ‘If you knew how frightened I've been,’ he murmured. ‘I thought we were in for it this time. I really did. And it would have been so—fatal—so fatal.’” In this way he indicts himself with his own words, joining those characters like Andreas Binzer in “A Birthday,” who “suffers” his wife's labor, and Stanley Burnell, who expects his sugar spooned into his tea and his slippers put out. While blaming women for their insensitivities, he is oblivious of their needs and feelings.
In “Late Spring” the doctor is puzzled by Roy's suggestion of champagne (“was this a joke”) and “stammers” his reply “with immense effort,” while his subsequent reply is only just “brought out.” These phrases are deleted from “This Flower,” and consequently it does not occur to the reader that the doctor experiences any misgivings or embarrassment. He has indeed been shown through her eyes to be an “odious toad” who gives her “a strange, quick leering look,” his fingers “shaking” as he removes his stethoscope. He answers her “huskily,” “Don't you worry my dear … I'll see you through.” No longer does he snatch his hat and leave in panic, but simply shakes her hand and leaves.
A comparison of the draft manuscript with the published story provides an interesting example of the ways in which a single situation can be developed, the different voices and perspectives. Finally, however, it is the published story to which the reader returns. Through a number of judicious changes Mansfield eliminates any sympathy she may originally have intended for the doctor. It is the woman, now without a name and consequently more universal, who has become the victim. The two men exploit her in different ways, yet they are linked in an unspoken male conspiracy.
For Mansfield, didactic writing was fatal to art; she could not tell anyone “bang out,”28 and her rule was not to “grind an axe” but “to single out … bring into the light.”29 In “This Flower,” therefore, she presents a situation of social injustice, one in which, ironically, a young woman is driven into an alliance with a man she despises in order to deceive her lover. Intuitively the reader perceives that to do otherwise would have been impossible.
Virginia Woolf, “A Terribly Sensitive Mind.” Review of The Journal of Katherine Mansfield. New York Herald Tribune, 18 September 1927. Reprinted in Virginia Woolf, Women and Writing, ed. Michele Barrett. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.)
Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey (London: Penguin Books, 1968), vol. 2, 358.
J. M. Murry to Sydney Waterlow, 11 July 1921, MS Paper 1157/4 (ATL).
Charlotte (Chaddie) Pickthall (Beauchamp) to Vera Mackintosh Bell (Beauchamp), January 1923, Bell Collection MS Papers 3985/3 (ATL).
To J. M. Murry, 7 August 1922, MS Papers 4000/40 (ATL).
Katherine Mansfield's will, 14 August 1922, Public Record Office, London.
To L. M., 21 March 1922. The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, vol. 2, ed. J. M. Murry (London: Constable Books, 1928).
To J. M. Murry, late July 1919, MS Papers 4000/10 (ATL).
The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 2, ed. Anne Olivier Bell assisted by Andrew McNeillie (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Ltd. 1978), 227.
Virginia Woolf, “A Terribly Sensitive Mind,” in Virginia Woolf, Women and Writing, 186.
Notebook 39 (qMS 1243) June 1907 (ATL) Journal, 15.
MS Papers 4006/8 (ATL).
Notebook 39 (qMS 1243) 15 August 1907 (ATL).
To Dorothy Brett, 12 November 1921, The Letters of Katherine Mansfield.
A Review of Old People and the Things that Pass, in Novels and Novelists, ed. J. M. Murry: 1930), 125.
Notebook 41 (qMS 1277) (ATL).
Notebook I (qMS 1242) (ATL).
Journal of Katherine Mansfield, 1904-1922, ed. J. M. Murry (London: Constable Books, 1928).
Notebook 22 (qMS 1265) (ATL).
Notebook 26 (qMS 1264).
Katherine Mansfield: The Memories of LM, Ida Baker (London: 1985), 62.
Katherine Mansfield: The Memories of LM, 62.
To J. M. Murry, 31 October 1920, Katherine Mansfield's Letters to John Middleton Murry 1913-1920, ed. J. M. Murry (New York: Knopf, 1951).
Something Childish and Other Stories, Centenary Edition introduced by C. A. Hankin (1988), 20-21.
“The Winter Fire,” Newberry Library.
Journal, 259 (manuscript Newberry).
To J. M. Murry, 16 November 1919, Katherine Mansfield's Letters to John Middleton Murry 1913-1922, ed. J. M. Murry.
Journal, November 1921.
(ATL denotes the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 132
In a German Pension 1911
Bliss, and Other Stories 1920
The Garden Party, and Other Stories 1922
The Doves' Nest, and Other Stories 1923
The Little Girl, and Other Stories 1924; also published as Something Childish, and Other Stories, 1924
The Aloe 1930
The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield 1937
Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield 1945
Undiscovered Country: The New Zealand Stories of Katherine Mansfield 1974
Selected Stories 2002
Poems (poetry) 1923
The Journal of Katherine Mansfield (journal) 1927
The Letters of Katherine Mansfield. 2 vols. (letters) 1928
Novels and Novelists (criticism) 1930
The Scrapbook of Katherine Mansfield (journal) 1939
Katherine Mansfield's Letters to John Middleton Murry, 1913-1922 (letters) 1951
The Urewera Notebook (journal) 1978
The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. 4 vols. (letters) 1984-96
The Critical Writings of Katherine Mansfield (criticism) 1987
Poems of Katherine Mansfield (poetry) 1988
Letters between Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry (letters) 1991
The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks (journals) 2002
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4702
SOURCE: McFall, Gardner. “Poetry and Performance in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” In Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield, edited by Rhoda B. Nathan, pp. 140-50. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1993.
[In the following essay, McFall contends that Mansfield's “concision, mobilization of imagery and rhythm, irony, ambiguity, and submerged lyric voice” necessitate that readers afford “Bliss” the attention usually reserved for poems.]
Oh, to be a writer, a real writer given up to it and to it alone! … There are moments when Dickens is possessed by this power of writing: he is carried away. That is bliss.
Katherine Mansfield, 1920 (Journal [Journal of Katherine Mansfield], 203)
“Bliss” exemplifies Mansfield's mature fiction shaped by her lyric impulse and her mastery of poetic tradition squaring with the circumstances of her life. Here, her concision, mobilization of imagery and rhythm, irony, ambiguity, and submerged lyric voice require that we read the story with the kind of close attention generally reserved for poems. In doing so, we can see in what respect Mansfield's fiction is poetic. We can also see how, under the pressure of Mansfield's illness and exile, it emerges as a site of revisionary performance, compensating for reality.
When Mansfield wrote “Bliss,” she was in Bandol, recuperating from a recently diagnosed “spot” on the lung. Aside from Ida Baker, whose arrival in France on 12 February 1918 irritated her, Mansfield had only the 1900 Oxford Book of English Verse for companionship.1 Her steady attention to it resulted, as she told Murry, in its being “full [of] notes” by early March (Collected Letters [The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield], 2:107). Among the poems there, she fell under the spell of Shelley's “The Question,” which she quoted twice in her letters to Murry that month and which she alluded to in her journal. On 18 February she wrote him:
On my table are wild daffodils … They are so lovely that each time I look up I give them to you again. We shall go expeditions in the spring and write down all the signs & take a bastick and a small trowel & bring back treasure. Isn't that lovely where Shelley speaks of the “moonlight coloured may” …
Its still (I think) very cold & I am in my wadded jacket with the pink 'un round my legs.
(Collected Letters, 2:78)
On 19 February Mansfield had her first hemorrhage of the lung. Her anxious thoughts turned immediately to Murry, for she was frightened, and to her work, which she feared would be left incomplete:
… of course I'm frightened … I don't want to be ill … away from Jack … I don't want to find this is real consumption … and I shan't have my work written. That's what matters. How unbearable it would be to die—leave “scraps,” … [Mansfield's ellipsis] nothing real finished … Jack and my work—they are all I think of (mixed with curious visionary longings for gardens in full flower).2
Her parenthetical words point to Shelley's poem in the Oxford Book (“Methought that of these visionary flowers / I made a nosegay” ), and suggest the poem's connection to “Bliss,” with Bertha's vision of the full, flowering pear tree.3 Her reference shows how rapidly she had appropriated the poem, how both her experience and Shelley's words were converging even as she worked on “Bliss,” started seven days before.4
In a letter to Murry of 20 and 21 February, she invoked Shelley's poem again:
Do you remember, or have I mentioned lately that poem of Shelley's The Question. It begins: “I dreamed that, as I wandered by the way / Bare Winter suddenly was changed to Spring” … [Mansfield's ellipsis] I have learned it by heart since I am here; it is very exquisite, I think. Shelley and Keats I get more and more attached to. Nay, to all poetry.
(Collected Letters, 2:83)
She quoted these same lines by Shelley in a letter to Ottoline Morrell on 22 February (Collected Letters, 2:86). Why “The Question” particularly should have captured Mansfield's imagination is not hard to divine. In the poem, a dreamer gathers an elaborate bouquet of “visionary flowers,” only to realize he has no one to give it to. The poem ends:
I hastened to the spot where I had come, That I might there present it—O! to whom?(5)
The dreamer's lush landscape, constituted by language in a detailed listing of flowers, creates a presence in the poem, while the closing question falls on thwarted desire and a recognition of human absence. Mansfield appreciated the poem's movement from longing to deprivation, for it matched her emotional experience with those closest to her, her brother Leslie, whom she had lost in 1915, as well as Murry, whose absence she felt keenly on the heels of his 1916 attraction to Ottoline and the onset of her illness. Her letters record that during this separation, Mansfield dreamed of Murry, only to find him not there upon waking (Collected Letters, 2:20). She wrote him: “I have such a longing for you. … The absence from you eats at my heart” (Collected Letters, 2:81). Although she projected a brave exterior about her illness in her letters to Murry, her hemorrhage understandably accentuated her need of him and her desires for an immediate, happy future together.
Mansfield sketched a movement from longing to deprivation in “Bliss.” Shelley's lines, which she quoted to Murry and Ottoline, are recapitulated in the second sentence, where Mansfield's dreamer, Bertha, is caught up in a “sudden” transformation: “What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly by a feeling of bliss—absolute bliss!”6
Shelley's sudden seasonal change (from “Bare Winter” to “Spring”) echoes in Bertha's emotional swing. Later in the story, Bertha ascribes her feeling to the season: “She felt quite dizzy, quite drunk. It must have been the spring” (308). Living apart from Murry in a sunny, but chilly France, Mansfield's emotional life was virtually “bare winter.” There was every reason why she would have dreamed, like Shelley's dreamer and like Bertha in “Bliss,” of a sudden spring. In fact, she wrote Murry: “This will all pass & I shall get better, our spring will come—& it will be warm & you will write to me & we shall be together again” (Collected Letters, 2:11).
Coupled with Murry's absence was the repressed, yet still troubling matter of Leslie's death, which would have been called up by the passing of his birthday on 21 February, and which she mentioned in a letter to Murry on 26 February (Collected Letters, 2:93). Although Mansfield had put the worst of her mourning behind her, her continued longing for him is suggested by the reemergence in “Bliss” of imagery from a 1915 entry in her Journal following his death. There she wrote recollections of herself and Leslie in the Acacia Road garden, noting the “slender” (83) pear tree, and the “round moon [that] shines over the pear tree” (85). In the entry, the “moonlight deepens” (85) as brother and sister say their good-byes: “The shadows on the grass are long and strange; a puff of strange wind whispers in the ivy and the old moon touches them with silver” (85).
The movement of her journal entry from union to farewell corresponds obliquely enough with Shelley's poem and, inevitably, with “Bliss” to show how “The Question” tapped into Mansfield's continued loss and grief. It touched that dreaming part of her that still wished for her brother (in many ways her expectant, but ruined dreams of their shared life parallel Bertha's disillusionment), and figured in the compensatory writing of “Bliss,” where Bertha's vision of the flowering pear tree stands removed from human failure and death: “as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still” (Stories [The Stories of Katherine Mansfield], 315). Here was the emotional ground Shelley's poem was laid upon, and in this “soil,” to borrow Woolf's figure which she used in criticizing “Bliss,”7 the story took root.
Mansfield was also reading other poems in the Oxford Book. She told Murry: “I keep (as you see) wanting to quote poetry today—When I get back I shall be like a sort of little private automatic machine in the home. You wind me up & a poem will come out—I've learned so many here while I lie awake—” (Collected Letters, 2:94).
She singled out Marvell's “Upon Appleton House” for quoting in a letter to Murry of 26 February. The lines appeared in the Oxford Book as the last six of “A Garden: Written after the Civil War”:
Unhappy! Shall we never more That sweet militia restore, When gardens only had their towers, And all the garrisons were flowers; When roses only arms might bear And men did rosy garlands wear?
(Collected Letters, 2:94; Oxford, 386-87)
In her letters to Murry at this time, Mansfield often expressed her wish to regain their garden, which she associated with domestic happiness (Collected Letters, 2:77, 93, 97). It is understandable that Marvell's poem appealed to her in that it would have not only called up the past New Zealand gardens of her youth and the 1915 Acacia Road garden she knew with Leslie, but symbolized a future one she hoped to share with Murry. Suffering a triple exile from the “garden,” she conflated possibly Marvell's poem as well as Shelley's in her 19 February admission to “curious visionary longings of gardens in full flower” (Journal, 129-30).
In any event, her head was full of poetry when she finished “Bliss” on 27 February. On that day, she wrote Murry:
… I am so seized with the wonder of the english tongue—of english poetry—and I am so overcome by the idea that you are a poet and that we are going to live for poetry—for writing—that my heart has begun dancing away as if it will never stop—& I can see our cottage and our garden & you leaning against the door & me walking up the path. …
(Collected Letters, 2:97)
On 28 February, she mailed him the story:
I've just finished this new story “Bliss” and am sending it to you. But though my God! I have enjoyed writing it I am an absolute rag for the rest of the day … Oh, tell me what you think about our new story … Please try and like it and I am now free to start another. One extraordinary thing has happened to me since I came over here! Once I start them they haunt me, pursue me and plague me until they are finished and as good as I can do.
(Collected Letters, 2:97-98)
In these letters, almost in the manner of Bertha, Mansfield reveals the bliss-producing role of writing in her life. Her exclamation points, her emphasis on “Bliss” as “our” story, her sentences such as “one extraordinary thing has happened” and “I am so seized with the wonder of the english tongue” are echoes of the story she had finished. Her request of Murry (“Please try and like it”) sounds like Bertha's plea on behalf of Pearl (“Oh, Harry, don't dislike her” [Stories, 313]).
Mansfield's composition of the story gave her a new “vision” of her life with Murry, complete with a garden (Marvell's “sweet militia” restored) and a mutual dedication to art, the only third party to their relationship Mansfield could embrace.8 The story momentarily filled her sense of absence, reawakened and affirmed the 1915 image of union with her brother, and, if we consider her choice of words, supplanted her illness. It is, she tells Murry, her stories that haunt, pursue, and plague her, not the tuberculosis. In other words, a significant mental and emotional alteration was wrought in Mansfield's writing of “Bliss.” Language redeemed or compensated for an inadequate world, and this sort of transaction is what concerns us in the story.
On the mimetic level, “Bliss” depicts Bertha Young's ironic realization that she and her husband love the same woman, Pearl Fulton. Structurally, the story builds on a reversal of Bertha's expectation and ends in what is taken for disillusionment. We witness Bertha at a private moment when she is disabused of any pretense of having an ideal life. As she catches sight of her husband kissing Pearl, her status as wife and friend is called into question, and the precipitous ending of the story just beyond this point forces the reader to consider what for Bertha must be a crushing blow.
Yet the language of the story works against this conclusion and, indeed, achieves what the plot denies. While the plot is cast as a straightforward quest narrative ending in disappointment, the language indicates a different, opposite objective. Managing a second mode of discourse, the story achieves a reformulation of bliss as it occurs tropologically throughout the Oxford Book in the poems of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Browning, among others. It plays off the traditional figure of bliss, that is lust, found for example in Shakespeare's sonnet 19 (“a bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe” [Oxford, 199]), against what Mansfield felt bliss to be, namely writing or language. Through the story's competing and arguably subversive mode of discourse, language (or subjective vision) balances and compensates for human failure.
Mansfield's appropriation and reformulation of the trope is evident from the beginning of the story in the elaborate account of Bertha's feeling of “absolute bliss”: “… as though you'd swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe” (Stories, 305). Her description harkens directly to the first line of an anonymous sixteenth-century lyric in the Oxford Book:
My heart is high above, my body is full of bliss.
Bertha's feeling of bliss, which is evoked in language that suggests lust, appears throughout the story as a recurring motif. After her arrival home, she stands in the dusky dining room: “But in her bosom there was still that bright glowing place—that shower of little sparks coming from it” (Stories, 305). Later, she holds her baby in the nursery: “And, indeed, she loved little B so much—her neck as she bent forward, her exquisite toes as they shone transparent in the firelight—that all her feeling of bliss came back again” (307). By the time Bertha encounters Pearl, the shower of sparks in her bosom has become a full blaze: “What was there in the touch of that cool arm that could fan—fan—start blazing—blazing the fire of bliss that Bertha did not know what to do with?” (311). Finally, in her momentary dreamlike inspection of the garden with Pearl, she wonders: “How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?” (312-13).
If Mansfield's title were not sign enough, certainly her initial description harboring the older trope, and its recurrences throughout the text should tell the reader that Mansfield is up to more than detailing a love triangle from the viewpoint of the betrayed. Playing on “bliss” as it appears in the Oxford Book, she deploys it to place vision (indicated by Bertha's pear tree) above or outside human escapades. There are, after all, two things Bertha sees at the end of “Bliss.” One is her husband kissing Pearl in the foyer; the other is the flowering pear tree in the garden, whose perfection has been, from the start, a subjective “vision,” one of Bertha's own making: “The windows of the drawing-room opened on to a balcony overlooking the garden. At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha could not help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a faded petal” (308).
It is this vision that remains intact, though Bertha's interpretation of it as a “symbol of her own life” (308) is cast into doubt. The story appears to say: human relations fail; we scarcely know ourselves and are betrayed, if not by ourselves, by others close to us; however, the final vision of the pear tree, a literary figure and the embodiment of Bertha's longing, endures, and stands removed from the disillusioning events that have transpired. Of course, it is because her longing has been thwarted that it remains perfect as represented in her vision of the tree. There are implications here for the writer's task which, in Mansfield's case as we have seen, involved the subordination of absence and longing to the form of fiction.
Just as Mansfield borrows the figure of bliss from the Oxford Book, she also appropriates the blossoming tree, a common enough image. She would have found it in Browning's “Home-thoughts, from Abroad” contained in the anthology:
Hark, where my blossom'd pear-tree in the hedge Leans to the field and scatters on the clover Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray's edge—.
Mansfield's anxiety about her appropriation of the image is suggested in her choosing to have Bertha's tree remain full flowering throughout the story. She resists employing it as an equation for inconsistent human feeling and action, which she was unable to do in her poem “The Lilac Tree” from 1908; there a lilac tree corresponds with the fruition and loss of love:
Soon must the tree stand stripped and bare And I shall never find her there Oh, lilac tree, oh lilac tree Shower down thy leaves and cover me.
In “Bliss,” nature (insofar as it is part of Bertha's vision) is not subordinated to human crisis, but aloof in all its contrasting perfection. Mansfield has traveled a great distance from her 1908 poem, but the influence of the poets appears as keen if not more so, evidenced by her need to revise the clearly borrowed trope. She reverses Herrick's tact in “To Blossoms,” also contained in the Oxford Book:
But you are lovely leaves, where we May read how soon things have Their end, though ne'er so brave: And after they have shown their pride Like you awhile, they glide Into the grave.
Mansfield's contrasting use of the figure (she might have had at least one petal fall from the tree to underscore Bertha's revelation about Harry's affair if this were the story's central concern) shows her unsentimental insistence on the enduring power of subjective vision as it results from longing, and, implicitly, the formalization of it represented by the text, or art.
The irony of the story, which critics generally locate in Bertha's revelation at the end,9 resides rather in Bertha's inability to express herself (or read people and situations properly) juxtaposed with the text's achievement of expression. Bertha is constantly frustrated by her inarticulateness (“Oh, is there no way you can express it” [Stories, 305] and revises her attempts at expression (“No, that about the fiddle is not quite what I mean” ). She speaks in phrases marked by Mansfield's inverted commas, indicating these phrases are not authentic:
“But while I am making coffee in the drawing-room perhaps she will ‘give a sign.’” But what she meant by that she did not know, and what would happen after that she could not imagine.
Mansfield's intention to have Bertha lack authentic expression is revealed in her comment to Murry that Bertha was an “artist manque enough to realise that those words and expressions were not & couldn't be hers—They were, as it were, quoted by her, borrowed … she'd none of her own” (Collected Letters, 2:121).
Yet Bertha appreciates and longs for performance, which is often couched in artistic terms: “Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?” (Stories, 305). Later she wonders: “Why have a baby if it has to be kept—not in a case like a rare, rare fiddle, but in another woman's arms?” (306). Bertha behaves like an eager director, who has set the stage for her acting dinner guests. Her attention to the arrangement of fruit whose color will “bring the carpet up to the table” (306) and her attire that imitates the pear tree hint at her investment in what is about to happen, in what she has earlier thought would be “divine” (305). When the guests finally assemble, they remind her of “a play by Tchekof” (311).
Mansfield once referred to her writings as “regular performance” (Journal, 262). That Bertha is duped, that her actors and actresses rewrite the script throws Mansfield's authorial performance into relief. She achieves what is denied Bertha who, upon contemplating being alone with her husband after dinner, jumps up from her chair and runs to the piano:
“What a pity someone does not play!” she cried. “What a pity somebody does not play.”
Her anxieties are subverted into a longing for performance that is not fulfilled. The bundle of inadequacies that constitute Bertha's character and the failings of those around her are contrasted by the text in which they appear. Mansfield's performance suggests, through Bertha's concluding vision, that the figure or the fiction endures, whatever the outcome of human events.
This contradiction in what the plot recounts and language implies is signaled in the way language unravels the plot even as it progresses, and holds two levels of discourse in balance: the mimetic depiction of Bertha's dinner party with its ensuing revelation and the play of tropology centering on bliss and the flowering pear tree. Mansfield's process of fiction conforms to Anne Mellor's definition of romantic irony as a “form or structure that simultaneously creates and de-creates itself.”10 (5). The first sentence of the story illustrates this: “Although Bertha Young was thirty she had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at—nothing—at nothing, simply” (305).
Retraction and contradiction mark the sentence where “simply” cannot be said to apply. Immediately following the first sentence, which aims at a mimetic account, a lyric elaboration of Bertha's “bliss” ensues. These two modes of discourse thread throughout the story and are balanced in the final scene:
Bertha simply ran over to the long windows. “Oh, what is going to happen now?” she cried. But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.
The question of action is answered with a still-life description, a perfect figure, a remaining vision. In Bertha's cry (“Oh, what is going to happen now?”) we hear the echo of Shelley's dreamer (“That I might there present it—O! to whom?”). Although the anguish of thwarted desire is implied by both texts, in Mansfield's story it is checked by the compensating vision itself.
Yet even as we track this compensating function of Bertha's vision in the story, “Bliss” resists closure. The ambiguity achieved by the juxtaposition of Bertha's sight of her husband kissing Pearl, and the vision of the perfect tree further places the story in the tradition of Romantic irony:
English Romantic irony, broadly put, consists in the studied avoidance on the artist's part of determinate meanings, even at such times as he might wish to encourage his readers to produce such meanings for himself; it involves the refusal of closure, the incorporation of any potentially available “metacomment” within the primary language of the text, the provision of a linguistic sign which moves towards or verges on a “free” status. …11
Mansfield's refusal to direct us in how we must read the story (though it is a lesson in reading) rivets us to her performance as writer. For Mansfield, the text is analogous to Bertha's subjective vision, and maintains a compensating or balancing function in relation to life. As she tells us in a 1922 journal entry: “There is no feeling to be compared with the joy of having written and finished a story. … There it was, new and complete” (285). Elsewhere, and ironically, given our knowledge of the strain in their relationship, she insists in a 1921 letter to Ottoline Morrell: “Work is the only thing that never fails.”12
In “Bliss,” we have the fusion of Mansfield's life and reading. We witness an active dialectic whereby texts (in this case, poems from the Oxford Book) resonate with her experience to produce a fiction whose romantic tropology, identified with subjective experience (and poetry), vies with a linear, mimetic account expected of prose. The situation of “Bliss,” involving a triangular relationship, reversal of expectation, and deception, was not new in Mansfield's work. She employed this configuration of elements as early as 1908 in a short sketch entitled “The Unexpected Must Happen.”13 What was distinctive about “Bliss” was the incorporation of poetic, noncausal elements to reveal the ambiguity of human relationships, and to suggest the triumph of creative vision over pain and disappointment. “Beauty triumphs over ugliness in Life …” she wrote. “And that marvellous triumph is what I long to express” (Letters, 2:452-53).
Mansfield's “Bliss,” far from the love triangle it recounts, points to lyric bliss discovered in the act of writing. It points to longing, whose perfection involves the production of vision or text. Mansfield's bliss was not the lust of the anonymous sixteenth-century lyric or that of Shakespeare's sonnet. It was not Milton's eternal bliss (“On Time,” Oxford, 318), or Wordsworth's “bliss of solitude” (“Daffodils,” Oxford, 605), or Browning's “bliss to die with” (“The Last Ride Together,” Oxford, 865). Mansfield's was the bliss of language that could balance or compensate for an inadequate world.
On 6 February 1918, shortly before Mansfield started “Bliss,” she wrote Murry: “Four years ago today Goodyear gave me the Oxford Book of English Verse. I discovered that by chance this morning” (The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, ed. Vincent O'Sullivan and Margaret Scott [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984-], 2:78; hereafter cited in the text.
Journal of Katherine Mansfield, ed. John Middleton Murry (London: Constable Books, 1927; New York: Knopf, 1927; Definitive Edition, 1954; London: Hutchinson, 1984), 129-130; hereafter cited in the text.
Marilyn Zorn supports this view in her article “Visionary Flowers: Another Study of Mansfield's ‘Bliss’” (Studies in Short Fiction 17:2 : 141-47): “‘Bliss’'s theme encompasses exactly the visionary joy and cry against corruption which we associate with the Romantics. One of the unacknowledged sources for the story is Shelley's poem ‘The Question’” (143).
In a letter dated 12 and 13 February 1918, Mansfield wrote Murry: “I lay down under a pine tree & though I spent some time saying ‘the wells and springs are poisoned’ they were not really. I began to construct my new story. Until I get back to you & we are safe in each other's arms there is only one thing to do & that is work work work” (Collected Letters, 2:70).
See Arthur Quiller Couch, ed. The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900), 715; hereafter cited in the text.
The Stories of Katherine Mansfield, ed. Antony Alpers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 305; hereafter cited in the text.
After reading “Bliss” in the August 1918 issue of the English Review, Woolf wrote in her Diary: “I threw down ‘Bliss’ with the exclamation, ‘she's done for!’ Indeed I don't see how much faith in her as a woman or writer can survive that sort of story … her mind is a very thin soil, laid an inch or two deep upon very barren rock … the whole conception is poor, cheap, not the vision, however imperfect, of an interesting mind. She writes badly too” (The Diary of Virginia Woolf 1912-1922, ed. Anne Olivier Bell [New York: Harcourt, 1979] 1:179).
That their work became a sign of Mansfield and Murry's love is suggested by an exchange of letters. On 5 February 1918, Murry wrote Mansfield: “I feel that in you & me our love & our work are become the same thing, inextricably knit together” (Letters, 111). On 10 and 11 February, she replied: “all I write or ever will write will be the fruit of our love” (Collected Letters, 2:66).
C. A. Hankin, Katherine Mansfield and Her Confessional Stories (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983), 147.
Anne K. Mellor, English Romantic Irony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980) 5.
David Simpson, Irony and Authority in Romantic Poetry (Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1979), 190.
The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, ed. John Middleton Murry. 2 vols. (London: Constable, 1929; New York: Knopf, 1929), 2:385; hereafter cited in the text.
This sketch is deposited at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 249
Dunbar, Pamela. Radical Mansfield: Double Discourse in Katherine Mansfield's Short Stories. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997, 198 p.
Critical study of Mansfield's stories, with particular focus on lesser-known pieces. Includes the previously unpublished story “His Sisters' Keeper.”
Nathan, Cherney B., and Rhoda B. Nathan, eds. Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1993, 236 p.
Collection of essays by New Zealand scholars, focusing on various aspects of Mansfield's career.
Robinson, Roger, ed. Katherine Mansfield: In from the Margin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994, 209 p.
Collection of essays from two international symposia on Mansfield and her work.
Woods, Joanna. “The Reception of Katherine Mansfield's Work in the Soviet Union.” New Zealand Slavonic Journal (1996): 95-148.
Traces the publication of, and critical reaction to, Mansfield's work in the Soviet Union.
Additional coverage of Mansfield's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; British Writers, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 134; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 162; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Gay & Lesbian Literature, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 8, 10, 11; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 9, 23, 38; Twayne's English Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 8, 39; World Literature Criticism; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6373
SOURCE: Mortimer, Armine Kotin. “Fortifications of Desire: Reading the Second Story in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Narrative 2, no. 1 (January 1994): 41-52.
[In the following essay, Mortimer provides a reading of the “second story” found near the end of “Bliss.”]
When the heroine of Mansfield's well-known, extraordinary short story discovers her husband's infidelity less than a page before the end, a second story untold in the first but necessary to its meaning erupts into the narrative, to devastating effect. The devious second story construction leads, and often misleads, the reader, who interprets clues and applies general cultural competence to “re-tell” the once-submerged second story.1 Appealing to the reader's cooperation in its complex processes, the story subverts the reading subject, placing her in the position of the unknowing heroine.
“The truth is,” Katherine Mansfield wrote in her journal, “one can get only so much into a story; there is always a sacrifice. One has to leave out what one knows and longs to use. Why? I haven't any idea, but there it is. It's always a kind of race to get in as much as one can before it disappears” (cited in Kobler 112). Suggesting Hemingway's principle of the iceberg, this double-edged observations, both naive and devious, insinuates an interpretive strategy: it challenges the reader] to find the disappeared text. If we assume that the sacrificed material of the second story in “Bliss” contained what Mansfield knew and longed to use, still we may not agree on what she knew. Some readers soft-pedal the homosexualities of Mansfield's relations, or eliminate them altogether, while others make them a necessary ingredient in any interpretation of her fictions. I favor neither extreme. Let us recognize, as many have, that Bertha Young and her text are lacking knowledge; they are in the position of the analysand. As the analyst, however, I prefer not to claim to discover a particular referential knowledge behind the text (taken to be the “language” spoken by the analysand), but rather to the knowledgeable about the functioning of language. This wording borrowed from Shoshana Felman (81) aptly describes the stance I take in reading “Bliss.” I am interested in showing how the text reveals its own strategies for manipulating the reader, while it convinces us to apprehend a character as if she were a real person. In other words, I wish to be attentive not just to what Susan Stanford Friedman calls the horizontal axis, the “movement of characters within their fictional world,” but especially the vertical space-time, referring to the “writer and reader in relation to each other,” in particular the “interplay of the semiotic and the symbolic” (14, 18).2 “Bliss” is a good example of how the represented events of the story mirror the way language drives the narrative. Furthermore, although the story has an undoubted lesbian meaning that compels us to read out homosexual desire, it is rich enough to enjoy wider interpretations. The second-story construction, whose effects “work” only once, throws up a fortification protecting what Mansfield knew, and this is what guides our interpretive strategy. In question is not so much what hidden knowledge we may reveal about Bertha as what we may know about how the story moves us.
The dazzling feeling of bliss that Bertha Young shares with her “find,” Miss Pearl Fulton, lies mysteriously hidden. At dinner, she thinks she has seen the enigma behind Miss Fulton's smile: “But Bertha knew, suddenly, as if the longest, most intimate look had passed between them—as if they had said to each other: ‘You, too?’—that Pearl Fulton, stirring the beautiful red soup in the grey plate, was feeling just what she was feeling” (85); Miss Fulton too has swallowed a bit of the sun. The reader will find out, with Bertha, that she is not wrong, but that this should not be cause for joy. Bertha ponders what could make her so certain of this knowledge: “What she simply couldn't make out—what was miraculous—was how she should have guessed Miss Fulton's mood so exactly and so instantly. For she never doubted for a moment that she was right, and yet what had she to go on? Less than nothing” (86). Together, they look at the beautiful pear tree in the garden, “understanding each other perfectly” (87). Setting this “perfect” understanding against a backdrop of grotesques taints the shared feeling with both comic and tragic irony. Bertha can hardly wait for her idiotic guests to leave so she can tell her husband in bed about her wonderful feeling. And it is then that she realizes with a shock that the name she must give to her feeling, instead of the euphemistic “bliss,” is desire: “For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband” (89).
Husband Harry, however, professes to dislike striking blonds like Miss Fulton, and the reader has little choice but to interpret his rude behavior as Bertha does. In the last page and a half the narrative takes pains to describe the characters' movements: Pearl Fulton goes toward the hall to get her coat; Bertha is following her to help, but her husband brushes past, repenting his coldness; as a good hostess, she must then remain in the drawing room to listen to Eddie Warren's italicized praise of Bilks's new poem, “Why Must It Always be Tomato Soup?” and to fetch the anthology containing it from a table near the hall door—“And she moved noiselessly to a table opposite the drawing-room door and Eddie glided noiselessly after her. She picked up the little book and gave it to him; they had not made a sound” (90). This elaborate staging, insisting implausibly on the silence of both characters, announces to the reader at the very least that something is going to happen, if not exactly what. As Bertha looks up to see Harry helping Miss Fulton with her coat, the second story bursts upon her like a tornado:
And she saw … Harry with Miss Fulton's coat in his arms and Miss Fulton with her back turned to him and her head bent. He tossed the coat away, put his hands on her shoulders and turned her violently to him. His lips said “I adore you,” and Miss Fulton laid her moonbeam fingers on his cheeks and smiled her sleepy smile. Harry's nostrils quivered; his lips curled back in a hideous grin while he whispered: “To-morrow,” and with her eyelids Miss Fulton said “Yes.”
With Bertha, we embrace the entire second story in an instant. We feel certain that Harry Young and Pearl Fulton have already become lovers, for he is a proficient reader of her eyelids, and it seems likely that “To-morrow” follows a “To-day.” At the same moment, we realize that Bertha, through whose eyes the entire story is told, has been a particularly bad guide for us (leading us down the garden path?). Her understanding of Miss Fulton is far from “perfect,” and her reading of her husband's behavior is always wrong. For the first-time reader, who does not know the second story until it surfaces, the second story sweeps away mistaken interpretations and irreparably changes the first. As Mansfield wrote, “[w]ithout [the sense of crisis] how are we to appreciate the importance of one ‘spiritual event’ rather than another? What is to prevent each being unrelated—complete in itself—if the gradual unfolding in growing, gaining light is not to the followed by one blazing moment?”4 The blazing moment, the eruption of the second story into the first, links the spiritual events of Bertha's bliss in a sudden new light, which casts into shadows the “gradual unfolding in growing, gaining light.”5 Until these moments, our reading is necessarily naive; it becomes devious when the second story bursts into the first.
The exclusive focus on Bertha and the scintillating expressiveness of her discovery of desire also take our attention away from any clues to the threatening tornado. Our second reading finds them. The first story is highly indexical (rather than functional), particularly in its treatment of the sublime bliss. Preeminent among symbols indexing the mysterious and enchanting feeling is the pear tree in perfect full bloom at the end of the garden, which Bertha takes as an icon of her own life (82). She dresses for dinner in a flowing white dress with a jade necklace and green shoes and stockings, thus uncannily presaging the white-blossomed pear tree against the jade-green sky at dusk (82, 83). Yet this index also serves as an early clue to the reader, if not to Bertha, that the bloom is not her own, for later in the moonlight the tree turns silver, “silver as Miss Fulton” (86) in her elegant dress.6 When Miss Fulton asks to see the garden, Bertha takes this request as an enigmatic “sign,” and when she sees the pear tree, Bertha this request she says “Yes. Just that” (87). As Miss Fulton and Bertha together gaze at the slender tree, it indexes their “perfect” understanding: “Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of a candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed—almost to touch the rim of the round, silver moon” (87). Symbolic of the fullness of desire, no doubt suggestively phallic, the fantastical tree finally stands as an index not of Bertha's bliss but of Miss Fulton's, which remains undisturbed at the end of the story. With Miss Fulton's farewell words echoing in Bertha's mind (“Your lovely pear tree—pear tree—pear tree!”), she runs to the window and cries, “Oh, what is going to happen now?” (90). The story thus closes on a question that calls explicitly for a further narrative, and the only answer, in the final one-sentence paragraph, is again indexical and not functional: “But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still” (90). Bliss remains—not Bertha's but Miss Fulton's.
A second index, which the reader probably ignores on a first reading, is also found in the garden when Bertha first looks out, before the guests arrive: “A grey cat, dragging its belly, crept across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after. The sight of them, so intent and so quick, gave Bertha a curious shiver. ‘What creepy things cats are!’ she stammered, and she turned away from the window” (82). The cat is the vulgar counterpart to the sublime pear tree, the defect that dooms the “perfect” symbol. Yet if it passes unnoticed in the first story, it reappears after the second story has erupted. When Miss Fulton leaves after murmuring “Your lovely pear tree!”, Eddie follows her “like the black cat following the grey cat” (90). For Bertha now that the tornado has burst upon her, the silvery, blond Miss Fulton, with her moonbeam fingers, has become the creepy gray cat that slithered snake-like below the beauty of the miraculous tree.7 Against a pervasive array of vibrant and compelling colors, in this narrative, black and gray are merely two intensities of non-color.8 Not only has Miss Fulton become a sinister, treacherous cat, the devious introduction of evil into paradise but she has lost her shining silver mystery and taken on a dullish gray—no enigma but a trite, brutal platitude. The gray cat is a distant clue to the second story, but the reader is not allowed to give it a precise interpretation until the second story has shattered the first. Everything was not perfect, after all, in the garden.
There are many other clues, but the most intriguing lie in the very feeling of bliss and the muted mystery of its origin in Miss Fulton. After the shared fantasy of the phallic pear tree, the following paragraph offers, on second reading, an insertion point for a clue addressed to the reader: “How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?” (87). The third present plural, the stressed word “both,” the plural noun “creatures” all tell us that Miss Fulton's case is exactly like Bertha's. As Judith Neaman believes, “Bertha's ‘crushes’ on women are nothing new in her life, but her desire for her husband is both new and startling to her” (249). Yet this crush on Pearl Fulton also remains in the second-story mode, leaving us to supply the details: without knowing it, Bertha “found” Miss Fulton because Harry had already become her lover.
This untold story lies buried in such a well-fortified location that the readers access to its ramifications leads through many deviations. Let us first see how the story misleads the reader by proposing meanings that turn into red herrings. Given the ironic context, the reader may, during a first reading, assume that the developing point of the story lies in the contrast between the sublime sensations of bliss and the grotesque social mores the story satirizes—between the sensually poetic internal feeling and the ridiculously ugly external portrayal. Mr. Norman Knight, putative producer of plays, who evolves in a milieu in which writers named Oat write plays called “Love in False Teeth,” screws and rescrews a large tortoise-shell-rimmed monocle into an eye and is called “Mug.” Mrs. Norman Knight, whose orange coat sports processions of black monkeys and who seems to be wearing a dress made of scraped banana skins, is nicknamed “Face” and is going to decorate a room with a “fried-fish scheme, with the backs of chairs shaped like frying pans and lovely chip potatoes embroidered all over the curtains” (88). Effete Eddie Warren, poet and admirer of poems with “incredibly beautiful” first lines about food (“It's so deeply true, don't you feel? Tomato soup is so dreadfully eternal” ), is terrorized by taxi-drivers and always speaks in italics. A very large portion of the story is devoted to the pretentious and inane conversation among these remarkable specimens of the superficial, self-satisfied bourgeoisie, providing a comic backdrop to the seemingly sublime drama within Bertha.9 The narrative induces the reader to pursue this contrast even into the relation between husband and wife; although Bertha's tenderness toward Harry does not readily allow us to see him as an utter grotesque, like his guests, we doubt that this blunt, superficial, “extravagantly cool and collected” (84, 90) pasteboard confection will rise to Bertha's sublime heights. His first manifestation in the story already reveals that he is not on Bertha's poetic level. So brusque is he on the phone that she cannot tell him about her new feeling, and she concludes that civilization is idiotic (81). Everything that goes on around Bertha is external and ridiculous except Miss Fulton; when the Norman Knights leave, Bertha feels that “this self of hers” has taken leave of them forever (89); she has moved to a different plane, in the sole present company of Miss Fulton, and in the naively anticipated company of her husband. We predict an outcome that would include a rude awakening, an abrupt fall from the heights of bliss to the new discovery of her husband's mundane reality, and, possibly, Pearl Fulton's.
In this way, or in another, the reader formulates erroneous hypotheses on a first reading which must be rejected or at least significantly revised on a second reading. If, like John Middleton Murry, we see mainly that caricature contradicts pathos, then we will only describe the story as a “sophisticated failure” (cited in Hankin 143). Any failure on our part would consist in not seeing how the story masks and thus reveals its messages by forcing mistaken interpretation. Although it appears that authorial irony is directed only toward the grotesques and not toward Bertha, it is the story's intentions that are ironic. Little prepares us for the supremely ironic discovery that what Miss Fulton shares with Bertha is also her husband, not just the wonderful feeling of bliss, and that the day when sexual desire finally flares up in her, after several years of marriage, is the very day she will see it destroyed. The knowledge Bertha acquires only shows her that her vision was defective. Thus our reading neurosis takes the form of an interpretive construction or delirium that is simply wrong. While erroneous hypotheses protect the reader from the second story, the second reading forces one back to read and recognize the ironic treatment of the heroine. It is then that the reader becomes as devious as the second story.10
Bertha founders in a “snare” in the narrative, and the reader with her, when she thinks her husband is “simple” and really dislikes Miss Fulton, and when she interprets the way Miss Fulton refuses a cigarette as an expression of her hurt (“she felt it, too, and was hurt” ). For much of the story, Bertha's desire to explain the mysterious attraction of Miss Fulton, the elusive feeling of bliss, the miraculous unspoken knowledge, only leads to blockage of the enigma (“snare” and “jamming” are Barthes' terms in S/Z). No detective she, the solution explodes upon her unbidden and unwanted. What I now want to show is that shared sexual desire, the essence of the enigma, is the very thing that makes it difficult for Bertha to understand the mystery.
What Bertha catches sight of in the hallway is the tip of the iceberg—the only part of the second story that is visible, momentarily and by accident. Readers' competence, including Bertha's, leaves no doubt whatsoever that the rest of the second story has happened just as surely as we know an iceberg lies, as Hemingway said, seven-eighths under water. Bertha is forced to let the entire second story into her consciousness. In this structure there is a kind of internal intertextuality: the text refers not to an intertext outside the story, but to one that lies within—under water, as it were—the familiar story of the unfaithful husband. When Bertha sees her husband embrace Miss Fulton, she learns not only the nature of the secret Miss Fulton contains, but also that there is a real secret about mundane events, what one might call a degraded version of the mysterious enigma she had perceived. Until that point the wall surrounding the second story construction can fairly be called a fortification, a product of her own nascent sexual desire.
Chicane and redan, both describing deviations in fortified walls, are Lacanian terms for the fortifications characteristic of obsessive neurosis.11 In “L'agresivité en psychanalyse,” Lacan describes the obsessive neurosis as “une décoposition défensive, si comparable en ses principes à celles qu'illustrent le redan et la chicane, que nous avons entendu plusieurs de nos patients user à leur propre sujet d'une référence métaphorique à des ‘fortifications à la Vauban’” [“a defensive decomposition, so comparable in its principles to those that illustrate the redan and the chicane, that we have heard several of our patients employ with regard to their own selves a metaphorical reference to ‘Vauban-like fortifications’”] The structure of these bastions is “particulièrement destinée à camoufler, à déplacer, à nier, à diviser et à amortir l'intention agressive” [“particularly aimed at camouflaging, displacing, denying, dividing and deadening the aggressive intention”] (108). When Bertha interprets Harry's behavior toward Miss Fulton as rude, unkind, or sarcastic, when she concludes that Harry really dislikes Miss Fulton, Bertha is producing a neurotic interpretation that functions, unconsciously, to defend her from a fact that her conscious mind has no purchase on, namely that if the feeling she shares with Miss Fulton is sexual desire, then Miss Fulton too must be feeling desire.
Instead, the entire narrative about Bertha's shared feelings with Pearl Fulton presents a neurotic, unconscious camouflage, displacement, disavowal, division, and deadening of Miss Fulton's aggressive intentions, to use Lacan's terms. Like another bit of the iceberg, the text supplies openings to its own devious structures. At the revelation of Bertha's indescribable feeling, the text stops just short of realizing the source of Miss Fulton's feeling too. She has been mentally telling Harry: “I shall try to tell you when we are in bed to-night what has been happening. What she and I have shared.” A break in the page follows, after which the narrative continues: “At those last words something strange and almost terrifying darted into Bertha's mind. And this something blind and smiling whispered to her: ‘… you and he will be alone together in the dark room—the warm bed …’” (88). She and her husband had been “such good pals,” and she had not loved him “in that way” (89), but now she desires him “ardently! ardently! … Was this what that feeling of bliss had been leading up to? But then—” (89), and here the text of her thoughts is interrupted by the pedestrian needs of the grotesque Mug and face. The attentive reader will come to see that the dash stands for and eliminates (camouflages, displaces, etc.) the repressed thought: Miss Fulton desires Harry Young “ardently! ardently!” and loves him “in that way.” The story might have erupted at that dash, had there not been the defensive decomposition of Bertha's “perfect” understanding of Miss Fulton. The rhetorical indices of her perfect understanding—for instance, the terms “miraculous,” “exactly,” “instantly,” “never doubted for a moment” (86)—bolster the fortification. Instead, the break in her thoughts is only a clue to the alert reader, who must, I believe, wait for a second reading to fill in the dash with the story of Miss Fulton's bliss—the internal intertext. Although this dash does not represent an ellipsis during which the entire second story takes place (like a famous dash in Kleist's “Die Marquise von O …”), by the second reading one probably wonders if Bertha is as naive as she seems. The bulk of the first story, then, can be read as an example of Lacan's chicane, the zigzag structures in the wall designed to prevent the passage of enemy forces, or the devious, circuitous, surreptitious formulations of the narrative which lead the reader astray—the erroneous hypotheses about the first story, the false clues or snares, the inadequate, defective, or devious vision of our reader's guide—in all, the failure of narrative reliability hidden behind the walls thrown up by Bertha's apparent self-knowledge, her “growing, gaining light.”
We might profitably compare this second story structure to the repetition of a primal scene. In Freud's original formulation, the primal scene portrays the child witnessing the mother and father in sexual embrace. As is well known, however, Freud revised this bald account by claiming the scene could just as well be only a fantasy. Carrying the metaphor into the textual domain, Ned Lukacher writes that primal scenes are interpretive constructions (337).12 Thus it suffices to see the mute scene in the hall; from it Bertha and the reader construct the entire second story. The love affair Harry Young is having with Pearl Fulton could well be described as the forgotten primal scene of Bertha Young's new bliss. Miss Fulton has already had the experience that Bertha's story refers to, and Bertha's sublime feeling is only an ironic repetition, a degraded version of the original, a mere copy. The second story here is thus a kind of primal scene which the first story conveniently “forgot” to tell the reader (or Bertha), thus protecting her new-found bliss, until the fortification is breached.
That moment we may well call a Lacanian instant, the event by which Bertha learns that her desire is the desire of the other. Lacan's well-known statement that desire is the desire of the other occurs in “La subversion du sujet et la dialectique du désir.” Until this moment, Bertha thinks—and the reader with her—that she has reached a new knowledge of her feeling, when she identifies it as sexual desire. Here the narrative is unflinchingly direct: “For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband” (89). But it is also deceptive in its directness; to say that Bertha desired her husband is to mask, by exploiting the simplicity of this phrase, the complexity of the relations of desire that lead to the final moment. Discovering Miss Fulton's desire for Harry, Bertha learns that her new desire for her husband is not simple but complex, for the second story soon demonstrates that her knowledge is rather what Lacan calls “nescience,” misrecognition or misprision, found in the structure of the fantasy: “Car là se voit que la nescience où reste l'homme de son désir est moins nescience de ce qu'il demande, qui peut après tout se cerner, que nescience d'où il désire.” [“For there is it seen that the misprision in which man remains of his desire is less misprision of what he is asking for, which can after all be discerned, than misprision of where he desires from”] (“La subversion” 814). That is, misrecognition of desire does not come from not knowing its object, which can be and is discovered, but from the fact that the self does not know where desire comes from. “Unknowing” is a misrecognition of the fact that desire is the desire of the other.
In psychoanalysis, unknowing occurs in the family trinity; the girl's desire for the father is the mother's desire. Among others, a reading in this vein emerges from the symbolic structures of the story. Throughout, while Bertha is called by her first name, like a child, and her last name, Young, only underscores her youth, Miss Fulton is never called simply Pearl. The opening segment of the story explicitly opposes maturity (“thirty” and “sensible”) to youth as Bertha Young arrives home (“she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop” ). The next narrative segment concerns an episode I have not mentioned so far, because it seems to have very little to do with the events in the dining room, drawing room, and hall after the guests arrive, events that seem to constitute the entire story. After arranging the many-colored fruit in the blue bowl and the glass dish, Bertha runs upstairs to the nursery where Nanny has just finished bathing and feeding her daughter. Here Nanny is the authority, disapproving of this unwanted interruption, and Bertha is just the “poor little girl in front of the rich little girl with the doll” (80). Even her desire for her daughter is breached in this way. In this scene too Bertha completes a reflection she had begun as she waited on the stoop to be let in, having childishly forgotten her key, a reflection interrupted (as many of Bertha's thoughts are) when the maid opened the door. There she had thought: “Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?” (78), but had then corrected herself: “No, that about the fiddle is not quite what I mean. … It's not what I mean, because—Thank you, Mary,” she stops, as the door is opened (78). The dash is later filled in when Bertha begs Nanny to let her finish feeding her daughter: “How absurd it was. Why have a baby if it has to be kept—not in a case like a rare, rare fiddle—but in another woman's arms?” (80)—a woman who, in this scene, stands in for a mother, and has a visibly but paradoxically greater authority and power. “In another woman's arms” is precisely where Bertha will at last see the reality of her husband. In the triangle relating Harry, Bertha, and Miss Fulton, Bertha stands in the position of the child who discovers her desire for her father, and immediately thereupon discovers that she is merely repeating her mother's desire.
This rather simplified triangle stands for all possible permutations of the relations of desire, which never become fixed. The second story subverts the first story just as the unconscious subverts the subject, splitting it; the story subverts the discourses of the self that produce knowledge and understanding. With its second-story structure, “Bliss” says that a discourse of desire is not sayable; it is among the things that the narrative has to sacrifice (as Katherine Mansfield wrote in her journal) the better to command understanding. For the “so much” one can get into a story reveals the traces of what disappears. We demand to know quite little of the second story, and most of what we do know is based on our general competence; the story is “in” the first story in the form of a perverse secret that ceases to be secret for the first story. Rather, it is the very process and structure of hiding (the forgetting of the primal scene, the fortification, the sighting of the tip of the iceberg) that give the story its chilling efficacy; it exists for these structures of hiding, structures that mostly censure saying but allow it to erupt in minimal form (“To-morrow,” says Harry Young) to confirm what they have shown by hiding. The narrative with its second-story structure forces us to produce in our reading, as Shoshana Felman writes, an “analysis of the unconscious (the repressed) not as hidden but on the contrary as exposed—in language—through a significant (rhetorical) displacement” (45). Connoting both dissertation form and voyeuristic pleasures, the word “exposed” well expresses the ambiguous effectiveness of the second-story structure. In these rhetorical and unavowed (camouflaged, etc.) structures, what Katherine Mansfield knew, and suppressed, lies revealed. She knew how fragile desire is; she did not let on that she knew the misadventure awaiting her heroine. She knew why Bertha was blissful, but kept it in the second-story mode. She knew desire throws up fortifications, and she lent her reader an ample supply of obstacles.
The dynamic of this narrative process is an instance of what Lacan calls fading. Originally meaning the weakening of the signal in radio transmissions, allowing intermittent reception of other wavelengths, the term is used in typically metaphoric fashion to describe the situation in psychoanalysis in which the unconscious speaks, intermittently, of things the subject has no knowledge of, because of its subordination to the signifier. The subject is thus subverted and split, and the fading is the point at which the speaker's desire can never be recognized (“La subversion” 816). Rather than force a purely psychoanalytic reading in which the text would be compared to a patient undergoing analysis. I would prefer to take “fading” as a metaphor for a literary structure of significant complexity. That is what Barthes does when he borrows Lacan's concept to explain the plurality of a text, in a section called “Le fading des voix,” the fading of voices, in S/Z. Most utterances, in a classical text, speak from a known voice. It happens, writes Barthes, that
la voix se perde, comme si elle disparaissait dans un trou du discours. La meilleure façon d'imaginer le pluriel classique est alors d'écouter le texte comme un échange chatoyant de voix multiples, posées sur des ondes differentes et saisies par moments d'un fading brusque, dont la trouée permet à l'énonciation de migrer d'un point de vue à l'autre, sans prévenir. (48-49)
[the voice is lost, as if it were disappearing into a hole of the discourse. The best way to imagine the classical plural is then to listen to the text as a shimmering exchange of multiple voices, posed on different wavelengths and seized at times by an abrupt fading, whose gaps permit the enunciation to migrate from one point of view to the other, without warning.]
Fading subsumes all the double, devious, and ironic mechanisms of the narrative; “Bliss” is plural in intermittently and partially allowing the second story to be heard. In the breaches Bertha's thoughts make in the story of the grotesques, the second story throbs behind the wall of her fortification, until, with the fading of these inane and ironic voices, one hears the point at which Bertha's desire can never be recognized. In the lapses of the “shimmering exchange of multiple voices,” the ones in Bertha's head, another voice is heard, intermittently, as if from a different wavelength—a voice posing questions for the reader. When the story stops, the reader continues, telling herself the story of the adulterous love affair, from its still obscured beginning in female desire to its vulgar exposure among the grotesques. It is a measure of the power of “Bliss” that readers want to go well beyond its ending to say “what happens” next; but does the reader have an answer to Bertha's question? Harry's love affair will obviously bring changes to Bertha's desire for her husband, but how much can the reader say about Bertha's comprehension of Pearl Fulton? How vast and deep is Bertha's] forced insight?
It is my contention that each reader will answer differently, and the gist of my answer lies in the dynamic of fading. Bertha can never recognize her relation to her self, no more than anyone can. Fortifications remain necessarily in place. Her homosexual desire is revealed only in the structures that hide it and keep it hidden even beyond the end of the story. Bertha is not allowed to recognize the censor that guards the door of insight; that role is strictly the reader's. We think we have at last understood the mystery, found out the secret, solved the enigma, but we do so only if we think of Bertha as a real person. Are we not deceived when the narrative explains: “Bertha had fallen in love with [Pearl Fulton], as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them” (81)? Is this an excessive, rhetorical expression of Bertha's enthusiasms, or is the text forcing us to argue that the direct, overt meaning is the disguised one? As long as we affirm that we are knowledgeable about how language—the language of narrative—functions, then reading turns our knowledge to misprision about where our desire to know comes from. No more than Bertha do we know what is going to happen now.
For an explanation of the term, see Mortimer, “Second Stories,” on several stories by Maupasant, and “Second Stories: The Example of ‘Mr. Know-all.’”
James Phelan's distinction between the mimetic world of characters and the synthetic dimension which puts into play the author and reader is also useful (1-27).
Since Mansfield uses ellipses quite often, I use non-spaced ellipses for ones in her text and spaced ellipses to indicate my own omissions.
From a review of fiction by Mansfield published in Novels and Novelists, quoted in Hanson and Gurr (18-19).
The metaphor is strikingly framed in the symbolic language of desire: “What was there in the touch of that cool arm that could fan—fan—start blazing—blazing—the fire of bliss that Bertha did not know what to do with?” (85).
Wallace Martin points out that silver suggests a mirror for Bertha (164).
According to Wallace Martin, when the “unity based on silver” is destroyed by difference, silver becomes gray (168).
Examples of this insistence on bright colors are the fruit arrangement, described in excessive detail, the blue and white bowls and the purple grapes to match the new carpet, tangerines, Bertha's white and jade ensemble, the alluring silver (a color always aligned with bliss), red and yellow tulips, red soup in a gray bowl, a little red jacket; some colors have negative values but insist no less: Face's orange coat with black monkeys, her yellow silk dress that looks like sewn-up banana skins.
Oat, false teeth, Mug, Face, banana skins, tomato soup, frying pans, and chip potatoes, all terms connected with the grotesques, also have connections to eating. These are the symbols by which one may characterize the grotesques; the symbols fall into a low register, having to do with a bodily function utterly distant from the intellectual, sentimental, or sublime. Sadly enough, for Bertha's bliss, the symbol of her perfect understanding with Miss Fulton very nearly falls into the same register: it is the pear tree in the garden.
Friedman has an admirable, concise formula: “the desire to express and the need to repress force a compromise that takes the form of disguised speech” (17).
Redan designates a part of the fortified wall composed of two faces forming an angle extending outward. The chicane is properly a zigzag structure in a wall. In common usage, chicane refers to disputatious, captious, specious argumentation, detouring through minute, trivial details, particularly applied to court procedure and to lawyers.
Casting intertextuality into a psychoanalytically-molded analysis of literature, Lukacher shows that forgotten “primal scenes” are repeated in later texts, in a kind of unconscious intertextuality. Bertha's dressing in the colors of the pear tree (white and jade) may be another version of an unconscious repetition of a symbol and thus a primal scene.
Anderson, Walter E. “The Hidden Love Triangle in Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Twentieth Century Literature 28 (1982): 397-404.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Paris: Seuil, 1970.
Felman, Shoshana. Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1987.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Spatialization: A Strategy for Reading Narrative.” Narrative 1 (1992): 12-23.
Hankin, C. A. Katherine Mansfield and her Confessional Stories. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.
Hanson, Clare, and Andrew Gurr. Katherine Mansfield. London: Macmillan, 1981.
Kobler, J. F. Katherine Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Lacan, Jacques. “L'agressivité en psychanalyse.” Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. 101-24.
Lacan, Jacques. “La subversion du sujet et la dialectique du désir.” Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. 793-827.
Lukacher, Ned. Primal Scenes: Literature, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986.
Magalaner, Marvin. “Traces of her ‘Self’ in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Modern Fiction Studies 24 (1978): 413-22.
Mansfield, Katherine. “Bliss.” In The Pocket Book of Short Stories, edited by M. Edmund Speare, 78-90. New York: Pocket Books, 1969.
Martin, Wallace. Recent Theories of Narrative. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986.
Mortimer, Armine Kotin. “Second Stories.” In Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, edited by Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey, 276-98. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1989.
———. “Second Stories: The Example of ‘Mr. Know-all.’” Studies in Short Fiction 25 (1988): 307-14.
Neaman, Judith S. “Allusion, Image, and Associative Pattern: The Answers in Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Twentieth-Century Literature 32 (1986): 242-54.
Nebeker, Helen. “The Pear Tree: Sexual Implications in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Modern Fiction Studies 18 (1972): 545-51.
Phelan, James. Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4224
SOURCE: Lee, David A. “Language and Perspective in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Prelude.’” In Twentieth-Century Fiction: From Text to Context, edited by Peter Verdonk and Jean Jacques Weber, pp. 113-25. London: Routledge, 1995.
[In the following essay, Lee explores “the role of language in the mediation of perspective in both the literal and metaphorical sense” as exemplified in Mansfield's story “Prelude.”]
The notion of ‘point of view’ or ‘perspective’ is one of the most frequently invoked concepts in stylistic analysis (Booth 1961). A distinction is often drawn between the point of view of the narrator and that of a character, for example, or between the perspective of one character and that of another. Writers themselves use the notion, sometimes structuring their work in such a way as to present their material from different viewpoints, sometimes interweaving different perceptions within a chapter, within a paragraph, within a sentence even. But what is ‘perspective’? The term is obviously derived from the field of visual perception. Are we then employing the term purely metaphorically when we refer to ‘perspective’ in literature?
I will take Katherine Mansfield's short story ‘Prelude’ (1918/1948) as the main focus for discussion of these questions. Let me start, however, with a brief illustration from another century of the importance of perspective in a work of literature: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813/1970). The central focus of Pride and Prejudice is on the way in which Elizabeth's perception of Darcy changes in the course of the novel—a theme which raises general questions about the kind of values that human beings employ in judging others and the nature of the evidence on which such values are based. On their first meeting Elizabeth sees Darcy as an arrogant, conceited snob and subsequent experiences confirm this impression. By the end of the novel, however, her perception of him has changed dramatically, so much so that she falls in love and marries him. Now in speaking of Elizabeth's ‘perceptions’ in these terms, we are clearly referring to certain general judgements that she has formed, not to the process of ‘vision’ in the literal sense. We all form judgements of this kind in relation to people that we know. They are presumably instantiated in our brains in the form of some kind of mental structure, which is connected to memories associated with the individuals to whom the judgements relate. In other words, when we say that Elizabeth ‘sees’ Darcy in a particular way, we are reporting the nature of a mental construct that bears only a tenuous relation with the process of ‘seeing’. To that extent the term is metaphorical.
Yet this way of thinking about the process of understanding a person or a situation is strongly ‘motivated’ in the sense of Lakoff (1987: 91).1 In the first place, the process of visual perception is inextricably interwoven with the process of interpretation. Our brains work on the raw data provided by the visual apparatus to produce mental constructs. For example, when I look out of the window of the room where I am writing this, I see a tree. Yet this statement is true only at a rather abstract level. The signals that impinge on my retina constitute a complex set of visual information that change their character constantly from one moment to another as the eye scans across different parts of the object. It is my brain that converts this kaleidoscopic information into a mental construct that we call ‘a tree’. On some occasions the brain may fail to make sense of the incoming data or it may construct the ‘wrong’ interpretation. For a few moments, perhaps, I see a person standing under the tree, only to realize a moment later that it is an effect of light. These observations show how closely the process of perception is bound up with the process of interpretation. In many respects ‘seeing’ is interpreting.
There is one other aspect of the relationship between understanding and seeing that is particularly relevant to the analysis of literature. When we see an object, we see it from a particular vantage point. This normally means that we do not see the whole of the object. Someone else viewing the same object from a different viewpoint will receive a quite different set of visual signals. In some cases this may not matter. But on occasions, it can make a crucial difference. I may think that this person coming towards me looks quite harmless, whereas he is in fact holding a knife behind his back. This is an informal example of a crucial aspect of Einstein's theory of relativity—the viewpoint of the observer is a vital ingredient in the way the observer sees and interprets a situation.
Now this point about the ‘relativity’ inherent in the process of seeing can be applied directly to the process whereby we construct meaning in a more general sense. One reason why Elizabeth has a different ‘view’ of Darcy from that of his friend Bingley is that she is working from a different set of experiences. Her knowledge of Darcy is based on meeting him in a very restricted range of settings (such as society balls), whereas Bingley has known him for a long time as a close friend. In other words, when we apply the notion of ‘perspective’ to the process of understanding in the general sense of the term, the analogue to the literal concept of ‘vantage point’ is the set of experiences that we bring to the interpretation of any situation. Moore and Carling (1982: 11) have called this our ‘knowledge base’. They have argued that it is misleading to think of meaning as something that is ‘carried’ from speaker to hearer (or from writer to reader) by language. Rather, meaning is a product of the interaction between language and knowledge base. Since we each bring a unique set of experiences to the interpretation of any situation, the possibility is always present that different individuals will produce different interpretations of what is in a sense ‘the same situation’. Thus, there is a striking parallel between this view of the process of interpretation and the process of perception. Just as our vantage point can have a crucial influence on the nature of our perceptions in the literal sense, so the experiences, assumptions and expectations that we bring to the process of interpretation can have a profound effect on the output of the interpretive process. Metaphorically speaking, this mental baggage constitutes the ‘position’ from which we view the world and make judgements about it.2
Let me now consider how some of these intricate relationships between seeing and understanding, between ‘position’ and interpretation, can be traced in certain key passages in ‘Prelude’. We will focus on the role of language in the mediation of perspective in both the literal and metaphorical sense. The story opens as follows:
There was not an inch of room for Lottie and Kezia in the buggy. When Pat swung them on top of the luggage they wobbled; the grandmother's lap was full and Linda Burnell could not possibly have held a lump of a child on hers for any distance.
The ‘position’ in which these sentences place a reader is very similar to the one we would occupy if we were suddenly deposited on the lawn in front of the house where the buggy is waiting (as we might be by the opening sequence of a film, for example). Yet the fact that the scene is presented through language means that there are certain differences between the reader's experience and that of the detached ‘observer’ in the literal sense of this word. If we were actually viewing the scene, we would see an older woman and a younger woman sitting in a buggy piled high with goods and chattels and we would see the driver perch two little girls on top, where they wobble dangerously. We would see all kinds of details that are not specified in the written text—the state of the weather, the kind of clothes being worn, the nature of the luggage, the colour of the buggy and so on. It might be wrong to assume that features of this kind form no part of the experience of reading the text, for it may be that readers construct some of these details as part of the process of reading. But we can be reasonably sure that they are much less fully specified in reading a book than in viewing a scene (or watching a film) and there must be considerable variation from one reader to another with respect to such specification. There are also certain pieces of information that would be immediately obvious to the viewer that emerge only gradually for the reader—the fact that Lottie and Kezia are young children, for example. On the other hand, the text produces a richer reading in some respects. We know the names of some of the participants: Lottie, Kezia, Pat, Linda Burnell. (If we were watching a film, this information would normally be conveyed through speech.) And we know or can deduce something of the relationships involved—we know that the older woman is a grandmother, for example, from which we may deduce that Lottie and Kezia are her granddaughters. And we may also infer that Linda Burnell is her daughter and the children's mother, though this is certainly not made explicit in the text at this point. Thus, there is a strong metaphorical element in the suggestion that the text places us as detached ‘observers’. In many ways, the experience of reading the text is very different from that of viewing the scene.
Let me consider now a more subtle example of this general point—one that differentiates the reading experience quite significantly from the viewing experience. This has to do with the italicized clause in the sentence ‘The grandmother's lap was full and Linda Burnell could not possibly have held a lump of a child on hers for any distance.’ This clause can plausibly be interpreted as an example of what Hough (1970: 204) calls ‘coloured narrative’, which he defines as ‘narrative or reflection or observation more or less deeply coloured by a particular character's point of view’. In this case, the text seems to indicate a reading in which Linda Burnell has said something like ‘I cannot possibly hold a lump of a child on my lap for any distance.’ A transformed version of this appears in the text, with the name ‘Linda Burnell’ substituted for the first-person pronoun and a change in the tense of the verb such that ‘cannot hold’ becomes ‘could not have held’. These changes are required by the fact that the narrative voice here is characterized by the use of third-person forms and by past tenses. But the question arises: how do we know that this clause has a different status from the one that precedes it (‘The grandmother's lap was full’)? How do we know that it is not simply a straightforward narrator comment? The key phrase, clearly, is ‘lump of a child’. As speakers of English, we know a good deal about the socio-linguistics of this phrase. For one thing, we know that it belongs to a casual, informal register of the language. We also know that it is an expression that an adult might use when having to lift or carry a particularly heavy child. In speech act terms we know that it is a form of complaint and that its elocutionary force is close to insult. In other words, the pragmatics of the phrase make it much more compatible with Linda's orientation to the general situation here than with that of the narrator, who is adopting a neutral stance, reporting events perceived mainly through the visual medium. Thus, a full interpretation of the phrase depends on quite sophisticated socio-linguistic knowledge, with respect to the kinds of contexts in which a phrase of this kind occurs and the kinds of interpersonal relationships that it signals.
It is an interesting question (one that we cannot pursue here) as to whether there is any analogue to ‘coloured narrative’ in visual perception. Linguistic forms and structures carry with them a whole set of social, pragmatic and semantic connotations (a kind of historical ‘baggage’), bringing with them into the text all kinds of indirect meanings and associations from their discursive history. In a sense, phenomena that we observe may also carry certain special meanings or be interpreted in specific ways depending on the ‘viewpoint’ of the observer (in the metaphorical sense). But it is doubtful whether the process of vision as such is characterized by elements that correspond closely to the kind of discursive complexity, the shift from one way of speaking to another, that we find in texts.3 One of the crucial properties of linguistic structure is that it is inextricably bound up with social structures, social processes. In order to comprehend the full significance of this observation, we need to break away from the traditional idea that a language is a single, homogeneous, unitary entity. Rather, texts need to be seen as a kind of patchwork cobbled together out of different pieces, different ‘chunks’ deriving from a wide range of social and historical origins. Particular meanings and forms carry with them a rich set of connotations related to their social origins—connotations which have profound implications for the way in which we read texts.4
One other aspect of these opening sentences requires comment. It is interesting to see here four different ways of referring to people: (a) first name only (‘Lottie’, ‘Kezia’, ‘Pat’); (b) first and second name (‘Linda Burnell’); (c) a referring expression (‘the grandmother’); (d) pronouns (‘they’, ‘them’, etc.). Pronouns are governed largely by textual factors in that they are typically used to refer to entities that have been mentioned in previous discourse. But the contrasts between the other three modes of reference have socio-linguistic significance and they position a reader quite differently in relation to the characters concerned. Various factors are involved in these patterns. The use of first name for the driver is a reflex of the general convention in operation at the time of these events for the use of this style in referring to servants. In the case of Lottie and Kezia the same style is motivated partly by the fact that they are children (alternatively, we might say that this is part of the semiotic process signalling to the reader that they are children) but it also positions the reader as someone who is in an intimate relationship with them and who perhaps feels sympathy and affection for them. By contrast, the use of the first and second name in reference to Linda Burnell is an indicator of distance. There is, moreover, a certain ambiguity here concerning the question of whether this distancing effect is a reflex of the narrator's perspective or whether it relates to that of the children. In the course of the story, it becomes clear that Linda does not have a close relationship with Lottie and Kezia and that most of the love and attention that they enjoy comes from their grandmother.
Similar ambiguities surround the term ‘the grandmother’, given that there are a number of alternatives that might have been employed: ‘Granny’, ‘Mrs Fairweather’, ‘Linda's mother’ and so on. Is this a reflex of the relatively detached narrator perspective, functioning simply to communicate to the reader information about some of the family relationships here? Is it a reflex of the children's perspective, filtered through the narrator voice? Lottie and Kezia are, after all, in the habit of thinking of her as their ‘grandmother’ (rather than as ‘Mrs Fairweather’ or ‘Linda's mother’) and they normally address her as ‘my granma’. Or is it a reflex of Linda's perspective? As the story unfolds, we realize that it is the grandmother rather than Linda herself who deals with most of the practical aspects of running the household, as well as looking after the children. In other words, Linda and her husband Stanley tend to see her as someone who fills a particular role in the household—that of ‘grandmother’, with all the duties that this entails in their view—rather than as an individual in her own right.
The relationship between vision and perception (in the extended sense) forms one of the central themes of ‘Prelude’. As a further example, consider the passage that follows the opening sentences cited above:
Isabel, very superior, was perched beside the new handy-man on the driver's seat. Holdalls, bags and boxes were piled upon the floor. ‘These are absolute necessities that I will not let out of my sight for one instant’, said Linda Burnell, her voice trembling with fatigue and excitement.
Lottie and Kezia stood on the patch of lawn just inside the gate all ready for the fray in their coats with brass anchor buttons and little round caps with battleship ribbons. Hand in hand they stared with round solemn eyes, first at the absolute necessities and then at their mother.
Here, we will focus on the phrases ‘with round solemn eyes’ and ‘absolute necessities’, both of which mediate complex perspectives. The general viewing position is still that of someone standing nearby, contemplating the preparations for the journey, experiencing the scene primarily in visual terms. But the phrase ‘round solemn eyes’ goes beyond the visual. It is one of our beliefs about the world that people's inner states can be ‘read’ in their eyes, in particular that emotions such as anxiety and surprise often cause the eyes to appear ‘rounder’ than normal. Therefore, to say that the children contemplated the scene with ‘round eyes’ suggests something of their perspective. A ‘detached’ observer noticing this feature of the visual scene and placing it in the context of other clues (the fact that the children are standing ‘Hand in hand’) might well see the scene in their terms, understand something of the anxiety that they feel in what is for them an unsettling experience, of moving away from the familiar into the unknown. The predication of ‘solemn’ of ‘eyes’ produces a similar effect but in a slightly different way. In literal terms, eyes do not have the property of ‘solemnity’ in the same sense that they possess the property of ‘roundness’. Whereas roundness is merely an indicator of an inner state, solemnity is such a state. In a sense, therefore, there is an incongruity in using this adjective to denote a property of a physical entity such as a pair of eyes. Yet we experience no more difficulty in interpreting the phrase ‘solemn eyes’ than we do in interpreting ‘round eyes’. It is part of a large set of such phrases which derive from (and propagate) the belief that ‘the eyes are containers for the emotions’ (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 50)—‘sad eyes’, ‘happy eyes’, ‘angry eyes’, etc. Again, however, it should be emphasized that these phrases are interpretable only in relation to a knowledge base that contains such a belief, that interpretation is not purely a matter of reading off the meanings of individual words but of bringing language into interaction with a knowledge base of a particular kind.
The phrase ‘absolute necessities’ also has interesting resonances for the question of perspective. This is another example of ‘coloured narrative’ in the sense that it is ostensibly part of the narrator voice—the voice that is reporting this scene primarily in visual terms—but is in fact taken from Linda's comment reported in the previous paragraph. This phrase therefore begins as an expression of Linda's perspective, a judgement of hers on one aspect of the general scene. On its second appearance in the text, however, another ambiguity arises. Is this sentence to be interpreted as ‘They stared at the luggage which I as narrator have just heard Linda Burnell describe as absolute necessities’ or is it to be interpreted as ‘They stared at the luggage which they had just heard their mother describe as absolute necessities’? If we read it in the latter way, then this inevitably draws attention to the impact that their mother's statement may have had on them. In uttering these words, the mother has in effect identified the luggage as more important to her than the children themselves and we might infer that such a remark would heighten their feelings of anxiety and rejection. Such a perception might in turn provoke in a reader certain feelings of sympathy and pity for the children. In other words the phrase here resonates with three different perspectives, three different sets of judgements: those of Linda, the children and the reader.
Lottie and Kezia are eventually left behind in the care of a neighbour, waiting for the storeman to collect them. Later they wander back to their old house—another experience that is reported in highly visual terms:
The Venetian blind was pulled down but not drawn close. Long pencil rays of sunlight shone through and the wavy shadow of a bush outside danced on the gold lines. Now it was still, now it began to flutter again and now it came almost as far as her feet.
Of particular interest is a small incident when Lottie goes to the dining-room window, which has a square of coloured glass at each corner, one blue, one yellow. Kezia looks through the blue glass and sees ‘a blue lawn with blue arum lilies’ and then looks through the yellow glass seeing ‘a yellow lawn with yellow lilies and a yellow fence’ (14). Two themes are interwoven here. There is something of the child's freshness of vision and fascination with the unusual. There is also a hint of an idea discussed earlier—the notion that the vantage point of the observer is a crucial factor in our perception of the world. Our perceptions (in the sense of interpretations or understandings) are consequently provisional, subject to revision in the light of further experiences. The issue is posed explicitly in the following passage:
As she looked a little Chinese Lottie came out on to the lawn and began to dust the tables and chairs with a corner of her pinafore. Was that really Lottie? Kezia was not quite sure until she had looked through the ordinary window.
This small incident ties together precisely the problematic nature of vision in the narrow sense and interpretation in the extended sense.
If space permitted, we might explore further the way in which the issues indicated above work themselves out in the course of the story. What is so remarkable about ‘Prelude’ is the subtle way in which themes that are central to human experience are developed in the context of a situation that is apparently so banal. From the opening sentences surprisingly complex issues arise in relation to the nature of perspective. This poses the essential problem of the process of making sense of the world. Given the way in which seeing is a function of the vantage point of the observer, to what extent are our perceptions and our judgements reliable, to what extent does our view differ from that of others? All the characters illustrate the theme in some way. But there is a particular fascination here with the children's perceptions. Their freshness of vision, their wonder at the world around them, their curiosity, their search for understanding are perfectly encapsulated in Kezia's question to the storeman as they drive through a luminous night to the new home. ‘Do stars ever blow about?’, she asks; ‘Not to notice’, he replies (17).
Lakoff's (1987) discussion of metaphor, following on from Lakoff and Johnson (1980), raises some difficult issues. In principle, the concept of ‘metaphor’ applies when talk about one domain of experience is structured in terms of a different domain. The issue arising here is: do the processes of understanding and seeing in fact constitute substantially different domains?
Much of this mental ‘baggage’ is, of course, derived from the process of socialization. It consists in the beliefs, assumptions and attitudes that are an integral part of our native culture, defined in terms of such concepts as class, gender, age, ethnicity and so on.
The film medium is another matter. Film-makers can create visual analogues of discursive mixture, by superimposing or juxtaposing images from different social or historical contexts, for example.
This view of language is developed at length in Bakhtin (1981). For discussion, see Lee (1992: 50-1).
Austen, J. (1813/1970) Pride and Prejudice, London: Oxford University Press.
———. (1816/1972) Emma, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1981) ‘Discourse in the Novel’, in M. Holquist (ed.) The Dialogic Imagination, Austin: University of Texas Press.
Booth, W. (1961) The Rhetoric of Fiction, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bransford, J. D. and Johnson, M. K. (1972) ‘Contextual Prerequisites for Understanding’, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11: 717-26.
Doyle, A. C. (1928) Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories, London: John Murray.
Forster, E. M. (1924/1974) A Passage to India, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Golding, W. (1955/1961) The Inheritors, London: Faber and Faber.
Hough, G. (1970) ‘Narrative and Dialogue in Jane Austen’, The Critical Quarterly 12: 201-29.
Lakoff, G. (1987) Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lee, D. A. (1992) Competing Discourses, London: Longman.
Mansfield, K. (1918/1948) ‘Prelude’, in Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, London: Constable.
Moore, T. and Carling, C. (1982) Understanding Language: Towards a Post-Chomskyan Linguistics, London: Macmillan.
Tomalin, C. (1988) Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5163
SOURCE: Lohafer, Susan. “Why the ‘Life of Ma Parker’ Is Not So Simple: Preclosure in Issue-bound Stories.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 4 (fall 1996): 475-86.
[In the following essay, Lohafer recommends a “storiographical” approach to “Life of Ma Parker,” contending that a close analysis of this type reveals otherwise unappreciated complexity in the story.]
She's a widowed charwoman. Yesterday, her loving little grandson, the light of her dreary life, was buried. As servant, wife, and mother, she's the generic British working-class female at the turn of the century—cowed by drudgery and burdened by loss. Her husband, a baker, died of “white lung” disease, and those children who survived the high rate of infant mortality fell victim to other ills of the late-Victorian underclass: emigration, prostitution, poor health, worse luck. This is the “life” of Ma Parker, who comes to work after her grandson's burial, stunned by a grief she can barely stand. Her employer, a “literary gentleman” out of touch with humanity, hopes “the funeral was a—a—success.” What a day! What a life! If only there were someplace to go—certainly not a room of her own, but a corner, a stoop—where she could “be herself” and have, for the first time in her life, “a proper cry.” As the final line says, “There was nowhere” (Mansfield 490).
Katherine Mansfield's “Life of Ma Parker” is an unabashed tear-jerker. The old cleaning-woman keeps her eyes dry, but we're not supposed to. In fact, the emotional bribery is so patent, the assault on pity so bold, it's hard not to dismiss this story as an embarrassing lapse, one of quite a number of stories in which Mansfield's tougher insights and cooler ironies fail to control her sentimentality. The story is dissipated in the emotive response that is triggered too simply and spent too quickly.
At the very same time, there is a quantity of sociological detail, an imaginative empathy, a spare iconography of working-class life that make the story a perfect set-piece for cultural studies. Indeed, in today's climate of social awareness in the literary classroom, it is very hard to find readers—either students or teachers—who will not approach this story primed to talk about gender and class “issues.” Such readers, one would think, are just the ones to appreciate the story.
What often happens, however, is that the issues, valid and important as they are, frame the reading process so exclusively that the story becomes an ideological product. Like Ma's employer, the literary gentleman who takes a passing interest in “this product called Life,” such readers hypostasize the “life” represented in the story (capitalizing Women and Working-class) While they do so with much encouragement from Mansfield, and considerably more insight and sympathy than her male character displays, they, too are allowing the story to dissipate, to escape them.
As both a short story theorist and a teacher, I want to know what we can find in this tale when we do not “spend” it too quickly as sob-story or, for that matter, as protest-story. The question might be worth asking simply because “Life of Ma Parker,” composed in 1920, dates from the same period as those firmly controlled masterpieces, “Miss Brill” and “Daughters of the Late Colonel.” However, it is also worth asking because the sins of this one little story—exaggerated affect, subordination of character to type, social pathology, oversimplified “message”—have all, at one time or another, in various guises and degrees, been charged against the genre of the short story.
While it is obviously true that this one text does not stand for all stories, nor even for one category of fictions (Modernist, impressionist, working-class, feminist, …), I do want to suggest that the approach I am taking can be usefully applied to many a tale that claims our attention, yet resists our engagement, either because (as in past cases I've considered) the story presents special difficulties to the student, or because (as in this instance), it can be grasped too easily.1 Although I have given it other names, I will call this method “storiographical.” It is a way of slowing down the reading process in order to track it more carefully, to net more value from a short[er] fiction.
As a context for what I am about to do, let me first mention two of the more usual ways of approaching Mansfield's story: formalist and biographical. “Life of Ma Parker” is rarely anthologized and hardly ever taught, and then only, one supposes, as a checklist of Modernist techniques: controlled point of view (it shifts deftly from one character to the other in the first half-page), free indirect discourse (we often hear echoes of Ma's speech in the narrator's voice), cinematic flashbacks (with implied fade-ins and fade-outs)2 a pair of famous impressionist images (in the rainy street, “the men walked like scissors; the women trod like cats”), and the signature “open ending” that withholds resolution. Calling students' attention to these technical achievements, to the ways in which the fabula is transformed into the sujet, is certainly worth doing, although there are better examples in the Mansfield canon. Yet, in the case of this rather slim artifact, I'm inclined to agree with the cultural historians: a formalist approach, used alone, is unsatisfying.
More inviting, especially to those who see Mansfield as a tragic figure, are the biographical echoes. The grandson who dies of pleurisy (one of Mansfield's own diseases) evokes Charlie Walter, the sickly little charity-case sent to Mansfield, like an emotional care package, while she was recovering from a miscarriage at a German spa in 1909 (Alpers 98-99). Ma Parker, one of a number of working-class, female “isolatos” (Daly 81-82), portrayed with genuine sympathy and understanding in Mansfield's work, may well derive from one of the servants Mansfield employed over the years, a class of woman she seems to have observed closely. It is tempting to see the unnamed “literary gentleman” as a sly joke on her occasional roommate, fellow-writer, and eventual husband, John Middleton Murry, whose delicate aversion to “this product called Life” often frustrated Mansfield. Or the portrait may be an even slyer, gender-bending parody of her own inadequacies. “The literary gentleman” is royally insensitive, but also awkward and misguided and alone in the world.
However, the relationship at the core of the story—the coy and tender interaction between a child and a mothering grandparent—reaches back into Mansfield's childhood. These scenes strongly resemble more famous ones between Mrs. Fairfield and Kezia in the autobiographical stories “The Prelude” and “At the Bay.” All biographers of Mansfield agree that she never received the love she needed from her withdrawn and self-centered mother, finding some modicum of steadiness and affection in her maternal grandmother, Mrs. Dyer. Thus, in the relationship between Ma Parker and little Lennie, Mansfield inhabits the position of the loving mother she did not have and could not be, as well as the position of the beloved child, which she never was and could not have. A story we disparage for overflowing sentiment looks suddenly efficient, encoding vast amounts of hurt in 202 sentences. The biographical approach shows us, in particularly succinct terms, how art can transform an excess of self-pity. Yet, again, there is more to the story.
It's easy to find that “more” in the social content of the tale. Flashbacks from Ma Parker's own history—her cruel apprenticeship as a cook's helper, her husband's death from an occupational disease, her family's diaspora into the byways of poverty, emigration, and prostitution—read like a lesson in demographics. The good student, therefore, will speak feelingly and expertly about the absence of a welfare net; about the limited social and economic choices for the working-class family; about the class-coded barriers to communication between the charwoman and the literary gentleman; about the gender-coded expectation that Ma should swallow her suffering. These readers will know what the author is telling them: that women like this one were “marginalized” by society. End of story.
“Not so fast, not so fast” is what I want to tell them. But, in teaching as in writing, it is better to show them. So I take what I am calling a storiographical approach, asking them to do an exercise I frequently use and have written about several times. I give them a transcription of the story with the sentences numbered and paragraphing removed (though, in this case, section breaks were marked by Mansfield's ellipses). I ask them to list the sentences that give them a feeling of closure—as if the story could have ended at that point. I must stress, of course, that there is nothing scientific about this exercise. It is merely a heuristic, a way of turning a classroom or two of students into a “distributed reader.” As I have elsewhere shown, this empirically-defined reader, no matter how naive the constituent “real” readers may be, has a kind of wisdom no scholar can offer.
That insight is first revealed in the pattern of preclosure choices. They cluster, almost always, around four or five sentences. Each of these favored preclosure points marks the end of a putative story. So, in addition to one actual story, I get several “new” ones to consider. Since the readers are reacting to markers in the text, these putative stories are, in a literal sense, “authored” or authorized by the writer of that text—Mansfield, in this case. However, by telling readers to look for preclosure, I activate their “story-competence,” their ability (a mixture of intuition and training) to chunk narrative into story-units. Different readers make very different choices, proving that reader-discretion is in play. In a theoretical sense, then, these new stories are reader-generated, reader-authorized. They give us perspective on the story Mansfield wrote.
In the present case, I gave the exercise to two different undergraduate classes at the University of Iowa, for a combined total of 51 readers.3 The ratio of females to males was 38:13, or almost exactly 3:1. The choices for possible endings—what I call “preclosure points”—totaled 159. As I have done in the past, I will focus on one or two choices with special relevance, and then on the set of most-favored choices.
My first discovery was a noticeable gender bias in some of the results. Readers choosing the earliest preclosure points were disproportionately male. The very earliest choice, defining the very shortest putative story, occurred at sentence #15. The sentences leading up to it describe Ma Parker's arrival at her employer's flat, his awkward attempt to acknowledge her personal tragedy, his culminating faux pas, and Ma's response to it. Here is what happens:
S/9: He could hardly go back to the warm sitting-room without saying something—something more.
S/10: Then because these people set such store by funerals he said kindly, “I hope the funeral went off all right.”
S/11: “Beg parding, sir?” said old Ma Parker huskily.
S/12: Poor old bird!
S/13: She did look dashed.
S/14: “I hope the funeral was a—a—success,” said he.
S/15: Ma Parker gave no answer.
S/16: She bent her head and hobbled off to the kitchen. …
Although only one person chose S/15 as a preclosure point, it is not an eccentric choice. The previous sentence ends with inverted syntax (“said he” rather than “he said”), a linguistic marker not unusual in closural sentences. The sentence after it denotes a change of venue—one of the most common and powerful markers of narrative initiative, back-signaling closure in the previous sentence. The target sentence itself, S/15, includes another linguistic closural signal, a negative absolute (“no”).4
If we look at the putative story that would “end” at S/15, it is a minimal one, indeed. Not much more than an anecdote. What “happens” is a failure of communication caused primarily by class difference (note the employer's assumption about “these people”), but also by the difference between a peremptory male and a grief-burdened woman. Although this is not the subtlest of Mansfield's portraits of social and gender difference, it has her deft economy, her needling wit, her fluid sympathy. In the first fifteen lines, the viewpoint is his, not hers. I found it interesting that the only reader who could imagine the story ending here was a male.
Five readers chose S/24, still very early in the text (12٪ of the way through). The literary gentleman has returned to his breakfast, Ma Parker is removing her hat, her coat, and the boots that pinch her feet cruelly:
S/22: To take off her boots or to put them on was an agony to her, but it had been an agony for years.
S/23: In fact, she was so accustomed to the pain that her face was drawn and screwed up ready for the twinge before she'd so much as untied the laces.
S/24: That over, she sat back with a sigh and softly rubbed her knees … [sic]
S/25: “Gran!” [This is the start of a remembered scene with her grandson.]
Once again, a change in venue—this time a dramatic flashback—signals a new beginning, giving closural force to the sentence before. That sentence also features the strongly closural word “over” (in the sense of completed, done), and a heightened stylistic feature (the assonance of “that,” “sat,” and “back” combined with the alliteration of “sat,” “sigh,” and “softly” [Lohafer, “Cognitive Approach” 305-07]). At first, this putative story seems to add little to the anecdote mentioned above, simply following each of the characters off into his or her separate world within this one dwelling, and zeroing in—very much as a close-up might—on the telling image of the aching feet. Note that the viewpoint has shifted. Now it is hers, not his.
Nevertheless, of the three readers choosing this preclosure point, two were male and one was female. Overall, if we look at the choices of sentences prior to S/25, we find that four were made by four different men and two were made by the same woman. This 4:1 ratio of male to female readers is all the more startling when we remember that the ratio of male to female readers was 1:3. At least within the limits of this “distributed reader,” there is clearly a gender bias in the choice of early preclosure points. Male readers were more willing to accept the story as “over” much sooner.
As I mentioned above, it is not my intention to avoid or downplay the importance of social issues in this or any story. My objective is to keep students from plugging in ready-made concepts and responses that say more about their prior classes than about the story at hand. Preclosure exercises are a way of engaging one part of their knowledge, their story-competence, while suppressing—temporarily—another part of their knowledge, their issue-awareness. The purpose is to bring them back to the issues via the reading experience of this particular story.
When I reported my findings to the readers who had generated them, I had their attention. They were as full of questions as I. Why would male readers be more receptive to these putative stories? Why the shortest ones? Why the ones with anecdotal force? Why the ones that depict an encounter between two persons of unequal power and sensitivity, an encounter that encodes the difference without resolving it or absorbing its emotional fallout (here, in response to revelations from the reading experience, was the place for the lexicon of gender relations)? Our answers, our further questions, brought us back to the literary gentleman's treatment of Ma. Why is he so willing to wrap up his response to her, to dismiss it—and her—summarily? To readers who have looked at biases of their own, the reasons seem less simple.
Gender bias on the female side is evident in another choice, which happens also to be the most-favored preclosure point. By the time we reach S/167, we know all about the financial and emotional deprivations of Ma's life; we know that Lennie was the focus of all her love, all her joy, all her hope. Now, for apparently the first time, she acknowledges to herself that yes, she has had a hard life. As this thought gains momentum, as her misery deepens, she realizes she has never cried in front of people. All her life, she has internalized her sorrows, accepting them, going about the business of serving her family, her employer. For what?
S/162: Lennie gone—what had she?
S/163: She had nothing.
S/164: He was all she'd got from life, and now he was took too.
S/165: Why must it all have happened to me? she wondered.
S/166: “What have I done?” said old Ma Parker.
S/167: “What have I done?”
S/168: As she said those words she suddenly let fall her brush.
Thirteen readers (25٪) chose S/167. Twelve were female, one was male. Even with the higher percentage of women in the group as a whole, the gender bias is clear: women were more likely to choose this preclosure point and, consequently, the putative story it caps. None of the other highly-favored preclosure points shows this degree of gender bias. Most show little or none. Not only were women more likely to respond to this sentence, but they did so in large enough numbers to make it the most popular choice overall. Why? If male readers were more willing to wrap up the story as a telling anecdote, why were female readers more willing to end it with an open-ended question that is either plaintive or assertive—or both?
Before we can speculate about these questions ourselves, we need to look at the results of the experiment as a whole. Interesting as it may be to study individual choices that are especially revealing, the wisdom of the distributed reader is to be found, I believe, in the series of putative stories defined by the most-favored preclosure choices. In determining these, I had to decide whether to look only at the individual sentences, or to count, as one slightly vibrating point, a cluster of two or three neighboring sentences that were highly favored. I decided to follow the second course, using only the top five clusters. I've listed them in the order they appear in the story, noting some of the closural signals that helped to trigger these choices:
1. Ten readers chose one of the sentences that end Ma's interaction with her employer. Possibly to redress his own feeling of inadequacy in dealing with Ma's grief, he has just accused her, indirectly, of stealing a spoonful of cocoa:
S/136: And he walked off very well pleased with himself, convinced, in fact, he'd shown Mrs. Parker that under his apparent carelessness he was as vigilant as a woman.
S/137: The door banged. [closural image]
2. Eighteen readers zeroed in on the words bursting from Ma's lips after she reviews her hard life. As noted above, S/167 was chosen overwhelmingly by women:
S/167: “What have I done?”
S/168: As she said those words, she suddenly let fall her brush. [syntactic inversion]
3. Twenty-two readers chose the moment shortly after, when Ma wanders out into the London streets:
S/172: She was like a person so dazed by the horror of what has happened that he walks away—anywhere, as though by walking away he could escape … [sic]
S/176: And nobody knew—nobody cared. [repetition; negative absolute]
S/180: Gran wants to cry.
4. Eleven readers focused on her growing need to cry:
S/185: She couldn't put it off any longer; she couldn't wait any more … [repetition; negative absolute]
5. Nine readers chose the next-to-last sentence:
S/201: And now it began to rain. [temporal marker]
There is no doubt that the true ending is grim. Unfortunately, it is muddied by overdone pathos. Ma looks everywhere for a place to cry, but even her family offers no refuge, for it needs her to be strong. There is no public or private space for her to “be” by herself and for herself. She's utterly alone. “And now it began to rain.” Whether a Naturalist fillip or a Londonesque detail, the drizzle is too much. And yet the very last line, the actual closure of the story, has an echoing bleakness: “There was nowhere.” It is Mansfield chiming in with the empty universe.
The actual story is very sad, indeed. But what of those “new” stories we have discovered along the way? Each has its own kind of force that it contributes, with sequential and cumulative effect, to the text as a whole. By identifying the generic characteristics of each of these putative stories (PS's) and by noting their order and effect, we can locate a meta-structure very different from the usual narrative “grammar.”5 Here is one way of identifying the types of stories we encounter:
PS/1: Social Vignette (When the employer strides off, pleased with himself and letting the door bang behind him, we're left with a story whose “point” is to reveal the character of these two parties to a relationship: male and female; employer and employee.)
PS/2: Epiphanic Tale (When Ma asks “What have I done?” she is, for the very first time, questioning life's equity. This is the primeval “Why me?” At first, the words suggest a desire for information: did she in fact do something to deserve this kind of life? However, as the question echoes in the reader's mind and in hers, it becomes a protest, for she hasn't deserved her pain. There is a dawning awareness of ingrained injustice, although the full epiphany is reserved for the reader as part of the emotional and intellectual modulation effected by the story.)
PS/3: Existential Parable (This is the story that ends with Ma becoming Everyman who suffers. She is compared, rather objectively, to “a person so dazed by the horror of what has happened that he [note the generic pronoun] walks away. …” The closural force of the negative absolute [“nobody knew; nobody cared”] echoes the existential themes of loneliness and abandonment.)
PS/4: Feminist Exemplum (Realizing her loneliness, Ma thinks of Lennie, and imagines herself talking to him: “Ah, that's what she wants to do, my dove. Gran wants to cry.” Throughout her life, her “wants” have rarely been satisfied; more to the point, they have rarely been acknowledged, even by herself. Now, however, in the short declarative statement that ends this story, Ma states what she needs. Behind the third-person of “she” and “Gran,” an urgency is developing, an “I” is emerging. From a feminist perspective, this is a tragically meager, yet relatively great achievement for a woman like Ma.)
PS/5: Psychological Case Study (In another pair of negative absolutes—“couldn't … any longer; … couldn't … any more”—we're told that Ma has arrived at a crisis: she must cry, and she must cry now. Desire becomes decision. The story that ends here brings Ma through diffidence and depression to a point of built-up pressure that threatens to explode. She is on the brink of a crying jag, a flood of tears that would, in both feminine lore and post-Freudian psychology, offer healing release.)
Each of these putative stories is different, even though the basic roster of characters and events remains the same, and even though portions of the text are identical from story to story. Each acts on us differently, both emotionally and intellectually: we are wryly, maybe poignantly amused by the social vignette; moved by the epiphany that questions the moral universe; chilled by the bleakness of the existential parable; stirred by the feminist exemplum, the gain in self-consciousness; satisfied, perhaps cheered, by the everyday truth of the psychological study.
My contention is that our experience of these stories in succession is an integral part of what it means to read “Life of Ma Parker.” I believe this to be true even though, obviously, other preclosure experiments might yield a slightly different configuration of preclosure points, and even though my choice of just five putative stories is arbitrary (those chosen by at least 15٪ of the readership). And, of course, under “normal” conditions, we are not conscious of ticking off preclosure points, and therefore of making our way through a series of putative stories. However, we can “raise” that consciousness by activating story-competence. I must leave to the psychologists the question of whether putative stories register cognitively in normal text-processing, any more than story-grammars or other macrostructures do. What interests me is their power, once hypothesized, to uncover and characterize the much that lies hidden in a “little” text.
The sequence I sketched out above creates a meta-story, one in which Ma Parker questions her fate, stands for Existential humanity, takes a step toward self-assertion, and reaches a critical mass of emotion. Nothing in this sequence changes the sadness of the outcome, but everything in this sequence changes some valence in Ma's life. Momentarily, at least, the emphasis shifts from tallying her losses to appreciating her gains—those barely noticeable ways of “be”-ing more aware, more centered, more dramatically interesting than she has ever been before.
That seems to me the likeliest explanation for the dominantly female recognition of the epiphany story (PS/2). It is the first moment in Mansfield's text where this downtrodden woman says, in effect, “Hey, wait a minute.” It is hardly the sort of breakthrough we would call forceful or heartening, nor does it change any balance of power. We cannot know, finally, whether we hear “What have I done?” or “What have I done?” Guilt or resentment? Submission or resistance? Perhaps the reason women were more likely than men to respond to this line has something to do with their life experiences or their tolerance for ambiguity. I do not know, for I am far less wise than my “distributed reader.”
I do know, however, that the putative stories give me a perspective on the story that raises it in my estimation. Enriched by the added (or, I should say, the elicited) putative stories, “Life of Ma Parker,” like Ma herself, begins to assert itself. It becomes more complex, less easily dismissed, less tidily summed up. I know that it is not enough to cry for Ma Parker. Our emotions—both the jerked tears and the social outcries—are modulated by the putative stories, not only through a changing sense of what the “plot” is, but by a serial subjection to different types of stories.
In the history of short story criticism and theory, the “littleness” of the genre has been sometimes extolled and sometimes excused. Short fiction has usually been seen as a “minor” form, with nothing to offer the narratologist or the cultural historian, that cannot be found in the weightier novel. From various points of view over the years, I have argued that the form's enduring power and interest can be partially explained by the peculiarities of the way it is processed by human beings with story-competence. Novels, even those that embed any number of smaller stories, do not offer the kind of reading experience I have been describing. They do not depend so directly on the sense of storyness, nor do they modulate emotions through putative stories that rest upon each other, yet operate serially.
Whether all short stories work this way, I cannot say, although I suspect they can be seen to do so, with a little help from preclosure study. The results, I believe, will always add weight to the actual story, no matter how slight, or exaggerated, or type-bound it may seem by virtue of being short. I still regard “Life of Ma Parker” as a minor work by a sometimes-great writer, but I do not let my students “spend” it too quickly, as either a sob-story or a protest-story. For me, it is the tale of a Frank O'Connor heroine, a female descendent of Gogol's Akakey Akakeivitch, a member of a “submerged population” for whom life, after a given moment, never looks the same (O'Connor 17-18). Her existential plight, foregrounded in PS/3, reminds me of Elizabeth Bowen's comment on the short story in the modern world: “The short story … [places its character] alone on that stage which, inwardly, every man is conscious of occupying alone” (Bowen 262). Every woman, too.
Yet perhaps the most telling benefit of preclosure study is even more genre-specific. All art transubstantiates life, condensing the field of reference, putting its audience through a symbolically mediated but intensified experience. Theorists have long noted the ways in which the short story condenses much in little through selectivity, ellipsis, foreshortening, and synecdoche. Hemingway's famous image of the mostly-submerged iceberg, to be inferred from its tip, reminds us that this genre requires a proactive reader. However, his metaphor assumes that the “extra” or “full” meaning of the story is amassed below the surface. Finding it requires a calculus of inference. In contrast, the notion of serial preclosure locates the hidden weight of the text within the folds of the narrative; it assumes that the processing of this “extra” meaning is guided by our instinct for storyness as much as our ability to connect images. The reading process itself becomes the means by which our emotions are modulated and our insights refined as we move through a story. Generically, this is one of the primary ways in which a very short text absorbs and reissues a very large experience.
For preclosure studies of a minimalist and a surrealist story respectively, see two recent articles of mine: “Stops on the Way to ‘Shiloh’: A Special Case for Literary Empiricism” and “Preclosure in an ‘Open’ Story: Julio Cortázar's ‘Orientation of Cats.’”
For another instance of cinematic influence on narrative technique in the short story, see Leslie A. Kaplansky's article in this volume.
The first experiment was performed on 1 May 1991, and the second on 11 September 1996. The two classes were comparable in level and content, so the two groups of readers were treated as one population for purposes of this study.
For a list of [pre]closural signals, see Lohafer, “A Cognitive Approach to Storyness.”
For an introduction to other ways of defining meta-structures in narrative discourse, see Beaugrande and Van Dijk.
Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. New York: Viking, 1980.
Beaugrande, Robert. “The Story of Grammars and the Grammar of Stories.” The Journal of Pragmatics 6 (1982): 383-422.
Bowen, Elizabeth. “The Faber Book of Short Stories.” 1936. May 256-62.
Daly, Saralyn R. Katherine Mansfield. Rev. ed. Twayne's English Authors Series. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Lohafer, Susan. “Preclosure in an ‘Open’ Story: Julio Cortázar's ‘Orientation of Cats.’” Creative and Critical Approaches to the Short Story. Ed. Harold Kaylor. Lewiston, New York: Mellen, 1997. 215-34.
———. “Stops on the Way to ‘Shiloh’: A Special Case for Literary Empiricism.” Style 27 (1993): 395-406.
———. “A Cognitive Approach to Storyness.” May 301-11.
Mansfield, Katherine. “Life of Ma Parker.” The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield 1937. New York: Ecco, 1983. 484-90.
May, Charles E., ed. The New Short Story Theories. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1996.
O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. 1963. New York: Harper, 1985.
Van Dijk, Teun. Macrostructures: An Interdisciplinary Study of Global Structures in Discourse, Interaction, and Cognition. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1980.
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SOURCE: Caserio, Robert L. “The Mansfield Moment.” Western Humanities Review 50, no. 4 (winter-spring 1997): 344-47.
[In the following essay, Caserio outlines the defining characteristics of Mansfield's short fiction and discusses her status among English modernist authors.]
Has the celebrated Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) lost a once formidable status among English modernists? In the past, her work was thought of as equal to Lawrence's and Woolf's (she was intimate with them in her brief life); and her writing sounds now like Lawrence's (as in “The Garden-Party”  and “The Doll's House” ), and now like Woolf's (as in “Prelude”  and “Psychology” ). Perhaps it is she who they sound like. Woolf owes much of the form and tone of her fiction about family life to Mansfield's stories about Mansfield's family—especially to “Prelude”; but the Woolf revival of the last thirty years has eclipsed the influence. Mansfield has decisive originality, in spite of crowding by her peers. And in spite of the fact—paradoxically—that she has been so widely imitated in the realm of the short story, her exclusive métier, that her uniqueness has been diluted by the effect of imitations. But the dilution of her originality is a victory too; it argues the dissemination of modernism, thanks to Mansfield's variety of it. It illustrates the way modernism has become our commonplace literary home.
Mansfield's version of the short story is unlike Rudyard Kipling's. His compacts a whole world into a tale. (The global reach of Ronald Firbank's economical novels from the same era show Firbank also affected by Kipling's world-condensing minimalist aesthetic.) In contrast, the hallmark of Mansfield's version of the short story is the suddenly expanded moment, minutiae magnified, rather than a world contracted. The moment being expanded in Mansfield is usually an agonizing one, in which relations fail, and revelations are useless. The agonized moment has two characteristics; the sudden alienation and estrangement of daily life from itself; and resistance to any closure of the estrangement, once it occurs. The momentary agony's effect is enduring suspense; ordinary life is disoriented permanently. The great novelist Elizabeth Bowen who is influenced by both Woolf and Mansfield, describes these phenomena in Mansfield's writing as the “other side” of “factual firmness”: “her other side—the high-strung susceptibility, the almost hallucinatory floatingness,” Bowen calls it.
Bowen believes that hallucinatory floatingness and “fancifulness, fantastic metaphor”—for which there is no better example than the first four paragraphs of “The Man without a Temperament” (1920)—characterize Mansfield's stories about English life, in contrast to her stories about New Zealand. This suggests that the hallucinatory suspense of things in the agonizing moment, the alienation-effects, mirror Mansfield's own uprooting from New Zealand to Europe, to England, to Southern France. But in the New Zealand stories, moving from one home to another is already the central experience. “Prelude” is about a move, but the Burrell family's tradition—they have lived in Australia—is migratory movement, from colony to colony in the Empire. When one of the young heroines of “Prelude,” Kezia, leaves her first home for another, she pays her farewell to the house by looking out through the colored panes of the dining-room window. “One was blue and one was yellow. Kezia bent down to have one more look at a blue lawn …, and then at a yellow lawn. … [A] little Chinese Lottie came out on to the lawn. … Was that really Lottie? Kezia was not quite sure.” One sees home only in the colors of estrangement. Kezia finally uses “the ordinary window” (Collected Stories [Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield], 14) to help recognize her sister Lottie. But the story goes on to show that self-estrangement is what one sees from ordinary windows too. Kezia's mother finds her home, her husband and children less familiar than her surreal dreams and daydreams. Kezia's aunt Beryl agonizes: “‘I'm never my real self for a moment.’ … She saw the real Beryl—a shadow.” The men in Mansfield's world look more self-possessed. But for all her characters home mostly is alienation from home, in the colonies of the Empire and, no less, in the capital of the Empire. The hallucinatory floatingness belongs to a universal migrant population, what the Empire mobilizes—and is identical with. In the colonies the English are displaced persons, curiously like the non-English persons displaced by them.
To name the displacing effects of global mobility and global Empire on Mansfield is to gesture towards the dependence of her stories' moments and their style on a global condition, after all. But both the moments and the style matter, for better or worse, in terms of the autonomy they claim, their resistance to dependence. Mansfield insists on respect for the autonomy of disintegration. One can see the affinity Lawrence, the writer of so many stories about personal disintegration, and Mansfield had for each other. There is less affinity between Mansfield and her elder contemporary Ford Madox Ford—in spite of their common reproduction of agonizing moments. Although Ford's imitation of life in fiction emphasizes the disintegrated character of impressions that rain in on the psyche from without; inwardly, for Ford, a fragile agent tries to resist, to center and to integrate those impressions. Mansfield's artistic practice does away with the psychic center which Ford would enlist for the resistance. The chopping off of a duck's head (for culinary reasons) in “Prelude” is forecast there by Kezia's and her mother's dreams of animal decapitation. The beheadings are emblems of the cutting away of the stories from an artistic equivalent of a central nervous system. What is centrally coordinate is dispersed, just as what is external is dispersed. The stories, from “Prelude” to “The Fly” (1922), in which a distraught father successfully disintegrates his suddenly renewed memory of a son killed in the War, exhibit a formal will to diffuse unities and connections. In “Prelude,” for Beryl a disintegrated self is agonizing; but, recaptured at the formal level, disintegration, the dismemberment of unity, looks like a liberation of art from all restraints, reality included. Why this should be, when the stories exhibit and evoke the tearing pathos of disconnection and diffusion, is mysterious. It is likely that the reason has links with an attempt of Mansfield's to create an artistic discipline which is stoically responsive to death, a novel system for the ventilation of mortality.
Perhaps because of Woolf's latter-day eclipse of her, Mansfield's feminism has been underestimated, even though her stories are about women's lives, and her New Zealand materials study a cross-section of three generations of female community. Equally underestimated, although frequently noticed with aversion, is “Je ne parle pas français” (1920), a story in which Mansfield, writing uncharacteristically in the first person, identifies with “Raoul Duquette,” a gay French writer and literary critic of English fiction, who falls unhappily in love with an English literary critic of French fiction. The Englishman cannot avow his homosexuality, and so cannot return Raoul's devotion; instead, he flees in panic back to England, and seeks safety in his mother's company. Yet, still drawn by Raoul, he is compelled to come back to Paris, this time bringing with him a woman-friend as a defense against desire for the other man. Again, he experiences homosexual panic; again, he runs away from Paris, and this time leaves the woman on Raoul's hands. Although he daydreams about either initiating a romance with the girl (“Mouse”), or else pimping for her, Raoul abandons her. With a tale like this, Mansfield risks irritating readers who see the woman in the story as a convenience, callously treated by the characters and the author; at the same time, Mansfield risks annoying readers who would prefer a more sympathetically done gay character. Mansfield herself made objections to Raoul, but the narrator is surely a creation perfectly matched with Mansfield's artistic character. His pursuit of the panicky Englishman insures a failure to connect with any larger world, and of course he has no inclination to unite with Mouse. He pretends that he is himself a lost girl, Madame Butterfly to the Englishman's Pinkerton; but, while he rather hates his isolation, he lives out the alienation and disintegration which characterize the very form of Mansfield's stories. The Dostoyevsky-like laceration to which Raoul treats himself insures him a remarkable autonomy. In spite of his longing for Dick, in spite of his numerous debts, he is free.
There is one late story of Mansfield's, however, “The Doll's House,” which turns out to be a fable about the way in which the artist's autonomy, however hallucinatory and free-floating it might be in inspiration and in form, is compatible with the desire to make art be not autonomous, not exclusively the housing of autonomous agonized lyric moments, but a miniature copy of the great world outside of fiction. The story returns to the New Zealand children in “Prelude.” They have been given a superb, fully furnished doll's house, whose lifelikeness is summed up for Kezia in “a teeny little lamp”: “‘You couldn't tell it from a real one.’” The children boast about their acquisition at school, and invite their friends to see the toy. But Kezia's family forbids extending the invitation to Lil and “our Else,” who are daughters of a washerwoman and a convict. Kezia breaks this commandment; but when the forbidden girls are discovered on the family property contemplating the house, they are expelled with harsh snobbery by Kezia's aunt. At first the expelled sisters are overwhelmed by shame and hurt. Yet the moment of their recovery comes when “our Else” shyly and softly says to her sister, with a “rare smile,” “‘I seen the little lamp.’” What has happened, obviously, and what has been shown by Mansfield, is that a lifelike miniature, an almost exact artistic double of a real thing, can create such wonder and interest that it has the power to change the real world, as well as to copy it. This model, having inspired a breach in Kezia's class feeling, also consoles the class-damaged children for their hurt, by giving them the liberty to be conscious, in a new way, of what is real. Even so realistic a model or copy of the world can be made, of course, only on condition that a piece of the whole become autonomous enough to stand for the whole. But in this story the independence of art from the world and its dependence on the world seem mutually possible, and mutually transformative.
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SOURCE: Dunbar, Pamela. Preface to Radical Mansfield: Double Discourse in Katherine Mansfield's Short Stories, pp. ix-xv. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997.
[In the following excerpt, Dunbar considers various influences on Mansfield's short fiction and discusses her contribution to the modernist short story.]
In January 1921, just two years before she died, Katherine Mansfield wrote to a painter-friend: ‘I try and make family life so gorgeous—not hatred and linoleum—but warmth and hydrangeas.’1
Yet beneath the ‘hydrangeas’—the material prosperity, the emotional fulfilment, the sense of contentment conveyed by such well-known pieces as ‘Prelude’, ‘The Garden-Party’, or ‘The Doll's House’—there is a persistent sense of malaise; a preoccupation with alienation, with premature death, with sexual maladjustment; above all a disposition to challenge received assumptions about human relationships and the nature of individual identity.
Mansfield then is far from being the ‘safe’ writer the lyrical surfaces of her most famous stories proclaim her to be. She radically questioned all the most compelling myths of personal and public life—the romance of marriage, family happiness, child purity, the grandeur of the artist's task, the coherence and integrity (in both senses) of the individual self, the immutable nature of sexual identity. And she dealt frequently in dangerous, or taboo, subjects relating to the underside of these myths—child abuse and neglect, prostitution and procuration, murder within marriage, wife-beating, sexual deviation, child sexuality. She also broke fresh literary ground by interrogating subjects like sexual bliss, or conveying a woman's subliminal perception of her pregnancy. And she was among the first of the post-Victorians to chip away at received taboos on recording sexual experience.
These two aspects of Mansfield's writing, the lyrical and the subversive, are in some of the best-known stories presented in a layered or contrapuntal manner, with the surface lyricism serving as a cloak for more subversive themes and attitudes.2 Mansfield adopts this method, in part because of the dangerous nature of the material—much of it autobiographical—with which she was dealing; in part in order to reflect the doubleness of the way in which according to her, society and indeed the human mind itself are organised.
It is of course possible to read the stories without acknowledging their subtexts; and indeed this has until recently been the usual approach. But such a partial reading ignores an essential, perhaps the essential, aspect of Mansfield's writing. It has also led to unfounded criticism—that she is a writer of more ‘chocolate-box’ pieces, or that her works exist only on the margins of history, unaffected by contemporary literary trends and divorced from the great social, political and cultural events of her time. And it has resulted in the formation of an unofficial Mansfield canon which favours apparently tranquil pieces like ‘Prelude’, ‘The Garden-Party’, and ‘The Doll's House’ while neglecting other, more patently disturbing works like the satirical German Pension sketches, the confessional monologues, and the early colonial tales—pieces just as accomplished and innovative as the better-known stories.
Mansfield's writings were in fact deeply affected by two events—one cultural, the other social and political—which radically altered early-twentieth-century Europe's perception of itself, and in so doing contributed signally to the formation of the Modernist movement.
The Great War affected Mansfield herself most immediately through the death of her beloved brother Leslie—something which triggered an imaginative return to the early life, and hence the writing of her most accomplished stories. But she also travelled several times through wartime France noting in her letters and journal the disruption that it caused even far from the battle-front. One of her stories is set in the war zone, and several others focus on the devastation it caused in the lives of those bereaved by it.
The second ‘event’ reflected in her writings was less dramatic but just as fundamental in its effect on the European consciousness—the publication by Freud of his early works on sexuality and the mechanism of repression. Mansfield must have known something of these: in the café society she frequented on first returning to London it would have been impossible to avoid hearing about them. But in any case several members of her circle were deeply engaged with his ideas. A. R. Orage, for a time a close friend of hers as well as editor of the journal New Age which published some of her early stories, was a passionate disciple; and Leonard and Virginia Woolf, also friends of Mansfield and the original publishers of ‘Prelude’, produced the first English edition of Freud's works.3 D. H. Lawrence and Frieda were acquainted with his radical views as well.4
In keeping with the general British coyness about acknowledging any acquaintance with Freud, Mansfield nowhere mentions his name. But in ‘Psychology’ (1919?), one of her most intriguing stories, she does refer to the then revolutionary technique of ‘psycho-analysis’—and in a context which makes clear she had an understanding of what it involved. And whilst her declared approach to her art was devoutly anti-theoretical the content and layered structure of many of her stories show what appears to be a considerable debt to the lead metaphor and insights of depth-psychology.
Mansfield was also deeply influenced by writers like Oscar Wilde—literary figures of a generation or so before her own, whose radicalism was as much a matter of lifestyle as of literary innovation. In fact her own life became, like Wilde's, largely the result of a conscious decision to challenge restrictive social and sexual norms in the interests of broader experience and a deeper ‘truth’. There was an early break with her conventional family, and a solitary voyage to the far side of the world to make her name as a writer. There were lesbian affairs, the wild early years in England—including a marriage which only lasted an afternoon, the glamour (and hardship) of what used to be called a Bohemian lifestyle, flirtations with stage and film work. And, though there was eventually a lasting—if unconventional—relationship with the editor and critic John Middleton Murry, there were other affairs, trips across war-torn France—later because of failing health but in her younger years for the sake of passion, an eleventh-hour commitment to Gurdyeyev's mystical teachings.
Though she never abandoned her quest for ‘truth’ this child of respectability did sometimes acknowledge and even pay tribute to those structures which to her obstructed or concealed it. The unconsummated marriage to a friend of only three weeks' standing seems, for instance, to have been a panicky attempt to legitimise a pregnancy; and when she became unable to sustain the deception she allowed herself to be whisked off to Bavaria—out of reach of scandal—by her formidable mother. Alone and desperately unhappy she nevertheless remained there for six months after Mrs Beauchamp's departure.
The closeness of Mansfield's writings to the circumstances and details of her own life—as well as the forthright way that closeness is declared (the names of her most famous family the Burnells, for instance, identify their originals as members of her own family)—also must have constrained her to ‘write double’. Her technique thus accommodates her own need to find some dialogue, however uneasy, between the conventional social manner of her family and her own fiercely independent attitudes, a dilemma caught in Laura Sheridan's plight in ‘The Garden-Party’.
Almost all Mansfield's stories deal with the family: even those which highlight her characters' isolation contain implicit criticism of it as an institution which marginalises and derides those who fail to conform to its norms. And, while paying apparent tribute to the idealised notion of the family as serene and united, most of the stories in fact dismantle this belief. To Mansfield the family unit is basically a site of conflict and tension, threatened both by the individual's unwillingness or inability to conform to the role assigned them within it, and by the dark complexity of the individual consciousness and of family members' relationships with each other. She shows particular concern for connections in which there is striking inequality of power—typically those between child and adult, or between lovers. In almost every case her focus is upon the more vulnerable of the pair.
The traditional notion of the patriarchal father as a benevolent overlord is challenged: but so too is that of his authority, for time and again the woman is found to be the stronger partner in a relationship. And the conventional assumption—made in many Victorian novels—that true significance is to be found outside the home, in the ‘male’ domains of work and public affairs, is also challenged. It is woman's experience and the woman's domain that, as in other key Modernist works, are at the heart of Mansfield's vision.
She frequently represents women as the victims of men. One is battered, several murdered, by their husbands. On a less dramatic level they are consistently subjected by their partners either to social humiliation or to incessant sexual demands. Occasionally it is the men who are the victims. But in almost all cases the illusion of the happy marriage is effectively dispelled: there is hardly a contented couple in the whole of Mansfield's works.
She dismantles the Romantic notion of childhood innocence as well. Many of her children are mistreated or emotionally neglected. They are also shown to be prey to their own inner anxieties, aggressions and sexual fantasies. In a piece so daring that it has remained unpublished to this day, for instance, she evokes a young girl's fantasy of brotherly rape. In her interpretation of the adolescent girl's maturing as the confining of the mobility and imaginative openness of her consciousness within the fixed structure of the adult psyche she also looks beyond the idealised—and developmentally static—child-woman dear to Victorian novelists.
Mansfield challenges not only the Victorian notion of the family but also the humanist's belief in the self as a coherent and unified entity; one open to rational argument, and of fundamental moral probity. In her stories she frequently focuses on the duality and on the perversity of the human mind. And she deconstructs the traditional notion of the creative artist as a bearer of moral authority, in total control of his handiwork, and by tradition male; putting up against this view a democratic notion of the creativity of ‘ordinary’ people—for instance, of women engaged not in high flights of the imagination but in everyday tasks connected with the domestic round.
She also dismantles conventional beliefs about rigid gender-roles and ‘normal’ sexual orientation. This she does both by suggesting that these are at least to some extent the product of acculturation and experience, and by interrogating the rigid nature of accepted male and female roles and identities. In the macho world of the colonial outback, for instance, women display ‘masculine’ aggression; but male settlers too are placed under strain by being forced to live up to an exaggerated notion of the strong-man stereotype. Mansfield's courage in dealing with the complexity of sexual orientation is also shown in her concern with the attraction between members of the same sex—a taboo subject particularly in the years following the Wilde trial of 1895—and with the general mobility of human desire.
Mansfield's writings show a profound appreciation of English and continental literary tradition—including the nineteenth-century French and Russian prose realists. (The Russians were just then coming to the attention of the British reading public through the translations of Constance Garnett, a literary figure associated like Mansfield herself with Bloomsbury.) From them, as well as from the French Symbolists and English Romantics and fin-de-siècle aesthetes, she obtained insights regarding the transformative significance of the Romantics' ‘moment’ of intense feeling, the lyricism of prose-poetry, the potency of myth and symbol, the complexity of the self and the crucial importance of subjective experience, the alienation of the artist, and the interrelatedness of the arts.
One of her most significant formal innovations was to marry the preoccupations of nineteenth-century aestheticism and fin-de-siècle fatalism to a pessimism and sense of cultural, historical and social fragmentation that were brought about (or reinforced) by the experience of the Great War. This resulted in short pieces which with their apparent combination of open-endedness and taut structuring and their use of the subjective lyrical voice, caught both the poignancy and the purposelessness of life as it was perceived in the aftermath of the War. They also contributed signally to the ‘invention’ of the Modernist, or ‘literary’, short story.5
Mansfield's vital role in the creation of the Modernist short story has recently been acknowledged in seminal works by Clare Hanson, Kate Fullbrook, and Sydney Janet Kaplan6 amongst others. The earlier neglect of her contribution was in part the result of a general neglect of the English short story, and a lack of esteem for it. But it also owed something to the nature of the relationship Mansfield as an individual enjoyed with the British cultural establishment. She and her husband John Middleton Murry moved on the fringes of Bloomsbury, welcome no doubt for their talents, their liveliness and their charm. Yet—the one a ‘little colonial’ of unverifiable pedigree, the other irredeemably lower middle-class—they were never entirely accepted by the ‘Bloomsberries’. Scholars and historians of the period have also privileged Bloomsbury.
This bias has particularly affected the relative literary reputations of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Where it was in fact Mansfield with her innovative talents and her stylistic brilliance who was a profound influence upon the writing of her friend (‘I was jealous of her writing—the only writing I have ever been jealous of’)7 it is Woolf, the more socially and culturally established figure, who has generally been credited with these innovations. So the similarities between their writings—Mansfield's almost always predating Woolf's—are referred to by critics as if they were the product of an affinity of minds instead of the influence of one mind upon another.8
The key works here are Mansfield's long stories ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’. Their preoccupation with female and domestic experience, with a multiple heroine, with the gendered aspects of male and female, with the mother's protection of her own identity in the face of her husband's overbearing conduct, with intimations of death in life, with symbolic structuring, all have their equivalents in Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931). In particular the key structural device of ‘At the Bay’, the imaging of life as a single day, is replicated in The Waves. And even the central section of To the Lighthouse, which evokes the death and devastation caused by the Great War, may be seen as an attempt by Woolf to meet Mansfield's criticism of her earlier novel Night and Day for failing to take account of the Great War and its effect on the contemporary consciousness.9
The history of Mansfield's development as a writer is in large part the story of her lifelong attempt to dramatise socially unacceptable insights into the irrationality of the human mind and the perceived fatality of the human situation. Her struggle both to reveal and to conceal this material led to the development of sophisticated techniques of indirection—subtextual discourse (including the use of fairytale and mythic parallels at odds with their chronicle-realist surfaces), linguistic ambiguity, complex and system-free symbolism10—which in turn assisted her evolution of a Modernist rhetoric.
Letter to Anne Estelle Rice, January 1921.
Kate Fullbrook, who alone amongst earlier critics recognises the technical aspect of the ‘layering’ in Mansfield's writings, observes of one story in the German Pension collection, ‘The narrative itself, with its sympathetic, revelatory, outraged view of Frau Brechenmacher's trouble, exists on a completely different ideological plane from that of the world it describes. The method is related to irony but goes beyond it to suggest a fracturing in the realm of values that is signalled by the distance of the ethical commitment of the narration from the world it realistically describes …’ (Katherine Mansfield, Brighton, 1986, p. 56). Some of the Freudian traces in Mansfield's writings are suggested in C. A. Hankin, Katherine Mansfield and Her Confessional Stories, London, 1983, and Sydney Janet Kaplan, Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction, Ithaca, 1991.
The Hogarth Press brought out first two volumes of the Collected Papers in November 1924.
The son-mother relationship in Lawrence's novel Sons and Lovers (published 1913), though based in the first instance on the author's own early life, was clearly influenced by Freud's works, and the later Psychology and the Unconscious (published 1921) demonstrates influence by reaction through its attack on the Freudian conception of the unconscious. During her first marriage Frieda had an affair with a German disciple of Freud, and she and Lawrence are known to have debated the master's views together.
It is now generally acknowledged that literary Modernism was often as much a matter of re-visioning its nineteenth-century inheritance as of overthrowing it: see, for example, Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, ‘The Name and Nature of Modernism’; in Modernism, eds Bradbury and McFarlane, London, 1976, p. 46, for a list of the critics who have so regarded it. See also The Struggle of the Modern, London, 1963, p. 72, in which Stephen Spender observes, ‘The modern is the realized consciousness of suffering, sensibility and awareness of the past.’
Short Stories and Short Fictions 1880-1980, London, 1985; Katherine Mansfield, op. cit.; and Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction, op. cit.
Virginia Woolf, Diaries, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, London 1977-84, II, p. 227 (16 January 1923).
Even those writers who pay tribute to Mansfield's general contribution to the Modernist movement tend to underestimate her innovative brilliance with respect to her better-known contemporary and friend Virginia Woolf—usually by making only tentative acknowledgement of parallels between their writings: ‘Both women were aware of the similarities in their writing’ (Fullbrook, p. 19); Mansfield's ‘innovations in the short fiction genre … preceded Virginia Woolf's use of them’ (Kaplan, p. 3). Besides Fullbrook and Kaplan, see Antony Alpers, The Life of Katherine Mansfield, Oxford, 1980, p. 345, and Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr, Katherine Mansfield, London, 1981, p. 14. However, in her Virginia Woolf, London, 1994, p. 147, Hanson does suggest that Mansfield may have influenced Woolf. (NB Woolf showed Mansfield her ‘Kew Gardens’, often considered seminal in this respect, on 18 August 1917: but by this time the first major experimental Mansfield work, ‘Prelude’—delivered to the Hogarth Press for publication the same August—was largely complete.) There remains of course the fact that both writers were subject to the same influences, aestheticist and otherwise. Either this or a reciprocal influence of Woolf upon Mansfield may for instance account for the similarity in subject and mood, and the general prose-poem effect, in ‘Kew Gardens’ and Mansfield's later stories ‘Miss Brill’ (1920) and ‘Bank Holiday’ (c. 1920).
Mansfield's review of Night and Day originally appeared in The Athenaeum of 21 November 1919, and is reprinted in Katherine Mansfield, Novels and Novelists, ed. J. M. Murry, London, 1930, pp. 107-11: the relevant passage is on page 111.
For a study of Mansfield's Symbolist connections see Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr, Katherine Mansfield, op. cit.
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SOURCE: Winston, Janet. “Reading Influences: Homoeroticism and Mentoring in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Carnation’ and Virginia Woolf's ‘Moments of Being: “Slater's Pins Have No Points.”’” In Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, edited by Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer, pp. 57-77. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Winston explores the connection between Mansfield's “Carnation” and Virginia Woolf's “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points.’”]
On January 9, 1923, Katherine Mansfield died of tuberculosis, from which she had suffered for much of her young life. Yet, Mansfield continued to live on acutely in the minds of those who had known her and her work. Her literary friend and rival, Virginia Woolf, records in her diary how Mansfield haunted her imagination for years (Tomalin 204). For example, just one week after Mansfield's death, Woolf saw a vision of “Katherine putting on a white wreath, & leaving us, called away; made dignified, chosen” (D [The Diary of Virginia Woolf] 2: 226). Five and a half years later, Woolf recounts:
All last night I dreamt of Katherine Mansfield & wonder what dreams are; often evoke so much more emotion, than thinking does—almost as if she came back in person & was outside one, actively making one feel; instead of a figment called up & recollected, as she is, now, if I think of her. Yet some emotion lingers on the day after a dream; even though I've now almost forgotten what happened in the dream, except that she was lying on a sofa in a room high up, & a great many sad faced women were round her.
(D 3: 187)
Three years after this vision, Woolf was still dreaming about Mansfield, “how we met, beyond death, & shook hands; saying something by way of explanation, & friendship” (D 4: 29).1
Numerous critics and biographers have written extensively on this friendship, drawing from Woolf's and Mansfield's letters, diaries, and fiction. They discuss the women's mutual rivalry and jealousy, their criticisms of each other's work and lives, as well as their shared sense of an aesthetic, their mutual influence, respect, and admiration.2 Several critics suggest that one woman had a passionate, perhaps erotic, attachment to the other, while others stress the keen sense of intellectual support they found in talking together.3 As if anticipating Sydney Janet Kaplan's wise warning against “overemphasiz[ing] their competition and thus play[ing] into the stereotype of women as enemies, conspiring against each other for the favors of men” (Katherine Mansfield 146),4 Louise DeSalvo offers an optimistic appraisal of their relationship: it was that which exists between a woman writer and “her ideal reader” (“Cave” 196). More cautiously, Ann McLaughlin characterizes it as “an uneasy sisterhood” (“Sisterhood” 152).
I propose that we think of their relationship—in all of its complexity and indeterminacy (Kaplan, Katherine Mansfield 149)—as one of mutual mentorship. Each looked to the other for approval, intellectual stimulation, and competition as a spur to creative progress, professional opportunities and connections, love and affection,5 and validation of her life's work through a mutuality of thought and vision, or as Woolf describes, “the queerest sense of echo coming back to me from her mind the second after I've spoken” (D 2: 61).
Let us consider for a moment this “echo” resonating between them in its “queerest sense.” How did Woolf's and Mansfield's passion for women influence their mentoring relationship? As I mention above, several critics suggest that the relationship was tinged with eroticism. Indeed, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West, Woolf implies that while she and Mansfield did not actually have a sexual union, the suggestion that they might have had one was not unwarranted: “As for Katherine, I think you've got it very nearly right. We did not ever coalesce; but I was fascinated, and she respectful, only I thought her cheap, and she thought me priggish; and yet we were both compelled to meet simply in order to talk about writing. … I dream of her often …” (L [The Letters of Virginia Woolf] 4: 366). That Woolf and Mansfield's relationship was infused with eroticism seems likely given suggestive quotes such as this one and the intensity of their creative bond. More important to this essay, however, is the question of how they approached lesbian eroticism in their fiction and of what influence, if any, their differing approaches had on each other.
For instance, much has been made of Woolf's dismissal of Mansfield's “Bliss” (1918), her story about a married woman's awakening to her sexual desire for another woman, whom she later discovers to be her husband's lover. Woolf thought the story “so hard, and so shallow, and so sentimental,” revealing Mansfield's own “callousness & hardness as a human being” (L 2: 514; D 1: 179). Critics, and Woolf herself, read such comments as evidence of Woolf's jealousy over Mansfield's literary talents and public recognition. Yet, I wonder if Woolf's horrified response to “Bliss” in her diary—“‘She's done for!’ Indeed I dont see how much faith in her as woman or writer can survive that sort of story”—betrays Woolf's disapproval of Mansfield's portrayal of lesbian desire (D 1: 179). Are we to conclude from this remark that Woolf's response is fueled by homophobia? Is she condemning “that sort of story” because of its overt lesbianism? I think not. For how then do we reconcile such conclusions with Woolf's own passionate desire for women expressed in letters as early as 1903 (Cook 728)? And what of Woolf's criticism of Mansfield in this same passage from her diary for not “going deeper” with “Bliss” (D 1: 179)?
Perhaps Woolf loses “faith in [Mansfield] as woman or writer” or as woman writer because of what she perceives to be the “superficial smartness” of her portrayal of love between women (D 1: 179). After all, in “Bliss,” Mansfield represents a woman's passion for another woman as something foolish, impulsive, and untrustworthy. The protagonist, Bertha, who “always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them” (“Bliss” 340-41), is infatuated with Pearl Fulton and mistakenly imagines the sexual passion she feels to be reciprocal. In contrast, Woolf's early story “Memoirs of a Novelist,” written in 1909, shows women's intimate bonding as genuine, enduring, and to a large extent reciprocal6—a relationship between two “dearest friend[s]” who, according to one, “bear the secrets of my soul and the weight of what the poet calls this ‘unintelligible world’” until the “abyss” of heterosexual marriage divides them (72-73). Woolf's later fiction would provide many inspired portraits of women loving women, often emphasizing an idealized, sacred communion between them.7 In contrast, Mansfield's stories most often represent erotic desire between women as fleshly, exotic, reckless, and menacing.8
With this contrast and their mentorship in mind, I want to return to the passages from Woolf's diary with which I began this essay—to the persistence of Mansfield's presence in Woolf's imagination, to the “sad faced women” of Woolf's dream. Who are these “sad faced women”? The dream suggests an act of collective female mourning. Might these women represent the writers and readers who, like Woolf herself, over the years would be visited by the specter of Mansfield through the power of her artistic vision?
Woolf's image of Katherine's recumbent body surrounded by mourning women uncannily resonates with a passage from A Room of One's Own: “For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice” (65). The metaphoric “body of the people” described here collides with the image of Mansfield's body in Woolf's dream, while the “births” of women's artistic achievements correspond to the death of one woman's masterful “single voice.” It is as if Woolf's dream about Mansfield, recorded just one month prior to her talks at Cambridge on “Women and Fiction” that would become A Room of One's Own, encodes through reverse images—the death of a singular body equals the birth of a communal voice—one of her central ideas about writing, what Jane Marcus describes as Woolf's belief in “a democratic feminist ‘collective sublime’” (“Thinking” 10). In discussing Woolf's famous phrase in A Room of One's Own, “For we think back through our mothers if we are women” (76), Marcus explains that Woolf “saw herself as a link in a long line of women writers; she knew just where her own work fitted and what heritage she was leaving for the women writers who would come after her” (“Thinking” 9).
During the process of writing an early draft of this essay, I had a dream that seems in some way oddly connected to Woolf's dream about Mansfield and that takes up Woolf's notion of a cross-generational trajectory of collective female influence. In my dream, my maternal grandmother, who has been dead for over twenty years, was living in Virginia Woolf's house and had the responsibility of maintaining it for the public. I learned from my mother that upon my grandmother's death, the house would be inherited by a married academic couple, neither of whom had any interest in Woolf. As a descendant of my grandmother and of Woolf's writing, I remember feeling angry and pained that I would be cut off from this joint heritage. Clearly, the dream projects my desire to claim Woolf as my intellectual grandmother, as well as my fear that such entitlement might be usurped by an uninterested heterosexual academy.
Working against Woolf's assimilation into a heterosexual analytical framework, the reading that follows situates two stories, one by Mansfield and the other by Woolf, within a larger tradition of lesbian storytelling and situates itself among other essays of lesbian feminist criticism: reclamations of Woolf and Mansfield that recognize them as writers who shared not only an “aesthetic sisterhood based on shared traditions” (Banks, “Mansfield” 79) but also a passionate love of women. By recognizing women's and specifically lesbian writing as a collective tradition and by acknowledging Woolf's and Mansfield's mutual influence in its “queerest sense,” we might think of Woolf's story as emerging from and in some ways revising Mansfield's.9
Mansfield's “Carnation,” written in 1918 (just a few months after “Bliss”) (L. Moore 107, 115), and Woolf's celebrated “Sapphist story” (L 3: 431) “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points,’” written in 1927, examine homoerotically imbued mentoring relationships, a subject Woolf and Mansfield knew well. Though representing lesbian passion in differing ways, these stories illustrate several of the conventions of lesbian fiction that Catharine Stimpson and Elaine Marks describe: the schoolroom setting, the erotic intrigue between teacher and student, the use of nature imagery to symbolize lesbian desire, and the reliance on Christian and ancient Greek models to reinforce or reject such desire. Both stories represent mentors who model same-sex passion in the classroom and who thereby facilitate the development of a gay consciousness in their students. Within the mentoring relationship, the act of reading becomes the site of narrative tension where the politics of homoeroticism are played out. Just as Woolf's reading of Mansfield's lesbian stories may have influenced Woolf as she wrote her own, so reading in these stories inspires the protagonists to recognize, if not overtly express, lesbian desires of their own.
In “Lesbian Intertextuality,” Marks explains that the schoolroom setting is part of a larger “Sappho model” of lesbian storytelling, which dominates the genre (Marks 356; Stimpson, “Zero Degree” 307-8, 310). According to this model, a seductive female teacher at a women's school awakens one of her “innocent” students to the pleasures of lesbian love (Marks 357). Woolf's and Mansfield's stories follow this model. Set in the schoolroom, each story describes a young female student's psychic and sexual awakening to the possibility of lesbian desire, facilitated by her relationship with her teacher (and, in the case of Mansfield's story, with another student).
“Carnation” is an evocative sketch of a French lesson at a women's college. A teacher reads poetry to his students while one of them plays with a carnation. The young women are bored and fidgety; the room is hot and stuffy. The scent of the carnation wafts from one woman to another.
Read with attention to its symbolism, the sketch chronicles a seduction. “Carnation” loosely belongs to the genre of lesbian fiction known as “the dying fall, a narrative of damnation, of the lesbian's suffering as a lonely outcast attracted to a psychological lower caste,” of which Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness is the touchstone (Stimpson, “Zero Degree” 301-7). Like Hall, Mansfield borrows from Christian mythology to set the tone. “Carnation” revises Genesis, offering a fable of lesbian temptation and knowledge as a fall from sexual innocence.10 In Mansfield's Eden, a seductive female classmate, appropriately named Eve, and a lecherous male professor, M. Hugo, dwell—both predatory beasts out to capture and devour the protagonist, Katie. As if personifying the “sea serpents” and “winged creatures” in Genesis (1.21), M. Hugo wears a “white waistcoat [which] gleamed like the belly of a shark,” while Eve has a “cruel … little thin laugh” with “a long sharp beak and claws and two bead eyes” (“Carnation” 322).11
In place of the apple, Mansfield employs the carnation as the instrument of temptation. Eve “always carried a flower. She snuffed it and snuffed it, twirled it in her fingers, laid it against her cheek, held it to her lips, tickled Katie's neck with it, and ended, finally, by pulling it to pieces and eating it, petal by petal” (“Carnation” 321). On the day the story takes place, she brings to class a “deep, deep red” carnation and tries ensnaring Katie with its intoxicating scent, which Katie initially resists: “Oh, the scent! It floated across to Katie. It was too much. Katie turned away …” (“Carnation” 322-23). Mansfield suggests that once Eve catches her prey she will begin “pulling it to pieces and eating it,” as she does her flowers. The story ends, however, with merely a flirtatious gesture as “she popped the carnation down the front of Katie's blouse” (“Carnation” 324).
In discussing the significance of flowers in Mansfield's work as “a barometer of feeling,” Vincent O'Sullivan cites Mansfield's remark that “even ‘flower pictures affect me so much that I feel an instant tremendous excitement and delight. I mean as strong as if a great band played suddenly’” (Collected [The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield] 3: 263 qtd. in O'Sullivan 124-25). C. A. Hankin explains that Mansfield “had long associated [flowers] with the physical beauty of women” and that her unpublished poem “Scarlet Tulips” (1908) employs images of flowers to express lesbian passions (57):
Strange flower, half opened, scarlet, So soft to feel and press My lips upon your petals A hated restlessness A fever and a longing Desire that moves in me A violent scarlet passion Stirs me so savagely
(qtd. in Hankin 57)
Clearly, the “petals” of the “scarlet tulips” to which the title refers represent the labia of the speaker's beloved.
In another early piece, the incomplete novel Juliet (1906), Mansfield uses not tulips but a carnation to denote lesbian desire. As in “Bliss,” the story involves a triangular relationship among two women and a man. At one point the protagonist, Juliet, must choose between “the Suitable Appropriate Existence” that awaits her back home and “the mode bohème” in London with her best friend, Pearl (“Unpublished” 25). After accepting Pearl's proposal of a lifelong romantic union, Juliet takes to her bed with a “nervous headache”:
After an immeasurable length of time she saw Pearl standing beside her, tall and grave in her black frock with a white feather boa around her throat. … “I feel better for the sight of you. Give me that pink carnation you're wearing and sit on the bed here.” … They suddenly held each other's hand. “To the devil with my relations” said Juliet. “To the devil with our Past Life” said Pearl. “All the way here I have been quoting Oscar's [Wilde's] ‘Relations are a very tedious set of people.’ You know, it has been like a charm. I can wait no longer.”
(“Unpublished” 26; emphasis added)12
Here, as in “Carnation,” the carnation signifies sexual desire between women as an irresistible temptation.
Mansfield's reworking of Genesis in “Carnation” does not end with her lesbian version of Eve's temptation and fall. For Genesis also contains the destruction of Sodom (ch. 19), commonly interpreted “as an angry God's punishment for the homosexuality of the [town's] inhabitants” (Alyson 11). While Mansfield avoids the “brimstone and fire” of the biblical story (19.24), she does portray same-sex passion in “Carnation” as menacing and potentially destructive. Furthermore, just as interpretations of the story of Sodom expressly allude to sex between men, Mansfield's story alludes to gay male coupling.
The connection between “Carnation” and another story—Robert Hichens's The Green Carnation (1894)—underscores the subtext of male homosexuality in Mansfield's “Carnation.” Hichens's fictional spoof of Oscar Wilde describes how Mr. Esme Amarinth (Wilde) and his young “friend,” Lord Reginald Hastings (Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas), set about to find “Reggie” a rich wife so that they may pursue aesthetic posing and avid young boys in their “cult of the green carnation” (Hichens 207; Alyson 79, 199). The green carnation symbolizes homosexuality as an unnatural, cliquish pose, antithetical to true love, and imposed upon young schoolchildren: “[I]n their [Amarinth's and Lord Hastings's] buttonholes large green carnations bloomed savagely” (Hichens 56)—carnations that “never bloom on walls at all” (Hichens 22) but instead are “artificially coloured” (Hichens 208). In seducing a young admirer into the “cult” of homosexuality, Reggie gives his initiate a green carnation and tells him to “worship its wonderful green” unnaturalness (Hichens 151). As an ardent admirer of Wilde, Mansfield must have heard of Hichens's ugly attack on her mentor, as well as Wilde's own habit, after the French, of wearing a green carnation as a gay signifier (Butler, Bodies 160).
Borrowing the carnation as a symbol of gay passions from this mocking account of Wildean aestheticism and gay hauteur, Mansfield transforms Hichens's preoccupation with pederasty into an account of lesbian seduction in which both student and teacher collude. While Eve entices Katie with her “unnatural” red carnation—“that looked as though it had been dipped in wine and left in the dark to dry” (“Carnation” 322)—M. Hugo suggestively recites French poetry:
He would begin, softly and calmly, and then gradually his voice would swell and vibrate and gather itself together, then it would be pleading and imploring and entreating, and then rising, rising triumphant, until it burst into light, as it were, and then—gradually again, it ebbed, it grew soft and warm and calm and died down into nothingness.
The great difficulty was, of course, if you felt at all feeble, not to get the most awful fit of giggles. Not because it was funny, really, but because it made you feel uncomfortable, queer, silly, and somehow ashamed for old Hugo-Wugo. But—oh dear—if he was going to inflict it on them in this heat!
Clearly, the description of the crescendo and diminuendo of M. Hugo's voice suggests the tumescence and detumescence of penile erection and ejaculation. The women's feeling of discomfort and their sense of shame underscore his sexual violation of them. His effect is not just emotional but also physical: “He began, and most of the girls fell forward, over the desks, their heads on their arms, dead at the first shot” (“Carnation” 323). When he has finished with them, he thanks the “‘ladies,’ … bobbing at his high desk, over the wreckage” (“Carnation” 324).
While M. Hugo's display is ostensibly heterosexual, it coincides with the vigorous movements of the stableman outside as if the men were engaging in a passionate homoerotic union:13
Now she could hear a man clatter over the cobbles and the jing-jang of the pails he carried. And now Hoo-hor-her! Hoo-hor-her! as he worked the pump, and a great gush of water followed. …
She saw him simply—in a faded shirt, his sleeves rolled up, his chest bare, all splashed with water—and as he whistled, loud and free, and as he moved, swooping and bending, Hugo-Wugo's voice began to warm, to deepen, to gather together, to swing, to rise—somehow or other to keep time with the man outside (Oh, the scent of Eve's carnation!) until they became one great rushing, rising, triumphant thing, bursting into light, and then—
The whole room broke into pieces.
This climax—suggesting a gay male couple's simultaneous orgasms under a female and lesbian gaze—complicates any univocal reading of “Carnation” as the story of a man sexually exploiting his women students. M. Hugo's performance awakens Katie physically, if unconsciously, to the possibility of sexual fulfillment in same-sex relations. M. Hugo functions as a gay role model. By watching her teacher “keep time with the man outside,” Katie lets herself be aroused by “the scent of Eve's carnation.”
Of course, this does not diminish the story's disturbing implications: that a woman's awakening to her desire for another woman requires entrapment, and that such entrapment involves not only unwanted lesbian advances but also forced participation in an all-pervasive and threatening male sexual display. Mansfield's choice of words at the figurative and literal climax of the story—the “Hoo-hor-her!” of the pump during the men's eroticized synchronism (“Carnation” 324)—underscores this entrapment. The onomatopoeic phrasing suggests the exclamation (or, perhaps, interrogation) “Who whore her,” i.e., who “corrupted” her.
Who or what corrupted Mansfield, we may ask, for her to represent lesbian eroticism as something sinister and feared? In a letter to her friend Dorothy Brett, Mansfield describes “Carnation” as “just a sort of glimpse of adolescent emotion,” and to her husband, John Middleton Murry, she writes, “I meant it to be ‘delicate …’” (Collected [Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield] 2: 260, 203). Mansfield's “delicacy” refers, perhaps, to her handling of her Queen's College years, the time spent between 1903 and 1906 as a teenager at school in London developing her literary skills and imagination, as well as several intimate emotional and physical attachments to women.14 One of these relationships, her complicated friendship with Ida Baker, to whom she later referred as her “wife,” would prove to be the longest, most enduring bond in Mansfield's life and one of the most important.15 Another woman, Vere Bartrick-Baker—with whom, evidence suggests, Mansfield was emotionally as well as sexually involved16—served as the model for Eve in “Carnation” (Tomalin 25; L. Moore 26).
According to several biographers, it was Bartrick-Baker (also known as Mimi or Eve) (Crone 26) with whom Mansfield “sat in the dark shadowy niches of the Hall [at Queen's College], holding hands,” discussing writers, such as the Decadents, and with whom she was “suspected of immorality” (Mantz and Murry 198).17 And, significantly, it was she who “first lent Kathleen the book [Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray]” (Mantz and Murry 211) “in its original, unexpurgated form” (Alpers 35). Together Mansfield and Bartrick-Baker developed a sexually imbued mentorship with their German professor, Walter Rippmann. He invited them, along with other of the College's attractive and inspiring young women, to intellectual soirées at his home and “encouraged them to read modern writers, the Symbolists and Decadents and social reformers,” including Wilde, “advis[ing] the girls on the necessity of … avoidance of the Seven Deadly Virtues” (Tomalin 25).18 In Mansfield's “A Fairy Story,” Rippmann gives just such advice, appearing as “the Wanderer who woke her [the Girl] from her sweet child's dream, to give her the key to the book of knowledge” (Mantz and Murry 209-10).
By introducing Mansfield to Wilde's writing, both Bartrick-Baker and Rippmann would be forever linked with Wilde in Mansfield's imagination and with Wilde's influence on her life and work. Sydney Janet Kaplan describes this influence as both stylistic and sexual (Katherine Mansfield 25): “Obviously, Wilde did not influence her desires [for women], but his ideas allowed her a space in which such desires might be recognized and named” (Katherine Mansfield 22-23). Because of Mansfield's own awareness and internalization of homophobia, however, Wilde served as both “model and terror, her impetus toward the idolization of art as a means of controlling the forbidden while allowing it, nonetheless, oblique expression” (Kaplan, Katherine Mansfield 26, 35). In describing this “difficult influence,” Kaplan quips: “If ‘Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book’ … there must have been times when Mansfield felt she had been poisoned also” (Katherine Mansfield 32).
In Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, the protagonist, Dorian, is fascinated with a book, written in the style of the Symbolists (116), in which “the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed” (115). Dorian “could not free himself from the influence of this book” (117) and indeed feels compelled to live out the “sins” represented in it, including his own implicit homosexuality.
To be “poisoned by a book” à la Wilde resembles Katie's situation in “Carnation.” While M. Hugo reads aloud from a book of French poetry, Katie cannot stop herself from fantasizing about gay sex or resist becoming intoxicated by the scent of Eve's carnation. Clearly, Mansfield's mentor Rippmann—who introduced her to Paul Verlaine19 and Wilde—was a model for the overly expressive M. Hugo.20 In underscoring the influence reading has on Katie's awareness of homoeroticism, Mansfield pays tribute to her mentors—Rippmann, Bartrick-Baker, and Wilde—who, in differing ways, influenced her sexually, intellectually, and aesthetically.
Yet, this tribute is mixed. As Kaplan observes, such influences relied on a Decadent male model of art and sexuality, whose views of women were less than flattering (Katherine Mansfield 28-31). Noting the problematic picture of women in Dorian Gray, Kaplan explains:
[T]he call to burn oneself out for experience, to destroy the body in service to art, and all those other exaggerated aesthetic poses were intended rather to suggest a certain kind of masculine initiation into art. The physical beauty of Dorian was a lure for male sexual desire, his insatiable lust for experience a male prerogative. Wilde's focus is on men with the freedom of men; women are only the objects of their intermittent attention—and of their scorn.
(Katherine Mansfield 28)
Kaplan's comments offer an important, if incomplete, feminist gloss on Wilde's influence on Mansfield. For how did Wilde's Decadent values specifically affect Mansfield's lesbianism? What sort of Wildean legacy do we find in Mansfield's portrayal of desire between women?
Perhaps it was this Decadent emphasis on momentary sensual experiences—what Dorian Gray calls “a new Hedonism” (120)—that disturbed Virginia Woolf about “Bliss.” Certainly “Carnation” shares this volatile sensuality; and, more so than “Bliss,” it models lesbian desire on the Decadents' view of homosexuality as something delightfully dangerous and exciting because it is unnatural and unwholesome (Beckson and Ganz 56). However, Woolf was probably more troubled by Mansfield's depiction of a lesbian eroticism intimately tied to men and to male sexual expression. For in her own life, Woolf experienced sexual relations with women as passionate and satisfying, whereas those with men were unfulfilling or abusive (Cook; DeSalvo, “Cave”; McNaron, “Albanians”). And while in 1925 Woolf marveled that “[t]hese Sapphists love women; friendship is never untinged with amorosity” (D 3: 51; emphasis in original), she viewed male homosexuality with distaste, comparing a “Buggery Poke party” of her gay male friends to a “male urinal; a wet, smelly, trivial kind of place” (L 4: 200).
Certainly their misogyny fueled much of Woolf's disdain for her gay male friends, as Jane Marcus argues convincingly: “for women like Virginia Woolf, the homosexual men of Cambridge and Bloomsbury appeared to be, not the suffering victims of heterosexual social prejudice, but the ‘intellectual aristocracy’ itself, an elite with virtual hegemony over British culture” (“Sapphistry” 177). These men, Marcus reminds us, rejected feminist and lesbian causes in favor of maintaining their patriarchal privilege at women's expense (“Liberty” 76; “Sapphistry” 164, 177-78).
However, Woolf's disparaging remarks about homosexuals were not limited to gay men; she had ambivalent feelings about lesbians as well. For example, in a letter dated 1925, she denigratingly describes gay men and then moves on to women, proclaiming: “I can't take either of these aberrations seriously” (L 3: 155-56). Yet, significantly, Woolf then confesses to wanting Vita Sackville-West, who is “violently Sapphic,” “to elope with me next” (L 3: 155-56). And Woolf was indeed happy when she did. At the height of this passionate love affair, Woolf wrote “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points’” (Olano, “Women” 164; DeSalvo, “Cave” 197).
I mention earlier that we might think of “Slater's Pins” as Woolf's revision of “Carnation.” In place of Mansfield's reluctant pupil coerced into desiring women, Woolf creates a protagonist whose sexual awakening is a private mental journey inspired by a beloved teacher. Whereas “Carnation” revises Genesis, maintaining its tone of seduction and violation, “Slater's Pins” rewrites heterosexual myths of Sappho, climaxing in lesbian ecstatic wonderment.
Several narrative details in “Slater's Pins,” as well as Woolf's references to it as “Sapphist” in letters to Sackville-West, support my reading of the story as both lesbian and Sapphist—that is, participating in the lesbian-feminist reclamation of the much mythologized poet.21 The classroom setting and the intrigue between student and teacher conform to the “Sappho model” that Marks elucidates; Woolf's choice of discipline—music—as the story's focus underscores her feminist intentions. According to Perry Meisel, the schoolteacher protagonist, Miss Julia Craye, is modeled after Woolf's first Greek and Latin tutor, Clara Pater (22-24). By making Julia a musician, then, Woolf transforms the languages literally taught her by her tutor—the classics, that bulwark of the patriarchal British educational system—into a musical language evocative of Sappho's poetic songs. As the speaker of Sappho's Fragment 160 V. says, in what Jane McIntosh Snyder contends is “a programmatic statement of Sappho's poetic mission,” “Now I will sing beautifully / to delight my women companions …” (94-95). Of course, the connection between Woolf's story and Sappho's poetry goes beyond the musical focus and the intended female audience. As Gillian Spraggs notes, “Sappho, time and again, took up her lyre to sing … about the physical attraction she felt for some of her women friends and about their attachments to each other …” (54).
Such rewriting of patriarchal “truths” through woman-centered fantasies informs both theme and structure in “Slater's Pins.” As James Hafley notes in an early critique, “[t]he ‘action’ of the short story—what it imitates—is not at all the past life of Julia Craye, but the mind of [her pupil] Fanny Wilmot engaged in the composition of that life …” (13). Unfortunately, patriarchal notions of reality cloud Fanny's mind (and, alas, Hafley's too), obscuring an awareness of Julia's lesbianism (Baldanza; Clements 17-18, 20-21). Thus, Fanny initially reads Julia's spinsterhood as a pitiful “problem” (“Slater's Pins” 217, 219); attempting to explain it, Fanny invents a heterosexual seduction scenario in which a supposedly staid and frigid Julia rebuffs a male suitor:
They [Julia and Mr. Sherman] looked at the Serpentine. He may have rowed her across. … She sat hunched a little, a little angular, though she was graceful then, steering. At the critical moment, for he had determined that he must speak now—it was his only chance of getting her alone—he was speaking with his head turned at an absurd angle, in his great nervousness, over his shoulder—at that very moment she interrupted fiercely. He would have them into the Bridge, she cried. It was a moment of horror, of disillusionment, of revelation for both of them. I can't have it, I can't possess it, she thought. He could not see why she had come then. With a great splash of his oar he pulled the boat round. Merely to snub him? He rowed her back and said good-bye to her.
(“Slater's Pins” 218)
Seen from the man's point of view, the only perspective afforded Fanny at this point, this sexually laden scene—a kind of verbal “intercourse interruptus”—represents Julia's failure to respond appropriately to the man's desire to propose marriage. Julia's imagined thoughts, “I can't have it, I can't possess it,” echo earlier lines, all of which suggest, until the conclusion, Fanny's belief in her teacher's inability to connect physically and passionately with another person.
Yet, Woolf offers her readers another perspective if—following the example of Julia, who steers clear of the bridge and the marriage proposal—they circumvent the monolith of compulsory heterosexuality. Both Jane Marcus and Joan DeJean describe Woolf's familiarity with fallacious histories of Sappho that represent the poet as chaste or heterosexual (Marcus, “Liberty” 88-89, 92; DeJean 278, 308-11, 357 n. 6). One centuries-old story claims that Sappho was in love with a man whose desertion of her for a younger woman prompted her anguished suicide (DeJean 51-52). As DeJean explains, contemporary Sappho scholars believe that this story was concocted from an allusion to a mythical male figure in one of Sappho's poems: either Phaon or Phaethon (52). According to Greek legend, Phaon is the boatman who ferries Aphrodite free of charge while she is disguised as an old woman. After rewarding him with youth and good looks, she develops a possessive love for him (DeJean 52; Harvey 320). Phaethon is Helios's reckless son, who, after losing control of the sun's chariot, is struck by Zeus's thunderbolt and falls to his death into the river Eridanus (DeJean 52; Harvey 319).
The boating scene in “Slater's Pins” uncannily resonates with both of these legends. Mr. Sherman is Phaon and Phaethon: he offers his services as boatman for free (actually, he expects to be rewarded, but Julia refuses his marriage proposal), and he loses control of his craft (albeit narrowly avoiding falling into the river). Yet, in rewriting these classical myths, Julia and Woolf, following Sappho's lead, “[refuse] to legitimate androcentric erotic scenarios …” (DeJean 52): Julia, by rejecting the boatman's marriage proposal; Woolf, by repudiating the myths of Aphrodite and Sappho as scorned women. The fact that Fanny constructs a heterocentric biomythography22 about Julia to explain her unmarried status underscores Woolf's attack on a tradition of Sappho scholarship aimed at inventing biographies for the poet in order to deny the lesbian content of her lyrics.
In the tradition of Sapphic scholars, Mr. Sherman, and Phaethon before her, Fanny—musing on her teacher's life—veers off course (DeJean 52).23 Yet, another Sapphic moment in the story alters Fanny's perspective:
Fanny Wilmot saw the pin on the carpet; she picked it up. She looked at Miss Craye. Was Miss Craye so lonely? No, Miss Craye was steadily, blissfully, if only for a moment, a happy woman. Fanny had surprised her in a moment of ecstasy. She sat there, half turned away from the piano, with her hands clasped in her lap holding the carnation upright, while behind her was the sharp square window, uncurtained purple in the evening, intensely purple after the brilliant electric lights which burnt unshaded in the bare music room. Julia Craye sitting hunched and compact holding her flower seemed to emerge out of the London night, seemed to fling it like a cloak behind her. It seemed in its bareness and intensity the effluence of her spirit, something she had made which surrounded her, which was her. Fanny stared.
(“Slater's Pins” 220; emphasis added)
According to Avrom Fleishman, Fanny's finding the pin—which, along with a carnation, falls to the floor in the story's opening—is the catalyst for her changed perception of Julia: the recovery of the phallic object facilitates an unconscious understanding of her teacher's lesbianism (“Forms” 61-62).24 Yet, more striking than this pin is the image of Julia flinging the purple cloak of night behind her—“the effluence of her spirit,” Woolf informs us.
Discussing the significance of the color purple to lesbian and gay culture, Judy Grahn notes that in the “precious remnants [of Sappho's poems] she made seven references to the color purple, five to violets or ‘violet-colored,’ and two to purple hyacinths. Love, she said, wore a purple mantle” (Mother 10). According to the Greek rhetorician Pollux, in a translation by David A. Campbell, “They say that Sappho was the first to use the word […] ‘mantle,’ when she said of Eros [in Fragment 54]: … ‘who had come from heaven clad in a purple mantle.’”25 Gillian Spraggs translates this line as “having come from heaven wearing a purple cloak” (58).
Fanny's radical revisioning of her teacher's life when she sees her wearing her “purple cloak” corresponds to Woolf's reanimation of Sappho's spirit in the fictional body of her work, specifically in the character of Julia Craye. The scene inscribes the presence of the Greek poet, who sang songs of women's desire for women to her female audience and wrote of love personified in a purple cloak. It is this presence—of Sappho's spirit, of lesbian love—that awakens Fanny to the possibilities for happiness in her teacher's life (and, indeed, in her own).
The cloak also appears in an earlier scene, which is filtered through Fanny's memory: “Julia Craye had said, ‘It's the use of men, surely, to protect us,’ smiling at her that same odd smile, as she stood fastening her cloak, which made her, like the flower, conscious to her finger tips of youth and brilliance, but, like the flower too, Fanny suspected, inhibited” (“Slater's Pins” 217; emphasis added). The intentionally vague use of personal pronouns here, she and her referring to Julia and Fanny, serves to confuse and conflate the characters.26 This passage signals Fanny's awareness of her own attractiveness, as seen through Julia's eyes, and both her and her teacher's restraint in openly acknowledging such attraction. Is it Julia's smile or her cloak “which made her” conscious of this attraction?
When read with this slippage of pronouns intact, the passage suggests that Fanny and Julia identify with the flower and actually see their emotional states reflected in it. A diary entry underscores Woolf's concern with the woman and the flower (rather than with the pin, as is Fleishman's concern): “I am now & then haunted by some semi mystic [sic] very profound life of a woman, which shall all be told on one occasion; & time shall be utterly obliterated; future shall somehow blossom out of the past. One incident—say the fall of a flower—might contain it” (D 3: 118). This notion of collapsing the future into the past through the process of telling the life of one woman evokes the images of Sappho with her lyre, Mansfield on her couch, and Judith Shakespeare in her unmarked grave (AROO 46-51). According to Catharine Stimpson, “the lesbian writer calls on myth[s]: prehistorical matriarchies; the Amazons; Sappho and her school” because of “their ability to evoke atemporal resonances within narratives that are separate from such patriarchal religious structures as the Catholic Church. …” (“Zero Degree” 310). Yet what kind of power does a flower hold for Woolf and for the reader of her story so that its blossoming might obliterate time?
As Stimpson explains, images of nature, such as flowers, serve as “standard tropes [of lesbian passion] carry[ing] the implicit burden of dissolving the taint of ‘unnatural’ actions through the cleansing power of natural language” (“Zero Degree” 306). In their writings on Mansfield and Woolf respectively, Sydney Janet Kaplan and Patricia Cramer read images of flowers as explicit references to the female body and lesbian lovemaking (Kaplan, Katherine Mansfield 49-50; Cramer, “Underground” 184-86).
Both “Slater's Pins” and “Carnation” employ flower imagery to represent their female characters' underlying sexual feelings for other women. The symbol of flowering passion is specifically a carnation, which passes from the hands of one woman (the woman who is sexually aware) to the breasts of the other. The eroticized descriptions of the women handling the carnations—the movement of their fingers and mouths, and their delight in pressure, taste, and scent—suggest forms of lesbian lovemaking (Levy 89; Clements 16-17). In Woolf's story, upon finding the flower that has fallen from Fanny's dress, Julia “crushed it … voluptuously in her smooth, veined hands. … The pressure of her fingers seemed to increase all that was most brilliant in the flower; to set it off; to make it more frilled, fresh, immaculate” (“Slater's Pins” 217). Later, during the scene in which Fanny recognizes Julia's happiness and ecstatic love, her teacher is holding the carnation upright in her lap (“Slater's Pins” 220).
Underscoring the emblematic eroticism in Woolf's descriptions, the carnation itself (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) is tied to several (obsolete) meanings and etymological forms—“the colour of human flesh,” “incarnation,” and “coronation”—which suggest carnality, embodiment, and ritual. In both stories, the carnation embodies the women's mutual carnal desires, while the ritual of exchanging the flower signifies the protagonists' awakened sexual feelings. At the end of “Slater's Pins,”
She [Fanny] saw Julia open her arms; saw her blaze; saw her kindle. Out of the night she burnt like a dead white star. Julia kissed her. Julia possessed her.27
“Slater's pins have no points,” Miss Craye said, laughing queerly and relaxing her arms, as Fanny Wilmot pinned the flower to her breast with trembling fingers.
The conclusion reverses Fanny Wilmot's unwillingness (Fanny “Will not”) to see her teacher's lesbianism and with it Fanny's own desire for her. Where she once saw “perpetual frustration” in Julia, who “did not possess it [the carnation], enjoy it, not altogether” (“Slater's Pins” 217), she now sees sexual consummation, imagining herself as Julia's willing partner. Fanny's returning the newly consecrated carnation to her breast with trembling fingers suggests fear, excitement, and specifically lesbian desire.
“Slater's Pins” depicts metaphorically what “Carnation” represents literally: from reading comes knowledge; from teaching, influence. Katie discovers her passions as a result of being seduced by her teacher's reading;28 Fanny learns to read the narrative of her teacher's life and thereby gains insight into her own desires.
The point of “Slater's Pins” seems to be, as the title tells us, that there is no point: that is, no phallic presence. In “choosing her pleasures for herself” (“Slater's Pins” 220), Julia forgoes marriage and elects to serve instead as a Sapphic model of lesbian passion and female artistic accomplishment for other women, such as her “favourite pupil,” Fanny (“Slater's Pins” 216)—a mentoring role Woolf advocates in much of her work (Marcus, “Liberty” 92; “Taking the Bull” 144; “Sapphistry” 164, 172).
In “A Woman's College from Outside,” for example, women teachers and students spiritually bond at night by means of a vaporous, erotically charged laughter that pervades their beds so that while “reposing deeply, they [Elderly women … who would on waking immediately clasp the ivory rod of office] lay surrounded, lay supported, by the bodies of youth recumbent or grouped at the window; pouring forth into the garden this bubbling laughter, this irresponsible laughter: this laughter of mind and body floating away rules, hours, discipline: immensely fertilising …” (“Woman's College” 147; emphasis added). Here and in “Slater's Pins,” Woolf celebrates cross-generational bonding among women as a mystical and erotic force that nurtures women's intellectual and emotional growth (Marcus, “Sapphistry” 172). As a component of the pedagogical relationship, such bonding through admiration and desire enables Fanny to see “back and back into the past behind her” (“Slater's Pins” 220)—from Fanny through Julia to Sappho—to see her own place in the generations of inspired and inspiring women who love and sustain each other.
I began this essay by recounting Woolf's dreams about Mansfield and my own dream about Woolf—unconscious connections with mentors forged in sleep akin to the bonding in “A Woman's College from Outside.” Mansfield, too, had this type of dream. In a 1920 letter to her husband, she recounts two dreams: In the first, her friend Beatrice Hastings accuses Mansfield of being a “femme marquée,” presumably for her flirtations with lesbianism,29 and later in the dream a group of women from the Salvation Army ask her if she is corrupted (Letters and Journals 196-97). In the second dream, after meeting Oscar Wilde in a cafe, Mansfield invites him to her parents' home for a late night chat. Both repelled by and attracted to him “as a curiosity”—“He was fatuous and brilliant!”—Mansfield lives in fear that her parents will discover his presence “in one of the chintz armchairs” (Letters and Journals 197). In the rest of the dream, Wilde describes his shame at being haunted by a vision of a creme-filled pastry while in prison for homosexuality (197-98). Clearly, the two dreams encode Mansfield's terror of having her own homosexual proclivities exposed.30
Given the Decadent legacy that Mansfield inherited from Wilde, as well as her fears about her desire for women, it is not surprising that “Carnation” forgoes the celebratory Sapphic model of lesbian passion embraced by Julia and by Woolf herself. Yet, just as Fanny looks “back and back into the past behind her” in order to read her mentor's and thus her own lesbianism, so too Woolf and I look back on Mansfield—admiring her artistry, noting her place in a lesbian tradition, reshaping her vision to fit our own.
I want to thank Eileen Barrett for alerting me to Woolf's dreams about Mansfield.
See Alpers; Banks, “Mansfield”; Q. Bell; DeSalvo, “Cave”; Gubar; Kaplan, Katherine Mansfield; McLaughlin; Angela Smith; Tomalin.
Alpers; Q. Bell; Kaplan, Katherine Mansfield; McLaughlin; Tomalin; Mansfield, Collected 1: 313, 324; 2: 311, 315-16, 347; D 2: 45, 225-27; L 4: 365-66.
See Grindea as a case in point (8-9).
L 2: 168, 196, 248; Mansfield, Collected 1: 301, 330-31; 2: 311, 347; Banks, “Mansfield” 77; D 2: 317-18.
For a discussion of how class dynamics affect women's relationships in this story, see Levy 88.
The relationship between Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Seton in Mrs. Dalloway is one example (Cramer, “Underground” 177-78; Olano, “‘Women Alone’” 164).
See, for example, “Leves Amores” (Poems), “Bains Turcs” (Short Stories), and “Summer Idylle. 1906” (“Unpublished”).
I am indebted to Eileen Barrett for suggesting this to me.
Judith Neaman has discussed the role of Genesis in “Bliss,” noting Mansfield's extensive Bible reading (243).
Significantly, in a 1918 letter to her husband, Mansfield describes her long-time female companion, Ida Baker, as having “pecked her way into my wing …” (Collected 2: 83).
Juliet's Pearl is modeled after Mansfield's college friend Vere Bartrick-Baker, who also served as the inspiration for Eve in “Carnation.”
Commenting on the girls' discomfort, Mary Rohrberger also reads the above passage as sexual, emphasizing the seductive Eve's erotic handling and kissing of the (eventually “languid”) carnation while Hugo reads. She notes that the simultaneity of sounds, odors, and sights at the climax of “Carnation” suggests the sex act, although she does not discuss the story's homoerotic implications (52).
Mansfield's sexual life, like that of many of her female contemporaries, is often misrepresented and obscured. Regrettably, Mansfield instigated the destruction of many of her personal papers, including her “early letters to Ida [Baker]” (Brown 161; Hankin 211-12). Furthermore, in editing her letters and journals, John Middleton Murry omitted details of Mansfield's intimate relationships with women (O'Sullivan 117-18; Waldron 12-13; I. Gordon 16). Not surprisingly, critics and biographers differ in their assessments of these relationships. Mansfield's explicit descriptions of her sexual feelings for and behavior with Edith Bendall and Maata Mahupuku in her unexpurgated journals convince most scholars of her lesbian relations. Some, however, offer a skeptical gloss on these writings (Tomalin 36), focus on “evidence” and chronology (McEldowney 114), or resort to condescension and flippancy (Grindea 17-18). Several critics appropriately label Mansfield's sexual feelings, behavior, and sense of herself throughout her lifetime as bisexual (Kaplan, Katherine Mansfield; Hankin; Hanscombe; O'Sullivan; Tomalin).
For discussions of this relationship, see Hanscombe; Berkman; Boddy; Brown; Tomalin; Kaplan, Katherine Mansfield; Hankin; Foster; and L. Moore.
I base my assertions about their relationship on Tomalin's and Hankin's discussions of it, as well as on the many lesbian narratives Mansfield wrote about, and in some cases for, Bartrick-Baker: “Carnation”; Juliet (“Unpublished”); and “Vignettes III,” “Vignette—Westminster Cathedral,” and “Leves Amores” (Poems).
Tomalin 25; Alpers 35; Crone 34.
Alpers 25, 119, 128; Kaye 127, 135; Crone 31-32; Mantz and Murry 205-8; Kaplan, Katherine Mansfield 71; Mansfield, Collected 1: 10.
Alpers 25, 32. Verlaine was a French Symbolist poet (along with his lover, Rimbaud) and a leader of the Decadents (Appelbaum 121-22; Alyson 183, 195-96; MacIntyre 120-21).
Mantz and Murry argue that M. Hugo is modeled after both M. Huguenot and John Adam Cramb, Queen's College professors of French and history, respectively (191). Though critics associate “Carnation” with Queens, they elide the connection with Rippmann (Kaye 137; Meyers, Katherine Mansfield 15; Tomalin 25).
For this distinction between lesbian and Sapphist, as well as my understanding of the history of Sapphist narration, I am indebted to Joan DeJean's brilliant book Fictions of Sappho: 1546-1937 (see, in particular, 9). Both DeJean and Jane Marcus discuss Woolf's interest in reclaiming Sappho in their readings of her short story “A Society” (DeJean 308-11; Marcus, “Liberty” 88-89, 91-92, 95).
Audre Lorde introduces this term to describe her “fictionalized memoir,” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Gilbert and Gubar 2249).
Susan Clements argues that Fanny fails to recognize her teacher's and her own lesbianism due to her lack of lesbian “narrative models,” such as those offered by Sappho, whose lesbianism has been erased by a homophobic society (21). Yet, as I argue below, it is precisely this lesbian literary tradition and role model (Sappho) that Fanny eventually recognizes and that Woolf's story reclaims.
For other discussions of the pin as phallus, see Clements 18, 22; Baldwin 53-54.
See Campbell 99 qtd. in Grahn, Mother 304 n. 13.
For other discussions of the use of ambiguous pronouns in this story, see Fleishman, “Forms”; Clements; Hafley.
Susan Dick cites the original typescript version of these lines: “Julia blazed. Julia kindled. Out of the night she burnt like a dead white star. Julia opened her arms. Julia kissed her on the lips. Julia possessed it” (10).
According to Linda Dowling, the notion of reading as (often homoerotic) seduction is part of “that central topos of Victorian literary Decadence, the motif I have called the ‘fatal book’” (168; Kaplan, Katherine Mansfield 29 n. 23).
In a letter to Murry, Mansfield describes an incident at a party in which she danced with a “lovely young woman—married & curious—blonde—passionate” and later fought with Hastings over refusing to spend the night with her. In Murry's reply, he suggests that Hastings is a lesbian and that that fact explains her bad behavior toward Mansfield (Letters Between 43-45).
For a detailed analysis of this dream, see Kaplan, Katherine Mansfield (33-35).
This essay is dedicated to my sapphic mentors, especially Eileen.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5635
SOURCE: Dilworth, Thomas. “Monkey Business: Darwin, Displacement, and Literary Form in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Studies in Short Fiction 35, no. 2 (spring 1998): 141-52.
[In the following essay, Dilworth views evolution as a central theme in “Bliss” and deems the story as “a wonderful aesthetic achievement.”]
For such a popular and much-anthologized work, Katherine Mansfield's “Bliss” has generated sparse criticism. The aspect of the story that chiefly makes it so popular has also diminished its critical reputation: its element of contrast and surprise. With climactic simplicity, the narrative contrasts the erotic happiness of the protagonist throughout the story with its deflation (largely implied) at the end, when she discovers that her husband is unfaithful. So simple and emphatic, this contrast—it is not much of a plot—has led many, including T. S. Eliot, to assume that there is little to the story apart from the powerful effect of its final surprise, a disillusionment more felt than susceptible to interpretation (35). Virginia Woolf thinks the story a shallow example of “superficial smartness,” based on a concept that is “poor, cheap, not the vision of an interesting mind” (1: 179).1 I want to demonstrate that they are wrong, that this story is a rich and protean work of art. Its parts and aspects resonate significantly on all four principal levels of imagination, which are, in order of deepening emotional intensity: satire or allegory, realism, romance, and myth. The story also accomplishes a rare effect, by which its form becomes symbolic. The meaning of its central imagery—the pear tree, garden, and moon—continually changes in a way that rhymes with the displacements of biological evolution—evolution being, though heretofore unnoticed as such, the most important thematic strand in the story. As a remarkably seamless union of form-and-content, “Bliss” is a wonderful aesthetic achievement.
At the beginning of the story, the 30-year-old protagonist, Bertha Young is returning home after ordering fruit for a dinner party that evening. For no specified reason, she is “overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss—absolute bliss” (95). It is a powerful but unfocused erotic emotion, such as anyone might feel in spring. The feeling is immediately identified as natural, for it is “as though you'd suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe” (95). Her erotic feeling then acquires objects, which are, in sequence, symbolically narcissistic, female other, and male spousal. She directs her blissful attention to a “cold mirror” that “[gives] her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips” (96). Then she looks at the beautiful pear tree in her garden, with which she identifies, partly because she has already planned to dress in colors that she only now realizes are those of the tree and garden. Then she is excited by newly arrived Pearl Fulton: “What was there in the touch of that cool arm that could fan—fan—start blazing—blazing—the fire of bliss that Bertha had not known what to do with?” (103). But Bertha is not so much attracted to Miss Fulton as aware that they share the same happiness. It was “as if they had said to each other: ‘You too?’” (103-04). The similarity between them is emphasized by each living in anticipation—“listening” (Bertha, 96; Miss Fulton, 103), which, in Miss Fulton, is suggested by her habitual posture of holding “her head a little on one side” (99, 103). Bertha's erotic feeling veers toward the homoerotic when she is with Miss Fulton but remains protean, essentially undefined in orientation and general in expression. It makes her feel “tender” (105) toward all her dinner guests. “Everything was good—was right. All that happened seemed to fill again her brimming cup of bliss” (105). But she then realizes that soon she and her husband, Harry, will be “alone together in the dark room—the warm bed” and “for the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband” (107). This is, for her, an important sexual awakening. Until this moment she has been “so cold,” although she and her husband had been “good palls”; but now she wants him “ardently! ardently! The word ached in her ardent body!” (108).
This is, I think, an accurate account of Bertha's erotic experience, although it contradicts many critics, who read the statement of Bertha's sexual desire for her husband as indicating that she is hiding from herself the true, lesbian nature of her sexuality. Perhaps this is what Armine Kotin Mortimer means when she contends, enigmatically, that Bertha's “homosexual desire is revealed only in the structures that hide it and keep it hidden even beyond the end of the story” (50). Walter E. Anderson (390) and Mary Burgan (60) assume that the cause of Bertha's initial experience of bliss, before arriving home, is Miss Fulton. Burgan thinks Miss Fulton has “seduced” Bertha (60). Vincent O'Sullivan thinks that Bertha focuses her desire upon her husband because she fears her lesbian attraction to Miss Fulton (149), whom Helen Nebeker also thinks is the real object of Bertha's passion (547). Pamela Dunbar carries these readings to their logical conclusion, which is that Bertha realizes that she and her husband “love the same woman” (142)—an interpretation that considerably diminishes the impact, and awful implications for Bertha, of the concluding revelation. What makes the lesbian interpretation unlikely is that we have it on indisputable authority that, in the end, Bertha sexually desires her husband. The source of this information is not Bertha but the omniscient voice, which is, as we shall see, not limited to Bertha's point of view. The omniscient voice unambiguously says that she ardently desires her husband sexually. This suggests that the earlier, ambiguous statement, “Bertha had fallen in love with [Miss Fulton], as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them” (99), is a colloquial exaggeration (Mortimer 50) using words that Bertha herself might have used without wishing to convey sexual interest. Of course, it is possible to feel lesbian attraction and then heterosexual attraction. What makes this improbable, however, is that the movement of Bertha's mind earlier is not that of a woman in love with Pearl Fulton. As she considers her dinner guests, Bertha thinks first of the Norman Knights, then of Eddie Warren, and only subsequently of Pearl Fulton (98-99); and in her happiness with the Knights and Warren, “she talked and laughed and positively forgot” until her husband arrived late “that Pearl Fulton had not turned up” (103). Someone in love would think of her beloved first. The lesbian reading may be influenced by Mansfield's own passionate lesbianism, in contrast to her tamer but ultimately preferred heterosexual monogamy. If Bertha were in any sense choosing between homosexuality and marriage—and I think she is not doing even that—she would be making the same choice that Mansfield made in life.
Shortly after feeling her aching, ardent desire for her husband, as the guests are departing, Bertha sees her husband with Miss Fulton at the door and reads his lips as he tells her, “I adore you” and then whispers, “Tomorrow,” and Bertha watches Miss Fulton “with her eyelids” answer “Yes” (109).2 At this point, the reader may see in retrospect an amorous significance in Miss Fulton and Harry having both arrived late and both by taxi, though by separate taxis.
It is poignant that Bertha's sexual awakening should be followed so soon by her discovery of her husband's infidelity. This poignancy is expressed in a motif of unplayed music. Metaphorically, Bertha has been a musical instrument that is about to be played for the first time (Neaman 121). She wonders at the beginning of the story, “Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle” (95)? In harmony with this thought, although the dining-room is “quite chilly,” she throws off her coat (95). (For the reader and Mansfield, though not for Bertha, the phrase “rate fiddle” is an image of this story en abîme, since the adjective ‘rare’ anticipates the noun ‘violin,’ not ‘fiddle,’ a surprise-noun deflating expectation of Stradivarian specialness.) After dinner she twice says aloud about the piano, “What a pity someone does not play!” (107). She is a musical instrument; her husband, the musician. The music she is made for and longs for is ecstatic, orgasmic sex. Now her longing will not find fulfillment.
Miss Fulton has displaced Bertha in a brutal enactment of Darwinian survival of the fittest. The Darwinian theme is introduced by Mrs. Norman Knight wearing a coat “with a procession of black monkeys round the hem and up the fronts” (101).3 On her way to the dinner-party, the middle-class train passengers had stared at Mrs. Knight, and she had asked the woman beside her, “Haven't you ever seen a monkey before” (101), which implies that she, Mrs. Knight, is herself a monkey. And the omniscient narrator, probably speaking for Bertha, says, “a funnier thing still was that now her coat was off she did look like a very intelligent monkey” (101). That is, of course, precisely what she and every other human being is according to the popular conception of evolutionary theory. The monkey references introduce an element of satirical mockery by reminding the reader of the primate ancestry, and perhaps essence, of these effete, aesthetically cultivated, pretentious sophisticates, whose supper conversation is so banal. But references to monkeys also recall the momentous imaginative change brought about in the previous century by Darwin.
Immediately after the talk about monkeys, Mr. Knight irrelevantly quotes a verse from memory, “This is a sad, sad fall,” which serves unintentionally as a comment on the preceding talk of monkeys. Already the image of the fruit tree in the garden has evoked the Garden of Eden and the story of the fall.4 In relation to the Genesis myth, Darwin's theory of evolution represents a greater fall even than the biblical fall from grace, for the Darwinian fall is, at least for the theologically naïve, a fall out of the metaphysical sphere of being into mere animal biology. The juxtaposition here of Eden and monkeys recalls what was, in the Victorian Age, the primary result of the ascendancy of Darwinian theory: the generally felt traumatic realization that the biblical story is mere myth. This is paradise-lost lost.
Another guest at the dinner party, Eddie Warren, a fatuous poet, has just had an experience that, although apparently irrelevant to the story (and therefore apparently an aesthetic weakness), epitomizes the meaninglessness of life for post-Darwinian men and women (Mansfield's italics insist on an extreme upper-class accent):
I have had such a dreadful experience with a taxi-man; he was most sinister. I couldn't get him to stop. The more I knocked and called the faster he went. And in the moonlight this bizarre figure with the flattened head crouching over the li-ttle wheel. … I saw myself driving through Eternity in a timeless taxi.
The crouching taxi driver “with the flattened head” is simian. The taxicab of anyone's life is driven not by a monkey, perhaps, but by cosmological and biological nature that has no concern whatever for humanity. The contrast between human self-importance and biology moving (evolving) valuelessly through time also resonates symbolically in Mrs. Knight's statement, “We are victims of time and train” (108).
Part of this monkey-motif is Bertha's husband—who seems, as a companion, undesirable. The ripostes that he intends as witty are dull. To Bertha he describes Miss Fulton as “cold like all blonde women, with a touch, perhaps, of anaemia of the brain.” When Bertha says there is something behind Miss Fulton's posture and smile, Harry says, “Most likely it's a good stomach.” Such witless remarks are characteristic of him: “‘liver frozen, my dear girl’ or ‘pure flatulence’, or ‘kidney disease’, … and so on” (99). (Not very witty herself, Bertha, astonishingly, likes these rejoinders.) At the dinner he sexualizes his meal by verbally glorying “in his ‘shameless passion for the white flesh of the lobster’ and ‘the green of pistachio ices—green and cold like the eyelids of Egyptian dancers’” (104). One critic rightly calls him “a boor” (Burgan 64). Another calls him (by happy accident, for us) “an emotional primate” (Neaman 119). He is ape-like because witless and because he is sexually appetitive, since monkeys are traditionally associated with lust. In this and other respects, apishness may be suggested by his name—Harry, homonymous with ‘hairy’ as in the cliché “Hairy Ape.” (Fortuitously his full name, Harry Young, would become even more ape-evoking in 1949 with the appearance of Mighty Joe Young, a film about an oversized ape.)
In Darwinian terms he is nevertheless a good catch because he is aggressive, a good provider.5 He is highly competitive, with “his passion for fighting—for seeking in everything that came up against him another test of his power and of his courage” (103). This trait has served him well in business. Bertha realizes that “they didn't have to worry about money.” That is putting it mildly. He has provided her with an “absolutely satisfactory house and garden” in London (100), complete with maid, cook, and nanny. Bertha and her husband are members of a club (99). She can afford to wear jade. “And then there were books, and there was music”—which apparently means concerts—“and she had found a wonderful little dressmaker, and they were going abroad in the summer …” (100). However charmless, Harry earns a lot of money and for that alone may be worth competing for.
Her husband's selection of another woman has evolutionary resonance. Bertha is passed over by natural selection. She has lost the human race, which is really only an animal race. She loses Harry as her mate because her rival, not she, is the fittest.
Poor Bertha is not aggressive enough to survive as exclusive or primary mate even in the civilized jungle of upper-class London. She is ineffectual, having forgotten the house-key “as usual” (95). She finds it difficult to assert motherly claims over her own baby. She is sensitive to the nurse's signal “that meant she had come into the nursery at another wrong moment” (97). When the nurse tells her that the baby had clutched and tugged a dog's ear in the park that afternoon, “Bertha wanted to ask if it wasn't rather dangerous to let her clutch at a strange dog's ear. But she did not dare to. She stood watching them, her hands by her side, like the poor little girl in front of the rich little girl with the doll” (97). She manages to take over the feeding of her baby but, like a child herself, passively suffers the nanny's chiding, “Now, don't excite her after her supper. You know you do” (97). Bertha “loved” her baby but is unable to quite say so, saying instead, “You're nice—you're very nice! … I'm fond of you. I like you” (98). She is called away to the telephone by the nanny “coming back in triumph and seizing” the baby (98). On the phone, she is unable to break through inhibiting upper-class British mores or whatever it is that precludes her telling her husband how happy she is:
She couldn't absurdly cry: ‘Hasn't it been a divine day!’
‘What is it?’ rapped out the little voice.
‘Nothing. Entendu,’ said Bertha, and hung up the receiver, thinking how more than idiotic civilization was.
“Entendu” is an example of her speaking in language not authentically hers, which is another measure of weakness. Mansfield writes about Bertha to John Middleton Murry, “these words and expressions were not & couldn't be hers” (Letters [The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield] 2: 121).
Another aspect of ineffectuality and inauthenticity is what amounts to a motif of her deliberately not seeing or only minimally seeing, a motif suggesting that she prefers happiness to truth. “She hardly dared to look: into the mirror” (96); she tells the maid not to turn on the light (96); “she pressed her hands to her eyes” (100); as they all go into the drawing-room after supper, she says “don't turn up the light for a moment. It is so lovely” (105). This motif implies more than the ordinary limits of point of view. When she draws the parallel between her ardor for Harry and Pearl Fulton's feelings, she approaches the dangerous question of the object of Fulton's longing: “But then—” and breaks off (103), unwilling to risk an unhappy intuitive conclusion. Semi-consciously, at least, she epitomizes the cliché that Mansfield must have had in mind when giving her story its title, “Ignorance is bliss.” The cliché is false in a world of Darwinian struggle, where the more you know and the more you notice the better able you are to survive.
Most telling of all, Bertha is devoid of emotional response and initiative upon discovering her husband's infidelity. All she can say is, “‘Oh, what is going to happen now?’” (110). Utterly passive in the face of her changed circumstances, she is simply too weak emotionally to compete aggressively for her mate. She has just experienced the beginning of true erotic arousal and desire, but as a participant in Darwinian nature, in this particular struggle at least, Bertha is too little, too late.
Two of her dinner guests also seem inadequate, in ways that identify them as Darwinian losers in a literary-aesthetic sphere. Norman Knight is a theatrical producer for whom Michael Oat (not present at the party) is writing a play in which a man gives reasons for and against committing suicide. “And just as he has made up his mind either to do it or not to do it—curtain. Not half a bad idea,” Knight says. Eddie Warren responds, “I think I've come across the same idea in a lit-tle French review, quite unknown in England” (104). The idea was not new, however, and its source not obscure. It was dramatized 40 years before by Henrik Ibsen. In his play Ghosts (1881), a son is deteriorating mentally owing to inherited syphilis, which threatens to reduce him permanently to the condition of infancy. He gets his mother to promise that, if another attack occurs and has this effect, she will euthanize him with morphia pills. He then suffers the attack, regresses to infancy, and the curtain falls with the mother passionately torn between killing him and not.6 When Knight and Warren discuss Oat's idea, Ghosts had been well known in England for three decades. The enthusiasm of Oat and Knight for a 40-year old idea, and the failure of Warren to recognize the famous dramatic embodiment of that idea, indicates that these representatives of London's avant-garde are actually passé. The indirect reference to Ghosts may also be a subtle nod by Mansfield to Ibsen, one of the originators of modernism, whose grim realism is a literary precedent to that of this story.
The answer to Bertha's final question—“what is going to happen now?”—is strongly hinted at in the story's other love triangle, that between Bertha, her baby, and the nanny.7 As with the nanny, Bertha will be forced not so much to share her loved one with another woman as to give way to the other woman. She had complained to herself, “Why have a baby if it has to be kept … in another woman's arms?” Read ‘husband’ for “baby,” and the only response is “Why indeed?” Either he becomes a husband in name only or he ceases entirely to be her husband.
The imaginative level of realism in “Bliss” is Darwinian and heartless. It contradicts the imaginative level of romance, which had informed Bertha's point of view until her discovery of Harry's infidelity. The romance here is that of the Romantics, originating in the writing of the Earl of Shaftsbury and promulgated by Rousseau, who believed that man and nature exist in a benign harmony, that ‘natural’ means ‘good.’ (The widespread persistence of this romance is what gives this story its shocking power for most readers.) Bertha had felt at one with the lovely spring day and the flowering pear tree, but pathetic fallacy is, indeed, false. Underlying this nature-romance is the classical myth of the Golden Age, in which men, nature, and the gods lived in perfect harmony. There are no allusions to the Golden Age here; instead, the romance of sympathy between man and nature is annulled by Darwinian realism, a cancellation that has its symbol in the biblical myth of the fall.
The myth of paradise and its loss is suggested on the first page of the story, in which the primary images are Bertha's “bliss,” the “sun,” and “fruit.” Fruit is always disquieting in a story with Edenic evocations, and there is a lot of fruit in this story: “tangerines and apples stained with strawberry pink” (two fruits in one), “yellow pears, … white grapes … a big cluster of purple ones” (96), and the hint of fruit in Mrs. Knight's “orange” coat and yellow dress that seemed to Bertha made “of scraped banana skins” (101). (The banana may be the fruit that links evolution with the genesis myth that it replaces.) There is also, in the poem that Eddie Warren refers to, “tomato soup” (109), which is probably also “the beautiful red soup” served at dinner (104). Though often considered a vegetable, the tomato is a fruit.
The most striking evocation of Eden is, of course, the pear tree in the garden, an image that enthralls Bertha, though when she first sees it this evening she is disconcerted by what she also sees: “a gray cat, dragging its belly, crept across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after. The sight of them, so intent and so quick, gave Bertha a curious shiver” (100). The cat is so intent and low-to-the-ground because it is hunting, true to its predatory Darwinian nature. “Dragging its belly,” it may evoke the biblical serpent, which, after successfully tempting Eve—and, through Eve, Adam—is cursed by God to go upon its “belly” (Genesis 3:14, Neaman 119-20). The cat is associated with Miss Fulton at the end of the story, when she follows Warren out “like the black cat following the grey cat” (109). She may be the serpent in this paradisal garden, bringing about Bertha's fall from bliss.
Because Darwinian realism overrides biblical perspective, there is nothing moral or immoral in any of this. Darwinian theory was the primary intellectual impetus in the shift from Judeo-Christian morality to the moral ‘relativity’ of the modern world, which Harry and Miss Fulton epitomize by their behavior. There probably remains, however, a deliberate tension between Darwinian animal amorality and reader response, which tends to be unregenerately moral and therefore resists, or at least regrets, the fall into biological valuelessness.
Relativity and the evolutionary theme are evoked in the imagery of the pear tree as it changes or ‘evolves’ in significance. Bertha first sees it against the far wall of the garden: “a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn't help feeling, even from this distance that it had not a single bud or a faded petal.” All in flower, it symbolizes the height of sexual readiness, since flowers are sexual organs. “Down below, in the garden beds, the red and yellow tulips, heavy with flowers,” phallic but not fully erect, “seemed to lean upon the dusk” (99-100). These tulips suggest that even at this point she unconsciously regards herself as the object of some degree of heterosexual desire. She “seemed to see … the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life,” and she dresses, as if in imitation of the tree, in “a white dress, a string of jade beads, green shoes and stockings. It wasn't intentional. She had thought of this scheme hours before.” Serendipity makes the association seem all the more right. As she comes down from dressing she is the tree metaphorically, “her petals rustled softly into the hall” (100).
In its second appearance, the tree changes significance. Now its meaning is not solely or even primarily relative to Bertha. Miss Fulton has arrived, looking like the moon—which Warren has mentioned: “there is a moon, you know” (102)—a full moon, “that circle of unearthly light” (106), to match Pearl Fulton's first name and her surname and her appearance. She is “all in silver, with a silver fillet binding her pale blonde hair” (103). Her fingers “were so pale a light seemed to come from them” (105). After dinner, Bertha and she “stood side by side looking at the slender, flowering tree. Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of a candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow as they gazed—almost to touch the rim of the round, silver moon.” Now it seems to be Miss Fulton, first of all, for whom the image has meaning: “And did Miss Fulton murmur: ‘Yes. Just that.’ Or did Bertha dream it?” (106)
The terms of the image have changed significantly since Bertha's initial, private contemplation of the tree. To Miss Fulton, the tree is not symbolic of Bertha. Nor is it symbolic of Miss Fulton. The tree is now phallic, seeming “like the flame of a candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver, … to grow” toward imminent intercourse with the feminine “round, silver moon,” with which Miss Fulton has good reason to identify. Here the omniscient voice has diverged—as, of course, it is free to do—from Bertha's point of view and is either autonomous or adopts Miss Fulton's perspective. Certainly the reader identifies Miss Fulton with the moon, and, knowing herself the object of Harry's desire, she probably sees the tree as an image of Harry, phallic, beautiful, and adulterous, who is soon to have intercourse—again, no doubt—with her languorous self. Like Bertha, however, the reader cannot yet share Miss Fulton's awareness, so that the imagery remains temporarily unreadable.8 But as she leaves the house, Miss Fulton holds Bertha's hand and murmurs appreciatively, “Your lovely pear tree” (109). The reader knows—though Bertha cannot, since she has not had the benefit of reading the passage in which the tree is phallically transformed—that Miss Fulton is referring to Harry and might as well be saying, ‘Your lovely husband.’ The two women have observed the tree together from “a balcony” (99) like two Juliets competing for the attention of a single Romeo.
The last sentence of the story underlines the deflation of the romance in which nature is in harmony with Bertha: “the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still” (109). Now it has no positive meaning for her or for the reader. It is merely an aspect of impartial, heartless Darwinian nature. The significance of the image of the tree has evolved: from Bertha's subjective erotic bliss, to the grosser sexual relationship of Miss Fulton with Harry, to the non-significance of mere biological competition, in which beauty and erotic eagerness are merely advantages. Even in this final reduction to apparent non-significance, however, there may be a faint symbolic resonance. Mansfield's pear tree may evoke—it certainly has for its literary antecedent—the pear tree of Chaucer's “Merchant's Tale,” a tree in which a young wife married to an aged knight commits adultery with the knight's young squire. That, too, is a clear, though pre-Darwinian, instance of natural selection.9
As we have begun to see, the names of characters are allegorically significant in a way that sharpens the story's satirical edge. Although Bertha Young has given birth and is 30 years old, she is “Young,” more girlish than womanly. Pearl Fulton is obviously, in first and last names, lunar. Her first name may evoke the biblical “pearl of great price” that a man sells all he has to obtain. It certainly identifies her with the pear, both fruit and tree, since the name ‘Pearl’ contains, and is four-fifths, ‘pear.’10 Eddie Warren's surname may evoke the warrens in which rabbits procreate so prolifically.11 Harry describes a woman who is sexually involved with the unoriginal playwright Michael Oat—a name, suggestive of inadequacy since he has only one oat, wild or (more probably) tame. Even the title of Oat's play, Love in False Teeth, suggests a lack of virility and fertility. The Norman Knights evoke the Norman Conquest, which is, in English history, the great social-military equivalent of Darwinian competition and survival of the fittest. Such names diminish emotion for the sake of satire, which is, along with allegory, the imaginative level that is most purely intellectual. Satire and the names that generate it give the story a formal aspect of heartlessness to match its Darwinian theme and help remove it, as T. S. Eliot notices (36), from morality—which is part of a larger world of human love and meaning that is lost in the imaginative fall to Darwinism, lost as utterly as was the paradise of biblical myth.
Recent critics have basically agreed with Eliot and Woolf. Emphasizing the protagonist's awareness of affinity with Miss Fulton, which they see as lesbian infatuation, Vincent O'Sullivan (143) and Rhoda Nathan (Katherine Mansfield 73, 74) write that the story is famous for its “epiphany.” Sylvia Berkman sees plot as the only distinctive element in the story (156, 164).
Bertha's husband and Miss Fulton do not, as a series of critics have inexplicably written, “kiss.” Nor do they “embrace,” as Mortimer claims (46). Their physical interaction is limited to him touching her shoulders to turn her “violently” toward him and their whispering to one another.
Judith S. Neaman is the only critic previously to see these monkeys as evoking “Darwinian evolutionary theory” (118) but she discerns in the association no significant thematic implications.
Critics who have noted the allusion to Eden include Magalaner (77), Berkman (252), Zorn (146), and, most thoroughly and insightfully, Neaman (117, 118).
For this insight I am indebted to conversation with Dana Dragunoiu, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton.
For the similarity between Oat's idea for a play and Ibsen's Ghosts, I am indebted to conversation with William Blissett, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.
Mortimer was the first to see the tension between Bertha and the nanny over the baby as “a triangle” (48-49). She associates Bertha in the triangle of Bertha-Harry-Miss Fulton with “the child who discovers her desire for her father and immediately thereupon discovers that she is merely repeating her mother's desire” (49)—an idea that violates the terms of the first triangle, whose youthful member is not a child capable of such discovery, but a baby, who is therefore, I think, merely the love object, and, although female, a counterpart to the husband the two women are competing for—if Bertha can be imagined as competing.
My reading of this scene is in agreement with that of Kate Fullbrook (101). Burgan notes that the scene suggests “phallic force” but does not associate this force with Harry in Miss Fulton's awareness (65). Reading what Mortimer calls “the second story,” a product of rereading after experiencing the surprise ending, Mortimer notes that the tree is “suggestively phallic” and sees it “as an index” of Miss Fulton's bliss (43). For critics who prematurely formulate their interpretation at this point in their reading, in what Mortimer calls “the first story,” the imagery is confusing or their interpretations forced. Magalaner sees the phallic tree as symbolizing “both Harry and his wife” (79) and blames Mansfield for the confusion. Morrow writes that the scene is phallic and “vaginal” because Bertha “doesn't recognize the possibility of lesbian lovemaking” and has only experienced sex with her husband (55). Anderson—and Dunbar repeats him (132)—sees the phallic aspect of the tree as symbolizing “the ‘masculine’ part of Bertha's “sexual feelings,” which “eludes her conscious recognition” (400).
For remembering this earlier, Chaucerean pear tree, I am indebted to conversation with Anita Moss, a professor at the University of North Carolina.
For the insight about ‘Pearl’ resembling ‘pear,’ I am indebted to Mary Elizabeth Crowell a second-year English major at the University of Windsor. Burgan notes that Pearl is the name of the lost child in Mansfield's story “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” and of the protagonist in Mansfield's Saffron, and goes on to give other, clitoral-lesbian associations (59).
Warren's surname was initially Wangle, which has detumescent connotations—“to move loosely or shakily on its base or place of attachment” (OED)—and connotations of fraudulence (to wiggle to extricate oneself). When John Middleton Murry objected to the surname as striking “a false note” (Letters 2: 122), Mansfield changed it to Warren.
Anderson, Walter E. “The Hidden Love Triangle in Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Twentieth Century Literature 28 (1982): 397-404.
Berkman, Sylvia. Katherine Mansfield: A Critical Study. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale UP, 1951.
Burgan, Mary. Illness, Gender, and Writing: The Case of Katherine Mansfield. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.
Dunbar, Pamela. “What Does Bertha Want?: A Re-reading of Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Nathan, Critical Essays 128-39.
Eliot, T. S. After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy. London: Faber, 1934.
Fullbrook, Kate. Katherine Mansfield. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.
Magalaner, Marvin. The Fiction of Katherine Mansfield. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1971.
Mansfield, Katherine. “Bliss.” Bliss and Other Stories. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962. 95-110.
———. The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. Ed. Vincent O'Sullivan with Margaret Scott. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984-96.
Morrow, Patrick D. Katherine Mansfield's Fiction. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1993.
Mortimer, Armine Kotin. “Fortifications of Desire: Reading the Second Story in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Narrative 2.1 (January 1994): 41-52.
Nathan, Rhoda B, ed. Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield. New York: Hall, 1993.
———. Katherine Mansfield. New York: Ungar, 1988.
Neaman, Judith S. “Allusion, Image, and Associative Pattern: the Answers in Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Nathan, Critical Essays 117-27.
Nebeker, Helen. “The Pear Tree: Sexual Implications in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Modern Fiction Studies. 18 (1972-73): 545-51.
O'Sullivan, Vincent. “The Magnetic Charm: Notes and Approaches to K. M.” Landfall 29 (1975): 95-131. Rpt. The Critical Response to Katherine Mansfield. Ed. Jan Pilditch. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1996. 129-55.
Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. 5 vols. London: Hogarth, 1977-84.
Zorn, Marilyn. “Visionary Flowers: Another Study of Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Studies in Short Fiction 17 (1980): 141-47.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10328
SOURCE: Darrohn, Christine. “‘Blown to Bits!’: Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Garden-Party’ and the Great War.” Modern Fiction Studies 44, no. 3 (fall 1998): 513-39.
[In the following essay, Darrohn contends that “The Garden Party” explores issues of class and gender as well as the devastating impact of World War I on Mansfield's generation.]
“Blown to bits!”
That is how Katherine Mansfield, still in shock just a few days after learning of her brother's death in the war, described him to a friend. Twenty-one-year-old Leslie “Chummie” Beauchamp had been stationed in France for less than a month when on 7 October 1915, as he was giving a hand grenade demonstration, a defective grenade blew up in his hand with a force so strong it killed both himself and his sergeant (Alpers 183). Mansfield's succinct description of her brother's death is brusque and colloquial but also literally true of uncountable soldiers who fought in the Great War. In her semiautobiographical novel We That Were Young, Irene Rathbone describes the wounded soldiers whom women in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) routinely tended: men with “limbs which shrapnel had torn about and swollen into abnormal shapes, from which yellow pus poured when the bandages were removed, which were caked with brown blood, and in whose gangrenous flesh loose bits of bone had to be sought for painfully with probes” (194), a man “who, when his innumerable and complicated bandages were removed, revealed flat holes plugged with gauze where a nose had been, and pendulous shapeless lips” (200).
Another V.A.D., Mary Borden, evokes the same sense of nightmarish mutilation in a collage of body parts:
There are no men here. … There are heads and knees and mangled testicles. There are chests with holes as big as your fist, and pulpy thighs, shapeless; and stumps where legs once were fastened. There are eyes—eyes of sick dogs, sick cats, blind eyes, eyes of delirium; and mouths that cannot articulate; and parts of faces—the nose gone, or the jaw. There are these things, but no men. …
This essay begins with the maimed and mangled men of the Great War in order to highlight what is distinctive, indeed peculiar, about the dead man found in Mansfield's 1921 short story “The Garden-Party.” Like the men who perished in the mass, industrialized killings of the Great War, the carter, whose horse shies at a traction engine, falls victim to mechanized modernity. However, his corpse is very different from the mutilated bodies that pervade the literature of the Great War. It is “wonderful, beautiful,” and “peaceful” (296). It is, in fact, “a marvel” (296). To view this body is not “awful,” is, instead, “simply marvelous” (297). In “The Garden-Party,” Mansfield creates a story that depends on a man's violent death even as it erases the traces of injury from his body. After the Great War, to imagine a beautiful corpse might seem either a grotesque act of escapism or a courageous feat of imagination. However, if we resist such simplistic reactions, the beautiful carter can give us insight into the way a society recovers from a war that jeopardizes the integrity of physical bodies as well as the stability of social categories.
Set in the New Zealand of her youth, Mansfield's “The Garden-Party” perhaps seems worlds away from the Great War. Indeed, while this is one of Mansfield's best known stories, previous critics almost universally have failed to read it in relation to the war. A notable exception to the critical neglect of this story's war context is No Man's Land. In this study of gender in twentieth-century British and American literature, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar point to a variety of texts, including “The Garden-Party,” in which there are female characters “who achieve heroic stature through witnessing or facilitating male death, who feel inexplicably empowered by male deaths, or whose lives yield them fortuitous victories over dead or dying men” (1: 94-95). For Gilbert and Gubar, this trope signifies the empowerment many women experienced during the Great War, feeling “even at the height of the conflict that not only their society but also their art had been subtly strengthened, or at least strangely inspired, by the deaths and defeats of male contemporaries” (2: 307). Gilbert and Gubar argue, for example, that the dead Leslie Beauchamp was a muse for Mansfield, inspiring her best writing (2: 307). My reading of “The Garden-Party”—and, more broadly, of women's experience of the war—is significantly different. Gilbert and Gubar, emphasizing the exhilaration and liberation experienced by women as they were given new responsibilities and opportunities on the homefront, acknowledge only briefly and parenthetically women's sorrow in the sufferings and deaths of men. In this essay, I trace the profoundly painful, lingering sense of loss that Mansfield experienced with the death of her brother. Moreover, reading parallels between Mansfield's personal loss and the anxieties spawned by the war in the upper and middle classes, I trace the way class as well as gender shaped one's experience of the war. In contrast, Gilbert and Gubar's inattention to class prevents them from seeing crucial differences in the representations of dead men in postwar texts. While the death of the working-class man exhilarates Laura Sheridan in “The Garden-Party,” the death of the middle-class Leslie leaves Mansfield feeling “just as much dead as he is” (Journal 89). Similarly, in Mrs. Dalloway (another text cited by Gilbert and Gubar), Clarissa's buoyant sense that Septimus Smith's death “[makes] her feel the beauty; [makes] her feel the fun” (284) is in sharp contrast to the devastating end of Woolf's earlier novel Jacob's Room as Bonamy and Betty Flanders react to the palpable absence of the upper-middle-class Jacob.1
Because “The Garden-Party” is very much about the class system, reading it as a piece of war literature enables us to ask questions that have been ignored, not only by Gilbert and Gubar, but by most scholars of the Great War.2 Recent years have seen an outburst of interdisciplinary interest in the Great War, especially in its impact on traditional gender systems, but little attempt has been made to sustain a discussion that interweaves a consideration of both class and gender.3 While scholars of gender bring us repeatedly to the question of how (and if) the Great War prompted reconstructions of femininity and masculinity, this essay attends to the complexly intertwined inscription of class and gender as it seeks a more nuanced understanding of the social dislocations produced by the war. I will demonstrate that in “The Garden-Party” Mansfield tries to imagine a moment when class and gender divisions cease to matter but that ultimately she cannot sustain this hopeful vision. At the same time as this story approaches the vexed subject of the class and gender system, it bears the burden of working through Mansfield's grief over the loss of her brother. This personal grief parallels the anxieties of the middle and upper classes, whose young men faced in the Great War's trenches the daily threat of mass, industrialized injury and death that was part of society's traditional construct of working-class, not middle- or upper-class, masculinity. Focusing on the multiple tasks that “The Garden-Party” performs, this essay asks us to think about the conflicting demands of the postwar period: specifically, the painful task of mourning and recovery and the ways in which this task complicates the project of critiquing a society that is founded on the structures of exclusion, hierarchy, and dominance that foster wars.
“THERE HE LAY”
According to her husband, of all Mansfield's friends who went to the war, none returned alive (Journal 107). The most devastating death was that of her brother. After it, her Journal explodes with some of Mansfield's most aching, viscerally haunting writing, which is often addressed directly to Leslie with such tags as “my playfellow, my brother” (96), “my little boy” (85), “my little boy brother” (97), “my darling” (86), “[d]earest heart” (86), and “my little sun” (94). Not all critics, however, have lent a sympathetic ear to this cri de coeur. To Frank O'Connor, “her reaction [to Leslie's death] was violent, even immoderate.” He feels “it is all girlishly overdramatic in the Katherine Mansfield way,” although he admits “that is no reflection on its sincerity” (177). To Jeffrey Meyers, her grief was not merely “profound,” but “morbid,” indeed “pathological” (121). He points out that Mansfield “longed to join him in death, felt that she had died, and developed mystical yearnings” (120); in fact, Mansfield did do these things, but, one could argue, these are perfectly normal moments in the course of mourning a loved one. Moreover, judging Mansfield in her grief is not the most useful thing one can do in the presence of her writing about Leslie; instead, the textual representations of Leslie that spring from Mansfield's mourning can give us insight into a key aspect of war, the noncombatant's experience of death. In an article on elegy in Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Gillian Beer very wisely reminds us of a context beyond Woolf's personal experience with death, a context that is key to making the richest use of Mansfield's representations of Leslie: “death was … the special knowledge of her entire generation, through the obliterative experience of the first world war” (36). If Mansfield's grief is, as O'Connor says, “violent, even immoderate,” it is grief that is born of, grief in the face of, the immoderate violence of war. Reading, rather than judging, the writing that came from that grief, we can think about the ways survivors of war employ imagination and language to represent and recuperate from the costs of war.4
As one might expect, over the course of Mansfield's mourning, the mood of her writing ranges widely—from stoic acceptance to profound depression. Despite the shifts in mood, however, one thing remains constant: Leslie is actively resurrected in a process that Mansfield links inextricably with her writing. “Each time I take up my pen you are with me,” she explains simply (96). Her new dedication to writing about the New Zealand of her girlhood is a way to resurrect her brother; in that writing, she says, “we shall range all over our country together” (96). The Leslie that emerges in the Journal is close at hand and thoroughly corporeal, someone seen, heard, and touched. As Mansfield writes, he is “back with [her],” “stepping forward”; she “will come quite close to [him]” and “take [his] hand” (97). In another passage Mansfield reports, “[A]s I write these words … I see you opposite to me, I see your thoughtful, shining eyes”; he calls her name and smiles (96). In another entry, she “run[s] out on to the landing,” and Leslie enters the house, throws his hat and stick on the hall table, runs up the steps, hugs and kisses Mansfield (157).
Throughout these entries, a key pattern is repeated: despite the boundary of death, any separation between Mansfield and her brother is gradually dissolved. But the imagination that can unite Mansfield with a resurrected Leslie can also imagine the scene of his death. In February 1916, four months after his death, Mansfield records one of the most disturbing images in the Journal: “[W]hen I leaned out of the window I seemed to see my brother dotted all over the field—now on his back, now on his face, now huddled up, now half-pressed into the earth. Wherever I looked, there he lay” (95). Unlike the other representations of Leslie, here he is viewed in the scene of war, the multiple sightings of Leslie turning “the field” outside Mansfield's window into the battlefield of dead young men. At the same time, in the way Leslie is “dotted” over the field, the image evokes that initial sense of Leslie being blown to “bits,” thus overlaying on the scene of mass carnage the particular scene of Leslie's death. What is most significant about this image is that for Mansfield it is incomprehensible. Although she feels “that God showed him to [her] like that for some express purpose,” she cannot decipher it (95). War, which destroys the physical integrity of bodies, seems necessarily to endanger the potential of bodies to make meaning.
The passage, furthermore, suggests that war jeopardizes the identity of the female, noncombatant survivor. Through Mansfield's careful rearrangement of chronology, this, the only passage in the Journal in which a landscape of war dead is evoked, ends with the complete invasion of her body, the complete loss of her own identity. The vision of Leslie in the field is the first event that she describes but chronologically the last to occur. In the next event that is described (actually, the first to happen), Leslie is suddenly inside—not merely in the home, but specifically in Mansfield's bed. Finally (in the second event chronologically), the distance between Mansfield and Leslie is utterly dissolved: “Perhaps because I went to sleep thinking of him, I woke and was he, for quite a long time. I felt my face was his serious, sleepy face. I felt that the lines of my mouth were changed, and I blinked like he did on waking” (95). The passage suggests that the role ascribed to women in the postwar world—to mourn and to remember the dead young soldiers—puts their own identities at risk.5
While the diminishment of distance in other passages brings comfort, the February 1916 passage is far less sanguine about this extreme union of Mansfield and Leslie. Earlier, in October 1915, Mansfield writes with passionate pleasure about belonging to Leslie, pointedly contrasting that relationship to her relationship with her husband: “You know I can never be Jack's lover again. You have me. … I give Jack my ‘surplus’ love, but to you I hold and to you I give my deepest love” (86). In contrast, in the February 1916 passage, despite the relatively impassive tone of Mansfield's voice, the presence of Leslie in Mansfield's bed is clearly unsettling: “[W]hen I lay in bed, I felt suddenly passionate. I wanted J. to embrace me. But as I turned to speak to him or to kiss him I saw my brother lying fast asleep, and I got cold” (95). Similarly, while the October 1915 passage offers, “You're in my flesh as well as in my soul,” as a triumphant cry to mark the complete union of Mansfield and Leslie (86), the end of the February 1916 passage when Mansfield wakes as her brother and feels her face is his is devoid of any sense of celebration. With the diction of causality—“because”—and deliberative consideration—“perhaps”—the narrative voice remains cool, betraying no emotions, yet the careful ordering of events suggests that Mansfield is puzzling over the invasive mobility of this dead Leslie.
Five years after writing the anxious Journal entry, Mansfield will write a story set in the New Zealand of her girlhood, a place and time far removed from war. With war a buried but crucial context, “The Garden-Party” stages a reunion of the key figures from the Journal writings about Leslie: Mansfield, a resurrected Leslie, and the corpse that so troubles the February 1916 passage.
FIGURING LESLIE IN “THE GARDEN-PARTY”
As numerous critics have noted, Laura and Laurie Sheridan, who appear in “The Garden-Party” and several other stories set in New Zealand, have a close relationship that is reminiscent of the bond between Mansfield and her brother. In Laurie's first appearance in “The Garden-Party,” Laura runs to him and gives him “a small quick squeeze,” which he returns as he speaks to her in a “warm, boyish voice” (285). At the end of the story, Laura takes his arm and “press[es] up against him”; he “put[s] his arm round her shoulder” and speaks to her in “his warm, loving voice” (297). These descriptions do more than recall the affection between Mansfield and her brother; they echo specifically those passages in the Journal when Mansfield, in the months following Leslie's death, works through her loss by imaginatively resurrecting him into someone who is near her, his “lip lift[ing] in a smile” (96), someone who “puts his arm round [her], holding [her] tightly,” kissing her (157). As youthful, affectionate, and energetic as Leslie in the Journal is Laurie in “The Garden-Party” who, “half-way upstairs,” “turn[s] round and … suddenly puff[s] out his cheeks and goggle[s] his eyes” at his sister, exclaiming, “My word … you do look stunning” (292).
However, Leslie's presence in “The Garden-Party” is not limited to Laurie. “There lay a young man, fast asleep,” begins the description of the dead carter Laura views at the end of the story (296). This language immediately brings to mind the representation of Leslie in the February 1916 Journal entry: outside her window, “there he lay”; in her bed, he lies “fast asleep” (95). The parallels in language highlight the profound differences between the two bodies. While, at the end of the Journal passage, Leslie awakens by taking command of Mansfield's body, in “The Garden-Party” the narrative voice, aligned with Laura's point of view, commands, “Never wake him up again” (296). While the Journal passage is structured around a gradual diminishment of distance between the living and the dead, the description of Scott in “The Garden-Party” insists on his distance: “sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away …” (296). Unlike the image of Leslie in the Journal, the “express purpose” of which Mansfield cannot discover (95), Scott's body is comprehensible and purposeful, for this silent face speaks. Bringing Laura into the presence of Scott, Mansfield revises the image of the dead young man whose appearance in the Journal is so unsettling. In “The Garden-Party” that terrifying image is transformed into a picture of beautiful, peaceful, still wholeness, an image to assuage anxieties that the war raises—not merely for Mansfield, but for an entire society—about the vulnerability of the male body to violence.
In the descriptions of the fragmenting damage that characterizes the violence of the Great War, we find only bits of men; in Scott, Mansfield restores a remarkable, emphatic wholeness to the male corpse. A sense of wholeness is created by the way the description of the body is contained within a single paragraph, filling out that space completely. Because of lulling, rhythmic repetition, Scott is held in a peaceful moment of great stillness in contrast to the deadly energy of war in which people are blown to bits:
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. 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.
(296; original ellipses)
The impression of restful stillness is accentuated by the contrast between this moment and the “quick, incessant, feverishly busy” quality of the party preparations in the first half of the story (Zapf 47).
In perhaps the most radical revision of the corpse, the metaphor of sleep creates the impression that death is a choice voluntarily selected over life. At the beginning of the description, Laura commands, “Never wake him up again,” as though it were possible for him to be revived. At the end of the description, she imagines Scott confirms her choice, his face saying, “This is just as it should be.”
This moment when the corpse speaks, the culmination of the paragraph, is testimony to the desire to make the corpse meaningful. Peter Brooks, who in Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative looks at the relation between bodies and narrative in a broadly defined modern era (from the mid-eighteenth century through the present), argues that scenes in which bodies are inscribed or imprinted are deeply motivated by “a desire that the body not be lost to meaning—that it be brought into the realm of the semiotic and the significant” (22). In the context of a war in which the integrity of bodies is in constant peril and the destruction of bodies can be both tragically and farcically purposeless—recall that Leslie is killed by a hand grenade as he demonstrates how to use a hand grenade—the desire for bodies to make meaning could not be more desperate or precarious.
It is easy to see how comforting the figure of Scott is. Here is not the violent, fragmenting damage one learns of in a telegram and then must imagine. here is a still moment of a sustained gaze in which the male corpse is viewed in its wholeness, peace, and beauty. Yet much more is invested in this figure that so clearly represents an attempt to revisit and revise the dead of the Great War. The figure that conducts the task of rewriting away the damages of war is specifically a man of the working class. Although war is a crucial context for this figure, it is a deeply buried one; the story makes no direct reference to the war. Instead, the context in which Scott is directly embedded is a working-class milieu. Indeed, the end of the story is set up as the middle-class Laura's confrontation with the working class as much as with death in a scene in which class divisions, an undercurrent throughout the text, leap forcefully to the forefront. In the rest of this essay, I will examine Scott's function in a story that deals not merely with the war's physical destructiveness but also with the war's troubling of class identity.
Numerous critics have written insightfully on Mansfield's portrayal of the class system in “The Garden-Party.” In general, this criticism probes the degree to which Laura, by the end of the story, transcends the values and prejudices of her class. Most critics agree that her transcendence is far from complete.6 However, by neglecting the war context, this criticism has failed to untangle an important level of meaning in the story. I will argue that there is a connection between Laura's ambivalent movement away from her class and the profound ambivalence about class identity that was a lingering effect of the war on the middle and upper classes.
“DOWN THE LANE”
With the very first sentence of the story, Mansfield pulls us into the charmed world of the middle class. “[T]he weather was ideal,” we are told; “[t]hey could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it” (282). As the story progresses, we find that this middle-class family can order nearly anything. Thus, the beauty of their garden-party results from the labors of a host of workers—the gardener, who “up since dawn, mow[s] the lawns and sweep[s] them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine” (282); the workmen, who assemble the marquee where they have determined it will look best; Hans, who moves the furniture and sweeps the carpet; the cook, who makes fifteen different kinds of sandwiches; Godber's man, who brings the cream puffs that are so famous “[n]obody ever thought of making them at home” (288); and Sadie, who oversees the steady parade of commodities arriving at the Sheridans' home. Yet, as the opening paragraph hints, the Sheridans operate under the illusion that their easy life is natural, perhaps even divinely created, rather than produced through others' labor. The roses themselves seem to “underst[and] that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties,” so “[h]undreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night”; the bushes, “bow[ing] down as though they ha[ve] been visited by archangels,” suggest divine sanction (282).
As the preparations for the Sheridans' party are completed, a short distance away “down the hill” (294) where gardens are reserved not for giving parties but for producing food (“cabbage stalks” and “sick hens” ), the body of a carter is returned to his home. To Mrs. Sheridan, who represents the consciousness of the privileged middle class, Scott's death is not a matter of concern and her daughter's belief that the party must be stopped is simply “absurd” (291). Mrs. Sheridan succeeds in diverting Laura from her concerns, and the party occurs without interruption. But at the end of the story when Laura is sent down the lane with the leftover party food, the text's focus on the secluded middle-class world is permanently interrupted, and we are left with the image of a girl whose tie to that class has been loosened.
Laura is uniquely ready for an experience that will transform her relation to the classes. She is the only Sheridan who feels an affinity with the working class. Early in the story, in the presence of the men who are setting up the marquee, she thinks, “How very nice workmen were!” (283). Disdaining “these absurd class distinctions,” she bites into her bread-and-butter, looks at a workman's diagram of the marquee, and feels “just like a work-girl” (284). That Laura's identification with the working class represents a threat to her class is evident; precisely at the moment she makes this imaginative leap, she is reclaimed by the middle-class world, which speaks through an anonymous voice that summons her home to take a telephone call (284).
At first glance, the encounter between Laura and Scott seems a celebration of the transcendence of social boundaries. Before the encounter, the lane where Scott lives, like most sites of otherness, is perceived as both fascinating and repulsive. It is “disgusting and sordid” with its “little mean dwellings,” “revolting language,” and disease; nevertheless, “on their prowls” Laura and Laurie “must see everything” (290). In Laura's private moment with the dead carter, this sense of thrilling sordidness is replaced by a feeling of intimate communion. In this communion, as the middle-class girl takes possession of Scott with her gaze, he is released from the commodity culture in which men's possession of their own identities is seriously jeopardized. Scott first enters the text when a delivery man who arrives at the Sheridans' home tells the story of the carter's death. In the delivery man's lack of a name, the text evokes the power of the modern capitalist system to deprive the working-class man of possession of his own identity. The delivery man is not merely nameless; his name is written over by the name of his employer, “Godber's man.” While the owner of the catering firm gives his name to his business, the employee loses his. “The Garden-Party,” which with its record of one delivery after another represents “a society in which people are related primarily through the commodities they exchange or possess” (Stoll 43),7 finds its most restful moment when a working-class man is defined not by any commodity but rather by the insight into life that he seems to embody.
The extent to which Laura has been changed by this encounter is cued by the story's final scene when Laurie comes to fetch her home. Throughout the story, Laura's close bond with her brother has been apparent, yet Laurie has participated in the suppression of her potential to break free from the middle class. When Laurie returns home from work, Laura remembers the carter's accident that she, with uneasy reluctance, has been persuaded by her sister and mother to forget. She intends to tell Laurie about it, feeling that if he concurs with the others, “then it [is] bound to be all right” (292). While Laura looks to Laurie as a special guide, he, in fact, acts merely as the extension of their mother, who is the forceful agent of a middle-class mentality. Laurie's praise for the hat that Mrs. Sheridan has used to distract and mollify Laura deflects her from mentioning the dead man. Later, as Laura walks home after viewing Scott, she meets Laurie “[a]t the corner of the lane” (296). Laura and Laurie have been accustomed to “prow[ing]” together through the working-class lane (290), but tonight Laurie, serving as emissary for Mrs. Sheridan, comes no farther than the outer periphery of the lane.
The distance Laura has journeyed from Laurie can be measured by their conversation of miscommunication. Although Laura answers, “Yes, quite,” when he asks her, “Was it all right?” he cannot believe this (296-97). “Was it awful?” he asks shortly thereafter, unable to imagine any other explanation for her tears (297). Laura “stammer[s],” “Isn't life … isn't life—” and the narrator says, “But what life was she couldn't explain. No matter. He quite understood” (297). Many readers erroneously ignore the irony that becomes unmistakable in the word “quite.”8 The narrator is clearly ventriloquizing the voices we have heard throughout the scene, these distinctly middle-class voices with their expressions—“Isn't it, darling?” “Yes, quite,” and “simply marvelous” (297)—which are utterly inadequate for the task Laura is attempting. Laurie's cool, flippant, “Isn't it, darling?” is particularly jarring; in contrast to Laura's earnest attempt to express what life is, Laurie's remark sounds glib. The truth is that by the end of the story Laurie no longer understands Laura because she has been irrevocably changed by her encounter with Scott. Throughout the story, Laura and Laurie's relationship has been marked by incestuous overtones (which parallel in muted form the incestuous element to Mansfield's romanticizing of her dead brother). At the end of the story Laura has been liberated from this bond to her brother. Reading Laura and Laurie's incestuous relationship as a figure for the enclosure of the middle-class world, the rupturing of the bond between Laura and Laurie indicates that Laura has detached herself not merely from her brother, but also from that entire world.
My reading thus far reveals the apparent meaning of “The Garden-Party,” but this story offers a complex layering of interconnected, sometimes contradictory meanings. When Laura, a middle-class girl, admires Scott, a working-class man, the wholeness and beauty of his body would seem to signify the potential for society to become whole and beautiful, unmarred by exclusion, hierarchy, and dominance. Yet everything surrounding Scott, especially the other bodies in his home, is distorted by a vision that is virulently classist. Scott's widow has a “terrible” face that is “puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips,” and his sister-in-law's face, also “swollen,” bears an “oily” smile (296). Corporeal grotesqueness is paralleled by orthographic distortions. While Scott's face “speaks” in a voice that is indistinguishable from the controlled, elegant prose of the narrative—“All is well. … This is just as it should be. I am content” (296)—the “oily voice” of his sister-in-law is insistently marked by “'er” (295), “'im” (296), “'e” (296), and “thenk” (296), blatant class indicators that even the speech of Godber's man and the marquee installers lacks.9 While the “marvel” that is Scott is “wonderful” and “beautiful” (296), Laura's visit to the Scotts' home only intensifies the impression gained by Laura and Laurie on their “prowls” that the lane is “disgusting and sordid” (290). Clearly, the figure of Scott is functioning in a complex process of repression, rather than transcendence, of class antipathy.
The way the text separates the conflicting attitudes that characterize any apprehension of the other—fascination and revulsion—is unsettling not only because it troubles the story's apparent plot about a girl who escapes the prejudices of her class but also because, in this careful distillation, anxieties about the working class, channeled away from Scott, are displaced onto the women in the house and thereby become conflated with anxieties about the maternal feminine. The Scotts' house is distinctly gendered female. To ascertain that she has reached the right address, Laura asks, “Is this Mrs. Scott's house?” not Mr. Scott's (295). The house is guarded by “an old, old woman” who sits at the gate and watches (295). Inside, with the exception of the corpse, there are only women, the widow, named Em (“M” for mother? and for Mansfield?), and Em's sister. Even the physical design of the house seems insistently feminine: at every turn, Laura finds herself “shut in the passage” that suggests the birth canal (295). This image, like the other images of femininity, is thoroughly negative, for the passage is a “gloomy” trap (295): when Laura wants “only … to get out, to get away,” she finds herself “back in the passage” (296). In this context the widow's grotesque face, “puffed up” and “swollen,” hints at a repulsive image of pregnancy (296). The possessive found in the colloquial expression “my lass” that the old woman at the gate addresses to Laura suggests that Laura belongs to this female world (295), and when Em's sister invites Laura to view Scott, she also employs the possessive in “my lass” and “my dear” (296). However, Scott releases Laura from the world of these women. As Laura views the “wonderful, beautiful” corpse, his face quickly obliterates the memory of the “terrible” faces of the grieving women (296). Laura's lingering view of the male body so thoroughly overtakes the text that, although Em's sister does not leave the room, she does disappear from the text.
Robert Murray Davis, too, notices that the sight of Scott “blots out for Laura her glimpse of the wife,” but for him this is merely a sign “that Laura is … attempting to retreat, to escape harsh reality …” (64). It is necessary to specify more clearly from what Laura is escaping. Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr offer one possibility. Claiming that “[t]he dead man's widow and sister-in-law make little impression on her [Laura], for all their swollen faces, compared with the peaceful sleep of the dead man,” they observe that Laura's “growth as an adolescent is implied … in the affinity she feels for the men of the story [the marquee installers and Laurie, in addition to Scott] as much as it is shown by her divergence from her mother and sisters” (115). However, they do not probe the significance of this striking pattern by which maturity is gendered masculine and immaturity (as well as class elitism, so evident in Mrs. Sheridan and Jose) is gendered feminine. Moreover, their reading tends to dilute the startling aspect of this scene: a portrait of the working class that is sharply polarized by gender.
Criticism of “The Garden-Party” has left crucial questions unanswered. Why, when the text takes pleasure in a beautiful, working-class man, does working-class femininity become so monstrous? Why, in this girl's coming-of-age story, does the passage to maturity entail not just separation from a mother and sister, but anxious flight from the female body, as represented by working-class women?
Mansfield's life and, more generally, the situation of women in the early twentieth century provide obvious, but only partial, answers to the last question. Having fled her family's bourgeois home in New Zealand, Mansfield almost immediately encountered the difficulties of a woman trying to pursue an independent life at a time when there were few escapes from the trap of women's biology. She arrived in London in 1908, took a lover, and soon found herself pregnant. She was only nineteen years old. Understandably panicky, the young Mansfield married a man (not her lover, who could not marry her), but after a day she left him. Four or five months later the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.10 Although pregnancy is not experienced identically by women of all classes, the distinctions between women in “The Garden-Party” seem somewhat overdrawn; in this story, the sharply polarized portraits of women displace the burdens of women's biology onto the working class, wishfully muting the harsh realities faced by women from even the middle and upper classes.
Appropriately, then, in the bond that Laura achieves with Scott, sexual currents are kept blurred and subdued. Though the man would seem to be a figure of potent sexuality—he is a “young chap” who has fathered five children (289)—and though the scene takes place, of all places, in the marital bedroom, Laura's gaze dilutes his sexual corporeality, texturing it with aesthetic pleasure. Indeed, within the aestheticizing grip of Laura's gaze, the corporeality of Scott vanishes into linguistic abstraction as the “young man, fast asleep” whom we see at the beginning of the paragraph becomes simply “this marvel” (296). Thus, the sexual potential between Laura and the marquee installers, whom she found so appealing early in the story, is averted, as those workmen are transmogrified into the utterly safe figure of a dead man. As Carol Siegel notes, Laura's communion with the dead man “involves no real (and so dangerous) embraces,” thereby “resolv[ing] the problem of her attraction to workers” (305). While on one level Laura's appreciation of Scott's beauty points to a new relation between the classes, it simultaneously reflects an anxious desire that the burdens of female heterosexuality be averted, displaced onto working-class women.
In her work on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women's literature, Cora Kaplan draws attention to “ways in which women of the middle and upper classes understood and represented their own being” by “projecting and displacing on to women of lower social standing and women of colour … all that was deemed vicious and regressive in women as a sex” even in texts that express an overt sympathy with women from marginalized social categories (60). The pattern of displacement in “The Garden-Party” is, thus, not entirely distinctive to this text or even to this period. Yet, the general pattern that Kaplan describes conveys different meanings in different contexts. My argument is that Mansfield's bifurcated portrait of the working class encodes specific anxieties characteristic of the years following the Great War. In the figure of Scott, Mansfield puts back together the men destroyed in the war and signifies their wholeness and safety by reserving the most violent images for the women with their “swollen,” “red,” “terrible” faces (296). Through this displacement of violence, the text subtly points to the damaging effects on women of their postwar roles: as mourners, to remember the dead young soldiers; as mothers, to repopulate the decimated nation. In Scott's widow and sister-in-law, Mansfield conflates these two roles: mourning distorts the women's faces into the repulsive image of pregnancy. As haunted as “The Garden-Party” is by the dead young soldiers, this story hints that female identity is the more troubling, is ultimately the unresolvable, problem.
In the shadow of war, Mansfield's search for a comforting image of male death ends in curiously familiar territory: beheld in Laura's aestheticizing gaze, Scott's corpse displays the muteness, beauty, and passivity that characterize the most traditional ideal of middle-class femininity. Thus, while Laura in her admiration of Scott seems to achieve at least a partial loosening of the bonds to her class, she actually reinforces her tie to her gender and class subjectivity—and, as Mansfield makes clear, its limitations. Self-aestheticization is a part of middle-class women's training that denies them political awareness and agency. To distract Laura from her concerns about the dead workman, Mrs. Sheridan exclaims over her appearance in a new hat: “I have never seen you look such a picture” (291). The middle-class mother instructs her daughter to perceive herself as an aesthetic object: “Look at yourself!” Mrs. Sheridan commands as she holds up a hand mirror (291). Despite the hat's funereal color, the picture of a “charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon” supersedes the image of “that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house,” which becomes to Laura “blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper” (292). Later in the Scotts' home, the dead man's sister-in-law compares him explicitly to “a picture,” linking him to Laura's earlier perception of herself (296). Laura's gaze does, indeed, render Scott an aesthetic object, and through this aestheticization Laura again averts a confrontation with the painful facts about the lives of the working class as Scott's violent death is transformed into a “marvel” that has “come to the lane” (296).11 Though Laura tries to resist her mother's social blindness, Mansfield casts doubt on Laura's ultimate success. Scott's eyes, we are told, are “blind under the closed eyelids,” but the suggestion is that perhaps it is Laura who is blind (296).
Laura's dubious success is tied to the text's profound ambivalence. Even as the text nudges its protagonist from her class, it is pervaded by an unmistakable nostalgia for the beauty and safety of that world. Significantly, the story ends precisely at the moment at which the young woman who has left her middle-class home is still clasped in her brother's loving embrace. The nostalgia for “the perfect afternoon [that] slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed” signals a tie to the middle-class world that the text is not willing to abandon (293).
This nostalgia is the socially acceptable manifestation of the text's investment, at its deepest levels, in a disturbingly traditional class framework. Shifting Laurie's (and Leslie's) death onto Scott, the text reinscribes the traditional role of the working class as bearers of the bodily burdens of society. The cruel irony, of course, is that the Great War spared no class. In fact, in the cultural memory it even seemed to strike the upper class especially hard. As early as the opening months of the war, British commentators were reporting—and worrying—that death rates were highest among men of the upper class (Winter 449). These perceptions, which persisted well after the conclusion of the war, were not entirely unfounded. Among Oxford and Cambridge graduates, for example, deaths were almost one and a half times the national average (Wohl 266 n. 57). Such disparities were partly due to the dangerous duties performed by subalterns, who were generally from the elite class: leading charges, conducting raids, and checking the wire in front of trenches (Wohl 114).
The anxiety about the decimation of a generation of upper-class men, however, reflected more than real disparities in casualties. Mansfield's words after learning of her brother's death are revealing: “I don't believe it; he was not the kind to die” (qtd. in Alpers 183). While she undoubtedly was referring to his personal qualities, the truth is, within the framework of traditional assumptions about the classes, he, like the other young soldiers from the middle and upper classes, was not the kind to die the deaths that the Great War dealt. “Athleticism,” an important prewar movement, had fostered the ideal of the physically fit man who, embodying the courage, loyalty, leadership, and cooperation of the sporting field, would serve his country, but the battlefields of the Great War bore no connection to traditional, chivalric images of combat: flooded, rat-infested trenches, weapons that killed massively and from a distance so that one killed and was killed by an enemy one did not necessarily see, comrades' bodies—and pieces of bodies—immured in the sodden or frozen landscape. Widely considered by historians to be the first modern war, the Great War was conducted with weaponry that represented the latest and most fearsome of technological developments—machine guns, tanks, combat airplanes, and poison gas—and with such vast numbers of men that the individual was no longer visible. Frequently Great War writers expressed their impression that the soldier was no longer a human—and certainly not a hero—but rather just another piece of the war's arsenal. “My God, why am I a man at all, when this is all, this machinery piercing and tearing?” D. H. Lawrence wrote in dismay after observing the Bavarian army on maneuvers just before the war in 1913; “[i]t is a war of artillery, a war of machines, and men no more than the subjective material of the machine” (qtd. in Field 214). While the conditions of this war were physically and psychically threatening to men of all classes, for men of the middle and upper classes the war represented a radical toppling of traditional constructs of identity. In the industrialized killing of the Great War, the men who had been bred to inherit the reins of cultural and political power entered a zone of mass, anonymous peril comparable to the dangers of the factory or the mine; the daily threat of industrial injury and death was part of society's construct of working-class, not middle- or upper-class, masculinity. While scholarship traditionally has privileged the experiences of combatants, I would emphasize the extent to which middle- and upper-class civilians were also disturbed by the war's erosion of traditional class constructs. That erosion was painfully manifest to them in the staggering number of injured and dead men from their classes.12
The description of Laura's journey to the Scotts' home, with its emphasis on descent and darkness, employs the imaginative geography by which the upper and middle classes imagined their separation from the working class: “down below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade,” and the people form a “dark knot” in the “smoky and dark” lane (294-95). Even as the description recalls turn-of-the-century writings about the working class, it equally suggests the more recent imagery of modern trench warfare. The iconographic slippage between the battle zone and the working class is emblematic of the social dislocations produced by this war which, sparing no class, was devastatingly equitable.
In “The Garden-Party,” beneath the apparent plot, in which a young girl breaks free from her enclosed middle-class world, is a hidden story about a war that ruptures the middle-class illusion of secure enclosure. Just as the text displaces onto Scott the deaths of the young, upper-class men, it displaces onto Scott's widow and sister-in-law the roles of mourner and mother that women of all classes are asked to perform in the postwar era. In the repulsively terrifying images of these women we can measure the anxieties of middle-class women, who find themselves suddenly in a world where their class no longer guarantees safety. In “The Garden-Party,” nostalgia for “the perfect afternoon” veils the unspoken—the unspeakable—fantasy that the war's devastation be borne by the working class.
If this story performs crude and cruel displacements, it is brave enough to encourage us to notice them. As Davis reminds us, Mansfield carefully places clues to indicate that the evidence of Scott's fatal injury is not actually absent, only hidden: Em's sister's remark, “There's nothing to show,” the earlier mention of a head injury as the cause of death, and the detail in the description of Scott that his head is sunk in the pillow (64). Hinging on the figure of a dead man whose beauty hides the traces of injury, “The Garden-Party” invites us to look deeply for the raw wound hidden at its center. That previous readers have overlooked the buried levels of meaning is testimony to a number of intersecting desires: that the body and meaning and society be whole and unified.
It would be wrong to discount the overt story told in “The Garden-Party” as merely an elaborate mask behind which the true meaning hides. Like many of her contemporaries, Mansfield is drawn to the vision of a community unfissured by social divisions. The public monuments and rituals by which the war is commemorated figure a community in which social rank has ceased to matter. The Cenotaph honors “The Glorious Dead” of all classes. Similarly, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, which pays tribute to a man whose name, rank, class, and regional origins are unknown, implicitly signifies that such distinctions do not, or should not, matter. Reporting on the burial of the Unknown Warrior in 1920, The Times of London highlighted his unknown origins to emphasize the expansive community that he embodied:
The Unknown Warrior whose body was to be buried may have been born to high position or to low; he may have been a sailor, a soldier, an airman; an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman, an Irishman, a man of the Dominion, a Sikh, a Gurkha. No one knows. But he was one who gave his life for the people of the British Empire.
(“The Warrior Laid to Rest”)
As another article explained, “when men die for each other there is to be no distinction between them” ([Untitled]). Not only did the Unknown Warrior suggest a classless community of war dead; he also created, at least temporarily, a community of mourners unmarred by social barriers and distinctions: “we were made one people, participants in one act of remembrance” ([Untitled]). Social and political rank of even the highest order was imagined inconsequential:
We saw and yet did not see the King walking immediately behind the coffin. We knew that the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Connaught, the Duke of York, the Prime Minister, and a long file of Ministers were there, and that Lord Haig and Lord Beatty were among the pallbearers. But all these were only sharers in a tribute in which the humblest widow or mother in the Abbey had an equal part.
(“The Warrior Laid to Rest”)
For the middle and upper classes, the legacy of the Great War was deep ambivalence: the desire to experience an undivided society and the need to mourn the losses of one's own class, not just the lost men, but also the lost sense of safe enclosure in class privilege.
My formulation of the Great War's fueling of both desire for and anxiety about a projected classless community calls to mind Marianne DeKoven's work on modernist narrative. In Rich and Strange, DeKoven argues that the distinguishing quality of modernist literature is its “unresolved contradiction” (21), its “irreducible undecidability” (14). In this aesthetic of “unsynthesized dialectic” (21), modernist writers, claims DeKoven, found a means of representing their ambivalence about “the radical remaking of culture” promised by turn-of-the-century feminism and socialism (20). The prospect of social change was both appealing and terrifying: “male modernists generally feared the loss of their own hegemony implicit in such wholesale revision of culture, while female modernists generally feared punishment for their dangerous desire for that revision” (20). One might add, as my reading of “The Garden-Party” suggests, middle- and upper-class female modernists also feared the loss of hegemony to the extent that their class position gave them privileges. While I concede DeKoven's point that “[m]odernist formal practice emerged unevenly within a general period, roughly 1890-1910” and “its development was not tied to any specific historical progression of events in radical history” (5), my reading of “The Garden-Party” suggests the need for inquiring more closely into the kind of intervention the Great War posed in this general climate of revolutionary social movements and literary practices. In the “unresolved contradiction” of “The Garden-Party,” a story that is about a girl who both does and does not break free from her enclosed middle-class world, Mansfield encodes the painful ambivalence produced by a war that magnified the desire for radical social change even as it enacted—to a terrifying extreme—what the loss of hegemony could entail.
For important critiques of Gilbert and Gubar's work on the Great War, see Jane Marcus's “The Asylums of Antaeus: Women, War, and Madness—Is there a Feminist Fetishism?” and Claire M. Tylee's “‘Maleness Run Riot’—The Great War and Women's Resistance to Militarism.”
In describing “The Garden-Party” as war literature, I seek to challenge traditional definitions of war literature and, implicitly, of war itself. Margaret and Patrice Higonnet have argued eloquently for fundamental revisions in how we define war. While “[m]asculinist history has stressed the sharply defined event of war,” they urge us to “move beyond the exceptional, marked event, which takes place on a specifically militarized front or in public and institutionally defined areas, to include the private domain and the landscape of the mind” (46). Mansfield wrote a handful of stories in which the war is a more obvious presence than it is in “The Garden-Party”: “An Indiscreet Journey,” “Spring Pictures,” “Late at Night,” “Two Tuppenny Ones, Please,” “Six Years Later,” and “The Fly.” Perhaps because the war is a buried presence in “The Garden-Party,” this story is able to encode such a probing meditation on the experience of war. Tylee overlooks “The Garden-Party” but offers useful analyses of “An Indiscreet Journey” and “The Fly” (Great War 83-91, 167-69).
Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory and Eric J. Leed's No Man's Land: Combat & Identity in World War I are classic studies of the Great War and masculinity. In addition to the previously mentioned works by Gilbert and Gubar, Higonnet and Higonnet, Marcus, and Tylee, important studies of the Great War and femininity include the following: Margaret Higonnet's “Women in the Forbidden Zone: War, Women, and Death” and “Not So Quiet in No-Woman's-Land,” Susan Kingsley Kent's Making Peace: The Reconstruction of Gender in Interwar Britain, and Marcus's “The Nurse's Text: Acting Out an Anaesthetic Aesthetic” and “Corpus/Corps/Corpse: Writing the Body in/at War.” Generously scattered throughout Marcus's essays are insightful observations on class in recently recovered war novels by Irene Rathbone and Helen Zenna Smith. However, these observations remain suggestive, pointing to the important work that remains to be done on the subject of class, gender, and the Great War.
Angela Woollacott's essay “Sisters and Brothers in Arms: Family, Class, and Gendering in World War I Britain” is one of the few studies that braids gender and class. Woollacott demonstrates that class-based differences in women's prewar experiences of family, work, and the public sphere created important differences in their experiences of the war. Although women of all classes grieved for their brothers who died in the war, middle-class women's greater dependence on their brothers for financial security and access to the public world compounded their loss. Woollacott's valuable study reminds us of what is overlooked when the social categories that structure our investigations elide the differences within those categories.
While Woollacott reminds us of the important ways in which a woman's class, inextricably entangled with her gender, inflected her experience of the war, my emphasis is different. I am interested not only in how class and gender shaped one's experience of the war, but in how the experience of the war reshaped one's understanding of class and gender.
For an account of Mansfield's reaction to her brother's death that is more complex and less judgmental than those of O'Connor and Meyers, see C. A. Hankin 105-15.
For a similar moment, see Antonia White's “The House of Clouds.” The protagonist, who has been incarcerated for insanity, assumes the identities of dead soldiers: “She spoke with his voice. She felt the pain of amputated limbs, of blinded eyes. She coughed up blood from lungs torn to rags by shrapnel. Over and over again, in trenches, in field hospitals, in German camps, she died a lingering death” (605-06). Of course Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway offers a scene with a similar dynamic (although a different mood): Clarissa Dalloway's empathy with Septimus Smith is so complete, she imaginatively inhabits his dying body.
See, for example, Fullbrook 117-23, Hankin 235-41, and Hanson and Gurr 115-23.
This description of Edwardian society comes from Rae Harris Stoll's study of E. M. Forster's Howards End, but it serves as an equally apt description of the society in “The Garden-Party.”
Weiss and Taylor emphatically aver that Laurie “understands. He has also been initiated” (364). One of the few critics to explicitly state the contrary is Walker: “Does he really understand what she is talking about? One wonders. One wonders whether he even understands the significance of the death to her …” (358).
Mansfield's method of representing the women's dialect is, of course, a common strategy in literary texts. I am not dismissing Mansfield's—and other writers'—struggles to record the various dialects of characters. Instead, I wish to underline what is striking about this moment in the text: there are other (male) working-class characters in this text who speak, but the only working-class characters whose dialect is represented through orthographic manipulation are these women. The eruption of this jarring dialect into the text is highlighted by its contrast to the language that Laura ascribes to the dead man.
This biographical information is contained in Mary Burgan's “Childbirth Trauma in Katherine Mansfield's Early Stories.” Another discussion of Mansfield that focuses on maternity is offered by Susan Gubar in “The Birth of the Artist as Heroine: (Re)production, the Kunstlerroman Tradition, and the Fiction of Katherine Mansfield.” Gubar argues that Leslie's death inspired a transformation in Mansfield's attitude toward maternity from fear to celebration as Mansfield links women's procreativity with her own literary creativity; acting as Leslie's “mother,” Mansfield is able to “birth” him back to life in her writings (34). Without dismissing the comfort Mansfield experiences in resurrecting Leslie, my reading of the Journal and “The Garden-Party” underscores Mansfield's recognition of the damaging effects on women of their postwar roles.
My point about aestheticization coincides with previous criticism. Davis notices in the story the repeated use of the word “picture,” which “has become synonymous with ‘untrustworthy, unreal, artificial’” (64). The connection he sees between Laura's hat and her passage to womanhood hints at, without making explicit, the crucial link between aestheticization and middle-class women's training in how to perceive themselves (63). Hankin and Fullbrook articulate clearly the connection between the beauty of the Sheridans' world (including Laura's new hat) and the privileges of their class. Laura's decision to not worry about the dead carter as she admires herself in the hat is, Fullbrook aptly observes, “an extraordinary moment of conscience callousing over” (122). Fullbrook further suggests that Mansfield rejects Laura's later appreciation of the dead man's beauty, which “remains in the aesthetic mode of the [middle-class] party” (122). For Hankin, the beauty of the corpse “temper[s]” Laura's “initiation into the harshness of adult life,” and “The Garden-Party” offers readers, too, a “reprieve,” “assuag[ing] both our guilt about social inequalities and our haunting anxiety about death” (241).
See Leed for a similar discussion of the class implications of the Great War, especially within German culture. An important element of the wartime disillusionment of German volunteers from the upper and middle classes was their discovery that war work was, essentially, working-class labor.
Wohl demonstrates that the British myth of the lost generation refers in particular to the men of the elite class. For a detailed statistical analysis of class and military service in the Great War, see Winter.
Alpers, Anthony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. New York: Viking, 1980.
Beer, Gillian. “Hume, Stephen, and Elegy in To the Lighthouse.” Essays in Criticism 34 (1984): 33-55.
Borden, Mary. The Forbidden Zone. London: Heinemann, 1929.
Brooks, Peter. Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
Burgan, Mary. “Childbirth Trauma in Katherine Mansfield's Early Stories.” Modern Fiction Studies 24 (1978): 395-412.
Cooke, Miriam, and Angela Woollacott, eds. Gendering War Talk. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.
Davis, Robert Murray. “The Unity of ‘The Garden Party.’” Studies in Short Fiction 2 (1964): 61-65.
DeKoven, Marianne. Rich and Strange: Gender, History, Modernism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.
Field, Frank. British and French Writers of the First World War: Comparative Studies in Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.
Fullbrook, Kate. Katherine Mansfield. Key Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. 3 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988-94.
Gubar, Susan. “The Birth of the Artist as Heroine: (Re)production, the Kunstlerroman Tradition, and the Fiction of Katherine Mansfield.” The Representation of Women in Fiction. Ed. Carolyn G. Heilbrun and Margaret R. Higonnet. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983. 19-59.
Hankin, C. A. Katherine Mansfield and Her Confessional Stories. New York: St. Martin's, 1983.
Hanson, Clare, and Andrew Gurr. Katherine Mansfield. New York: St. Martin's, 1981.
Higonnet, Margaret R. “Not So Quiet in No-Woman's-Land.” Cooke and Woollacott 205-26.
———. “Women in the Forbidden Zone: War, Women, and Death.” Death and Representation. Ed. Sarah Webster Goodwin and Elisabeth Bronfen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. 192-209.
Higonnet, Margaret R., and Patrice L. R. Higonnet. “The Double Helix.” Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. Ed. Margaret Randolph Higonnet et al. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. 31-47.
Kaplan, Cora. “‘Like a Housemaid's Fancies’: The Representation of Working-class Women in Nineteenth-century Writing.” Grafts: Feminist Cultural Criticism. Ed. Susan Sheridan. London: Verso, 1988. 55-75.
Kent, Susan Kingsley. Making Peace: The Reconstruction of Gender in Interwar Britain. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.
Leed, Eric J. No Man's Land: Combat & Identity in World War I. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.
Mansfield, Katherine. “The Garden-Party.” Stories. Ed. Jeffrey Meyers. New York: Vintage, 1991. 282-97.
———. Journal. Ed. J. Middleton Murry. London: Constable, 1954.
Marcus, Jane. “The Asylums of Antaeus: Women, War, and Madness—Is There a Feminist Fetishism?” The Difference Within: Feminism and Critical Theory. Ed. Elizabeth Meese and Alice Parker. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1989. 49-83.
———. “Corpus/Corps/Corpse: Writing the Body in/at War.” Afterword. Not So Quiet … Stepdaughters of War. 1930. By Helen Zenna Smith. New York: Feminist P, 1989. 241-300.
———. “The Nurse's Text: Acting Out an Anaesthetic Aesthetic.” Afterword. We That Were Young. 1932. By Irene Rathbone. New York: Feminist P, 1989. 467-98.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Katherine Mansfield: A Biography. New York: New Directions, 1978.
O'Connor, Frank. “An Author in Search of a Subject.” Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield. Ed. Rhoda B. Nathan. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993. 174-82.
Rathbone, Irene. We That Were Young. 1932. New York: Feminist P, 1989.
Siegel, Carol. “Virginia Woolf's and Katherine Mansfield's Responses to D. H. Lawrence's Fiction.” D. H. Lawrence Review 21 (1989): 291-311.
Stoll, Rae Harris. “The Unthinkable Poor in Edwardian Writing.” Mosaic 15.4 (1982): 23-45.
Tylee, Claire M. The Great War and Women's Consciousness: Images of Militarism and Womanhood in Women's Writings, 1914-64. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1990.
———. “‘Maleness Run Riot’—The Great War and Women's Resistance to Militarism.” Women's Studies International Forum 2 (1988): 199-210.
[Untitled]. Times [London] 12 Nov. 1920: Supplement i.
Walker, Warren S. “The Unresolved Conflict in ‘The Garden Party.’” Modern Fiction Studies 3 (1957-58): 354-58.
“The Warrior Laid to Rest.” Times [London] 12 Nov. 1920: Supplement ii.
Weiss, Daniel A., and Donald S. Taylor. “Crashing the Garden Party.” Modern Fiction Studies 4 (1958-59): 361-64.
White, Antonia. “The House of Clouds.” The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Bonnie Kime Scott. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 603-12.
Winter, J. M. “Britain's ‘Lost Generation’ of the First World War.” Population Studies 31 (1977): 449-66.
Wohl, Robert. The Generation of 1914. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1979.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. San Diego: Harvest, 1985.
Woollacott, Angela. “Sisters and Brothers in Arms: Family, Class, and Gendering in World War I Britain.” Cooke and Woollacott 128-47.
Zapf, Hubert. “Time and Space in Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party.” Orbis Litterarum 40 (1985): 44-54.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8566
SOURCE: D'Arcy, Chantal Cornut-Gentille. “Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss’: ‘The Rare Fiddle’ as Emblem of the Political and Sexual Alienation of Woman.” Papers on Language & Literature 35, no. 3 (summer 1999): 244-69.
[In the following essay, D'Arcy examines the political commentary and sexual politics found in “Bliss.”]
In the final part of To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe, the amateur artist, is contemplating her painting and pondering on the elusive nature of mass and form:
Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly's wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron.
Such a “visionary” insight helps establish the basic shape and nature of Katherine Mansfield's1 short stories in that it immediately points to a certain “doubleness” in what, at first sight, could appear to be no more than dainty and sentimental little fictional pieces. In other words, the reference to Lily Briscoe's painting serves as a warning to readers not to allow themselves to be deluded by the delicately elusive surface of Mansfield's tales. On the contrary, they should be attentive to the implicit criticism which is engraved—sometimes, with the sharpness of steel—precisely “beneath the fabric” (or between the lines) of the stories.
Indeed, Mansfield's succinct narratives, collected as In a German Pension (1911), Bliss, and Other Stories (1920), and The Garden Party, and Other Stories (1922) (Sanders 517-18), are triumphs of style, a style which challenged the conventional parameters of nineteenth-century realism, constrained to plot, sequential development, climax and conclusion. Essentially, Mansfield's work and that of avant-garde artistic contemporaries such as E. M. Foster, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf or Dorothy Richardson2 (among others) can be defined against the example of more traditional writers like Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells or John Glasworthy who continued to exploit received literary conventions in the first decades of this century. In the aftermath of several significant events of the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the new century, people's view of themselves and their representation in Art was greatly altered—so much so that Virginia Woolf located what she saw as a notable change in human character “in or about December, 1910” (Pykett 6). This same conviction led Roger Fry to comment in an essay that was later to be included in Vision and Design, “the artist is [now] free to choose any degree of representational accuracy which suits the expression of his feeling” (qtd. in Halliday 281; italics mine). Although Vision and Design was primarily dedicated to reconsiderations of painting and sculpture, the implication of its theoretical formulation for Mansfield's Modernist short-stories is considerable. As is known, the experimental fiction of Modernism sprang from an urge to establish new ways of seeing, observing, and recording distinct from the existing lines of story-telling and representation. However, the determination to move away from those “stuffy” discourses, ordered by all-wise and authoritarian authors, and to concentrate instead on communicating impressions, moods, and transient sensations does not mean that innovative Modernist work was, in any way, divorced from the great social, political, and cultural happenings of the time.
With these shifts in mind, the purpose of this essay will be to demonstrate how the shimmering elusiveness of Mansfield's short story “Bliss” only serves to hide more subversive themes and attitudes (Dunbar ix) which evidence the author's deep commitment with historical issues.
The author lived through a period which saw the end of the long reign of Queen Victoria and of the stability which the country had so long enjoyed. At the turn of the century, society was assumed to be developing according to certain laws. But these laws, now “interpreted” with reference to post-Darwinian science, or the complexities of the human psyche unraveled by the newly fashionable Freudian theory, threatened old, orderly assumptions by introducing notions of flux, chance and (non)adaptation. Although the roots of the idea of (non)adaptation or alienation can be found in the theology of St. Augustine and Martin Luther, it was Marx who converted the concept into a radical and secularized critique of society. For him, the key problem was alienated labor under capitalism. In his view, human beings need to realize themselves in work. If this natural drive is not fulfilled then, the essence of Man remains unrealized. The Marxist tradition, however, represents only one stream of thought concerning alienation. For Sigmund Freud, (self-)estrangement is seen to lie in the split between conscious and unconscious forces in the personality. In other words, the individual is unadapted in the sense that repressed and unacknowledged desires motivate her/his behavior.
Even though Mansfield never openly acknowledged any profound engagement with Freudian approaches to sexuality or psychic disorder, the truth is that several members of her circle were quite convinced by the analyst's revolutionary diagnosis of Man's psychological condition: A. R. Orage, who, as editor of New Age, published some of her early stories, was a passionate disciple; likewise, her friends Leonard and Virginia Woolf,3 publishers of perhaps her best known story, “The Prelude,” also produced the first English edition of Freud's works in 1924. Accordingly, as a (fringe4) member of the Bloomsbury group, Mansfield moved in a context which undoubtedly indicates she was aware of Freud's ideas and discoveries. It can therefore be argued that one of the seminal features of Mansfield's technique, her quest to present inner consciousness directly through narrative voice in part confirms the closeness of the author's writings to historical or cultural circumstances in her own life. In other words, the dates of publication of Freud's early work (Studies in Hysteria ; The Interpretation of Dreams ; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality ) could suggest that they formed the theoretical groundwork for Mansfield's oeuvre since all her stories highlight, in one way or another, the mode in which the mind's depths work against its conscious intentions—something which the then revolutionary practice of “psychoanalysis” was intended to reveal. A clear revolution, therefore, may be appreciated in Mansfield's work from an awkward over-use of quotation marks to demarcate direct thoughts from sequences reported in the third person as in, for instance, “A Birthday” (1911), to a smoother presentation of the psyche in later stories such as “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” (1920), “Bliss” (1920), or the tale significantly entitled “Psychology” (1920), in which the author describes the difficult relationship of a modern couple and actually has them mention in conversation the avant-garde subject of “psycho-analysis” (Dunbar 100-03).
Whereas, as I shall argue, unequivocal Freudian shades may be traced in the gaps, silences, and ambiguities of “Bliss,” there is another subversive aspect of the story which has not been fully recognized. It seems that Mansfield's reputation as a “delicate female stylist,” engendered by her homely and domestic choice of subject-matter, has tended to obscure the radical nature of her political commentary (Gregor 65-67; Head 128). A broad overview of social and political happenings at the turn of the century will help underline the seriousness of the sexual politics that lie “beneath the fabric” of this particular tale.
The period after the Boer War (1899-1902) was a time of colonial outback, when attention was diverted from overseas possessions to very immediate social problems at home. The reawakening of social conscience was made patent in the atmosphere of political passion and activism that marked the emergence and rapid growth of the Labour Party during the last decade of the nineteenth century. These years of political effervescence were also characterized by serious social instability, mainly connected with the growth of trade unionism and the question of the vote for women. What distinguished the newly arising British Left from radical parties in other European countries was that it emanated more from humanitarian ideals or a pragmatic response to poverty and the conditions of working-class life than from Marxist ideology. British socialism therefore favored gradual and piecemeal reform rather than revolution, and, as such, it could have seemed readily compatible or even complementary with the emerging feminism of the time that likewise preferred reformism to either sex or class warfare.
However, although many left-wingers may have shared this perspective in theory, in practice, socialist organizations tended to combine formal commitments to equality with outright marginalization of “women issues.” This type of unthinking sexism, a suffrage campaigner noted, permeated all levels of political and personal life: “Most of us who were married,” she stated, “found that ‘Votes for Women’ were of less interest to our husbands than their own dinners” (Bryson 111). At times, these different priorities resulted in an open clash between the methods and aspirations of socialists and feminists. Most famously, the British Labour Party refused to support the suffrage campaign for women's enfranchisement on the grounds that this would only strengthen the (conservative) voting power of the middle class; the response of some women to this “betrayal” was to follow Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst out of the party and to form their own militant and independent organization (Bryson 89-106). However, as Diane Atkinson has shown (9),5 such polarization at the level of national organization concealed a widespread continuity at the grass roots, as women continued to campaign both in the mainstream of politics and in individual ventures invariably directed at exposing the misogyny of society. Given that Mansfield was undoubtedly aware of the sex-specific problems faced by women at the time, her work “Bliss” can be viewed as a literary response which delicately attempted to present women's oppression in a different light from both the official Labor position of “no policy” on women's issues and from the conventional view of the suffrage campaign that saw women's subordination as beginning and ending with their lack of political rights.
Apart from the imaging of life in a single day, a key structural device that Mansfield was going to repeat in “At the Bay” (1921), the most prominent aspect of “Bliss” is that the actual events or occurrences related are so insignificant as to be almost trivial, while the female protagonist is so simply portrayed as to appear, at first hand, entirely devoid of any depth or personality. Virginia Woolf obviously found this “surface” feature of the narrative quite disconcerting for she apparently exclaimed on reading the story: “She's done for! … she [Mansfield] is content with superficial smartness, & the whole conception is poor, cheap, not the visions, however imperfect of an interesting mind” (Diary [A Writer's Diary] 2).
My analysis of the tale aims at redressing that kind of bias (that has long affected Katherine Mansfield's literary reputation [Dunbar xiv]) by exposing how the apparent economy of words and simplicity of plot and characterization are deliberate stylistic devices that hold deep political and psychological insinuations capable of provoking disturbing sensations in the reader.
As is well known, the purpose of Marxist criticism has invariably been to enable an understanding of the social and cultural world in order to contribute to its transformation. It was in the 1970s, with the merging of feminism and Marxism, that the tendency of conventional Marxism to focus exclusively on economic determination was somewhat rectified or “deconstructed” by the new critical hybrid's location of another and different dimension of power working within the capitalist economic reality: that of patriarchal power and domination.
With this perception in mind, a Marxist-feminist analysis of “Bliss” will rely on the traditional Marxist model to decipher the material, usually economic, determinants that lie outside the aesthetic realm, but only as a means to then unravel the indirect or covert subversions of both capitalist AND male power within the text. Related to this approach—and no less important—is the way in which, according to Marx, material conditions have historically structured mental life and consciousness. “Personality,” said Marx, “is conditioned and determined by quite definite class relationships” (qtd. in Tong 46). What Marx meant by this epigram, as explained by Richard Schmitt, is that inasmuch as persons do certain jobs in society, they tend to acquire certain character traits, interests, or habits (7-8). In other words, mental life flows from material conditions and the social being is determined above all by class position—by the person's location within the relations of production. Consequently, for Marxists, meaning is produced through class ideologies.6 Ideology, according to K. Ruthven, is that “never fully articulated system of assumptions by which society operates, and which infiltrates everything society produces, including of course what is deemed to be literature” (31). In other words, a succinct definition of “ideology” could be the following: ideology generally refers to the collective values and ideas which human beings take for granted and which frame “reality” for most mortals. Hence, from a Marxist stance, the logical starting point is to look for an indication of what could be interpreted as class ideology in the text.
The first clue or (indirect) reference comes almost immediately when the reader is given an insight into Bertha Young's happy mental state and in her appraisal of her own blissful feelings: “there is no way you can express it without being ‘drunk and disorderly.’ How idiotic civilisation is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?” (Mansfield, “Bliss” 200).
This statement proves crucial in the type of analysis I wish to apply to the text. On the one hand, the way it is formulated: the reference to being “drunk and disorderly” presents an implicit and inherent criticism and judgment of a certain class-behaviorism, especially if we situate ourselves in a late 19th and early 20th century context when drunkenness and rowdiness were viewed by upper-classes as alarming (and repelling) characteristics of the uneducated lower classes. These generalized traits, by the way, are those that had led to the working classes being so often written off as “the mob”—an awesome and unruly mass, incapable of self-control and decorum. Hence, the way the statement is phrased also indirectly suggests that, as opposed to drunkenness and disorderliness, the accepted (and endorsed) norms of behavior for the main female character are dignity and propriety. The reader is therefore given the first clue as to a certain, and maybe unintentional, class prejudice, for Bertha is most probably innocently and unconsciously reflecting the viewpoint of her world and environment. At this early stage in the story it can therefore already be assumed that she comes from a well-to-do, middle-class, bourgeois milieu.
On the other hand, from a purely feminist point of view, the statement also holds a dark premonition as to the development of the story. Bertha is innocently referring to the discomfort of late Victorian, tight-waisted clothes when she asks herself: “Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?” (200). However, since the character is also the only link between the reader and the narrative world, it is a temptation for the reader to understand this statement figuratively, and, consequently, to suspect that the remark refers not only to Bertha's garments but to her life in general. In other words, Bertha's life-style could be, in fact, a palpable illustration of a valuable instrument—or object—being safely bound in a protective sheath.
A closer look at the opening paragraph—a mental soliloquy in free indirect style which traces a sequence of psychological triggers—enables one to push the analogy still further. Bertha Young is presented as a thirty year old woman, overcome by energy and vitality, by a warm feeling that burns inside her and makes her regress to infancy:
she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at—nothing—at nothing, simply.
Although she defines this mood as a feeling of absolute bliss, she also recognizes her incapacity to verbalize her state of mind—to give full expression to her emotions. Thus, far from being shallow or “limited,” as T. S. Eliot defined Mansfield's entirely feminine, gossipy visions of reality (36), this “elliptical” opening highlights, on the contrary, how Bertha's inner self is also “shut up like a rare, rare fiddle”—that is, marginalized or alienated from a culture (and language) which cannot accommodate such feelings.
Suspicions that Bertha Young's struggles to deal with the powerful feeling of bliss may turn against her are then confirmed into fact.
As Bertha enters her house, her brief interchange of words with Mary immediately indicates the status of the protagonist: a housewife. In Ann Oakley's words:
A housewife is a person, other than a domestic servant, who is responsible for most of the household duties (or for supervising a domestic servant who carries out those duties). A housewife is a woman who manages or directs the affairs of the household; the mistress of a family; the wife of the householder.
Oakley then lists the main characteristics of the housewife role in modern industrialized society: 1) its exclusive allocation to women; 2) its association with economic dependence; 3) its status of non-work (i.e., economically productive work); 4) its primacy to women, that is, its priority over other roles (“Housewife” 77-82). Bertha is obviously a woman “who manages and directs the affairs of the household.” She has alluded to “a nurse” and now orders the servant to bring the fruit up to the dining-room. No mention is made of any economic transaction in the acquisition of the victuals—which itself could be interpreted either as a mere indication of the family standing or as a telling “silence” acting as a validation of the capitalist withdrawal of bourgeois women from any economic activity. On the other hand, the revelation, through Bertha's musing, that the fruit had been chosen to produce a certain color scheme:—“these last she had bought to tone in with the new dining-room carpet”—enhances the impression that Bertha, as a housewife, embodies what Ann Oakley refers to as “the status of non-work” (“Housewife” 77, 79). This state of affairs, according to Engels, originated when industrialization and the transfer of goods production from the private household to the public workplace caused middle-class women to be regarded as “non-productive” in contrast to productive wage-earning men (24-25). It cannot be forgotten either that Engels laid down as premise for his materialistic theory the fact that: “the determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of immediate life … the production of the means of existence and … the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species” (36; italics mine). Hence, in spite of the evident sparsity in words, it seems that by having her main character move from the dining-room to—precisely—the nursery, Mansfield is furtively inciting reaction against the tendency to conceive as “unproductive” the very large job of reproducing the species. Once within the confines of the nursery, the reader is presented with a supposedly private and non-political area of life, but one in which the complex interrelationship between family and the paid economy can nevertheless be explored. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx stated that: “Wherever the bourgeoisie has risen to power … it has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. … [T]he Bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil” (Marx & Engels 82).
From such a perspective, the nursery itself becomes an extension of capitalist power relations with the raising of a baby converted into yet another bourgeois property relation. In this economic nexus, the nurse is simply an instrument of labor whose “price” for rearing the child will no doubt conform to the basic Marxist precept: “The cost of production of a worker amounts to little more than the cost of the means of subsistence he needs for his upkeep and for the propagation of his race” (87). In this sense, therefore, the nurse's relationship to the housewife is that of “modern enslavement by capital” since she is “selling” herself “as a commodity like any other article of commerce” (87). Likewise, her bond to the child is devoid of any sentiment since, in her job, “the worker has become a mere appendage to a machine” (87). Viewed from this angle, the scene may be read as offering a certain Hobbesian version in which the comfortable position of the bourgeois housewife is shown to depend on the exploitation of other women (servants, the nurse) for the fulfillment of household duties.7 Accordingly, it is no surprise that the housewife with her “status of non-work” is not welcomed by the “underclass” represented by the nurse.
On the other hand, it is also possible to view the nurse and Bertha not as bourgeois and proletarian antagonists, but as two sides of the same coin, that is, as woman under an oppressive patriarchal organization. As reflected by Christine Delphy in her work, Close at Home:
There are two modes of production in our society. Most goods are produced in the industrial mode. Domestic services, child-rearing and certain other goods are produced in the family mode. The first mode of production gives rise to capitalist exploitation. The second gives rise to familial, or more precisely, patriarchal exploitation.
If close attention is given to Delphy's annotation, then both women are “commodities.” The nurse is a “commodity” at the service of the male-dominated bourgeoisie, and, likewise, the bourgeois housewife is an ornamental (“the rare fiddle” may be recalled here) commodity at the service of her husband. Hence, just like the nurse, Bertha embodies, in Marx's own words: “a commodity like any other article of commerce, and consequently [is] exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition and to all the fluctuations of the market” (qtd. in Schmitt 87). With this in mind, “Bliss” may be perceived as a cynical exposition, through Bertha, of the enforced and marketable status of “woman-as-commodity” within an oppressive patriarchal system—a system, as Ann Foreman argues, which reduces woman to a mere instrument for man's sexual and emotional pleasure within the family and private life (qtd. in Bryson 251). This form of oppression, Foreman goes on to explain, is “disguised” because the dominant ideology denies that intimate relations are based on anything other than love. From this perspective, therefore, Bertha's story and final “discovery” cannot be read as merely a sentimental rendering of insurmountable circumstances faced by women at the time, but as a feminist imputation engendered precisely through the “negative knowledge” it provides of the structures (both social and sexual) which repress and deflect such feelings as bliss.
The mention of bliss leads us back to the housewife's state of euphoria—a reckless gaiety similar to Laura's joy at the beauty, excitement, and promise of the grand day in “The Garden Party” (2198). As mentioned before, Bertha's elation filled her with a vigor and emotion that somehow needed to be exteriorized. It is interesting to note to what extent Bertha's rhapsodic outbursts of the first scenes conform to the clinical picture described by Freud in “A Case of Hysteria” (87-88): “… an impulsion towards the discharge of an unconscious excitation will so far as possible make use of any channel for discharge which may already be in existence.” Having found no release in the zeal and enthusiasm with which she arranged and decorated the fruit on the dining table, the heroine has rushed up to the nursery in search of another outlet for her emotions. However, the fact that Bertha turns up precisely at the wrong moment (the nurse is giving Little B her supper) tacitly underlines how much of a stranger she is in her daughter's world. Not daring to question the nurse's authority, the mother is converted into a mere observer. She therefore feels excluded or alienated: “Why have a baby if it has to be kept—not in a case like a rare, rare fiddle—but in another woman's arms?” (201). The way form and content converge here is most significant. On the one hand, Bertha's feeling of absurdity with the nurse is like an incremental repetition of her initial blame on “idiotic civilisation.” On the other hand, as Daly remarks, this repetition also anticipates the question implicit at the end of the story, this time beginning “Why have a husband if …” (74-75). Anyway, this momentary perception of society's control over her life does not lead to any kind of “awakening” on Bertha's part. Nor does it diminish her rapture, especially as she manages to “snatch” a few moments of happiness alone with Little B. However, the contrast between Bertha's feelings and her verbalized attitude is, to say the least, striking. The mother is incapable of transmitting warmth and love to her baby: “You're nice—you're very nice!” said she, kissing her warm baby. “I'm fond of you. I like you” (202). Nor will she be able, moments later, to speak emotionally to her husband over the phone, despite her craving “to get in touch with him for a moment” (202). Hence, although the story is mediated through Bertha's consciousness—a consciousness that dismisses any encumbrance unto “idiotic civilisation”—it nevertheless becomes evident that her discourse is tempered by social conditioning. In other words, behind her discourse lies the dominant ideology of a “civilization” that suppresses such embarrassingly feminine notions as bliss to the sphere of the unrepresentable. Accordingly, Bertha's high excitement, which she interpreted at first as “bliss” but soon calls “hysteria,” must be seen as the reactive symptom of a woman trapped within middle-class, phallocentric notions of femininity. Indeed, by taking up Mansfield's invitation to readers to “fill in her ellipses” (Kaplan 151), Bertha's inarticulateness, her “breathless speech studded with gaps, hesitations, cut off clauses, etc.” (Gregor 75), can all be read as attempts on her part to compensate, to keep from acknowledging consciously, how absurdly “civilized” she herself is. Thus, although the heroine's self-deception was not immediately obvious, at this point of the story, her uncritical view of herself as a supposedly happy, middle-class housewife now shows her up as a pathetically fallible or unreliable narrator. For this reason, Mansfield's insistence on the neurotic, childlike, or simply innocent nature of her heroine should not be overlooked. Superficially, such a characterization could be viewed as simply reminiscent of romantic heroines like Dickens's Dora in David Copperfield or Little Dorrit. However, the author's “modernist” preoccupation with the workings of the human mind logically prompted her to look beyond the idealized (and developmentally static) child-women so dear to Victorian novelists. In “Bliss,” the heroine's patent naíveté is not an individual or straightforward character trait, to be rendered in a transparent story form, but rather a focus of confusion and conflict. The tantalizing aspect of the story is, therefore, Mansfield's ability to divert the readers' attention away from the (almost non-existent) plot and invite them instead to forage into the irrationality of the human mind. From this vantage point, Bertha's apparent candidness leads to a rather more incisive revelation, especially if her bliss is seen to be based on a deliberate evasion of knowledge into what Freud identified as denial and repression (89). In “A Case of Hysteria,” Freud explains that a normal train of thought, however intense it may be, can usually be disposed of. It becomes pathological only if the individual cannot voluntarily control or dissipate it. If, as with his patient Dora, or in this case Bertha, no amount of conscious or voluntary effort can remove “this excessively intense train of thought,” it is, Freud's observations suggest, because the root cause for the manifest excitation reaches far down into unconscious, repressed material. The value of this insight into the workings of the mind is that it problematizes the stability of the character's personality.8 As the reader oscillates between identification with and alienation from this immature woman's neurotic impulses, a kind of mystery is engendered, “… not the puzzle kind,” Eudora Welty would add, “but the mystery of allurement” which, she believes, is fundamental in any good story (qtd. in Head 23).
Bertha's methodical preparations for the dinner party continue to be set against the background of her many intermingling and happy thoughts. However, a certain uneasiness looms up as the reader perceives that at the back of Bertha's mind there is in fact a latent preoccupation—she is waiting for something. This state of nervous expectation recalls Ann Oakley's delineation of
the curiously impressive image of women as always waiting for someone or something, in shopping queues, in antenatal clinics, in bed, for men to come home, at school gates, by the playground swing, for birth or the growing up of children, in hope of love or freedom or re-employment, waiting for the future to liberate or burden them and the past to catch up with them.
(qtd. in Steedman 292)
Bertha is waiting for her guests and for her husband's return while pondering on how lucky she is for possessing everything a woman could wish for: youth, a husband in love with her, a lovely baby, money, friends, a house and garden, etc. It becomes painfully obvious, as the list peters out, that Bertha is once again deceiving herself in her attempts to rationalize her happiness. Instead of providing a genuine reason for her bliss, each and every boon mentioned takes the reader further and further away from the center of emotion—an evidence that recalls Ann Oakley's very pointed remark: “the other side of waiting is wanting” (qtd. in Steedman 292). The face of the waiting hostess in genteel surroundings suddenly becomes a screen that hides the face of alienation and dissatisfaction in the middle-class wife. Although Bertha tries to persuade herself—assembling too many adjectives, adverbs and interjections for conviction—that she is happily married and very much in love with Harry, there seems to be little real communication and effective sharing of feeling between herself and her husband. She could not find words to describe her state to him over the phone while certain thoughts, such as her innocent recognition of “coldness” in love-making, hint at a deeper rift in the couple. A clear ambiguity emerges here between the text and the subtext. While the text itself focuses on Bertha's happy state, a covert and diverging viewpoint which centers on Bertha's sexual confusion is simultaneously introduced. Although Mansfield's deliberate obscurity in dealing with matters of sexuality was historically conditioned, that is, determined by a prevailing social and moral aversion to anything related to baser, animal instincts, she nevertheless managed to “dodge” the silencing force of social taboo by winding the sexual theme into her story through hints, innuendoes, and, as shall be seen later, through heavy reliance on symbolism. The result of this indirect method is, as János Szávai argues, that the story itself “is at odds with the higher plane where the story's essence is to be found” (qtd. in Head 22). Hence, while “on the surface” the story outlines the happiness of this dainty, middle-class housewife, the author is surreptitiously interrogating the rigid nature of accepted male and female roles. She does so by pointing at Bertha's personal muddle and psychological confusion caused by an ideology that prevents her from understanding and expressing her own sexual impulses. The subtext is autonomous; it reveals the ideology under which the text itself operates. In effect, instead of the idealized picture the heroine draws of herself and her husband as a united couple—“… as much in love as ever” (203)—her situation comes very much closer to Engels's definition of bourgeois marriage, based not on love and mutual understanding, but on a conception of the bourgeois woman as her husband's property. In this sense, Bertha's only identity is the identity she acquires by belonging to her husband and her husband's world. Even though this Marxist principle has been partly invalidated by Christine Delphy when she contended that “by pretending that women belong to their husbands' class, the fact that wives belong, by definition, to a class other (my italics) than that of their husbands is hidden” (72), the insight opens a revelatory vista on the permeating ideology of the domestic women's sphere. Bertha is portrayed as unable, because of the social set up, to feel, act, speak or behave as part of an independent class. In her eyes, her economic standing and high level of commodity disavow any excuse for frustration or despondency—hence the waiting and wanting.
The mysterious link and almost silent communication established between Bertha and Miss Fulton seem to point, at first, to a fundamental break with Marxism to become instead the enactment of a woman-centered position—the radical-feminist precept of class categorization on the basis of GENDER. This concept is somehow encapsulated in the following passage in the text: “But Bertha knew, suddenly, as if the longest, most intimate look had passed between them—as if they had said to each other: ‘You too?’—that Pearl Fulton … was feeling just what she was feeling” (206). Elated and excited, the young hostess is waiting for her companion—“sister”—to “give the sign.” However, the unexpected denouement, when Bertha suddenly perceives that her precious guest is a traitor and the cause for the instant crumbling of all her bliss, violently brings the reader round to the realization that ideal heterosexual and/or sisterly love are impossible feats in such a social set up, especially considering that, under the combined oppression of capitalism and patriarchy, women—married or not—are no more than “commodities,” exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition. The rare fiddle or over-protected wife is vanquished by another woman—a woman from the outer world who in turn, by becoming Harry's mistress, converts herself into yet another “commodity” for Bertha's husband.
Only with this perspective in mind can the reader decipher the otherwise rather obscure “signs” provided by the author through the echoing imagery of the pear tree, cats and ever brighter silver color. The first clue is furnished when Bertha internally perceives the pear tree as a symbol of her own life—a healthy and blooming fruit tree, inert within the walled garden and, thus, always at hand to be contemplated and admired. A blurred replica of this picture can be discerned in Bertha's choice of evening wear and, while the monkey theme of Mrs. Norman Knight's coat serves both as a backing for the general tone and atmosphere of the small gathering and as an indirect banter on the clownish guests themselves, the slightly disturbing sight of the silent and furtive cats disappears from the hostess's mind.
Miss Fulton makes a late entry and proceeds directly with the rest of the party to the dining table. In a passage of fine ambivalence, Bertha's impassioned awareness of her “star guest” works in terms of a kind of emotional apprehension rather than in a visual cataloguing of a striking woman. As with the similarly conceived Mrs. Kember in “At the Bay,” Pearl Fulton is surrounded by an aura of coldness and lifelessness, while her aloofness and, although not articulated as such, her unnaturalness are greatly emphasized. Very soon, the apparently unconnected details of the guest's elusive attitude, noiselessness, heavy eyelids, paleness of complexion and silver-colored attire all combine to underpin the initial picture of the stealthy grey feline—now more discernibly a she-cat “dragging its belly” (203). But there were two cats. Could the black cat, which Bertha described as “a shadow trailing after” be acknowledging his desire for the grey cat shrouded in culinary small talk? The young hostess candidly takes Harry's remarks on “his shameless passion for the white flesh of lobster and … ices—green and cold like the eyelids of Egyptians” (207) as evidence of her husband's contentment. But these words could also be understood as muffled references to Pearl Fulton's white complexion, her heavy eyelids and apparent coldness or remoteness of manner. From then on, references to the pear tree and the color silver are infiltrated everywhere in the text until the climactic ending when the mysterious link which Bertha sensed between herself and Miss Fulton is revealed to spring from the pear tree—the solid fruit tree which now becomes an incarnation of Harry. Like “silver flowers” (208), the women can only bloom through, or thanks to, HIM. Hence, at the end of the story the whole picture seems to have been somewhat reshuffled for, even though the grey cat still characterizes Miss Fulton, the pear tree now metaphorically represents Harry while the black cat clearly reflects the heroine's own lack of identity. In other words, the trilogy of the tree and two cats has suddenly become fully emblematic of women's predicament in a patriarchal society: in a world which idealizes women while giving them no material, political9 or emotional support, women like Bertha struggle to gain identity through the roles of wife and mother. However, such women are made almost invisible. Their emotional lives are negated, their work is “no-work,” and their voices in contemporary debates are ignored.10 Bertha is made to experience this invisibility in the core of her selfhood. The narrative strategy of the black cat can therefore be understood as reflecting her experience of not being real, or not existing—she is a mere shadow of a person. For her part, the dazzling and silvery Miss Fulton embodies the equally disturbing fact that women, in such a social set up, only shine or become momentarily discernible when, as denounced by Mary Wollstonecraft, the voluptuous passion of men “places them on thrones” (qtd. in Todd 96). In other words, at the height of youth women can obtain power, but this power derives exclusively from their physical charms and is therefore ephemeral. However, in both cases, whether in legal or illicit relations, the women cling to male support for attention and recognition.
Beneath the material prosperity, the emotional fulfillment, the sense of contentment conveyed by the tale, Mansfield has, therefore, made space for a radical political charge against women's social alienation at the turn of the century.
In discussing how short story critics can escape their own reductive formulae, Head takes issue with Julio Cortázar's metaphor for story composition as “modelling a sphere out of clay” (qtd. in Head 21) by arguing that unlike a clay figure, the short story can never be a finished product—for all its apparent formal unity. Since the “plasticity” of a short story cannot be frozen, fastened, or moored in any way, it will always have the power to exude “the unforeseen within fore-seen parameters” (qtd. in Head 21). Similarly, John Bayley's suggestive consideration that a good short story “must seem both formally to preclude, and secretly to accept, speculation on matters excluded by itself” (qtd. in Head 22) offers the possibility of viewing Mansfield's political indictment as underscored by a daring subtextual questioning of Bertha's sexual bliss.
In his clinical rendering of hysterical disorders, Freud explains that neurotic symptoms are the product of an unresolved conflict between unconscious impulses and conscious ones. As a result of his analytic work, Freud was able to suggest that hysteria is caused either by unconscious and very deeply repressed material or because another unconscious thought lies concealed behind the supervalent thought (an excessively intense thought). In this second case, the relation between the two thoughts is, he goes on to explain, “… often achieved by means of an excessive reinforcement of the thought contrary (my italics) to the one which is to be repressed” (88-90). In other words, the thought which asserts itself in consciousness keeps the objectionable one under repression by means of surplus intensity. This fragment of analysis into the workings of the mind proves crucial for a deeper understanding of Bertha's mental state. As my “political” reading has shown, Bertha's buoyant demonstrations of bliss throughout the story could be no more than a way of concealing from herself the fact that she is miserable, isolated, and alienated—a shadow of a person. On the other hand, her constant and cheerfully ignorant misrepresentations of reality could also evidence or even confirm her repression of a more objectionable truth, for Freud clearly states that the causes of hysterical disorders are to be found in the intimacies of the patients' psychosexual life, in their most secret and repressed sexual wishes (35-36). For this reason, as Freud quite plainly asserts, however immature the patient may be (Bertha's childish nature could be recalled here): “where hysteria is found there can no longer be any question of ‘innocence of mind’” (83).
From this vantage point, Bertha's bliss is a “supervalent train of thought” which, as the story goes, seemingly centers on her awakening of sexual desire for her husband and her contemplation of a fully committed sexual relationship with him:
Soon these people will go. The house will be quiet—quiet. The lights will be out. And you and he will be alone together in the dark room—the warm bed … For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband.
Thus, Bertha's exhilaration is now inextricably linked to processes at work within her own body (“But now—ardently! ardently! The word ached in her ardent body!” [“Bliss” 209]), recalling the allusions at the start of the story to the sun that “burned in [her] bosom,” and the complaint: “Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?” (“Bliss” 200).
However, the sheer indeterminacy of the story deliberately leads the reader along a false track for, by following Freud's thesis on hysteria, it would appear that this otherwise perfectly natural “gut-feeling” in a young, married woman is only a mechanism that serves to hide, suppress, and contain an unconscious opposite. The clues are there: Bertha's mental anticipation of intimacy with her husband is punctuated by adjectives such as “strange and terrifying” (“Bliss” 209)—a description reminiscent of Beryl's feelings of sexual terror when she joins Harry Kember in the garden (At the Bay 53-55). The young wife's expectations are mingled with fear and potential disillusion: “Was this what this feeling of bliss had been leading up to?” (“Bliss” 209). On the other hand, given that her discovery is preceded by such a “blazing—blazing” awareness of Miss Fulton (she calls it “the fire of bliss” ) and the thrill produced by a mere touch with her arm, it would appear that Bertha's desire could be explained by a quite distinct version of sexuality. Because Bertha is unable (or averse) to engage in a fulfilling sexual relationship with her husband, her bliss is no other than an unconscious camouflaging of a half-contained and frustrated desire. She does not realize, or else refuses to acknowledge, the real nature of her bodily impulses. In this sense, the whole sequence of events could be interpreted as tracing the unfolding of the heroine's repressed homosexual disposition (Dunbar 108-11).11
Seen in this light, the climactic moment when Bertha finally realizes that her husband and her friend are lovers significantly alters the position of the participants in the love triangle: it is no longer a matter of Pearl and Bertha being in competition for the strong-sexed, patriarchal Harry, but rather that Harry and Bertha are rivals for Pearl (Head 24). Even so, like many of the epiphanies in Dubliners, this significant moment, or Bertha's “moment of being,” does not represent any denouement or solution. On the contrary, it is a point of maximum conflict that marks the denial of a solution. Bertha's epiphany is equivocal or incomplete in that she conceals from herself both her grudge against her husband and the nature and source of her sexual passion. All she can do is rush back over to the windows to find that “the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still” (211). Clearly, the final emphasis is on stillness. The pear tree continues to suggest Bertha and to be itself. If, as Berkman indicates, the theme of “Bliss” is “the immutability of natural beauty in the face of human disaster” (qtd. in Daly 78), it is also that, from the human point of view such beauty offers no promise: it is “becalmed.” As Fullbrook comments (101), this ending “leaves Bertha in absolute and bleak exclusion: the outlets for Bertha's belated sexual flowering are suddenly blocked; a possibility is left senseless and dead.” In order to register the full significance of this open ending, Mansfield's story should be read as a daring attempt to convey the non-goal-directed nature of a woman's sexuality in the aftermath of the Wilde trial (1895), when sex and sexual deviations were proscribed, if not forbidden subjects. From this perspective, Bertha's state of hysteria comes to underline my earlier “political” reading in featuring, once again, how the heroine's anxieties and repressions are not merely a woman's personal malaise but the logical result of the way in which the social climate of her time causes her to repress (“to shut up”) her own desires.
To conclude, “Bliss” undeniably represents Mansfield at her best, when the author was able to combine incident (however trivial), image, symbol, and structure in a way almost comparable with Joyce's method in Dubliners. Under the delicate and seemingly light-hearted “surface” story of a day in Bertha Young's life, Mansfield incorporates more somber subtexts which, through suggestion rather than explicit development, question the heroine's bliss. The modernist procedures adopted in the story thus subtly point to the socially-determined obstacles which hamper its expression.
In having internalized the ideology of “a woman's place is at home,” Bertha embodies “a rare fiddle in a precious case” with all the material possessions a woman may wish for but secluded from the public world, a stranger to her own child, neglected by her husband, and betrayed by the woman she most admired. The Marxist precept of alienation thus provides a valuable conceptual tool to understand the story of Bertha as an expression of the oppression of middle-class housewives for, understood in this way, Bertha's “bliss” is only a very thin shroud that barely conceals the profound meaninglessness of her life.
Alienation looms when, as Allen Wood states, “we are capable of sustaining a sense of meaning and self-worth only with the help of illusions about ourselves or our condition” (qtd. in Tong 44). These words come very close to Freud's observations concerning the workings of the mind. His theory on hysteria helps disclose the pathological character of Bertha's bliss. Although marital desire is invoked as the most likely channel for the young woman's repressed emotions, it turns out that the intensity of her feelings is only the visible symptom of a deeply suppressed, contrary excitation: her homosexual yearning for Pearl Fulton, which the pressure of conformity (the case in which the rare fiddle is locked up) will not allow to surface.
For all the main character's insistence on her happy state of mind, the story of “Bliss” is one of social loneliness and sexual blunting. Hence the despondency—a dramatization of Ann Oakley's “waiting and wanting.”
Katherine Mansfield was the pen name used by Kathleen Beauchamp who, although born in New Zealand in 1888, spent most of her short life (she died in 1923) in Britain.
For a thorough analysis of fictional practice in the modernist period, see Head, Pratt, Pykett.
The “friendship” between Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf was studded by numerous literary squabbles. For a full account of the Woolf-Mansfield relationship, see McLaughlin.
Because of their lower middle-class status, neither Katherine Mansfield nor her husband, John Middleton Murry, had sufficient “pedigree” to become fully integrated members of the “Bloomsberries” (Dunbar xiv).
On this subject, see also Rowbotham.
For an exposition of the debates within Marxism which attempt to release ideology from its economic/material base, see Lovell chap. 1.
In other words, a materialist-feminist analysis encourages us to hold in mind both ends of experience: that women at different moments of history have been both oppressed and oppressive, submissive and subversive, victim and agent, allies and enemies both of men and of one another. Viewed in this light, the difference among women must be seen as at least as important an element as the difference between the sexes. In her article “Pandora's Box,” Cora Kaplan illustrates this point by indicating how signs of aloofness—and indeed contempt—for lower class women may be found even in the work of such well known radical feminists as Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf. These slippages in the representation of women are, in her opinion, the historic effects of determinate social divisions and ideologies worked into sexual and social identity (Kaplan 358-60).
By extension, it also problematizes narrative authority since the indirect free style of narration “modulates” the voice of the narrator in such a way that it appears to merge with that of the fictional character (Head 19).
A partial victory had been obtained in 1918 when the vote was extended to SOME women. However, the fact of granting the vote only to women over thirty years of age who were householders and graduates of British universities demonstrates that government was still sceptical about women's faculties. They felt that women under thirty were too unstable and scatterbrained—or not responsible enough—to choose an MP.
It would take another TEN years (July 1928) to reach full equality in voting rights.
A connection may be established here between “Bliss” and “Psychology” for, in both cases, the heroine's encounter with an older, seemingly virginal type of woman serves to unblock passion for a heterosexual lover (Dunbar 108).
The research for this paper has been in part financed by the Vicerectorado de Investigación of the University of Zaragoza (Spain) through the research project: 245-49.UZ:HUM:04
Abrams, M. H., et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. Vol. 2. London: Norton, 1993. 2 vols. 1962.
Atkinson, Diane. Votes for Women. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Bryson, Valerie. Feminist Political Theory. London: Macmillan, 1992.
Daly, Saralyn R. Katherine Mansfield. New York: Maxwell, 1994.
Delphy, Christine. Close to Home. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1984.
Dunbar, Pamela. Radical Mansfield: Double Discourse in Katherine Mansfield's Short Stories. London: Macmillan, 1997.
Eliot, T. S. After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy. London: Faber, 1934.
Engels, Friedrick. The Origin of the Family, State and Private Property. 1884. London: Penguin, 1986.
Freud, Sigmund. “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” 8. Case Histories 1. 1895. London: Penguin, 1990.
Fullbrook, Kate. Katherine Mansfield. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.
Gregor, Keith. “Blissful Thinking: Katherine Mansfield and the Engendering of Modernist Fiction.” Cuadernos de Filología Inglesa 6.1, (1997): 59-78.
Halliday, F. E. Cultural History of England. Norwich: Thames, 1969.
Head, Dominic. The Modernist Short Story. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Kaplan, Cora. “Pandora's Box.” Lovell 345-67.
Kaplan, Sidney Janet. Katherine Mansfield and the Origin of Modernist Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.
Lovell, Terry, ed. British Feminist Thought. London: Blackwell, 1991.
Mansfield, Katherine. At the Bay. 1920. London: Phoenic, 1996.
———. “Bliss.” 1920. Recent Theories of Narrative. Ed. Wallace Martin. London: Cornell UP, 1986. 200-11.
———. “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” 1921. Abrams 2184-98.
———. “The Garden Party.” 1922. Abrams 2198-2208.
Marx, Karl & Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1888. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988.
McLaughlin, Ann L. “The Same Job: The Shared Writing Aims of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.” Modern Fiction Studies 24 (1978): 369-82.
Oakley, Ann. Housewife. London: Lane, 1974.
———. “What is a Housewife?” Lovell 77-84.
Pratt, Mary Louise. “The Short Story: The Long and Short of It.” Poetics 10 (1981): 175-94.
Pykett, Lyn. Engendering Fictions: The English Novel in the Early Twentieth Century. London: Arnold, 1995.
Rowbotham, Sheila. A New World for Women: Stella Browne—Socialist Feminist. London: Pluto, 1977.
Ruthven, K. K. Feminist Literary Studies: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.
Schmitt, Richard. Introduction to Marx and Engels. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987.
Steedman, Carolyn. “Stories.” Lovell 281-95.
Todd, Janet. A Wollstonecraft Anthology. Oxford: Polity, 1989.
Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought. London: Routledge, 1993.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. London: Hogarth, 1974.
———. A Writer's Diary. London: Hogarth, 1954.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6325
SOURCE: Norman, Colin. “Prufrock, Freud, and the Late Colonel's Daughters: New Light on the Genesis of a Mansfield Story.” English Studies in Canada 25 (1999): 19-37.
[In the following essay, Norman identifies T. S. Eliot's poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as an influence on Mansfield's“The Daughters of the Late Colonel.”]
Less than five months before her death in 1923, Katherine Mansfield wrote to Violet Schiff that Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is “by far by far and away the most interesting and the best modern poem” (Murry, Letters [The Letters of Katherine Mansfield] 2: 240). “Prufrock” had impressed her from the start: soon after its publication in 1917, she echoed it in her journal: “Is that all? Can that be all? That is not what I meant at all” (Murry, Journal [Journal of Katherine Mansfield] 124). In a letter to Virginia Woolf of May 1919, she assessed it shrewdly from a technical perspective and perhaps with a writer's assimilating eye: “Prufrock is, after all a short story” (O'Sullivan and Scott 2: 318). This remark could certainly serve as a preface to her own short story, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” which is in some respects the mirror image of “Prufrock,” from which it derives many of its basic conceptions. Furthermore, “Prufrock” may have inspired in “Daughters” a distinctive Freudian strain that is hitherto unrecognized yet essential to understanding its full implications.
These propositions need not exclude existing views about the genesis of “Daughters,” which Antony Alpers describes at some length in both The Life of Katherine Mansfield and The Stories of Katherine Mansfield, and which may be summarized as follows. The story owes much to Mansfield's long-standing relationship with Ida Baker, or “L. M.,” the model for Constantia, and in particular to an inadvertently “comical rumination” by Ida about never having changed her ways since childhood. Ida came from Burma, and the Late Colonel was based on her terrifying father, a doctor in the Indian Army. Furthermore, Ida's stone Buddha—the probable basis for the Buddha in “Daughters”—stood on Katherine Mansfield's mantelpiece in the flat that the women shared in early 1911, and moved with Katherine to other addresses. Josephine was based on Mansfield's cousin Sylvia Payne.
Thematically, “Daughters” received impetus from the story of Christ and the barren fig tree as told in Matthew 21.19 and Mark 13.28: Mansfield had once seen a “sad” withered fig tree surrounded by cheerful, talkative washerwomen, and Ida, who was with her, had connected it with the biblical story. Significantly, the conception of Constantia and Josephine as barren trees, destined never to flourish and bear fruit, is compatible with both Christian and Freudian readings of “Daughters,” which reinforce one another in this instance.
These ideas—supplemented by impulses from Eliot and further impulses from Freud—fused to become the work of art that Mansfield completed in December 1920. When it appeared in the London Mercury in May 1921, it was largely misunderstood, perhaps because of its distinctly Freudian conception and conclusion. One early admirer, Thomas Hardy, sent Mansfield a message of approval through Middleton Murry. She noted that Hardy, like so many other readers, had somehow missed the point. “Even dear old Hardy,” she wrote to Dorothy Brett, “told me to write more about those sisters. As if there was any more to say!” (O'Sullivan and Scott 4: 316).
The record of Mansfield's association with Eliot begins in June 1917, during a weekend at Lady Ottoline Morrell's Garsington Manor, “with the flower of Bloomsbury strewn amid the trees” (Matthews 54). Clive Bell arrived from London with a dozen copies of Eliot's just published Prufrock and Other Observations, which he distributed. They caused a stir and much discussion: Bell recalls that Katherine Mansfield read the title poem aloud (121-22).1 A few days later, at a dinner party in London, Mansfield met Eliot himself. Afterwards, as she confided in a letter to Ottoline, “I came away with Eliot and we walked past rows of little ugly houses hiding behind bitter smelling privet hedges; a great number of amorous black cats looped across the road and high up in the sky there was a battered old moon. I liked him very much” (O'Sullivan and Scott 1: 312).
Sydney Janet Kaplan observes that Mansfield's images of “ugly houses,” “amorous black cats,” and “battered old moon” evoke a London “not completely unlike Prufrock's ‘certain half-deserted streets’ and ‘yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes’” (161). Furthermore, Mansfield's subsequent writing includes occasional echoes of “Prufrock.” For Kaplan, however, such allusions are incidental: “Most similarities [between Mansfield's writings and Eliot's] appear to be more the result of parallel development than influence” (162).
But Eliot's influence upon Mansfield was more profound than Kaplan allows. For example, J. F. Kobler has shown that “Prufrock” clearly left its mark on one of Mansfield's major stories, “Je ne parle pas français,” written in early 1918.2 Antony Alpers sees this story as “in a limited sense” Mansfield's Waste Land, although it was written two years before that poem (Stories [The Stories of Katherine Mansfield] 559). Kobler notes the far more direct links with “Prufrock.” Mansfield's story, like Eliot's poem, is a confessional monologue; like Prufrock, Mansfield's narrator, Raoul Duquette, in “Je ne parle pas français” has a divided personality. The story responds to the ideas and emotions of “Prufrock”: “despair over the loss of love—of the inability to love and to communicate spiritually through love with fellow human beings” (Kobler 86). Furthermore, the two works exhibit marked similarities of language (Kobler lists thirteen instances, among them “‘the Ultimate Porter’” for “‘the eternal Footman’”; “‘That's not exactly what I mean’” for “‘That is not what I meant at all’”; “it has such a ‘dying fall’” for “‘voices dying with a dying fall’” (85)). One might add that Duquette, a cynical Prufrock, sees moments of hesitation as the “most thrilling instants in life”; he imagines “Life” shuffling along the street “with her old claws crooked over a stick,” perhaps echoing Prufrock's “pair of ragged claws” (Eliot 73); both poem and story have moments of suspended agony (“But ah! the agony of that moment!”); Duquette refers to “my bad life, my submerged life,” which recalls Prufrock's second self and his submerged libidinal life in “the chambers of the sea” (Alpers, Stories 277-83; subsequent references are to this text).
If “Je ne parle pas français” reflects Mansfield's admiration of “Prufrock,” so does “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” (1920). The latter story has much in common with “Prufrock,” including several significant linguistic parallels, as the following analysis will demonstrate. Indeed it approximates a mirror image of Eliot's poem: Constantia and Josephine, the protagonists, are something like female Prufrocks.
Thus, like Prufrock the two spinster sisters are middle-aged, ill at ease with members of the opposite sex, and hopelessly indecisive.3 Prufrock's discomfort in the room where “the women come and go” (13) is comparable to the difficulties the sisters have with the priest Mr. Farolles, with entertaining their nephew Cyril, with brother Benny, and with their irascible father. Indecisiveness looms large in both works. Both convey it by echoing Hamlet. “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” (111), says Prufrock; in “Daughters,” Constantia echoes Hamlet's “‘That is the question,’” to which Josephine replies, “‘And this time … we must come to a definite decision’” (399).
Second, like Prufrock, the two women are defined by what other people think; that is, they live in the “eyes” of others and are metaphorically “pinned down” by those eyes. “I have known the eyes already, known them all,” says Prufrock, and goes on to compare himself to an insect “formulated, sprawling on a pin … pinned and wriggling on the wall” (55-58). The two sisters are victimized in precisely the same way by their tyrannical father, whose name (can this be mere coincidence?) is “Pinner,” and who is famous for his terrifying “eye”: thus, “Grandfather Pinner shot his eyes at Cyril in the way he was famous for” (397); dying, Pinner
had suddenly opened one eye. Oh, what a difference it would have made, what a difference to their memory of him, how much easier to tell people about it, if he had only opened both! But no—one eye only. It glared at them a moment and then … went out.
Third, Prufrock's amorous second self, the “you” of his interior monologue, is cat-like; it is equated with the sensuous fog “that rubs its back upon the windowpanes” (15) and later with “the afternoon, the evening,” which sleeps like a subdued, peaceful cat beside Prufrock, “Smoothed by long fingers” (75-76). It may seem incidental that in “Daughters” Josephine imagines Constantia and herself, clad in incongruous funereal dressing gowns, “creeping off to the bath-room like black cats” (387), or that proud young Kate, their forbidding servant, describes them contemptuously as “old tabbies” who are by implication past their sexual prime (389). On the other hand, Mansfield's letter to Ottoline Morrell (O'Sullivan and Scott 1: 312) refers to “amorous cats,” and these same creatures, or their close relatives, appear in four stories that Mansfield completed soon after reading “Prufrock.” Thus: “Outside the window hundreds of black cats with yellow eyes sat in the sky watching her” (“Prelude,” Summer 1917, 231); “‘Good-night, my little cat,’ said I, impudently, to the fattish old prostitute picking her way home through the slush” (“Je ne parle pas français,” 1918, 298); “A grey cat, dragging its belly, crept across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after” (“Bliss,” 1918, 308); “There were grey crabs4 all the way down the street slopping water over grey stone steps. … An old brown cat without a tail appeared from nowhere, and began greedily and silently drinking up the spill” (“Pictures,” 1919, 326).5
Fourth, like Prufrock the two sisters discover that they belong not at the top, but at the bottom, of the pecking order. Prufrock is not Prince Hamlet, not even Polonius, but “Almost, at times, the Fool” (119) in the Shakespearean hierarchy. The sisters identify with “mice” (387) and “sparrows” (401), timid, lowly little creatures, and ultimately Josephine realizes that they have been, not the late Colonel's esteemed daughters, but rather his servants, and hence belong at the bottom of the social hierarchy:
There had been this other life, running out, bringing things home in bags, getting things on approval, discussing them with Jug, and taking them back to get more things on approval, and arranging father's trays and trying not to annoy father.
Unlike the languid social sophisticates of Eliot's poem, these two women “come and go” for menial reasons. They occupy an even lower rung on the social scale than father's helpers or servants: Nurse Andrewes condescends to them, and Kate, “the enchanted princess” (389), treats them with contempt.
Fifth, “Prufrock” has comic overtones, even though it strikes a consistent note of pathos and concludes on a note of near tragedy. The same can be said of “Daughters,” in which “the subdued elegiac sense of wasted lives [provides] a note of potential tragedy, although the surface is restrained comedy” (Introduction, Abrams 2184). Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr argue that readers of the story must perform a “balancing act,” because “the pathos so precisely matches the comedy” (93).
A related point: both works are self-consciously theatrical. “Prufrock” owes something both to Browning's dramatic monologues and to Shakespeare's soliloquies, and Prufrock, after a sidelong glance at Hamlet, portrays himself as one of Shakespeare's fools. In “Daughters,” the sequence in which the deaf, testy, and stick-thumping Colonel confronts the unlucky Cyril, who must shout “‘Father's still very fond of meringues’” (397), is pure stage comedy of a type that would have been familiar to contemporary audiences in London's West End. Indeed, Mansfield seems to have conceived her characters partly as comic stereotypes: the Colonel is a precursor of David Low's Colonel Blimp, Cyril is the self-effacing young man who tries desperately to please, and Kate is the servant who rules the roost. In this same matter, it is surely ironic that Constantia and Josephine, two middle-aged spinsters, behave like stage ingenues, for reasons that will become clear and that bear upon the story's serious themes. In essence, they are Mansfield's “fools.”
Sixth, both “Daughters” and “Prufrock,” like many other modern works, render the stream of consciousness. In this case, the similarity may reflect a degree of imitation. In Eliot's confessional monologue, Prufrock is talking to himself: the debate between “you” and “I” seems to take place somewhere in the mid-region of the mind, on the borderline between conscious and unconscious states. Something equivalent happens in “Daughters,” which shifts almost imperceptibly from a narrative voice into a character's inner thoughts and semi-conscious free associations. This similarity partly reflects parallel development rather than imitation, since the technique has its origins in “The Tiredness of Rosabel” (1908), “The Little Governess” (1915), and “Mr. Reginald Peacock's Day” (probably written before June 1917). It comes into its own, however, in “Prelude,” a stylistic tour de force that Mansfield was revising when she encountered “Prufrock” in June 1917, and which may, therefore, reflect Eliot's influence. The style of “Daughters” (1920) epitomizes the mature technique; Alpers describes the evolution of this technique and suggests that “Prufrock” may have influenced it (Life [The Life of Katherine Mansfield] 189-93, 238-40, 244-46).
Seventh, the conclusion of “Prufrock” has him metaphorically walking the beach and hankering after the unattainable mermaids “riding seaward on the waves / Combing the white hair of the waves blown back” (126-27). Whatever else it may imply, the sequence suggests a yearning for love and sexual fulfilment. “Daughters” ends on a similar note. Constantia's concluding moment of insight involves sacrificial, erotic images, and ends with the idea of gazing restlessly out to sea:
She remembered the times she had come in here, crept out of bed in her nightgown when the moon was full, and lain on the floor with her arms outstretched, as though she was crucified. Why? The big, pale moon had made her do it. The horrible dancing figures on the carved screen had leered at her and she hadn't minded. She remembered too how, whenever they were at the seaside, she had gone off by herself and got as close to the sea as she could, and sung something, something she had made up, while she gazed all over that restless water. … It was only when she came out of the tunnel into the moonlight or by the sea or into a thunderstorm that she really felt herself. What did it mean? What was it she was always wanting? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?
Parallel development may contribute to these similarities. Mansfield frequently uses the moon or the sea as symbols; furthermore, epiphanies combining moonlight, the sea, and a ship contribute to two stories written before “Daughters”: “Die Einsame (The Lonely One)” of 1904, and “Prelude,” the story Mansfield completed soon after her encounter with “Prufrock” in 1917. But these two epiphanies have nothing to do with sensuality: in both cases the ship resembles the chariot that swings low to carry the soul away. The erotic element in the passage from “Daughters,” therefore, sets it apart from the two earlier stories but links it with “Prufrock.” Significantly, the connection between moonlight, the sea, and eroticism recurs in “At the Bay” (1921), which, like “Daughters,” was written after Mansfield's encounter with “Prufrock.”
Finally, the similarities between “Daughters” and “Prufrock” encompass central themes and their means of expression. Both explore a yearning for fulfilment that is ultimately frustrated by protagonists who fail to make a crucial, liberating decision. Both end on a note of evasion, with hope submerged and opportunity lost. In both works the central conflict involves minds divided against themselves, and is psychological rather than external.
In the case of “Daughters,” that conflict is depicted in distinctly Freudian terms, a fact hitherto unnoticed yet indispensable to an adequate understanding of the story, and hence worth exploring in some detail. This Freudian thrust of “Daughters” deserves attention in its own right, regardless of its origins. But did Mansfield perhaps take her cue from “Prufrock,” in this matter as in so many others? Perhaps, since “Prufrock,” whatever Eliot's intentions and whatever its actual provenance,6 is easily read as a parable about the repression of sexual desires or Freudian libido—in other words, in terms of early Freudian concepts that were distinctly in vogue by 1920, when Mansfield wrote “Daughters.” Prufrock's second self, the “you” of his internal monologue, while propelling him toward a declaration of love, is, for example, not merely cat-like but libido-like, a somewhat disreputable creature who is solely devoted to what the early Freud called “the pleasure principle” and to achieving sensuous and sexual fulfilment. Prufrock's conscious self, the “I” of the story, who is akin to the Freudian ego, at first follows the lead of the libidinal voice. Later, in the cat-stroking episode, he soothes and stills it; finally he submerges it in an image that suggests, among other things, the repression of libidinal desires. These are relegated to “the chambers of the sea,” a fine equivalent for Freud's unconscious, whether Eliot intended it to be or not, and denied any realistic fulfilment in the conscious waking world of human voices. The striking thematic similarities between this episode and the “forgetting” episode at the conclusion of “Daughters” are self-evident.
In “Daughters,” Mansfield, borrowing the theme from “Prufrock” and portraying it in distinctly Freudian terms, tells her own story of sexual repression and its life-denying consequences. That may sound implausible in the light of Mansfield's remarks about psychoanalysis (which was fundamentally Freudian at the time) in a letter to Middleton Murry of 13 October 1920:
I am amazed at the sudden ‘mushroom growth’ of cheap psycho analysis everywhere. Five novels one after the other are based on it: its in everything. And I want to prove it wont do—its turning Life into a case. And yet, of course, I do believe one ought to be able to—not ought—ones novel if its a good one will be capable of being proved scientifically to be correct. Here—the thing thats happening now is the impulse to write is a different impulse. With an artist—one has to allow—oh tremendously for the subconscious element in his work. He writes he knows not what—hes possessed. I dont mean, of course, always, but when he's inspired—as a sort of divine flower to all his terrific hard gardening there comes this subconscious … wisdom. Now these people who are nuts on analysis seem to me to have no subconscious at all. They write to prove—not to tell the truth.
(O'Sullivan and Scott 4: 69)
She expresses similar views in “Psychology” (1919), which implicitly mocks the idea that “‘the young writers of to-day’” should be trying “‘to jump the psycho-analyst's claim’” (321).
Marvin Magalaner detects an apparent contradiction: “Though Mansfield in her criticism ordinarily is scornful of writers who attempt to introduce Freudian concepts or even Freudian symbols into their fiction, in ‘Bliss’ she appears to be doing just that” (85). She does the same thing in “Daughters,” and without contradiction. Properly understood, her sometimes incoherent letter to Murry proffers a distinct theory and implies a challenge. She wants to prove that one can write a story that conveys “the truth” of psychoanalytic insights not in terms of clinical ideas, but through the medium of art. Thus she rejects the “cheap psycho analysis” of novels that are merely mechanical case histories. She allows, though, for the “inspired” artistic work that will transmute “subconscious” insights into artistic “truths” that accord with psychoanalytic ideas and are in that sense “capable of being proved scientifically to be correct.”7 The challenge is to write this kind of story, one to which she rose magnificently in “Daughters,” begun just one month later: after that period of germination, one assumes, her “subconscious” had done the “terrible hard gardening” that could transform crude psychoanalytic ideas—formless seeds—into “divine flowers” of wisdom.
But did Mansfield—scarcely the rigorous intellectual—know enough about Freudian psychoanalysis to take up her own challenge? She probably did. She must have learned something from all those “cheap” psychoanalytic novels that as a reviewer she so despised. And she would almost certainly have acquired a smattering of Freud from her associations with the Bloomsbury Group and with D. H. and Frieda Lawrence.8 Furthermore, English translations of Freud's works were widely available in the second decade of the century. Still, Mansfield's reading was haphazard, and largely limited to books she had to review. She never mentions actually reading Freud and probably did not: in her previously quoted letter she refers to “psycho analysis” instead of “psychoanalysis” and makes the mistake, still common, of referring to the “subconscious” instead of the “preconscious” or “unconscious.”9
Nevertheless, by November 1920, when she wrote “Daughters,” she had crossed the threshold of that period—from 1920 to 1940—in which Freudianism enjoyed an immense popular vogue. One way and another, Mansfield would surely have acquired some familiarity with Freud's ideas by 1920, enough to transmute the ore of his fundamental insights into the gold of her own images, rich in both comic and tragic implications.
The following pages offer a Freudian reading of “Daughters” that may strike modern readers as being in some respects too fundamental. The proper response is that the Freudian elements have hitherto gone unrecognized, despite the clarifying light they shed on the story, one that puzzled Mansfield's initial audience and has puzzled many readers since. For that matter, for the reasons just discussed, Mansfield's own understanding of Freud may well have been derivative and in some respects less than sophisticated.
“The Daughters of the Late Colonel” tells the story of Constantia and Josephine, the motherless victims since childhood of a tyrannical father. Mansfield's deftly comic treatment of this situation prevents it from becoming melodramatic, yet allows for pathos and potential tragedy. This is no simple Freudian “case.”
The predicament of the two spinster sisters rests on a paradox that Freud had helped to explain. The Late Colonel, though literally dead and buried, remains alive and well in the sisters' unconscious, whence he continues to direct their every move and to blight their prospects of escaping from the prison of the self to find happiness and fulfilment. The story reflects on the general theme of the subjugation of women. It also reflects on repression and its life-denying consequences: the sisters have repressed their own desires for fulfilment—including sexual fulfilment—in order to serve their father. Consequently, they have failed to grow up and develop along normal paths, and, thus, they frequently behave like children rather than adults, as they regress to earlier, childish stages of life, upon which they are fixated. Not surprisingly, they exhibit a Freudian ambivalence towards their father: subtle forms of hatred well up through the public surface of love and respect.
Freud's theories about free association and a closely related concept, the association of ideas, bear upon the treatment of time in “Daughters,” something that critics make much of but never really explain. Alpers refers to the story's “curious shifts of time that work so well” (Stories xxviii). They imply “that time itself is one of the characters” (Life 327). In “Daughters,” says Magalaner, “time has no meaning and no boundaries. … The sisters cannot exist in the definite realm of clock time” (92-93). Kobler describes the story's “mazelike treatment of time,” and says of the two sisters that “the story involves flashbacks and returns that are seemingly beyond their mental control, even when it is their thoughts that create the flashbacks” (65).
Freudian theory can explain these puzzling “flashbacks and returns” that are beyond “mental control” and have nothing to do with normal “clock time.” According to Freud, the mind's free associations are not really free at all, but reflect the hidden workings of the unconscious, where ideas may be associated without regard to logic or normal time sequence. Furthermore, associated ideas are often clues to unresolved conflicts lurking in the hidden recesses of the unconscious. In other words, patterns of association that flit about in time, and that may seem to be random, irrational, trivial, and irrelevant—like those in “Daughters”—may embody all-important truths in a disguised form (see, for example, Freud 1: 72-75, 129-42; Gay 71-73, 127n, 297-98; Strachey 18-20).
The story begins with an emphasis on Freudian parapraxis in the sense of “forgetting” something important because it is too disturbing to contemplate. Confronted by the fact of their father's death and funeral, the two sisters lie rigid on their beds, “thinking things out, talking things over, wondering, deciding, trying to remember where …” (386; ellipsis in original). Their intense mental effort, concluding with a mysterious ellipsis, suggests the operation of mental censorship. On the one hand, for reasons that do not become clear until Section 5, they dare not contemplate the dreadful fact that they have had father buried (“Buried. You two girls had me buried!”). Nor are they able to confront another equally disturbing fact, that he is “buried” forever in their unconscious minds, where he is very much alive and in control, as subsequent events will demonstrate.
Parapraxis in the sense of a Freudian slip of the tongue follows soon afterward: the unconscious subtext of Josephine's not entirely logical exclamation “father's head!” is that “father's dead!” This suitably disguised but exhilarating prospect almost provokes a fit of childish giggling, implying regression to an earlier stage of development: “Years ago, when they had stayed awake at night talking, their beds had simply heaved” (386).
“‘We miss our dear father so much’”: Josephine's twenty-three fits of weeping as she replies to twenty-three letters of condolence introduce a Freudian theme, the sisters' ambivalent feelings toward their dead father (387). Josephine's grief, though comically mechanical, is surely real. But soon afterward, in Section 4, Constantia's ambiguous response (something like a private, internal “slip of the tongue”) to Josephine's plans for the funeral suggests the opposite side of the coin:
‘I should like it to be quite simple,’ said Josephine firmly, ‘and not too expensive. At the same time, I should like—’
‘A good one that will last,’ thought dreamy Constantia, as if Josephine were buying a nightgown.
According to Freud, both slips of the tongue and dreams may reflect wish fulfillments in a disguised form. Here “dreamy” Constantia clearly wants a funeral that will last—that is, one that will keep father safely dead and buried. She disguises that wish in a simile about buying a good nightgown that follows, by free association, from what Josephine has just said. Her concerns about burial lead, again by free association, from Section 4 to Section 5, which explores the dreadful prospect that father is in some sense far from being dead and buried:
Neither of them could possibly believe that father was never coming back. Josephine had had a moment of absolute terror at the cemetery, while the coffin was lowered, to think that she and Constantia had done this thing without asking his permission. What would father say when he found out? For he was bound to find out sooner or later. He always did. ‘Buried. You two girls had me buried!’ She heard his stick thumping. Oh, what would they say? What possible excuse could they make?
Section 6, literally about a trip to father's room in which the sisters steel themselves to “Go through father's things and settle about them,” is metaphorically a journey, rich in basic Freudian connotations, into the unconscious. Freud describes the systems of the mind in terms of two rooms: an entrance hall presided over by a watchman or censor, and a room beyond it, which is the domain of the unconscious (Freud 1: 336-37). In Mansfield's story a dark hall guards the approaches to father's room, where the sisters run into their bête noir, the servant Kate, terrifying, censorious, and omniscient: “As if anything ever deceived Kate!” (392). Struggling with the door handle, they regress to childish patterns of speech: “‘You—you go first.’ … ‘No Jug, that's not fair. You're eldest.’ … ‘But you're tallest’” (392). Within father's room itself, events take on the dream-like quality associated with Freud's unconscious: “they weren't in father's room at all. … Was the door just behind them? … Constantia felt that like the doors in dreams, it hadn't any handle at all” (392). The sense of regression becomes even more pronounced: Josephine “pulled a funny old-fashioned face at Constantia, just as she used to in the old days when she was going to cry. ‘I can't open,’ she nearly wailed” (393). The scene concludes with Constantia triumphantly turning the key in father's wardrobe as if to lock him in. Her triumph is hollow: symbolically she has ensured that father will remain “locked in” forever at an unconscious level, whence he will continue to blight their prospects for liberation and happiness.
A series of free associations follows these events. Constantia's triumph reminds her of a childish incident in which she pushed brother Benny into the Round Pond. The image corresponds to a Freudian “screen memory” of childhood: it implies but never directly states that Benny, another despotic male, is a chip off the old block.10 That proves to be the case, as Josephine imagines him giving orders to a black runner in Ceylon, where her father had also served: “His right hand shook up and down, as father's did when he was impatient” (394). Further free association links this section with the succeeding Section 8. Thoughts about giving father's watch to Benny lead to thoughts about time and then to thoughts about their dear nephew Cyril, who, as Sections 8 and 9 establish, has little or no “time” for them: he arrives late, saying “‘I had to meet a man at Victoria’” (395), and leaves early with the excuse that “‘I've got to meet a man at—at Paddington’” (396). The subtext is clear enough: beyond the house lies a man's world, which has no time for spinster aunts.
Section 10 deals with the crucial question of whether or not to sack Kate, the servant to whom they are subservient. Symbolically, sacking Kate would amount to getting rid of the Freudian watchman or censor who is at the same time another stand-in for father: she consistently treats the sisters with authoritarian contempt. Significantly, Constantia exhibits Freudian “resistance” to a prospect that would represent getting rid of father's influence and taking control of her own destiny: she almost falls asleep when having to confront making a “definite decision” about Kate (399). The theme of chronic indecision, which is also at the heart of “Prufrock,” comes to the fore. “‘Isn't it curious, Jug,’ said she, ‘that just on this one subject I've never been able to quite make up my mind?’” (399). It becomes clear, both here and in Section 11, that neither sister, since childhood, has ever been able to make up her mind about anything that matters; also that this chronic disability has its roots in a psychological conflict between children and father reminiscent of those that Freud had explored.
The concluding Section 12 begins on a promising note with images of healthy intrusions from the outside world—the organ-grinder and his music from the street below, the sun that “thieved its way in” (401), and the young sparrows, ready to take flight, cheeping on the windowsill. The organ-grinder's music triggers a string of free associations and the conviction, for a moment, that father really is dead and buried. The theme, for once, is “remembering” rather than “forgetting”:
Then they remembered. It didn't matter. They would never have to stop the organ-grinder again. Never again would she and Constantia be told to make that monkey take his noise somewhere else. … The organ-grinder might play there all day and the stick would not thump.
Josephine's long-standing association of the organ-grinder's music with father's thumping stick now yields to a new refrain. Its nursery-rhyme rhythms suggest the fulfilment of a profound wish that goes all the way back to childhood:
It never will thump again, It never will thump again.
Constantia's refrain (“A week since father died, / A week since father died” ) is of the same order.
These insights lead to Constantia's confrontation with “her favorite Buddha,” who stands on the mantelpiece, smiling enigmatically: “‘I know something that you don't know,’ said her Buddha” (401). In Freudian terms, the Buddha is something like a benign alternate father figure—the one she wants, but has never had—who approves of her hopes for liberation and smiles upon the sacrificial, erotic fantasies in which “she had lain on the floor with her arms outstretched” (402). Immediately afterward comes the recognition, only half-comprehended, that she and Josephine have squandered the best years of their lives in their father's service.
The story concludes on a moment of truth akin to Prufrock's, when there is no time left for procrastination and he must make a potentially liberating decision now. “What did it mean?” asks Constantia. “What was it she was always wanting? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?” (402). But the moment passes when the mental censor intervenes, like a cloud blotting out the sunlight, and the story returns to its initial Freudian theme of forgetting, which echoes the Prufrockian theme of submerging beneath the waves into the chambers of the sea. Constantia forgets what it was that she was going to say. Josephine “stared at a big cloud where the sun had been. Then she replied shortly, ‘I've forgotten too’” (402). Father's will has triumphed, and Constantia and Josephine are destined to remain the Daughters of the Late Colonel for as long as they both shall live.
Bell mistakes the date of the event; see Alpers, Life 239.
Dates of stories derive throughout from Alpers, Stories.
Bruch Hayman argues for a young Prufrock, but the consensus sees him as middle-aged. Mansfield's spinster sisters must be middle-aged, since they have a thirty-five-year-old photograph of their mother, who died during their childhood (“Daughters” 401).
The crab image may echo Prufrock's “pair of ragged claws.” Mansfield also used crab images in “At the Bay” (1921) and “A Married Man's Story” (1921), both written after her encounter with “Prufrock.”
Cats appear in just three of some fifty stories that Mansfield wrote prior to reading “Prufrock.” “Enna Blake” (1898) and “Ole Underwood” (1913) feature kittens, and “Epilogue I: Pension Seguin” (1913) describes “a large black stove that had the appearance of a headless cat” (138).
Eliot claimed that the form in which he began to write was based on Jules Laforgue and the later Elizabethan drama. If “Prufrock” embodies a concept of the unconscious, it probably came from Karl Van Hartmann, through Jules Laforgue, rather than from Freud (Tindall 277-79). Nowhere does Eliot express any enthusiasm for Freud. As a young man he typically withdrew from disturbing new ideas and “reverted to his need for order, for discipline, for tradition” (Ackroyd 41). Whereas Roger Fry and Herbert Read embraced Freudianism, Eliot, as critic, was “filled with scruples” (Tindall 216). But as an undergraduate at Harvard until June 1910, Eliot might have encountered Freudian ideas. By mid-1905 Freud had published works that described his fundamental principles (Gay 153). Ernest Jones offered a colloquium on Freud in Boston in 1908; Freud himself lectured at Clark College in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1909 (Jones 267-68). Eliot completed “Prufrock” in the summer of 1910 (Ackroyd 45). Note that Eliot himself underwent a form of “psychological therapy” in 1921, from which he claimed to have benefited (Ackroyd 115-17), and that the “‘very great doctor’” who reconciles husband and wife in The Cocktail Party (1949) is “half-priestly and half-analytical” (Ackroyd 295).
Modern readers might of course question Mansfield's view that psychoanalytic insights are “scientific.”
Re the Bloomsbury Group and Freud, see, for example, Alexander 135-36, 198; Alpers, Life 227-30; Holroyd 161-62, 181-82; Kallich 31-43; Meisel, Introduction passim; Strachey, Lytton 112-20. Re the Lawrences and Freud see, for example, Tindall 223, 225; Alpers, Life 160-214 et passim; Maddox 102-109; Worthen 442-44.
Re misuse of the term “subconscious,” see Gay 453, 453n.
Like dreams, screen memories of incidents from childhood escape mental censorship by disguising their “forbidden” content (Freud 1: 236-37).
Abrams, M. H. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 1993.
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon, 1984.
Alexander, Peter F. Leonard and Virginia Woolf: A Literary Partnership. New York: Harvester, 1992.
Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. New York: Viking, 1980.
———, ed. The Stories of Katherine Mansfield. Auckland: Oxford UP, 1984.
Bell, Clive. Old Friends. 1956. Civilization and Old Friends. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1973.
Eliot, T. S. “The Love Story of J. Alfred Profrock.” Abrams 2140-43.
Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis [1915-1916]. Vol. 1 of The Pelican Freud Library. Ed. and trans. James Strachey and Angela Richards. 1963. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: Norton, 1988.
Hanson, Clare, and Andrew Gurr. Katherine Mansfield. New York: St. Martin's, 1981.
Hayman, Bruch. “How Old Is Prufrock? Does He Want to Get Married?” College Language Association Journal 1 (1994): 59-68.
Holroyd, Michael. The Years of Achievement. Vol. 2 of Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography. London: Heinemann, 1968.
Introduction. “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” Abrams 2184.
Jones, Ernest. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and abridged Lionel Trilling and Stephen Marcus. London: Hogarth, 1961.
Kallich, Martin. The Psychological Milieu of Lytton Strachey. New York: Bookman, 1961.
Kaplan, Sydney Janet. “‘A Gigantic Mother’: Katherine Mansfield's London.” Women Writers and the City: Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism. Ed. Susan Merrill Squier. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1984. 161-75.
Kobler, J. F. Katherine Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne-Hall, 1990.
Maddox, Brenda. D. H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage. New York: Simon, 1994.
Magalaner, Marvin. The Fiction of Katherine Mansfield. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1971.
Matthews, T. S. Great Tom: Notes Towards the Definition of T. S. Eliot. London: Weidenfeld, 1974.
Meisel, Perry, and Walter Kendrick, eds. Introduction. Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey 1924-1925. New York: Basic, 1985. 3-49.
Murry, J. Middleton, ed. Journal of Katherine Mansfield. 1927. London: Constable, 1954.
———. The Letters of Katherine Mansfield. 1928. Vol. 2. London: Constable, 1934.
O'Sullivan, Vincent, and Margaret Scott, eds. The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984ff.
Strachey, James. “Sigmund Freud: A Sketch of His Life and Ideas.” Freud, Introductory Lectures 1: 9-24.
Strachey, Lytton. “According to Freud.” Lytton Strachey: The Really Interesting Question and Other Papers. Ed. Paul Levy. London: Weidenfeld, 1972. 112-20.
Tindall, William York. Forces in Modern British Literature 1885-1956. New York: Vintage-Random, 1956.
Worthen, John. D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885-1912. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4120
SOURCE: Breuer, Horst. “K. Mansfield's ‘The Stranger’: Text, Subtext, Pretext.” English Studies 83, no. 5 (November 2002): 423-30.
[In the following essay, Breuer offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of “The Stranger” and investigates the literary source of the story's title.]
Katherine Mansfield's short story ‘The Stranger’ (written 1920, published 1921) is one of her finest narratives. It holds a delicate balance between psychological realism and social satire. It analyzes with consummate empathy and linguistic skill a significant marital configuration of early 20th century middle-class society. The protagonist and narrative focus is a husband of the possessive-and-demanding type who, at slight provocation, experiences an acute neurotic crisis and turns out to be precariously dependent on his wife's affection and care. The aim of the present paper is to attempt a multi-layered reading of the story, in terms of literary criticism as well as psychoanalytic interpretation, and to determine a probable literary source of its somewhat unlikely title.
Like many of Mansfield's best stories, ‘The Stranger’ is set in the milieu of well-to-do New Zealanders at the beginning of the 20th century. The main characters are John and Jane Hammond, who seem to belong to the best circles of the country (which appeared, of course, ridiculously provincial to many fashionable Englishmen of the period). Mr Hammond has come to ‘Crawford’, a harbour town resembling Auckland, in order to meet his wife after her long absence in Europe. He has come to ‘fetch her back’, as he styles it.1 The children of the middle-aged couple are left at home in ‘Salisbury’ (reminiscent of Kathleen Beauchamp's Wellington), under the care of the grandmother and servants. The Hammonds are modelled after the authoress's parents. The biographical record says that a similar event did indeed take place at Hobart, Tasmania, in 1909. Mansfield's father was then 51 years old, her mother 45. The eldest daughter of the family, Vera Beauchamp, confirmed the incident when questioned by the biographer A. Alpers: ‘Yes, it did happen […]. Cut him to the quick, poor dear’.2
‘The Stranger’ is a third-person narrative told mainly from Mr Hammond's viewpoint. His observations and stream of consciousness are presented in free indirect perception and free indirect discourse. But there are other narrative modes, too. At the beginning, for instance, we watch the scene through the eyes of an anonymous focal character, a member of ‘the little crowd on the wharf’. And occasionally, the voice of a cautiously superior narrator takes over, often creating an indulgently amused distance to the protagonist. From the resulting ironies we can gather that Hammond's ‘limited point of view’ is by no means uncontestable and objective. On the contrary: the prosperous Mr Hammond seems to behave rather childishly at times. Readers, then, are in a position to empathize with the protagonist and simultaneously smile at his absurdities. This oscillation between compassion, mirth and satire is characteristic of Mansfield's humour and narrative tone.
At first, we witness Hammond's restlessness and impatience, bordering on anxiety. For more than two hours the ocean liner has been ‘hanging about in the stream’, as he terms it, off the wharf. Eventually, she comes in. Hammond storms aboard, ‘and Janey was clasped in his arms’. He wants to set off to the hotel at once to have his wife all to himself. She, small, elegant and composed, smiles at his impetuosity. There are several delays, at the leave-taking, concerning the luggage, and about the children's letters. And when both spouses are finally seated close together in a big arm-chair, Mrs Hammond explains the reason for the detention of the ship: a first-class passenger had died on the voyage, which caused medical formalities before berthing. Then comes the gist of the story: Hammond is agonizingly hurt when he learns that his wife has been friendly with the man (‘quite young’, as Janey innocently reports) and that he has died in her arms, with no-one by. Although there is no actual impropriety in this, John is completely overpowered by feelings of painful neglect and abandonment. To him, their relationship is thoroughly devaluated by Jane's gesture—an embrace which apparently was never accorded to him unurged (‘She—who'd never—never once in all these years—never on one single solitary occasion—’). The reunion of the couple, then, miscarries into a shattering emotional crisis of the husband, triggered off by the minor incident on the steamer.
The characterization and confrontation of John and Jane Hammond are dexterously divulged in the course of the story. John Hammond is an impressive figure at first glance: vigorous, commanding, expensively dressed, loud and hearty, full of energy and initiative. His behaviour and way of speaking are clearly middle-class—hall-marks of the successful businessman who doesn't mince words and professes a non-nonsense way of looking at things (‘cursed’, ‘rot’, ‘as plain as pikestaff’, ‘confound it!’, ‘dashed annoying!’, ‘hang my luggage!’, ‘what a fool’, ‘two great clumsy idiots’). For all his noisy superiority, Hammond is also generous, spontaneous, warm-hearted, ‘kind,’ ‘friendly and confiding’. Still, his main characteristic is his egotism. He is absolutely self-centered, for instance in the way he claims other people for his moods and needs. His selfishness does not repel us, though, because it is not in the least calculating. It is grandiosely childish, but he means no harm.
Jane Hammond is depicted as the flawless lady, amiable, refined, disciplined. Her dainty stature and soft-spoken firmness command great charm and attraction without engaging her too closely to others. Shakespeare's formula for persons of this fascinating character type is: ‘… Who moving others are themselves as stone, / Unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow’, ‘They are the lords and owners of their faces, / Others but stewards of their excellence’ (sonnet 94). John Hammond's first impressions of his wife are: ‘composed’, ‘calm’, ‘her cool little voice’, ‘her familiar half-smile’. The movement of the story makes clear, though, that Jane Hammond's self-control and distance are paired with emotional restraint and a lack of spontaneity, lastly a general inhibition of sensuous and affective vitality. The relationship between John and Jane, then, is one of clingy closeness on his part and of autonomous remoteness on hers—a critical combination which finally brings about one of the little catastrophes of their married life.
Jane Hammond's attitude of recoiling from intimacy and self-involvement is graphically present in the symbolism of the initial scene: the liner anchoring way off the quay, refusing to be fastened in secure moorings. A similar imagery is suggested when Mrs Hammond ‘armours herself’ by stuffing the children's letters into her blouse before she suffers herself to be drawn into the easy-chair. When she kisses her husband, it is a firm but light kiss which ‘signs’ the matrimonial ‘contract’ but does not quench his insatiable thirst for proximity, indeed for fusion (‘But that wasn't what he wanted; that wasn't at all what he thirsted for’; ‘Would he always have this craving—this pang like hunger, somehow, to make Janey so much part of him that there wasn't any of her to escape?’). Although Jane yields to John's wishes after a while, she persistently evades and defers his demands until his pressing claims have given way to feelings of weakness and mortification: ‘He felt suddenly, horribly tired’. In terms of real-life situations, it may be added that this type of asymmetrical relationship is often quite durable in the participants' reciprocal struggles: if the wife gave up her aloofness, the husband would smother her with his self-centered solicitations; and if contrariwise he gave up his flattering importunity, she would have to face the neurotic dimension of her unapproachability. This is the mutual defense arrangement of a ‘collusion’.
The tight structure of the story enhances its general effect. The movement of the text is from the without (harbour) to the within (hotel room), from public to private, expansion to regression, control to confusion. At first, Hammond feels like Jane's protector and guardian. He imagines himself procuring the only cup of tea on board for her, and affectionately he notices her as ‘small’ and ‘little’. Forebodings of his later breakdown, however, are dimly discernible right from the beginning: his agitation and anxiety on the wharf, which are clearly in excess of the occasion, and then his immense relief on board, which takes on a quasi-religious dimension (‘Another moment, and—thank God, thank God!—there she was. There was Janey’, ‘She was here to look after things. It was alright. Everything was’). Aptly and ambiguously, Hammond is called ‘strong-looking’ (italics added) by the narrator right at the beginning. Metaphorically, the character's feelings are paralleled by the various shapes of his overcoat. It is a symbol of wealth and success at first. When he doffs it at the hotel, it proves to be exterior protection which leaves him vulnerable and does not guarantee genuine stability. And in the end, when John experiences unrelieved despair, the coat, which has been flung across the bed, takes on the shape of ‘some headless man saying his prayers’. There is a similar movement in the fire imagery of the story: the flames in the fire-place are bright and warming first, then gloomy, then all but extinct (‘she watched the fire flicker and fall’).3 And the room which on entering seemed a snug shelter to the protagonist, takes on the unbounded dimensions of homelessness and disorientation.
Mr Hammond, as has been quoted, visualizes his wife as ‘small’, ‘little’. In a similar vein, he tries to secure her completely for himself, like a keeper or proprietor (‘Well, he'd got her’, ‘He had her on his arm again’, ‘[He] unlocked the door of their room, and shepherded Janey in’). In such passages, Mansfield's description of the gender relation is superbly representative of late Victorian and Edwardian bourgeois ethos. The idea of female helplessness and frailty supports the male in his egocentric self-image. Thus, he can satisfy cravings for self-aggrandizement and omnipotence, fend off his own anxiety of inferiority, and rationalize his sexual and dominative drives into care and protection.
In outlining these emotions, Mansfield's narrative is in direct analogy to James Joyce's story ‘The Dead’ (from Dubliners). Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of Joyce's narrative, is in animated spirits and a little drunk after the cheerful Christmas party at his aunts'. To him, too, his wife appears ‘frail’, lonely and desirable—until he discovers, to his jealous resentment, that she does not share his amorous sentiments but has a separate life and history of her own. Both stories, Joyce's and Mansfield's, have a number of similarities, as David Daiches was first to note.4 In both cases, a middle-aged married couple, after a period of separation or estrangement, stay overnight at a hotel. Both times, the husband perceives this situation as a reprise of the wedding night—which subsequently is interrupted by a ‘stranger’, a phantom lover surfacing in his wife's memory. Contrary to Joyce's Gabriel Conroy, John Hammond is incapable of experiencing affects like anger or annoyance in connexion with his wife. At the end of Mansfield's story, he remains—by way of reaction formation, as it were—in a semi-paralytic state, overcome by feelings of complete impotence and exposure (‘He felt all his strength flowing—flowing into the big dark chair, and the big dark chair held him fast, gripped him, forced him to bear it’). His wife tenderly insists on ignoring her husband's condition, and all too innocently she asks: ‘You don't mind, John, do you?’, ‘You're not—sorry I told you, John darling? It hasn't made you sad? It hasn't spoilt our evening—our being alone together?’
What has been said so far refers to the realistic, aesthetic and contextual plane of the story. But we can sense a still deeper layer of psychic tension which is beyond mere characterization and yet informs our experience of the text. My contention is that there exists, underneath the truth-to-life stratum of Mansfield's story-line, a powerful undercurrent of infantile affects and archaic emotional bonds. This psychodynamic subtext regulates our reading of the narrative, whether we are aware of it or not. In briefly tracing this scenario of primal impulses and object-relations, I follow a route of psychoanalytic literary criticism which I have delineated and textually applied in detail elsewhere.5
If we envisage Mansfield's configuration as an intricate relational scenario of this kind, it becomes apparent that the wife of the story holds a position which is maternally dominating, restricting and manipulating. The husband, on the other hand, who anaclitically craves intimacy and notice, occupies the place of a dependent and demanding child. He is filially compliant and submissive, sulks, is put off, kept waiting, petted, cajoled, not taken seriously—always meekly hoping for gratification and the fulfilment of his wishes. As regards the affective field of object-relations, the emotional ties between the spouses may consequently be understood as the dual union of a lovingly dominant mother and her complying son.
Then a third person materializes, nameless and ephemeral, almost without real existence, present only in the memories and fantasies of the couple. The relational scenario of the story assumes, step by step, the form of a family triangle. The third person—the ‘stranger’—may not be a potent father-figure and oedipal rival of the ‘son’. But he is the one who comes between ‘mother’ and ‘son’, interrupting their symbiosis; and his spectral appearance is powerful enough to quicken the son's fear of abandonment and uphold the mother's castrating dominance. The ‘stranger’, then, represents certain disavowed psychic elements of the actants of the text. He embodies the couple's split-off anxieties and desires which have remained alien to themselves, although determining, in endless repetitions, their reciprocal behaviour patterns. Seen in this perspective, the stranger is not so strange after all. He reflects, as Sigmund Freud has said of the uncanny, something that is ‘in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression’, ‘something which is secretly familiar’.
Our triangular scenario shows a son who has remained immature in his internal world of objects. His yearning for an inseparable dual union irrespective of all ego-boundaries is illusory and childish. Neither is he able to respect the autonomous life of the mother, nor tolerate his own detachment, even temporarily. His ‘capacity for being alone’ (D. W. Winnicott) is undeveloped. Thus, the period of separation mentioned in the story entails the menace of total self-loss. The return of the mother-figure is hailed with infinite relief. This spiritual ‘deliverance’ contains an element of overestimation in which the unfocused irritation of the opening scene persists. When the two protagonists are close together in the second half of the story, the ‘son’ subsides into deep regression. Little by little, we recognize that the husband's love is not object-oriented but self-oriented. He is incapable of fully perceiving his wife as an independent person, but experiences her as an extension of his self. His desire for absolute unification is boundless. The arm-chair into which he pulls her is like an intra-uterine refuge. But intrusions from the outside, by stewards, passengers, business friends and porters, cannot be completely precluded. They indicate the plain fact that the son cannot merge with the mother, incorporate her (‘this craving—this pang like hunger, somehow’). They are the antecedents of the final disturbance. The Stranger is, as it were, the epitome of all interferences which obstruct the symbiotic yearnings of the son. The dead passenger personifies the inattainability of the mother-figure.
The oedipal aspect of the relations scenario highlights the husband's admiration and idealization of his wife. She in her turn indulges him partially, but simultaneously deprives him of his resistance and independence—which amounts to a depotentiation of his masculinity. Both actants are immobilized in their contrastive roles: she is firm and remote, he anaclitically dependent. Their relationship is stranded, stuck in reactions of recoil (on her part) and anxiety (on his). When the ‘son’ becomes aware of the presence of the ‘other’—a ‘primal scene’ enacted only in talk and fantasies—he cannot respond in progressive, oedipal fashion, by feeling anger and hatred towards the faithless ‘mother’ and his unknown rival. Instead, he directs his aggressive impulses against himself and collapses in diffuse agitation: ‘Ah, my God, what was she saying! What was she doing to him! This would kill him!’, ‘Madness lay in thinking of it.’
The wife's reaction, on the other hand, is one of latent triumph. She seems unaware of his near-breakdown, asks soothingly: ‘You don't mind, John, do you?’, and playfully fingers his tie (‘She pinched the edges of the tie together’). The sexual symbolism of her gesture doesn't need elaboration. The husband is in the same unphallic position as the dying passenger, of whom the wife relates: ‘All the time I was with him he was too weak … he was too weak even to move a finger …’ And Hammond, though narcissistically hurting and inconsolable, clings to her and hides his face (‘He put his face into her bosom’). The reward for his ten months of suffering is withheld. The husband, who is so strong and efficient in his business life, remains passive and orally demanding on the plane of object-relations.
After this psychoanalytically-guided glance at the core-fantasy of Mansfield's text, I proceed now to the last part of my analysis, which brings us back to the craftsmanship aspect of the work and its philological examination. What remains to be clarified are the title and the central conflict of the narrative. It is the story of John Hammond's crisis, not of the nameless passenger who remains shadowy and indistinct. The passenger's death is no more than the stimulus which elicits the couple's conflict. Why then should the unfortunate young man be the titular character? And why would he be called ‘the stranger’, and not, say, ‘the passenger’? A title like ‘The Stranger’ seems to suggest a different kind of story—for example, one about a mysterious outsider who invades a neighbourhood to spread unease and alarm. We can, of course, speculate about double meanings: that the Hammonds, too, are partly strangers to each other, and that both characters are meant to possess recesses in their minds they are mostly unaware of.6 Still, such extensions of the title's significance only confirm that the term in itself is not quite obvious. For the story as it is, we would rather expect an uncontrived title which simply indicates Mrs Hammond's arrival, or the reunion of the couple, or Mr Hammond's state of mind.
My proposition is that Mansfield's title is an allusion—half-conscious or unconscious—to Henrik Ibsen's play The Lady from the Sea (Fruen fra havet, 1888; first English production 1891). Although the source material for Mansfield's story is mainly biographical, as has been mentioned, these personal aspects can be supplemented with a literary analogue. There are some striking parallels between ‘The Stranger’ and Ibsen's play. (There are obvious differences, too, as may be expected.) The Lady from the Sea is about a young woman, Ellida Wangel, whose married life is marred by her mermaid-like sea reminiscences culminating in the arrival of an uncanny seaman who is called ‘the stranger’ in the speech headings and list of characters, as well as occasionally in the dialogue. He belongs to Ellida's former life. He is strongly associated with the wild, uncivilized, nomadic life at sea. One of his names is ‘Freeman’, another ‘the American’. Ellida who is bound to this man by a weird kind of betrothal, feels terror as well as hypnotic fascination in his presence. In the end, she overcomes her irrational state of mind and is now fully able to accept a bourgeois existence by the side of her husband Doctor Wangel.7
In both texts, Ibsen's and Mansfield's, there is the triangular configuration of an attractive, curiously remote wife, a prosaic, solicitous husband and a mysterious intruder. The wife is somehow absorbed and dissatisfied. The Stranger belongs to a portion of her life which the husband does not control. This is the hallucinatory zone of girlish fantasies, of cravings for an alternative kind of existence, wild, unfettered, sensual, which is beyond the husband's understanding and capabilities. Interestingly enough, this configuration fits also Joyce's ‘The Dead’. Then there is the steamer, which in Mansfield's story has an equally important part as in Ibsen's play. Both vessels are anxiously awaited, both carry the Stranger and are associated with desire, infidelity and death. The sea in Mansfield's story is not an elemental force as in Ibsen's play, but at any rate the sea voyage of the narrative indicates an intermediate period free from conjugal routine. It should also be noted that Jane Hammond shares many character traits with Mansfield's more famous literary wife-and-mother figure Linda Burnell, of ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’—and Linda, comparable to Ibsen's Ellida, cherishes indeed day-dreams of running away and leading a vaguely ‘different’ life of freedom and adolescent adventure.
Katherine Mansfield was very much aware of Henrik Ibsen. The Norwegian playwright had been one of the most controversial and influential figures in England since the 1890s.8 His impact was overwhelming, not only with rebels and intellectuals, but also with the general public. Many of his plays were very successful. When Kathleen Beauchamp came to Queen's College, London, in 1903, she was fascinated by the modern writers of her time—Decadents, Symbolists, Social Reformers. She and her friends eagerly read and discussed Ibsen, Wilde, Verlaine, Tolstoi, Maeterlinck, Shaw. We know from Mansfield's notebooks and from library slips that she was pouring again over Ibsen, D'Annunzio, Nietzsche, Browning and others in New Zealand in 1908; Wilde's influence had somewhat abated.9 Although The Lady from the Sea is one of Ibsen's less celebrated works, it is fairly probable that Mansfield knew the play.
My assumption is that she did not necessarily have a clear remembrance of this dramatic text in 1920, when the circumstances of her father's second marriage gave her the idea to turn the Hobart incident of 1909 into a fictitious story. But Ibsen's play may have worked on subconsciously in her mind, and presumably contributed to the title and the central complication of the narrative. Whether the drama can be called a source or merely a literary analogue of the short story is of minor importance. What becomes vividly intelligible in the context of Ibsen's play is the wife's part in the narrative. That Jane Hammond's embrace of the dying passenger does carry overtones of erotic temptation, is suggested by the fire imagery (‘She was looking away from him at the fire. The flames hurried—hurried over the coals, flickered, fell’). John Hammond's collapse may be an over-reaction caused by his own instability. But his feelings of jealousy and abandonment are not absolutely groundless. The analogy with Ibsen's play helps to sharpen our perception of these emotional undercurrents of the story.
The profound differences between the two works must not, of course, be passed over. They are mainly disparities of genre and mood. One text presents quasi-allegorical drama, the other psychologically realistic narrative. One centres upon a girlish, fay-like wife, the other upon a commercially successful, but emotionally immature husband. One stranger is a demonic ‘merman’, the other a quiet young gentleman. Mansfield's story, then, is an entirely independent achievement. An appreciation of the affinity of both works, however, enables us to gain a comprehensive view of the literary profile of the narrative, and to explain a few obscurities in Mansfield's text.
Katherine Mansfield, The collected short stories (Harmondsworth, 1981), pp. 350-64. As the text is short, quotations are given without page numbers.
Antony Alpers, The life of Katherine Mansfield (London, 1980), p. 95 note. For general information about the genesis of the story, see pp. 94-5, 321, 361, 414.
Compare Saralyn R. Daly, Katherine Mansfield (New York, 65), pp. 104-5.
David Daiches, ‘The art of Katherine Mansfield’, in: D. D., New literary values: Studies in modern literature (1936; rpt. Freeport, N.Y., 1968), pp. 83-114, cf. pp. 89-92. Compare also J. F. Kobler, Katherine Mansfield: a study of her short fiction (Boston, 1990), pp. 37-8.
Horst Breuer, ‘Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre as a fantasy scenario’, Psychoanalytic Review, 85 (1998), 871-88.
J. F. Kobler comments that ‘there are three strangers’ in the title of Mansfield's story (op. cit., pp. 36-7).
Compare Per Schelde Jacobsen and Barbara Fass Leavy, Ibsen's forsaken merman: Folklore in the late plays (New York, 1988), pp. 131-6 and 196-210, and Joan Templeton, Ibsen's women (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 194-203.
Compare Thomas Postlewait, Prophet of the New Drama: William Archer and the Ibsen campaign (Westport, Conn., 1986), and Simon Williams, ‘Ibsen and the theatre 1877-1900’, in: The Cambridge companion to Ibsen, ed. by James McFarlane (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 165-82.
See Alpers, op. cit., pp. 50 and 61; C. A. Hankin, Katherine Mansfield and her confessional stories (London, 1983), pp. 17-18; Claire Tomalin, Katherine Mansfield: a secret life (New York, 1987), p. 25; Angela Smith, Katherine Mansfield: a literary life (New York, 2000), p. 31.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8034
SOURCE: Stafford, Jane, and Mark Williams. “Fashioned Intimacies: Maoriland and Colonial Modernity.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37, no. 1 (2002): 31-48.
[In the following essay, Stafford and Williams elucidate Mansfield's attitude toward her homeland of New Zealand and consider her place in the movement of literary nationalism known as Maoriland.]
In Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) Stephen Dedalus's friend, Davin, is tempted sexually by a peasant woman.1 He declines her offer, but is attracted by the strangeness of the encounter and the frankness of the invitation. Although an ardent nationalist and affectionately described by Stephen as a peasant, Davin finds the seductions of traditional Ireland resistible. To Stephen, the life of the peasantry is inscrutable and more than faintly repugnant. He fears the “red-rimmed horny eyes” of an ancient Irish-speaking peasant and feels he must struggle with him “all through this night till day come”.2 Yet pleasing images of peasant women he has seen from the college bus float through his mind.
In 1907 nineteen-year-old Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp went on a camping trip through the Urewera district and recorded in her diaries her impressions of Maori, whose distance from colonial bourgeois culture she found deeply attractive. She preferred the Maori of “the utter backblocks” to the Anglicized Maori whom she encountered nearer civilization.3 Yet the same year, back in Wellington with her family, she had a love affair with a beautiful and decidedly sophisticated school-friend, Maata Mahupuku. In her early story, “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” (1912), Maori figure as a romantic other to the restrictions of colonial bourgeois life, sufficiently vague that the kidnappers of the white child might as easily be gypsies.4 Mansfield herself, in London, dressed in a fashion described as both Maori and gypsy.
There is a common ambivalence displayed by both writers in their depictions of “traditional” peoples, but romantic projection is more marked in Mansfield. The strongest feelings recorded in the Urewera notebook—involving fear, excitement, desire—are evoked by situations where the viewed subjects seem to represent the purest expressions of otherness. Both writers are able to stand back from and manipulate the associations of traditionalism, as when Mansfield experimentally substitutes Italians for Maori fishermen in a passage in her diary.5 In Joyce's case, the figurings are inflected by his reaction against the programmatic mythologizing of the peasantry by Irish literary nationalists. It is difficult to prove conclusively that Mansfield was aware of the existence of the tentative New Zealand literary nationalism which was at that time busily mythologizing Maori, but she was aware that Maori had been caught in a romantic haze. Like the Irish writer, she sees a highly self-conscious sense of literary style, not a romantic nationalism configured around a mythical landscape or past, as the solution to the problem of provincialism.
Were “native or distinctive traditions” wholly absent from the beginnings of literary nationalism known in Mansfield's girlhood as “Maoriland”?6 Was Mansfield truly an exotic in the colonial garden, one who had to leave to become modern? To answer these questions we need to consider the specific and complex background that late-colonial New Zealand presented to her. We need to register not only her exaggeratedly negative responses to family and country, familiar from the diaries and letters, but also the ambivalence that underlay the stance she adopted as aesthete and superior outsider. In her ambivalence, her contrariness, her shifts between resentment and responsiveness, we find an image of the fractured world she inhabited, whose contradictions she internalized. Her context was not just a matter of family or landscape but also that of a society at once loyally colonial and proudly modern, and little troubled by the apparent contradiction.
Mansfield came from a country that, by the time she left it in 1908, saw itself, justifiably, as highly modernized—not a colonial backwater but an advanced society, a model for others. In terms of material prosperity, of the application of technology to its agricultural production and exporting, and especially in terms of the cultural conditions of modernity—progressive social legislation, the gaining of women's suffrage in 1893, universal education—New Zealand was by the early 1900s a more modern society than was Britain in many respects, and had a reputation in America as well as in Britain for being advanced.7 In leaving her native land Mansfield was not seeking modernity but excitement; she wrote in a 1907 poem:
I know the bush is beautiful The cities up to date in life, they say, we're on the top it's England, though, that's late. But I, with all my longing heart, I care not what they say It's London ever calling me the live long day.(8)
Mansfield finally left Wellington for London in 1908, a year before Joyce's sister, Margaret, joined a great tradition of Irish internationalism by entering a religious order and emigrating to New Zealand. It is generally accepted that in his years in Dublin Joyce collected the storehouse of memories and impressions which were to sustain all his subsequent creative work. The nature and extent of the impress New Zealand left on Mansfield is more contentious; if New Zealand popular biographers have placed her in the bright geography of her childhood, serious commentators have abstracted her from the dullness of local literary activity. In the standard modernist account of the development of New Zealand literature articulated notably by E. H. McCormick and usefully summarized by Jock Phillips:
[f]rom the beginnings of European settlement through the first three decades of this century, New Zealand high culture was largely provincial, imitative and undistinguished. In terms of literary quality there was only the lonely miracle of Katherine Mansfield whose genius was able to flower once she had left her native land. Of native or distinctive traditions there was little trace.9
The problem with Maoriland in literary terms is that we tend to enter it by way of its detractors. Maoriland has figured as a kind of whipping boy for the generation that appeared in the 1930s and for subsequent narrators of local literary history eager to assert their distance from the legacy of colonial writing. J. C. Reid writes of “the hideous name ‘Maoriland’” in the writing of the first years of the twentieth century and describes this period as “a synthetic culture without a core”.10 Keith Sinclair, as literary historian, expresses what he assumes to be a position too obvious to be questioned when he states: “It has been suggested that no major writer appeared until the 1920s, and no modern student of nineteenth and early twentieth century New Zealand literature has disagreed with this judgment”.11 To interrupt the monolithic confidence of this judgment is to seek to remove the filter through which we still see a significant part of New Zealand's literary history. The crucial term in Sinclair's dismissal is “modern”, by which he means an attitude rather than simply a period. The modern invokes the clean lines of a discourse about national meanings freed of colonial chatter, evasions and nostalgia; the word inherits the view shaped by the 1930s generation who smuggled high modernism into a nationalist cultural discourse so as to distance themselves from what they saw as the debased legacy of colonial writing.
Historians, including Sinclair, have been less dismissive than have literary commentators of a period which generated the main directions of New Zealand social, political and economic history until the late twentieth century, and which established New Zealand's claim to be an exemplary modern society with advanced social legislation. They have also been less condemnatory of the cultural deference of colonial New Zealand. The poet Allen Curnow, castigating the settlers for their homesickness,12 is part of a literary consensus embracing nationalist, modernist and even postcolonial critics which assumes an evolution in which a dependency on English cultural forms, belatedly received and applied without sufficient attention to realities “local and special”,13 was replaced by cultural forms arising out of a response to what was complacently figured as the actual conditions of place and being. But if the cultural forms of the Pakeha have “indigenised” over time, become acclimatized, at ease with their location, this has been a process of continually hybridizing the opposing terms—native and imported—rather than rejecting one at the expense of the other. At all stages of New Zealand's history, from the colonial to the postcolonial, there has been a continual interaction between the imported and the immediate, the remembered and the noticed. The modernists effected an unbridgeable distance between themselves and the colonials by over-emphasizing the dependency, belatedness and weakness of their precursors; they downplayed the continuities by positing a fatal link between colonial nostalgia and the production of bad art.
Phillips reinforces the view of the aesthetic failings of the writings of the Maoriland period: “The poetry and fiction of the Maoriland school was undeniably bad, and it was almost bound to be, because it did not grow out of the Pakeha's experience. So much of the poetry and fiction was simply artificial and contrived”.14 This view has achieved general status, being affirmed by critics as different as McCormick, Reid and Patrick Evans. The problem is that it identifies literary merit with truth to location and hierarchizes naturalness over artificiality. As Mansfield knew from her avid reading of Oscar Wilde, all literature is artificial and contrived by its very nature; her own experience as internal exile demonstrated that the tenuous, borrowed and unfinished qualities of colonial society obliged colonial writers to be more, not less self-conscious about this.
The task, then, is not so much to recuperate Maoriland as to try to see it as part of a continuum of cultural activity in New Zealand, one of particular note because in it the impulses towards modernity and nostalgia, self-assertion and dependency are so visible. In rescuing Maoriland from its dismissive construction by modernism, it is important not to place a binary opposition between the two. Elements of each inform the other. The definitional struggle by which a modernizing literary nationalism launched itself in New Zealand in the 1930s and '40s required a simplifying of its own contradictory nature as well as that of what it supplanted. The story of New Zealand writing from late nineteenth century to the present is that of a continuous dialectic between colonial, indigenous and modernizing forces, which has thrown up successive nationalisms, each enlisting elements of the world elsewhere and of the world to hand. As Suzanne Clark observes of another context, “the modernist exclusion of everything but the forms of high art acted like a machine for cultural loss of memory”.15 Maoriland remains the hole in New Zealand's historical memory. Yet post-colonial New Zealand/Aotearoa can get back to the contact and early colonial periods by no other route; nor can it understand its present cultural dilemmas while ignoring Maoriland. In the efforts of Maoriland writers to register their distance from both the world that presented itself to them and the available conventions in which to write that world are to be found the beginnings of a literature in English distinctively marked by its New Zealand provenance.
Two Maoriland writers, Jessie Mackay and Blanche Baughan, demonstrate the complex way in which this was played out, and the commonalties as well as the differences which exist between their work and Mansfield's are indicative of a period governed by dynamic and unresolved oppositions that continue to shape New Zealand cultural thought and practice.
At the time of her death in 1938, Jessie Mackay was considered New Zealand's pre-eminent poet, the first truly local writer. Alan Mulgan wrote, “Everyone who knew anything worth knowing about New Zealand poetry knew something of Jessie Mackay's. She became an institution, was revered as a queen, venerated and loved.”16 By the 1990s she had become a literary joke. Patrick Evans, affecting to be postmodern, recapitulates modernist strictures in his Penguin History of New Zealand Literature, when he describes her (with no discernible biographical evidence) as “Jessie Mackay, who declined marriage for good works and bad poetry”. His critical judgment of her work is confined to distinguishing between the “awful pseudo-Scottish stuff” and the material based on Maori legend where she “really lets her hair down”.17
Present-day historians, especially feminist historians writing at the centennial of the achievement of universal suffrage in New Zealand, treat Mackay more respectfully, but in terms of her political activism rather than her poetry. Yet in her dual capacity as poet and critic, she continually interrogates the relationship between place and origin, sets the modernity of settler culture against the inherited or invented “traditions” of home, plays considerations of empire against the local, and works towards a poetic rhetoric that will accommodate all of this. Hers may not be a rhetoric that matches modern taste, but it is not, as Evans suggests, ridiculous. If it is, at times, highly coloured and figurative, this is in part because of the size of the task Mackay sets herself: the construction of a literary landscape of significance. A pared-down realist style in verse or prose, as in the familiar modernist hierarchy, is not the only means by which this may be achieved.
Mackay's poetry accurately reflects the ambivalent attitude towards history and modernity characteristic of settler societies, but in more complex terms than has been allowed. Stephen Turner has written of “settlement as forgetting”, a process which involves a number of contradictory impulses:
The new country is a site of contradictory demands: the need, ultimately, to forget the old country, and the need to ignore people who already inhabit the new country. To resist the indigenous presence the settler must retain some sense of the old-country self to be able to draw on a strong and authoritative identity. But in order to settle in the new country, to find oneself at home, the settler must forget the old country and become acclimatized, that is to discover a new-country identity.18
Forgetting, acclimatization, and discovery—these were central to the task of the writers of the Maoriland period. A generation after first settlement, their writing provided a means by which the achievements and conflicts of the emerging colony could be presented—to itself, and to the world. Mackay, born in the Rakaia Gorge in 1864 to Scottish immigrant parents, wrote a lament for Sir John McKenzie, land reformer in the Liberal Government, which works through this process. The poem, which appears in her 1904 book, From the Maori Sea, begins without any concessions to the antipodean location. This is the burial of a highland chieftain, and even the weather is Scottish:
They played him home to the House of Stones, All the way, all the way, To his grave in the sound of the winter sea. The sky was dour, the sky was gray. They played him home with a chieftain's dirge Til the wail was wed to the rolling surge! They played him home with a sorrowful will To his grave at the foot of the Holy Hill; And the pipes went mourning all the way.(19)
Behind the conventional rhetoric of mourning, wider claims are being advanced. McKenzie's chieftainship is a literary conceit, but appropriate to a new place; old forms are not being discarded but rewritten. The “clan” of which he is chief—“A wider clan than ever he knew”—is an imaginary rather than actual community. The term is a metaphor conveying reassurance, locating the present in a romanticized past, co-opting the terms of a pre-modern community to make sense of a new kind of society. In other words, not only local but also imported imaginary pasts are being consciously accommodated to a world where neither exactly fits the purposes of the colonial writer. The rhetoric of Victorian verse, the myth-making of colonial writing—so distasteful to the modernists—are the subject rather than the debilitating condition of the verse.
In 1907, shortly before Mansfield departed for England, Mackay wrote, “Colonial writers should stay in the colonies and shape their work on lines natural to their lives and their surroundings”, contrasting the invigorating effect of such settings with the “levelling melancholy and influences of London”.20 This is an early form of Curnow's attention to the local, albeit a local conjured in terms of Victorian Romanticism, the sublime located in the beauties of a rarefied natural landscape. Suffused sunsets, glittering ranges of mountains, the echoes of a now departed savage history—all these become literary markers that can be fed into a specific literary nationalism of place:
Where indeed could patriotism find a fitter shrine than the land that contains the majesty of the sounds and the glory of Aorangi; the land that contains the wonders of Rotomahana and the tomb of Te Terata, marvellous even in its desolation?21
Curnow saw Maoriland's efforts to indigenize itself as a false dawn, but Blanche Baughan, more modern in her poetic sources than Mackay and not given to Celtic Twilight myth-making, he regarded with some favour. She is a poet who notices the local, especially the physical landscape. But Baughan's habitual modes of viewing landscape, amply illustrated in the series of guides she wrote as well as her verse, are inflected by Victorian habits of thought and response; the question is how she registers the disjunction between the Victorian and the colonial. Ruskin, in particular, taught Baughan to see landscape in painterly, constructed terms. In her 1913 guide book Forest and Ice she describes the Franz Josef glacier: “For all the outlook here is upon rock and snow, under an opened sky; a vast picture painted from a single palette, grey, white, blue—but deep blue, pure white, grand grey.”22 Still, Baughan was aware that some adjustment was necessary.
Ruskin's standard is that of Europe: in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), discussing the pathetic fallacy, he disparages the un-European landscape emphasizing its remoteness and absence of meaning. If instead of a European landscape, he suggests, we envisage “a scene in some aboriginal forest of the New Continent”, not just our response, but the place itself will be transformed—“[t]he flowers in an instant los[e] their light, the river its music; the hills [become] oppressively desolate”23—because “much of their former power has been dependent on a life that was not theirs”. Human association, human history is necessary not just for our perception of place, but also for place itself. We, the readers, inscribe meaning in familiarity. Where there is no association, no history, there is no content. As the Maoriland writer, Alexander Bathgate winsomely observes, “Though Nature speaks, e'en in the wind's sad wail / Who shall give meaning to Her voices all?”24
It is a problem that colonial writers are highly conscious of, and solve—apologetically and assertively—in a number of often contradictory ways. The flaw can be turned to advantage: the New Zealand landscape, Baughan states, is quite unlike any other by virtue of superiority, “one of the purest places of old Earth; with a life of its own, no doubt, but one quite free from the accompaniments of life as we know it”, free from “the stain and the strain” of the old world; but also a memorializing recreation of it: “something like the Lauterbrunnen Thal […] the tropic light, jungle luxuriance, the snows of Switzerland, the safety of England—here they all are at once.”25 Her short story, “The Mountain Track” (1912), is clotted with references back to the centre: the New Zealand landscape has “the charm of Italy”; the pasture is suggestive of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and the birdsong reminiscent of Shelley's skylark. Yet despite the insistence on familiarity, the story told is one of mal-adaption: Joel and Eva, from England, are unsuitable settlers and cannot take their place in this landscape. Joel drinks and Eva goes into a lonely decline when their daughter dies in an accident. To write the landscape in terms of European high culture produces an edgy dissonance when colonial actors are placed within it. Although Baughan quotes the poetry of Jessie Mackay in her travel guide, The Finest Walk in the World,26 the means to local literary denotation is as yet uncertain, and insufficiently authoritative.
Ruskin's European landscapes are, of course, populated: “the deep colours of human endurance, valour and virtue” are part of their appearance.27 For the Maoriland writers, as Joel and Eva suggest, mountain scenery is most satisfactory when empty. Its transcendent beauty nullifies the problem of Ruskin's “blankness and chill”. But sometimes—and Maoriland writing is characteristically contradictory in this, as in many respects—the mountains are underwritten with an awareness of the indigenous inhabitants, generally, in keeping with the heightened tone of the language, represented as ghost-like, inhabiting archaic space. Jessie Mackay writes:
… a dark gladness that is sweetly all but one with pain rises in the Northern heart when the mist wraps Ti-Marua suddenly by dawn or by day's decline. For the mist loves Ti-Marua and swoops upon it eagle like many and many a time. Then the steep sides of it take another aspect; the great water scarred slopes are like the face of a giant old Maori warrior, seamed with the sacred moko and gashed in many a long-past fight. A passion of Ossianic melancholy glorifies the Northern soul with a nameless romance. Ti-Marua broods over the past; the river sings loud of ancient things. What a foolish conceited fancy it is to disdain the virgin hills of New Zealand because, forsooth! they have no history—because no bard has woven them into undying song! We atoms of a day, do we think these great Presences loom between heaven and earth to honour our petty wars, our ever repeating Empire games of check and counter check? Ti-Marua knows better, smiling darkly through the mist; Ti-Marua is as deep as the counsels of creation, as full of the primeval romance of earth and sun, cloud and rain, as Alp or Appenine. Ti-Marua has been loved of the storm wind, robed with the snow, crowned with the rainbow; can Ghaut or Grampian claim more?28
In Maoriland, the landscape is both peopled by the ghosts of Maori and emptied of their actual presence as they are figured in terms of the “dying race” topos. “There isn't a Maori left in the Bay now, as you know”, says the old woman in Baughan's short story, “Grandmother Speaks”, “—not a full blooded one. Some they went to the North Island; most is dead … well, well … !”29 Two different landscapes—present and past, settler and Maori, historical and archaic—sit side by side. The land is thus simultaneously mythicized, and made available for settlement and colonization. Only as a comical trickster figure can the rascally old woman in Baughan's “Pipi on the Prowl” (1912) negotiate the distance between the two.
When Baughan, having previously visited, finally emigrated to New Zealand in 1903 she brought with her the literary language of sublimity, which was no longer entirely adequate to her objective surroundings. The colonial world was a little more obtrusively real than the aestheticized landscape of the European model, a little less fixed and iconographic. The landscape with which she was now constrained to work was not just disconcertingly strange, but was in the process of being re-formed as the settlers burnt the Bush (with matches and axes imported by Bannantyne's (the importing firm of Katherine Mansfield's father, Sir Harold Beauchamp) and sowed pasture. In her short story, “An Early Morning Walk” (1912), Baughan describes the clearance and re-figuring of the physical that the modern colonial project entails:
The great half-burnt skeletons of the forest, grey and black and bleached and piebald, stood gauntly up, as though in mute protest from tawny hillside and green flat. They were splintered and shattered; at their feet lay multitudes of their brethren—enormous rotting logs, and their mouldering black stumps, from which they had been severed; and it was only a question of time before they too would rest their ruins on the ground.30
The effort to record this process as prose becomes awkwardly self-conscious when poeticized. Poetic language tends to be conservative, and slips easily into what it knows and is comfortable. To describe the transition of the landscape—from exotic forest to productive pasture—the colonial poet has to restructure familiar language. Few choose to write about this moment of re-making. Most are happier with either native forest, nostalgically configured in terms of a past which is lost, or with Arcadian pastoral of a distinctly European flavour. Baughan's 1908 poem, “A Bush Section”, is set at the exact point where the old has been obliterated and the new not yet risen. The fragmentation of the landscape is evoked by the disintegration of poetic diction:
Logs, at the door, by the fence; logs, broadcast over the paddock; Sprawling in motionless thousands away down the green of the gully, Logs, grey and black. And the opposite rampart of ridges Bristles against the sky, all the tawny, tumultuous landscape Is stuck, and prickled, and spiked with the standing black and grey splinters, Strewn over its hollows and hills, with the long, prone, grey-black logs.
In this limbo is “a raw little farm on the edge of the desolate hillside”, the home of “Little Thor Rayden, the twice-orphaned son of a drunkard”, a child who is only able to see his surroundings in terms of a limited and impoverished range of figurative language:
The sky is a wide black paddock, without any fences, The stars are its shining logs; Here sparse and single, but yonder, as logg'd up for burning Close in a cluster of light.
The strangeness of this image reflects the paucity of the expression available to the child—and to the colonial poet. Baughan even at this early stage is conscious of the need for a national literary discourse with a range of imagery of its own. The clumsiness and inappropriateness of the image of stars as logs in a burnt-out paddock is overt and challenging. To describe a new land is difficult, unless you simply replant the literary discourse of the old. Baughan realizing the danger, settles for empty waste. Her world is largely silent, stuck between acculturation and language. The only direct speech in her poem is that of the morepork, the native owl, which calls to the child in, significantly, the Maori language: “Kia toa!” (Be Brave!)31
Baughan's poem is thus complex, grimly realistic about the landscape and its changes, and seemingly less than optimistic about the future. But “A Bush Section” does end in a conservative and conventional position—with a denial of the land's past and an acknowledgement of the colonizing project, however despoiling: “Green bush to the Moa, Burnt Bush to the resolute Settler!” The primeval landscape belongs to the extinct past. The landscape will be remade in the future by the will of the pioneers: and this future means the artificial creation of a European landscape, and the creation of a European culture. The form of Baughan's poem is thus at odds with its message: the sprawl, energy and freedom of the verse both energize and undermine its concluding predictions. Gone is the formal regularity of verse and metre of her early works, the conventional markers of textualized landscape, the confident resolution. What John and Jean Comaroff call colonialism's “moments of incoherence and inchoateness, its internal contortions and complexities” are being registered.32
What was Mansfield's place in this “provincial, imitative and undistinguished” culture? For all her loneliness (or loftiness), she did spring from the same world Mackay and Baughan inhabited. The landscape she describes on the trip from Wellington to Napier by train in 1907 is marked by the ghosts of primeval forests in language very similar to that of Baughan: “Everywhere on the hills—great masses of charred logs—looking for all the world like strange fantastic beasts … And now again the silver tree trunks, like a skeleton army, invade the hills”.33 She published early work in New Zealand and Australian magazines. She had assimilated the Maori myths and legends sufficiently to write stories in which familiar figures appear.34 She visited the scenery, considered the limitations and possibilities of the place, reflected on the possibility of a New Zealand literary nationalism, and dismissed the view that it should derive from landscape.35
What divides Mansfield from them is in part her privileged rejection of the optimistic expansiveness of colonial society. Mackay saw the enterprise and burgeoning prosperity of the new colony as a necessary condition for its writers.36 Mansfield's distaste for colonial increase is signified by the contrast in “Prelude” between Stanley Burnell, who echoes her father's obsession with growth—Sir Harold even recorded the increasing tonnages of the ships in which the family sailed to Britain37—and Linda, his wife, who is deeply anxious about things that expand. But there was a more fundamental difference: Mansfield, for all her dandyish preference for the artificial over the natural found a way of responding in her youthful prose experiments to the unfamiliarity of the bush by converting it into symbolism and introjecting it into the consciousness of her autobiographical protagonists.
The idea that the land contains a mystery, that it refuses to be read, and that the Maori past holds one of the keys by which it might be read—“Read me the Rune”, asks Jessie Mackay, “for I faint in the mystery”38—is at the heart of Maoriland writing. Mansfield does not set about devising by way of compensation for this lack an elaborate interpretive key to the mystery derived from Maori myth; she acknowledges it as a fact in a passage in her notebook which looks forward to the opening sequence of “At the Bay”:
Mist over the distant hills, the fascinating valleys of toitoi swayed by the wind. Silence again, and a world full of the loneliness and the sweetness of the wild places. Kathie in the morning in the manuka paddock saw the dew hanging from the blossoms & leaves, put it to her lips & it seemed to poison her with the longing for the sweet wildness of the plains, for the silent speech of the Silent Places, the golden rain of blossom.39
What is signalled in the notebook is not the retrospective glamour which surrounds New Zealand nature in “At the Bay” but a sense of immediate estrangement in its presence. She recognizes the beauty of the “wild places”, but fears its poison. She is drawn to the unfamiliar land, but it resists her approach. She touches it, but it recoils from her. She puts it into words, but it remains silent.40
Mansfield's response is significantly different from Mackay's: both use the idea of the sublime, but Mansfield internalizes it so that it lies within the ironically observed mind of the protagonist (in this case, that of the authorial self recording her experiences in her diary). Thus she employs the symbolist techniques she had learned from Wilde and the Decadents while at school in London; however, she uses the symbolism not only to represent the dissatisfied consciousnesses of young female protagonists but also to add complexity to writing about a colonial landscape:
… right before them the lonely mountains outlined before a vivid orange sky. The colour is so intense that it is reflected in their faces, in their hair. The very rock on which they climb is hot with the colour. They climb higher, the sunset changes, becomes mauve, & in the waning light all the stretch of burnt manuka is like a thin mauve mist around them. A bird, large and widely[?] silent, flies from the river right into the flowering sky. There is no other sound except the voice of the passionate river. They climb onto a great black rock & sit huddled up there alone—fiercely almost brutally thinking—like Wagner. Behind them the sky was faintly heliotrope, & then suddenly from behind a cloud a little silver moon shone through.41
At one level factual narrative describing the movements of the tourist party, this is also mood painting, using colours and effects of landscape and sky to convey the tumultuous emotions of the writer who sees herself and her party as possessed by Wagnerian passion and aloofness. Yet the consciousness that is evoked in the diaries and the early stories—at different times uncertain, curious, exhilarated—is continually modified by differently shaded relationships with the world through which it moves. By concentrating on the registration of the landscape by the moving consciousness of a protagonist at once engaged and dissatisfied, Mansfield has gone further than the others in modernizing Maoriland. The landscape descriptions in the Urewera notebook or early vignettes are not merely juvenile exercises in symbolist writing, but experiments in how to convey a consciousness responding to an externality that is both invented and real, romanticized and ironized, pitched between the archaic and the modern.
Mansfield's voice in the diaries, vignettes and stories is already “modernist” because it so continuously inflected by the author's uncertainties, indecisions and evasions about subjectivity,42 and because she presents her privacy, in all its complexity, so relentlessly. In contrast, Mackay, a more truly Victorian and public writer, positions the voice in her writing without Mansfield's solipsistic edge and self-regard. Mackay writes from within a sense of community to which Mansfield is impervious. But this protomodernism cannot be disentangled from Mansfield's responsiveness to place and to colonial being. In Mansfield's Maoriland writing, the natural has been made compatible with the discordant consciousness of the heroine, which David Spurr sees as a sign of the “intersection of colonial discourse and literary modernism” that occurs where the “movement into exotic geographical space is understood as an inner exploration of the boundaries of consciousness”.43
In the Ureweras Mansfield encountered not two wholly opposed worlds, modernity and archaism, but two partial and transitional worlds, the dominant one determinedly constructing the other as a curious relic and sign of its own success. If Mansfield, however uncomfortably, found herself a tourist in “darkest Maoriland”,44 the Maori prophet, Rua Kenana, a few miles from where she stopped at Te Whaiti building his community at Maungapohatu was struggling against the net cast over Maori options and aspirations by that patronizing term.45 Rua was engaged in negotiating the terms tradition and modernity without privileging either. Like Te Whiti at Parihaka a few years earlier, Rua was asserting Maori sovereignty not by retreating into a version of the past but by assimilating and adapting modern knowledge to Maori needs.46
But modernity requires its opposite: to establish and define itself it must advertise its difference from the pre-modern, the world before anxiety, time, atomization. Ancient traditions and ways of life, repugnant when accompanied by military capacity, as in the wars of the 1860s, become most poignant at the point where their disappearance is demanded. Hence societies constructing themselves as modern and prosperous require the adjunct of a traditional past. This process is not, of course, peculiar to Maoriland. In the late nineteenth century, at a time when Indians all over the American West were being forced by the military to abandon their lifeways and cultural traditions, the American public was demanding traditional Indian craft objects, which had become commodities isolated from their cultural context. In the 1870s, Caroline Frey Winne can collect Indian “fancy work”, read “a very interesting book [Edward Tylor's] ‘Primitive Cultures’”, and describe the local Indians as “a very uninteresting race and a great nuisance hanging around the post. They are dreadfully dirty”—all without any apparent sense of contradiction.47 In the same way, Maoriland fastens on the decorative and collectable aspects of Maori culture, and incorporates it into the standard contemporary works of ethnology, just when the people it signifies seem, conveniently, on the point of departure.
Joyce fled a nationalism with which he felt sympathy but whose claims on his loyalties he felt would compromise his sacerdotal conception of art. He also fled the overwhelming presence in his Ireland of a mythical past. Mansfield fled a “little land with no history”,48 a country too much in the present. But its past, both real and imagined, had insinuated itself into her consciousness, and into her juvenile writing. For both, modernism lay elsewhere, but the modern was also a part of the world they left behind. The past in Irish nationalism served the purposes of creating a modern state, a nation freed of England. In New Zealand modernity was triumphant in obvious ways, yet it was coupled with a lack of desire for independence. Joyce's Ireland, not a colony, was nevertheless colonized; Mansfield's New Zealand, until 1907 a colony, was perturbed by no strong will towards independence.49
Inescapably a part of her father's privileged colonial world, Mansfield felt an exaggerated need to establish her distance from her family and from the colonial society of her childhood. Where Maoriland writers tended to mediate the history of settlement by way of myth as a means of controlling its squalors, displacements and violences, Mansfield constructed an extravagant aestheticism by way of compensation for the frustrations and indignities of colonial life. Like that of another young aesthete, Stephen Dedalus, also seeking escape from the nightmares of history into the static realm of art, Mansfield's aestheticism is always one of self-conscious gesture.50 Both forms of escape indicate how closely imbricated are their subjects in the worlds they seek to transcend. Mansfield carried hers with her into exile, fashioning from the stratagems she devised there to control her contradictory impulses her particular species of modernism.
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965, pp. 182-3.
Joyce, Portrait, p. 252. For a related discussion of Irish and New Zealand literature, see Mark Williams, “The Discriminations of Postcoloniality in Ireland and New Zealand”, in “Postcolonialism: Literature and Theory”, special issue of The Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, 21, 1-2 (1998), 83-104.
The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks, vol. 1, ed. Margaret Scott, Wellington: Lincoln UP/Daphne Brassell, 1997, p. 138.
Antony Alpers has to point out that the kidnappers are not Maori; this would not have been obvious to English readers of the story, The Stories of Katherine Mansfield, ed. Antony Alpers, Auckland: OUP, 1988, p. 552.
In one experiment of early 1908 there are three descriptions of the same scene, in which some fishermen, initially Italian, become Maori, then Italians again. Here are the two latter passages:
Across the blue sea a boat is floating with an orange sail. Now the Maori fishermen are sailing in, their white sail bellying in the wind. On the beach a group of them, with blue jerseys, thick trousers rolled to their knees. The sun shines on their thick, crisp hair, & shines on their faces, so that their skins are the colour of hot amber. It shines on their bare legs & firm brown arms. They are drawing in a little boat called “Te Kooti”, the wet rope running through their fingers and falling in a mystic pattern on the foam blown sand.
And now the Italian fishermen are sailing in, their white sail bellying in the breeze—several come rowing in a little boat. They spring ashore. The sun shines on the crisp black hair. It shines on their faces, so that their skin is the colour of hot amber, on their bare legs and strong brown arms. They are dragging towards them the boat, the long black wet rope running through their fingers & falling in a mystic pattern on the foam blown sand.
Notebooks [The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks], ed. Scott, I, p. 157. The same passage appears, with Italian fishermen, worked into a vignette, “By the Sea”, Notebooks, ed. Scott, I, pp. 193-4.
“Maoriland” refers to the literature of incipient nationalism of late colonial New Zealand, roughly 1880-1915. The term originates in the Sydney Bulletin as a way of pointing to what distinguishes New Zealand from Australia: the Maori, who are figured as a “dying race” whose archaic and romantic past can thus be borrowed by Pakeha (European) writers to give their settler culture the authority of history.
The Reporter, the magazine of Wellington Girls' College in which Mansfield published a story in 1899, printed in the issue for the third term of 1908 extracts from the Lady Principal's report which cite Sir Arthur Rucker, Principal of London University: “I believe you have very advanced ideas about women in New Zealand”, p. 35. National Archives, Wellington, Wellington Girls Archive, AANB, Series 883, Item 4B. Jane Mander, arriving at Barnard College in New York City in 1912, found herself as a New Zealander “an object of inspiration”: “We were then leaders in social legislation … We were utopia materialised!”, quoted in Rae McGregor, The Story of a New Zealand Writer: Jane Mander, Dunedin: Otago UP, 1998, p. 44.
Notebooks, ed. Scott, I, p. 86.
E. H. McCormick, New Zealand Literature: A Survey, London: OUP, 1959; J. O. C. Phillips, “Musings in Maoriland—or Was There a Bulletin School in New Zealand?”, Historical Studies, 81 (1983), 520.
J. C. Reid, Creative Writing in New Zealand: A Brief Critical History, Auckland: The Author with Whitcombe and Tombs, 1946, p. 19.
Keith Sinclair, A Destiny Apart: New Zealand's Search for National Identity, Wellington: Allen and Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, 1986, p. 54.
In the poem “House and Land” Curnow talks of the “great gloom” of “a land of settlers / With never a soul at home” (1941), in An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, eds. Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O'Brien and Mark Williams, Auckland: OUP, 1994, p. 399.
Allen Curnow, Introduction to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse in Look Back Harder: Critical Writings, 1935-1984, ed. Peter Simpson, Auckland: Auckland UP, 1987, p. 133.
Phillips, “Musings in Maoriland”, p. 534.
Suzanne Clark, Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991, p. 6.
Alan Mulgan, Obituary in The Evening Post, Wellington, 3 September 1938, p. 26. See also the discussion of Mackay in his Literature and Authorship in New Zealand, Wellington: P.E.N. Books 1943, pp. 18-21.
Patrick Evans, The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature, Auckland: Penguin, 1990, pp. 33, 46, 48.
Stephen Turner, “Settlement as Forgetting”, Quicksands: Foundational Histories in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, eds. Klaus Neumann, Nicholas Thomas and Hilary Ericksen, Sydney: UNSW Press, 1999, p. 21.
Jessie Mackay, “The Burial of Sir John McKenzie”, in From the Maori Sea, Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1904, p. 23.
Jessie Mackay, Otago Witness Christmas Annual, December 1907; quoted in Jessie Mackay: A Woman Before Her Time, eds. Margaret Chapman et al., P.C.C.L. Services/Kakahu Women's Division of Federated Farmers, Geraldine, N.Z., n.d., n.p.
Mackay, Preface to The Spirit of the Rangatira and other Ballads, Melbourne: George Robertson, 1889, n.p.
Forest and Ice, Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1913, p. 42.
The Seven Lamps of Architecture, London: George Allen, 1899, pp. 322-3. This passage is discussed by John Newton in “Colonialism above the Snowline: Baughan, Ruskin and the South Island Myth”, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 34, 2 (1999), 85-96.
Alexander Bathgate, “Faerie” (1890) in Harvey McQueen, The New Place: The Poetry of Settlement in New Zealand, 1852-1914,Wellington, Victoria UP, 1993, p. 69.
The Finest Walk in the World, Whitcombe and Tombs: Auckland, 1923, p. 45.
“Headed each by a snow-crowned cirque, and filled with the deep green forest, theirs is the further enchantment of a veil of soft blue atmosphere—that hovering haze, that bloom of grapes, that Rich gloom of the air, Of velvet and vair, (as Jessie Mackay puts it in her beautiful ‘Valley of Rona’) which clothes the far mountain bush …”, The Finest Walk, p. 27.
Seven Lamps of Architecture, p. 323.
Jessie Mackay, Otago Witness, 4 February 1903, p. 70.
“Grandmother Speaks”, Brown Bread from a Colonial Oven, London: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1912, p. 23.
“An Early Morning Walk” from Brown Bread, p. 119.
This poem was published in Baughan's 1908 collection Shingle-Short and Other Verses which was, unusually, published in New Zealand by Whitcombe and Tombs. The tone and orientation of the piece may be effected by an awareness of the local audience.
John and Jean Comaroff, Ethnography and the Historical Imagination: Studies in the Ethnographic Imagination, Boulder, Col.: Westview Press, 1992, p. 183.
Notebooks, ed. Scott, I, p. 136.
In an early story in the notebooks, Marina and Himemoa are the heroines of a cross-cultural love fantasy, not uncommon in Maoriland writing, here with homoerotic suggestions. In a story full of native markers—tui song, the scent of manuka—the girls repeat (albeit in reverse) Hinemoa's famous swim, conveyed in language redolent both of Maoriland and of Oscar Wilde:
They reached the island & lay on a long smooth ledge of brown rock & rested. Above them the fern trees rose, & among the fern trees a rata rose like a pillar of flame.
“See the hanging beautiful arms of the fern trees” laughed Hinemoa.
“Not arms, not arms. All the other trees have arms—saving the rata with his tongues of flame—but the fern trees have beautiful green hair. See Hinemoa, it is hair, & know you not, should a warrior venture through the bush in the night they seize him & wrap him round in their hair & in the morning he is dead. They are cruel even as I might wish to be to thee, little Hinemoa.”
She looked at Hinemoa with half shut eyes, her upper lip drawn back showing her teeth, but Hinemoa caught her hand …
Notebooks, ed. Scott, I, p. 75.
Mansfield wrote in her notebook in 1906, “when N[ew] Z[ealand] is more artificial she will give birth to an artist who can treat her natural beauties adequately”, Notebooks, ed. Scott, I, 81.
“I am convinced that the heart of young New Zealand, in these days, beats with a free untrammeled pulsation of enterprise—beats hopefully to the march of progress and intellect; side by side with the aspiration for culture goes the dawning of a national spirit that will we trust brighten into a noonday of national prosperity”, Mackay, Preface to The Spirit of the Rangatira, n. p.
Sir Harold Beauchamp, Reminiscences and Recollections, New Plymouth: Thomas Avery, 1937, p. 99. Sir Harold provides a table of the growth in volume of shipping from the time he joined the Wellington Harbour Board in 1895 until 1936, ibid., p. 121.
Jessie Mackay, “Phantom Ford”, in From the Maori Sea, p. 26.
Notebooks, ed. Scott, I, p. 144.
For a related discussion of the Urewera Notebook, see Mark Williams, “‘The Artificial and the Natural’: The Development of Katherine Mansfield's Prose Style”, in Telling Stories: Postcolonial Short Fiction in English, Cross/Cultures, 47, ed. Jacqueline Bardolph, Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 2001, pp. 357-78.
ibid., I, p. 145.
Sydney Janet Kaplan, who argues cogently that Mansfield belongs among the major figures of English literary modernism, sees her as having worked out the constituent methods of a modernist practice before 1908. She cites the sketch, “Summer Idylle. 1906”, as evidence of Mansfield's early breakthrough into a modernist method. Mansfield by this time, she claims, had already reworked '90s artificialities of style into an early modernist piece full of elusiveness, indirection, and sexual innuendo. Many of the features of her later style are already in embryo, demonstrating that her emergence into “modernism” was not derivative of other twentieth-century writers, but a function of her own synthesis and imaginative reworking of late nineteenth-century techniques and themes.
Sydney Janet Kaplan, Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991, p. 47.
David Spurr, The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing and Imperial Administration, Durham and London: Duke UP, 1993, p. 146.
The phrase occurs in a newspaper cartoon recording the visit, four years earlier, of the Governor, Lord Ranfurly, to the Ureweras, collected in a scrapbook kept by Major Dudley Alexander, “The New Zealand Journals”, 1900-1904, Alexander Turnbull Library, Ranfurly Papers, MS-Group 0756.
In Alexander's scrapbook, a cartoon of the expedition is entitled “DARKEST MAORILAND”, Alexander, “The New Zealand Journals”, [p. 124].
Rua perhaps illustrates Martin Blythe's observation that Maoriland can refer to not only the sentimental racism of settler culture but also “to those many Maori attempts at reaching a conciliation with the expanding British-Pakeha nation”, Naming the Other: Images of the Maori in New Zealand Film and Television, Metuchen, N.J. and London: Scarecrow Press, 1994, p. 17.
Brigitte Georgi-Findlay, The Frontiers of Women's Writing: Women's Narratives and the Frontiers of Westward Expansion, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996, p. 139.
Katherine Mansfield, “To Stanislaw Wyspianski”, in An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, p. 474.
For discussion of this, see Mark Williams, “Mansfield in Maoriland: Biculturalism, Agency and Misreading”, in Modernism and Empire, eds. Howard J. Booth and Nigel Rigby, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000, pp. 249-74.
Alpers notes Mansfield's turning against self-conscious or “made up” writing towards the end of her life, The Life of Katherine Mansfield, New York: Viking, 1980, p. 336.