Katherine Mansfield

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Although Katherine Mansfield is best known as a writer of short stories, she also wrote poems and book reviews, which were collected and edited posthumously by her second husband, John Middleton Murry. She once began a novel, and several fragments of plays have survived. She left a considerable amount of personal documents; their bulk greatly exceeds that of her published work. Murry edited the Journal of Katherine Mansfield (1927; “Definitive Edition,” 1954), The Letters of Katherine Mansfield (1928), The Scrapbook of Katherine Mansfield (1939), and Katherine Mansfield’s Letters to John Middleton Murry, 1913-1922 (1951).


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Although extravagant claims have been made for her, many critics insist that Mansfield’s achievements were modest. She completed no novel, and, although she wrote about a hundred stories, her fame rests on no more than a dozen. Yet, in any age, her stories would be remarkable for their precise and evocative descriptions, their convincing dialogue, their economy and wit, and their dazzling insights into the shifting emotions of their characters.

In her own age, she was a pioneer. She and James Joyce are often credited with creating the modern short story. Though this claim may be an exaggeration, her stories did without the old-fashioned overbearing author-narrators, the elaborate settings of scenes, and the obvious explanations of motives and themes of earlier fiction. Instead, she provided images and metaphors, dialogues and monologues with little in between. Like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), her stories seem to have had their nonpoetic dross deleted.

Her stories have influenced such writers as Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Anne Porter, and Christopher Isherwood; the standard “New Yorker story” owes much to her. Most important, many decades after her death, her stories are read with pleasure.

Discussion Topics

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Exemplify Katherine Mansfield’s use of objective correlative.

Contrast the use of epiphanies by Mansfield and James Joyce.

Why does Bertha in “Bliss” suddenly desire her husband?

What principle or principles govern the structure of Mansfield’s episodes in “At the Bay”?

What does Laura come to understand in “The Garden Party”: the lower class, death, her own values, other matters, a combination of things?

To what extent do the concerns of Mansfield’s young women characters resemble those of Virginia Woolf?


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Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. Rev. ed. New York: Viking Press, 1980. This volume is the standard biography, sensible, balanced, and detailed. Alpers draws on years of research and includes interviews with people who knew Mansfield, such as Murry and Ida Baker, and their comments on his earlier book, Katherine Mansfield: A Biography (1953). He offers some analyses, including passages on “At the Bay,” “Prelude,” and “Je Ne Parle Pas Français.” Includes notes, illustrations, index, a detailed chronology, and a full bibliography.

Bateson, F. W. “The Fly.” Essays in Criticism 12 (1962): 39-53. In these pages, two critics interpret “The Fly,” giving it the kind of close reading usually reserved for lyric poetry. Other correspondents support and contest the original reading. Although they discuss the functions of characters and many details, they focus on the mind of the boss and a reader’s reaction to him.

Berkman, Sylvia. Katherine Mansfield: A Critical Study. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1951. This study has a chapter on how Mansfield used details of her family’s life to write “The Aloe” and then to revise it as “Prelude.” The final chapter compares Mansfield with Anton Chekhov and James Joyce.

Daly, Saralyn R. Katherine Mansfield . Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1994. A revision of Daly’s earlier Twayne study of Mansfield, based on the availability of Mansfield manuscripts and letters. Interweaves biographical information with discussions of individual stories,...

(This entire section contains 803 words.)

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focusing on method of composition and typical themes.

Darrohn, Christine. “‘Blown to Bits’: Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden-Party’ and the Great War.” Modern Fiction Studies 44 (Fall, 1998): 514-539. Argues that in the story Mansfield tries to imagine a moment when class and gender do not matter; claims the story explores 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.

Fulbrook, Kate. Katherine Mansfield. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. The chapters on the stories focus on Mansfield’s continual attention to the distortions in social relations created by gender. Argues that Mansfield’s stories are overtly feminist and demand to be read as critical accounts of social injustice grounded in the pretense of a natural psychological or biological order.

Hankin, C. A. Katherine Mansfield and Her Confessional Stories. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983. Hankin’s thesis is that Mansfield’s stories are confessional, with the result that this book connects each story as precisely as possible to its sources in Mansfield’s life. The detailed analyses of each of the major stories are more valuable than the thesis suggests. Hankin’s readings are subtle and detailed, especially when they discuss the complexities of characters and symbols.

Mansfield, Katherine. The Complete Stories of Katherine Mansfield, edited by Antony Alpers. Auckland: Golden Press/Whitcombe and Tombs, 1974. Not the complete short stories but a full and comprehensive collection of almost all of them, scrupulously edited and arranged chronologically in natural and instructive groups. Alpers’s notes provide basic facts about each story and much essential information about many of them. The notes also list all the stories not included in this collection, thus forming a complete catalog of Mansfield’s short fiction.

Nathan, Rhoda B, ed. Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993. Organizes previously published and new essays on Mansfield into three categories: “The New Zealand Experience,” “The Craft of the Story,” and “The Artist in Context.” Essays represent a variety of approaches: feminist, postcolonial, and historicist.

Nathan, Rhoda B. Katherine Mansfield. New York: Continuum, 1988. A detailed and useful chapter on the New Zealand stories considered as a group. Includes comments on the “painterly” qualities of “Je Ne Parle Pas Français.” The final two chapters discuss Mansfield’s achievement with regard to other writers.

New, W. H. “Mansfield in the Act of Writing.” Journal of Modern Literature 20 (Summer, 1996): 51-63. Argues that Mansfield’s notebooks are an active guide to the process of reading her stories; discusses three categories of manuscript commentary and revision: those that emphasize figure and performance, those that change lexicon and syntax, and those that deal with agency and other larger strategies of arrangement.

Robinson, Roger, ed. Katherine Mansfield: In from the Margin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994. Reprints papers from two Mansfield centenary conferences. Features essays on Mansfield’s feminine discourse, her interest in the cult of childhood, the narrative technique of her stories, and her position in the modernist tradition.

Tomalin, Claire. Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. A very readable biography, though without many critical comments, emphasizing the medical consequences of Mansfield’s sexual freedom and treating the question of her plagiarizing “The Child Who-Was-Tired.” An appendix gives The Times Literary Supplement correspondence on this topic.


Critical Essays