Katherine Mansfield

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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, focusing on method of composition and typical themes.

Darrohn, Christine. “‘Blown to Bits’:...

(The entire section is 1,166 words.)