An aging, lonely woman living in Paris and maintaining herself by teaching English is the subject of this character portrait by Katherine Mansfield. Miss Brill’s life is one of shabby gentility and pretense; this impression commences in the opening paragraph as she lovingly takes an old-fashioned fox fur out of its box for her usual Sunday outing to the gardens. Looking forward to the new Season, she is, however, distracted by a peculiarly ominous feeling that seems to be in the air and for which she does not know how to account—“like the chill from a glass of iced water before you sip.” Maternally caressing the fur, she looks into its “dim little eyes,” hearing its fearful question: “What has been happening to me?” With this question, the narrator submerges the point of view into the psyche of Miss Brill, and the reader beholds her pathetic attempt to build a fantasy life to protect her from the harsh facts of her existence. Like the insidious illness that seems to be creeping to life inside her, Miss Brill is abruptly forced to confront the reality that her imagination seeks to escape: She is growing old and lonely in her exile, and the world is an unfriendly place for such people.
Occupying her “special seat,” Miss Brill gives only partial attention to the band music, for it is obvious that her main interest in coming to the park each week is to participate in the lives of people around her—in fact, she prides herself on her ability to eavesdrop on the conversations of those nearby without seeming to do so. This is her escape from a dreary existence—a dark little room “like a cupboard” in a rooming house from which she emerges four afternoons a week to read to an invalid and cadaverous old man until he falls asleep in his garden.
At first, an elderly couple share her seat but prove uninteresting. Miss Brill recalls last Sunday’s old Englishman and his complaining wife, whom Miss Brill had wanted “to shake”—presumably because the wife scorns the companionship Miss Brill lacks in her life. Soon, however, she turns her attention toward the crowd of passersby: raucous children, an old beggar who sells flowers from a tray, and laughing young girls in bright colors who pair off with soldiers. Hovering just beyond the threshold of a conscious reflection is the knowledge that all the people who meet in the Jardins Publique Sunday after Sunday, occupying the same benches and chairs, are nearly all old and look as though they, too, have just come from the same dingy little rooms.
As if the thought were too painful for close scrutiny, Miss Brill focuses on the crowd once again, and this time she notices a woman wearing a shabby ermine toque approach a dignified, elderly gentleman. Miss Brill’s sudden, intense identification with the woman blurs her literal point of view: “Now everything, her hair, her face, even her eyes, was the same color as the shabby ermine, and her hand, in its cleaned glove, lifted to dab her lips, was a tiny yellowish paw.” Immediately, Miss Brill projects a fantasy aura around the pair; next, however, she sees the man rebuff the woman, crudely blowing cigarette smoke in her face. The woman—whom Miss Brill has come to identify by her toque—covers her humiliation by smiling brightly and retreats out of Miss Brill’s sight. As usual, whenever a painful thought comes too close, Miss Brill turns her attention outward to the sights and sounds around her.
Now, however, a new perception has been awakened in her as a result of this slightly sordid encounter, and it fills Miss Brill with elation: “Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all!” She conceives of life as all theater and playacting, and she herself as a participant—one of life’s actresses, no longer a mere eavesdropper and spectator. The premonitions that tugged at her spirits at the beginning of the story are dispelled by this vision; she even imagines a future dialogue with the old man to whom she reads, in which she pronounces herself an actress.
Like the ominous leaf drifting from nowhere out of the sky, a warning chill fills her with sadness and presages the story’s denouement. A young, well-dressed couple appear nearby; inescapably, Miss Brill prepares to overhear, first having assigned them their romantic roles as hero and heroine fresh from his father’s yacht. Their dialogue overwhelms Miss Brill with its blatant cruelty:“No, not now,” said the girl. “Not here, I can’t.” “But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?” asked the boy. “Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?”
The youth continues to importune her, but the girl breaks off in a fit of giggling, derisive laughter—at Miss Brill’s fur, which to the girl looks like “a fried whiting.”
The narrator then summarizes Miss Brill’s return home, commenting only that she bypasses her usual stop at the baker’s for a slice of honeycake. Back in her room, mortified like the woman in the shabby toque, she hurriedly replaces her fur in its box without looking at it; as the full shock of her rejection strikes, the narrator concludes the story in a manner reminiscent of the opening: “But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.”
“Miss Brill” brings to life one of Mansfield’s many lonely women, and the reader lives through this story in the main character’s mind without the author’s making any obvious comment. As the story opens, it is a Sunday afternoon in the autumn; a chill is in the air. In her room, Miss Brill, a lonely English teacher, prepares to go as usual to the Public Gardens in what appears to be a French city. She happily unpacks the fur she will wear for the first time this season, a piece that includes the head of a small animal, perhaps a fox. Miss Brill strikes the reader as imaginative, for she pretends she hears what the dead animal is thinking after being in storage for many months. She then feels a tinge of sadness. In her introductory paragraph, Mansfield’s details evoke the fragility of Miss Brill’s happiness.
At the Gardens, Miss Brill listens to the band play and watches the people. It is her idea of bliss. Though she yearns to talk to them, she must be content to listen. An old couple disappoints her, for they are silent; last week she heard a memorable conversation about eyeglasses—memorable to her, but trivial to the reader. Then Miss Brill takes her first step away from the superficiality of the afternoon. She reflects that most of the people she sees at the Gardens are old and strange. She hopes for their happiness.
In a surprise ending typical of the author, Mansfield then includes two very short paragraphs. The first points beyond the gardens to the sky and sea, as if to suggest that there is a wider world than what the reader has experienced so far. The second brings the reader back to the banality of the park, as it reproduces the sound of the band.
Miss Brill’s experience deepens. She does not simply listen; she imagines what the people she sees are saying. Mansfield employs dramatic irony when she hints that the woman who Miss Brill thinks is innocently chatting is actually a prostitute. Then Miss Brill stumbles on a kind of truth: They are all acting in a play. She (Miss Brill) is in the play too, with a role that she plays every week. Miss Brill has turned her understanding of how drama underlies public events into a consolation for her state. Even so, she knows all people are not happy. She has a vision of them all singing together.
Mansfield has artfully brought the reader to sympathize with Miss Brill as her love flows out to all she sees. Then comes a shock. A young couple, rich and in love, sit down on the end of her bench. They wonder aloud why she is sitting there, wonder who would possibly want her company, and compare her prized fur to a fried fish.
The reader has lived through the story within Miss Brill’s mind. Now Mansfield backs away and asks the reader to imagine what this shock is like. Miss Brill silently goes back to her lonely room. She says nothing. When she puts her prized fur piece away in its box, she imagines she hears a cry. Her imagination has projected her own sorrow. The dead, unfashionable fox has become a symbol to her of her own life, and a symbol to the reader as well.
“Miss Brill” is a typical Mansfield story in that it has little action. It dwells in the mind of a lonely person, as she deepens her understanding and receives a shock. The reader is drawn into sympathy with the brave, sad, central character.