Overview of Mansfield's "Miss Brill"

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Katherine Mansfield, born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, lived a short life, but she established a literary reputation at a young age. Her first published book, In a German Pension, was published in 1911, when she was only twenty-two years old. She became friends with some of the great literary figures of her day, including D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and married the writer and critic J. Middleton Murry.

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Her stories are full of detail and small, albeit significant, incidents in her characters' lives. In an often-quoted letter published in The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, she says of "Miss Brill": "I chose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her, and to fit her on that day at that moment.'' Katherine Fullbrook notes in her biography titled simply Katherine Mansfield that "while the surface of her stories often flash with sparkling detail, the underlying tones are sombre, threatening, and register the danger in the most innocent seeming aspects of life."

"Miss Brill" is one of her finest stories, capturing in a moment an event that will forever change the life of the title character. Miss Brill is an older woman of indeterminate age who makes a meager living teaching English to school children and reading newspapers to an "old invalid gentleman." Her joy in life is her visit to the park on Sunday, where she observes all that goes on around her and listens to the conversations of people nearby, as she sits "in on other people's lives." It is when she tries to leave her role as spectator and join the "players" in her little world that she is rebuffed by that world and her fantasy falls apart.

On this particular Sunday, she has taken her fur necklet out of its box, brushed it, cleared its eyes, and put it on. She is glad that she wore it, because the air contains a "faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip." It is a beautiful day, the first Sunday of the Season, so everything seems nicer than usual. Even the band seems to play "louder and gayer."

Miss Brill is somewhat disappointed that there are only two older people near where she is seated. They do not speak, and her observations of the life around her begin in silence. It is clear at this point in the story that she considers herself a spectator, detached from the activities around her. She expects entertainment from the strollers and sitters, but she has been disappointed more than once. Last week, we learn, an Englishman and his wife held a boring conversation which drove Miss Brill to the point of wanting to shake the woman. But she didn't shake her, because that would have meant involving herself in the actions she so quietly observed.

Mansfield's eye for detail and the telling moment exhibits itself here as we, along with Miss Brill, watch the activities in the park: "… couples and groups [parade], [stop] to talk, to greet … children [run] among them, swooping and laughing." A "high stepping mother" picks up her child who has "suddenly sat down 'flop.'" It is a scene made up of details that we have all, at one time or another, witnessed ourselves. And that is all that Miss Brill does right now: witness the world parading past her.

But then she takes note of the people on the benches. She sees "something funny about nearly all of them." And as she looks at these "odd, silent, nearly all old" people who look as if they have "just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!" she does not see that she is one of them. Mansfield's prose gives us an objective look at the people and events around Miss Brill while at the same time allowing us to see the subjective interpretation Miss Brill makes of that world. We don't know what she thinks of herself, or even if she thinks of herself at all. But if she does, she must not see herself very clearly. She must not believe that she is old or odd or funny.

Now the band strikes up, and the procession continues with young girls and soldiers and peasant women leading donkeys and a nun and a beautiful woman who drops her flowers and, when a little boy picks them up for her, throws them away "as if they'd been poisoned." Miss Brill doesn't know "whether to admire that or not!"

Then an older woman wearing an ermine toque (a hat made of white fur) meets a man. The ermine is "shabby" and bought when "her hair was yellow." Now her hair, as well as her face and "even her eyes," are as white as the fur. She makes superficial, yet somehow strained and desperate conversation but the man walks away after lighting his cigarette and blowing smoke in her face. The band plays more softly as the woman stands there, exposed and alone, but it picks up the tempo and plays even more loudly than before after the woman has pretended to see someone and walks away.

The fur connects them—her toque and Miss Brill's necklet—and we see, as the woman is snubbed by the man, a foreshadowing of what is to happen to Miss Brill later in the story. The woman tried to engage the man in conversation, and Miss Brill will later try to engage with the world.

The pageant resumes with an "old man with long whiskers" nearly being knocked over by "four girls walking abreast." Miss Brill is lost in her fantasy world now, thinking how wonderful it all is. She decides, suddenly, that it is "exactly like a play." The scenery is perfect enough to be a painted backdrop. When a little dog trots on-stage, then off again, she realizes that not only is she—and everyone else—the audience, but they are also the actors. She has her part to play; that is why she comes at the same time each week: so that she will be on time for her performance! This wonderfully romantic idea captures her imagination. It is, she thinks, the reason that she "had quite a queer, shy feeling at telling her English pupils how she spent her Sunday afternoons." (In those days, the theater was not considered a proper or legitimate career and also had dark, often sexual connotations). She imagines telling the old man whom she reads to that, yes, she is an actress, that she "has been an actress for a long time."

She has entered fully now into the world she has previously only observed. She is a part of the play, someone in the cast who would be missed if she were not to come on Sunday afternoons. She delights in this newfound role as the band begins to play again. The music is "warm and sunny," yet there is a "faint chill" to it, echoing the beginning of the story. It makes her want to sing and, as the music gets brighter, she believes that the whole company of actors in her little theater in the park will start singing together at any moment, "and then she, too, and the others on the benches." Having entered the world, she is on the verge of becoming active in it. She feels at one with all the other actors. Her eyes fill with tears and she knows that they understand, although what they understand she is not quite sure.

It is at this moment of epiphany, when she feels a connection to the world, that a young couple arrives and sits on the bench. Miss Brill casts them immediately as the hero and heroine of her drama. She imagines them as just having arrived from his father's yacht, and "with that trembling smile," she listens to their dialogue. But the dialogue is not heroic, but vulgar and common. The boy is trying to seduce the girl, and she is playfully, half-heartedly resisting his advances.

In the next few sentences, Miss Brill's illusions are shattered, and she is forced to confront her life as it is. Brutal and direct, the boy asks: "Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home." And the girl answers: "It's her fu-fur which is so funny.… It's exactly like a fried whiting," comparing the woman's stole to dead fish. Miss Brill has discovered her part in her play, and now she finds that it is a tragedy, not a romance.

She leaves the park and goes home. She does not even stop at the bakery for her Sunday treat. Instead, she goes straight to her "little darkroom—her room like a cupboard," which again connects her to the old, odd, silent people on the park benches whom she has imagined as having come from just such rooms. She sits on the bed and puts her fur away in its box, but as she does, she hears something crying. She has now withdrawn so far from the world that has hurt her, that she does not realize that it is she who is crying.

Source: Robert Peltier, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Peltier is an English instructor at Trinity College and has published works of both fiction and nonfiction.

The South of France 1918-20

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… 'Miss Brill', written soon after Katherine Mansfield arrived in Menton in November 1920, is structurally related to 'Bliss' as a story in which a shift of feeling in one character is conveyed in a single scene. With unity of action, time and place these shorter stories tend to seem more 'realistic' than episodic pieces like Prelude or 'Je ne parle pas français'. However, this smooth narrative texture is in a sense appearance only. As much as in Prelude the stories are structured according to the demands of symbolist patterning and almost every detail has a symbolic as well as narrative context. There are also narrative suppressions and ellipses in stories like 'Miss Brill', though they are less obvious than in the longer stories as they are not signalled by formal divisions in the text.

'Miss Brill' has often been regarded as a moral, even as a sentimental story. It drew letters of thanks from solitary readers, and the author herself seems to have rather basked in such attention, writing to Murry after she had received these letters:

One writes (one reason why is) because one does care so passionately that one must show it—one must declare one's love.

But in writing the story she adhered to Symbolist principles. Rather than 'declaring her love' she kept her own, or rather the narrator's point of view rigorously out of the story. The events and images function dramatically, the narrator providing only 'objective' description. This is true even of the famous last lines of the story:

The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.

The narrator provides objective information, then the rapid rhythms of 'quickly; quickly, without looking' shade into the representation of Miss Brill's agitated state. The closing perception of the story is Miss Brill's and not the narrator's and is entirely in accord with her neurotic, fantastic imagination. And it is entirely unsentimental, suggesting very firmly the fear and horror which attend the suppression of any human being.

In 'Miss Brill' all is conveyed obliquely, through concrete imagery and the dramatic device of Miss Brill's inner monologue. Not once is her inner state alluded to or described directly. The story is thus the perfect example of the technique Mansfield described to Murry—oblique, delicately suggestive:

I might write about a boy eating strawberries or a woman combing her hair on a windy morning and that is the only way I can ever mention [deserts of vast eternity].

The language of the story also reaches a high degree of perfection. She wrote in a well-known letter to Richard Murry that:

In Miss Brill I choose not only the length of every sentence, but even the sound of every sentence. I choose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her, and to fit her on that very day at that very moment. After I'd written it I read it aloud—numbers of times—just as one would play over a musical composition—trying to get it nearer and nearer the expression of Miss Brill—until it fitted her.

The author's own satisfaction with the style of 'Miss Brill' suggests her success in the story. A poetic intensity and concretion is sustained throughout, the sound of the words and the prose rhythms conveying and enriching meaning. The use of the musical analogy for 'Miss Brill' in the passage quoted above also has more direct relevance. The story is shaped, specifically, as a lament, and something of the quality of a sung lament is deliberately infused into it by the use of para-musical prose rhythms in some sections.

The story is constructed around a series of parallels and contrasts designed to expose with increasing clarity the inner state of the central character. The key themes are the opposition between age and youth, stasis and vitality, solitude and community, illusion and reality.

Miss Brill herself is old, as we realise immediately from the author's handling of her stylised inner monologue. Her speech patterns are those of a nervous, fussy, elderly person. She is associated in the first paragraph of the story with her fur, which acts as a mirror image of the woman herself. The fur, too, is old, with 'dim' eyes, and its nose is 'not at all firm'; 'Never mind—a little dab of black sealing wax when the time came—when it was absolutely necessary.…' The ellipsis signals Miss Brill's reluctance to recognise a time when 'it' will be absolutely necessary, her avoidance of the thought of decay or decomposition.

In the five and a half pages of the story Miss Brill's state is explored through a series of figures who act as parallels for her. At the Jardins Publiques she sits beside an old couple who are as 'still as statues', and she notices the other regular visitors to the park—'There was something funny about nearly all of them. They were odd, silent, nearly all old'—though Miss Brill does not, explicitly, include herself in this company. The most extended view which she has of any other visitor to the park is of a single woman in an ermine toque 'bought when her hair was yellow. Now everything, her hair, her face, even her eyes, was the same colour as the shabby ermine, and her hand, in its cleaned glove, lifted to dab her lips, was a tiny yellowish paw.' The woman in the toque parallels Miss Brill in the efforts which she has made to 'touch up' her shabby appearance before entering the park. The link between the furs—dead animals retaining the appearance of life—and the old people, is insisted on. Miss Brill is linked finally to another elderly man to whom she reads the newspaper:

She had got quite used to the frail head on the cotton pillow, the hollowed eyes, the open mouth and the high pinched nose. If he'd been dead she mightn't have noticed for weeks; she wouldn't have minded.

He too is a moribund figure, retaining little more than the appearance of life.

The pictures of the old are counterpointed by glimpses Miss Brill has of the younger people in the park, who all seem to be much further away. The old people are solitary and motionless. The younger ones are presented as energetic and vigorous—the conductor of the band flaps his arms, the bandsmen blow out their cheeks. Little children 'swoop' and 'laugh', young mothers 'rush', 'high stepping'. Their vitality distinguishes them, as does the fact that they are all in groups or, more relevantly, in pairs:

Two young girls in red came by and two young soldiers in blue met them, and they laughed and paired and went off arm in arm.

The theme of solitude against community has already been introduced in the second paragraph where Miss Brill ironically sees herself and the other regular visitors to the park as 'the family', as compared with the 'strangers', the seasonal visitors. (The reverse is of course the case: the regular visitors are all strangersr—all alone—whereas the visitors are in family groups.) The theme of false community appears again in the scene with the 'ermine toque'. This woman approaches a 'gentleman' and tries to engage him in conversation. As she chatters, he lights a cigarette and 'while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on'. The 'ermine toque's' pitifully inappropriate behaviour and her imaginary sense of relationship anticipate the central moment of the story. The theme of false community is an integral part of Miss Brill's epiphany, as is the theme of the discrepancy between appearance and reality which is also developed through the story.

From the beginning, the things which Miss Brill sees are described in 'stagey' terms. She herself touches up her fur, that is, her appearance, before she sets out for the park. She sees other elderly people as 'statues'; the running little girls are 'dolls'. Towards the end of the story, her vision flowers into explicit recognition. She realises that everything she sees is like a play:

How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play. Who could believe the sky at the back wasn't painted? But it wasn't until a little brown dog trotted on solemnly and then slowly trotted off, like a little 'theatre' dog, a little dog that had been drugged, that Miss Brill discovered what it was that made it so exciting. They were all on the stage. They weren't only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday.

When she realises this, Miss Brill looks again at the band, the play within the play. As the music flows out, she has her false epiphany. She feels at one with everyone else, everyone seems united, through the music and also because they are all part of a play and are in this sense a 'company':

… And Miss Brill's eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, she thought—though what they understood she didn't know.

The falsity of this sense of community is revealed almost immediately. A young couple replace the silent old couple on the seat beside Miss Brill. They are drawn immediately into her imaginary play—'The hero and heroine, of course, just arrived from his father's yacht'—only to destroy all its meaning as soon as they actually speak:

'…Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home?' 'It's her fu-fur which is so funny.… It's exactly like a fried whiting'.

Thus it is revealed to Miss Brill in the most painful possible way that her play is a play within her mind only. We are made to see the isolation of each individual within their own consciousness, and the all too common discrepancy between on the one hand the appearance which the mind creates through imagination and memory, and on the other hand reality, in the sense of what is generally agreed to be the truth. Miss Brill's most recent sustaining illusion has been that on her Sunday afternoon visits to the Jardins Publiques she has been part of a community of feeling and interest. She has felt that the part which she plays in the Sunday afternoon pageant has mattered to others as theirs had mattered to her. We know that Miss Brill's existence is barely tolerable, but we also know that she transforms her meagre situation, by the power of her imagination, which is creative. She idealises what she sees around her and idealises herself, revealing herself as an artist in this sense.

The young couple tear down the veil of illusion, leaving Miss Brill with nothing. She realises the cruelty of other human beings in the cruelty and indifference of the young couple—whom she has idealised. She has hoped that if she were to miss a Sunday afternoon (for reasons not admitted to consciousness) she would in her turn be missed. It is now apparent that this is doubtful, and that certainly no one would care. And Miss Brill realises finally that she does not appear to others as she does to herself (she does not see her face as a 'silly old mug').

Miss Brill's epiphany is too unbearable and her new knowledge cannot be admitted to consciousness at this moment. Hence the ellipsis which follows the speech of the young couple. Miss Brill does not think about what she has just realised, though it may make its way back into consciousness by degrees. But, we sense, she will then transform this knowledge too by the power of her imagination, the saving grace of her life. This is suggested through the coda of the story as she puts her fur away, thus showing her ability to adjust and construct new appearances.

Miss Brill's situation is extreme and her isolation is intensified because she is a spinster abroad in a foreign country. Yet in Mansfield's view we are all ultimately solitary, and human beings are fundamentally cruel and indifferent to one another except in the rare instances where they love. Without love, and without the comfort of illusions, the reality of life can be grim indeed. 'Miss Brill', for all its brevity, presents a genuinely tragic view of experience. The central character lacks love and has only her capacity of creative imagination between herself and the void. She will go on living and transforming her experience into tolerable forms, but the value and meaning of life on this level is questionable. Without love, what other 'real ideal' can enter Miss Brill's life? The brief descriptions of natural beauty—the sea, the golden leaves, the blue sky—suggest one possibility, but these are the perceptions of the narrator, and are introduced as thematic motifs, rather than being important to Miss Brill. Through a combination of character and circumstance, Miss Brill's life has been reduced to the barest minimum necessary to continued existence. The story is a radical questioning of the meaning of such existence, and of the purpose of the life-force which makes her carry on on these terms.…

Source: Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr, "The South of France 1918-20," in Katherine Mansfield, St. Martin's Press, 1981, pp 75-82.

Alienation in "Miss Brill"

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The principal theme of Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill" is estrangement. Miss Mansfield gives in this story a significant look, through the eyes of Miss Brill, a look short and startling and at once full of pity, at the world that the lonely woman inhabits. Indeed, Miss Brill's world is more than lonely; it is also an existential world in which she finds herself in complete solitude estranged from God, man, and, more importantly, from herself. Explicators of the story have wholly or partly ignored the theme of estrangement that I feel is the major theme.

Two passages from Miss Mansfield's letters to John Middleton Murry present evidence for her purpose in writing "Miss Brill." "One writes (one reason why is) because one does care so passionately that one must show it—one must declare one's love." In another letter she writes: "Last night I walked about and saw the new moon with the old moon in her arms and the lights in the water and the hollow pools full of stars—and lamented there was no God. But I came in and wrote 'Miss Brill' instead; which is my insect Magnificat now and always." The reason for writing and the mood reflected in these two passages point to a clearer definition of purpose in "Miss Brill" than anyone has shown. Lamenting an absence of God and striving to show that one must love, Miss Mansfield created Miss Brill, who strives to show love but is incapable of showing or receiving it. In her solitude she is certainly not protected by any godly benevolence. It is the estrangement from love that alienates Miss Brill.

Some obvious elements of alienation occur in Miss Brill's name and in her residence. Miss Brill's name in French (briller) means to shine. The irony is that she does not shine but is indeed a dull spinster without a shining personality or the warming glow of love. In a Swiftian sense, the name further suggests Miss Brill's estrangement from herself. All that she can see and know of herself is that "varnish and tinsel" of the surface. Her fur is the most obvious of the surface fixtures with which she identifies. Secondly, Miss Brill is an alien in France. This fact alone can account for some of her estrangement and inability to communicate freely. However, we can find the less obvious indications of alienation in the paradoxes and comparative events.

The story opens with a thematic paradox. From the description of the atmosphere—"the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques … the air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting—from nowhere, from the sky"—one immediately can feel the first throes of autumn, that "faint chill" anticipating the colder chill of winter. Yet paradoxically, Miss Brill finds in the chill the feeling of the vibrancy of spring. She takes out her fur piece, renews it for the season, questions its appearance, and then like an awakening ''she felt a tingling in her hands and arms, but that came from walking, she supposed. And when she breathed, something light and sad—no, not sad, exactly—something gentle seemed to move in her bosom." This passage certainly parallels the passage beginning what Miss Welty calls Miss Brill's "vision of love." "The Band had been having a rest. Now they started again. And what they played was warm, sunny, yet there was just a faint chill—a something, what was it?—not sadness—no, not sadness—a something that made you want to sing." The "chill" or the "something" points directly yet subtly to Miss Brill's alienation. For her, love—the love of her fur piece, which functions like an unsympathetic mirror into which she cannot see, and the "vision of love," in which she imagines all those gathered in the park singing and thus communicating with one another—is faintly chill because she has been somehow excommunicated from a real experience of love. Thus not knowing love's warmth or having any framework of reference for the experience of love, she can feel or imagine love only in the solitude devoid of warmth, estranged and left cold with absence.

A further suggestion of estrangement is in the meeting of the woman in the ermine toque and the man in the gray suit. The man rejects the woman, whom Miss Brill admires and with whom she identifies. Mansfield drives home the rejection with the man's blowing smoke in the woman's face and with the beat of the bass drum drumming "the Brute, the Brute." Miss Brill in her identification feels that her experiences of rejection are like those experienced by the flirtatious woman. However, as Mr. Thorp points out, the woman is probably a prostitute. Miss Brill, not understanding the nature of the woman, fails to see the significance of her identification. Both women passionately desire to express their love, the woman wearing the toque through the physical contact of sex; Miss Brill through what she imagines. Society rebuffs both expressions. It rejects the one because sex is only one manifestation of love; it rejects the other because of failure to communicate (society cannot read Miss Brill's mind). Katherine Mansfield says in her letter "… one must declare one's love." Miss Brill's declaration is unheard and thus, to society, unexpressed.

We can find still further evidence of alienation in the "vision of love," in which Miss Brill is gathered up into an imaginative experience with all the people gathered in the park singing together as a harmonious whole. But even this imaginative attempt at an expression of love fails as Miss Brill thinks: "Yes, we understand, we understand … though what they understood she didn't know." Even in her most vivid imaginings, Miss Brill can find no understanding or communication. She finds herself completely alone, yet she denies or fails to understand or to confront her position.

The final and most overwhelming evidence of alienation is the tragic scene in which Miss Brill is rebuffed by the young man courting on the seat next to her. The rejection parallels that of the man in the gray suit blowing smoke in the face of the woman in the ermine toque. Both exclusions are crude and brutish. With this confrontation with her solitude, she returns to her "cupboard" with nothing left her but self-pity in her loneliness.

Thus the theme of estrangement has run its course. Miss Brill has made an ever so passionate attempt to express love, to be a part of the whole of society that means so much to her. Her imagination, though sensitive, has failed from lack of experience. She is left, as she began, in her pathetic solitude.

Source: Robert L. Hull, "Alienation in 'Miss Brill,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. V, No. 1, Fall, 1967, pp 74-6.

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Critical Overview