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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Mansfield’s influence on the structure of the short story is comparable to that of her more famous contemporary James Joyce on the novel. Crucial to each is a sense that point of view must be controlled from within the character and that the elusiveness of life’s meaning can be captured through an epiphanic moment. Here, mental access has been restricted to Miss Brill, but mere selective omniscience cannot account for the artfulness of the technique. The manipulation of time is important because the story tends toward the exploration of a few moments in a character’s life.

These highly compressed moments, therefore, reveal psychological time instead of clock-time, and they are everywhere marked by Miss Brill’s colloquialisms and features of her private language. Mixed with this language, however, is the narrator’s phraseology (narrated monologue), so that even the most neutral observations are reinforced by a kind of lyric intensity: “And sometimes a tiny staggerer came suddenly rocking into the open from under the trees, stopped, stared, as suddenly sat down ’flop,’ until its small high-stepping mother, like a young hen, rushed scolding to its rescue.” It is this rich mixture of interior monologue, narrated monologue, and narrator summary that enables the reader to perceive the very reality Miss Brill seeks to deny in her fantasies.

Like Joyce, Mansfield rejected an intrusive commentary, allowing the reader to form a reaction to the character in more subtle ways. As Miss Brill reflects on the past, or once, notably, anticipates a future time in the imagined dialogue with her reading companion, she reveals herself and her anxieties most fully. Using Miss Brill’s eyes to look outward on the world of the story enables the narrator to infuse her vision with a stronger vision so that themes of isolation, exile, and aging in a hostile world appear to evolve naturally from the character herself.

In this way, the intermingling of scene, narrator summary (or withdrawal), and the modes of Miss Brill’s mental life work in harmony to preserve the flavor of Miss Brill’s own phraseology and to keep the narrative fabric smooth and seamless. The end result is that Miss Brill’s life tends toward a moment in which she can no longer deny the reality she so greatly fears.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Woman wearing fur stole similar to Miss Brills fur necklet. Published by Gale Cengage

Europe between the Wars
In the 1920s, Europe was rebuilding after World War I, the most destructive and deadly war in history. As the economy grew, spurred on by the advances in medicine and technology gained during the war, a newfound era of wealth and cultural growth permeated many Western European countries. France especially, became a haven for expatriate artists and writers from England and the United States drawn to its affordable living conditions. The values of the "Jazz Age" spread to the continent, where the dismantling of strict Victorian protocol resulted in the rise of controversial art like Expressionism and Surrealism and explicit literature from writers like James Joyce.

''Miss Brill" is set during this tumultuous time period, when the sight of an older, single woman wearing an outdated fur stole represented a genteel world forever obliterated by the atrocities of trench warfare, the promise of air travel, and the cynicism generated by the millions of casualties in the war. Like others of her day, Miss Brill is a foreigner living in France, but she is alienated from the thriving community of artists and writers who formed the "moveable feast" in Paris during the 1920s. Instead, Miss Brill has a few students to whom she teaches English, and she reads to an elderly gentleman until he falls asleep. Miss Brill's association with this man further represents her alignment with an era now obsolete. The young couple on the bench are of a younger generation, and their comments reveal the attitude towards which young people now regarded their elders.

Mansfield, whose numerous affairs always marked her as a bit of a free spirit,...

(The entire section is 1,554 words.)