Miss Brill Questions and Answers

Katherine Mansfield

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Miss Brill questions.

How is Miss Brill a Cheerful Optimist?

This story by Mansfield encourages confusion about Miss Brill because of its loose-jointed, rambling psychological discourse. However, careful consideration of the text illuminates the character of Miss Brill. Two questions the text helps us focus on are "Is her life pathetic?" and "Why does she want to shake the lady talking pessimistically about eye glasses?"

Is Her Life Pathetic?

Miss Brill leads an unornamented life but maintains a cheerful optimism nonetheless. She takes delight in the simple pleasures available to her. She doesn't sit on her red eiderdown in her small room bemoaning her misfortune. Instead she ventures out; she enjoys what is available to her, even the chill of the air; she finds companionship of sorts where it can be found. Miss Brill's optimistic and cheerful life cannot be called pathetic.

There are a few things Miss Brill does that raise her existence above the pathetic. Living in France, she teaches English and chats with her students, creating relationships even though they are defined by the exchange of services and payments. She takes care of and takes pleasure in her modest possessions which, though reflecting an earlier epoch, signify a social class above her present one, similar to Miss Bates in Austen's Emma. She takes herself to the park on Sundays during the concert season to listen to the band and to "people watch," a time honored recreation. Though she doesn't know them, she takes a lively and imaginative interest in the other people who frequent the park concerts. She treats herself to the fun of a Sunday honey-cake to eat with her afternoon tea.

[When there] was an almond in her slice. . . [s]he hurried [home]. . . and struck the match for the kettle in quite a dashing way.

The joy, delight and optimism with which she undertakes each of these simple actions betells a life that is above the pitiable, above miserable, and above the pathetic. Her little fur necklet, then fashionable and equivalent in price to an autumn coat, and her eiderdown, an elegant type of feather comforter plucked from the breast of the eider duck, bespeak of a wealthier, happier earlier existence, but continue to give her cheer and courage rather than bitter regret. Miss Brill does not feel her life to be pathetic at all.

Why does she want to shake the lady talking pessimistically about eye glasses?

Miss Brill is an optimist. Miss Brill knows how to undertake action to gain what will benefit her. More importantly, she knows when something will benefit her, like fresh air, band music, a Sunday tea-cake, a soft fur at her neck. The eye-glass woman in the park needed a good shake, in Miss Brill's opinion, because she was a complaining pessimist; she could not take action for her benefit; she could not even tell what would benefit her. Miss Brill wanted to shake some sense into her so that she would see life as an offering of possibility rather than as a slough of brokenness; she wants the woman to take action and be a grateful optimist.

How Do the Young Lovers Hurt Miss Brill?

How has the young couple hurt Miss Brill? They have broken her love affair with the people, the "company," in the park. They have made the brutality passing by more important than the beauty visited. What, then, is the real focus or question of the story?

Miss Brill has an idea in her mind about the people who go to the park on Sundays to listen to the band when in season. She imagines the attendees are similar to herself. She imagines that they are there for the love of music and for the thrill of a group of people--no matter how unknown they are to each other--sharing the fellowship of a common interest and experience just as strangers at a large church on a Sunday feel themselves to be a congregation in fellowship. Miss Brill confirms this understanding of her sense of her experience through stream of consciousness remarks about the "company" beginning to sing together, "something so beautiful--moving...."

The major difficulty arises in the story in the form of the parade of brutality that marches between Miss Brill and the band. First there is the "beautiful" but calloused woman who throws away her "poisoned" "bunch of violets." Then there is the "tall, stiff, dignified" man who blows smokes in the face of the elderly, shriveled lady in the out-of-date "ermine toque" (a round-top brimless hat made of white ermine fur, once an expensive hat). Mansfield elaborates this instance in the parade of brutality perhaps to help illuminate--or perhaps contrast with--what Miss Brill is to feel and do herself a bit later on.

Then in the parade are the four girls who thoughtlessly, heartlessly nearly knock over the "funny old man with long whiskers" who "hobbled along in time to the music." Finally come the "boy and girl" who are "beautifully dressed" (unlike the yellowed lady in the old fashioned ermine toque) and who sit beside Miss Brill like the "hero and heroine" of her little drama that she "still" smiles tremblingly about. Up until her encounter with this boy and girl, Miss Brill has forgiven the brutality she sees, not knowing whether to "admire that or not!" Miss Brill, the cheerful optimist, has focused on the beauty, the vitality and united purpose of the visitors because there is a real sense in which their purposes are united: they each come to the concert every Sunday.

Now, the proximity of the cruel young couple, their direct manner of address to her and the personal nature of their remarks force Miss Brill to shift her focus to the brutality that usually only passes by as though on parade or as though entrances of bit players coming on and off the stage of the park drama. It is this contact with the brutal that breaks the love affair between Miss Brill and the "company" at the Sunday concert. It is this contact that makes the brutal more important than the beautiful.

While Miss Brill has been humiliated by them just like the old lady in the toque was humiliated by the man, it is not just humiliation that causes her to hurry home and to dash past the bakery and her honey-cake with the possibility of an almond. The joy has been taken out of these pleasures by the beautifully dresses but mean-spirited boy and girl. Thus it isn't just humiliation that makes her sit on her eiderdown--a costly, luxuriant comforter when new--and put her fox fur away without looking at it. The joy has been taken out of her fur and her carefully treasured life life: her fur has been called "funny," and she has been called "stupid." She realizes too that other people view her fur necklet as out-of-date, like the ermine toque, and view her life--to her a cheerful and optimistic life--as "pathetic." This points out the real question of the story: Will Miss Brill be made pathetic by a brutal and heartless couple of young lovers or will she rise above assault, like the lady in the toque did, and restore her former cheerful optimism and pleasure in little things?