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Literary techniques and diction in Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill"


Katherine Mansfield employs various literary techniques and diction in "Miss Brill." She uses stream of consciousness to delve into the protagonist's thoughts, and personification to bring inanimate objects to life, such as Miss Brill's fur. Her choice of diction subtly reveals Miss Brill's loneliness and desire for connection, enhancing the story's emotional depth and poignancy.

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What are three literary devices used in Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill"?

Katherine Mansfield is renowned for her stories of lonely women, and Miss Brill is probably one of the most well-known. This is a story of little action but of deep character development; Mansfield thus relies heavily on descriptive words and phrases to help the reader see and feel what the protagonist experiences.

This descriptive language begins right away with the use of several metaphors, similes in particular. Miss Brill describes the sky as 

"like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques"

and the night air as 

"like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip"

and the conductor of the band as behaving

"like a rooster about to crow."

Similes are the most common, easily recognized literary devices; they compare two dissimilar things with a single connecting word. This story is told in the third person limited from Miss Brill's cheerful and optimistic point of view. Given that she is an English teacher, it is interesting that she would see life through a series of simple comparisons. This tells the reader that perhaps she has a simple and somewhat narrow idea of what the world is and should be. These first similes at the beginning of the story are bright and positive; they contrast sharply with the final one Miss Brill uses in the last paragraph:

". . . went into the little dark room—her room like a cupboard . . ."

This, of course, is after her outlook has been dramatically changed by the rude young couple in the park.

The second dominant literary device that shouts to the reader immediately is the personification in the opening paragraph. Miss Brill remembers taking out her fox-fur stole that afternoon:

"What has been happening to me?" said the sad little eyes.

She seems to see her fur as an extension of herself. She takes extravagant care of it and believes it to be a point of pride. This question, though, that she projects on this object that she cherishes can tell the reader much about the protagonist. Is it the fur enclosed in its box that Miss Brill believes has been "sad," or Miss Brill herself, who is so often enclosed in her room alone? Again in the final paragraph, Miss Brill projects her own feelings onto the fur when she puts it away after coming home from the park:

"But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying."

Finally, the transformation of Miss Brill hinges on Mansfield's use of symbolism. The entire parade of humanity at the park, from the band to the passersby, all symbolize a surrogate family for Miss Brill. She joined with the crowd for what she believed was a singular purpose—enjoying the music and the company—much the way a congregation joins together for worship. For this reason, the young couple who bitterly reject her presence shatter the world Miss Brill has created.

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What aspects of diction does Katherine Mansfield use in "Miss Brill"?

The “diction” of any work of literature – that is, the actual choices of specific words – is (arguably) precisely the element that makes any work succeed or fail.  Certainly it is possible to make this claim about Katherine Mansfield’s story titled “Miss Brill.” Notable aspects of the diction of this story include the following:

  • Vivid imagery, as in the following phrasing from the opening sentence: “the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine . . . .”
  • Direct appeal to the reader, as in the following phrasing:

The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip . . . .

Such phrasing makes us feel as if we are there in the park with Miss Brill. The effect would be different (more distanced, more objective) even if Mansfield had simply written “when one opens one’s mouth,” etc.

  • Subjective description, as when Miss Brill touches her fur and the narrator writes, “Dear little thing!” These words express Miss Brill’s own attitude toward her fur but are more immediate and direct even than if the narrator had written, “Miss Brill thought to herself: dear little thing!”  The sentence as Mansfield phrases takes us right insight Miss Brill’s mind.
  • Clear and efficient phrasing, as in the following sentence:

She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes.

Nothing about this sentence is unclear. It is easy to read and easy to understand, and the use of listing or cataloguing (“taken,” “shaken,” “given,” “rubbed”) allows Mansfield to communicate a great deal of information in very few words. This method of listing also places maximum emphasis on each of the verbs.

  • Qualification, as in the phrasing “something light and sad–no, not sad, exactly–something gentle,” where the hesitation and clarification suggest the thoughtfulness of Miss Brill and the narrator’s own interest in precision and correctness.
  • Beginning sentences with conjunctions, as in the sentence “And the band sounded louder and gayer.” Such sentences add to the flow of the narration and suggest that the narrator is reporting events almost in a “stream-of-consciousness” kind of style.
  • Use of contractions, as in the phrases describing the playing of the band: “ it didn't care how it played if there weren't any strangers present” (emphasis added). Here the use of contractions suggests an informal, relaxed, unpretentious tone. The narrator does not seem pompous, and so the story seems more appealing that it would if it were written in a stiffer, more self-important style.
  • Use of exclamation marks, as in the statement “Now there came a little ‘flutey’ bit–very pretty!–a little chain of bright drops.” Here again the tone is informal and unpretentious and helps characterize Miss Brill as a person capable of feeling emotion and taking joy in her perceptions.

Note how many of the traits of diction just discussed contribute to an informal, relaxed, accessible, and inviting tone.

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What literary devices does Kathryn Mansfield use to convey theme in "Miss Brill"?

“Miss Brill” by Kathryn Mansfield details an incident in the life of a spinster teacher who lives in in a French resort town.  Written in the 1920s, the brief characterization presents a lonely woman who longs for human contact and connection.  Every Sunday, Miss Brill goes to the park for a band concert in hopes of striking up conversations with the other attendees.  Miss Brill also “people watches” and often makes judgments based on their clothing and actions.

Using  the third person limited omniscient point of view, the ultimate characterization is elicited by watching the story through the eyes of the protagonist.  Sundays to Miss Brill are the most important days of the weeks.  Her bench in the park awaits her, and her companions are the strangers that share her bench. 

The author uses symbolism to convey the prevalent theme of loneliness.  In this time period, there was no stigma in wearing a real fur piece even with the actual head attached.   The fur that Miss Brill lovingly pulls out to wear represents Miss Brill herself.  Like Miss Brill, the fur piece has seen better days and is rather old. It needs care and attention, just as Miss Brill needs the connection to another human being. 

“She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed life back into the dim little eyes.”

When the young people make fun of the stole, to Miss Brill, they have insulted her person as well. 

The protagonist’s name---Miss Brill---brings to mind the stiffness of an Englishwoman and one who lives a solitary life.  Her first name is never mentioned because she has no one that would use it---she is friendless. 

The band who plays every Sunday symbolically becomes Miss Brill’s family.  They are always there and never let her down.  Without anyone else to care for her, Miss Brill imagines that the band awaits her coming and will wonder if she does not appear.

The imagery employed by the author sets the tone for the story initially.  Miss Brill sees the day as brilliant and fine but slightly chilly.  This enables her to wear her beloved fur piece.  The descriptions of the scenes in the park bring the story to life; and the reader feels as though he is sitting alongside of Miss Brill as she observes the events of the afternoon.

Little children ran among them, swooping and laughing; little boys with big white silk bows under their chins, little girls, little French dolls, dressed up in velvet and lace. And sometimes a tiny staggerer came suddenly rocking into the open from under the trees, stopped, stared, as suddenly sat down "flop…" 

Through the imagery, the reader can see that Miss Brill makes herself a part of the dramatic scenes of life.

After hearing the remarks by the young couple, Miss Brill finally realizes that she is really not a part of Sunday events or really anything else.  Her sad life is built on fantasy and self-deception.  

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