Miss Brill Themes

The main themes in “Miss Brill” are alienation and loneliness, and appearances and reality.

  • Alienation and loneliness: Miss Brill is depicted as a lonely and alienated individual with no real connections to those around her.
  • Appearances and reality: Miss Brill’s fantasy of the stage play in the park is revealed to be just that—a fantasy—while the reality is that Miss Brill is alone and isolated.

Themes and Meanings

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Characteristically, Mansfield imports a term from her native New Zealand for effect: “brill” is a common fish without culinary or commercial value. However, clearly, Miss Brill is not a figure of contempt; her self-deception is a very human response to what she feels is becoming an intolerable reality; moreover, her apprehension of something at work inside her, alternately numbing and tingling, explains her displaced feelings and her need to fantasize.

Mansfield herself knew well the plight of a woman on her own living in exile: The last years of her life were a frenetic search for health on the Continent. The pleurisy that afflicted her in 1917 was later aggravated into tuberculosis; she died at the age of thirty-four near Fontainebleau, France, in 1923, when a coughing fit ruptured blood vessels.

In addition to the theme of exile, there is Miss Brill’s achingly human need to belong. The narrator’s adroit mediation between what Miss Brill literally sees and what her imagination invents accounts for her somewhat hysterical attempt to participate in life as more than a spectator. It is equally obvious, however, that to retreat into a fantasy world is merely to delay truth; Miss Brill’s shrill efforts to coerce others into her fantasy, such as the man and woman who meet in the gardens, becomes a way for her to participate in life without risking her emotions. What may in fact have been a man rejecting a prostitute’s solicitation becomes the basis for a rendezvous, until Miss Brill’s sense of identification with the woman in the toque reminds her too much of herself in the outward signs of aging and the losing struggle with poverty.

Finally, chastened by the snarling young man and the young woman’s mockery, Miss Brill is left without any defense other than the false sense of buoyancy she has conjured to protect her from reality. Alone in her room, she is unable to deceive herself, nor can she yet accept full knowledge of her condition. Still detached from her feelings, Miss Brill thinks that she hears the fox weeping. Mansfield’s husband—the author and editor John Middleton Murry—has said that Mansfield’s obsession for truth dominates her later, more mature stories, of which “Miss Brill” is an example.


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"Miss Brill" presents an afternoon in the life of a middle-aged spinster. On her usual Sunday visit to the park, she imagines that she and the people in the park are characters in a play. Contributing to her good mood is the fact that she is wearing her prized fur stole. Anticipating the conversation of two strangers who sit down next to her, Miss Brill's vivacious mood is shattered by the couple's ndicule for her and her fur. She returns to her tiny apartment and places the fur back in its box, imagining that she hears it crying.

Alienation and Loneliness Though Miss Brill does not reveal it in her thoughts, her behavior indicates that she is a lonely woman. She thinks of no family members during her Sunday outing, instead focusing on her few students and the elderly man to whom she reads the newspaper several times a week. Even her name, Miss Brill, suggests an isolating formality; with the absence of a first name, the reader is never introduced to her on a personal level. Her fantasy, in which she imagines the people in the park as characters in a play connected in some psychological and physical way to one another, reveals her loneliness in a creative way. Yet, her manufactured sense of connection to these strangers is shattered...

(This entire section contains 739 words.)

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when she is insulted by the young couple that sit next to her on the bench. When her fantasy of play-acting is crushed by the conversation of the romantic couple, she is shown to be alienated from her environment—estranged and apart from the others in the park, to whom she only imagined a connection. Symbolically, this sense of alienation is heightened at the end of the story when Miss Brill returns her fur to its box quickly and without looking at it. This action is in stark contrast to her playful conversation with it earlier in the day when she called it her "little rogue." The final action of the story completes the characterization of Miss Brill as an alienated and lonely individual when she believes that she hears her beloved fur crying as she returns it to its box, just as she herself has returned to her ''room like a cupboard."

Appearances and Reality Through the stream-of-consciousness narrative in "Miss Brill," Mansfield creates a story in which the stark contrast between appearances and reality are manifest through the thoughts of the main character. At the beginning of the story, Miss Brill is perturbed by the old couple sitting on the bench near her. Their silence makes eavesdropping on their lives difficult. Yet, she does not realize that their behavior echoes her own silent existence. Similarly, Miss Brill notices that the other people sitting on chairs in the park are "odd, silent, nearly all old" and "looked as though they'd just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!" The irony that she is one of these odd people who lives in a cupboard is not recognized. She also notices an old woman wearing a fur hat, which she calls a ''shabby ermine," bought when the woman's hair was yellow. When the woman raises her hand to her lips, Miss Brill compares it to a "tiny yellowish paw." While making fun of this woman in her own mind, the comparisons between the ''ermine toque'' and her own appearance go unnoticed. Later, when Miss Brill's imagination concocts the metaphor of the park visitors as actors in a play, she thinks of them as connected to her in a harmonious way: "We understand, we understand, she thought." Yet, the attractive couple whom she imagines to be the hero and heroine of the play are revealed through their conversation to not be part of this ''appearance'' of a stage play. In the reality of their cruel comments, they are not "members of the company" who "understand." This strong illusion of playacting Miss Brill has envisioned has been dismantled through the harsh words of the boy and girl. In reality, they think of her not as a fellow actress, but as a "stupid old thing" whose fur resembles a "fried whiting." The play—a metaphor which produced a moment of epiphany for Miss Brill—has taken place only in her mind. Thus, this contrast between appearance and reality in "Miss Brill" further illustrates the story's theme of alienation—the idea that Miss Brill is separated and estranged from her environment.