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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

"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...

(The entire section is 1,118 words.)