What happens in Miss Brill?

In "Miss Brill," Miss Brill works as an English tutor in Paris. Her only respite from her dull, dreary life is the weekly concert she attends in the park. However, it becomes clear at one of these concerts that she's the subject of ridicule. She then returns, disheartened, to her small apartment.

  • Miss Brill makes a living by reading to invalids and tutoring French children in English.

  • She goes to a concert and sits in her "special seat," where she feels she can participate in the lives of people around her.

  • Gradually, she realizes that these people are looking down on her, and she returns to her little room in a boarding house, ashamed and lonely.

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

An aging, lonely woman living in Paris and maintaining herself by teaching English is the subject of this character portrait by Katherine Mansfield. Miss Brill’s life is one of shabby gentility and pretense; this impression commences in the opening paragraph as she lovingly takes an old-fashioned fox fur out of its box for her usual Sunday outing to the gardens. Looking forward to the new Season, she is, however, distracted by a peculiarly ominous feeling that seems to be in the air and for which she does not know how to account—“like the chill from a glass of iced water before you sip.” Maternally caressing the fur, she looks into its “dim little eyes,” hearing its fearful question: “What has been happening to me?” With this question, the narrator submerges the point of view into the psyche of Miss Brill, and the reader beholds her pathetic attempt to build a fantasy life to protect her from the harsh facts of her existence. Like the insidious illness that seems to be creeping to life inside her, Miss Brill is abruptly forced to confront the reality that her imagination seeks to escape: She is growing old and lonely in her exile, and the world is an unfriendly place for such people.

Occupying her “special seat,” Miss Brill gives only partial attention to the band music, for it is obvious that her main interest in coming to the park each week is to participate in the lives of people around her—in fact, she prides herself on her ability to eavesdrop on the conversations of those nearby without seeming to do so. This is her escape from a dreary existence—a dark little room “like a cupboard” in a rooming house from which she emerges four afternoons a week to read to an invalid and cadaverous old man until he falls asleep in his garden.

At first, an elderly couple share her seat but prove uninteresting. Miss Brill recalls last Sunday’s old Englishman and his complaining wife, whom Miss Brill had wanted “to shake”—presumably because the wife scorns the companionship Miss Brill lacks in her life. Soon, however, she turns her attention toward the crowd of passersby: raucous children, an old beggar who sells flowers from a tray, and laughing young girls in bright colors who pair off with soldiers. Hovering just beyond the threshold of a conscious...

(The entire section is 2,071 words.)