Prelude; and At the Bay

by Katherine Mansfield

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In "Prelude" and "At the Bay," unlike other Mansfield stories, there is no single controlling point of view. Both stories are episodic, and the center of consciousness shifts from character to character. While nearly every character has his or her moment of illumination, the three characters who are developed most fully are Stanley, Linda Burnell, and Beryl Fairfield.

Linda Burnell should be the dominant woman in the household. She is the wife of an important businessman and the mother of his children, but she has left the running of the household and the raising of her children to her mother. Her relationship to Stanley is characterized by remoteness. At times her sister appears to be more Stanley's wife than Linda. Beryl plays cribbage at night with Stanley, and Beryl flirts with him as Linda remains lost in her dreams. Linda is analytical about her emotions and her lack of feelings for her children. Childbearing (both the actual experience and the dread of the next pregnancy) has left her drained, incapable of giving her children any love. When thinking of Stanley, she sees "all her feelings for him sharp and defined, one as true as the other. And there was this other, this hatred, just as real as the rest."

Beryl Fairfield is in a different position. Unlike her sister Linda, Beryl is not married and has no prospects of marriage. Whereas Linda is frustrated by the limitations imposed on her by her role as Stanley's wife, Beryl is frustrated by the uncertainty and ambiguity of her situation as an unmarried woman. Both stories end with episodes in which Beryl is alone in her room, contemplating who she is and who she might become. In "Prelude" she tries to catch a glimpse of her real self in a mirror but always sees Beryl playing a role. In "At the Bay," it is late at night and Beryl imagines herself in the arms of a lover, when Harry Kember (a local seaside Don Juan) calls to her from the garden. She goes out to him only to run away, horrified at the shoddy reality of what she has been imagining.

Stanley Burnell, the main male figure in this female household, is far more limited than the women. His happiness appears to depend on their moods, and his ability to imagine beyond immediate, practical concerns is limited. In "Prelude," when he thinks of joining a church, he hears "himself intoning extremely well: 'When thou didst overcome the Sharpness of Death Thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all Believers.' And he saw the near brass-edged card on the corner of the pew — Mr. Stanley Burnell and family." Obviously the words from the service have made no impression on Stanley's mind or heart.

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