Prelude; and At the Bay

by Katherine Mansfield

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Style and Technique

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To the inexperienced reader of Katherine Mansfield’s stories, it must seem that nothing of any significance ever happens. Plot, as one used to know it and still finds it in occasional fiction, has disappeared. The old plot line that could be charted—rising action, climax, falling action—has given way to a line that does not rise very much and then stops somewhere and remains hovering. In contrast to the traditional emphasis on what happens, Mansfield’s stories emphasize why it happens, which is an altogether different thing. In a story such as “Prelude,” details do more than set the scene; objects, characters, and incidents and their positions make a tangential point; nothing is apparent, everything is implied.

With an in medias res beginning, there is no formal introduction, no exposition, no particular setting of scene. Plunged immediately into a story, without time to accommodate to a new situation, readers are thrown into an imbalance that they must immediately work to set straight, and they have no bearings except those that the story provides.

Once in a Mansfield story, readers are moved through a series of incidents that are no more than incidents until relationships are discovered. Ordinarily, relationships are revealed through details that are charged with symbolic significance, image patterns that move to metaphoric levels, and symbolic actions. Details, properly chosen, provide the texture of an experience; sense data ground readers in the concrete, convincing them of the reality of a scene. In her stories, Mansfield causes readers to become immersed in the sensory, invoking all five senses to provide immediacy and intensity.

Mansfield’s symbols emerge from the story itself; they are formed from the natural materials that create the texture of the experience. Thus, the juxtaposition of Kezia with both Linda and Mrs. Fairchild forms a strong symbolic relationship. So close are the affinities between Kezia and Linda that at times it is possible to see Kezia as an apparition of the past, Linda as child. Their fantasies and dreams are interchangeable. Their common fears and love of Mrs. Fairchild unite them. It is around Kezia and her confrontation with death that a major part of the story revolves. After Pat, the manservant, kills the duck that will be used for dinner, Kezia is first thrilled by the sight of blood, and then she is appalled. She rushes at Pat, putting her arms around his legs and screaming to him to put the duck’s head back on his body. That Kezia comes to a similar intuitive knowledge of life and death as Linda is made clear at the end of the story when Kezia tiptoes away from the mirror in the same way that Linda had earlier turned her head as she passed the mirror.

Literary Techniques

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Mansfield's aim in "Prelude" and "At the Bay" was to recreate the life she knew as a child in New Zealand, Each story consists of a series of episodes presented sequential. Characters are not so much introduced or described as discovered within scenes; the reader learns about them and their lives from direct observation. T. O. Beachcroft points out that in this method there is no narrator. Mansfield allows "no comment from any implied narrator"; she makes "the scene and the events of the story reveal themselves." Another critic calls the form "dramatic in character, revealed rather than told." The cumulative effect of these short episodes is greater than the sum, for at the end of each story, the reader feels that he knows these people and their lives intimately, even though he is ignorant of most details of time,...

(This entire section contains 156 words.)

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place, and class which would conventionally be used to define character in longer works of fiction.

Social Concerns

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Both of these stories present events in the daily life of the Burnells, a New Zealand family that resembles the household in which Mansfield was raised. "Prelude" concerns the family's move from town to country. "At the Bay/' which takes place some time after "Prelude/' concerns the passing of one day spent at the family's vacation bungalow by the sea. In both stories, the reader observes the complexity of the interrelationships which keep the family together yet apart. While the members of the family are closely joined by emotional bonds, each character remains a separate individual, never fully relating to anyone else, and isolated in the privacy of his or her own thoughts and responses.

Literary Precedents

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Two possible antecedents for these stories come from different periods of literature: Theocritus and T. S. Eliot. Mansfield used the XVth idyll of Theocritus as a model for a piece on the Coronation of George V that appeared in New Age in 1911. As T. O. Beachcroft notes in The Modest Art, this idyll "comes as near to a modern short story as anything in the world . . . the mime form gets rid of the need to prove the authority of the narrator revealed through dialogue with no "comment, explanation, and moralizing" from an intrusive narrator. This form was well-suited to "scenes from everyday life." In both subject and method, "Prelude" and "At the Baycan be compared with the XVth idyll of Theocritus.

According to Anthony Alpers, when T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" first appeared in 1917, Mansfield read it out loud to the guests at Lady Ottoline Morrell's estate in Garsington. Later Mansfield would tell Virginia Woolf that she didn't think of Eliot as a poet, because "Prufrock, is after all a short story." Just as Eliot experimented in poetic form to jettison expository or narrative encumbrances, so Mansfield attempted to achieve the immediacy of a dramatic scene or poem in the form of a short story