Prelude; and At the Bay

by Katherine Mansfield

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How does Katherine Mansfield use literary features to describe the aloe plant, her dog, and Stanley?

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Stanley is an interesting character, painted by Mansfield as a sardonic, vaguely disgruntled figure—generally well-meaning but always a little out of luck. We can see this in the tone of the imagery used to describe his moods, as when he "gloomed as the chops began to fight the tea in his sensitive stomach." The imagery here personifies the chops and tea and leave Stanley their hapless inactive victim. When Stanley does his daily exercises, he is "like a frog, shooting out his legs." While he does have "amazing vigour," the language and simile here make him appear slightly ridiculous and seem to "set him far away from Linda," his wife, who sees him as rather alien. Stanley's haplessness in the face of inanimate objects seemingly defeating him is a theme throughout Prelude, as when he had "butted into a white shirt only to find that some idiot had buttoned the neck band and he was caught." The irony here is that, of course, the "idiot" was evidently Stanley himself. The reader is invited to laugh at Stanley throughout the story. 

The aloe plant, like the inanimate objects that so perplex Stanley, is personified: it is depicted as something "fat" and "cruel" which keeps its bounty away from Linda. The aloe, she says, blooms "once in a hundred years." The effect here is to suggest that the plant could offer Linda more but it does not, something that mirrors her feelings about Stanley and his money. He is not a rich man, but she feels sometimes that he is "unreasonable" except when she remembers that she has no money of her own and therefore cannot complain. The aloe plant has "curving leaves that seem to be hiding something," and its "claws" instead of roots underline its sinister nature to Linda, yet she knows it conceals something beautiful it could offer if it would only do so. Here we see some insights into how Linda feels she is treated by the world. 

In both Prelude and At the Baywe see several dogs but are told that "Aunt Linda hated decent dogs." Each dog has its own character, whether it be a mongrel or an old sheep dog which "cut an ancient caper or two and then pulled up sharp, ashamed of its levity." Again Linda seems to understand the dog better than she does her husband, and its motives are described more sympathetically. Linda ascribes a number of very human characteristics to the dog: she fears it is judging her, but also notes that it looks "proud" of the shepherd, its master. There is a vaguely forlorn sense that Linda wishes for a dog of her own that might be proud of her; she seems less detached from the dog--not her own--than from any of her own relatives. 

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How does Katherine Mansfield use literary features such as language, structure, and imagery to generate significance when talking about the aloe plant, her dog, and her husband?

Some of the imagery used to describe the husband (Stanley) reveals much about his character. When the family awakens after their first night in the house, Stanley is doing exercises in front of his wife and is described as "glowing" and "squatting like a frog" as he does his exercises. His body (which he quite admires) is described as "firm" and "obedient." This imagery strongly suggests that Stanley is somewhat vain, but he reveals very soon thereafter that he is also more than a little insecure. He worries that he will one day become fat, like some men of his age already are. 

As for the aloe plant, the imagery used to describe it emphasizes that it is strange and unusual to Keziah, underscoring (like the wallpaper decorated with parrots) the strange new surroundings the family has moved into. The plant is described as "fat" and "swelling" and as having "cruel leaves." The encounter with the aloe plant, which is contrasted with the other familiar plants elsewhere in the garden, is at the center of the narrative—indeed, "Prelude" was initially intended to be part of a novel entitled Aloe. 

As for the dog, his name is Snooker. In the words of one literary critic, he is described as "endur[ing] treatment that oscillates between care and cruelty." The dog is ugly, and it smells bad. The boys are always concocting some bizarre chemical mixture to give him for reasons that are not exactly clear. He is himself somewhat wild and has to be restrained when the boys kill a duck at the pond. Like the aloe, the dog is on the edge of wildness and civilization.

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