Prelude; and At the Bay

by Katherine Mansfield

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In Katherine Mansfield's "Prelude," what is the significance of the "aloe"?

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The aloe in Mansfield’s short story “Prelude,” first published in 1918, has dual significance. It first appears in section 6 and again in section 11. To understand its significance, you must first understand Linda’s point of view in the story. Linda is essentially forced to move six miles away from her home in the town to a house that her husband, Stanley, bought in the country for a good price. From the context of the story, we know that Linda is unhappy living in the country. The aloe signifies two ways in which Linda views her life.

In section 6, Mansfield describes the huge aloe as being set apart from the garden, alone on an island of land dividing the home’s driveway. The aloe has “thick, grey-green, thorny leaves.” Some of the leaves “were so old that they curled up in the air no longer.” Rather, they “turned back, they were split and broken...flat and withered on the ground.”

When Linda’s daughter, Kezia, stumbles upon the strange-looking aloe plant while walking through the garden, she asks her mother what it is. Linda looks “at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and flesh stem” and sees a plant that has “claws instead of roots.” She imagines that the curled leaves are hiding something. The strength of the stem in the air looks unshakeable to Linda. She flatly tells Kezia that it is an aloe. When Kezia asks if it ever flowers, Linda replies with a sad smile that it does, but only once every hundred years.

In this section, Linda is comparing the aloe plant to how she is currently feeling about herself. Pregnant for yet another time, and now living in the country away from the familiar, she feels isolated and old, as if time is passing her by. Just as the plant is isolated on an island of land, so is he isolated from her life in town. She envisions herself never “blooming” again and being rooted down, fat and swollen because she envisions having more children in the future and never leaving the country home. She sees how strong the stem of the plant is. Can she be this strong? Alternatively, is her future hopeless?

In section 11, however, when Linda finds her mother on the veranda under a full moon “bathed in dazzling light,” her mother says that she has been looking at the aloe and believes “it is going to flower this year.” She sees buds forming but is not sure if the light of the moon is fooling her vision. As Linda and her mother look at the plant, Linda sees the aloe in a completely different way that she did before in section 6. The aloe appears to be raising up

like a wave, and the aloe seemed to ride upon it like a ship with the oars lifted. Bright moonlight hung upon the lifted oars like water, and on the green wave glittered the dew.

Linda asks her mother, in a “special voice that women use at night to each other as though they spoke in their sleep or some hollow cave,” whether she feels that the aloe is coming toward them. She begins fantasizing:

She dreamed that she was caught up out of the cold water into the ship with the lifted oars and the budding mast. Now the oars fell striking quickly, quickly. They rowed far away over the top of the garden trees, the paddocks and the dark bush beyond. Ah, she heard herself cry “Faster! Faster!” To those who were rowing.

Linda believes she does see the buds, and she and her mother walk closer to the plant, looking at the “long sharp thorns that edged the aloe leaves.” She views these thorns as deterrents to any person coming to follow her on her ship—a ship that would take her away from her present life. The despair Linda thinks about when looking at the plant in section 6 of the story changes to hope.

Mansfield’s use of the aloe plant to signify two life perspectives is clever. When one looks at an aloe, he or she sees a desert plant, thorny and unappealing. An aloe, however, is a succulent, which means it stores water in its leaves, stems, or roots. This supply of water allows the aloe to survive in arid environments. Mansfield cleverly uses the aloe plant to signify that Linda, too, can survive in her new environment. This may be the point in the story when Linda has hope of blooming rather than withering away.

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Significantly the aloe is part of the garden with Kezia does not like, the garden that is actually "no garden at all" because of the way that it is such a contrast to the domesticated other section of the garden that Kezia and the other residents of the house much prefer. The aloe then becomes a very important symbol of nature and the sublime in its full description, and it is highly notable that it is associated with the sea

...the high grassy bank on which the aloe rested rose up like a wave, and the aloe seemed to ride upon it like a shop with the oars lifted. Bright moonlight hung upon the lifted oars like water, and on the green wave glittered the dew.

The sea imagery clearly conveys something of the entralling power that the mysterious aloe plant has on the Burnell family. The aloe seems to be a symbol of the way that nature cannot be fully tamed. By extension, given that the Burnell family have just moved to a new house in the countryside, it is a subtle yet important reminder that the Burnell family are living in a land that is not their own and which they can never fully belong to. It references a history of a people who have been exploited and mistreated, and the natural vegetation, such as the aloe, are powerful, tangible and profoundly unsettling reminders of such realities. 

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