Prelude; and At the Bay

by Katherine Mansfield

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What critical commentary can be given about Mansfield's "Prelude" part two?

Quick answer:

In the second part of "Prelude," Mansfield continues to emphasize the unimportance of the young girls, especially Kezia, temporarily left behind with her sister as the family moves to a new house. The section, like the entire story, is ahead of it time in depicting life with psychological realism, avoiding omniscient narration, and hinting at strong family dysfunction.

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In the second part of the story, the focus moves to the point of view of the little girl Kezia. In part 1, in which the point of view shifts among female characters, Mansfield establishes that the family is packing up and moving to a new home. The insignificance of the two girls, Lottie and Kezia, is emphasized in part 1 when the mother calls the boxes around her the "absolute necessities" she cannot let out of her sight but says of her daughters, "We shall simply have to leave them."

In part 2, Kezia and Lottie stay behind with the lower-class Johnsons while the next wagon is packed. They will follow in that second wagon. The point of view shifts to Kezia, and we follow her as she explores the empty house as a child would. How she behaves and what she notices continue to emphasize her insignificance. She enters the house through the back door and the scullery, as a servant would. She notices the "gritty" lump of "yellow soap" on the windowsill, and she "pokes" through the trash in the fireplace, finding a servant girl's discarded hair tie. She is as symbolically discarded as the hair tie. She notices the sound of an insect and the "bits of red fluff" in the carpet tacks. She finds a treasure: a black pill box that she could keep a bird's egg in. This is how a child would experience her empty house.

Kezia also encounters the uncanny, which is the unheimlich, or uncanny. The home, emptied as it is of all its stuff and people, is both home and not home at the same time. She looks through the blue and yellow panes of stained glass in the dining room at her sister, who seems oddly distorted in the different light. She has to look at her through the clear pane for reassurance. Finally, the creepy sense of the uncanny overtakes her, she fears "IT" will catch her, and she runs from the house, wanting to but repressing her desire to scream. The section ends with her wrapped with Lottie in a shawl driving off beside the driver.

Notable about this 1918 story is how far it has veered from a typical Edwardian sentimental tale. Though it focuses on children, their lives are not idealized. Kezia, in part 2, is depicted alone, and the eeriness of her experience in the house as the sun begins to set is emphasized. She is identified with the trash left behind by the adults.

The realism of Kezia's experience is striking, as is the narrative technique of getting inside of Kezia's consciousness and describing everything from her point of view. No omniscient narrator interprets Kezia for us, which puts this story in the modernist realm. We can see the strong influence of Chekhov, too, in Mansfield's rendering of a relentless realism through attention to detail and the unflinching willingness to record life as a child really experiences it, not as adults wish to believe she does.

Mansfield's willingness to hint that childhood is not innocent and that the family dynamic is dysfunctional and uncaring puts her very much in the modernist camp, pushing back against the romanticized Victorian family. Mansfield, published by the experimental Hogarth Press, was well ahead of her time.

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