Prelude; and At the Bay

by Katherine Mansfield

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Themes and Meanings

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Essentially, “Prelude” is about time and place as they affect a single family. There is the time that is measured by the clock and to which the characters respond with daily routines; there is the time of a larger order, that of generations in history; there is time in an even larger, grander sense, the time of nature, of the movement of the planets through the heavens, rotating about the sun. A corresponding sense of place is achieved as the family moves through prescribed paths and areas. The family moves from one house to another, from city to country; the characters move from house to garden and back again into the house; they move from family rooms to private rooms, and finally they move from reality to dream to fantasy in the innermost circle of all.

Time and place are parallel. The personal time that governs daily activities is ordered by clock time, which, in turn, corresponds with the movement of the earth around the sun. The planetary motions suggest that larger order of historical time made parallel with the generations of the family delineated in all its tenses, past, present, and future. An absolute time transcends planetary motions, extending beyond the finalities of life and death, and accounts for the individual’s attempts to impose structure, order, and meaning on life, to escape the narrow boundaries imposed by life to freer realms of death, to overcome the restrictions imposed by society. Such is the closely woven complex of relationships in “Prelude” that at any specific moment in time, a larger construct of meaning can be derived.

Readers of this story find themselves caught up in these various aspects of time. They see a family for the calendar space of seven days; they become familiar with daily routines that measure time like a clock. They see the years of the past merge in the present moment so that the future is always on the point of becoming one with the present, and sometimes does. The child becomes mother and the mother becomes child. Generation is followed by generation in one unbroken sequence. The century plant is coming into bloom again; in another century it will bloom again as it has bloomed in the past. The universe spins on its axis; the planets move about the sun, eternally, through endless space at incredible rates as the sun rises and sets. However, all the different times are simultaneous and exist as one in the human mind.

Within the interior regions of the mind, themes are developed. Human concerns are presented: problems of human existences, meanings of life and death. People respond in different ways. Some accept life without question and seek only to achieve order and control over the chaos of living; the questions of these people concern operational means, the design of routine. Stanley is an example. Life, for him, is a matter of regulating daily routines. His is a conventional notion of the well-ordered life. However, Stanley is both man and child, the “master” of the house and the object of the care and responsibility of the members of the household. That there is something wrong with his simplified notion of living is suggested by the panic he experiences when he approaches the house at night and the anxiety he feels in the morning before work.

In contrast, Linda accepts nothing, neither the principles of life nor her role nor Stanley, as the answer to larger problems. Her concept of life is broad. It extends to include all things, even the minute, inanimate objects that she invests with her own mobility...

(This entire section contains 652 words.)

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and awareness in much the same way that the mother gives life to the children that she bears unwillingly. Her life revolves around the more fundamental question of the conflict between the will to survive that is part of the human makeup and the equally strong drive and need for death.


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Women dominate the Burnell household. Even though Stanley Burnell rules when he is at home, there is always the sense that he is an intrusive presence in his own house. When Stanley leaves for work in "At the Bay," all the women heave a collective sigh of relief — "There was no man to disturb them." In "Prelude," the women are responsible for the smooth handling of the move as they try to accommodate Stanley's needs and wishes. While Stanley may appear domineering and managerial, the reader is always aware that he remains subservient to the will of his wife. As one critic notes, in this story Mansfield portrays "four stages of womanhood" in the principal female characters in the household: Linda Burnell, the mistress of the household; Beryl Fairfield, her beautiful unmarried sister, who is in search of an identity; Kezia, one of Linda's children, who is still young enough to experience life naturally and unselfconsciously; and Mrs. Fairfield, Linda and Beryl's mother, who runs the household for her married daughter. In terms of plot, little occurs, but each of these characters is caught in revelatory moments which reflect her sense of identity and her period of life.

An important theme in "At the Bay" is the passage of time. The story opens with "very early morning." Only after the natural setting is discovered in the dawn does the first human being appear. At the end of the story, darkness has fallen, the last person has disappeared from view, and all is still. Death and the meaning of existence are repeatedly alluded to in the conversations of different characters. In a central episode, Kezia learns about death from her grandmother who is thinking about the early, untimely death of one of her sons. Kezia refuses to accept the inevitability of Mrs. Fairfield's death when her grandmother tells her everyone must die.

Male characters are more important in "At the Bay" than in "Prelude," even though women continue to dominate the life of the household. Ambitious Stanley Burnell is here balanced by his brother-in-law Jonathan Trout who pities Stanley because of "his determination to make a job of everything," but who later reveals himself to be equally pitiable since he can never escape the demands of a job which requires him to sit "on a stool from nine to five, scratching in somebody's ledger." He likens his job to a prison and sees himself as an insect which has "flown into a room of its own accord" but then discovers it cannot get out and spends the rest of its existence ceaselessly "banging and flopping and crawling up the pane." Significantly, Jonathan shares an emotional sympathy with his sister-in-law, Linda, who feels trapped in her role as wife and mother.