Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518
Influenced by Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield enjoyed a productive although short career as an essayist and short-story writer. Her first story, “The Tiredness of Rosabel,” introduces many of the themes her later works explore—class difference, role playing, poverty, deception, and the solitary female. Almost all of her stories illustrate the fluid, relational, and fragile nature of personal identity.
Her first collection of stories, In a German Pension (1911), a satirical look at Germans’ relationships to each other, their food, and their bodily functions, quickly went through three editions. Although she was later embarrassed by these stories, their success allowed her to place her later work in the better magazines of the day. Instead of the often comic nature of her first collection, her subsequent works became subtler, often abandoning traditional plot, and instead, substituting a momentary revelation. In such scenes, Mansfield manages to convey a character’s history, personality, or dilemma in a brief flash of insight. An example of Mansfield’s use of a momentary illumination is the twist at the end of “Bliss” (In Bliss and Other Stories, 1920), in which the reader and the main character, Bertha Young, find out about her husband’s affair with her friend, Pearl Fulton. In typical Mansfield style, the main character learns little or nothing from such an epiphany; Bertha’s glimpse of her husband’s transgression tells the reader more about the delusional Bertha than she knows about herself.
“Prelude,” published by Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press, earned for Mansfield a reputation as a serious, avant-garde writer. Perhaps her most well-loved story, “Prelude,” is highly autobiographical, chronicling the development of the artist-child, Kezia Burnell, a thinly-veiled portrait of Mansfield as a child. Dealing with three generations of women, “Prelude” also examines the development of gender and sexual identities. Abandoning the traditional voice of an omniscient narrator, the narrative voice of “Prelude” emanates from the psyches of the many Burnell family members: Mrs. Fairfield, the kindly grandmother; Stanley Burnell, the overbearing patriarch; Linda Burnell, the unmaternal mother; Beryl Fairfield, the frustrated sister-in-law; and the children, Isabel, Kezia, and Lottie. For this story Mansfield developed a twelve-part montage of scenes, which, taken together, creates an implicit meaning. The sequel, “At the Bay,” and another story, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” also employ this montage style.
Another theme often explored in Mansfield’s fiction is love, sex, and betrayal. Works such as “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding,” “At Lehmann’s,” and “This Flower” chronicle the pain and violence associated with marriage, sexual awakening, and childbirth. Similarly, “The Little Governess” and “Pictures” focus on the tenuous position of the solitary female, who, with simply a misstep, may quickly cross the line between respectability and prostitution.
With their stylistic experimentation and frank exploration of class, gender, and identity, Mansfield’s stories helped revolutionize the art of fiction. At her death, Virginia Woolf was to admit in her diary, “I was jealous of her writing—the only writing I have ever been jealous of.” Although she died young, Mansfield produced an impressive array of stories, essays, and letters.
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