Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1023
Mansfield said that two things caused her to write. One was the “joy” and “peace” that she felt when “something delicate and lovely seems to open my eyes, like a flower without thought of a frost.” She often communicates joy in her stories by describing such things as flowers, waves, and beams of light. Her second motive for writing was quite different: “an extremely deep sense of hopelessness, of everything doomed to disaster” which made her cry out against “corruption.” She pillories injustice and depravity. For example, in “The Fly” she presents a businessman who treats an old employee badly and sadistically tortures an insect.
Corruption is only one source of hopelessness in Mansfield’s world. Men and women in love always misunderstand each other and talk at cross-purposes. The timid and tongue-tied fail to declare their passion; ambitious lovers have more important people to conquer; some are confused by sex. In “Psychology,” two artists are so painfully conscious of the complexities of their relationship that their passion fades. In this world, there are many failures, often lonely women in lonely rooms thinking or trying not to think about their loneliness. For failures and nonfailures alike, time is the enemy.
Katherine Mansfield’s style is economical; each word counts. Yet although she is precise, her stories are seldom easy to understand. Her tone is elusive, for she mixes witty satire with romantic evocation. Because she mainly writes dialogue, indirect speech, and descriptions, readers do not hear her own voice giving directions. Mansfield often employs symbols that suggest much but tell the reader nothing definite. The way in which she tells stories causes problems as well, for their actions do not surge forward to climaxes that reveal their “meanings.” Mansfield’s quick shifts of time and surprise turns of plot are designed to lead her readers (and some characters as well) to epiphanies, unexpected moments of illumination that are difficult to summarize.
Four of her most famous stories show the nature of her achievement. “Miss Brill” is a lonely woman; the reader lives through her story without the author making any direct comments. She is an English teacher in a French resort city. On Sunday afternoon, she dresses up with her fox fur to sit in the public gardens, where she enjoys listening to the band and to the conversations of other people. She is pleased by talk that most readers find banal and imagines what others are saying. Her joy intensifies when she reflects that all of them—including herself—are in a great play; she turns the drama of public life into a consolation for her lonely state. Then, just when the reader is happiest for Miss Brill, two lovers ridicule her to her face. The reader imagines her pain. Silently she returns to her room, and as she packs her fox fur away, she thinks she hears it cry. Mansfield’s is a poignant story of a woman’s pathetic joys and solitude.
“Bliss” tells of Bertha Young, a youthful wife happy about her beautiful day, her wonderful baby, her wealthy husband, and her fascinating friends. The lovely pear tree blooming in her garden symbolizes her happiness. The story moves forward slowly; at a party readers meet Harry, her down-to-earth husband, some silly guests, and the cool Miss Fulton, dressed in silver. Then something happens. Bertha touches Miss Fulton’s arm and feels a “fire of bliss.” Later, when the two women regard the pear tree, Bertha thinks that they achieve a wordless understanding. The story has more surprises. Suddenly, “For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband.” Her homoerotic feelings have changed to heterosexual ones, but her bliss is soon shattered when she glimpses Miss Fulton and Harry making an assignation. Bertha is alone, wondering what will happen to her. The reader has been led through a maze of sexual shifts, of momentary exhilaration and despair.
“At the Bay” is one of Mansfield’s longer narrative experiments. In its thirteen short episodes, she introduces the extended Burnell family and a few others. The children are growing up; boys and girls jockey for status. Among the adults are two men, the ineffectual Uncle Jonathan and the bluff businessman father, Stanley. Stanley’s wife, Linda, still loves the boy behind his bluster, but she is worn out by her pregnancies and dislikes her children. The story’s most striking drama involves Linda’s unmarried sister, Beryl, and the handsome and menacing Harry Kember. When Beryl’s fantasies threaten to become real, she backs away from sexual intimacy with horror. The story interweaves its characters’ yearnings and frames their day with pictures of the timeless and destructive sea. Mansfield displays these dreams and sets them in a cosmic context.
In “The Garden Party,” Mansfield evokes the joy that the young Laura feels about having a perfect day for the perfect garden party and depicts corruption and destruction as well. Even though its plot is more conventional than “At the Bay,” this story leads both Laura and the reader to an epiphany. The corruption in “The Garden Party” centers on Laura’s mother. When Laura wants to postpone the event because a poor man nearby has been killed, her mother refuses and bribes Laura into happiness by giving her an extravagant hat to wear at the party. Yet Laura cannot forget the dead man. When the party is over, she gathers some leftover sandwiches, rushes down the hill, and enters a strange world of darkness, tears, poverty, and death. When she enters the room where the corpse is laid out, she is not horrified; she sees death as something calm and even beautiful, something far different from her silly party. “Forgive my hat,” she asks the dead man. She has had an illumination. What she says is woefully inadequate, but the reader sees her moment of understanding and growth. Mansfield has led the reader to an epiphany, though it is not the same as Laura’s. When Laura tries to tell her brother what has happened, it is not clear that he understands. As usual, Mansfield does not explain everything.