(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1023 words.)