Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1408

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Katherine Mansfield, one of the greatest of modern short-story writers, began writing at an early age. Born in New Zealand, Mansfield went to England in 1903. There, in 1911, when she was twenty-three years old, she published her first volume of stories, IN A GERMAN PENSION, a series of sketches based on her experiences in Germany. These stories, often sharply and crisply satirical, portray many of the Germans as a gross people, preoccupied with mountains of food and long detailed discussions of their digestive processes but covering their grossness and vulgarity with a thick coating of sentimental allegiance to the spirit or the soul. With acid sharpness, Mansfield’s stories demonstrate this combination of vulgarity and sentimentality. They also deride the Germans for other qualities: the lechery of the old man after he has protected a young English girl, cringing respect for the silent man with a title, the modern woman with her talk of art who completely neglects her children.

Although these stories are sensitive and moving portraits of people and their society, they show that Mansfield had not yet found her own style. Crisply and economically told, they are not always completely realized in their effects, however, and are often without that sharply focused point of view that this writer later developed. Despite these early shortcomings, her criticisms of Germany were so telling that when war broke out in 1914 she was urged to have the stories reprinted by another publisher, the first having gone bankrupt. Nevertheless, she refused to take advantage of the 1914 attitude toward Germans, and the volume remained out of print until after her death.

Mansfield’s next published story, PRELUDE, is set in New Zealand; it centers around a family called “Burnell,” a set of characters she also used in a number of later stories that, like PRELUDE, are undoubtedly autobiographical to some extent. The Burnell family consists of three young daughters (one of them, Kezia, withdrawn and sensitive, one prissy and domineering, one slow and clumsy), their sensitive mother who hated bearing children, their energetic and successful father, their competent grandmother, their pretty maiden aunt who is lonely and waiting for a man who never comes. PRELUDE is a series of scenes showing the interactions of these characters on one another against a domestic background. The scenes are given in turn from the point of view of Kezia, the mother, and Beryl, the lonely spinster aunt. Although the work is full of perceptive passages, sensitive descriptions of nature and of flowers, and a warm understanding of people, the device of the multiple point of view never really unifies the story. PRELUDE remains a series of brilliant but scattered perceptions.

Mansfield’s talent had genuinely developed by the time she published the volume called BLISS AND OTHER STORIES in 1920. Her range of subjects had become wider: marriage, people alone in London and trying to make their way in a difficult world, family relationships, little ironic episodes. Furthermore, her technique had become much surer and more effective. The title story of the volume is an effective tale of a modern woman, sensitive and withdrawn, married to a vital and energetic man. The woman finds herself attracted, as she has never been to her husband, to a mysterious and enigmatic Miss Fulton. While giving a dinner party, with Miss Fulton present, the woman suddenly realizes that this attraction, this happiness she feels is really sexual and really directed toward her husband. She is anxious for her guests to leave so that she may begin a new and deeper relationship with him. As the guests are leaving, she accidentally catches a glimpse of her husband in a situation of familiarity with Miss Fulton, and the young wife’s newfound happiness is shattered.

Other stories, such as “The Dill Pickle,” deal with shifting relationships among people—the realization that people change and cannot find in others, although they try to desperately, the happiness and comfort they once did. Little details and mannerisms, such as the calculated and merciless way in which the young man peels the orange in “The Dill Pickle,” indicate a great deal about human character, indicate why, in this story, the young woman cannot return to him even though he is, in other ways, enormously attractive. Mansfield was interested in shifting emotions and attempted to probe the truth of her characters’ feelings; yet this was not her sole concern. Many of her stories, such as “Pictures,” exist in a wider social context. In “Pictures,” an aging and bosomy singer is about to be evicted from her grimy Bloomsbury flat because she has not paid the rent. Mansfield follows her through degrading attempts to find any sort of work—movies, stage, extra work. These futile attempts are balanced against her pathetic dreams of glory or of a handsome knight coming to save her. The story ends when she, with false hilarity, agrees to go home with a middle-aged businessman whom she meets in a restaurant. In these stories, the writer probes the truths of experience on several different levels of life not limited by social class or interest in the arts or the life of leisure.

Her next volume, THE GARDEN PARTY AND OTHER STORIES, contains a number of Mansfield’s best-known works. Stories such as “The Garden Party” and “Her First Ball” recapture a great deal of a young girl’s experience on entering the social world. In “Her First Ball,” Mansfield shows that in the midst of wonder and pleasure comes an awareness of age and the realization that no human experience lasts; yet the feeling of excitement is genuine and beautifully conveyed. The writer was able, at her best, to use her style and crisp language fully as part of what she wanted to say. This volume also has a number of stories dealing with marriage and the difficulties of preserving a relationship between two individuals. These difficulties seem intensified in the rapidly changing social world after World War I. In “Marriage a la Mode,” for example, the wife has developed an interest in new forms of art, formed friendships with effeminate young poets, and cultivated a flippant attitude toward all the sanctities of prewar life, while the husband has remained his old stolid, virtuous self. The marriage is doomed. In this story, Mansfield satirizes the wife’s selfishness and her lack of concern for others.

The total body of Mansfield’s work does not place her, however, on the side of Victorian virtue. In other stories, she satirizes the domestic tyrant who, representing old-fashioned virtues, preys on his daughters, or she ridicules the successful and virtuous prude who has neither time nor insight to observe what is going on around him. In other words, Mansfield’s stories attempt to describe the truth of the human experience and to praise honesty, directness and fidelity to that truth and to that concern. The person who is aware of his emotions and who is faithful to them and concerned with the emotions of others is the character who wins Mansfield’s sympathy. This concern, this sensitivity, may look ridiculous to the standards of the greater outside world, as the relationship in “Mr. and Mrs. Dove” appears ridiculous, but its depth and interior meaning are what matter. The people that Mansfield castigates are, like those in IN A GERMAN PENSION, the brutal, the callous, the pretentious, the falsely sentimental, and the unconcerned.

In getting at her kind of emotional truth, Mansfield became more and more proficient. In her later stories, such as “The Doll’s House,” which deals with the Burnell family in New Zealand, she learned to control material and insight for disciplined artistic effect. In several of the unfinished stories published in THE DOVES’ NEST AND OTHER STORIES, she also began to use the technique of the stream of consciousness as a means to probe more deeply into issues involved in the experiences of her characters. Nevertheless, she retained the ability to use the small, telling detail, the casual conversation, or the intimate mannerism as a way of displaying more profound and important truths.

A meticulous craftsman and a writer committed to a deep sense of moral honesty, Mansfield has been deservedly praised as one of the leading writers of short stories in this century. In both technique and theme, she has also had an enormous influence on a generation of writers attempting to see things clearly and record them with fidelity, clarity, and insight.