The short story “The Garden Party” was penned by Katherine Mansfield, a burgeoning short story writer from New Zealand; this work of fiction was first published in 1922 in The Garden Party and Other Stories. This short story delves into modernity through innovative literary techniques, such as beginning in media res and using third-person over-the-shoulder narration. In doing so, Mansfield makes the time-honored “coming of age tale” new and fresh.
The short story takes place in a small town in New Zealand, where the wealthy Sheridan family lives up on a hill, towering above their less financially well off neighbors. Mansfield’s narrative charts a particularly notable day in the life of Laura Sheridan, which is marked by a phenomenal garden party and a tragic death. Interacting with the lower class catalyzes Laura’s transition from childhood to womanhood. Although the short story has Laura take many steps in the transition to womanhood, she is unable to completely mature into a woman due to her inability to process mortality. The opening paragraph of the Garden Party sets the stage for a coming of age story, by presenting a symbolically powerful setting. The weather was “ideal”, and described as “windless, warm, the sky without a cloud.”, and as “blue veiled with a haze of light gold”. The imagery is bright with vivid colors, and smooth, the rolling alliteration of ‘windless and warm’ guides the reader seamlessly into a moment of blissful weather. The day is also set in “early summer”, which is symbolic of youth. Summer is deeply connected to childhood nostalgia as it is typical for people to have fond memories of sunny summer days. Then there are the roses, which the gardener had been busily arranging since dawn, until the lawn with all its flowers “seemed to shine” and the roses of which there were “Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds.”, were the center piece of attention to anyone approaching the home. These flowers are clearly a yonic symbol, and a beacon of femininity. The combination of the perfect warm weather, the summer season and the enormous quantity of flowers, sets the stage for a coming of age story about a young girl. The pleasant summer weather, also accurately mirrors the personality of the main character Laura.
Laura is a naïve young girl, whose motives throughout the opening of the story are pure, instinctual and childlike in their simplicity. She wants only to be helpful and adult, and to do what she believes is right and good. For instance, in the beginning of the story Laura is the only one who can direct the workers on where to place the Marquee, because her sisters were not dressed appropriately. When she was told to see to the task, she did so and it was described as “Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter.” This wording of this sentence is significant, especially the word ‘flew’, because it adds flight imagery to the moment. The imagery of flight adds immediacy to the action and shows Laura’s youthful enthusiasm. This enthusiasm, which is also emphasized by the fact that she did not even wait to finish her bread inside, is a major aspect of Laura’s characterization as a youth. These short moments are very important to the short story because they are all we see of her a child, before the story pivotal moments that mark her transition to womanhood. The innovative literary techniques used throughout the story also highlight Laura’s transition to womanhood.
The short story begins in media res and this is significant because it signals that Laura is in the middle of her life. The short story would have been a completely different feeling if we had had seen Laura from birth to the moment of the transition to adulthood, and it would have been a less dramatic transition. The decision to start in the middle also emphasized the importance of the specific day. The decision to use 3rd person over the shoulder narration also adds to the The interaction that Laura has with her the working men setting up the Marquee is a major turning point in the short story and in Laura’s life because it shows her striving to take on the responsibilities of an adult. When she goes outside she speaks to the men in a specific tone of voice, “copying her mother’s voice”, which indicates that she is striving to act like an adult by imitating her mother. However, when this she realizes this tone of voice does not suit her, she “stammers like a little girl”, reflecting how new she is to behaving like an adult, and how she rides the line between youth and maturity. Later on she in the interaction, Laura reflects on what is appropriate to discuss, thinking “What a beautiful morning! She mustn’t which shows her taking on an adult attitude. This interaction is also significant because it represents Laura’s sexual awakening, and shows her maturing into a woman. Then Laura observes the demeanor of the men and she delights in their appearance and behavior, from the man’s “nice eyes, … small, but such a dark blue” to all of their kind smiles which seemed to her to say “‘Cheer up, we won’t bite.” Her attraction to the men is undeniable, and she refers to them as “very nice workmen” repeatedly. The men represent the epitome of masculinity. For one, they are manual laborers, and they work with their hands and bodies in an archetypically masculine role, to be the provider and the laborer. There is also a distinct contrast between the upper class and lower class men, that has to do with their perceived masculinity. Often, upper class men are regarded as effeminate because of their distance from manual labor, and also for their fanciful dress and intellectual nature, which contrasts the singularity of macho masculinity. Laura notices this in a subconscious way, reflecting “Why couldn’t she have workmen for friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper?”. Those “silly boys” are more effeminate and immature in her mind, whereas the workmen are mature and manly, and thus more attractive. In this moment where she feels the attraction to them, in contrast with the lack of attraction to the upper class boys, her sexuality awakens and she begins the transition to womanhood.
The next significant event in the short story to Laura’s maturation, is the tragic death of Mr. Scott, who was only a passing acquaintance, but whose death deeply affected Laura and made her consider her moral compass in relation to the societal norms of the upper class. Immediately, Laura feels as though it would be insensitive of her family to continue with festivities in light of the death, since the deceased and his family live so close to their home. The death puts Laura at odds with the attitude of high society, as vocalized by her older sister and mother. Both her mother and sister were not as bothered by the death of a lower class individual and feel that it is perfectly appropriate to commence with the party activities. Also, they both invalidated her perspective and told her that she was reacting in excess of what the situation called for. Jose expressed this opinion, saying “‘Stop the garden absurd. Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant.’” Her mother rationalized the situation, saying “But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it. If someone had died there normally … we should still be having our party” Here, Laura is forced to grapple with a very adult situation, one that requires maturity; her response is downplayed. The resulting inner turmoil is Laura’s first introduction to the complexities of adulthood, and to the realization that nothing lacks nuance. However, she represses this realization until later by deluding herself into believing her family’s perspective on the situation. (Repression is arguably adult coping mechanism). This action is made easier by a hat that her mother gives her, with beautiful golden daisies on it. The moment is described as, “the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon.” The hat represents the socialite role she has been raised to fulfill. The gold is a symbol for wealth, and the daisy a symbol of femininity. When she sees herself in the hat, she sees the illusion of adulthood. The capacity to repress her moral compass to act in accordance to social norms is not a permanent solution. Her struggle to reconcile her moral compass and the unfair social trappings of high society life, is a major component in her process of maturing toward adulthood.
However, Laura never fully reconciles her views nor embraces a social attitude, and this represents the shift from the singularity of a childlike focus to the complex web of contradictions that plague the adult mind. When Laura sees the dead man she describes him as “sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming.” Since, Laura is not able to fully process the death of the old man she is unable to face mortality and to deal with the complexity of adulthood. Instead, she reverts to a childlike interpretation of the death, denies its complexity of the situation and the permanence the event on her psyche. There is perverted Garden of Eden imagery throughout the story which mirrors and foreshadows Laura’s inability to reach adulthood, by implying she will not be able to eat from the tree of knowledge and thus not be able to leave the infantile state of Eve before she and Adam ate the fruit. In the scene where she is directing the workmen on the placement of the Marquee, they block the view of the karaka trees, which is described thus: “Then the karaka trees would be hidden. And they were so lovely, with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit. They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendor.” Here, we see Laura acknowledge a beautiful tree with tempting fruit, but it is hidden by a tent and thus she forgets the temptation. The isolation of the Sheridan’s home, above the less financially well off members of society, adds to the Eden imagery, and even though Laura is able to leave her home and see the family of the dead man, she is too overwhelmed to deal with the information. In the short story, there are many powerful symbols that indicate Laura is making the transition from childhood to womanhood, and reading the story on a cursory level it appears that she fully transitions to adulthood based on the many steps she takes in that direction. However, her transition is interrupted by her inability to process death and it is symbolically foreshadowed by her inability to access the knowledge from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Therefore, Laura is not able to fully become a woman.
In the short story, there are many powerful symbols that indicate that Laura is making the transition from childhood to womanhood; for a person reading the story on a cursory level, it appears that she fully transitions to adulthood based on the many steps she takes in that direction. However, her transition is interrupted by her inability to process death and is symbolically foreshadowed by her inability to access the knowledge from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Therefore, Laura is not able to fully become a woman. She is instead stuck in a position of grappling with the complex components of adulthood without reaching a point of resolution.