The Garden Party
The Garden Party: Laura’s Interrupted Journey to Womanhood
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.
Discoveries That Broaden Understanding: Katherine Mansfield and Robert Gray
The discoveries can be transformative for individuals as they develop new ways of viewing themselves and society; however, sometimes broadening one’s understanding can have detrimental effects. Robert Gray and Katherine Mansfield, in their writings, portray how these negative discoveries may cause the persona to reject aspects of a specific lifestyle. Gray encourages his readers to critically examine the world and its immorality by portraying a morally problematic society in his poem Meatworks. Gray further questions society, portraying the negative ramifications of consumer waste throughout his poem Flames and Dangling Wires, informed by Gray’s demythologised interpretation of Buddhism. Similarly Mansfield’s 1922 short story The Garden Party evokes a socially confronting realisation in the persona, causing the reader to question the superficial facets of human existence. Through discoveries individuals learn of their responsibility for the world around them which has a lasting effect on their lives.
Composers portray the transformative effects of discoveries which lead to moral questioning and renewed values. Gray’s poem Meatworks criticises the slaughtering industry, informed by Gray’s practise of vegetarianism. The use of exclusive language separates the persona from the other workers, establishing his morality over “them” as “most of them worked around the slaughtering.” The polysemy of “works around” denotes the workers as being nearby as well as ‘working around’ the morality of animal slaughter. The enjambment with the following line emphasises the word “slaughter,” creating a brutal atmosphere, positioning the reader to reject the meat industry as informed by the Zen Buddhist notion that sentient beings possess a spirit and are worthy of respect. Both Gray and Mansfield convey how personas’ discovery can morally transform the reader as they perceive new ideas. In Mansfield’s short story the optimistic tone created through the child-like diction as the narrator talks of “what happiness it is to be with people who all are happy,” portrays how the reader’s priorities, like Laura’s, may be diverted from serious to more superficial facets of human existence. Laura’s acceptance of the garden party portrays how the mother’s thoughts intrude upon hers, as the lower class are “poor creatures,” not worth “us” cancelling a party for. This binary opposition of class emphasises Laura discovering her own morality, questioning her mother by asking “isn’t it terribly heartless of us?” The first person pronoun encourages the reader to discover a sense of their own morals that exists outside the parameters of their parents, as they discover how sudden realisations may cause a re-evaluation of ideals. Discoveries play an important role in the understanding individuals hold of their society, causing a re-evaluation of one’s own ethics.
Discoveries broaden our understanding of our responsibility for the world and provide hope for societal transformation. Gray, in Flames and Dangling Wires, portrays a new and confronting view of the world to facilitate a discovery in the reader and provide hope for society. The reference to “dangling wires” continues the motif of waste and reinforces the perceptions of cultural decline. The title reference awakens the persona from the decadence of consumerism, resulting in “the dump,” “as a curtain lifting, one time, to a coast of light.” The metaphor of the theatre gives way “one time” to a light, enlightening the reader on the disappearing electromagnetism, carrying away the signal of “Chopin” and the possibility of future enlightenment. This is indicative of the Buddhist enlightenment – understanding the insignificance of humanity in the grand scale of the universe. In Meatworks, Gray continues to depict how the persona’s discoveries influence the reader as they come to terms with the imposition of society on nature. Gray portrays the pigs as sentimental creatures, encouraging the reader to empathise with them and “[feel] but one / not looked at then –” The second person perspective encourages the audience to reject the meatworks, with em-dashes creating a pause as polysemic for the way the audience used to view the world and a sudden infiltration of their thoughts by the final accosting imagery of the pigs “clinging to each other.” This is influenced by Gray’s vegetarianism and his belief in the Buddhist ideals of detachment from desires to receive enlightenment. By broadening the reader’s understanding of their personal values, composers may encourage them to question preconceived ideals.
Whilst discoveries expand our understanding of the world, in some instances these revelations can have negative consequences for individuals. Through Meatworks, Gray builds his criticism of the slaughtering system, depicting how discovery may be a cause of alienation for individuals. The sibilance and olfactory imagery of “sticky stench” that “sent the flies mad” emphasises the sickening image, whilst the imagery of the “flies” continues the sense of revulsion and lexical chain of insects. The exclusive conjunctive opening of the next line “but I settled for one of the lowest-paying jobs” demonstrates the persona’s self exclusion from the other workers, as a difference in values causes them to challenge society. Contrastingly, in Flames and Dangling Wires, Gray evokes a confronting experience as the reader realises their inability to separate themselves from cultural decline. The collective pronoun in “behind us, the city / driven like stakes into the earth” implicates the persona in the actions of human kind. This continues the hellish allusion of “stake” to vampiric legends, implying that “us” is more accusative than confessional, as Gray positions humanity as an imposition on the environment, encouraging the audience to question the role they play in a consumer society. Mansfield similarly portrays how negative individual discoveries provide hope for societal transformation. Laura discovers the neighbour’s death, awakening her from the superiority and insensitivity of a higher class as Laura’s mother explains that “people like that” “don’t expect sacrifices from people like us.” The juxtaposition of “us” and “that” exemplifies the difference in class, as Mansfield invites the reader into discovering the “simply marvellous” meaning of life, which exists outside human superficialities. These negative individual discoveries may impact upon the reader and provide hope for societal transformation; however the persona’s realisations may cause them to reject aspects of their life. Robert Gray, as informed by his demythologised interpretation of Buddhism, encourages individuals to question their values and society in Meatworks and Flames and Dangling Wires. These poems portray how through discovery individuals may come to renewed perceptions of their own values which have a transformative effect on their lives.
Both Gray’s poems and Mansfield’s short story The Garden Party explore how some revelations may have negative effects for individuals; however these negative discoveries may provide hope for societal transformation. It is through discovery that individuals broaden their understanding of their responsibility for the world around them as they establish new ways of viewing society and themselves.
Literary Devices in “Miss Brill”
In “Miss Brill,” Katherine Mansfield uses a combination of symbolism and mood to portray an old woman’s veiled loneliness and loss of innocence. In the story, the protagonist Miss Brill maintains the quiet life of a person who is content to watch the events of others’ lives unfold around her while she remains a figure on the outskirts of the action. Miss Brill convinces herself that her life comprises an important aspect of the greater whole of her community, a resolution that is shattered when she is confronted with evidence of her own insignificance.
Mansfield uses a variety of literary devices to illustrate the nature of Miss Brill’s reality. From the beginning, Mansfield utilizes descriptions of the weather and music in the park to establish a mood that parallels her protagonist’s feelings and mental state. On the surface, this weather appears to be pleasant and “brilliantly fine.” Miss Brill sets out from her house with a carefree and happy manner. However, there is an undercurrent of “something light and sad.” Miss Brill quickly denies the presence of this sadness, rationalizing it instead as a gentle sensation. Likewise, when she listens to a band, Miss Brill recognizes a subtle melancholy in the otherwise pleasant tunes, but she dismisses the “faint chill” in the music as an alternate contented energy. In both cases, the weather and music represent Miss Brill’s own life, in which she unconsciously represses her feelings of loneliness to preserve the illusion of her own meaning.
Mansfield also establishes an analogy in which Miss Brill compares her life to a play, where she fulfills the duties of an actress and occupies one of the critical roles “on the stage.” Miss Brill muses that if she did not perform the motions of her routine, namely coming to the park at the right time every Sunday, “no doubt someone would have noticed.” Despite Miss Brill’s self-assurance that her function in the action is crucial, Mansfield portrays her as definitely more of an audience member, someone who watches the other individuals interacting in her environment while never actually engaging in any of the conversations or interactions herself. Miss Brill is finally confronted with the realization that she is not significant when she overhears a young man ask “Who wants her here?” and hears his girlfriend laugh at her appearance. It is at this moment when Miss Brill experiences the first rush of the revelation that no one actually cares for her or would regret or question her absence.
The most impactful representation of Miss Brill’s life is the fur that she elects to wear, which serves as a symbol of the hollow nature of her existence, and by extension serves as a symbol of Miss Brill herself. As the fur has suffered some wear and been made more shabby due to its age, its owner has also been worn out. The nose has lost its firmness, and Miss Brill notes that it must have “suffered a knock somehow.” This inclusion of the blow to the fur represents the aging that the older woman has experienced at her advanced stage in life, but also foreshadows the emotional blow that she will receive in the park. In the end, after overhearing the young man and woman gossiping about her, Miss Brill silently retreats to her “room like a cupboard,” unwraps the fur from around her neck, and stuffs it back into its dark box. Like the fur, Miss Brill is placing herself in a dark room, away from the company of others. The reader can assume that she and the fur are both unlikely to reemerge to experience the bliss of ignorance and self-delusion that had previously been associated with the outer world.
This story wields a powerful influence over its reader by depicting a compelling portrait of what no one wants to become. Miss Brill is the embodiment of a deluded and lonely old woman who has no one to care for or miss her. For me, the most disturbing (and most effective) component of the work is the last line, which describes how when Miss Brill places the lid on the fur’s box “she thought she heard something crying.” At the initiation of the story, she is in her mind a key figure in the operation of society; by the end, she has ceased to even be a key figure in her own life, and is consigned to the role of audience member in that sphere as well. This is evident in the fact that she does not even actively weep, but instead only distantly observes her own tears. Further, she purposely neglects going to the bakery, (a ritual that held great importance in her routine before), because she now understands that she would not be missed. This story exerts its influence in the psyche of the reader by illustrating an understated portrait of a character who is led to question their previously inflated image of self-worth. Both stories prey on the idea of legacy, and the notion that an individual experiences an ultimate failure when her life contains no inherent value or purpose.
“The Daughters of the Late Colonel” as a Modernist Work
During the Modern period, writers were concerned with “making it new.” People had been disillusioned, largely due to the devastation of the First World War, and they were fed up with the hypocrisy of Victorian society. People’s way of looking at themselves and society had changed; they wanted address the issues that Victorians ignored, and ameliorate society. Katherine Mansfield’s “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” is undoubtedly a Modernist short story. The characteristics it possesses in both form and content restrict it from belonging to any earlier literary period. The very fact that the author, Katherine Mansfield, is writing shows that this short story belongs to the Modernist period. In the past, writers have traditionally been upper-class, white males from central European cities (namely London). Mansfield, however, is an average middle-class woman from the colonies (New Zealand). Mansfield did not have to write under a man’s name in order to be successful. Had this story been written in an earlier period, it would not have been taken seriously unless it was thought to have been written by a man. With the Modern Period came the emergence of feminism. By the 1920s, most women had the vote; but they were still fighting for equality. Writing allowed women to prove they were equal to men. It also gave women a voice, proving they had a point of view and that it was worth listening to. This is a new development that was not achieved until Modernist times.Although this is a Modern story, written by a Modernist writer, the main characters, Constantia and Josephine are not Modern women. At the beginning of the story the way they behave makes them appear to be little girls, it is only later that we find out that they’re actually quite a bit older. This is because they have had arrested development. Under the strict tyranny of their father, they have been trained like soldiers to serve him, and stay out of his way. They see themselves with a tremendous amount of guilt as extra expenses. They have been infantilized, because everyone expects they’ll just get married and their husbands will provide for them. The Colonel symbolizes Victorian society. Now that he is dead, the girls have the freedom to do what they want. However, because of the way they have been raised, Victorianism is so ingrained in them that they do not know how to express anything different. In their father’s room, everything is covered in white sheets, representing the false fronts, or hypocrisy of Victorian society. When Josephine pulls up the blind, it “flew up and the cord flew after, rolling round the blind-stick, and the little tassel tapped as if trying to get free (326).” It is trying to get free from the confinements of the Victorian period. Constantia and Josephine subconsciously wish to be free too, but they must first realize that they have been prisoners. The girls are afraid to open anything because they know it will bring about major changes, and really just want to leave everything as is. Likewise, by the end of the story, the girls have not made any progress in their own lives. As Constantia’s name suggests, the girls are constant in their ways. They are afraid that their father will be angry that they have buried him; but these girls have been buried all their lives. This short story represents a precipice, after the Victorian period, and just at the very beginning of the Modern period, where there is still so much potential. The girls reach the edge of this precipice when the organ grinder comes around and the sun comes out, like a visual representation of their “light-bulb moment.” The epiphany is unfortunately lost in all their civilities of who will speak first; but it does present possibilities for the future. This strong symbolism/ abstraction is another aspect of the story that situates it in the Modern period. In previous periods, literary works tended to have literal meanings that were clear and easy to understand. Constantia and Josephine are not Modern women; but neither are they heroines. They are more like antiheros, seeming to be inadequate in many ways. They have not had the opportunity to do anything heroic because Modernists believed those opportunities are rare in real life. This goes along with the “No more parades” attitude that ensued after WWI. There are no words like “Glory,” “Noble,” “Honour,” or “Heroic” used in this narrative, whereas in earlier periods, these were common words. Modernists were sick of hypocrisy. They wanted everything swept out from under the carpet, so there could be no false fronts; everything was presented as it was. Although these girls seem inadequate, the Modernists believed that it was a more realistic picture, therefore a better one.Instead of finding comfort in religion at the time of their father’s death, when Mr. Farolles comes to visit, they describe the scene as “awkward.” The Victorians, and even more so, the Romantics had strong faith in God. It is only in Modern times that we get the feeling that “God is dead.” When Mr. Farolles asks the girls if they would like to take communion, they liken it to sitting “in torture.” Communion is one of the most important and revered aspects of the church, and to refer to it as torture would have been heresy in previous periods! The lack of respect for God goes along with the lack of respect for authority that ensued after the First World War. Not only do the girls not have God, but they also don’t have anyone else- they are alienated. As ‘old spinsters’ they do not see any prospect for marriage, but neither do they see any other way of life. As unmarried women they feel like they do not fit in with the rest of society. For Modernists, however, this was inevitable, something everyone experiences. It showed that they were not in sync with everyone else, they were individuals. In Victorian times, fitting in was one of people’s main concerns. The fact that these girls are alienated from the rest of society and do not have faith in God shows this to be a Modernist work.Another aspect that helps to situate this literary work in the Modernist period is the meaninglessness in conversations. If you look closely to what characters are saying, very little of it is actually of any importance. In one instance, the girls are discussing Cyril, and how he was not able to come for their father’s funeral. Josephine says how it would have been nice if he could have come, and Connie replies “’and he would have enjoyed it so,” not thinking what she was saying (328).” Of course Cyril would not have enjoyed a funeral; this reply is just thoughtless nonsense. The “not thinking what she was saying” part is the key, this conversation really doesn’t matter to her; she is only half listening. This is because Modernists believed that a large part of life was meaningless. In earlier writing, conversations were flawless. Someone would ask a question, and the other person would have a flawless answer, almost as if it was planned. The Modernists were concerned with things being more realistic, so by including meaninglessness in conversations, they are helping to make it so.Naturalism is another literary device that was not used before the Modern period. It was employed in an attempt to make things seem more realistic, closer to what they’d be like in real life. For example, instead of just saying the girls went into their father’s room, it breaks the action down, talking of Josephine “grasping the door- handle and doing her best to turn it.” Nurse Andrew’s speech is another form of Naturalism used in this story. Not everyone speaks perfect English in real life, so by making Nurse Andrews pronounce words like “buttah (323)” and “bittah (342)” it makes her speech seem more natural. Prior to the Modern period, characters would often have perfect English, and even speak with perfect rhythm. This short story is also blatantly Modern in terms of its structure. This story is told from multiple points of view. Perspectives from Connie, Josephine and Cyril are all presented. The difference in perspectives, especially between the perspective of Cyril and his Aunts is very interesting. Cyril makes everything seem so childish and ridiculous, he also makes his Aunts seem much older and more naive. The difference in perspectives reminds us that the narrator is not always reliable, and that different people can have different points of view. Prior to the Modernist period, the main type of narration was the Omniscient narrator, who was all-knowing. In Modern times, this type of narration was seen as completely unrealistic. Not only does the narration have multiple points of view, but it is also non-linear. In pre-Modern times, stories were told from start to finish with no jumping around; but this story contains memories and flashbacks from other periods in the girl’s lives. Overall, the many Modernist elements in this short story prove that it could not have been written in any period but the Modern. The female author, the lack of hero, the abstraction and symbolism, lack of respect for God/authority, alienation, Naturalism, the meaninglessness, the multiple narrators and the non-linearity are all devices that were not employed in earlier periods. Some works, especially ones written during a transitional phase, can have elements of more than one period; but Katherine Mansfield’s “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” is definitely Modern.Works CitedMansfield, Katherine. “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. Ed. S. Gilbert, S. Gubar. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2004. Print.
The Relationship Between Incident and Character in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘Bliss’
‘What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?’ – Henry James
It can be argued that a person’s character and individual nature is affected by exterior incident. This occurs in both Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss, however each protagonist’s experience differs. For Bertha Young in Mansfield’s short story, the incident –discovering Pearl’s affair with her husband –does not change her character; her nature is the only thing that remains the same, whilst the outward circumstances continue to change. In James’ short story, the governess is so affected by the incidents –seeing both the ghostly figure of the man in the tower and the woman by the lake –that she struggles to identify between an outward incident and one conjured by her own mind. Her character changes indefinitely, only adding to the horror of the incidents. Therefore, it is difficult to provide a definite argument as to the relationship of incident and character. For the governess, the reader witnesses the effects of the incident; for Bertha, we merely see the beginning of the end.
Within The Turn of the Screw, many of the governess’ actions are determined by the supernatural incidents she encounters, fuelling her supposed insanity. The reader is only introduced to the governess as a character when she arrives at Bly, and we are given little information about her life previously. Therefore, the reader can only judge her on the behaviour we witness, which is of her character being consumed by these incidents. The governess describes the lasting effects of her encounter with the apparition, Peter Quint:
They are in my ears still, his supreme surre’nder of the name and his tribute to my devotion. ‘What does he matter now, my own? –what will he ever matter? I have you,’…
James’ use of the adverb ‘still’ emphasises a constant presence, suggesting that whilst the encounter is over, their voices refuse to leave her head. These prolonging effects begin to suggest that perhaps even the governess herself is possessed. This incident also seems to provoke possessiveness in the governess. Whilst it is understandable that she would be concerned for Miles, the italicised emphasis ‘I’ suggests a need to almost own the child, beyond necessary emotion. Therefore, the effects of this incident do not seem to change the governess’ character, but bring to the surface a possessive nature that was perhaps long forgotten.
For the governess in Turn of the Screw, the incident provokes a reaction that involves others, and determines her relationship with the children. In Mansfield’s Bliss, Bertha discovers her husband’s affair, but then is completely detached from others in her reaction; she discovers and laments the downfall by herself:
‘Oh, what is going to happen now?’ she cried.
But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.
This cry of desperation is placed directly after the revelation of the divorce. This creates a stark contrast between the ‘lovely as ever’ pear tree and Bertha’s human downfall. It also works to highlight her isolation; throughout the short story, the tree has been representative of strength and beauty, yet now it bestows none of this on Bertha and refuses to collectively suffer. Mansfield commented she ‘had moments when it has seemed to [her] that this wasn’t what [her] little kingdom ought to be like.’ And this echoes Bertha’s expectations perfectly. She claims to have ‘everything’ (p.115) in her ‘little kingdom’, yet her way of life is tarnished as she is left asking a question that no-one answers. This tragic epiphany seems as if it will indefinitely shape Bertha’s character, yet as readers we are limited to this scene, and do not see the consequent actions. Therefore, incident in both short stories shapes the protagonist’s, not only in their own characters, but in how they react to other mediums, whether human or nature.
Rohrberger comments that: ‘Mirrors serve to reflect reality as it is or as the character wants it to be.’ Mansfield uses a mirror to present Bertha’s new reality; the image she sees changes her character, and pre-empts an incident that will happen. In this instance, the change in character occurs before the incident: She hardly dared to look into the cold mirror- but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big, dark eyes […] waiting for something…divine to happen…that she knew must happen…infallibly. (p.115) Despite Bertha’s action of looking in the mirror, the image is given back to her, removing her agency from the action. Through this, Bertha is able to truly see the woman she has, almost subconsciously, become, ‘a woman radiant with smiling, trembling lips’. This sensual imagery suggests an anticipation of her own metaphorical blossoming; her sexuality is awakening and she is sure something will happen, just not quite what. Her lack of agency is once again emphasised by the suggestion of God in the ‘divine’ act; the incident, whatever it will be, will occur and she is helpless to stop it. Furthermore, the repetition of ellipses emphasises this agonising prolonging and sense of mystery; the reader is delayed in the reading of Bliss, as Bertha is in the knowledge that a ‘divine’ incident must happen.
In The Turn of the Screw, there is a similar ambiguity in an incident as the governess sees Miles on the lawn: ‘[the] moon made the night extraordinarily penetrable […] The presence on the lawn –I felt sick as I made it out– was poor little Miles himself.’ (p.176) Again, nature seems to provide the clarity that the human mind cannot; the night is ‘extraordinarily penetrable’, yet the governess still describes Miles as a ‘presence’. This suggests a supernatural element to the young boy’s identity, presenting confusion between the human characters and the apparitions. It could also further suggest the governess perceives for the first time the ‘reality’ of Miles’ character; is he a young boy possessed or simply wanting to be seen ‘–for a change –bad!’ (p.179)? To conclude, these identified incidents change a character’s nature in a way that is unexpected; Bertha sees a new version of herself, as the governess sees Miles in a new light.
As established, an incident can work to determine the character of a person. However, both short stories also present the idea that mental thought can influence. The governess experiences the incident where she sees Flora in the garden, and the memory of this experience then changes as she continues to think about it: ‘Two hours ago, in the garden’ –I could scarce articulate- Flora saw!’[…] there are depths, depths! The more I go over it the more I see in it, and the more I see in it the more I fear. (p.157) She is obviously becoming obsessive, going over it until she sees more than she perhaps ever originally witnessed. With such a strong assertion primarily existing as thought, the governess struggles with this conversion to speech. This separation is illustrated by the punctuation ‘-‘; this physical break in the text equates to the difference between the spoken and the mental. Rawlings observes that: ‘Bly seems to offer the governess a new space of possibility, making room for the pleasure of the fictional, the improvisational…’ This therefore suggests that the so-called incident was not Flora’s apparition, but the move to Bly, and this has affected her thought processes. This idea of the ‘improvisational’ is continued in the governess’ combination of thought and sight, as if the more thought she dedicates to it, the more she ‘sees’ in her memories. Furthermore, the governess actively displays an unreliable narration, leading the readers to question what is the truth, and what she improvised.
Whilst the governess’ actions are determined by her own thought, Mansfield’s Bliss exhibits a character that is dictated by the thoughts of other people. Mansfield seems to mock this superficial and modern lifestyle, embodied in the character of Eddie: ‘I think I’ve come across the same idea in a lit-tle French review, quite unknown in England’ (p.119). The use of italics suggests that Eddie chooses his words and emphases to suggest his own high level of education. His tone also becomes increasingly patronising –‘lit-tle French review’ –suggesting that he thinks himself over the others at the dinner table. His exclusivity of information, what is ‘quite unknown’, determines him as a character of power through knowledge. However, this aestheticism –‘a [concept] of life committed to keener experiences of aesthetic sensation and perception’– encourages self-absorbed traits that seem irrelevant to others. This ‘aesthetic sensation’ and carefully shaped rhetoric replaces emotional sensation; when Bertha’s learns of Harry’s affair, Eddie is capable of reciting ‘Table d’Hôte’ but fails to offer emotional support. This perhaps makes Bertha conscious that a life full of ‘modern, thrilling friends’(p.115) who live their lives based on other’s thoughts and opinions is temporary and unfulfilling. This shows how powerful one’s own thoughts are to the individual, but seemingly powerless when directed, as Eddie does, at others unnecessarily.
Throughout both the short stories, there are events where characters seem to influence incidents. Yet, it is more interesting to consider how, in Bliss and The Turn of the Screw, incidents attempt to control a character and thus fail. In both texts, an incident occurs and we, as readers, expect a certain reaction. But the characters lack understanding, and therefore they are not influenced by the incident, as they should be. Bertha cannot comprehend her new-found, ardently emotional consciousness and the governess struggles not with the apparitions themselves but their purpose of appearing. This creates a tension between what should have happened, and what did happen in the after-math of pivotal incidents. To conclude, the focus is perhaps then on not how the incident influenced a character, but how it did not.
James, H. The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories (Oxford & New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1992)
Levenson, M. ‘Modernism’, The encyclopaedia of literary and cultural theory,(USA: Wiley, 2011) (http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/wileylitcul/modernism/0) [accessed 31 January 2014]
Mansfield, K. ‘Bliss’ in Selected Stories (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1981)
Rawlings, P. (ed.) Palgrave advances in Henry James studies (New York & Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)
Rohrberger, M. The Art of Katherine Mansfield (Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1977)
Stead, C.K. (ed.) The Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield) (Penguin Books, 1977)
Marxism in Mansfield
In Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden-Party”, the socioeconomically-derived false consciousness discussed by Michael Bell in “The Metaphysics of Modernism” initially blinds the protagonist Laura from viewing the world in any context outside of her household. While the story’s pivotal actions do not change Laura’s physical existence and setting, they drastically alter her metaphysical social awareness in such a way that the depth of her “awakening” underscores the extent to which her social context initially shielded her perception of the world.Immediately, Katherine Mansfield paints an almost painfully idealized image of a garden party: the weather is flawless, the lawn is trimmed to perfection, the flowers and plants are blooming with an almost divine beauty. Extrapolation sets the story in some sort of socially-advantaged household, where the extent of the children’s worries stretches no further than the problem of locating an optimal setting for a marquee. The almost absurd nature of this idealized setting gives the reader the impression that this Modernist story is, in fact, accenting the ignorance of the family in question. This is a point that Bell emphasizes in his discussion of Marxist appearances in modernism: “Marx had analyzed the external realm of social and economic process and laid bare the ‘false consciousness’ by which the advantaged classes unwittingly rationalized their own condition” (Bell 9). Indeed, Laura initially seems to regard social class as a prerequisite for casual conversation, as her reaction to the Bourgeoisie workman’s informal conversation would suggest: “Laura’s upbringing made her wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye” (Mansfield 853). As the conversation continues, Mansfield maintains the socioeconomic distinction between Laura and the workmen, but simultaneously allows Laura’s esteem for the workmen and their alien nature to slowly elevate her perception of the world outside of her social class.The subsequent change in Laura’s social perception seems to exemplify Bell’s contention regarding the Marxist hermeneutic of a human life: It is not just that external appearances, and the commonsensical or rational means of understanding them, are limited and fallible. It is that such appearances and reasoning may be actively disguising contrary truths to which, by definition, there is no other access. (Bell 10)An important aspect of Laura’s experience with the workmen is that her exposure to their informality leaves her lighthearted; her only frustration stems from the fact that she doesn’t “have workmen for friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper” (Mansfield 854). Bell’s commentary suggests that Laura’s interactions may have challenged the paradigm inherent in her social class: “modernist literature is often concerned with the question of how to live within a new context of thought, or a new worldview” (Bell 10). Shortly thereafter, Mansfield juxtaposes a new situation that forces Laura to defend her blossoming social perceptions.While Laura’s family is somewhat unresponsive to the news that a man from the infamous alley across the street has died, the evidence of Laura’s interaction with the workmen from earlier that day quickly manifests itself. She sees something as serious as death as legitimate grounds for canceling the party, out of sensitivity for the family. She notes that her family does not view the death as an important event: as her mother coldly explains, “People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us” (Mansfield 859). The obvious distinction between these two reactions highlights Laura’s novel perceptions in a new contextual world, while underscoring her family’s preference for Marx’s “false consciousness” (explained vicariously through Bell). In order to fortify Laura’s “awakening”, Mansfield has Laura visit the family of the deceased man. The readers, and likely Laura’s family, expect Laura to feel uncomfortable in this foreign setting, particularly considering her reason for visiting. Of course, Laura does initially feel uncomfortable: her hat, which had garnered her a plethora of complements at an earlier party, suddenly seems ridiculous and socially burdensome. However, upon beholding the “young man, fast asleep” (Mansfield 862), the depth of Laura’s change in perception becomes evident. She asks Em’s sister to forgive her hat, but in fact she seems to be asking forgiveness for the ignorance of her social origin. Laura has evidently answered Bell’s question regarding metaphysical self-perception, but her brother Laurie, who sees melancholy in her tears instead of marvel, demonstrates the continuation of her family’s false consciousness.Continuing his discussion of modernity, Bell cites Martin Heidegger’s contention that “the fact that the world becomes a picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age” (qtd. in Bell 12). The most important transition in Mansfield’s “The Garden-Party” is Laura’s ability to change from seeing the world physically to considering the world metaphysically; she can now see herself not only in first-person perspective, but also as a contextual object from a third space. Consequently, Mansfield herself seems to complement modernity’s overarching search not only for answers, but for new methods for considering existentialist questions.