Class Systems In The Garden Party And Other Mansfield’s Works
“For class is a type of bubble, a membrane around one, and although one might grow within this membrane, and strain against it, it is impossible to break free from it” (Gowar 159). The recurring theme of class systems and its resulting conflict is prominent throughout “The Garden Party,” “The Story of an Hour,” and “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” In each story, the authors emphasize the absurdity of the class system through the portrayal of upper and lower classes and the presence of a character who crosses the boundary between classes.
One aspect of the class systems the authors use to bring attention to its foolishness is the norm that the lower class shows respect to the upper class. In “The Garden Party,” Kathrine Mansfield’s main protagonist, Laura questioned if the talk of “bangs slap in the eye” by the workmen was disrespectful to her as a member of the upper class (Mansfield 2). This reinforces the idea that the lower class should respect the upper class by implying that the lower class talks in an uncultured way that is beneath the upper class. The concept of respect is again established when Mrs. Scott’s sister habitually refers to Laura as “miss” (Mansfield 11). This shows that the people that live in the cottages respect the Sheridan’s because Laura is a teenager and is addressed as though she were an adult. Kate Chopin further depicts this notion in “The Story of an Hour” through Mrs. Mallard’s extreme relief at Mr. Mallard dying in the accident. Mrs. Mallard’s relief comes from the idea of living the rest of her life with “no powerful will bending hers” and being free to “live for herself” (97). This exemplifies the idea that women are expected to listen to their husbands and to go along with a man’s judgment without question. Because women are depicted as beneath men in society, they must respect a man’s needs and desires and place them ahead of their own. The concept is proven foolish because the reader knows that gender or how much money a person has should not affect how one should be treated compared to others.
Another facet of class systems proven irrational by the authors is how the upper class looks down on the lower class. In “The Garden Party,” Laura refers to the cottages down the lane as “the greatest possible eyesore” and “disgusting and sordid” which reflects how the rich view the members of the working class as below themselves (Mansfield 7). Mansfield portrays this attitude again when Laura wishes she could have something to cover her extravagant clothing even “one of those women’s shawls” (11). She separates herself from the lower class by referring to “[those] women” as though they are a separate being than herself (11). Similarly, this is implied in “The Story of an Hour” when Mrs. Mallard retreats to her room to mourn her husband alone (Chopin 96). However, the reader is enlightened that she is not retreating to mourn her husband but to bask in the freedom she is gaining. Mrs. Mallard could not allow herself to feel this relief and warmth in the presence of others because a woman should respect and love her husband and not hold disdain for him. If Mrs. Mallard would have allowed others to witness her spiritual healing, she would have been outcast and looked down upon. In addition, Alexie Sherman illustrates the irrationality in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” Sherman’s character Jackson recounts his observations of treatment by the white members of Chicago towards himself and other Native Americans. Jackson relates the treatment to being perceived as a “savage” (9) and states from experience that “silence is the best method of dealing with white folks” (10).
A third way the authors prove class systems absurd is through their creation of a character that crosses the boundaries between classes and attempts to mend these relationships. Chopin’s character, Mrs. Mallard, challenges the class divide with her thoughts and attitudes. While Mrs. Mallard doesn’t take direct action to repair society, through her thoughts the reader is illuminated to how erroneous life is (97). In fact, Nicole Diederich found through discussion with her international and domestic students that their cultures “upheld a relationship of love and equality between husband and wife” and the relationship between the Mallards was awful (117). Sherman Alexie used many characters in his story to attempt to call attention to the need for healing between the classes. For example, the police officer that awoke Jackson from the railroad tracks tries to help Jackson out by dropping him off at a rehab center and giving him money to aid his cause (25-25). Alexie’s character that owns the pawn shop also attempts to help a member of the lower class at the end of the story when he gives Jackson the regalia for twenty dollars instead of the agreed one thousand dollars (28). Likewise, Mansfield utilizes Laura’s empathetic nature to emphasize the distinctions between classes. Laura is the only member of the Sheridan family that wants to postpone the garden party out of respect for the Scott family (6) and is the one to deliver the food to the mourning family down the lane (10). However, while Laura is utilized as the character to interact with both classes, she doesn’t completely believe that the class system is wrong. When Laura sees Mr. Scott’ s dead body, instead of being horrified by the sight she decides to think of it as Mr. Scott peacefully sleeping so, in the words of William Atkinson, “she can enjoy her class privileges without feeling the discomfort of economic realities”(Shaup 222).
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