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.