The Garden Party And The Concept Of Marxism

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

This short story offers a Marxist reading as it employs the concept of social divisions and class constructs paired with the historic setting of society in the Victorian era. 1921 certainly portrays a time when appearance and style were much more important than substance, and Mansfield paints a bleak picture of what it was like for someone of the ruling class to begin to identify with others. The reader, too, is asked to sympathise with those impoverished characters as the labourers in this story operate as mechanisms parallel to those in a capitalist culture. Thus we can infer that The Garden Party is a manifestation of the western, capitalist, conservative domain of what Mansfield observed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. I feel it is important to touch upon the historical context of the text, and the author before delving deeper into the essay. The Garden Party was written in 1922, during two world wars, and in many ways simulates this context. 

The 1920’s encompassed years of decadence and cynicism combined with major social and political upheavals. This shows that years of disturbance throughout Europe could have unquestionably had tangible effects on literature. This would be supported by P. Barry who asserts that “literary forms are themselves determined by political circumstances”. This is to say that Mansfield was not exempt from the social conditions around her and the influence of this can be seen in her works. She was a modernist writer born in New Zealand and her family were of a middle-class status, the father being somewhat of a successful businessman. There seemed to be an expectancy for her, and her sisters included, to find suitable husbands at the lavish parties they would attend, but Mansfield became more and more rebellious. Perhaps she reflects her childhood and personal life through the main character, Laura as “all history has been a history of class struggles, of struggles between exploited and exploiting, between dominated and dominating classes” (Friedrich Engels). Therefore, it doesn’t matter what historical epoch one reads this story in as the message remains the same. 

Karl Marx and other Marxist theorists would argue that neutral readings of literature are impossible as “thought is subservient to, and follows, the material conditions under which it develops” (H. Bertens). In other words, Mansfield was unable to dispose of her class background, which may have resulted in multiple pieces of literature that illustrate the unjust discrepancies of a world where power creates imbalance. Marxist literary critics assert that no writer is free from the prevailing socio-economic system at the time of writing. Not only does this enable us to empathise with the characters, but it also enables us to empathise with authors writing at a certain time in political history. Mansfield depicts a significant polarity between classes which ultimately cause the protagonist, Laura to become sheltered by real-world struggles like death and poverty that are much more common in lower class communities. Her consciousness of social context shields her perception of the world. Mansfield further portrays the disparities between different segments of society by drawing on the physical differences. This is demonstrated through her description of the houses as “those little cottages” are situated “at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the” Sheridan house. The metaphor of the house placement and the two different settings accentuate the complexities and insensitivities of the rising middle classes which eventually renders Laura confused within her own social circle. 

Mansfield is further critical of social divisions through the means of education, and often highlights this through the standard of language: “Yer ma won’t know” compared to the formality of “Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea makes one shudder.” It is difficult to transcend one’s on working class, and this is explored through Mansfield’s use of dialect and colloquial speech. There is a focus around the powerlessness of the inarticulate and how she remains acutely aware of the connection between class and language. Although there is a lack of education amongst the working class people, there also seems to be a lack of education amongst the upper classes whose conventional attributes serve to limit their vision on social awareness and morality. However, even though Laura has been deprived of such knowledge, she appears to be a character who resists the pre-conceived class roles. This is simply shown when she asks “are we going to stop everything?” when she hears of the man’s death. It proves difficult for Laura to act morally sound, and Mansfield proposes the question of how individuals of different socio-economic classes relate to one another. She is surrounded by a society, and specifically a family, that overlook serious issues in favour of a garden party as long as their appearance is maintained. 

Jose even makes the remark that “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental”. Mansfield could be holding up a mirror to her readers suggesting that it is a reflection on our own lives. Her class sensibility is shared via the idealistic young girl, Laura as she attacks the inability of one class to understand the other. As Laura is torn between two worlds it, in turn, raises the complex question, do we create our own divisions in society? When confronted with tragedy do we avert our eyes? If so, she is therefore critical of the blindness we accompany and the selfish attitudes sometimes present in all of us. Both the workmen and the Sheridan family are instantly shown to be distinct opposites as they prepare for the party. Whilst the family get ready and eat their ‘bread-and-butter’, the workmen perform the menial manual labour. Not only does this clearly exhibit differences in social class, but it also reinforces how the working class are generally seen as purely functional: capitalism alienates workers who are regarded ‘as objects rather than human beings’ (H. Bertens). The word ‘objects’ certainly stands out as throughout the text the cook is simply referred to as ‘cook’, and is not addressed by her real name. 

The lack of humanity in the maid is a reflection of how capitalism views workers. When reading through a Marxist lens, readers are exposed to the marginalisation of those within the lowest tier of the capitalist socio-economic hierarchy. ‘Cook’ is amounted to nothing but the production of an almost human entity as she is given no name and only serves the purpose to be a ‘cook’ – she serves no purpose other than to please the Sheridan’s. Karl Marx himself states that ‘nothing can have value without being an object of utility’. The act of saying one’s name seems mere, something we don’t consider or even think about. However, it epitomises how the social elite who consequently oppress those who operate as meaningless ‘objects’ view workers to be inferior. They are dehumanised which underpins the exact treatment of economic status’. Laura witnesses a moment where one of the workmen takes the time to pinch a sprig of lavender and smell it. At this point, she wonders why “couldn’t she have workmen for her friends” as she would “get on much better with men like these”. It becomes obvious to the reader that Laura has never socialised with people who simply appreciate the world for what it is. This is her first real encounter that foreshadows what is to happen later in the story where she cannot help but feel estranged from her own family. Separate from them is where she is able to experience the world outside the confines and comforts of her home. 

As we see Laura become provoked by curiosity resulting in an individual experience of growth and maturity, The Garden Party can then be considered to be like a Bildungsroman story. Her development allows her to encounter life from another perspective, and her new insights about the contradictions of life: the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated allow her to see the inherent greed present in a bourgeoisie community. This is no more apparent than when her mother gives her a basket of leftovers to take to the widow. Here, Mansfield is revealing how capitalists will exploit the proletariat to any extent in order to achieve their own selfish gains. For example, Laura’s mother felt it would mask her fake guilt which thus illustrates the façade of capitalism. Whilst it may seem like a meaningful gesture on the surface, a Marxist reading would suggest that it simply shows the underlying acquisitive nature of the upper class. This exact nature is represented through the use of the hat which was used to seduce Laura into conforming to her mother’s idea of class relations. It is a key emblem of superficiality in a privileged world. 

After Laura is sent to the cottages with a basket of “perfectly good food”, she sees the mans body. In some ways, this is an epiphanic moment for Laura as her social recognition alters. Reality hits and she is confronted with the depth of human life, how the confines of her ideal and secure world cannot, and will not protect her from the darkness of life. As she struggles with an internal moral debate, she realises the folly in ‘garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks’ because what did they “matter to him?”. This turning point enables readers to draw Marxist interpretations as Laura becomes aware of the material commodities that centre around her home life and this causes her views to change. Whilst the more important issue of the day was disregarded for the party, the dead man was entering a classless realm. When we are alive it is difficult for social mobility as “According to Marx, we are all situated historically and socially, and our social and historical contexts mean that our lives are “determined”’ (Rivkin and Ryan). Only through death can we escape the social constraints and boundaries. In the end, everyone is equal. With this revelation comes enlightenment. The fact that Laura had to physically see the dead man in order to become conscious to the realities of life shows the magnitude of oblivion due to capitalist forces. 

By creating characters that embody the different tiers of the social hierarchy through the means of Marxist criticism like this, it gives a voice to the voiceless, suggesting that they are constrained and unheard in a society that doesn’t allow them to progress. In conclusion, Mansfield has written a short story concerned with the political matter of social equality and so it can universally be criticised from a Marxist perspective. She unmasks the Victorian society and portrays the unimportant and trivial aspects of life to be the expected Victorian values and attitudes of duty, honour, virtue and moral seriousness. Rivkin and Ryan put forward the argument that “class difference is an accepted feature of life”. However, an aspect of Marxism is that we must challenge and break free from the constraints put in place by those in power. Therefore, it must be noted that The Garden Party advocates a change in social behaviour as the change in structure at the end makes it possible that Laura is a symbol of hope that future generations will tackle class constructs and be able to identify and sympathise with people of all classes. 

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