Social Criticism (Katherine Mansfield)

‘[P]olitical awareness or social criticism do not directly express themselves in [Mansfield’s] stories’ (Elizabeth Bowen, quoted in Aestheticism and Modernism, p.97). Discuss Bowen’s assertion with reference to at least two of Mansfield’s stories.

Katherine Mansfield was long considered to be, primarily, an aesthetic writer due to an appreciation of the formal qualities of her work and a recognition of the ‘lack of direct social or political mission’ in her writing.[1] Indeed, Mansfield herself held the view that ‘it is not the business of the artist to grind an axe’ or to ‘try to transform the world’.[2] However, some critics have suggested that her stories deserve to be read increasingly as engaging with political and social issues and, though Mansfield does not overtly embrace such issues, her works can be read as commenting on such topics as gender and class relations.

For the purpose of this essay I will consider two of Mansfield’s short stories, ‘Bliss’ and ‘The Garden Party’. I aim to show how ‘Bliss’ illustrates the aesthetic qualities of Mansfield’s writing and asserts Bowen’s view that political awareness and social criticism are not directly expressed in her stories. I will show how the traditionally accepted notion of the ideal woman as sexually disinterested, heterosexual and maternal are challenged in ‘Bliss’ by Mansfield’s use of such artistic techniques as language, imagery, symbolism and free indirect speech rather than by explicit comment.

I will then consider ‘The Garden Party’ and intend to show how Mansfield’s use of sociolect, contrast, satire and imagery directly contributes to the exposure of the ‘harshness of class differences’[3] and offers a challenge to traditional class representations and prejudice, thus offering some challenge to Bowen’s assertion that social criticism is not directly expressed in Mansfield’ stories. I aim to show how the issues of social class pervade in ‘The Garden Party’ in a more direct way than the issues of gender pervade in ‘Bliss’.

The opening paragraphs of ‘Bliss’ describe Bertha’s feelings of pleasure. The ‘little shower of sparks’ that she felt in ‘every finger and toe’ is ostensibly, through the beauty of the language and the imagery of the bright afternoon sunshine, describing her elation at experiencing a ‘divine day’ and ‘might seem relatively innocuous’.[4] However, the language could be interpreted as erotic, suggesting the bliss of sexual passion. The choice of words associated with heat (‘bright’, ‘sun’ and ‘burned’) adds to the passion and energy of the scene. The emphasis is on encouraging the reader to engage with the text to allow her/him the pleasure of interpretation. Indeed, Mansfield appears to encourage reader participation by producing an ‘interactive’ work of art.

As Bertha prepares to arrange the fruit for the party, Mansfield’s imagery appeals to the senses of the reader. The fruit may represent sensuality and desire. Indeed, it has not been purchased purely to be eaten but as a display of opulence, beauty and luxury. The colours and textures evoke sensations of indulgence as the apples are described as ‘strawberry pink’ and the yellow pears as ‘smooth as silk’. Strawberries and silk are often associated with desire and extravagance. The ‘silver bloom’ could be interpreted as feminine desire, silver, typically representing femininity and the bloom suggesting the blossoming of Bertha’s sensuality. The phrases ‘seemed to melt’ and ‘float in the air’ invoke imagery of passion, suggesting ‘erotic and sexual feelings’ for a responsive reader[5]. Through the precise observation of detail and colour, Mansfield has revealed one of ‘many moments of encoded sexual pleasure’[6] to introduce, indirectly, Bertha as a sensual and sexual woman. 

The pear tree, in ‘Bliss’ provides a link with the previous sensuous beauty of the fruit, but as a living thing with not a ‘single bud or a faded petal’ it becomes symbolic of Bertha’s feelings of bliss. The similarity of the word ‘pear’ with the name ‘Pearl’ may suggest that it is actually Pearl that is the focus of Bertha’s happiness. Readers are invited to interpret Mansfield’s symbolist techniques as representative of Bertha’s sexual desire for another woman. Indeed, the pear tree is described as ‘silver now, in the light of poor dear Eddie’s moon’ which suggests it is gendered feminine. However, the phallic association as it grew ‘taller and taller as they gazed’ implies a masculine gender. This ambiguity may suggest an uncertainty between Bertha’s heterosexuality and homosexuality.

‘Bliss’, written with a third person narrator but focalised through Bertha, allows the reader access to the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist. With regard to Pearl, we learn that Bertha had ‘fallen in love with her’, a direct comment by the narrator that we can associate with Bertha’s choice of phrase. This focalisation gives initial credibility to the statement and suggests a possible potential lesbian relationship but the immediate qualification of ‘as she always did fall in love’ takes some of the directness from the narrator’s assertion. The comment can no longer to be taken at face value, but seems somewhat dismissive as if it is merely a contemporary popular phrase to describe a new friendship. In addition, Bertha’s realisation that Pearl has similar feelings, ‘But, Bertha knew, suddenly’ is not quite as direct as it at first may seem as a degree of irony, in the reader being more aware of Bertha’s error than Bertha is, makes a more indirect comment on her sexuality. It makes Bertha’s directness seem erroneous. Mansfield perhaps did not want to make direct comment on such a taboo issue but rather suggested its possible existence. 

The name ‘Bertha’ may evoke an image of a mad woman in an attic who is the antipathy of the traditional mother figure. A square peg in the round hole of motherhood and femininity. Though it is impossible to state whether the character of Bertha Young has been influenced by Bertha Mason, the suggestion that she has to be ‘drunk and disorderly’ to express her feelings in society does forge some link to Bronte’s ‘mad’ character who some critics have suggested was labelled as ‘mad’ purely because she did not conform to society’s expectations. The opening paragraphs of ‘Bliss’ suggest that Bertha yearns to be free from the feminine constraints of such a society where ‘if you are over thirty’ you cannot ‘run instead of walk’. This yearning is enhanced by Mansfield’s use of free indirect speech and stream of consciousness techniques. Phrases like ‘bowl a hoop’ suggest Bertha’s choice of expression, not the narrator’s and we are encouraged to see Bertha as childlike and self-gratifying, not maternal and responsible. The jumble of thoughts beginning ‘Oh, is there no way’ and ending ‘like a rare, rare fiddle’ indicates Bertha’s rejection of society’s constraints by showing her thoughts as running out of control. We are not encouraged to view Bertha as maternal as ‘Little B’ is not the primary focus of her thoughts, and is actually not considered until after the fruit has been arranged.

I now wish to concentrate on a later short story of Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’. Like ‘Bliss’ the story is concentrated around a particular social event and we ‘join’ the event in mid action. I hope to show that the issue of social class pervades this story in a more direct way than issues of gender pervade in ‘Bliss’. Mansfield exposes class differences’ in ‘The Garden party by use of sociolect, contrasts, satire and imagery and provides a less subtle, more didactic approach than ‘Bliss’. 

The opening sentences of ‘The Garden Party’ present an upper class family preparing for a garden party. The words ‘ideal’ and ‘perfect’ and conversation about the importance of the weather and flowers, suggest language and concerns associated with higher social groups. Mrs Sheridan comments ‘my dear child’ which is typical of genteel family language. Sociolect is therefore used to indicate the social status of the speaker. In contrast, one of the workmen comments that the marquee needs to be located somewhere ‘where it’ll give you a bang slap in the eye’. Slang language is used to indicate his working class status to a readership that may associate non-standard English with inferiority. Mansfield makes a clear distinction between the classes in her choice of idiom for her characters.

The reader is introduced to members of the gentry and their concern with the trivialities of life such as which flowers to impress others with. The contrast in the fifth sentence which informs us that the gardener had ‘been up since dawn’ and was engaged in manual work of ‘mowing’ and ‘sweeping’ makes a clear class distinction between the idle life of the gentry and the people who work for them. The ‘concerns’ of the gentry are presented as nothing more serious than party planning whereas the lower class have serious concerns about a man killed. The contrast in subject matter is a clear intention to represent the gentry as far removed from the realities of life and suffering and to present them as selfish and uncaring. When Mrs Sheridan is informed of the death, she responds with ‘Not in the garden?’ Contrasts are further evident throughout the story. The ‘hundreds, yes, literally hundreds’ of roses and the beauty of the ‘broad, gleaming leaves’ of the karakas are contrasted with the garden patches of the working classes where ‘there was nothing but cabbage stalks’. Interestingly, Mrs Sheridan instructs Laura ‘don’t be so extravagant’ in her desire to cancel the party but she fails to see the extravagance of her own desire to ‘have enough canna lilies’. The contrast in Mrs Sheridan’s actual extravagance and her inappropriate use of the word helps to portray her as self centred and heartless and the reader can hardly avoid forming a dislike of the class that she represents.

Mansfield’s use of satire in describing the ‘shreds of smoke’ coming from the workmen’s cottages, compared to the gentry’s ‘silvery plumes’ acknowledges the existence of class prejudice and makes it appear ridiculous, challenging the very notion of class assumptions. This, almost comical, representation of class differences provides a direct expression of social criticism and challenges Bowen’s assertion. However, Mansfield ensures that the reader is left in no doubt as to the ridiculous nature of class prejudice when she offers a direct challenge to the assumption made by Jose that the dead workman was drunk. Laura immediately and ‘furiously’ replies with ‘Drunk! Who said he was drunk?’

Laura is introduced to the reader ‘holding her piece of bread and butter’ as she puts on an act of severity ‘copying her mother’s voice’ in dealing with the ‘men’. The image is of a silly young woman, conscious of her behaviour, trying (and failing) to act according to learned class expectations. Conversely, the image presented of the ‘tallest of the men’ is of a man at ease as he ‘knocked back his straw hat and smiled’. Significantly, Mansfield physically positions the tall man as looking ‘down’ on Laura, indicating that despite his lower class, he is not inferior. Mansfield is making a direct statement on the relationship of the classes to each other and reversing the previously assumed position of superiority afforded to the higher classes.

Mansfield uses the character of Laura to directly challenge class prejudice. It is Laura who feels ‘empathy with those outside her class’[7] as we witness her concern about ‘what the band would sound like to that poor woman’. It is Laura who challenges the behaviour of the previous generation ‘but we can’t possibly have a garden party with a dead man just outside the front gate’. Despite her efforts, the garden party does still take place but her ‘fight’ against prejudice is not altogether lost as we are encouraged to view Mrs Sheridan as disparaging, ‘I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes’ and concerned with appearances ‘ Darling Laura, how well you look’. 

I hope to have shown how the social issues of gender and class have been expressed in two of Mansfield’s stories. Although neither story is didactic in its approach to social and political concerns I hope to have shown how, in both stories, Mansfield’s ‘social vision was inseparable from her aesthetic practices’[8]. The issues of gender and class relations are ‘conspicuous in all her writing’ [9] but are expressed more or less directly in different works. Of the two stories, it is ‘Bliss’ which requires greater interpretation by the reader who is left to ‘intuit the themes of her stories’[10]. In comparison, ‘The Garden Party’ is more ‘obvious’ in its social criticism as through more direct techniques Mansfield ensures that the ‘reader is constantly reminded of class distinctions’.[11]

B I B L I O G R A P H Y

Brown, R. D. and Gupta, S. (eds) (2005) Aestheticism and Modernism: debates in Twentieth-Century Literature 1900-1960, London: Routledge in association with the Open University.

Gupta, S. and Johnson, D. (eds) (2005) A Twentieth-Century Literature Reader, Texts and Debates, London: Routledge in association with the Open University

Mansfield, K. (2002) Selected Stories, ed. and intro. By A Smith, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Open University A300 course material – CD1 Katherine Mansfield

[1] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 97

[2] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 99

[3] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 98

[4] Gupta and Johnson, 2005, p. 39

[5] Gupta and Johnson, 2005, p. 42

[6] Gupta and Johnson, 2005, p. 30

[7] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 94

[8] O’Sullivan speaking on CD1, Band 6

[9] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 113

[10] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 94

[11] Mansfield, 2002, p. xxvii

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