Friday, December 28, 2018

The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield’s short stories are permeated with an almost tangible sense of disorienting tension, filled with misunderstandings, missed opportunities and heroines that remain frustratingly invisible. 

I had never heard of Katherine Mansfield until this past fall when I was taking a class on Critical Reading and had to pick a piece of writing to analyze. Mansfield was on the list so I decided she would be perfect…I was unprepared for her writing. 

One of the things that makes Mansfield's writing a challenge is she’s hard to categorize. Born in 1888 in New Zealand (Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp) to a prominent commercial class family, at first she seems to be the poster child for post-colonialism. At 19 she left New Zealand to study at Queen’s college and becomes a part of the modernist literati…but her medium (the short story) is something never fully embraced by the modernist circle. She marries a man, (a singing teacher, George Bowden, 11 years her senior) but then hastily breaks it off, she has at least two lesbian relationships, all of which leave her semi-marginalized, existing in a tribe of her own.  

She is described by Elleke Boehmer (1) as a “woman between worlds,” which is also a fitting description of her protagonists, all of which are marginalized characters on the fringe of society or alienated within the culture they are a part of. 

Last month I looked at “The Garden Party” (1921) in which the protagonist is an adolescent girl, existing in the liminal space between adulthood and class distinction vs. childhood and invisibility. The main character, Laura, must navigate between being seen for who she really is, a sentimental girl that likes flowers and trees and whistling and eating her bread outdoors…and the cultural expectations of a wealthy British scion. It is unclear whether or not she navigates this successfully. The reader is left almost mid-sentence, mid-story…wondering what happens when Laura and her brother return to their house after dropping off food for a bereaved and impoverished family. Laura’s response to death and bereavement is disconcerting, and this defamiliarization is Katherine Mansfield’s specialty. 

In “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” (1910) there is the same transient sense of displacement. Here’s the opening line: 

“Getting ready was a terrible business. After supper Frau Brechenmacher packed four of the five babies to bed, allowing Rosa to stay with her and help to polish the buttons of Herr Brechenmacher’s uniform. Then she ran over his best shirt with a hot iron, polished his boots, and put a stitch or two into his black satin tie.” 

This opening contrasts to Mansfield’s later writings where she takes her time introducing the protagonist. In “The Garden Party,” Laura is introduced fourth, as almost an after thought or the last possible option. In “At the Bay,” (also 1921) the reader is languorously introduced to the New Zealand landscape and then the cat, Florrie, is given the first line: “Ugh! What a coarse, revolting creature!” (an assessment of the old sheep-dog…but an appropriate appellation for the rake at the closing scene.) 

In 1910, Mansfield gets straight to the point. Frau Brechenmacher has been tirelessly preparing for this wedding all day, with less recognition than an old work horse. She plows through the details only to have her husband race in the door last minute and cry: 

“Now, then, where are my clothes?” cried Herr Brechenmacher, hanging his empty letter bag behind the door and stamping snow out of his boots. “Nothing ready, of course, and everybody at the wedding by this time. I heard the music as I passed. What are you doing? You’re not dressed. You can’t go like that.” 

Frau B. exists in the residual shadow of her postmaster husband. He’s important and significant and she’s invisible and voiceless. She’s caught between slaving alway for children that don’t appreciate her and a husband that doesn’t see her. As they hurry to the wedding, her spouse lunges ahead of her and she’s left slipping in the ice and snow, alone and abandoned. 

“She had not been out of the house for weeks past, and the day had so flurried her that she felt muddled and stupid - felt that Rosa had pushed her out of the house and her man was running away from her.” 

Finally they get to the wedding, and after making the rounds, the honorable post-master and his wife, she finds that she is enjoying herself. The air is warm and full, and she puffs out her chest a little with pride…only to be pulled aside and told that the back of her dress has been undone the whole time. She then sits and watches her husband become inebriated and ridiculous. 

Ultimately the Frau is powerless. She watches as the wedding crowd laughs at her husband and his ridiculous pontificating, and somehow it is directed at her, it is the result of their strength and her weakness. It’s not just her husband that dominates and controls the minutia of her life, it is the world, and she’s trapped, endlessly spinning down a drain that refuses to empty. 

She goes home (following behind her husband once again) and prepares a small dinner, which her husband takes as his due. Then after cleaning up she wanders into the children's room, pulls down the bedding to make sure they are all still dry and then prepares herself for the end of the day routine. She takes off her dress and lays down on the bed: “[putting] her arm across her face like a child who expected to be hurt as Herr Brechenmacher lurched in.” 


Another contrast between Mansfield’s early and later writing is the narrative perspective. In “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” the narrative voice (third person omniscient) hovers just above the head of Frau Brechenmacher…it is only her perspective and her voice that we are interested in. In Mansfield’s later writing the reader is saturated in a cacophony of voices (to include family pets) we see the men having their own misunderstood trajectories and while still offered as examples of the ridiculous and often stupid, they are more dimensional, filled with insecurity and their own sense of alienation. 

“At the Bay” is a good example of this. Stanley has all the strength and presupposed valor of the truly masculine. He is introduced (after the cat) taking his morning swim, the exemplar of virility. He has a job in the city which gives him financial independence which he exemplifies by his conspicuous consumption.

Short aside: In any other environment the conspicuous consumption would be just that, and each artifact would be another building block towards status and acceptance, but Mansfield’s writing take place in New Zealand, her characters carry with them the heritage of colonizers. Therefore their purchases reflect another element to their quest for identity:

“Jeffery Meyers draws a picture of the intellectual environment prevalent in New Zealand towards the end of the nineteenth century, and points to the fact that a settler community is bound to be concerned with material rather than intellectual matters because the material comfort was the main motivation for most settlers.” (2)

 In “Prelude” (1918) the Burnell family is first introduced and Stanley purchases cherries out of season, in “At the Bay” he hurries home to profusely apologize to his wife after leaving that morning without saying goodbye to her. His apology is overly dramatized and as he talks about how she was all he could think about all day, how their parting disagreeably left a pit in his stomach, how he’s “suffered all day”… she notices he’s wearing new leather gloves. 

He sheepishly justifies his purchase, old Bell had a pair on this morning etc… but the moment is lost. 

Stanley wanted to say, “I was thinking of you the whole time I bought them.” It was true, but for some reason he couldn’t say it. “Let’s go in.” He said.”

Like one would expect from a modernist text, the voice of the focalizer is constantly shifting, and the narrative voice is passed from character to character like a baton. There isn’t a clear protagonist, instead there are themes that come to the fore as each character wrestles with being misunderstood; their own ignorance and the ignorance of others; and their own experience or lack thereof. For each character the day to day moments offer crushing defeats or exhilarating joys, but there is no shared language or vocabulary and they are left alienated within their own spheres. 

In “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” the plot structure is somewhat simplistic and the narrative is almost set up in binary oppositions. The powerful vs. the powerless, dominance vs. submission, the male sphere vs. the female…etc. as one would expect from a feminist author. But by 1918 Mansfield has added dimension to her story telling, the themes are still there, but they have taken on an almost Joycean complexity. The diametric oppositions are not as simple as the powerful vs. the powerless…instead each character is met with moments of power and subjugation. All exist in the pointless fray of swirling meaningless fate. 

In “How Pearl Button was Kidnapped” (1912) the plot circles around a misunderstanding. Again, similar to “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” Mansfield gets right into the narrative and introduces the protagonist within the first sentence: 

“Pearl Button swung on the little gate in front of the House of Boxes.” 

Unlike our protagonist of “The Garden Party” who is an adolescent and play acts at being her mother (wearing her clothing, talking in her voice) Pearl Button is still young and impressionable, a tabula rasa, and we get to trespass into Maori culture from the unsullied, un-colonized, perspective of a child. 

Her “kidnappers” are two large Maori women, shoeless and in good humor, it’s hard to tell which aspect Pearl finds more intriguing, but within moments all three are standing at the gate smiling and laughing at each other. 

“The women smiled at her and Pearl smiled back. “Oh,” she said, “haven’t you got very white teeth indeed! Do it again.” The dark woman laughed, and again they talked to each other with funny words and wavings of the hands. “What’s your name?” They asked her. “Pearl Button.” “You coming with us, Pearl Button?” We got beautiful things to show you,” whispered one of the women. So Pearl got down from the gate and she slipped out into the road. And she walked between the two dark women down the windy road, taking little running steps to keep up, and wondering what they had in their House of Boxes.” 

Pearl obviously doesn’t think she has been kidnapped. This is potentially the greatest day of her life. She is surrounded by people that interact with her and find her fascinating, they share their food and time and look at her like she’s an exquisite specimen of humanity. Later as they make their way to the beach, Pearl sees the sea for the first time and screams. The most frightening part of her day is part of the natural landscape, a landscape she has evidently been deprived of exploring. 

“And down at the bottom of the hill was something perfectly different- a great big piece of blue water was creeping over the land. She screamed and clutched at the big woman, “What is it, what is it?” “Why” said the woman, “it’s the sea.” “Will it hurt us- is it coming?” “Ai-e, no, it doesn’t come to us. It’s very beautiful. You look again.” 

Eventually Pearl makes her way to the shore and after working up the confidence to touch a body of water for the first time, conquers her fear and realizes there is nothing to be afraid of. In a euphoric rush of gratitude, she flings her little arms around the neck of the woman, kissing her all over. This has been the greatest day of her life! And over the shoulder of the woman she sees a swarm of policemen, racing toward her to “rescue” her and bring her “home.”

This is perhaps one of Katherine Mansfield’s many concurrent thesis statements: look again. 

Her characters frequently have epiphanies where they come into a new form of realization, only to have the moment snatched away by obfuscating ambiguity. In “The Garden Party,” Laura is pleading with her mother to cancel their party out of respect for the grieving family that lives on the edge of their property. It seems cold and heartless to be so merry on such a devastating day for their neighbors. Laura’s mother thrusts a hat upon her head (the mother’s own hat) and then changes the topic by the new distraction of the hat and Laura’s beauty. It isn’t until Laura turns around and catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror, where she has her epiphany. She is beautiful. She is a part of this family. She does belong. 

The epiphanies frequently lead to faulty knowledge, for example, a shared moment in the moonlight with another woman, thinking she’s communing with your soul…only to realize she’s been having an affair with your husband. The realizations are almost always slightly off, so it’s not a mandate of “look again”…but rather a clarion call to change how we see. Where does the threshold of belonging really lie? And is it possible to cross it? 

Mansfield takes of the cry of the modernists, wondering how we make sense of this crazy amorphic world in which we find ourselves and posing the question: what is our identity in a society that is always in flux, always ebbing and flowing beyond our ability to pin down and make sense of. She doesn’t offer advice on how one makes sense, but rather challenges who we give narrative status to and ultimately who we see. 

1. Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 127. 

Most of her Short Stories are available here-
A Structural Investigation of the Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield 1974

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