Katherine Mansfields Short Stories Essay, Research Paper
Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories
The introduction of the short story to literature created a whole new field for writers and readers to experiment with and enjoy. Katherine Mansfield was born and raised in New Zealand and then moved to England where she spent a great deal of her life. Mansfield is known as one of the most remarkable writers to come out of New Zealand and England. Katherine Mansfield’s “specialization” is the short story. Mansfield wrote many short stories in her lifetime and is recognized as having several masterpieces in that form. Her short stories are quite different than most short stories written by the Modernist writers of her time. Mansfield liked for her readers to become immediately involved in her stories and usually drops the reader into the situation at the start of the story with no description or identification of the time or place in which the stories occur. She assumes that her readers had prior knowledge of the characters or that they will determine any information that they need to know on their own. On top of the reader being left floundering, Mansfield’s stories have no plot. That is to say that her stories do not follow the classic form of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and then the denouement. Instead, Mansfield’s intention is for her reader’s to gain a sense of her characters’ lives and of a pivotal point of realization or change in those lives. One of the ways that she accomplishes the reader’s intimacy with the story and its characters, beyond dropping them in the midst of the action, is by using unique narration techniques and by involving the reader in the character’s feelings that they experience when dealing with certain situations or emotions like the experience of dealing with death and grief as found in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”, “The Garden-Party”, “The Life of Ma Parker”, and “The Fly”.
Katherine Mansfield’s readers find that, although they are unexpectedly beginning her stories in the middle of all the action, they are quickly involved with the characters and their lives and feelings. This immediate establishment of intimacy is facilitated by Mansfield’s superb narration techniques. One could argue that Mansfield even goes so far as to obliterate the narrator, to make the narrator obsolete. Some of her stories, like “Bliss”, begin with the typical third person narrator as in “Although Bertha Young was thirty ” (Mansfield 143). However, the reader quickly finds that such impersonal narration does not last for long and the narration moves to something closer to first person or, at the very least, third person omniscient with such lines as “For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband” (Mansfield 154). Mansfield, as the narrator, has the remarkable ability to enter the minds and souls of her characters. She shows an incredible empathy that allows the reader to get to know the characters through their own thoughts and feelings as they express them to the reader and not as she states them in a distant third person. The reader will quickly identify with the character’s “humanness” and feel a connection to them as in “The Voyage” when little Fenella “might have got the giggles” when she is thrust on an unknown journey with her grandmother after the death of her mother (Mansfield 278). Another narration technique that often appears in Mansfield’s works is that the narration goes from one character’s mind to another so quickly that the reader does not experience a noticeable change. This technique has a stream of consciousness effect and allows the reader to live the story through a multi-personal viewpoint as the narrator is hidden in one character and then another. The prime example of this jumping of narration from one character to another is found in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” where it is quite difficult to say exactly who is narrating the story as the sister’s minds are so fused in thought that all sentiments seem to come from both of them. This oblique narration may seem confusing to think of, but the narrator simply makes the plot secondary to the characters and the mood of the story. The characters seem so real to the reader that it is as if they are acting on their own accord and the changes in narration from the view of one character to another occurs naturally. Mansfield’s narration is unique in yet another way. The readers of her stories do not have a sense of omniscience since the narrator seems interwoven with the story and not as a distinct voice that speaks to the reader from above the action. Of course, the narrator is omniscient, but the reader, seemingly, gains most of his information directly from the character in the form of their expression of their thoughts. Often, Mansfield utilizes interior monologues in order to narrate the character’s intimate feelings to the reader. A good example of the interior monologue is found in “The Stranger” when John Hammond meets his wife after she has been away for a time and thinks to himself while she has run off to say good-bye to someone, “That was rather queer of Janey, wasn’t it? Why couldn’t she have told the stewardess to say good-bye for her? Why did she have to go chasing after the ship’s doctor?” (Mansfield 230). By allowing the reader to become intimate with John Hammond’s personal thoughts, the narrator gives the reader a “slice of life” that enhances his feeling of involvement and intimacy with the characters and the story. Katherine Mansfield’s narration techniques are dynamic as much for her skill as for the fact that it almost seems as though she has no narration. It is obvious, however, that Mansfield has mastered the greatest kind of narration control, her readers do not realize that there is any control.
A recurring theme in many of Katherine Mansfield’s stories is death and the effects that death and grief have on her characters’ lives. Through her skillful narration, the private emotions that one experiences when dealing with death, or when experiencing grief, are privy to the reader as they are let into the minds of the characters. One example of such a story in which the characters deal with death, and a unique grief, is “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”. In this story, the main plot is that two spinster women, Constantia and Josephine, have just lost their domineering father and are having to take care of the funeral and other such duties. The story has a timid but slightly argumentative narration as the narrator slides back and forth between the sisters who are weak after spending their lives caring for their father. The women have had no independent action and, unfortunately, it does not seem as though they will be independent any time soon. The story is comical and yet, the subject, two grown women rendered incapable of living independent lives, is definitely not funny. Instead, the reader, although smiling at the time, gains a sense that these women have a difficult time taking control and grasping reality. In one instance, the women are in charge of the funeral, and when asked what kind of funeral they would prefer, Constantia nearly says, “A good one that will last”, and has to suppress the childish urge to giggle (Mansfield 243). Even though they are now the heads of the household, Constantia and Josephine have trouble dealing with an unwanted house guest and an unruly maid. On top of their troubles in dealing with such problems, the women are further handicapped by their inability to accept their father’s death. When they attempt to clean out their father’s things, the women are overtaken by the absurd fear that their father is going to jump out of his wardrobe at any second and be angry with them for attempting to bury him. Constantia makes the first bold move of the story and asks Josephine, “Why shouldn’t we be weak for once in our lives, Jug?” as she locks the wardrobe (Mansfield 246). Of course, the reader is aware of the irony of such a statement at they are weak, and it would be more appropriate for her to ask why shouldn’t they be bold for once. The women finally come to realize that their father really and truly is dead when they hear a barrel-organ in the street that their father had abhorred and they run to stop it before they recognize that they shall never have to stop the music again because their father is gone. Josephine stops to ponder their mother’s picture and wonders, “If mother had lived, might they have married?” (Mansfield 257). This thought is the first indication of possible regret for a life wasted. Unfortunately, she did not follow that thought with “Since father has died, why shouldn’t life be different?”. For a second, at the end of the story, the reader feels that the women might make some sort of decision as Constantia starts to say something and then claims to have forgotten her thought and Jug replies that she has “forgotten too” (Mansfield 259). As the women have this conversation, the sun has set, and it is obvious to the reader that they have experienced a symbolic death. The women are not going to deal with their father’s death by moving on with their lives, they are going to live forever as they are with the grief that comes from a lost life.
In Katherine Mansfield’s “A Garden-Party”, the topics of death and grief are more obvious and more “normal than they are in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”. This story centers around the Sheridan family, a well-to-do middle class family that is having a delightful garden-party with wonderful food, music, and a band. Laura is introduced to the reader when she is sent to deal with the workmen who have come to set up the marquee. She finds herself enjoying the company of the workmen as they are a new experience for her, quite unlike the “silly boys” who dine with her family. Laura is quite content to eat her bread and butter in front of them, a societal no-no, and to feel “like a work-girl” (Mansfield 284). Everything seems to be going quite well when the reader has a foreshadowing of something that is not quite right when the daughter, Jose, plays her song for her mother, “This Life is Wee-ary, A Tear a Sigh.A Love that Chan-ges,This Life is Wee-ary,A Tear A Sigh. A Love that Chan-ges,And then Good-bye!”(Mansfield 287). Someone then comes in the story to report the death of a workman to the family. Laura immediately asks how they are going to “stop everything” (Mansfield 289). Of course, her family finds this idea utterly ridiculous and brushes her off. Laura retreats, upset, and then sees herself in the mirror with her hat on. She sees that she looks “charming” and decides that the party can go on (Mansfield 292). After the party, Laura’s mother sends her down to the widow’s house with scraps of food from their party. While Laura has a feeling that this may not be the right gesture, she obliges her mother. She goes through the lower-class workmen’s lane that she would never have set foot in previously and finds herself in the dead man’s house with his widow. She sees the corpse and something inside her changes. The young man seems “wonderful and beautiful” to her. She recognizes that in death there is no class difference, and in that moment, she realizes her previous self-absorption and says, with a “childish sob”, “Forgive my hat” (Mansfield 296). After rushing out of the widow’s house, Laura runs into her brother, Laurie, and tries to tell him of her experience. Obviously, Laura has an adult experience that forces her to face death and her own class prejudices. The reader is left to hope that Laura will grieve for the man’s death and that she will use her experience to grow as a person.
While Laura, in “The Garden-Party”, struggles with her own ideas and beliefs that come before her when faced with death, Ma Parker, in “The Life of Ma Parker”, has only lived with ideas that are tainted by the experience of death. Ma Parker lives a lower-class life in which she earns money by keeping house for a gentleman who underpays her and accuses her of theft. Her entire life is a story of despair that is marked by hardship and death. She and her husband had thirteen children and only six lived. Her husband died after the children were born, her daughters “went wrong”, her boys “emigrated”, and she is now stuck with her eldest daughter whose husband died and left her with a frail son (Mansfield 263). Obviously, Ma Parker is a woman of tremendous strength. Unfortunately, the reader finds that something may have finally broken this stalwart woman. Her precious grandson has died, and Ma Parker does not know how to handle his death. Her grandson seems to be the one source of warmth and love in Ma Parker’s life and since he is gone, the light and will to live have gone out of her. Ma Parker experiences intense anguish that the reader senses is a new experience for her, and she is not sure how to cope with such pain. She feels the need to find an outlet for the pain and thinks, “If she could only cry now, cry for a long time, over everything, beginning with her first place and the cruel cook, going onto the doctor’s, and then the seven little ones, death of her husband, the children’s leaving her, and all the years of misery that led up to Lennie” (Mansfield 266). Ma Parker leaves her job and walks into the cold street as though she is sleep-walking. She finally, “after all these years”, feels the need to cry, to let out her emotions and grief (Mansfield 266). Unfortunately, there is nowhere for Ma Parker to go, her anguish remains unexpressed, and the reader leaves her while she is isolated and in despair.
In a polar opposite to Ma Parker is the boss in “The Fly”. This man lost his son six years ago. Immediately after his son’s death, the boss was “overcome by such grief that nothing short of a violent fit of weeping could relieve him” (Mansfield 346). The boss seems to be dealing better with his grief, and then he is visited by one of his workers who tells him that his daughters have just seen the boss’s son’s grave. Once the old man leaves, the reader thinks that the boss is going to break down again. Instead, he becomes entranced by a fly that has fallen in his inkpot. He helps the fly out and watches as it cleans off and prepares to fly away. The boss then proceeds to torture the fly by dropping ink on it right before the fly is nearly cleaned off. The boss eventually succeeds in killing the fly. He then experiences a “grinding feeling of wretchedness” and tries to go back to whatever it was that he had been thinking about before being distracted by the fly. “For the life of him, he could not remember [what he had been thinking about]” (Mansfield 348). He had, of course, been thinking about his son’s death. The boss, while having gone through the intense pain of death and the grief that follows, has grown callous. At first, after his son’s death, he was like the fly who kept trying to get back to where he would be okay but then, like the ink, the memory of his son and his grief weighted him down again and again. The reader can only assume that he has grown weary of the struggle with grief and has decided to try and push it behind him because it is difficult to believe that the experience with death and grief could make him change from an emotional man to an unfeeling one.
Katherine Mansfield is a sensational writer. Her narration techniques of stream of consciousness and of an unseen but all-controlling narrator who lives through her characters give her stories an unmistakable air of life. Mansfield’s characters jump off the page at the reader and pull the reader into their lives. Chronologically, as the end of her long battle with tuberculosis draws near, Mansfield’s stories begin to reflect her preoccupation with death and its effect on the living. In “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”, two women are portrayed who cannot deal with death and whose only grief will be loss of their independence. “The Garden-Party” shows a milestone in a young girl’s life when she faces death and grief and has second thoughts about class prejudices. “The Life of Ma Parker” is a devastating portrayal of the effect that grief and death can have on the living while the boss in “The Fly” has experienced as much grief as he can handle so he reacts with a newfound callousness. Whether death and grief are life changing experiences in the lives of these Mansfield characters, they are all affected in some way that the reader is able to observe and, possibly, experience along with them. Katherine Mansfield’s stories are stories that grab the reader at the heart and make him think while becoming interwoven with the narrator and the themes of the story. That’s literature!