Women in Fiction

Published 30 Jun 2017

Author Katherine Mansfield was born in New Zealand in 1888. Living only a brief thirty-four years, Mansfield died in France in 1923. During her short career, Mansfield wrote stories that reflected the behaviors and psychological effects of the Victorian era on such topics as women and class.

It is Mansfield’s ability to look tap into the underlying feelings and thoughts of her characters that attracted me to her writing. In her stories, there is a simple realism that shines through in the imperfections of the individual characters. The stories don’t always end happily but they end the only way they can, given the situation and, more importantly, the people that are involved. I especially like her ability to focus the reader’s attention on the character’s awareness of the situation and not to draw outside conclusions. Instead, the character’s actions (or inaction) speaks for itself.

The her essay on Mansfield’s short story “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” Rosemary Canfield Reisman the theme of captivity and the various uses of imagery to illustrate the Pinner sisters awareness and fear of their newly found freedom. As Reisman notes, the world in which Josephine and Constantia have been prisoners had “two objectives; to avoid displeasing a testy old father and to stay out of his way.” Having lived their entire lives under the strong hand of their father, his death leaves the two spinster sisters adrift in the world, “directed toward negatives rather than toward positives” (Reisman). Now that their father is dead, they are no longer anchored into place by his needs and expectations but still live with the ingrained “fear and obedience, which make decisions impossible for them” (Reisman).

Reisman points out though, that despite the deeply imbedded feelings of submissiveness, Mansfield shows that despite the years of psychological imprisonment Josephine and Constantia still have “impulses toward freedom” (Reisman). This shows itself in their ability to use their imaginations as in the case of thinking of the runner taking the watch to Benny. It’s also shown in their awareness of the little beauties in life, like hearing and feeling connected to the organ’s song. Despite this though, Reisman explains that the imagery of the final scene shows the restraints still keeping the sisters in place, “The sisters cannot even confess their impulses to each other. When they repress their impulses to speak of the future, the sun is symbolically covered by a cloud, and it is clear that captivity has conquered” (Reisman).

These symbols, such as the clouds covering the sun or the “flapping tassel of the blind” (Reisman) are important in Mansfield’s overall style of illustrating the tone of the story and the relationships between the characters. Perhaps the most poignant scene of the story is heavy in this type of symbolism and illustrates best the limitations of Josephine and Constantia. Reisman states the “the locking of their father’s wardrobe seems like a triumph, a real defiance of the tyrannical old man’ actually, it is an admission that they cannot lock out his memory by dealing with it.” In the end, the two women realize they are not free but do not have the ability to cope with realizing true freedom.

Jay Paul’s look at the story “The Garden Party” did not provide the same depth of interpretation as Reisman, but his essay was still interesting in viewing the notions of class division in the story. Laura Sheridan’s inconsistent conscience, easily distracted by pretty things, puts the story directly into her upper-class perspective. Her early encounter with the tall workman, lets her feel a certain comraderie with the working class. However, with the bustle of the party preparations going on around her, “she savors all she sees and hears” (Paul). She’s essentially been caught back up in her own life. Even the death of the neighbor only temporarily dampens her spirits momentarily. Instead it’s actually the physical movement from the comfort of her home to the grieving widow’s, bearing sandwiches, that opens her up to be more fully “conscious of the consequences of her social position […] her party dress marks her as an outsider in the working-class neighborhood, and her discomfort in the company of the widow and her sister is extreme” (Paul). She feels guilty because of her her own fortune but only when she is faced with the want of someone else.

Paul attributes Laura’s “artistic” personality as part of the reason for her sympathy for the working class but doesn’t really go into any details. It appears more that Laura is subtly seeking to rebel against her upbringing but isn’t prepared to abandon it entirely. Paul makes note of the hat Laura’s mother gives her to distract her from the tragedy of the man’s death and how it is a way for Mrs. Sheridan to teach her daughter “without words – that one’s appearance should take precedence” (Paul). Mrs. Sheridan is trying to condition her daughter for the upper class life she will lead. By the end of the story, led crying from the Scott’s home, Laura seems to be in a state of complete indecision. Mansfield’s use of the “stream of consciousness” technique helps to create this realistic open-endedness that adds to the power of the story. As Paul explains that Mansfield’s use of this technique allowed her to “make words shows the workings of the mind, rather than merely summarizing a character’s thoughts” (Paul).

Both essays were useful in viewing the various techniques used by Mansfield to create her short, yet complex stories. Reisman in particular was helpful in pointing out the various uses of symbolism Mansfield employed throughout “The Daughter’s of the Late Colonel.” While Paul’s points were quite as well-developed as Reisman, his essay showed how Mansfield used the behavior and thoughts of the character of Laura in “The Garden Party” to show the effects of class.

Reisman and Paul’s essays have made me take a second look at Mansfield’s stories, looking beyond the general plot to the smaller symbols and images that the author used to give her stories an added depth. My views of Mansfield have changed only in that the essays, particularly Reisman’s, have made me more aware of how even the smallest detail in short stories can’t be overlooked. Something as small as a tassel or a new hat carry the whole meaning of a story.

Works Cited

  • Paul, Jay. “The Garden Party.” Masterplots II: Short Story Series. Salem Press, 2004. Literary Reference Center.
  • Reisman, Rosemary M. Canfield. “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” Masterplots II: Short Story Series. Salem Press, 2004. Literary Reference Center.
Did it help you?