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Katherine Mansfield Bliss, the Garden Party and the Fly

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TOPIC 4

 “Although the characters in Mansfield’s fiction are constrained by societal expectations, including prescribed gender roles, they remain capable of moments of great insight or heightened perception.” Discuss this statement in relation to at least TWO of the stories “Bliss”, “The Garden Party” and “The Fly”, with close reference to relevant aspects of narrative technique.

Katherine Mansfield’s short stories ubiquitously examine individuals grappling to make sense of life, themselves and their position in society.

Bliss[1], The Garden Party[2] and The Fly[3] from Mansfield’s The Collected Stories capture a moment in time in which protagonists are hovering on the periphery of decisive change or greater awareness.

This essay, with reference to secondary literary criticisms, will establish how the social expectations imposed upon these upper-middle class characters ultimately prevent them from achieving self and existential understanding.

Through exploring the concept of identity in relation to gender and post-war society, this essay will furthermore demonstrate that while characters have potential for insight, external pressures prove deeply imbedded, with all character’s, albeit subconsciously, sacrificing personal growth or acceptance for security in status. Hence, the value placed social expectations directly bar individuals from developing a greater understanding of themselves and the broader world.

In Bliss, The Fly, and The Garden Party, all protagonists are on the verge of an epiphany, thus are somewhat capable of greater understanding. However, Mansfield evinces a conflict between the desire for individual autonomy and social acceptance. In Bliss, this concept explored through female identity, with gender impeding the protagonist’s ability for self- discovery.

Bertha Young is on the threshold of a sexual awakening, as she waits “for something …divine to happen…that she knew must happen.”[4] Mansfield demonstrates character’s ability for heightened perception, as Bertha reflects on the “lovely pear tree with it’s wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life”. Indeed, the pear tree is intrinsically symbolic of her life, more so, of her latent homosexuality. In her literary essay ‘The Pear Tree: Sexual Implications in Katherine Mansfied’s’ Bliss, Nebeker affirms this analogy, drawing to attention the pear tree’s biological sterility; “even as it symbolises perfection, it is in essence incomplete, beautiful but not functional.”[5] Mansfield discloses Bertha’s underlying desire for Miss Fulton through sexual imagery, where Bertha’s “brimming”[6]  ‘bliss’ transforms into a “blazing-blazing [the] fire”[7]. This opposes the “cold”[8] she feels for her husband and her unpersuasive declarations of affection for her daughter, who she’s merely “fond of”.[9]

Through such passion, Bertha perceives a moment that “happens very, very rarely between women”[10], with the flowering pear tree turning “silver as Miss Fulton.”[11] Nebeker deduces “Conventional Bertha Young…cannot possibly comprehend the forces tearing at her.”[12] Yet perhaps this is not entirely the case. Upon having the illusion of this intimate “treasure”[13] shattered, Bertha rushes to examine the tree, and in doing so, an endeavour for self-understanding becomes clear.

However, Bertha’s identity is not valued on individualism or self-understanding, rather her role in society as a mother and a wife. This restriction disallows for introspection or the exploration of her sexuality beyond such a confined instance, veiled under the pretence of a dinner party. And so Bertha, like the pear tree, still “as lovely as ever and as full of flower[14]”remains alone, beautiful, yet incomplete. Through such accounts, Mansfield demonstrates characters to be constrained by prescribed gender roles, which inhibit personal insight.

Although characters demonstrate the potential for insight, more evident is the case that they are in a state of denial. Mansfield demonstrates this ignorance as enabled by protagonist’s position in society as a means of avoiding reality. This primarily shown in The Fly, in which the Boss’s realisation that he has become de-sensitized to emotion is ironically overpowered by an act of inherent de-sensitivity. When confronted with jarring reminder of his son’s death, the Boss responds through an act of despotisism over a fly, killing it. Through Mansfield’s choice of words and use of free indirect style, the Boss’ commands “Look sharp!” and his inner thoughts of “admiration for the fly’s courage…That was the right spirit. Never say die…” echo the mentality propagated during the War. The Boss is symbolic the generals and politicians that sent a generation of young men to their death and his exercise of power is a refusal to acknowledge the impact of loss, but more broadly, the uncontrollable nature of life and death.

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