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A Cup Of Tea by Katherine Mansfield: Summary & Theme

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

'A Cup of Tea' is a short story by Katherine Mansfield about a woman helping a young woman living in poverty. Explore a summary of the story's plot and analyze the main themes of social class, the role of women, materialism, and insecurity. Updated: 10/28/2022

Katherine Mansfield

You might be wondering how such a simple item as a cup of tea could give rise to an entire narrative. Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), who was born in New Zealand but lived most of her working life as a writer in London, was an expert at writing this kind of short story. She would craft a narrative surrounding an item or event that at first seems so inconsequential but ultimately reveals serious and introspective themes beneath the surface of the story. Let's bite into a simple slice of life as we review ''A Cup of Tea.''

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  • 0:03 Katherine Mansfield
  • 0:38 A Cup of Tea
  • 2:20 Story Themes
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Summary of the Story

A Cup of Tea is set in 1920s London. Rosemary Fell, the protagonist, is a wealthy young matron. We meet her while she is on a shopping trip in town. In an antique shop, she examines an expensive jewelry box that she would love to own. Yet, after inquiring about the price, she decides against the purchase - at least for that day.

Without the longed-for purchase, Rosemary returns to the street, where she is approached by a young woman in tattered clothing about her own age. The young woman asks for the price of a cup of tea and says she has no money, which Rosemary finds unimaginable.

Suddenly, inspired by the tales of Dostoevsky that she has recently read, Rosemary experiences a charitable inspiration and takes the woman home. Of course, the reader questions (as Mansfield intended) the true sincerity of Rosemary's impulse. We all believe in helping the less fortunate; however, this wealthy young woman seems more taken with her own fantasy of philanthropy than any real desire to help. At any rate, the young Miss Smith does go home with Rosemary and is given an abundant tea with all the trimmings.

While they're having tea, Mr. Fell (Phillip) comes into the bedroom and finds this unexpected guest. He takes Rosemary into another room, where he first expresses disapproval of what his wife has done and then speaks appreciatively about their visitor's beauty.

Once back with her charitable case, Rosemary now feels odd and without direction. What should she do? Ultimately, she gives Miss Smith some cash and sends her on her way. Anxious about her own appearance, Rosemary takes great care in dressing for dinner and seeks reassurance of her charms from Phillip.

Story Themes

Social Class

If you have seen television shows like Downtown Abbey that depict English society in the first part of the 20th century, you might have some idea about the importance of social class as it relates to how people act and treat one another. At that time, social class dictated actions, relationships, and even business dealings, and there was really no escaping its influence.

Charity toward people living in poverty was encouraged but certainly not by bringing someone into one's home. To the modern reader, the theme of social class restrictions may seem odd, but in Mansfield's culture, it was a very real concept.

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