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.
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.''
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.
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.
The Role of Women
When Mansfield wrote A cup of Tea, the role of women in Western culture, which in upperclass society included marrying young, functioning as a wife and mother, and not working outside the home, was besieged by some serious challenges. But, many women still lacked freedom and independence in the male-dominated world of the time. The reader gets the idea that Rosemary might be dissatisfied with her everyday life and longs for some excitement beyond buying new items. She decides to turn helping Miss Smith into an adventure and plays her charitable act out like a story in her head.
Materialism is the idea that wealth and material goods can bring happiness. Of course, the astute reader knows that this is not entirely true, although the total lack of money (as in Miss Smith's case) can cause great misery.
Mansfield introduces the reader to Rosemary's world of abundance at the beginning of the story, with an elaborate description of a flower shopping expedition. Her visit to an antique store and desire for a fancy jewelry box are described, followed by a detailed picture of a luxurious home, as Rosemary and Miss Smith arrive at her ''beautiful big bedroom with the curtains drawn, the fire leaping on her wonderful lacquer furniture, her gold cushions and the primrose and blue rugs.'' Still, as the story unfolds, we realize that material things have not fulfilled our protagonist as she might have expected.
Beauty and Insecurity
At the beginning of A Cup of Tea, Rosemary is described as not beautiful, and perhaps not even pretty. Later, when her husband Phillip exclaims over the woman's beauty, this makes Rosemary aware of her constant insecurity. The story ends with her adorning herself with eye makeup and pearls and then soliciting Phillip's compliments. In the final line of the story, Rosemary asks Phillip if she's pretty.
A Cup of Tea by Katherine Mansfield is a short story set in London in the 1920s. Rosemary Fell, the protagonist and a wealthy young matron, brings a young woman who approaches her for money home to tea. When Rosemary's husband praises the woman's beauty, Rosemary's good intentions fall by the wayside due to her insecurity. A Cup of Tea also addresses themes related to materialism, social class, and the role of women.
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