Feminist Values in The Garden Party

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson explores gender roles, feminist values, and the intersection of class and gender that are present in Katherine Mansfield's 1922 short story 'The Garden Party.' After you've read the lesson, complete the quiz questions that follow.

''The Garden Party''

Katherine Mansfield's 1922 short story ''The Garden Party'' illustrates how one young woman becomes more aware of the social structure and dynamics of the world she lives in and begins to decide what she wants to accept and reject. The way gender roles are assigned in this story are fairly traditional, but the interior dialogue that the main character, Laura, has within herself indicates a change in attitude. This lesson will take a deeper look at the gender roles and feminist values that are present in this short story.

Gender Roles

In the scope of the story, which takes place during one day, the house is dominated by women. Mrs. Sheridan and her three daughters are bustling around the house planning the garden party that is to happen later that day. The son (Laurie), the male servant, the workmen, and the delivery man occupy less space and time than the women. The man of the house, Mr. Sheridan, barely makes an appearance at all. On a superficial level, the fact that the women in this story are central and seem to be in charge may point to a feminist value.

On the other hand, the planning of a garden party is still a stereotypical arena for women, where they are concerned with hospitality and event planning. Their discussions of flowers, dresses, hats, and other details are meant to be perceived as frivolous by the reader and by Laura, the Sheridan daughter who is the protagonist.

The author Katherine Mansfield was raised in New Zealand and lived in London
The author Katherine Mansfield

Feminism vs Feminist Values

Though the traditional gender roles for women in this story do not automatically point to feminism, some feminist values are portrayed through the character of Laura Sheridan.

Laura's family is clearly wealthy. Their yard includes several gardens and a tennis court; workmen arrive to set up a tent, and there will be a band at the party. The household includes a cook and several servants.

While the family is preparing for their party, a delivery man mentions that a man who lives nearby was thrown from his horse and killed. Laura thinks it is inappropriate to continue with the party with a grieving family nearby, but no one else in her family thinks it is a big deal and goes ahead with the party. This disagreement causes Laura to be more aware of her family's elitist attitudes; their priorities seem shallow and superficial.

Laura's awakening has more to do with class than gender roles, but usually when a woman becomes aware and begins to question social status in terms of class, it leads to thinking about her place in society as a woman as well. A chief feminist value is recognizing the intersectionality of race, class, and gender, or the way that these three aspects of identity intersect to define someone's place in society. Feminist theory emphasizes that people who are anything but white, middle/upper class males often find injustice when navigating social structures, and people experience varying levels of privilege depending on where their identities intersect in these three ways. The Sheridans are condescending toward the man who was killed because he was lower class. Laura is from a wealthier class but still experiences restrictions and particular expectations because of her gender. This is apparent when, after the party, her father brought up the death of the man, which Mrs. Sheridan thought to be tactless. This shows the belief that some topics were not fit or proper for women to discuss.

As Laura is helping set up for the party, she realizes that she identifies with the workmen who are cheerful, kind, and hard-working. She thinks to herself, ''Why couldn't she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.'' This is one of the first times in the story that Laura feels separate from the values of her family and social circle. The other, more obvious example is when she disagrees with her family continuing to throw a party when someone in the nearby poorer community has just died.

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