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Katherine Mansfield: Short Stories & Themes

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

Katherine Mansfield, one of New Zealand's finest authors, wrote dozens of short stories and poems. In this lesson, we will look at some her best short stories and themes that show up in the bulk of her work.

Background

Considered a pioneer of the short story, Katherine Mansfield was a perceptive and innovative writer who achieved fame as a talented artist even before her untimely death at age 34. She took risks that other authors had not taken before such as beginning a story in the middle of the conflict. Her work is best known for using image and metaphor to explore themes such as disappointment, gender roles and expectations, and death. In this lesson, we will talk about the short stories The Garden Party, The Fly, and Marriage a la Mode to highlight Mansfield's use of those themes.

Short Stories

The Garden Party

Considered one of Mansfield's best short stories, The Garden Party follows the main character Laura Sheridan as her family prepares for an extravagant party. Laura learns that an impoverished neighbor has just died. Her family thinks nothing of it, but she insists that the party should be cancelled. Her family laughs off the idea and attempts to distract Laura by giving her an expensive black velvet hat.

The party proceeds as planned, but afterwards, Laura's mother makes her take leftovers to the grieving family's house. As she enters the rundown neighborhood, she feels ashamed for wearing such an expensive hat and lace dress to deliver the goods. Laura is invited into the family's home and upon seeing the man's body, she becomes embarrassed, saying, 'Forgive my hat,' before running out of the house.

Marriage a la Mode

Marriage a la Mode examines the relationship between William and his wife Isabel, who has become more interested in pleasing her artsy friends than her family. William sadly reflects on the abrupt change in his wife on the train ride home from work. He is also disappointed with Isabel because she allows her friends to live at their home without paying rent.

When William arrives home from work, Isabel quickly brushes him off. During his time at home, Isabel and her friends make him feel out of place by quieting themselves when they are in the same room with him. Isabel reassures her friends that William will only be there for a few days until he returns to the city for work.

On the next day, Isabel kisses William goodbye and apologizes for not spending time with him. William then decides to write her a letter explaining his frustrations. When Isabel receives the letter, she thinks that it is a love letter and reads it aloud to her friends until she realizes that William is talking about divorce. She runs up to her room crying and wants to write him back saying how much she loves him, but when her friends call her back down, she decides to go outside instead.

The Fly

The Fly was Mansfield's last completed short story. Split into two parts, the first part introduces Mr. Woodifield and the boss, two men who have lost their sons to war. Mr. Woodifield tells the boss that his daughters visited the gravesite of the boss' son in Belgium. The first part of the story concludes with Mr. Woodifield leaving.

The second part of the story follows the boss as he sits alone and tortures a fly that has fallen into an inkpot after feeling terrible grief over the loss of his son. He pulls the fly from the inkpot and continues to torture it until it finally dies. After he disposes of the fly, he feels terrible, but cannot remember what he was doing or thinking about before he killed the fly.

Themes

Disappointment

Mansfield explores disappointment in The Garden Party through the eyes of Laura Sheridan. After Laura discovers that a neighbor down the street has died suddenly, she wants her family to cancel their extravagant party in order to help the grieving neighbors during their time of need. Her mother thinks that her request to do so is outlandish because she looks down on families who are not so privileged. Laura is disappointed in her family's elitist attitude and disregard for another's life. This disappointment extends beyond her family and onto herself when she encounters the mourning family wearing her expensive clothing. Disappointment in this short story and other short stories by Mansfield serve as a trigger for characters to self-reflect on social status, life, death, and many other topics approached in her work.

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