Life of Ma Parker: Symbolism & Themes

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine the themes and symbolism from Katherine Mansfield's short story ''Life of Ma Parker.'' This is the story of a woman who has had a hard life and is badly in need of a good cry.

Plot Summary

When was the last time you had a good, cathartic cry? In ''Life of Ma Parker'' by Katherine Mansfield, Ma Parker, the protagonist, is past due for a chance to let out all of the pain she has endured throughout her life, but struggles to find an acceptable place to let loose.

Ma Parker is cleaning the home of a gentleman who asks about the funeral of Ma Parker's grandson, Lennie. His question prompts her to remember the misfortunes she has experienced throughout her life. Her first job when she was sixteen years old was a kitchen maid for a wealthy family whose cook kept her locked in a cellar. Then, she worked for a doctor that kept her busy nonstop until she met her husband, a baker. They had thirteen children, but seven died before Ma Parker's husband also died. She raised the children on her own until her sister-in-law arrived to help, but when she falls down the stairs, Ma Parker has another person to care for. Two of her daughters 'went wrong,' two of her sons moved far away, and one of her sons joined the army. Ethel, the youngest and Lennie's mother, married young and became a widow at a young age. Lennie and Ma Parker were especially close, and Ma Parker felt responsible for being unable to save him. After all of these years of holding it in, Ma Parker is ready to cry it out, but can't find a private place to go. Let's examine the symbolism and themes of this story.

Social Position

By comparing Ma Parker to her employer, the literary gentleman, the author is able to explore the theme of social position from the perspectives of the educated versus the uneducated, man versus woman, and wealthy versus poor. As Ma Parker is forced to leave home and find work to support herself at age sixteen, she has not had the luxury of study like the literary gentleman. Ma Parker has had to endure abusive employers who have dehumanized her, as the literary gentleman does when he awkwardly asks about Lennie's funeral 'because these people set such store by funerals.' The man makes no effort to clean up after himself at all because he has 'a hag in once a week to clean up.' Despite the way he treats her, Ma Parker actually feels sorry for the gentleman because he doesn't have someone to take care of him. Having been relegated to the female gender role of caretaker her entire life, it never occurs to Ma Parker that he would be able to care of himself.


Another theme from this story is struggle. Ma Parker has never had anyone love her and take care of her. She has had to figure out how to care for everyone else. She thought she would get some relief when she married, but her husband dies at a young age, leaving her with six young children. Her sister-in-law intends to help but becomes another burden. When Ma Parker's children grow up, none of them repay her for all that she has sacrificed for them. They all leave, except for the youngest who returns so that Ma Parker can continue to care for her and her child. Through all of these struggles, 'she'd borne it...she'd kept herself to herself, and never once had she been seen to cry.' Ma Parker has endured each of these tragedies because she didn't have a choice. She did not have someone around to be strong for her. Ma Parker had to be strong for everyone else.

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