Miss Brill Setting

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

This lesson will present the details of setting in 'Miss Brill' by Katherine Mansfield. We will explore how Mansfield constructs the surroundings of this short story to set the stage for our main character's dilemma.

'Miss Brill'

Imagine a traveling circus waiting for you just outside your door complete with entertainers waiting to lay out an exciting drama just for you. How would this change if you started to notice underneath all the excitement there was a bitter edge? How would you feel if you came to realize instead of being laid out for your entertainment, these wonders were just happenstance and your presence was not welcome? So it is for the title character in the short story 'Miss Brill' by Katherine Mansfield. Miss Brill goes to a local park on a Sunday morning to pleasantly enjoy the park band and the people walking. Instead of interacting or speaking with the many people who walk by or sit on her bench, Brill prefers to observe them and listen to their conversations, as if this includes her in the drama of their lives. Through her observations and eavesdropping, she feels connected to and accepted by the park goers. This fantasy is broken when a young couple disparage her under their breath forcing the lonely Miss Brill to confront her age and ultimate disconnection from the people she hoped most to relate to. The story closes with a dejected Brill going back home and crying alone in her bedroom.

What Is Setting?

Now that we have a good basis of the basic events of the story, let's turn to the literary technique of setting and its influence on the plot. Setting, or the time and location the story takes place, plays a big role in the development of a story. The time of a story may include the time of day, the time of year, or the year. With different time settings, there may be differences in language, culture, predominate religion, technology, scientific discovery, etc. For instance, a story set at midnight in January in 30 B.C.E. would be quite different than one set at noon in June in 3000 C.E.

Additionally, there is the description of a location which may be within a room, within a house, a city, a country, etc. There are corresponding differences to various locations, including currency, government, ongoing wars, historical events, language, and technology. Choosing a specific place and time creates the space for characters to interact. This is an important literary technique to focus on due to what it can reveal about a character, their available choices, and the conflict, also known as their struggle.

The park Miss Brill visits complete with the benches she sits on.
park with benches

Time Setting

With our understanding of setting, let's begin our analysis of the setting of Mansfield's story with when the story is set. 'Miss Brill' is set on a Sunday at the beginning of spring in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The setting of Sunday sets it apart by making this day a time of leisure and relaxation. The author's mention of a fur wrap and an ermine toque, though popular before and to a lesser extent since, places the story in this period. In addition, the story is written in the modernist style. Modernism represented a time from pre-1900-1965, during which the literature had a sudden break with traditional modes of writing. In 'Miss Brill,' the title character is isolated from her surroundings and fails to connect the lessons of her struggle to personal learning, both typical of Modernist writing.

Location Setting

Shifting from the when to the where, we will now focus on the location setting of the story. 'Miss Brill' is set in the Jardins Publiques, a French phrase literally meaning 'public park.' There are several public parks in France, although an old park boasting that specific name is situated in Bordeaux, a city in Southern France. This story takes place mainly in two specific locations: the park and Miss Brill's home.

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