Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.
Summarizing Miss Brill
You can sometimes tell the nature of a story by the title, and Katherine Mansfield's 1920 tale, Miss Brill is no exception. This is a story about the mind of a lonely woman and, yes, her name is Miss Brill.
An Ordinary Life
Miss Brill is an ordinary, but solitary, middle-aged woman. She spends her days teaching English to children and reading to an aged gentleman, who spends her entire visit sleeping. There is not much excitement in Miss Brill's life. Then, Sunday comes.
Sunday is Miss Brill's day to relax and enjoy herself. This particular Sunday, she dons her fur, though it is warm outside, and prepares to head out for her weekly ritual: a trip to a French park called Jardins Publiques. The fur is a source of comfort for Miss Brill, though it has been in better shape in previous, and she actually talks to it like a companion: 'Little rogue!' she says.
An Afternoon in the Park
Suited and ready to go, Miss Brill makes her way to the park to enjoy the sounds of the band. She assumes her usual seat and notes that there are more people out than the prior Sunday. She is very aware of the band, familiar with their choice of tunes and observing the conductor's new coat.
While listening to the music, Miss Brill uses the trip to the park to people-watch. Secretly, Miss Brill likes to eavesdrop on people's conversations. She has figured out how to listen to them without looking like she is listening.
The first couple Miss Brill focuses on is an older couple. She's disappointed because this particular couple is too quiet and too still. She entertains herself by watching the people moving about around them, including children running around and people stopping to buy flowers. Miss Brill, while looking around, surmises that most everyone in the park is strange and many of them old and pale.
The band plays on while Miss Brill continues observing her park company. She spies two girls and two soldiers and a woman and young boy. She settles her gaze on a woman in an ermine toque, or white fur hat, and her gentleman companion. The woman, she notices, is trying to get the man to pay attention to her, but he appears uninterested, smoking and eventually walking away from her. Miss Brill feels like the band begins to play more softly out of respect for the woman's sad situation.
Figuring Things Out
It is a play, she thinks to herself! Everyone here is part of a play. 'They weren't only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting,' she decides. Even she is a member of the cast. Miss Brill realizes that the reason she has a difficult time talking to her schoolchildren about what she does on the weekends is because she is on the stage. She even confides in the old man she reads to about her job as an actress: 'Yes, I have been an actress for a long time,' she says.
Miss Brill is back at the park now, stopping to notice a handsome couple who sits down next to her. She begins listening to their conversation, thinking them the hero and heroine of the play she's a part of. To her dismay, the couple starts making fun of her, calling her fur 'funny' and wondering why she doesn't keep her 'silly mug' at home.
A Lonely Walk Home
Miss Brill, saddened by what she has overheard, doesn't even have the heart for her usual slice of cake on her way home. It is the presence of the almond in the cake, sometimes there and sometimes not, that makes it extra special.
She arrives home, to her dark room, and returns her fur to its keepsake box. As she places it inside, she believes she hears crying.
There's little action in Miss Brill, but plenty going on inside the lonely woman's mind. Living a solitary, but ordinary life as a teacher and companion to an aged gentleman, Miss Brill spends her Sunday enjoying herself in the park. Despite the weather, she pulls out her favorite fur, which is almost like a friend to her. She proceeds to the park and enjoys listening to the band, as well as eavesdropping on the conversations of the people around her. One couple, particularly a woman wearing an ermine toque, catches her eye. She quickly surmises that all of the people, including herself, are stage actors in a play. Her bubble is burst by a young couple who arrive and begin making fun of her. She wanders home, without her weekly slice of cake, and puts the fur back into its box, sure that she's heard the sound of crying.
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