Miss Brill Symbolism

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 explores some of the important uses of symbolism in Katherine Mansfield's short story 'Miss Brill.' Symbols connect the reader to important messages in the story. In 'Miss Brill,' Mansfield uses the fur, the ermine toque, and the band as symbols.

What is Symbolism?

A specifically colored square at the end of a text message or social media post requires no words to express an idea. However, the inclusion of this object can express a country's flag and or a person being in that a location. Using an object to stand for a larger idea than itself is called a symbol. A symbol in literature is a means by which an author can make connections between larger conflicts, possible struggles of the character, and recurring ideas within a story. In Katherine Mansfield's short story 'Miss Brill,' the author uses symbols to subtly build and explore the conflict of the title character. In the following sections, we will explore the symbols of the fur, the ermine toque, and the band in relation to the main character.

woman in the park


We'll begin our exploration of symbols with Miss Brill's fur wrap. The fur comes to represent the title character, Miss Brill. It is introduced early in the story and mentioned at the story's closing as well. Miss Brill keeps the fur in a dark box taking it out and shaking it of its accumulated dust before wearing it. Then at the end of an outing, she returns it to its dark box. This dust signifies that the fur does not get out often, just as the character herself does not go out often. Brill notices the dead eyes of this dead animal. They stand out to her. She mentions the eyes only need a touch up of some makeup, a 'little rouge,' to liven them up a bit as if this were the only missing ingredient in the life of such an object. Miss Brill goes out to the park but chooses to only watch others, eavesdropping on their conversations and not participating adding to the sense that the dead eyes of the fur wrap seem to reflect the inability of its owner to interact with others. Finally, just like the fur comes out for a bit, before being returned to its box, Miss Brill also seems to leave her home for a bit only to return to her lonely room; shut away from the world just as lonely as before she left.

Ermine Toque

Continuing our exploration of symbols, we will turn from the clothing symbol that Miss Brill wears to the one a stranger at the park wears: the ermine toque (hat). In the novel, the narrator refers to the owner of the hat through synecdoche, a literary technique of reducing the whole to one part, in this case referring to the entire woman by way of the hat she wears. Thus, one day, while near Miss Brill, the 'ermine toque' (the woman) meets a stiff and dignified man in the park. The woman greets the man with as much warmth as he returns with coldness. In fact, her excitement falls on deaf ears until he finally walks away from her. The woman, who used to have greater beauty, now emanates faded beauty, matching the pale color of the ermine toque she wears. Similar to the fur, this scene and the object, come to stand for Miss Brill in her own faded beauty and ignored excitement. Just as the man does not talk to the 'ermine toque,' no one talks directly to Miss Brill. Later in the story when a young couple chances by Miss Brill, they are put off by her being old just as the man seems to be put off by the woman in the ermine toque. There is no rush of forced excitement after this and the young couples' words seem to wound Miss Brill in a deep way. Her own faded beauty and youth are now inescapably present and the thought ruins what was her pleasant outing.

The Band

band in the park

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