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The Garden Party Symbols

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 symbols that are used by the author, Katherine Mansfield, in the short story 'The Garden Party.' This is the story of socialites who host a party while a working class family grieves an unexpected loss.

Background

Imagine living in the lap of luxury, but watching others suffer just down the street. In Katherine Mansfield's 'The Garden Party,' Laura Sheridan is throwing a magnificent garden party filled with flowers and food. Just before the party begins, she learns that a man in the less-fortunate cottages down the street has been killed in an accident, leaving behind a wife and 5 children. While Laura's mother and sister view the accident as a sad occurrence that doesn't really affect them, Laura struggles to have a good time when she knows a family is grieving. When telling this story, the author uses symbols, or objects that represent bigger ideas. Let's look at the symbolism of the lilies, hat, and the road in this story.

Lilies

Laura Sheridan's house already contains a 'lily-lawn' in an inconspicuous area of the garden, but for the garden party, Laura's mother orders even more. At first, Laura thinks it is a mistake, after all, her mother promised not to interfere with Laura's party, and Laura didn't order them. However, her mother admits that the garden party is an excuse to 'have enough canna lilies' for once in her life. Laura agrees they are a beautiful addition to the garden décor.

After the party, Laura's mother decides that Laura should take some of the leftover flowers to the grieving family since 'people of that class are so impressed by arum lilies,' but when Laura's sister, Jose, mentions that the lily stems could ruin Laura's lace dress, her mother changes her mind.

Lilies represent royalty, purity, and rebirth. The Sheridan family, while not technically royalty, carries themselves with some regality because of their social status. Stating that those less fortunate are impressed by the arum lilies is comparable to stating that they are impressed by status. Laura's mother can't have enough of her elevated position, but for this garden party, she reaches as high as she can.

Laura's coming of age is represented by the purity of the flower. However, her mother's interference, although appreciated, prohibits Laura from being able to fully emerge. Rebirth happens to an extent as Laura grows older, but is more completely symbolized by the dead man who appears to be at peace. Lilies are also commonly given to mourners at funerals as a symbol that the soul of the departed has been restored to innocence.

Hat

As Laura speaks with her mother about canceling the party in the wake of a death, Laura's mother dismisses her concern and seems to change the subject as she gives Laura a hat that she feels is more suited for the young girl. At first, Laura is ashamed to wear it, but when she returns to her room, she catches a glance of herself. The narrator describes, 'There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that.' But after Laura views the body of the dead man, she says, 'Forgive my hat.'

Hats can be used as a symbol of social hierarchy, but they can also be used as a means to hide. In this case, the hat is used as a distraction to hide the sadness that exists outside the gates of the Sheridan household. While it works for a while, Laura is sincerely embarrassed by it when she faces the reality of a family in mourning.

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