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The Garden Party: Themes & Analysis

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 look at ''The Garden Party,'' a short story by Katherine Mansfield about a sad event that occurs before Laura Sheridan's garden party. We will examine some of the themes in the story as well.

Background

If a tragedy occurred moments before an extravagant event that you planned, would you cancel it? Laura Sheridan, the protagonist in the short story The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, has planned a huge party with flowers and food suited for the high society guests. However, just before the party is scheduled to begin, she learns that a man from a cottage down the road was thrown from his horse and killed, leaving behind a wife and five children. Laura learns about social class and death through this experience. Let's examine these themes in the story.

Social Class

Laura Sheridan has conflicting thoughts about social class. On one hand, she wonders, ''whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye'' when negotiating the best location to put the marquee for her party. On the other hand, she wonders why she can't ''have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper.''

Her confusion becomes even more profound when she learns that a man that lives in the cottage has died. Laura is ready to cancel the party, but both Jose (Laura's sister) and Mrs. Sheridan (Laura's mother) seem to think that is ridiculous. Mrs. Sheridan says, ''People like that don't expect sacrifices from us.''

After the party, Laura is perplexed that her mother thinks it is a noble thing to send ''scraps from their party'' to the widow. When Laura goes to the cottage with the basket of goodies from the party, she feels embarrassed about her festive hat during such a solemn occasion.

Mansfield shows in the story that those in high society think the poor are less worthy. They don't want to be inconvenienced by a working class tragedy, but expect their leftovers (that will be thrown out otherwise) to be appreciated.

Death

Death is another theme in The Garden Party. Laura is shocked when she learns about the accident. Her immediate thought is to stop the party, because it would be too difficult for the widow and her five children to hear the joyful music. Laura thinks it seems insensitive to have a good time while their neighbors are suffering.

Jose says, ''If you're going to stop a band playing every time some one has an accident, you'll lead a very strenuous life.'' Mrs. Sheridan also views death as part of life and that people die all the time. The only thing different in this case is that they happened to learn about it.

When Mr. Sheridan (Laura's father) mentions the accident at the party, Mrs. Sheridan is horrified that he would talk about the awkward subject at a party. To her, death should not be mentioned in polite company.

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