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Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories: An Introduction

Par Emilie Walezak : Professeur agrégée d'anglais - Université Lyon II
Publié par Clifford Armion le 28/06/2011

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Katherine Mansfield wrote short stories exclusively and produced a large body of work though she died quite young from tuberculosis when she was 30. She is one the best representatives of modernist short story writing. Virginia Woolf herself admitted to Mansfield that she was jealous of her writing: "and then Morgan Foster said the ((Prelude)) and ((The Voyage Out)) were the best novels of their time, and I said damn Katherine! Why can't I be the only woman who knows how to write?"


Modernist short stories have often been described as psychological sketches. The expression underlines two things of paramount importance in modernist short stories and modernist fiction at large. First, modernist writers aimed to do away with plot and action, with a conventional narrative form, whether in the novels or in the shorts stories. Second, they wanted to convey a character's "impressions" through the use of narrative voice, what became known as the stream of consciousness. Formally speaking, this translated into an extensive use of free indirect speech as well as a superimposition of different narrative frames structuring the text in lieu of the traditional plot structure. Another distinctive feature of the modernist text, which is the consequence or maybe the cause of this focus on a character's inner life, is how it consistently lays bare the social semblances. Modernist stories are most often set in highly coded realist social contexts (dinner parties, family gatherings, school lessons, etc) and the drama - there is indeed a characteristic theatricality to Mansfield's texts that may be found in other modernist texts as well - that is played out is that of the collapse of a society's ideals that is transcribed into a character's social inadequacy to conventions or his/her utter failure to play by the rules hence the defeat of his/her preconceptions. This corresponds to what the modernists themselves have theorized as a moment of epiphany. Joyce made the term popular and each of the short stories in his collection Dubliners was designed to contain such a moment of revelation experienced either by the character or by the reader. The description of what Joyce intended with his epiphanies by his brother Stanislaus underlines this process of laying bare which some critics have compared to the disclosure of a character's symptom: "little errors and gestures - mere straws in the wind - by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal."((John Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother's Keeper: James Joyce's Early Years, Da Capo Press, 2003, 124.)) Joyce's own description in Stephen Hero insists on how an object is suddenly stripped to its essentiality: "Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance."((James Joyce, Stephen Hero, New York: New Directions, 1963, 213.)) Other modernist writers such as James, Conrad, Woolf or Lawrence appropriated the notion in their own ways. Woolf wrote about "moments of being"((Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.)) while Lawrence evoked a "flame into being"((D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover, London: Penguin Books, 2006, 301.)), both insisting on a particular state of being that is consistent with the modernist focus on the inner life. Mansfield herself wrote about "one blazing moment"((Katherine Mansfield, Novels and Novelists, London: Constable, 1930, 30.)), taking up the idea, similar to that of Lawrence, of an illuminating moment. Short stories are particularly apt to convey epiphanic moments as the form relies on condensation.

Katherine Mansfield wrote short stories exclusively and produced a large body of work though she died quite young from tuberculosis when she was 30. She is one the best representatives of modernist short story writing. Virginia Woolf herself admitted to Mansfield that she was jealous of her writing: "and then Morgan Foster said the Prelude and The Voyage Out were the best novels of their time, and I said damn Katherine! Why can't I be the only woman who knows how to write?"((Joanne Trautman Banks (ed), Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf, London: Hogarth Press, 1989, 128.)) Mansfield has since been noted as an innovator of the short story form as Andrew Gurr and Clare Hanson have pointed out, underlining in particular her skillful use of free indirect speech: "Katherine Mansfield's development of free indirect form was one of her most important contributions to the art of the short story. Such a form allows for directness and immediacy, enabling the intrusive presence of the author-as-narrator to appear to disappear from the text."((Clare Hanson and Andew Gurr, Katherine Mansfield, London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press, 1981, 131.)) Thus the multiplicity of narrative voices and consequently of narrative frames which cast different lights on the same story is a characteristic of Mansfield's writing and help account for the double-sided nature of her stories as they usually read both as enchanting and fiercely ironical. Taking a look at the different uses of voice in Mansfield's stories will help better understand how to read them.

1. Inside a character's mind

Often enough in Mansfield's stories, the reader is first immersed in the story as told by the main character. This accounts for the recurrent in medias res beginnings of the stories and highlights the use of free indirect speech which is a clue to a character's thoughts and feelings that are often expressed through theatricality as the characters/narrators fancy themselves as the actors of their own lives, orchestrating their own world.

1.1 The in medias res beginning

Most of Mansfield's stories are third person narratives in which the perspective of the character is expressed through the use of free indirect speech. The reader may spot such useful clues to a character's subjectivity as the adverbs, the -ing form, the modals, the comparative forms or the punctuation. The in medias res beginnings of the stories often enough serve to enhance a character's world view. They may read like the continuation of a previous action, thus suggesting the character's immediate or long past:

And then, after six years, she saw him again. He was seated at one of those little bamboo tables decorated with a Japanese vase of paper daffodils. There was a tall plate of fruit in front of him, and very carefully, in a way she recognised immediately as his "special" way, he was peeling an orange. (A Dill Pickle, 176)

In this extract from A Dill Pickle, the use of the adverbs "very carefully" and "immediately" precede and account for the use of the -ing form in "he was peeling an orange". The inverted commas around the word "special" reinforce the impression of subjectivity so that the reader clearly identifies the adopted point of view as that of a yet anonymous "she".

When she opened the door and saw him standing there she was more pleased than ever before, and he, too, as he followed her into the studio, seemed very, very happy to have come. (Psychology, 111)

In Psychology, the two protagonists, a man and a woman, remain unidentified throughout the story. In the first lines, the point of view of the female protagonist is expressed through the use of a comparative and the repetition of the adverb "very" and is complemented by the setting itself as the door frame mirrors the woman's perspective.

The week after was one of the busiest weeks of their lives. Even when they went to bed it was only their bodies that lay down and rested; their minds went on, thinking things out, talking things over, wondering, deciding, trying to remember where ... (The Daughters of the Late Colonel, 262)

The incipit of The Daughters of the Late Colonel is particularly interesting as the missing information in the first lines as to who "they" are and when the action takes place is in fact provided in the very title of the story. From the start it thus mirrors the point of view of the two main characters who are still afraid of their late father and going through a grieving process which means they cannot really believe he is dead and dare not mention his death. The suspended sentence as well as the -ing verbs mimic the working of their minds and their lapses of memory.

Sometimes the incipits offer a direct insight into a character's frame of mind:

If there was one thing that he hated more than another it was the way she had of waking him in the morning. She did it on purpose, of course. It was her way of establishing her grievance for the day, and he was not going to let her know how successful it was. But really, really, to wake a sensitive person like that was positively dangerous! (Mr Reginald Peacock's Day, 144)

Free indirect speech in that case reads like the exact record of a character's thoughts with the use, in particular, of the exclamation mark or the idiom "of course".

Oh, dear, how she wished that it wasn't night-time. She'd have much rather travelled by day, much much rather. (The Little Governess, 174)

The first words of The Little Governess express the girl's distress at traveling alone in a foreign country, which is further enhanced by the repetition of the adverb "much".

And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. (The Garden-Party, 245)

The first sentence of The Garden Party is the perfect example of an in medias res beginning. The use of the modal could is complemented, in the second sentence, by the comparative to underline the use of free indirect speech.

The incipits quoted so far all delay the disclosure of the character's name, which further involves the reader: as the pronoun could be said to reduce the distance between the reader and the character's perceptions, the reader is lured into the character's own apprehension of the world. Other incipits introduce a character's name and may thus mislead the reader into believing he/she is reading a conventional third person narration while the first sentences are still written using free indirect speech:

Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at - nothing - at nothing, simply. (Bliss, 91)

The beginning of Bliss clearly provides information on the character's identity, her name and age but then the sentence's rhythm is designed to mimic the character's feeling of ecstasy with the dashes making Bertha stumble at the end towards the adverb.

From eight o'clock in the morning until about half-past eleven Monica Tyrell suffered from her nerves, and suffered so terribly that these hours were - agonizing, simply. (Revelations, 190)

Similarly in Revelations, though the character's name is disclosed, the sentence itself mimics Monica's nervous irritation, her hesitation over the correct word to describe her feelings and the way she emphasizes her suffering with the adverbs.

1.2 A Theatre of Semblances

Often enough, the reader is thus invited to read about the stories that characters like to tell themselves or about themselves, which can be misleading on a first reading of the texts. In this sense, they are like stage directors who arrange reality as they see fit, which accounts for the theatricality in the short stories. The stories are full of dialogues. Some characters are really playwrights, it is their profession, like the female protagonist in Psychology or Eddie Warren, one of Bertha's dinner guests in Bliss, or actors like Ada Moss in Pictures. All of them like to cast themselves in a role designed to enhance their own sense of self and purpose, their self-importance.

In Bliss, Bertha Young first starts composing her dinner setting with a fruit arrangement like a still life designed to produce a theatrical "effect" (93). Her guests make a "decorative group" that "[remind] her of a play by Tchekof" (100). She herself is dressed so that the colours she wears match those of the pear tree. The story she tells is that of herself cast in the role of a master of ceremonies.

Miss Brill's weekly walk in the park on Sunday is designed to make her feel she has an essential role to play on the world stage:

They were all on the stage. They weren't only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn't been there; she was part of the performance, after all. (334)

In A Cup of Tea, Rosemary Fell fancies herself as a fairy godmother inviting to tea a poor girl she picked up on the street. In The Fly, the main character, who is called "the boss" throughout the text, likes his old impotent employee to admire his office. In An Ideal Family, old Mr Neave has worked all his life, and still does, to cater for the needs of his family and is proud to hear it praised:

As a matter of fact, no other house was as popular as theirs; no other family entertained so much. And how many times old Mr Neave, pushing the cigar-box across the smoking-room table, had listened to praises of his wife, his girls, of himself even.
"You're an ideal family, sir, an ideal family. It's like something one reads about or sees on the stage." (370)

The characters work to arrange reality so that it casts an attractive light on them. Thus pictoriality comes as a complement to theatricality: it is the décor of their lives. In Psychology which is about the attraction between a man and a woman, the female protagonist, while preparing tea, likes to picture the two of them in her sitting room: "The picture was so clear and so minute it might have been painted on the blue teapot lid." (112). In Sun and Moon, the two children to whom the title refers admire the beautiful dinner setting, they "made eyes" at it (155), and are then dressed up themselves in the same tones to match the setting in order to impress the guests. The two of them make "a picture" (156-7) and Moon looks like "a sweet little cherub of a picture of a powder puff" (156). Old Mr Neave in An Ideal Family is forced by his daughters to dress up for the party else it would be "so very out of the picture!" (373). The characters want to be seen on the world stage. This also accounts for the predominant themes of wealth and beauty as signs of fulfillment. Some characters embark on flights of fancy in which they picture themselves as the centre of attention and the object of admiring gazes. Thus in Prelude Beryl, in her clichéd daydreams, imagines meeting rich influent young men and the French "eau-de-nil" to describe the dress she is wearing echoes with snobbery:

A young man, immensely rich, has just arrived from England. He meets her quite by chance. ... The new governor is unmarried. ... There is a ball at Government house. ... Who is that exquisite creature in eau-de-nil satin? Beryl Fairfield. ... (22)

Beryl's fantasies which sound like plots from a cheap romance recall those of Rosabel in The Tiredness of Rosabel. Rosabel fancies herself married to the rich Harry who visited the shop where she is working with his fiancée. The scenario she imagines: "Rosabel knew that she was the most famous woman at the ball that night; men paid her homage, a foreign Prince desired to be presented to this English wonder. Yes, it was a voluptuous night, a band playing, and her lovely white shoulders. ..." (518) is directly taken from the romance novel a young girl is reading on the bus taking Rosabel home at the beginning of the story: "She glanced at the book which the girl read so earnestly [...]. It was something about a hot, voluptuous night, a band playing, and a girl with lovely, white shoulders." (513-14). In Mr Reginald Peacock's Day, Peacock, who is a music master, bathes in the wealth and reputation of his clients and thinks his status as an artist makes him one of them and he is a puppet master: ""Have some more champagne, Peacock," said Lord Timbuck. Peacock, you notice - not Mr Peacock - but Peacock, as if he was one of them. And wasn't he? He was an artist. He could sway them all." (152).

1. 3 The characters' epiphanies

What all the characters really want to recover, however, is a lost sense of harmony like a lost paradise. Many characters thus insist on a discrepancy between the self they present to the world and what they often call their "real self". Thus Beryl in Prelude, while engaging in attractive fantasies, also despises herself for it: "oh", she cried, "I am so miserable - so frightfully miserable. I know that I'm silly and spiteful and vain; I'm always acting a part. I'm never my real self for a moment." In Revelations, Monica Tyrell seeks shelter at her hairdresser's where "Monica had the feeling that they loved her in this shop and understood her - the real her" (193). In A Dill Pickle, Vera, upon meeting her former lover who left her with only bitter memories, rewrites all the painful memories as she listens to his own rememoration that sounds like "some forgotten, heavenly language" (168) and seeks to regain the feeling that they had of "a boundless understanding between them" (172). In The Canary, the first person female narrator describes her canary as "perfect company" (420) as she interprets the bird's song according to her own needs and feelings and so "I felt that I understood every note of it." (419).

The characters' delusion often enough works up to a fantasmatic climax that is described as an epiphany, though it is but the character's epiphany. Thus it is the climax of a delusion and works as a counterpoint to the negative epiphanies at the end of the stories. Such titles as Bliss or Revelations underline the epiphanic sense. Among the most famous epiphanies in Mansfield are those that shape themselves round trees. There is the pear tree in Bliss. Bertha looking at the pear tree imagines she has a perfect bond with Miss Fulton: "Both [...] understanding each other perfectly" (102). Linda in Prelude imagines her escape on the aloe boat. The aptly named story The Escape ends with the husband eluding the pressure put on by his wife by losing himself in the contemplation of a tree, hearing a woman singing, which brings a "heavenly happiness" (202). The tree stands for the fantasy of a regained paradise. All the trees share common features mixing the phallic - the "round, thick silver stem" (The Escape, 201), the "fleshy stem" (Prelude, 34) and its "long sharp thorns" (Prelude, 53), a "fat swelling plant" (Prelude, 34) that "seemed to grow taller and taller as they gazed" (Bliss, 102) - and the feminine - the "bloom" and "blossoms" (Bliss, 96) of the pear tree echoing with the women's "bosoms" (p. 102), the presence of her mother at Linda's side in Prelude, the feeling the husband in The Escape gets of being "enfolded" (202). Epiphanies are quite often fantasies of perfection as the phallic mother stands for completeness and self-sufficiency.

Thus the drama that is being played out in Mansfield's stories could be said to be, in psychoanalytical terms, that of castration: because they are speaking subjects, the characters experience the division brought about by language, which implies indeed that the harmony between words and things is lost forever. The reader, upon reading a story for the first time, is thus trapped by the character's delusional narrative as a struggle to regain this lost paradise through an inflated sense of self. It is the play with other narrative voices that will bring about an altogether different kind of epiphany.

2. Irony

Many other voices can be heard lining the character's utterance with irony and serve as a disruption of the delusional narrative. They can be the voices of other characters cruelly shattering the harmonious reality imagined by the protagonist. It can be the voice of a discrete third-person narrator mimicking a satirical process known as double enunciation which makes the character appear as a puppet at the mercy of an ironical secondary voice. Such process may account for the recurrent theme of the double. The secondary voice may also directly stem from free indirect speech and come as a subtle interference as Andrew Gurr and Clare Hanson have underlined. All in all they serve to provide a very different perspective on the story and another kind of epiphany that consists in revealing brutally a character's delusion or symptom as the quote from Joyce's brother suggested.

2.1 The voices of other characters

In A Dill Pickle, Vera keeps wavering thinking she may have made a mistake breaking with her former lover and cannot decide upon hearing his words whether he is making fun of her or not: "Was there just a hint of mockery in his voice or was it her fancy? She could not be sure." (172) until he shatters the mystery of their perfect bond of understanding with his rude words, forcing some revelation on her, annihilating her sense of self, making her flee: "But what seemed to me so mysterious then is perfectly plain to me now. And to you, too, of course. ... It simply was that we were such egoists, so self-engrossed, so wrapped up in ourselves that we hadn't a corner in our hearts for anybody else." (174). In Bliss, Bertha's fancy that Miss Fulton is one of her very own "women finds" (99) and they understand each other perfectly disintegrates when she catches the whispered love words between Miss Fulton and her husband at the end. Rosemary Fell's flight of generosity with the poor girl found on the street is brought abruptly to an end when her husband remarks how "so astonishingly pretty" the poor girl is. As a rule, dialogues in Mansfield enhance the complete failure of communication, as the story Psychology stages, and often read like dialogues of the deaf. Thus a secondary voice insinuates itself in the holes left gaping by the fundamental ambiguity of language, which means words always read two ways.

2.2 A secondary voice

In The Little Governess, the young girl is travelling alone, frightened, in Germany and meets a grandfatherly man on the train. The contrast in the little governess's eyes between the man she thought harmless and the lascivious old man at the end is heralded by the parallel between the two characters' fantasies. The parallel reads two ways. For the little governess who is "very fond of looking at pictures" (180), the old man becomes a "fairy grandfather" (187) "Just like one out of a book!" (183). He is her rescuer in a hostile foreign world. She trusts his respectable appearances: "He wore a pearl pin stuck in his black tie and a ring with a dark red stone on his little finger" (179) and his title: "He had a title! Well, it was bound to be all right!" (184). He is a male equivalent of a fairy godmother offering her delicious presents such as the strawberries and the ice-cream. But the comments of the third-person narrator and the words of the old man draw quite a different portrait. The third person narrator feigns innocence while portraying the little governess as a delectable fruit for the old man:

Alas! How tragic for a little governess to possess hair that made one think of tangerines and marigolds, of apricots and tortoiseshell cats and champagne! Perhaps that was what the old man was thinking as he gazed and gazed, and that not even the dark ugly clothes could disguise her soft beauty. Perhaps the flush that licked his cheeks was a flush of rage that anyone so young and tender should have to travel alone and unprotected through the night. (180)

The old man's words are full of sexual undertones when he asks about the strawberries: ""Are they good?" asked the old man. "As good as they look?"" (184) or when he insists she accompanies him on a visit of Munich: "and you would give an old man a great deal of pleasure." (184). The food he gives her turns the fairy godfather into a fairy tale witch stuffing the little girl better to eat her. The two fantasies that draw on the same words of delight clash at the end, which underlines the fundamental ambiguity of language that is at the core of Mansfield's art at varying viewpoints.

Not only do words read two ways but a similar sentence may be interpreted differently whether one adopts the character's point of view or that of the narrator. The very emphasis on subjectivity in free indirect speech can make a character sound utterly ridiculous as is particularly the case with conceited characters such as Reginald Peacock or Monica Tyrell so that the incipits of Mr Reginald Peacok's Day and Revelations are already loaded with irony. The adverbs in particular have a most devastating impact. Read aloud, they can be made to sound ironical or not. Thus everything gets split in two.

2.3 The doubles

Another ironical process used by the author-narrator consists in drawing parallels between the character and other figures from the story so that they appear as revelatory doubles shedding light on the protagonist's predicament. Miss Brill's observations in the park ironically draw a series of inadvertent self-portraits: the old fur that has little life left in it; the old people on the benches: "They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they'd just come from dark little rooms or even cupboards!" (332) echoing the third person narrator's description of Miss Brill's own room as a cupboard at the end: "[she] went into the little dark room - her room like a cupboard" (335); the ermine toque whose ermine is as shabby as Miss Brill's fur rebuked by an old gentleman and pretending not to be left alone mirroring Miss Brill's loneliness; the as good as dead old gentleman to whom Miss Brill reads whose death she might not even have noticed or cared for pathetically anticipating Miss Brill's own death. In The Fly, both the old employee and the fly itself mirror the boss. For all his business achievements and power, the boss is unable to bring his son back to life, his impotence is mirrored by old Woodifield's who had a stroke and whose old age has made him lapse into second childhood, "as a baby peers out of its pram" (412). The way he then tortures the fly that has fallen in the inkpot, rescuing it and then dropping blots of ink on it until it falls dead, mirrors his own struggle to survive the loss of his son. Katherine Mansfield's stories are a real menagerie and some of the animal similes serve a satirical purpose. Reginald Peacock as his name indicates is quite the picture of conceit, fanning his tail at Lord Timbuck's reception where he has sung: "And as he sang, as in a dream he saw their feathers and their flowers and their fans, offered to him, laid out before him, like a huge bouquet." (152). The end of the story shows him trying to reconcile himself with the wife who infuriates him so much and unable to do anything but repeat, parrot-like, the flattery he says over and over again to his pupils: "Dear lady, I should be so charmed - so charmed!"

3. Elegy in Mansfield's stories

The ironical laying bare of all pretences and semblances is finally complemented by an elegiac voice as Mansfield's stories read like stories of loss that could be divided into initiation stories and narratives of the Fall. Sound and image again work together to give an elegiac aspect to the stories. The elegiac sounds conveyed in poetic resonances or onomatopoeias are complemented graphically by the dragging of the voice through punctuation, three dots or dashes, and are also often articulated to a central image of something missing.

3.1 A lament

The protagonist in The Canary lamenting the death of the bird recalls with fondness how it chirped, which the text renders as "Sweet! Sweet!", and wonders at the end of the story why the bird's song resonated with both joy and sadness: "But isn't it extraordinary that under his sweet, joyful little singing it was just this - sadness? - Ah, what was it? - that I heard" (422) The dashes and question marks insist on something ineffable that the bird's song expressed. It is reinforced in the story by the fact that the bird is dead so that it is but the ghost of a song that is heard in the protagonist's memory which is, in turn, foretold at the very beginning of the story by the presence of the nail on the wall where its cage used to hang, suggestive of a ghost cage. It is quite usual for characters in Mansfield to hear something cry. In The Daughters of the Late Colonel, Josephine and Constantia are finally freed from their tyrannical father, though he remains a haunting presence in the house and they do not know what to do with their lives now they are no longer to be dedicated to his every need. Josephine hears sparrows that echo her sense of mourning for their wasted life: "Some little sparrows, young sparrows they sounded, chirped on the window-ledge. Yeep - eyeep - yeep. But Josephine felt they were not sparrows, not on the window-ledge. It was inside her, that queer little crying noise. Yeep - eyeep- yeep. Ah, what was it crying, so weak and forlorn?" (283). The dill pickle of the eponymous story is interesting as it is mainly a sound akin to an onomatopeia: neither Vera in the story, nor the reader really know what it is. All the same, when the ex-lover tells her about eating a dill pickle in Russia, she wants to share his experience and imagines what a dill pickle tastes like: "although she was not certain what a dill pickle was, she saw the greenish jar with a red chilli like a parrot's beak glimmering through. She sucked in her cheeks; the dill pickle was terribly sour. ..." (171) The dill pickle is the point round which revolve dynamics of passivity and activity, fulfillment and emptiness. The male character awakens Vera's hunger ("she felt the strange beast that had slumbered so long in her bosom stir [...] and fix its longing, hungry stare upon those far-away places." 170) and drives her on by stroking her glove; but he really feeds her with the poison ("As he spoke she lifted her head as though she drank something," 173) he used to pretend he would drink Romeo-like: "I wish that I had taken poison and were about to die - here, now!" (169). He won't let her "[stroke] her muff", i.e. indulge in the fantasies he keeps shattering, which relates to his habit of interrupting her. He is the miser type, accusing her in the past of eating money" (172) and refusing in the present to pay for the cream she has not eaten. The dill pickle turns out to be a bitter pill to swallow, promising fulfillment but perversely emptying Vera out, depriving her of her dreams. In that particular case, the title itself acts as a resonance chamber. In Miss Brill, the reader is fascinated by the childishly cruel expression "fu-fur" resonating in the alliterative sentence: ""It's her fu-fur which is so funny", giggled the girl. "It's exactly like a fried whiting."" (335). The split sound debases the fur into a dead animal while Miss Brill had tried so carefully to bring back life into it. It echoes the split narrative dividing between Miss Brill and her ironical doubles. The debased "fu-fur" resonates with an emptiness heralded by the faint chill that haunts Miss Brill. It is an emptiness of meaning for which there is no word like the absent almond in Miss Brill's Sunday treat. Only the resonances of sounds may convey this sense of loss.

3.2 Castration

It can also be heard in the name of a character as in The Voyage with the little girl Fenella and her double, her grandmother's umbrella, which she carries all along the journey that symbolizes her coming to terms with her mother's death. The two endings -ella echo one another and the beginning of umbrella, -umbr, evokes a world of shadows to symbolize Fenella overcoming her loss. Both arrive unscathed at the end of the story. A further proof that Fenella has incorporated the loss of her mother is the button she loses on the boat: "And Fenella put on her black clothes again and a button sprang off one of her gloves and rolled to where she couldn't reach it." (328) which is then metonymically transferred to her own body at the end: "Her little nose is as cold as a button. What's that she's holding? Her grandma's umbrella?" (330). The preposition off evokes the castration process which could be summed up, in Lacan's theory, as the submission of the subject to the law of the signifier. The preposition recurs in Mansfield's texts; it is repeated thrice at the end of Sun and Moon: ""Off with you", said Father, no longer jolly. "This moment. Off you go!" And wailing loudly, Sun stumped off to the nursery."" (160). Before being sent off to the nursery, Sun has witnessed a scene of devastation akin to a narrative of the Fall as the heavenly dinner setting has been destroyed by the adults, their greed expressed in sexual undertones. What is more, the little house cake clearly referring to Hansel and Gretel has also been destroyed. All that remains is the little nut that stood for the door handle which Moon eats greedily, the sister metonymically eating the brother, which has Sun wailing and getting reprimanded.

Thus the stories are full of precious minutiae like remainders of a lost paradise. They fill out an emptiness that corresponds to the haunting crying voice in the stories. This emptiness articulates itself to the productive dichotomy between activity and passivity enhanced by the alternate use of free indirect speech and an undetermined third-person narrator.


MANSFIELD Katherine, The Collected Stories, London: Penguin, 2001.

Useful introductions to Katherine Mansfield's short stories

BESNAULT-LEVITA Anne, Katherine Mansfield Selected Stories: La voix du moment, Paris: Editions Messène, 1997.

CAFFIN Elizabeth, Introducing Katherine Mansfield, Auckland: Longman Paul, 1982.

DUNBAR Pamela, Radical Mansfield: Double Discourse in Katherine Mansfield's Short Stories, London: Macmillan, 1997.

FULLBROOK Kate, Katherine Mansfield, Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1986.

KOBLER J. F., Katherine Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction, Boston: Twayne, 1990.

HANSON Clare and GURR Andrew, Katherine Mansfield, London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press, 1981.

JOUBERT Claire, Lire le féminin: Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Paris: Messène, 1997.

KIMBER Gerri, A Literary Modernist: Katherine Mansfield and the Art of the Short Story, London: Kakapo Books, 2008.

MORROW Patrick, Katherine Mansfield's Fiction, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1993.

PICHARDIE Jean-Paul, Katherine Mansfield: Selected Stories, Paris: Didier Erudition CNED, 1997.

For a comprehensive bibliography on Mansfield's life and works, check out the following website: katherinemansfieldsociety.org.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Emilie Walezak, "Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories: An Introduction", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juin 2011. Consulté le 25/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/katherine-mansfield-s-short-stories-an-introduction