What is unusual about the stream of consciousness technique employed by Mansfield in Miss Brill?
Stream of consciousness is a Modernist literary technique that provides insight into the mind of a character so that the reader gains access to thoughts that are often expressed in a means that seeks to replicate the unedited and loosely structured flow of perception. At its extreme exhibition, stream of consciousness may seek such a realistic replication of the process of thoughts entering the mind that punctuation and other grammatical signposts are abandoned. Mansfield clearly does not employ the extremities of experimentation, but she does take the reader into Miss Brill’s head so that everything that occurs is seen through perspective. What makes Mansfield’s employment of the technique here unusual is the use of irony in the ultimate portrait of Miss Brill which the reader is left with. A variety of literary techniques are employed external to the character’s thought process to give an interpretation of her that is directly at odds with the image she has of herself.
Though neither the word “lonely” nor its any of its most commonly used synonyms ever appear in the story, there is a pervasive sense of that Miss Brill is a lonely woman. How is this sense of loneliness conveyed?
The lack of a first name obstructs a personalized connection and the repetition of reference to her as Miss Brill confers a detached formality to the character. In addition, even though the reader gains access into her thoughts, those thoughts never make mention of family members or any intimate friendships. The fact that she spends Sundays in the park creating personal little narratives out of her observations of others indicates a very deep-seated sort of loneliness that mere description of the feeling could never match.
What is tragically ironic about Miss Brill’s observational skills?
Miss Brill seems to have finely tuned her talent for observing the behavior of others for the purpose of creating imaginary narratives to be played out for an audience of one. Her attention to detail is striking such as noticing not only that the woman who used to have blonde hair now has hair the color of her ermine hat and, what’s more, the ermine hat is of shabby quality. Not only is keenly aware of obvious physical details like the new coat on the conductor of the band is sporting a new coat, she is also attuned more subtle abstractions like the fact that the band is playing more confidently. The tragic irony of this level of attention to details normally associated with writers or consulting detectives is her utter inability to notice how others observe her. The story climaxes with a revelation about the sad and pathetic picture her behavior paints for others that comes as nothing less than a shock to her soul, indicating that in this one most important area, Miss Brill’s observational skills have failure her miserably.
Miss Brill’s fur coat is obviously the most important symbol in the story, but it is just one of many different references to clothing. What is the symbolic significance of clothing in the story?
Clothing is always an indicator of social class, but in the 1920’s more so than today, clothing also hinted at a person’s standing in the eyes of others. The current state of Miss Brill’s fox becomes fodder for the cruel description of her current status in the eyes of others and contrasts sharply with the nostalgic blindness that she herself possesses toward the item. Likewise, the shabby quality of the ermine hat worn by the former blonde is for Miss Brill a window into the woman’s current social standing. Elsewhere, a man in a velvet coat is described as “fine” and, naturally, the “beautifully dressed” boy and girl are portrayed in Miss Brill’s interior theater as sitting at the top of the social standing hierarchy as nothing less than a hero and heroine fresh off the yacht.
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