“Round the corner of Crescent Bay, between the piled-up masses of broken rock, a flock of sheep came pattering. They were huddled together, a small, tossing, woolly mass, and their thin, stick-like legs trotted along quickly as if the cold and the quiet had frightened them. Behind them an old sheep-dog, his soaking paws covered with sand, ran along with his nose to the ground, but carelessly, as if thinking of something else.”
Mansfield’s fluid writing style is especially apparent in “At the Bay,” one of her greatest literary works. In the above quote the reader walks with Wag the dog as the new day dawns. The author’s descriptive word choices and long yet cohesive sentence structure enhances the overall imagery of the seaside setting, providing the reader a leisurely introduction to the text.
“Her whole time was spent in rescuing him, and restoring him, and calming him down, and listening to his story. And what was left of her time was spent in the dread of having children.”
As a character, Linda Burnell, appears at first glance to be lazy and selfish, allowing her mother and sister to take care of her children. She seems disinterested in her husband’s wellbeing and yet the opposite is true. Linda reveals in the above quote that she resents the inequality in her marriage, that her time is not perceived to be as precious as her husband’s and yet although she actively rejects her duties as mother she embraces her role as wife and caters to Stanley’s needs who she seems to truly love. This conflicting duality in personality is echoed in Mansfield’s own life as she too flew against social norms concerning gender roles in the household and preferred to pursue a career rather than spent her life as a wife and mother.
“True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighborhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens, and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken.”
The Sheridans, caricatures of Mansfield’s own family, seem incapable of genuine sympathy toward the lower classes. Laura, the main character, is the only exception and she tries to help the Scott family after Mr. Scott is accidentally killed. Laura’s inner turmoil centers on her own misgivings concerning her family’s blasé attitude toward Mr. Scott’s death and their dislike of the lower class. Perceptions of and rising tensions between the classes is repeated plot point in several other stories within the overall collection including “Life of Ma Parker” and “The Lady’s Maid.”
“It wasn’t real. It was only when she came out of the tunnel into the moonlight or by the sea or into a thunderstorm that she really felt herself. What did it mean? What was it she was always wanting?”
Constantia and her sister, Josephine, have spent the majority of their adult lives taking care of their ailing but demanding father. A life lived in fear while in the service of others deeply affects a person’s sense of self. Constantia, who delights in fantasy, shields her true self from her father in order to protect her sensitive nature. The above quote depicts the rare moments when Constantia felt like her true self and not her father’s caretaker. Note the use of the word “tunnel,” as it implies freedom from an enclosed space. The fact that she feels most like herself while observing nature only emphasizes how caged she feels while living in her father’s home.
“I ain’t got nothing.”
The word “nothing” is repeated several times in the “Life of Ma Parker” and its meaning changes over the course of the story. In the above quote Lennie is asking his grandmother, Ma Parker, for money. She tells him she has nothing to give him even though she has some small change for him. Her “nothing” actually means “everything” for she would give the world to Lennie if she could but she has lived a hard life and has little or “nothing” to share with her grandson except her love. Ma Parker teases Lennie and asks what he will give her in return for the money he has asked for and he replies he has nothing to give.
“God forbid, my darling, that I should be a drag on your happiness.”
Marriage is a reoccurring theme in several of the short stories within The Garden Party and Other Stories no more so than in the troublesome relationship between William and Isabel of “Marriage a la Mode.” After William returns to London he writes a letter to Isabel in which the above quotes is repeated twice for emphasis. Once when Isabel reads it aloud to her friends for their amusement and once in private when she chides herself for being cruel to her husband. This line provokes Isabel into facing her marital difficulties and yet, as William suggests, she is unable to follow through with a reply just yet because her wellbeing is too entrenched in the opinions of her friends.
“But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.”
Miss Brill’s sad walk from the public garden to her little home culminates in the return of her furs to its box. Like a coffin being closed for the final time, Miss Brill, buries her dreams with her beloved furs. The crying she thinks she hears could be the subconscious personification of the furs themselves, which she lovingly petted at the garden as if they were alive. Alternatively as Josephine Pinner in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” thought she heard crying from within herself as a reflection of the life she could have had had her circumstances been different so to does Miss Brill mourn the end to the fantasy life she has created for herself.
“Was this first ball only the beginning of her last ball after all?”
After Leila is distressed by her dancing partner’s comments about aging, the glamour of her first ball fades and is quickly replaced by her trepidation that she will grow as complacent as the other dancers and find little joy in special occasions like first balls. Leila also unwittingly fears growing older and becoming as disillusioned as the “fat man,” whom she views a joke. She feels the night is ruined until the music begins again and she finds another partner. Her ebb and flow of emotion is a reflection of her youth and innocence and although she will no doubt grow tired of dances in the future, she will remember the blissful fantasy of her first ball long after it is over.
“And somewhere at the back of everything he was watching a little withered ancient man climbing up endless flights of stairs. Who was he?”
Mr. Neave resents having grown old. He is out of touch with his family and barely recognizes them. He feels a duty toward the business he had spent his adult life building and yet at what cost? The little old man symbolizes the drudgery Mr. Neave’s feels toward his life and yet he does not wish to relinquish his work to his son, Harold, just yet. His self image and worth is so integrated into his work Mr. Neave finds it difficult to distinguish who he is outside of his business. Yet the appearance of the little old man in his mind awakes not only a gradual acceptance of his limitations due to age and his inevitable death but also a representation of his life. His habitual coming and going and never stopping to get to know his family has prevented him from living a balanced life.
“…Yes, madam, it was all left to me. Oh, she did look sweet. I did her hair, soft-like, round her forehead, all in dainty curls, and just to one side of her neck I put a bunch of most beautiful purple pansies. Those pansies made a picture of her, madam! I shall never forget them. I thought tonight, when I look at my lady, ‘Now, if only the pansies was there no one could tell the difference.'”
Death is a prominent theme in the text. Ellen, the main character of “The Lady’s Maid,” is respectful of death, but there is a hint of discordance in the above quote. The reference to no one knowing the difference between the dead body of her lady’s mother and her current employer holds a hint of the regret Ellen feels at having called off her own marriage to pacify her employer’s feelings. Perhaps picturing her employer dead is wishful thinking. The above quote also demonstrates Mansfield’s unique and one-sided conversational writing style that is not repeated in any of the other stories in the collection.
The Garden Party Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Garden Party is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The Garden Party is considered an autobiographical text, in that Laura is loosely based on Mansfield during her early adulthood and prior to her enrollment in college. Laura, like Mansfield, was innocent, sheltered, and idealistic. In The Garden...