Mr. Neave felt as if he were too old for spring this year. Walking home from work, as he had done countless times before, he suddenly felt very tired and subdued by his surroundings. He could not understand why. It had been an ordinary day at the office. His son, Harold, who stood to inherit the business, arrived hours late from lunch, sauntering into the office, apologizing to no one and yet everyone, especially the women, forgave him all his faults. Harold was too handsome by far with his full lips and eyelashes. Mr. Neave thought them uncanny and recoiled at the praise his son unjustly received from the family. Charlotte, his wife, and their daughters had made a “young god” (143) of Harold and were forever telling Mr. Neave it was time for him to retire and leave the business to his son but how could Mr. Neave do so in good consciousness? Harold was unsuitable for the job: he didn’t take the work seriously and had no idea how hard Mr. Neave had worked over the years to ensure the success of his enterprise. No, he could not leave it to Harold. “A man had either to put his whole heart and soul into it, or it went all to pieces before his eyes…” (144.)
Charlotte and the girls wanted him to stay at home and enjoy all of the luxurious he had worked so hard to acquire. They had the most popular house on Harcourt Ave and Charlotte and the girls were forever entertaining. Mr. Neave; however, bristled at the idea of being at home instead of at the office. His youngest daughter, Lola, had suggested he get a hobby to occupy his time hinting that he would be unbearable to live with otherwise. Mr. Neave, stopping near the ancient cabbage plants outside of the Government buildings to gather his thoughts, reflected that it was a good thing he had invested his time wisely or Charlotte and the girls would not have any of the wonderful things he had bought them over the years including the “sixty-guinea gramophone” in the music room and the many horses, tennis lessons, and the sea-side bungalow.
Mr. Neave never begrudged his wife and daughters their accessories, knowing they were all put to good use, as the girls were very popular and Charlotte a remarkable wife and mother. Mr. Neave’s house was frequently the site of large parties and he was often complemented on his “ideal family,” especially the girls who were very beautiful and sought after but had chosen to stay at home rather than be married. It was a strange arrangement but one that suited Charlotte and the girls nicely.
Rounding a corner, Mr. Neave came upon his home on Harcourt Ave. The open windows and beautiful flowers on the porch reflected the young lives of his daughters within. As Mr. Neave entered the house he overheard his wife and daughters talking to one another in the living room. He ran into Lola, his youngest, in the hallway. She had just finished playing the piano and was nervous about something and hardly acknowledged her father’s presence. For his part, Mr. Neave barely recognized Lola, a young woman now in her prime. He thought of her still as a little girl and realized he did not know Lola as well as he thought he did.
Going into the living room he met his wife Charlotte who reproachfully told him he looked tired. Ethel and Marion, his other daughters, echoed their mother’s sentiment and Marion, taking control of the conversation, scolded her mother for allowing Mr. Neave to walk home when he should have taken a cab, implying that he was too old to walk such a distance. Marion’s stern tone of voice was at odds with the young Marion that Mr. Neave remembered who had been a shy child and had stuttered. Now Marion shouted wherever she went, making her presence known.
Mr. Neave sat down in his chair and was promptly forgotten by his family as they chatted about a dress that Ethel wanted from a catalogue and wondered aloud where Harold was and when he would return. Mr. Neave drifted off to sleep, realizing that Charlotte and the girls were too lively for him tonight. As sleep overtook him he thought he saw an old man climbing an endless flight of stairs. “Who is he?’ (147.)
Mr. Neave woke suddenly and was told to dress for dinner, they were to have guests again tonight. Mr. Neave protested that he was too tired to dress but the girls persuaded him to ask Charles, the butler, for help. Mr. Neave joined the old man on the stairs and walked to his dressing room. There, Charles waited to help Mr. Neave change into new clothes. Afterward Charles left Mr. Neave in the room.
Finally alone, Mr. Neave reflected it would soon be time for tennis and the girls would have tennis parties and Charlotte would call out asking where Harold was and someone would reply that he said he would be there…His mind wandered and he saw the old man again, now climbing down the stairs, going out the door and heading to the office. Mr. Neave called out for someone to stop the man and woke himself with a jolt. He must have fallen asleep. He heard the far-away voices of his family. They had forgotten him, again.
He listened to them for a moment and concluded that he did not know who they were. They were strangers to him. Life had passed him by and he had spent far too many hours at the office and not enough at home. He did not know Charlotte as well as he wanted to. He thought this Charlotte could not be his wife. His wife was the Charlotte of many years ago who wrapped her arms around his neck and called him “my treasure”(148.) The rest of his life has passed by in a dream.
Then the door opened and Charles told Mr. Neave that dinner was ready and the old gentleman got up and said “I’m coming, I’m coming” (148.)
"An Ideal Family" was written by Katherine Mansfield and first published in the literary magazine the Sphere on August 20, 1921 and later incorporated into The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922. Set in New Zealand, possibly in Wellington, "An Ideal Family" is an examination of self-worth within a family social structure as seen through the eyes of an aging patriarch. Mansfield, ever the modernist, often experimented with structure and narrative. Although the story appears structure-less, the third person narrative and the internal monologue of the protagonist, Mr. Neave, centers the plot’s progression around the inner struggle of the main character as he comes to terms with his pending retirement. The third person narrative supports the plot, allowing the reader an aerial view of Mr. Neave’s circumstances as well as intimate access to his inner thoughts as he navigates life outside of his office.
Mr. Neave, a successful businessman, is reluctant to leave his profession and only source of true identity. His home life is dominated by his family, who he barely recognizes anymore, and he feels both unwelcome and out of place in their frivolous world of dinners and parties. Mr. Neave prided himself on his sense of duty and committed work ethic, which allowed for a bourgeois life of luxury for himself and his family. Now Mr. Neave sees his wife and adult children as if for the first time, realizing that he does not know them as well as he should and resents their dominate presence in his home. Life has passed him by. He isolated himself from his family in order to build his business, an investment that enabled him to successfully provided his family with everything they desired. Now that he is of retirement age; however, he finds he is a burden at home, corralled by his grown daughters into doing what they want and coddled by his wife who seems only passingly interested in his wellbeing. Mr. Neave’s self-worth is solely invested in his business but now that the balance of work and play has been disrupted by his failing health, he fears the loss of both his identity as a businessman and the collapse of his company by his negligent son, Harold who lacks any sense of duty or familial responsibility.
Duty and responsibility are important themes in the overall text, usually in association with a character like Mr. Neave who prides himself on his work ethic. Mr. Neave was motivated to work hard in order to support his family and to accommodate their extravagant lifestyle. Often complimented on his “ideal family,” Mr. Neave thought of his wife and children as an extension of his success in the business world. Having reached his own high standards he is disappointed by his children’s lack of discipline and ambition. He is especially disappointed in his son, Harold. Mansfield uses effeminate language to describe Harold’s appearance. Mr. Neave thinks his son is unnaturally beautiful for a man with full lips and eyelashes. Some scholars believe this is an indication of bisexuality, which would have been most distressing from Mr. Neave’s conservative viewpoint. Mr. Neave believes Harold has been overly petted and pampered by the women in his life, especially by his mother and sisters. As a result he has adopted a careless attitude toward business and prefers a leisurely existence in direct conflict with his father’s point of view. How then can Mr. Neave leave his business to Harold in good consciousness not knowing if it will remain successful? If the business fails, who will support his family? Similarly none of his daughters are married or seem interested in leaving his home or starting a family of their own. They seem content living with one another and their mother while Mr. Neave pays for their parties, horses, sports, and seaside vacations.
Gender relations in "An Ideal Family" are very interesting. Mansfield has a talent for realism and masterfully illustrates various points of view on marriage and family in her collected works. She is especially adept at creating sympathy for characters, like Mr. Neave who would otherwise seems unsavory in the eyes of the opposite sex. Preoccupied with his work, Mr. Neave leaves the management of his home to his wife and adult daughters. In doing so he relinquishes any authority in the home and once he succumbs to the inevitability of age, his family has no senior place for him in the home. He is admonished by his daughter for walking home alone and over a long distance, suggesting that he is too old to do so. His wife supports this decision momentarily but does not argue the point. Instead she greets her husband and although they sit side by side it is clear that she is the head of the household and he a guest. Their relationship is stilted and almost impersonal. Mr. Neave, similarly, feels disconnected from his daughters who he is surprised to see have grown into very different women in comparison to their behavior as children. He is easily bullied by them to dress for dinner and is just as easily forgotten by them when he falls asleep in his room. Despite Mr. Neave’s greatest attempts to prove himself-worthy of his family’s attention and admiration, his physical exhaustion outweighs his intentions and he falls asleep twice in a short amount of time.
Feeling both lost and unappreciated within his family unit, Mr. Neave retreats into sleep and dreams of an old man walking up an endless flight of stairs. This surreal imagery is used to symbolize Mr. Neave’s growing anxiety about his retirement and the unease he feels about the life he has led. Perhaps Mr. Neave feels he has failed his family by putting his business first. Mr. Neave finds it difficult to distinguish himself from his work and now that he will eventually spend most of his time at home, he finds that he is dreading the transition and fears he has no place of honor within his family’s social structure. Yet Mr. Neave believes Harold will be the death of his business, which in turn will put a stop to his family’s comfortable lifestyle. In order to maintain the status quo he will have to continue to work. Although he takes great pride in his job, Mr. Neave also recognizes his limitations due to age and like the old man he dreads the drudgery of continuing to live a life of self-imposed isolation. Like Sisyphus of Greek mythology who was forced to eternally roll a stone up a hill, Mr. Neave will carry on as he has always done because he feels he has no other choice.