A band begins to play a lively tune as a crowd gathers around them. Eating oranges and bananas the young and the old feast as they walk together toward a hill in the distance. The music surrounds the crowd, joining them in celebration of the bank holiday. A few characters in the crowd stand out, like the young girl who has a handful of strawberries. She will not eat them because she thinks the pointed fruit is so beautiful and turns to an Australian solider who laughs at her and tells her to put them in her mouth. He secretly enjoys the frightened look in her eyes as she looks up at him. Old women in velvet bodices pass by young women in muslin and pointed shoes. Men of all kinds, sailors, clerks, young and old, are about. “The loud, bold music holds them together in one big knot for a moment”(139). Ragged children are underfoot, some dancing to the music, others still. As the music breaks and finally dissolves the crowd moves on.
Stalls are set up, each housing a vendor selling his or her particular ware. Feathers, toys, dolls, chewing gum, flowers, and hats are just some of the items for sale here but most of the crowd passes by, unable to afford the merchandise or unwilling to pay for such trinkets.
The day is sunny and beginning to turn overly hot, the men and women feel it burning through their clothes and on the tops of their heads. The crowd surges forward to buy lemonade and ice cream. A fortuneteller from Italy promises to reveal the secrets of the future. She tells one young woman she will marry a redheaded man and to beware a blonde woman in a car. An auctioneer with sweaty palms stands nearby trying to sell a watch that no one will buy. An older man and woman rush past in a carriage, she is playfully holding a parasol, he is sucking the end of his cane like a baby. Their horse trudges onward, leaving piles of manure in its wake.
Professor Leonard, or so he is called, is in his academic cap and gown. He has just returned from a successful tour in London, Paris, and Brussels. The professor promises the crowd he can tell their fortunes from the lines and contours of their faces and marks his observations by cutting notches into a card. Large men timidly hand their money over to him.
The top of the hill is finally reached. The heat has driven the mothers to sit on the ground with their children while the fathers run into the public houses or taverns to buy ale.
People comes in droves up the hill, carrying their trinkets and lemonade, having had their fortunes read, they continue on as if being pushed from behind by an unknown force into the bright radiance of the sun and beyond … “to what?” (142.)
In comparison to the other tales within The Garden Party and Other Stories, "Bank Holiday" is shorter, lacking a protagonist and a central plot. The story also meanders toward a conclusion that is both inconclusive and unfulfilling. Mansfield, ever unconventional, brings into question where the crowd is going and why but does not stay long enough to provide an answer. Her compressed method of storytelling in “Bank Holiday” is an experimentation of tone and atmosphere. She negates plot and characterization in favor of capturing a single fluid moment. Mansfield, like her fellow modernists, shunned conventionalism in literature and here she uses her considerable narrative skill to paint a brief yet illuminating portrait of the celebration of a bank holiday.
The setting of “Bank Holiday” is in an unknown portion of New Zealand, which during the turn of the twentieth century still had strong ties to the Untied Kingdom and their national pastimes, including bank holidays. A “bank holiday” is a term used to describe a national paid holiday when most businesses are closed and there are community gatherings and celebrations. In the United States, a similar holiday called, Labor Day, is a national tribute to the American workforce. Contemporary readers will identify with Mansfield’s relaxed, almost lazy tone in describing the patchwork population who gather together as a community for a day of merriment. The festivities, the atmosphere of excitement and play easily resonant into contemporary culture even if the vendor’s wares have changed over time.
Although the narrative is traditional for the time period, Mansfield uses third person perspective in the present tense, a unique narrative quality in comparison to the other stories in the collection in which it is featured (The Garden Party and Other Stories). Despite the lack of distinctive characterization, Mansfield’s descriptive style moves the reader from one character to the next, as the crowd moves from their gathering point around the band, past the stalls and vendors, and up the hill. The story’s structure is similarly linear, following the progression of the day and the movement of the crowd.
Like solving an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, the reader is tasked with creating context out of the briefest of character descriptions without a full understanding of the local customs, language or character backgrounds. There is; however, room for interpretation. For example, the sweaty palms of the auctioneer indicate he may be a fraud. The odd behavior of the older couple in the carriage indicates the plight of the elderly and the deterioration of the body as it reverts back to an infantile state that needs constant care and attention. The Australian soldier who likes to watch the young girl talk of eating strawberries, the “pointed fruit,” eludes to the possibility of a sexual encounter between the two, possibly involving oral sex.
Some historical aspects of the bank holiday may be unfamiliar to contemporary readers. For example, the feathers from the vendors’ stalls were a popular item sold to women to adorn their hats. Colorful birds were killed in springtime when their plumage was brightest to be sold in summer to vendors who would in turn resell the feathers and sometimes even the bodies of birds to mostly upper-class ladies for their hats. The coveted feather trend prompted mass killings of numerous birds by plume hunters. The practice was largely outlawed in many countries in the late twentieth century.
There is waywardness to the narrative of “Bank Holiday,” an attempt to corral the oppressive summer heat while the crowd trudges onward toward we know not what. Perhaps to another set of distractions, beyond the hill and after dark? One of the only constants in the story is the band and the music they play to gather the crowd together and entice them to dance. A reoccurring motif in the text, music is used here not only to help create atmosphere but to lure the crowd forward. The summer sun, likewise, acts as a beacon, calling to the crowd to climb the hill in pursuit of something neither the reader nor the author is aware of. Mansfield, as is her custom, ends the Bank Holiday on an ambiguous note.